In the bright autumn of my senescence

Christopher Hitchens

  • In the Heat of the Struggle: Twenty-Five Years of ‘Socialist Worker’ by Paul Foot
    Bookmarks, 288 pp, £12.50, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 94 2
  • Why You Should Join the Socialists by Paul Foot
    Bookmarks, 70 pp, £1.90, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 80 2

If there is one term that illustrates the rapidity with which historical truth can degenerate before one’s very eyes, that term is ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. According to those who employ this smooth and evasive construction, the lesson of the Vietnam War is that the United States suffered greatly from being ‘entangled’ in a ‘quagmire’ in Indo-China, and should henceforth be extremely prudent about overseas military commitments. Jimmy Carter put it very gruffly, when he said that both America and Vietnam had suffered equally. Henry Kissinger, in his memoir Years of Upheaval, phrased it even more prettily: ‘Hanoi and Washington had inflicted grievous wounds on each other; theirs were physical, ours psychological and thus perhaps harder to heal.’

This connects perfectly to the sickly fashion for therapy and esteem which it partially prefigures, and to the essentially Stalinist reading of history which allows that ‘mistakes were made’ but maintains that it was either everybody’s fault or nobody’s. I can only say, for myself, that I don’t remember Vietnam in this way at all. There were days when it was almost physically unbearable to look at the papers or to watch the news, and to be a spectator to the disgusting superpower aggression that was levelling ‘every work of man in Vietnam’ (General LeMay, speaking approvingly) as well as reducing its population by a million or two. The clear lineal descent of this policy from Japanese and French imperialism, the relentless campaign of lying and falsification by which it was justified, and the coercion and bullying of those brave Americans who resisted it, made the Vietnam War a rather urgent cause for those of us who were essentially politicised by it.

For people who had been enthused by the Labour victory in 1964, the prostitution of the British Government both to this crime of war and to these war crimes was a burden of responsibility. How to show that one was not represented by such a depraved Cabinet? Sometime in the spring of 1967, I trudged along to a protest meeting at Oxford Town Hall. The line-up was of the sort summarised by the phrase ‘stage army of the good’. A moon-faced vicar or two, talking about giving peace a chance. A self-satisfied Labour councillor wearing a CND badge. John Berger, the star guest, putting his usual spin on the dishonest line of the Communist Party. No doubt there was a resolution to send a telegram to Downing Street. There was also, I dare say for the sake of ‘unity’, a pro-Chinese speaker (for some reason I remember that his name was Henderson Brooks) who maintained that all this proved the rightness of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. That was too much for me, so I made a brief intervention from the floor. As the meeting broke up, I was approached by a small, scruffy and slightly misshapen chap, with some suggestion of ironic intelligence glinting behind his pebble glasses. He proposed a cleansing ale. I fell in with his plan. I had met the International Socialists.

My new chum was called Peter Sedgwick, and he didn’t really wear the aspect of the recruiter. Well-known for his edition of Victor Serge, he was soon to become better known for his clinical evisceration of the work of R.D. Laing, and for his hilariously mordant critique of Herbert Marcuse. (This is important, because a feature of the IS, as it called itself, was that it was inoculated against certain Sixties fads in advance.) Over the next several months we continued to meet and (while I was doing a ridiculous job of teaching in the West Country before ‘going up’ to Oxford) to correspond. By the time I was ready to attend my first freshers’ fair, I knew enough to join the Labour Club as a candidate member of The Group – an open conspiracy which scorned to conceal its aims, objects and analyses.

The essential precepts descended from Luxemburg rather than Lenin. They consisted of three or four central tenets. These were that, contrary to the babble of smart-asses like Crosland, Britain was still a class society in every sense of the term; a central fact that the Labour and Communist Parties played down for reasons of opportunism. That the capitalist system had only temporarily stabilised itself, and that the stabilisation was not by means of Keynesian welfarism but by reliance on a permanent war economy which proved the continuing irrationality of this mode of production. That the Soviet Union and its satellites were not the affirmation but the negation of socialism, resting on a system of ‘state capitalism’. That while the globe was ruled in this way, it was idle and romantic to expect anything of peasant and Third World revolutions.

