A people’s history of heckling
Attempts to ban heckling are designed to disempower the weak, argues Paul Demarty
At the Labour Representation Committee conference of 2012, the Trotskyist group, Socialist Fight, brought a motion in solidarity with the South African miners, who that summer had been massacred in substantial numbers by the state. It is the sort of motion which is usually uncontroversial, but - thanks to historic links between the African National Congress and the western left - turned out to be unacceptable to some comrades.
Gerry Downing of SF, understandably, found it unbelievable that LRC members were prepared to speak against the motion - so he heckled them loudly from the back of the room. At this point, he later told me, he was approached by a senior LRC member, who hissed at him to stop. “Or what?” he asked. “Or I’ll vomit on you,” she replied. Thus, for possibly the only time in his long career in the movement, comrade Downing was rendered speechless.
That is an unusually strong reaction to a heckle, to be sure; but it is unfortunately typical of the left today. The LRC very nearly proposed a restrictive code of conduct in recent weeks, in response to the scourge of heckling (among other things).
In Left Unity, the safe spaces crowd hate such behaviour; in response to what was barely even a murmur from the CPGB’s Mike Macnair, Susan Pashkoff used up about a quarter of her speaking time in an LU conference debate for an anti-heckling diatribe, and left the rostrum yelling, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” - a thoroughly dignified and proportionate response. Fellow safe spaces advocate Terry Conway found it “extraordinary” that Communist Platform members argued “that heckling in meetings was completely acceptable and that people just had to get used to it”.1
In fact, what is extraordinary is that any Marxist - or, indeed, any self-respecting democrat - should object to heckling at all. To demonstrate the ridiculousness of this, we need only look at the history of the heckle.
The first heckler in the western literary tradition was Thersites, a minor character in Homer’s Iliad. As the Trojan war dragged on, Agamemnon gathered the Greeks together to rally them to the cause. Thersites - an ordinary, if exceptionally ugly, soldier - “chattered on … wherewith to strive against the chiefs idly and in no good order”. He accused Agamemnon of cowardice and greed. Odysseus sprang up and beat him half to death with Agamemnon’s staff, until “a big tear fell from him, and a bloody weal stood up from his back”2 (compared to that, I’ll take the vomit).
Thersites is a perfect, prescient image of the heckler - his words are addressed from the perspective of the downtrodden, against the powerful. He speaks perhaps for many in the Greek army - and so he has to be soundly beaten by the noble hero, pour encourager les autres. Throughout modern history, he has reappeared - as a fool in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, an archetype in Hegel’s lectures on history and Nietzsche’s aphorisms, a bizarre appearance in Goethe’s Faust and another in a poem of Heiner Müller’s.
The verb ‘to heckle’ entered the English language as a term in flax manufacture - it meant to extract fibres from flax stems via a combing mechanism. The flax industry was concentrated in Scotland, particularly around Dundee; among a furiously radical working class, the ‘hecklers’ had (for one reason or another) the most fire-breathing reputation. One heckler would typically read the day’s news to the others, who would loudly denounce the lies and manoeuvres of the ruling classes. Thus the word acquired its modern meaning.
Heckling is thus plainly a weapon of the powerless: Thersites is punished by his betters for speaking out of turn, and the flax-combers of Dundee speak for themselves. These are our kind of people. There are limits to the power of the heckle, of course; Hegel remarks that the tragedy of Thersites lies in the fact that his words cannot be practical, cannot change the course of anything. The etymology of the English word is part of a longer history - of the transformation of the working class from a slave class, a class with nothing, into the powerful, conscious agent it had undoubtedly become later in the 19th century. Pointing out lies does not disturb their power in the large; it merely arms a few people to fight them a little more effectively.
Heckling, moreover, is not always an act of hostility. Trudging through a prepared speech, Martin Luther King junior was interrupted by Mahalia Jackson - “Tell them about the dream!” - and proceeded to extemporise his most anthologised words. In more mundane fashion, a heckle can provide a timely factual correction, can strengthen a speaker’s point, as well as knock it down.
