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Talkin’ ’bout my generation

December 29, 2010

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 Class was the politics that dare not speak its name, superseded by the altogether cooler politics of identity.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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2010 9:18 pm

    I’ve not read the Penny/Callinicos thing, but I bet it’s
    not that different to the last time the SWP so kindly offered to do
    the thinking for all those sweet kids on the barricades. I remember
    Naomi Klein slapping down a senior Trot (Harman? Possibly…) at
    their Undead Marxism conference in about 2001, when he said
    something to the effect “it’s great to see so many [potential paper
    sellers] active, and what they need, and what we [the Trots] can
    give them is intellectual leadership.” She demolished him. Every
    ten years or so a major flare up gets them excited, and they set up
    some front groups (Globalise Resistance, anyone). Or else they take
    over an existing organisation (Campaign against Climate Chnage) or
    they take part in setting up a coalition (Stop the War) and then
    (deliberately?) alienate the other organisations. Laurie Penny may
    be young, but the couple of pieces of hers I have read suggest she
    is not stupid…. Love the site, by the way – love the ages of
    sitcom man, and the clarity, nay, pungency, of your language. Shall
    come back and waste more of your electrons at a later

  2. Free Radical permalink
    December 29, 2010 9:29 pm

    Yes… to steer a middle course between ‘Penny Red’ and Alex Calinicos… I don’t wholly buy Laurie Penny’s argument that the new protest movement is entirely novel, and Alex Calinicos is surely right to talk about the role of organised workers – of trade unions (and this you pick up on yourself).

    But to my mind, the crux of Laurie’s argument is that the old politics is somehow exhausted. And Alex does not really do anything to persuade me otherwise. On this I am with Laurie. The old politics is exhausted – certainly the three major political parties all largely discredited in the eyes of great swathes of the public, and certainly the students. But no opening here for the ‘classic’ left – the Leninists, whether Trotskyite or Stalinist, it doesn’t matter – nobody is turning to them.

    The trade unions though are a very different matter, and they come out of this rather better, precisely because they are greater than party politics. This latest upsurge feels to me more like syndicalism – conventional parties of all sorts are marginalised.

    I am not saying (naively) that the conventional parties – Labour, LibDem, Tory are finished. Nor that the myriad grouplets and little revolutionary parties of the far left are going to disappear. But Laurie is correct – they appear to have no influence on the new movement. That does not put it outside politics, needless to say, but to a large degree outside current party politics.

    This does not mean that it may not be further politicised on party lines. But it feels like a renewal, and a renewal that is only possible in rejecting the existing parties and something of existing politics.

    I’m not saying that Marx is to be finished with either – people may be more receptive to Marx than for many years, but it won’t be through the prism of Leninism. Leninism is as discredited as Labour, LibDems and Tories.

    Where do we go from here? I don’t know. But it is an exciting moment. It may quickly come to nothing. The new protest movement may fail to achieve its objectives. But it is something new (with, as Alex rightly says, a long heritage) and it will, in time, surely lead to a new politics. And in time it may feed into conventional politics in new and important ways. There is truth in what both Laurie and Alex say, but I think Laurie is nearer the mark.

  3. December 29, 2010 11:54 pm

    I think the key point in your piece is the last one, about the need to mix new methods of communication with existing party structures.

    Laurie Penny, as noted by dwighttowers above, is far from stupid. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t naive. This may be the Leninist in me, but I fail to see how a decentralised and deregulated left can actually achieve fundamental change within a system as well-organised and deeply embedded as capitalism. Social attitudes can radically change in a progressive ways on issues we associate with the dread identity politics while leaving class and economic relations intact. We need only look at the Republic over the last 15 years or so for an example. Incredibly more socially liberal, but also more neo-liberal than ever before.

    If the lessons of the 1960s and the 1990s in particular have taught us anything, it is that angry young people does not automatically translate into any lasting progressive politics or change unless it is harnessed and given coherent direction. This means people getting involved in parties, rather than parties taking over and exploiting existing movements. Great to see students protesting. But what isn’t being talked about by those who see these marches etc as heralding something significant for the left is the fact that it isn’t the marches on their own that are terrifying the Lib Dem MPs, but rather the talk of targetting those who have broken their promises at the next election. It’s the potential effect on traditional politics that is what is making these significant. The idea mooted by Penny that Westminster means nothing to young people is ridiculous. Sure people are annoyed and despondent, and wonder how they can change things. But that doesn’t mean they are rejecting traditional politics altogether.