Thus, as Sedgwick patiently elucidated at our first meeting, while in a conflict like Korea the only principled policy was that of a plague on both houses, in the case of Vietnam one should openly declare for the Vietcong while regretfully bearing in mind that their revolution could only produce an emaciated and regimented mutation of Stalinist autarchy. I found that I rather liked the pessoptimism of this, with its implication that one could with perfect honesty keep two sets of books. The thing to do, he assured me, was to work, and think, without illusions. ‘Without illusions’, indeed, was a signature phrase of The Group. In the coming years, I was to do many things, and hold many positions, ‘without illusions’. It was a good induction, and a good training.

The Group never called itself a party, and distrusted those who did, both for their arrogance and for their flirtation with vanguardism. It put the emphasis on the autodidactic and the spontaneous. It had no guru, unlike the gruesome followers of Gerry Healy’s ugly little gang (soon to magnetise the Redgraves), but it did have an éminence named Tony Cliff, the nom de guerre of a Palestinian Jewish exile born Ygael Gluckstein. Cliff was a great speaker and enthusiast and raconteur, who had laid bare the futility of orthodox Trotskyism and the persisting illusion that the Soviet Union was any sort of potential ‘workers’ state’. His book on Rosa Luxemburg was a jewel of the polemicist’s art, and he was a natural internationalist who had, as he once said, not studied the Talmud for nothing. He had little but amused contempt for the whole suffocating apparatus of resolution-passing, place-seeking, petition-signing and fruit-boycotting antics of the herbivorous Left, and nothing but informed hatred for the Stalinists. He wanted people to reason on their own. He came back to me, perhaps paradoxically, a few years ago, when I was going through Irving Howe’s memoirs of the New York Trotskisant milieu and ran across this description of Max Schachtman (who Cliff rightly despised):

To some, Schachtman never seemed a true leader, for a true leader was not the sort of man who made people laugh or loved crazy jokes. In a large movement he would have found a place as writer and speaker – he was a superb though cruel debater; but in the cramped quarters of the sect he seemed uneasy as ideologue and leader. Every once in a while he showed alarming signs of thinking for himself, as if his large store of Marxist-Leninist knowledge cried out for independent use ... If Schachtman, during one of his marathon speeches, made a joke about Karl Radek or threw out a fleeting mention of ‘the August bloc’, those of us in the know felt as gleeful as a philosophy graduate student pouncing on a subtle point in a Wittgenstein blue book.

It was my privilege, on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, to help arrange a meeting at Ruskin College where Cliff spoke and was seconded by C.L.R. James, who made an electrifying speech on the reality of imperialist war. If it seemed faintly improbable, on the cusp of 1968, to believe in a group that advocated revolution without illusions, at least one could see every day that the careerist supporters of the Labour Party had no clearer idea of the future and no conception at all of what had gone wrong with their little project. Was there a single member of the Wilson Front Bench who could stand up for a second to the icy brilliance of James, a black product of British colonialism who had come back to slay every kind of illusion, including the illusions of black nationalism and Soviet fraternal aid? At the back of the hall, I was happy to sell copies of a dissident manifesto from Poland that we were pushing. It was written by an unknown political prisoner named Jacek Kuron.

Only a few months later, our group had swollen from the low single figures into the dozens – a case of quantity metamorphosing into quality, as I thought at the time, and also vice versa. The Tet offensive in Vietnam had exploded every one of LBJ’s lies. The Polish universities had risen to defy the heirs of Stalin. The French working class had put an end, at some remove, to the Fifth Republic (the union at the Berliet factory having seized the plant and rearranged the company logo to read Liberté). Who said that revolution was a dream? The only ‘realists’ seemed to be the insurgents.

