Socialism and bear-baiting
Socialist Worker’s gloating over Horatio Chapple’s death is crass and cruel, writes Paul Demarty. But it is also a product of political weaknesses
It is a week since Socialist Worker ran a small item in its snarky Troublemaker column about the death of Horatio Chapple,1 a 17-year-old Eton pupil who was mauled by a polar bear on a Norwegian iceberg, and we find ourselves wondering how on earth it made it through the editorial process.
The idea perhaps came to comrade Troublemaker after a few refreshments, no doubt initially in the form of the Sun-esque headline (‘Eton by bear?’), and then the political line, such as it is (save the polar bears, so that they might eat more Eton boys!). In goes to copy, whereupon it is presumably subbed, and then given a once over by editor Judith Orr. At no point does it occur to any of the comrades that gloating over the death of a teenager is pointless and cruel.
So it comes off the presses; but on a slow news day on Fleet Street, alas, this little aside suddenly becomes national news. The boy’s parents are horrified. They want an apology. Worst of all, old enemies like the perfidious Owen Jones (and now, of course, the Weekly Worker) get a shot at the moral high ground. Now, the Socialist Workers Party faces an uncomfortable choice - either it offers a grovelling apology or it doubles down on a piece of poor taste. So far, it has done neither.
The latter approach served it reasonably well the last time Socialist Worker got unflattering notice for scraping this particular barrel, with its ‘Rejoice!’ front page after the death of Margaret Thatcher (April 13 2013). “Now get the rest,” the comrades chirruped - “get”, in this instance, presumably meaning ‘wait for them to get old and suffer from degenerative illnesses’.
That, however, was Thatcher, who was widely and understandably hated by the workers’ movement and the left. She was a hardened class fighter for the bourgeoisie, was prepared to take the knocks that come with the job, and no doubt was resigned to the idea that her death would be celebrated in some quarters. She was not an utterly random child of privilege who happened to come to a gory fate on an Arctic adventure holiday.
There has been much ink spilled over the hypocrisy of this infantile, sub-Class War pseudo-politics. Adrian Weale, the father of a former classmate of Chapple’s, pointed out rather acidly to The Independent: “Who knows how Horatio’s life would have turned out? There are more than a few ex-public schoolboys and girls in the ranks of the SWP and I doubt that many of them would think that the killing of one of them or their siblings by a sick animal had anything much to do with their supposed class war.”2
The same paper also retreaded the persistent rumour that national secretary Charlie Kimber is himself an old Etonian. But space was not found to mention central committee colleague Alex Callinicos’s well established noble ancestry (he is the great-grandson of Lord Acton); or, for that matter, the ruling class credentials of some of the prominent former members of the International Socialist/SWP tradition. His apostasy was epic in scale, but Christopher Hitchens was once thought an asset, despite his status as the establishment’s pet revolutionary. More immediately ironic is Paul Foot, a Shrewsbury old boy, investigative journalist and lifelong IS/SWP member - a Marxism session this weekend was dedicated to his memory, it being the 10th anniversary of his death.
Indeed, the history of our movement is littered with ruling class traitors! Owen Jones, in a well-judged piecein The Guardian, lists them off: “Friedrich Engels, a prosperous German industrialist; Vladimir Lenin, born into a family of minor Russian nobles; Leon Trotsky, the child of well-off Ukrainian farmers …”3
It is worth wondering why this should be the case. Are we just talking about a series of blind flukes, or is there some reason why the ruling class should throw up a few gravediggers from within its own ranks?
I went to a middling red-brick university, with a cohort consisting to a considerable extent of privately educated people, who - by virtue of their success in the sperm lottery - had the grades to get into a top institution, but did not have the raw ability and smarts to do so. This was reflected in the university’s political character - the biggest student groups were Conservative Future and the somewhat Toryish debating society.
Yet it was never difficult to build some kind of left presence. A friend and comrade from the Socialist Party in England and Wales had his own theory - people would arrive in fresher’s week, see all the braying rugby boys and recoil in horror. Socialism was a way of confirming that they had escaped public school, and survived intact.
There is a broader question here. The SWP rightly catches a lot of flak for claiming that working class men do not benefit at all from women’s oppression - only capital does. The germ of truth in there is that oppression and exploitation are not straightforwardly ‘done’ by one privileged social group to another, subaltern one; rather they are effects of the overall social structure (to put it in Althusserian terms) - the “circumstances not of our own choosing”, in which we make our own history and in which we ourselves are made.
Women’s oppression means, necessarily, constructing a complementary ‘masculine ideal’ that deforms male individuality: while men may benefit in certain material ways from this situation, there is a subjective cost that in some cases (for many gay men, for instance) is intolerable. More acute feminist and other literature on the women’s question has discussed this phenomenon for some time, and even among the contemporary cliques of privilege-baiters its memory is not entirely lost.
