Friday, November 2, 2012

Previous convictions (1985)

A Short Story from the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

I was fifteen before it dawned on me that the pain I had been getting between the eyes was not a malignant tumour which would quickly grow to the size of a melon, invading every lobe, capillary and ventricle of my brain until I was blind, deaf and dumb and reducing me to a dribbling, mewling vegetable until I died in excruciating agony - but only a bad case of boredom with school.

I cut down at once on my aspirin intake and my sense of recovery was complete when I realised that my boredom was not entirely due to my being a loutish, spotty adolescent but was also something to do with how I was treated in the classroom. My school masters were bringing me to a state bordering on sensory deprivation by "teaching" me stuff which was patently incorrect. It was too much, to expect them to make it interesting.

In any case I was feeling dissatisfied with society at large - although pretty satisfied with myself - because of my recent addiction to politics. My theories were startlingly simple and illuminating false. Before 1939 there had been all sorts of problems - slump, unemployment, extreme poverty, strikes, culminating in the war itself. The governing party for those years had been the Conservatives. Therefore, those problems had been preconceived, designed and implemented by the Tories. Therefore, the way to a happier, abundant, peaceful society was through ditching the Tories and electing a Labour government.

I was in favour of nationalising everything; the state machine was potentially the overall benefactor of us all and must be given the chance to operate in this way. I propounded this idea with an arrogance which bewildered my parents and irritated my schoolmates. Any event in the entire history of the human race could be quickly explained by me in a few illuminating words, leading to the conclusion that Clement Attlee should be Prime Minister. This made things rather difficult for me at school but I was saved from the inevitable crisis confrontation by a bout of food poisoning, the symptoms of which lingered for months, until I could reproduce them almost at will. Eventually, a kindly but gullible doctor diagnosed me as a case of neurasthenia and in need of a long rest. I had, he surmised, suffered emotional damage through the stresses of the war - the air raids, the rationing, the worry of the king having to be evacuated to Balmoral when a stray German bomb fell in the capacious grounds of Buckingham Palace. The timing of this diagnosis was lucky for me; with suspicious speed the school accepted the suggestion that I leave early and I was allowed to step through the gates for the last time, into an agreeable year of reading, dreaming and political activity.

I blush now to recall what that activity amounted to. I had spent much of that early summer working frenziedly for the return of the 1945 Labour government. Each evening, instead of crouching over my homework, I had gone to the local Labour committee rooms, gathered up literature and canvassing cards and sallied out to harangue countless bemused voters on the evils of pre-war Toryism. My special devils were Baldwin and Chamberlain; if anyone was unkind enough to remind me of Macdonald and Snowden I contemptuously dismissed them as under-cover Tories who had been exposed just in time to save the soul of the Labour Party, which was now safe with Attlee, Bevin, Morrison . . . 

The constituency I campaigned in had been traditionally a safe Conservative seat, which a blue-rosetted monkey could have won but which was held by a titled fop who could hardly put together a coherent speech and who had insurmountable problems in answering the simplest of questions. At his public meetings my seething outrage would erupt into shrill schoolboy heckling. Even worse to me, the MP had been an admirer of the Third Reich and had posed for photographs beside Hitler at big Nazi rallies. In the 1945 delusions about Labour's brave new world that was the sort of constituency which fell in droves to the Labour Party but in this case the fop held on by his manicured finger nails, keeping a little patch of blue on the constituency map amid an ocean of red. My chagrin at our failure to humiliate the Nazi baronet was mollified by my pleasure at the overwhelming return of the Labour government. As the committee rooms shut down I began to spend my time at numerous ward, committee and Labour League of Youth meetings. I now had the party members to harass instead of the voters on their doorsteps and I was not overwhelmingly popular but I justified it by saying that there was a lot to prepare for; the workers of Britain, after almost fifty years of travail, was about to arrive at the Promised Land.

The rest is a history which did not reassure me in the making. Right at the beginning, Clement Attlee went to Buckingham Palace not, as I had dreamed, to inform the king that the revolution had come and that henceforth the royal homes would be taken over as shelter for homeless workers who, after all, had won the war and then put Labour in power. Instead, he went to kiss hands, swear loyalty and agree to form a government which would keep the class represented by the royals secure in their wealth and privilege. Then the Russian workers became abruptly transformed from our staunch allies in the fight against fascism into our mortal enemies. We could not, it seemed, expect to arrive at the Promised Land until we had dealt with the threat from Moscow and with other enemies as well - unofficial strikes, the Greek Communists, the Communist Party over here, the East Germans, the North Koreans, the Chinese. The list seemed endless; it even included the Americans, whose dominant economy had undermined the Imperial Preference system, which was supposed to bring such benefits to us from the British Empire. It was all very confusing and frustrating to a recent survivor of brain cancer and adolescent acne and I resolved to look elsewhere for the soul of true socialism.

I began, daringly, to attend public meetings addressed by dissident Labour MPs like Konni Zilliacus and John Platt-Mills who, in spite of their membership of the party, seemed to oppose almost everything the government did. In particular they were clear that the Russian ruling class, headed by the remote and sinister Joseph Stalin, was devoted to PEACE while the American rulers, represented by bland, diminutive Harry Truman, was intent on WAR. These dupes of the Communist Party - which itself was a collection of unwavering dupes of Russian capitalism - appealed to my sense of outrage and bewilderment at the compliance of the Attlee government with so many of the things I wanted to see abolished from human society. The Communist Party began to look very attractive to me. Of course there were a few problems in arguing away a great deal of recent history and experience -  the show trials of the '30s, the Russo-German pact, the murders and repressions of Stalin's pitiless rule - but I managed it. My time in the Labour Party had obviously taught me something.

And that is about when I met Charlie who, wherever he is now, is probably unaware of his vital, unintentional, formative influence on my political ideas. Charlie was an old friend of the family; in the army during the war he had been through some nasty battles and had been demobilised to a homeless wife and child. He at once joined the local squatters movement, which was taking over disused military buildings under the encouragement of the Communist Party. Once his family was housed, Charlie joined the CP; he also got himself a job as a bus conductor and it was on his bus that I met him again, one morning in the dreadful winter of 1946/7, as I hunched miserably against the cold in a workbound trolley-bus. I was startled to feel my proffered fare pressed firmly back into my hand and looked up as Charlie grinned an invitation to "have this ride for nothing, Comrade".

I began to see a lot of Charlie after that and we always argued about politics, with me too ready to accept his Stalinist chop-logic, if only because it always led me to the conclusion that what really mattered was the "education of the workers" - with people like us, of course, as the educators. This encouraged Charlie to believe that he had persuaded me into joining the CP and indeed that may have come about, had we not arranged to meet one Saturday evening at the local common, where all sorts of political and religious groups held outdoor meetings. I really went along in the hope of getting in a bit of Tory-bashing (in spite of all my doubts and confusion, they were still the final enemy). I moved from one platform to another until I came to one where a young guy with daringly long hair was speaking about a world without classes, money, war.

A few weeks later, trembling with anxiety, I applied to join my local Socialist Party of Great Britain branch. Charlie was furious: "Armchair bleeding theorists," he snarled, "Better than actually doing anything though, ennit?" He just did not know what a relief it was to be free of those political agonies of my schooldays, not to have to chop and twist in order to survive in a discussion, to have an explanation of society and an arguable reason, instead of an emotional spasm, as the basis of working for a new world order. It still worried my parents but with my previous convictions in the past, I became a reformed character.