1 August 2012
Marxism is a powerful explanatory system; and the moment in life when one acknowledges that is seldom forgotten.
It was in an autumn evening in 1978, some time after dark and sitting alone at my desk, that I became a Marxist. It was not a consequence of an act of class struggle, nor of any concrete event in the political sphere, but purely the result of an intellectual decision. The books in front of me were Peter Worsely’s Introducing Sociology and the decidedly non-Marxist writer Raymond Aron’s Main Currents in Sociological Thought. As I read I had been throwing up objections to Marxist theory and then at one point I stopped resisting and accepted the general thesis, as in all probability, correct.
The next five or six years, which saw me through my A-levels and a politics degree at Exeter University, were years of fervent exploration in the secular faith. I don’t propose in this essay to proceed methodically through my personal intellectual progression, but rather to answer the following questions. Why did I become a Marxist? What are the fundamental tenets of that belief system which became programmed into my brain? And briefly, what remains today?
My childhood was one of confused and conflicting class consciousness. I grew up in Surrey, a rich part of England. We had our own house, but otherwise my family was relatively poor for the 1970s. Mother (born 1928), whether more out of principle or necessity, stayed at home and my father (born 1908) retired when I was eleven. We had no car, no washing machine, no central heating and we only acquired a TV and telephone in my later teenage years. Yet, we were considered middle class on the grounds that my father had never done a manual job, we did not live on a council estate and my sister and I were brought up to speak BBC English.
From an early age I developed an insight into social class and experienced a dislocation from my peers. My infant and junior schools, which I attended 1967-73, were within the catchment area of a council estate. Most of my early friends were working class kids whose families, unlike mine, had lived in the town for generations. These were the southern skilled working class people, mostly richer than my own family, who would turn so decisively to Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Already alienated from much of the popular culture with no television at home, I was reminded of the class issue every time the council estate kids mocked the pronunciation my mother had instilled me, or whenever in the playground the kids talked about the goings-on at the youth club which I was not allowed to attend.
Yet if the working class did not see me as one of their own, nor did the middle class kids who went on foreign holidays and to barbeques – and at this stage performed so much better than I did at school. Later in my secondary school, when academically I had pulled ahead, I was accepted into the group, but was always made to feel different and grateful for their company. When I out-performed them academically, they felt the injustice because their foreign holiday hadn’t boosted their French test result, and because it was I not they who was going to the ‘better university’ In the ‘now open now hidden’ class struggle that Marx wrote about, my experience was of the concealed and hushed class stratification of England, not of strikes and confrontation on the street. Yet, these experiences and perceptions helped me along the path to Marxism.
My father played his part. Aged seventy when I was sixteen, he was in many ways more like a grandfather. He was someone to talk to, not a father to play football or even go walking with. His interest in politics was not intellectual, but practical. Nominally a Liberal, but with a penchant for history’s strong men, he had been elected onto the town council in 1968 and ten years later was ceremonial mayor of the town. Though kind and gentle at home, he was a manipulative loner for whom intellectual honesty meant nothing. About his first sixty years of life before I could meaningfully talk to him, I knew very little. But those years had instilled in him a dislike of Toryism and the arrogance of the English haut bourgeoisie. Much to my mother’s irritation, my father and I talked politics endlessly, but his lack of reading and his recourse to false ‘facts’ meant that we seldom advanced. Yet I did grow up in a family in which politics was the common currency of conversation, even with my poor mother who hated it.
Religion was only important in my early life in that I came to reject it. Both my parents were nominally Protestants who had attended Catholic schools. Until I was ten, I believed religion was like the story of Santa Claus: not believed by adults, but told to children. Though church goers, my parents displayed little piety: mother felt praying ‘all rather silly,’ and father always presented religion as something that existed rather than something that was true. My metaphysical views of the universe have always been religion-free.
Studying was neither a family tradition, nor did it come early in my life. Mother left school at fourteen and equated academic success with correct elocution and neat handwriting; father, though university educated, had little sympathy for intellectuals. Until secondary school, my association with the lads from the council estate had kept me in remedial classes. But on entering secondary school at eleven in 1973, I joined the upper stream and by the time I was sixteen I was near the top in most subjects. Obviously, the change to the middle class peer group was a factor, but so was a change at home. Now freer of my mother’s psychological control (but without much opportunity to mix independently with my peers), I separated myself to my room with my radio and books as my main companions. Left largely alone by my elderly parents, I discovered the town library and started to read.
From my father’s attitude and my experiences of class division at school, I tended to be anti-Tory, but not specifically socialist. My reading of pop-psychology and politics generally reinforced notions of liberalism and individual freedom. At this stage I had made no sociological analysis of society, but merely made a shopping list of demands against it. In particular, I saw young people unfairly constrained in their lives: parental control, school uniform, corporal punishment, but most of all with regard to their sexual expression.
