|Here's an idea, Donald; why not build a wall all around America?|
Half a century ago, as a young, newly married man with a baby daughter, like many of my generation I felt that my youthful energy could be instrumental in changing the world. There was something about humanity which still offered hope; men and women could surely see that the world was unfair, and common sense, with a little political lubrication, might propel us all towards a new sense of that old French dream of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Those three words today are meaningless; as indecipherable as Inca hieroglyphics.
Back then in my early 20s it didn’t seem in anyway outrageous to join the Communist Party. It took a while for me to realise that the CPGB was a Stalinist outfit, and I was soon wooed away by the exotic ‘dark’ force known as IS: the International Socialists. I discovered Trotsky, the way he had been airbrushed out of Soviet history. The Communist Party in the mid-60s in Hull was a peculiar gathering, and as a blue-collar hands-on labourer I fondly imagined that the CP was ‘my’ party. I’d read Lenin and Marx, finding the texts difficult, yet they left me confused over one particular term; ‘the petty bourgeoisie’. Looking this up I arrived at this interpretation, which is still freely available on line:
‘A sociologically defined class, especially in contemporary times, referring to people with a certain cultural and financial capital belonging to the middle or upper stratum of the middle class: the upper (haute), middle (moyenne) and petty (petite) bourgeoisie (which are collectively designated "the Bourgeoisie"). An affluent and often opulent stratum of the middle class (capitalist class) who stood opposite the proletariat class.’
The following comical points from my distant past all seem petty, stupid and naïve today. Yet they were small catalysts in the formation of my later beliefs.
Hull’s Communist Party used to meet at a house on James Reckitt Avenue or at a rather smart flat off Pearson Park. It was at a meeting one night at Pearson Park when the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ concept was indelibly etched into my memory. To begin with, the party’s chairman was one of Hull Corporation’s leading Probation Officers. We had firm instructions as comrades never to mention his name to anyone at all, especially outside CP gatherings as this would seriously affect his position in the Probation Department. I always regarded this desire for anonymity as something of a cop-out. Communism was a political belief; if Comrade Chairman was sincere in his desire for a socialist state, what was the point of hiding his flame under a bushel? As Matthew 5:15 has it: ‘Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.’
In my youthful naiveté, therefore, I thought what the hell was the point of being a communist if you were scared of upsetting your boss? They all knew about my politics in Sisson’s Paint works where I laboured throughout the week. It affected everything I did on the shop floor, where I talked everyone into joining a union, a fact which led to so much opprobrium between me and the management that after a year I had to find a new job. Yet it seemed that being bourgeois meant that politics was a hidden hobby. If train spotters had no shame, why should we have any, peripheral dreamers though we were? But it got worse. At Pearson Park the meetings were attended by other closet comrades, at least one academic, and a spindly elderly lady who was always there, I recall her as ‘Miss Ellerby’, stalking among us as we listened to Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism with a large biscuit tin full of her home-made rock buns. “Do take one, comrade; I made them freshly today”. Well, although even revolutionaries have a soft spot for a bit of patisserie, I’d already had my tea and recalled that Trotsky had actually fainted just before the October Revolution because he’d forgotten to eat anything for three whole days. Then the bourgeois spectre raised its head in another way. When the coffee was served, one of the young comrades, the son of a left wing lecturer at Hull University, drained his cup then stared into it, exclaiming:
“How remarkable - there are no coffee grounds in this cup!” At which point Miss Ellerby, still floating around the room like a pale ghost proffering rock buns, replied
“Ah, that’s because it’s Nescafe.” The junior academic looked around, wide-eyed.
“You mean … this is instant coffee?” Rock bun crumbs tumbled from my sagging jaw. Who, in my social sub class, in 1966, knew the luxury of ground coffee? In our house even Nescafe was seen as an aberration - the English working class drank tea, and gallons of it, and even instant coffee was seen as vaguely Bohemian by our elders. Then another happening dented my faith in the Communist Party’s avowed sincerity. One of our senior members had a part-time hobby running a left wing book shop in Hull. He supplemented his income from this with another part time job as a representative of a fruit importer on Hull’s Humber Street Fruit market. A year earlier we had all attended a march protesting at the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the evils of Apartheid in South Africa. My fruit-selling comrade offered to pick me up one night in his Rover 80 car to take me to a meeting. When I climbed into the front passenger seat, I looked back at the rear seats where a selection of colourful posters were laid out. They were advertising South African fruit, Cape Apples. My sense of socialist puritanism was aroused. I challenged him. How does this help Comrade Mandela? He pleaded with me to keep quiet. He said he had ‘no choice’ over the matter, that he simply had to deliver the posters to various greengrocers and fruiterers around Hull, and in any case, he had no responsibility for what was imported into the country. We travelled the rest of the way in silence. Was this the level of commitment to the cause? If so, my faith was being tested. I ended that year, 1966, by speaking at the Communist Party Conference in Leeds on behalf of Hull’s Young Communist League. It was a short but well-received speech, but as I stood at the podium, I could not help but look down at one of the main conference organisers in the front row. He was wearing the most blatant, ill-fitting ginger toupee I had ever seen. Thus was vanity added to my political misgivings.