Likewise for those ‘born to rule’. Elite public schools exist to prepare people to sit at the top of the social food chain; this in practice means inculturation into the values of the military aristocracy - a class which is now almost defunct as a social reality, but which persists as an ideological image.
Traditionally, this has been achieved by enforcing a dehumanising culture - gender segregation, corporal punishment and often sexualised forms of coercive authority. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news anchor, asked recently whether the willingness of establishment figures to (allegedly) hush up child abuse allegations had any connection to the normalisation of what amounts to ‘prison sex’ in the public schools such people attended:
I well remember my first days in my boarding school - the wolf whistles from the prefects’ open windows, as we passed in and out of our boarding quarters. Prettier boys were openly rated as desirable. It was in my second term, when I was 13-years-old, that I first received a note from a 17-year-old in the school rugby team asking would I meet him for a smoke. This was a euphemism for intended sexual contact … Most of us, when we left school, skated over our sexual activity, reckoning the experience had done us no harm. I’m not so sure.4
Paul Foot’s memories are similar:
[Schoolmaster Anthony Trevenix-Trench] would offer his culprit an alternative: four strokes with the cane, which hurt; or six with the strap, with trousers down, which didn’t. Sensible boys always chose the strap, despite the humiliation, and Trench, quite unable to control his glee, led the way to an upstairs room, which he locked, before hauling down the miscreant’s trousers, lying him face down on a couch and lashing out with a belt.5
On top of that, there is a whole strand of fiction - from Lord of the flies to Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If… - that uses the bestiality of public school life as a lens into the evil inherent in our society, or even human nature itself.
Part of this experience is gone (although not long gone - corporal punishment was outlawed in private schools only in 2003), but no doubt psychological humiliation suffices for the modern, civilised schoolmaster. The point remains the same: to cultivate a barrack-room solidarity against everyone else, and most of the time it works. There is always the chance, however, that it backfires - that identification occurs not with the in-group, but with the struggles, material and political, of the great unwashed. A class traitor - a George Orwell, a Charlie Kimber - is born.
To lead society
Defenders - if there are any - of the ‘Eton by bear?’ article might wonder whether taking advantage of this marginal failure of ruling class reproduction is worth much effort. Indeed, there is nothing especially important about posh defectors; the point remains to build a strong, intransigent working class movement for socialism.
The trouble with this bit of bear-baiting is twofold. Firstly, the point of our movement is, as it were, to be the Eton of the working class: while that venerable school prepares the children of the rich and powerful to live up to their parentage and take their place in an apparatus made in their image, we want to prepare the working class to take over society and make it fit for human habitation; hence we have no need of the birch, power-mad prefects or psychological abuse (though perhaps someone ought to tell the SWP leadership).
Such preparation means finding ways for the working class to lead broader society now. This was basic Marxism in the days of Marx down to Kautsky and Lenin at least: we are fighting for hegemony, which means we must have something to say to the ground-down petty bourgeois, or alienated state bureaucrats. By the same token, we ought to have something to say to public schoolboys other than ‘We hope you get eaten by a bear’.
Troublemaker’s unfortunate column, but also the gloating over Thatcher’s death, does not contribute anything to this. Indeed, it is actively counterproductive - instead of providing a positive lead, it encourages resentful slave morality. Cheap shots of this kind, inasmuch as they find an echo, act merely as cold comfort for those who do not expect their actual condition to get any better: the sneer of the oppressed creature.
And that is the second problem - the implied contempt for Troublemaker’s readership. The SWP fondly imagines its paper to be read attentively by militant workers. What view of militant workers is offered here? That they can be cajoled into action by the manipulation of their desire for vengeance. Put poetically, this is Walter Benjamin’s Bakuninist admonition of social democracy, which “made the working class forget both its hatred and spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.”6 Put less poetically, it reads: “Eton by bear?”
As such, it is of a piece with the less honourable, more dishonest parts of the SWP’s political practice - the cultivation of estuary English by middle class comrades, the pretence at ‘just’ being ‘Jane Doe from Tunbridge Wells PCS’ and so on: an artificial and utterly implausible aesthetic of workerism.
It rather reminds us, in fact, of boarding school culture - the working class should learn to hate outsiders; comrades with better backgrounds ought to hide such a shameful, embarrassing fact. Indeed, we can well imagine the Harrow rugby team wearing ‘Save the polar bears’ badges in Chapple’s honour - barring the masthead, there is nothing to distinguish the politics of Socialist Worker’s hostility to Horatio Chapple from the petty rivalries between elite schools.
That is not the working class political culture we want to build; nor the revolution we want to make either. Socialism is not revenge, but its abolition.
1. Socialist Worker July 8.
2. The Independent July 10.
3. The Guardian July 14.
5. Quoted in N Cohen, ‘The epistles of Saint Paul’ The Observer July 25 2004.
6. ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’ in H Zorn (translator) Illuminations London 1999, p252.