The summer of 1978 was a roller coaster year for me. My love affair with a classmate, which had started the previous autumn, deepened and unbalanced my teenage brain. I became more estranged from my parents, particularly my mother. I left school in June after my O Level examinations and worked throughout July and August in a factory where, apart from my paper delivery round, I earned my first real money. By the end of August my love affair was in tatters, but my studying was not. And in the more academic environment of the college, which I started in September, I was able to start devoting myself seriously to my sociology, economics and history courses.
I could make not claim to be particularly learned at that time, but I wanted to study the society around me. The summer had seen me in love and in depression, taking every opportunity I could day and night to get near one girl. In the two years at college before I went to university I attended one drunken teenage party, and once on a sociology excursion to Birmingham I took a girl to my hotel bedroom. Otherwise those two years were devoted to the discovery of Marxism, getting good A-level results and little else.
It would be quite wrong to only consider personal factors and not look to wider social and political context in Britain in which I living. I don’t want to present in this essay a retrospective political analysis of the late 1970s, but rather paint a picture of how the politics of the 1970s filtered through into my Surrey town.
The crisis that enveloped Britain in the 1970s was multi-dimensional. The main economic effect hitting the working class, rising unemployment, had not yet arrived in Surrey, but the increasing number of strikes, double digit inflation and the consequent deepening economic pessimism had undermined faith in the economic and political system. By 1978 Britain had seen three general elections in the decade and was about to see another. Uncertainty and crisis was the order of the day, so it was not an idle question whether the future would herald in greater social equality, democracy and industrial planning, or whether, as actually did happen, capitalist power, inequality and discipline would be fully restored. For me, from as early as 1977 when I was fifteen years old there was no doubt that I was on the ‘left’ side of the debate to the extent that I understood it, though of course I lacked any kind of sociological analysis of the issues.
The crisis of political authority ran parallel with debates surrounding the so-called ‘permissive’ society. The decade or so before 1978 had produced many meaningful reforms in Britain: abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of abortion, the pill and homosexuality, relaxation in censorship, the lowering of the age of majority to eighteen. All this had been accompanied by cultural changes: in fashion long hair for men, musical innovation; e.g. punk. Nowhere was this wave of freedom more a battlefield than in schools: school uniform or not, caning or no corporal punishment, girls doing metalwork or not, Latin or sociology. The cohort of ex-military teachers and their wives in secondary schools was giving way to a more liberal breed. At fifteen I remember the rant of our retiring headmaster in an assembly lashing out at striking pickets and pop stars and informing us that our generation would never have won the Second World War. Two years later I was sitting in my jeans and drinking coffee in my sociology class discussing Marxist perspectives, while the teacher interrupted to tell tales of his hitch-hiking experiences.
The question really was a simple one: were you on the side of Mrs Whitehouse and Mrs Thatcher’s reaction or were you a progressive. I was a progressive, but in the autumn of 1978 I lacked the sociology to explain the society which was throwing up these issues, and on that autumn evening sitting at my desk (which actually is the desk I am typing this essay on now twenty-nine years later) I thought I had found the answer in Marxism.
Today, three decades later and in a totally changed political situation, I still judge Marxist theory to be largely correct. True, there are aspects of classical Marxism which I’ve rejected; and today I allow many non-Marxist explanatory systems to co-exist in my understanding of society. Of course the fact that my personal and social circumstances put me in a position of discover Marxism in no way diminishes the accuracy or otherwise of Marxist explanations of society.
The core of my understanding then as now was the theory of historical materialism. In essence the theory holds that human society has the characteristics that it does on account of the way human beings throughout history have made it that way through their collective but largely uncooperative and unintentional activities. The economic base of society frames and co-exists with the superstructure of institutions and ideas; and the way human beings relate to the economy through ownership, possession and control establishes social classes and many of the divisions within social classes. These simple observations provide the basis for a rich and powerful explanatory methodology, but sadly, as this is not an essay on Marxist theory, I will have to move on.
The next half decade of my life at university and for a period afterwards was dedicated, sometimes successfully but often not, to further understanding and elaborating Marxism. I frantically believed that all legitimate politics had to be based on full understanding of Marxism and class struggle. I set out as best I could as a student and then as an unemployed man to recruit others and to fight the Thatcherite reaction. Even when I largely gave up at the end of the 1980s, the precepts have remained engraved in my mind rather like one remembers one’s multiplication tables. Though I made mistakes, I do not regret my main decisions; and even today it on my ‘to do list’ to attempt to update historical materialism for the present age.
So who was responsible for my attachment to Marxism? My mother who instilled no religious belief in me; my father who talked politics instead of football; my schoolmates who ridiculed my accent; the middle class kids who snubbed me; my primary school teacher who made sure I got into the top stream at secondary school; my liberal minded sociology teacher; or perhaps my girlfriend who left me? Or was it the spirit of the age: those years in the late seventies when the stability of the post war consensus was coming to an end? Could one element have changed, and if so would I have become a born again Christian instead? I don’t know and in the end it doesn’t really matter.