Dacre and the ‘posh tankies’
Why is the Mail so shocked to discover aristocratic Marxists? Paul Demarty investigates
Readers of the Morning Star on March 7 could be forgiven for skipping over a short report of a meeting of the North London branch of the Communist Party of Britain, which hosted a discussion with Michael Calderbank of Brent Momentum (and the Labour Representation Committee, though the Star did not mention it) “how communists can work with Labour for a socialist future”.1
It was a pretty banal report of a “thought-provoking and friendly discussion”, where Susan Michie of the CPB cited “Labour Party activists and trade unionists who recognise the need for the Communist Party for its analysis, building of broad alliances, internationalism and organisational abilities”, and comrade Calderbank waffled on about Grenfell, neoliberalism, etc.
This report, of course, should be read alongside another account of the same meeting in, er, Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail. Here we learn that comrade Michie - or, as Mail hack Guy Adams styles her, “Susan Fiona Dorinthea Michie” - “is the granddaughter of Henry McLaren, the second Baron Aberconway, an Eton-educated Edwardian industrialist and Liberal MP”.2 I am sure there are, among the regulars of Sebastian Shakespeare’s society column, those who will bristle at the contention that this makes her “blue-blooded”, but it certainly authorises a sneer at her opening phrase, “we, the working class ... “ (comrade Michie’s “day job”, we are resentfully told later, is that of “a university academic”).
She is merely the first of a roll call that allegedly adds up to “the latest sign the toffs are taking over the hard left” - her ex-husband, and ex-CPBer, Andrew Murray, “the son of a stockbroker, Peter Drummond-Murray of Mastrick, and a descendant of the Earl of Perth, [grandson] of a Conservative MP ... educated at the £32,000-a-year Worth School, set in 500 acres of Sussex countryside”. Other “privately wealthy Marxists” surrounding Jeremy Corbyn include “spokesman Seumas Milne (the Winchester and Oxford-educated son of a former BBC director-general), press aide James Schneider (a financier’s son, also Winchester and Oxford, who grew up in a £7million mansion in Primrose Hill) and Jon Lansman, an alumnus of fee-paying Highgate School, whose seriously well-off father was a property entrepreneur and Conservative councillor, and who now runs the powerful pressure group, Momentum”.
The scare story is that Michie’s speech marks a fundamentally new departure for the CPB. “After years consigned to the extremist fringe of politics,” the CPB “now see themselves as being on the brink of power. All this can be seen as a classic example of ‘entryism’,” Adams writes. “During the 1980s, the Militant Tendency sought to take over Liverpool’s [sic!] Labour Party in this fashion. Now the communists appear to be up to something similar, but on a national level.”
It’s a shocking conspiracy - except, of course, it isn’t. Adams seems to know a great deal less about the “hard left” that scares him so much than he does about the acreage of its grandfather’s country piles. Militant’s ambitions certainly extended beyond Liverpool, which Adams might have known was marked out as the place where it succeeded in “taking over” the Labour Party. The CPB, meanwhile, may now be suspending its tokenistic electoral participation, but proclaims in its programme, Britain’s road to socialism:
For as long as many of the biggest trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, the potential exists to wage a broad-based fight to reclaim the party for the labour movement and leftwing policies. Certainly, this is the most direct route to ensuring the continued existence of a mass party of labour in Britain, and is an objective that every non-sectarian socialist and communist should support.3
Similar encomia to shifting Labour leftward populate previous editions of the BRS, going back to the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and ultimately to 1951. The idea that this is new, or even newer than Militant, is ridiculous.
There is a certain logic to the way that absolute factual rigour on the society column front - the ancestry, the houses and the acres of countryside - is combined, in the Mail’s coverage, with almost total ignorance of the actual political histories of the people it traduces. This is, in the end, a matter of class-consciousness.
In his seminal, but flawed study of the subject, History and class-consciousness, Georg Lukács introduces the idea of “imputed class-consciousness” - that is, the self-perception of a social class as it would be if the members of that class were fully and immediately aware of their historic interests. With the Mail, we have a totally inverted version of this, whereby the paper imputes to itself, by a violent act of will, the total world outlook of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie. It is a warped lens indeed.
How does society look when viewed through it? There are three basic classes: the elite, ordinary people, and the mob. Ordinary people are ordinary people - people like you and me, whoever you are, and whoever I am. We know them when we see them. They work for a living. They fight for their country. They are, in short, Thatcher’s “individuals and their families”, who exist instead of society.
The elite stand opposed to them - not primarily on a directly economic basis, but rather as monopolists of a body of suspect knowledge. What unites the Brussels Eurocrat with the sanctimonious left student, with the loony leftie councillor, with the posh tankie lecturer is that they are intellectuals in the pejorative sense - for them, common sense will always be subordinated to some ivory-tower ideals, be they naive utopianism or bureaucratic. For the elite, things are abstract rather than concrete: ends justify means, and the failure to achieve the ends merely demands more of the means.
The mob, meanwhile, is the sub-ordinary person, the greedy and feckless who obtain by intimidation or deceit a reward at the cost of the ordinary people. The mob might be a huge family living the life of Riley on benefits. It might be a trade union, holding somebody or other to ransom.
In this world view, then, there is absolutely nothing surprising about a posh communist. The important thing about communists is not that they are part of a mob, but that they are part of the elite - the class of people comprised of those who know what is best for the rest of us. To have such an embarrassment of heraldry to your name, and yet claim descendancy primarily from Lenin, is merely the ‘bad’ version of the charitable patrician outlook of the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey - a defect in worldliness. There is certainly no reason to suppose that communism would be more popular among ordinary people or the mob, although the perfidious elite may, of course, rouse the mob to fight “a class war”.
The difficult thing to grasp is rather that there might be no conspiracy - that the CPB might be basically up to exactly what it says it is in its programme. Hence the need to bowdlerise the history of this political trend, in order to invent subterfuge where there basically is none. This is not to say that the CPB never lies - of course it does, about the Marikana massacre or the achievements of Chinese ‘socialism’ or whatever else you like. It is merely that there is no smoking gun on the Labour front.
For the left, of course, the thing remains to be explained. Guy Adams seems to be astonished to discover posh communists, but surely some old hand at the Mail could point him in the direction of the Wikipedia page for Kim Philby. The history of the left - communist, anarchist, social democratic and whatever else you like - is full of defectors from the other side, among whom we might name Fred Engels (capitalist), Mikhail Bakunin (minor nobility), Piotr Kropotkin (prince), Vladimir Lenin (son of an ennobled middle class family), George Orwell (Eton) ...
The Marxist tradition focuses on the revolutionary potential of the working class; but all sorts of people might ultimately be attracted to it. In the current connection, we must highlight that the preparation of new generations of the ruling class is not without its cost to the very humanity of the actual-existing individuals that comprise these new generations. Callousness and pack mentality are selective traits.
As an exemplary case, there is the British public school, recently given a searing treatment by old Etonian Alex Renton in his book Stiff upper lip; the way he tells it, systematic tolerance of physical and sexual abuse in the elite schools is “a feature, not a bug”: that is, it all contributes to the end result - a hardened, fanatically loyal servant of the empire.4 There are, quite inevitably, people on whom the treatment does not work, and in whom the brutal rituals of school engender empathy with others among the ground-down masses. So it is for the million other means to encourage viciousness among the sons and daughters of privilege: solidarity might be the paradoxical result, in one case or another.
But that, of course, is the one word the honest Mail journalist will never understand - solidarity. Far better to spin spook stories about posh Stalinists running the Labour Party.
4. A Renton Stiff upper lip London 2017.