At about this time, we changed the name of our weekly sheet from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker because, with its suggestion of complicity with the party in power, the old title had become unsellable. Also, we gleefully joined battle with all the hippies and flower-power jerks and all the Guevara pin-up factions. Want to talk real politics? Want to get in touch with authentic struggle? If you’re serious, come along and talk to us. I remember two episodes from this time with especial pride. After some London dockers and meat-porters had turned out to support Enoch Powell, thus convincing many fastidious snobs that the proles were beyond all help or consideration, we organised a ‘Confront the racists’ mass meeting where the main address was given by Terry Barrett, a Tilbury stevedore with a voice like a foghorn. He denounced the evil and stupidity of racism in terms I can still recall, at a time when many better-bred radicals were running for cover. Later in the year, when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, the presses of Socialist Worker stayed open all night to produce our first special issue. It included a leaflet in Russian, to be left on the decks of Soviet ships calling at British ports. I was in Cuba at the time, in a camp full of Guevara-loving onanists who didn’t know what (or how) to think, and a bundle of this special issue arrived just after ‘Fidel’ had endorsed the invasion. We sold it and gave it out, and argued (our chief delight) that Fidel was another illusion-monger we were better off without.

There was a fair bit of talent in and around The Group in those days. Aside from Cliff and C.L.R. James (who wasn’t a member but belonged on what we used to call ‘our periphery’) there was Paul Foot, a masterly orator who specialised in the ridiculing of Labourism and the exposure of crooks and fascists. Then Alasdair MacIntyre, free at the time of supernatural baggage, who could tell Kautsky from Korsch. Michael Kidron, a sardonic sophisticate with a refined taste in political economy. John Palmer, a polymathic journalist capable of synthesising the latest news into crystalline agitational prose. Eamonn McCann, a street-fighter from Derry with amazing literary gifts and an insight into what was coming in the Six Counties. Nigel Harris, who knew about the Third World and could write about it without sentimentality. Peter Sedgwick, the conscience of us all and the satirist of the ideologues. Plus a network of self-taught trade unionists who could talk about Spain, about the tricks of their craft, about the time they had produced socialist leaflets in German for prisoners of war on forced labour, about the difference between Bordiga and Gramsci, about anything. If you had to go to Hull or Dundee or Coventry, there was always a book-lined front-room with a floor you could sleep on. And in debate with other clubs or other factions, we never had to worry that our speaker would come off second. We went looking for arguments, sensing that others were trying to sit them out, or avoid them altogether.

I turned the pages of this anthology, hoping to rekindle some of the memories. Peter Sedgwick’s name is mentioned once, and spelled wrong. One of my own rather crudely pugnacious pieces, about prison for blacks in capitalist America, has made it, though none of my more finished pseudonymous efforts. (I rose to be features editor of SW, as well as reviews editor of our ‘theoretical journal’.) None of James Fenton’s film reviews is here, though one of these – a spirited defence of the Carry On team – led to an excellent correspondence. Mervyn Jones’s essay on Solzhenitsyn is absent. David Widgery, one of the best radical journalists of the post-war period, squeaks in with one of his less coruscating contributions. Most of the stuff is pure ‘filler’, principally made up of exhortation and, of that exhortation, principally composed of crude syndicalist diatribe. Here is a record of strikes that didn’t come off, and of strikes that did while failing to make any difference. (Though the cartoons of Phil Evans, who managed a combination of Dada and Social Realism and often illumined these ephemeral scuffles, seem to have been airbrushed.)

The keyword, then as now, was ‘rank and file’. It took me a long time to tire of this term, with its faint suggestion of the poor bloody infantry, forever let down, not just by their parties, but also by their unions, yet always ready to muster again. The problem with a lot of these Tommy Atkinses of the proletariat, as we sometimes suspected but never let on, was that they were doing jobs nobody really wanted done, like manning a hot-metal machine in Fleet Street or needlessly supervising a container in dockland. When Thatcherism hit, with its violent remaking of the labour market, The Group (by now more grandly relaunched as the Socialist Workers Party) was not very much better than Scargill or Kinnock in understanding what had happened. It was simply more honest and militant about defending a way of life that was historically redundant: the way of life of those who banked at the Co-op and went to meetings of things called Trades Councils or shop stewards’ committees.