    The deregulated argument in many respects is a consequence of believing capitalism’s propaganda about itself. We all know that the neo-liberal story of the free market is a lie; the bank bailouts being the most obvious example, or the subsidies to Ryanair airports being another. So to base the strategy of the left on the undoubted degulation since Thatcher and Reagan would be to miss the wood for the trees. Capitalism is as dependent upon the state, and state spending, as it has ever been. It continues to shape our lives through political institutions. It is impossible to ignore the state and its power. Impossible, and I would suggest delusional. To ignore the way the state works is to defeat yourself from the start.

  4. Rab permalink*
    December 30, 2010 10:07 am

    Welcome, Dwight, FR and Garibaldy.

    Dwight, I sometimes wonder why the SWP (and others) aren’t scratching their heads and reflecting upon the history of failed alliances, coalitions and movements that it has participated in and thinking, wait a minute, this isn’t working.

    I like Laurie Penny. I see her as a sort of cross between Rosa Luxemburg and Lara Croft. I love following her on twitter. She always seems to be in thick of it and her correspondence is always sharp and intelligent. But she needs to think harder about politics beyond the moment of protest (we all do). And she is wrong if she thinks that political parties and institutions of the state are not going to play a critical role in what happens next. In fact, I can’t imagine that that would be her position. That’s the problem with some of these debates cared on through the media; the nuances get lost in hyperbole and loud-hailer politics.

    Also, there is a danger here that the generational card gets overplayed. I can understand young people looking at the baby-boomers with a degree of resentment. But this is not an intergenerational conflict, it’s about class (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?) Maybe the baby-boomers’ kids are all safely through university, but it’s all ahead of my kids. One of the voices missing in the debate about student fees is that of the parents of prospective students.

  5. CharlieMcmenamin permalink
    December 30, 2010 6:46 pm

    “One of the voices missing in the debate about student fees is that of the parents of prospective students.”
    Ahem. & ahem again.

    Personally, I doubt we’ll ever see mass political parties of either social democratic or Marxist ilk again – or, if we do, they’ll be quietist mass groupings, more like the National Trust or RSPB than mass bodies of activists. Which certainly isn’t to say that mass activism itself isn’t likely to resurface via ‘single issue’ (wrong phrase, I know) campaigns, nor that such ‘hollow’ political parties/would-be-governments-in-waiting can’t have a productive relationship with activists. But the one can’t be collapsed into the other.

  6. Rab permalink*
    December 30, 2010 8:50 pm

    Oh yeah. Sorry Charlie. Those two posts make you eligible for spokesperson for a (parental) generation.

  7. CharliemcMenamin permalink
    December 30, 2010 10:34 pm

    Fair enough, you got me there. A little unfortunate phraseology trips me up again.

    Obviously I’m not a spokesperson for a generation, but then, despite her being a much better writer (and no doubt better socialist) than me, nor do Laurie Penny’s views make her a spokesperson for her generation. & it’s (near) universally agreed truth that Alex Callincos is not a spokesman for his….so I’m only asking for a similar amount of slack….

  8. Rab permalink*
    December 31, 2010 12:38 pm

    Did you see this at Harry’s Place: laurie-penny-voice-for-a-generation

    If there handing out these sort of accolades I think either you or I should make a pitch for the parents’ voice of a generation.

  9. Free Radical permalink
    December 31, 2010 1:34 pm

    If I might make a modest play for the ‘parents voice of a generation’ slot…

    One aspect annoys me about Laurie Penny’s analysis as quoted in the Harry’s place piece:

    ‘…The lost generation has wasted too much time waiting to be found. Through no fault of our own, our generation carries a huge burden of social and financial debt, but we have already wasted too much time counting up what we owe. It’s time to start asking instead what the baby boomer generation owes us, and how we can take it back…’

    The notion that it is simply a clash of generations between ‘baby boomers’ (of which I am one) and the young, is silly. It avoids the big picture and implies that somehow the baby boomers got more out of society than they really deserved – like pensions, public services and so on.

    The way I see it is that the so-called baby boomers benefited from a post-war settlement that gave to the masses decent services, council housing, pensions, an NHS, free education – in exchange for not embracing communism or syndicalism, for not overthrowing the state (and if you think this is fanciful look at Europe in the aftermath of World War II). All of these things have been either taken away or threatened in the past thirty years. It is not that the baby boomers didn’t deserve them – rather that the present generation also deserves such fruits of our common wealth. In recent years capitalist economies have taken more and more away from their citizens – a dramatic switch from earned income (wages) to unearned income (rents, share dividends etc)- casualisation of workers, removal of pensions, attacks on collective bargaining and so on.