Over the next three decades I went through all the socialist ranks; IS, the Socialist Worker’s Party, I had a short and pointless dalliance with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and as Thatcher tightened her evil grip on the land, I had a brief but dispiriting relationship with the Militant Tendency, even travelling at one time as far as Newcastle to hear Derek Hatton speak. During the final lost battle for the working class, the Miners’ Strike, I was as active on benefit events as I could be, mainly strumming a guitar with an agitprop skiffle group. (Ah, that showed them, eh, Comrade Lenin?)
WELCOME TO THE WASTELAND
And here we are in the Brave New World of the 21st Century. Everything thought to be remotely possible all those decades ago has been flushed down time’s swirling drain. There is one small sliver of driftwood still floating in the sewage; Jeremy Corbyn. But whatever he believes in has a snowball’s chance in hell of being made reality. The whole political and diplomatic world, each and every nation, has abandoned any notion of international law, decency or dialogue. This new world is divided into camps, each one a bastion of dismissive hatred. The United Nations has become an empty shell; a political corpse. Bigotry, racism and spite have supplanted hope and are now my country’s new lingua franca. In Syria, thanks to the past money-grabbing gluttony of men like Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, hospitals are being deliberately bombed, and even selfless humanitarian aid workers are being murdered from the skies. The power behind a Tornado jet fighter is the same force which drives ISIS: death, and death is the new cult of our age.
Historically, no matter which side of any political fence humanity found itself on, there was still a residue of justice and outrage which could be brought to bear against those who crossed the moral boundary In the gaps between each outrage countries bared their conscience until the next criminal period. We were appalled at the Holocaust and the Third Reich, and although 90% of the SS got away with their genocide, at least the truth of their actions was widely publicised and became a yardstick of horror. We were appalled at Vietnam, the Mai Lai massacre, napalm. We punished the military criminals of the Balkan Wars. We were aghast at Nixon’s support of Pinochet in Chile and Reagan’s Contras in South America. The list of what shocked us and what reminded us of something elusive called ‘decency’ is endless. But the tree of morality and integrity has shed its leaves; it is a rotting stump.
From New York to London, from Madrid to Moscow, 2016 has been the dawn of the Era of Lies, Lies and more Lies. Politicians can utter any untruth that comes into their heads, because such behaviour is no longer attended by shame. The UK’s departure from the EU has given international bigotry the green light for a new fascism. The western world has a new Goebbels: News International and Rupert Murdoch. His SS are those other hangers-on, the mealy-mouthed Murdoch tribute acts, the Daily Mail, the Express, and many other outlets in the long dark shadow of Fox News. Vladimir Putin’s megalomania is matched only by President-in-waiting Donald Trump’s crass, inhuman ignorance. Britain gives a clown, a professional buffoon, the role of Foreign Secretary. And as this new Rome burns all around us, the British Government offers a facile palliative; Grammar Schools. The rich get richer. And richer. And richer still. Tony Blair walks away from the spineless Chilcot Inquiry and continues to earn his dubious millions, grinning back at us over his shoulder. Black is white and white is black. Lies are truth and truth is lies. No-one can stop the tragedy of the Middle East, because no-one can point to any form of moral compass; that was crushed under the tank tracks a decade ago. Millions of desperate, hapless refugees wander the globe looking for something which no longer exists; compassion.
Could I, half a century ago, with my raised little fist and rusty hammer and sickle have ever imagined such a world as this? Is there any consolation for such depth of lost hope? Yes; it is this: I may only have, if I’m unlucky enough, another decade of life left. I will not have to see or experience the world to come; a dark, evil place, where a portal in time has opened in certain parts of the globe and through that ragged door the cruel warriors of the fourth century are storming through, oblivious to all the social progress we imagined we had made in the past 1600 years. So for all my beliefs and incinerated hope, what have I got?
Three fragile truths: Ground coffee, rock buns and conscience-free South African fruit.