Talkin’ ’bout my generation
Well everybody else seems to have something to say about it, I might as well offer my tuppence worth. I’m talking about the Laurie Penny /Alex Callinico’s debate, of course, which seems to have highlighted inter-generational tensions in the campaign against the cuts.
In her Guardian, Comment is Free (CiF) piece, Laurie Penny argued that: ‘The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.’ This seems to get to the essence of the dispute: a young, energetic and ‘deregulated’ Left, doesn’t want to be shackled by an older generation of leftists who appear wedded to centralised and sectarian political models.
I’m sure the battle-lines must seem obvious if you’re Alex Callinico’s and Laurie Penny’s respective ages, 60 and 22. But if like me you’re stuck somewhere in the middle (40-ish), things look less clear cut. Perhaps it has something to do with my own political formation.
I missed the cold war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and big industrial battles of the 80s. I was just too young. And so it wasn’t until the 1990s that I grew to political consciousness and after very little consideration threw myself into the fray and joined one of the Trotskyite variations. I did this mainly because… well… they asked me, and I wanted to feel that I was doing something. This was after all the era of general political inertia, when John Major secured a forth successive Conservative election victory simply by not being Neil Kinnock and nobody dared talk about class anymore. Class was the politics that dare not speak its name, superseded by the altogether cooler politics of identity. In this climate the hard left’s language and rhetoric sounded hopelessly dated, even to me.
I stayed for a while but I hated selling the party paper. It was uninspiring to look at and turgid to read but it was worthy.
I hated the interminable meetings; listening to older, better-read comrades without ever feeling I had the confidence, experience or knowledge to contribute anything useful myself.
I could see no sign of the great leap forward since we seemed always to be in retreat – less avant garde than rear guard. We were always defending a world that was being eroded away from under and around us.
I was disinterested in the sectarian rivalries of the Left. I knew little and cared less about the historical enmity that existed between the various sects and fragments, although disinterest was no guarantee of immunity. I once met an old Stalinist in bar after a Mayday demonstration, who casually informed me that while he’d enjoyed having a drink with me, if the moment arose when he felt that some Trot (like me) needed a bullet in the head, he wouldn’t hesitate. It was probably bravado, but this was pre-ceasefire Belfast and I thought it best to err on the side of caution. I made my excuses and left.
So I can understand Laurie Penny’s apprehensions about the old Left. Twenty years ago it seemed bureaucratic and archaic to me. Its organisations looked no match for the agility and pace of contemporary capitalism then. If each phase of capitalism produces its own potential gravediggers, I couldn’t see how Left organisations formed a century before could possibly be fit for that purpose.
Despite all this I admire many of the individuals in those organisations. They were substantially right about the big questions, and when nobody else much cared they kept the torch of political dissent and protest burning. Every time there was some new threatened privatisation of public services or the war clouds gathered, it was they who provided the organisational backbone and many of the foot-soldiers at protests and demonstrations. None of this should be forgotten or dismissed. Also, who knows when you’ll find yourself in the sort of jam where a Stalinist pensioner with a gun might be more use than a student with a smart phone? There are always horses for courses.
Still, the new networked activism is an important weapon in the Left’s political arsenal and we all need to learn from it and adapt. It’ll certainly change the old organisational structures since communicative forms play an important role in how societies are imagined and shaped. Actually perhaps it’s changing them already. Isn’t the evidence of that the online dialogue taking place between a 60 year old grandee of the Left and a 22 year old blogger?
Forty-somethings like me, on the other hand, might be a lot less anxious about the the whole ‘deregulated’/bureaucratic Left dichotomy. Many of us are likely familiar and comfortable with social networking online – facebook, twitter, blogosphere etc – and we may still be members of the traditional Left’s battalions – parties and trade unions. For us, how we combine these two forms of social and political organisation will be the key question, not whether we chose one over the other.