Culture fit for a ruling class

Mark Fischer describes the experience of addressing the students of Britain’s most renowned public school

I was told by members of the George Orwell Politics Society in Eton college that they had read some criticism on the web of the last Marxist who came to speak to them. Alan Woods of Socialist Appeal was apparently taken to task by some left lard-heads for ‘consorting with the enemy’ after he spoke to these scions of the British establishment.

Indeed, I have had some Trot friends and acquaintances come over a little sniffy when I have mentioned that on October 13 - at the invitation of the aforementioned society - I spoke to a packed house in Eton college on the subject of ‘Why you should be a Marxist’.

I will not go into the details of what I actually said - other than the fact that I assured the audience that the whole point of Marxists’ identification with the working class was its universalism. We are not out for petty class revenge on members of the present-day ruling elite, still less their children. The Marxist project was one for general human liberation - including, I assured him, for the likes of Lord William Waldegrave of North Hill (former army major, government minister under Margaret Thatcher and now provost of Eton), who sat in the front row and whom I spotted once or twice smiling and nodding at something I had said. Disconcertingly.

I must say something about the culture I encountered in this august institution. In a conversation with Mr Waldegrave before the meeting, he commented that one of the joys of the job was to be daily surrounded by these bright, charming and inquisitive young people - a sentiment I could readily empathise with by the end of the evening. The question and answer session that followed my opening was one of the liveliest and most challenging I have faced for years. A small forest of hands went up when I had stopped speaking and, even at the post-discussion drinks, I had to field questions about the utopian socialists, classical English political economy and the labour theory of value, the nature of New Labour and so on. Frankly, I was knackered by the time I ran for the final train back to Waterloo.

However, I want to make a broader point about culture (and certainly broader than the punk workerism than leads some otherwise good comrades to think that Marxists should boycott opportunities to talk about communism to potential future members of the ruling elite). It is this. Comrades from around the country report that the Socialist Workers Party’s turn to rebuilding its dramatically depleted organisation has produced a corresponding rise in the hostility levels its members radiate towards others on the left. Its youth in particular are again being instilled with the notion that ‘Bolshevik’ hardness demands a refusal to engage with ideas of other Marxist trends in the movement, even to pretend that their members do not actually exist - as if we are invisible and inhabit a different physical universe.

The contrast could not be more stark, unfortunately. Whatever my own limitations as a speaker or politician, the ideas of Marx himself are the most trenchant, wide-ranging and inspiring critique of the very system many of these Eton lads are earmarked to be running one day. Their teachers and the college authorities want these young men to be au fait with that dangerously subversive alternative. So they allow a Marxist to speak to their charges and - more importantly - to direct them to the writings of Marx himself.

They try to inculcate a culture of a politically sophisticated ruling class, in other words. A class that is accustomed to thinking in terms of centuries and continents, a ruling layer that has an understanding (on some level, at least) of the alternatives to that rule.

Much of the left, on the other hand, are determined to inculcate narrowness in their members, a surly refusal to think and engage as an expression of organisational loyalty. Implicit in this is an attitude to these rank and file members and, beyond them, to the wider class itself. Contempt, to be specific. From their practice in the here and now, the leaderships of the sects clearly have no real vision of the working class as a politically erudite ruling class, able to master all questions of high politics and theory. Not a chance.

We have a long way to go, comrades.