Yet the best thing of all about the IS/SWP, including its journals and broadsheets, was its attitude to the battle of ideas. One was expected to be able to dispute about everything, from changes in the class composition of society to the question of Lukács and the historical novel, to the situation in Indonesia. None of this comes through in the anthology, perhaps because most of the best of those I mention above were either expelled or, weary of infighting, took themselves off. Paul Foot is now – apart from the clever and original Alex Callinicos – the chief ornament of the SWP in rather the same way that, until its deliquescence, the only distinguished remaining member of the Communist Party was Eric Hobsbawm. And, I sometimes suspect, for a similar reason: an old-fashioned reluctance to be a quitter in hard times or a seeker after the empty honours which bourgeois society confers upon the defector. Those who read Foot in this journal or in Private Eye, or even in the Daily Mirror, would, I fear, have some difficulty recognising him as the same man who has authored Why You Should Join The Socialists. He writes, after some rather perfunctory tycoon-bashing, that ‘this is the economic and social system called capitalism: a system run entirely by vampires.’ Not only does it make me cringe to read this in the bright autumn of my senescence, it would have made me cringe to read it when I was 17 or 18 and first started going to socialist meetings.

I didn’t much fancy the odium of the defector myself, and so delayed my own departure from the SWP for a couple of years longer than I should have done. Together with the decision to declare as a ‘party’ rather than a ‘group’ or ‘tendency’ – much Talmudic weight attached to such distinctions – came a certain opportunism and even occasional thuggishness. For example, having for years correctly maintained that no serious person, let alone any serious socialist, could take a side in the preposterous argument about whether Britain should join the Common Market, the SWP suddenly pitched in behind the crass ‘NO!’ campaign in the Wilson referendum. Again, having rightly decided that there was no imminent or even slight danger of fascism in Britain, and having warned against street theatre with the National Front and other temptations, the leadership committed practically the entire work of the organisation to the Anti-Nazi League, in the too-evident hope of picking up some impressionable young members. As is the way with such things, the members gained were just as swiftly lost, and there came a need for another fund-raising and membership-boosting quickie.

Worst of all, though, was Portugal. The SWP openly allied itself with semi-Baader Meinhof elements in that most open and hopeful of all revolutions: a revolution which can now be seen as the last spasm of 1968 enthusiasm. Not being very choosy politically, the aforesaid elements went in with a stupid and nasty attempted coup, mounted by the associates of the Portuguese Stalinists. Unbelievably, this memorial edition of the SWP’s paper makes no bones about the fact in the one or two articles it reprints from the period. Thus not only had the comrades moved from Luxemburg to the worst of Lenin, but in making this shift of principle they had also changed ships on a falling tide. Time to go. Still, I recollect the empty feeling I had when I quietly cancelled my membership and did a fade. I remember trying to tell myself that I was leaving for the same reasons I had joined. But the relief – at ceasing to hear about ‘rank and file’ and ‘building links’ – soon supplanted the guilt. Not long afterwards, I visited Poland and went to see Jacek Kuron – he of that non-ephemeral pamphlet, who was then living under semi-house arrest. His old Left Opposition group had meanwhile metamorphosed into the Workers Defence Committee (KOR), which in turn became the nucleus of Solidarnose. He told me that he’d ceased to bother with Trotskyist disputation, and now felt that the real confrontation was between pluralism and state absolutism. However simplistically phrased, this became the slogan of the most thorough-going revolution we ever did live to see.

The last I heard from the SWP, it was on a new tack – this time managing to disfigure Luxemburgism by maintaining that there was nothing to choose between the different sides in Bosnia, what with all of them being nationalist and such. Foot’s flimsy pamphlet, indeed, describes one of the worst aggressions since Vietnam as a ‘civil war’. Beaten though we often were in the old days, we still frequently contrived to save the honour of the Left, and preserve it for the next round.

In many ways, the Cliff line has been obliquely vindicated. Especially as regards the Soviet system, it will stand up to examination better than any other. It was not wrong, either, about the futility of Third World populist socialism. The epoch of ‘hurrah capitalism’, which nobody predicted and through which we are now living, or existing, may not last long. The division of the world economy into classes is a fact that is only ignored because it is so frighteningly obvious. ‘Anti-fascist’ may well cease to be a term of honour bestowed on past warriors, and become a decoration that we have to earn for ourselves. So I learned a fair bit from the comrades but I’m sure that, in what we used to call ‘the coming period’, the best contribution is likely to come from among the ex-members.