Who would object to heckling? Odysseus, plainly (we can very well imagine the grumbles of Dundee industrialists too). In modern Britain, we have the sterling example of the main bourgeois political parties, in their depoliticised, degutted present state - from being (at least in Labour’s case) rowdy affairs in the last century, conferences have become snoozeworthy: now all ‘problem’ elements are barred at the door. Nobody heckles Ed Miliband - his speeches play out in front of placemen and the press.
What all these three have in common is bullshit - defined by Harry G Frankfurt as the set of utterances to whose truth-value the speaker is indifferent.3 Bullshit may be true, or it may be false; it does not matter. What matters is posturing and manipulation. As such, it is all about theatrics: and nothing disturbs those theatrics like a well-timed heckle.
Thersites objects most strenuously to the idea that the 10-year war is about anything grander than plunder. The Dundee hecklers, in combing through the output of the yellow press, decried the exalted self-image of capitalist society. Ed Miliband (and the rest of them) do not wish their Westminster-crafted plastic platitudes to be exposed to serious scrutiny (the ravings of the Daily Mail about Len McCluskey pulling the strings are, naturally, not serious).
The deracination of bourgeois politics has had one positive side effect, from our point of view: it is now very straightforward to convince people that the Milibands and Camerons of this world are trying to pull a fast one. While bourgeois politics, in societies with a large franchise, has always been a grubby affair - an attempt to convince members of subordinate classes that their interests coincide with layers of their exploiters - the higher tempo of social struggles in the last century meant that bourgeois party leaders at least had to try. Now, they barely do; and so anybody who wants to challenge this establishment has only to point in the vague direction of Westminster in order to get a hearing.
The most successful ‘heckler’ in Britain today, from this point of view, is Nigel Farage. Yet his ‘outsider’ status, in this regard, is false. This is not so much because (as Owen Jones and the like point out) that he went to a top school and worked in the City, but because on closer examination the UK Independence Party operates in exactly the same way. Farage fits unreconstructed Tory-right bigots in the same tent as libertarian Eurosceptics, and believes he still has room for Russell Brand. But he can only do this by - according to recent news - stitching up selections and repressing the oddballs in his rank and file. Farage hates hecklers too.
For the left, this comes down to what Hal Draper called, in a sharp pamphlet, “the two souls of socialism” - socialism as something beneficently gifted to the downtrodden by the enlightened, or socialism as the act of the downtrodden themselves.4 This is, unfortunately, a dividing line in Left Unity as well.
Those who look to the European left parties are, in the final analysis, on the wrong side: Die Linke wants coalitions with the Social Democrats, and is getting them; Syriza’s fancy postmodern Gramscian jargon boils down ultimately to Blairite triangulation in pursuit of government. Both these projects are manipulative. The leading clique of Podemos, meanwhile, has just - according to early reports - stitched up its entire leadership.5
So, ultimately, is Left Unity’s busted safe spaces policy. Presented as a means of amplifying the voices of the oppressed, its methods suggest the exact opposite: reducing oppressed groups to the position of ‘children and vulnerable adults’ in the care of some local authority. This vision, taken as a whole, is precisely about a benevolent authority taking care of things in the place of the powerless.
We take the opposite view: our project is for the self-emancipation of the masses. The oppressed cannot be held in the position of wretched objects of charity; they must be empowered. They must become capable political leaders in their own right. As part of that, they must be permitted - even encouraged - to correct, to jeer, to applaud and to interrupt: to heckle.
Draper concludes his pamphlet with a simple question: whose side are you on? Indeed: the side of Thersites or Agamemnon, flax-weavers or mill-owners, Walter Wolfgang or the goons who bundled him out of Labour conference? We have made our choice. If Socialist Resistance’s Terry Conway wants to find herself on the right side, she will, indeed, just have to get used to being heckled.
3. HG Frankfurt On bullshit Princeton 2005.
5. Translations can be found here: http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/podemos-a-monolithic-vertical-and-hierarchical-party.