    It’s not an intergenerational conflict but the result of capitalist retrenchment and a dismantling of the postwar settlement – now about to be dismantled in a truly startling manner – if we all allow it.

    Young people are not stupid – and these connections are being made – the demand that business pays its taxes is a very good example.

    But Laurie Penny is right that the baby boomers who are prosperous (and many are not and face a future with inadequate pensions and devastated public services) do need to care about the future of the current young generation.

  10. December 31, 2010 3:06 pm

    You’re right. Reducing what is going on to an intergenerational conflict misses the point. I succumbed to this thinking myself briefly – here – but I think in the new year we’ll see the social complexion of the demonstrations change as the unions begin to mobilise.

    But I have been thinking a lot about the parents of students recently. I’m beginning to appreciate just how much some sacrifice to see their children through university. Many of them have kids living at home now who previously might have anticipated that as students they would be living away. I’ve also found more parents taking an active interest in their children’s time at university. I’m sure they always did, but they much quicker to intervene than previously. I think this irks some institutions who refer to ‘helicopter parenting’ (always hovering over their children) but I don’t see why we should be surprised by this, given that it is substantially they who are paying for the education in all sorts of ways.

    I’ve noticed for some time that at university open days it is essentially the parents that you are selling your course to, rather than the kids. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this yourself.

    This is why I’m keen to nominate Charlie as the spokeperson for the parental generation. I’d do it myself but there’s the whole conflict of interests thing…

  11. Free Radical permalink
    December 31, 2010 4:54 pm


    Somebody said to me recently that the difference between the situation now and the student unrest in the 1960s is that the proportion of young people attending universities is so much greater. Many families across the land feel some investment in higher education as they expect their children to go into it.

    As a parent of two children whom we expect to go through university in the next few years, the impact of the tuition fees and restriction of grants will be enormous. We are in that fateful lower-middle band of people who are not wealthy enough to significantly support our children financially, yet, not quite poor enough to qualify for grants or waived fees. Between them, I anticipate that our children will accumulate debts totalling aournd £80k.

    We would like them to attend the best university for them, and, in order to gain the full benefits of university, to live away from home. Pragmatically of course, either of them may decide on cheaper options, and who could blame them.

    The most unforgivable aspect of current policy is the creation of a market of expensive quality (‘Harrods’ type quality universities for the rich; middling, rather cheaper ‘Waitrose’ ones for the less than rich, and poor quality cheap ‘cheery-shopper’ universities for the working classes, who deserve nothing better we must presume.

    Government (including Saint Simon Hughes of Bermondsey) will protest that the poorest will do very well with generous support, but we all know who will flood into certain institutions that the rich would not touch with a bargepole…

    Students will be stratified by class and race and region, just as they tend to be at school. The working classes won’t leave to socialise with the sons and daughters of the rich, they’ll stay where they belong, with their own kind, and be grateful for it. So much is being destroyed, if we, collectively, allow it.

    • December 31, 2010 5:21 pm

      Free Radical,

      I think the picture of stratification you describe is already the case in very many universities across the UK.

      It’s a good point about the larger number of students, but from my point of view for this discussion, the main thing to remember about 1968 is how it was almost everywhere a gross waste of energy due to infantile ideas about forging change. Which brings us back to Ms. Penny.

      • Free Radical permalink
        December 31, 2010 8:43 pm


        I do not regard the student unrest in 1968 as a ‘gross waste of energy’ or as simply ‘infantile ideas about forging change’. Nor do I think that Ms Penny or the student movement is ‘infantile’ – a word somewhat overused.

        Such upsurges of activity from the base are important in themselves.

        But let us remember that the UK, despite enormous US pressure did not enter the Vietnam war. This was due largely to the Labour movement and the Labour government under Harold Wilson, but surely we should give credit also the broad movement against the Vietnam war, including extra parliamentary activities, in which students were very prominent.

        Within education the student radicalism resulted in incorporation of students into governance of colleges and universities (which perversely has contributed to bureaucratisation of colleges… but that’s another story perhaps).

        The most utopian aims of 1968 were not realised, but in France there was near revolution – and a rightwing backlash after. But, whilst learning what lessons we can from the past, we should in no way right off the events of ’68.

        (Incidentally, the Peasants Revolt of 1381 was also a ‘failure’ but within a generation the serfs were freed – and most of the demands of the nineteenth century Chartists have subsequently been realised too).

