Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Memories are made of ...

... mainly undeleted expletives. I like memoirs and have a penchant for Anarchist ones. They often display an unrecorded and distinctive history. I have just moved out of the 19th Century and read Ian Bone's, Bash the Rich. Bone is one of the founders of Class War magazine, an icon of the eighties and a scarcely controlled explosion of rage. It is not my type of Anarchism and Bone would probably have me down as a "wanker". I read the book with some dislike at the nihilism, sometimes finding it difficult to tell the difference between politics and football hooliganism.

I was going to reflect this unease in the post but something made me change my mind. I was going to say that all I admired was his parents, solid old Labour types. But then, by the end of the book so did he.

"Like a lot of my generation of radicals I didn't like my country very much. ... I'd support anyone against us. This was incomprehensible to my mum and dad who'd fought and lived through the war and were proud to be British, patriotic and Labour. They seemed almost as bad as the Tories."

Then he saw them collect for the miners and reflected on seeing them at a Remembrance service, his dad wearing a poppy next to his 'coal not dole badge'. Bone movingly writes,

"How could I not go with them. I saw them standing there together in the wind, a tear in my dad's eye. Dignified, respectable working class people with noble aspirations. Labour people. ... I read Orwell on the war years and studied the radical journalism of the Daily Mirror and Picture Post. There was a feeling of betrayal and disgust with the aristocracy and Tory government that had appeased Hitler. ... The next year, I wore a poppy. I didn't hate England any more."

Bone had talked earlier in the book about the need for a street insurrection (look at Baghdad or Gaza today if you want to see what one of those looks like) by the end he is closer to Malatesta's hostility to arbitrary violence in the famous quotation written the day before his death,

He who throws a bomb and kills a pedestrian, declares that as a victim of society he has rebelled against society. But could not the poor victim object: 'Am I society?'

And so we are left with a picture of a more thoughtful character and his small army of erudite, if bizarre, punks. There are times when he is extremely funny. I liked the bit about him comforting an animal rights activist who accidentally trod on and killed one of the laboratory rats he had just 'liberated' ('he had to die to be free') and if you want to really understand the terminal weirdness of the left in the 80's read his account of a meeting addressed by Tony Benn and Ted Knight, which Class War broke up in retaliation for Ted Knight's eviction of squatters. The platform sent in a squad of New Agers to surround the Class War punks to sing peace songs to defuse their violence!

His excoriation of the SWP is magnificent. This is spot on.

Delusional triumphalism has been refined to perfection by the SWP which keeps its members in a permanent state of retarded ejaculation by news of a cleaners' strike in Barnoldswick, five papers sold in Rugby, or a tide of global events interpreted by the leadership as proof that their cogent analysis of capitalism has, yet again, been demonstrated correct by events. Those who believe they hold the truth are always delusional.

I liked too the way he understood that many young miners involved in the strike had no desire to go back to a life of exploitation.

I was at a miners' rally in Islington Town Hall addressed by Arthur Scargill. He was preceded by a passionate speech by a miner's wife: 'My father died of silicosis, his brother of pneumoconiosis, my husband was disabled in a pit accident, my brother has white finger - but I'll fight for that future for my children and my children's children'. Tumultuous applause from the Islington class tourists of the left. We looked across at our comrades from the Fitzwilliam pit sitting across the hall. They grinned at us, pulling their fingers across their throats in cut throat manner - rather die than suffer that shit again. Imagine how cheated and disgusted the Islington lefties would have been if one of the Fitzwilliam boys had stood up and replied 'fuck that for a lark'.

As for the characters - there is Mad Mark who wanted to blow up the whole South East of England because "it would get in the papers"; Cynthia Payne's sex workers; the monk in full habit from an East End monastery who had always wanted "to be in a riot"; the young punk who told a meeting of radical feminists that he took his washing home to his mum because she "liked to do it"; and the serious revolutionary who addressed a hall asking his audience to face the reality of imprisonment or even death and invited those who were not willing to share this dedication to leave the room. In a few minutes he was on his own.

The trouble is that before you get to these gems you have to wade through more 'give the fuckers what they deserve' and 'fucking CND wankers' than is good for anyone's health. I just cannot share in the hedonism of violence and as for Bone's prodigious drinking - that pisses me off because he doesn't put on any bloody weight.

Ultimately, I find the celebration of violence disturbing, unpleasant and counter-productive. At times he abandons most of his thoughtfulness for atavistic expressions of class hatred that comes close to claiming that anyone of anything other than a proletarian background is inescapably tainted. He seemed happy to embrace a range of movements, simply because they are radical and involved in direct action rather than being based on an admirable set of beliefs.

That said, I still found things that I liked. Firstly, his unashamed and highly visible class hatred is crude but it does at least confront and attempt to de-legitimate the contemporary celebration of plutocracy. I also enjoyed the way he took apart the awfulness of much of the far left and exposed some of the sterility of what has passed for left debate. Finally, the irreverence is a guilty pleasure, I should disapprove but I still laugh.

I don't think 'Bash the Rich' offers anything as a way forward for the left, which for me needs to be rooted in his mum and dad's tradition of democratic socialism and for the rediscovery of the libertarianism that you find in early Fabianism before the statist technocracy of the Webbs came to dominate. Bone's hedonism sits awkwardly with this intensely moral position, though I am sometimes too close to him for comfort in my detestation of puritanism. It is just the embrace of violence that I find disturbing, and the easy assumption that it is a vehicle for Anarchism ignores the dynamics that violence creates, it is a creator of misery par excellence.

The quality of the book is based on the fact that Bone is a talented tabloid journalist, hugely entrepreneurial and with a sense of humour that sometimes manages to escape from his excesses. He self-consciously sees in himself in the long working class tradition of riot and caustic ribaldry that became smothered by Victorian respectability. If you want to see a precursor then there is the 19th Century activist and self publishing Dan Chatterton, pamphleteer and sole author, printer and seller of Chatterton's Commune: The Atheistic, Communistic Scorcher. It is pure Class War, but if you want to read it you have to go to the British Library where a complete set is preserved in the rare books section. Chatterton carefully placed each edition in the library for posterity, without it we would not have a record of his voice. Bone is luckier.

The problem with his writing is that for me he does not speak for and to the working class but only to a section of it. He had high hopes of the riots of the 80's, but I remember being in Liverpool at the time of the Toxteth riots in 1981. I had a girlfriend there and I travelled to see her on the night of the riot. Not having much money I walked from the station to her place. When I got there she was amazed that the riot hadn't stopped me. "What riot"?, I replied. I walked a few hundred yards from the events and hadn't noticed a thing. I can be spectacularly dozy at times, but it just shows how limited and localised the events were. The next day was the ill-fated royal wedding. We walked through the aftermath of the street fighting on a bright warm day. There were burnt out cars, toppled lamp posts and police on every corner. You could smell the tension. Then, looking both to the left and right, you could see another type of street party. The terraced streets surrounding the troubled estates were decked with bunting and union jacks as ordinary working class people celebrated the wedding. The rioters were a minority of alienated youth augmented by more affluent opportunistic looters. It wasn't even the start of an insurrection.

That some of the left is in a sorry state at the moment, with its disgusting apologies for fascism, moral equivocation, and social authoritarianism, is more than evident. However, the left has to speak to all and to do that it needs a cacophony of voices - Marxists and Liberals, Individualists and left Libertarians - and, above all it needs middle class wankers and academic tossers like myself and I am sorry, we will not be saying the same things. Class hatred is simply not enough.

1 comment:

Darren said...

Will Rubbish tipped me off to this post, and I'm glad he did.

Really enjoyed it.