  12. January 1, 2011 12:09 am

    Free Radical,

    I’m not intending to insult the people involved in the current protests (or indeed those of 1968), but I am trying to view them in a suitable perspective. I’m pleased to see students on the streets. But at the same time we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the numbers who have not got involved but who will vote. And the numbers who are apathetic, or even supportive of raising fees. The idea that Westminster no longer matters is, being blunt, silly, so I used infantile deliberately rather than unreflexively.

    We can argue the rights and wrongs of 1968 and the hopes expressed and tactics employed until the cows come home I suppose. But what seems to me fairly indisputable is that there was little long-term political impact, even if there was an acceleration of social change (and I choose acceleration deliberately, especially when we remember the dates of things like the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality in the UK). Part of the reason there was no long-term political impact on the scale there might have been? Surely the dismissal of “old politics” and the need for coherent political structures was one of the reasons for it.

    I take your point about Vietnam, and agree with you that it was the Labour Party and Labour movement that ensured that was the case. Without that the extra-parliamentary protests were unlikely to have had any more impact than, say, the Iraq War protests.

    So great to see the protests and the raising of opposition to what is happening. But I see no reason to think they represent a sea-change.

  13. January 1, 2011 1:42 pm

    Garibaldy has said everything I would have said (but much better!) about organisation. You can’t run a movement for political change on the basis of people doing what they feel like in the time left after jobs/ study and family/ friends have taken the majority. There’s nothing worse than unreliability in politics and I have found that people regard it as perfectly acceptable and not a matter for apology to let you down and say they had other things to do.

    However, the point I really wanted to make was about gender. Older men with a long track record of political activity do in my experience seem to have particular problems with the idea of younger women getting involved, and tend to patronise them absolutely shockingly. Younger men don’t get this treatment, not doubt because they are regarded as the protegees and legitimate successors. So I wonder how much of this debate is about gender rather than age.

  14. Rab permalink*
    January 1, 2011 2:58 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    It’s interesting that Laurie Penny has been proposed as a spokesperson for her generation, since as far as I can remember that’s an accolade that has always been held by male pop stars – Pete Townsend, Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Morrissey… errr…after that I kinda lost track and interest in the whole rock ‘n’ roll circus.

    I hope that anybody playing the old ‘Young women: know your limits’ card would be badly misjudging the mood. Roger Gale MP tries it in an exchange with Clare Solomon on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show. You can listen to it here. He just sounds like a wanker.

    Generally, I suppose I’m surprised and delighted at the response of the students and young people to the governments proposals. Ultimately though it’s all very well being united in you opposition to something but can that unity be maintained as you begin to put forward alternatives? And how do you go about putting forward alternative policies? Won’t that mean subjecting yourself to the rather dull but necessary discipline of a party?

  15. January 1, 2011 4:55 pm

    Depends on the kind of protests we’re going to see. If they are essentially single issue and only about what either affects people personally or what they can identify with, then the protestors won’t become part of a wide movement whether that’s a political party or a wider campaign. The government will find it easy to pick them off with a mix of concessions and stoking up fear of the future. Political parties need to change in order to harness all that anger and enthusiasm for change (or at least Labour does, that’s the limit of my experience) but also, you are right, putting forward a full political programme means party discipline or failure.

  16. Free Radical permalink
    January 1, 2011 8:32 pm

    Your point about gender is valid Jenny.

    In general I don’t think these issues need to be framed as binary choices – either extra-party activity or engaging with political parties, since it seems to me that both aspects are vital. Ultimately parliament is able to wield power and cannot be ignored. But of course it can be influenced by extraparliamentary activities, by demonstrations, by political lobbying, as well as influencing political parties, participating in parties and contesting elections.

    I think at the moment that the general alienation from political parties is very striking. I am myself still a member of the Labour Party, but it is hopeless to think of solely working through the party. Obviously much important work will need to happen outside the Labour Party.

  17. January 2, 2011 4:32 pm

    Agree with most of the post, and with the comments here. But while I regard leadership (in the sense that you work out a strategy, tactics, etc, with an informed mind) as a vital part of organising the energy so that five digits make a fist, the reality is that Alex’s mates have been a destructive force in the movement.

    The sad truth is that, without organisation with clear goals and the means to achieve your objectives, the energy of resistance dissipates. But we have a situation offering leaders but no leadership in any valuable form.

  18. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    January 4, 2011 9:56 pm

    Organisation is indeed essential – but it’s not the same thing as *party* organisation. I think those of us who are a bit long in the tooth may have something to learn on this front.

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