Tuesday, 12 July 2016
In 1968 my home was invaded by the Hard Left. I was 24, alone, over 7 months pregnant, my daughter not quite three, and there was an angry and apparently irrational man barricaded into my flat with me.
It was the year of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in Grosvenor Square and Trafalgar Square. I had decided to drop out of my sociology course at the London School of Economics because I was out of my depth. I classified myself with some irony as a “Marxist” because in South Africa in 1966 it was possible to study “Marxism” at university but “Communists” were traitors. Early in 1968 I had been admitted to the Charing Cross Hospital because it was thought I might miscarry. Though I recovered, it wasn’t wise to go on a demonstration that might be violent. Instead my husband, Mike, a junior doctor and I volunteered for the LSE first aid post that was being organised to look after injured demonstrators. We were told to attend a meeting at a house somewhere in Hackney. The secrecy around this meeting was extraordinary. I kept looking around the meeting for the police informers and felt sure there must be police photographers outside. The atmosphere was extremely tense. Had I joined an illegal guerrilla group planning an attack on the British establishment? I have since wondered if it was it the headquarters of the Angry Brigade, who I then hadn’t heard of. 1968 was an uncertain time which felt not unlike Brexit Britain does today. Anything could happen – a world revolution – the end of capitalism – no more war? Was Corbyn around then too?
By May Mike was working nights and spending whole weeks at his hospital. I didn’t want to be alone with a small child, in case I went into labour. A flatmate was the answer. I asked around among my political acquaintances and someone suggested a young mixed race woman who also had a small child and had just been evicted from her flat. I’ll call her Sarah. We met and talked. She seemed unhappy and distressed which, under the circumstances, didn’t surprise me. Her landlord had booted her out without notice. She gave few details but I agreed that she could move in. I thought our kids might enjoy each other’s company.
Sarah was very touchy, quick to withdraw into her room, and very unsmiling. Before long she asked if her boyfriend could move in. I was surprised. No boyfriend had been mentioned and I didn’t see how she could have acquired a new one as she never left the flat, but I agreed. I’ll call the boyfriend Mark. He was Jewish like Mike, a small wiry man, but without charm.
Sarah and Mark’s relations with me deteriorated immediately without an apparent cause. Maybe I asked for the rent? I was disturbed to be told by Sarah that her boyfriend, Mark, was the same landlord who had kicked her out of their flat and that he had in turn been evicted from this flat by a south London council for non-payment of rent. Soon Sarah moved out in a rage. Her boyfriend stayed on. I arrived home one afternoon to find that he had locked himself into the bedroom that I had let to Sarah. He had a chamber-pot for peeing in and climbed in an out of the bedroom through the fanlight above the windows that he also kept locked. I was sick with stress and fear.
Mike had a night away from the hospital. Sarah’s room remained locked but seemed empty. In the middle of the night we heard someone break in and we called the police. An officer had a lengthy discussion with Mark through the bedroom fanlight. Before he left he said Mark apparently “knew” his rights as a squatter. He was very well briefed both legally and in left-wing politics.
“If I were you” one policeman said to Mike. “I would thump him. The man’s a coward.”
Thumping other men wasn’t Mike’s style, so we were at an impasse. Mike went back to work and I started getting anonymous heavy breathing phone calls, probably from Sarah, but still terrifying. It was a living nightmare. A phone call from the local council followed. The council officer said that Mark and Sarah claimed to have been made homeless unlawfully by me and were demanding to jump the housing queue.
“You must take them back,” he said. He was without sympathy. He didn’t want to help them one bit and he didn’t care about me and my child.
This hideous affair must have lasted only weeks. I was on the point of capitulating when Mark disappeared. It was as if he hadn’t existed. I didn’t see or hear him go but the phone calls also ceased. The council must have re-housed them. I never saw either Sarah or Mark again but I kept well away from the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Labour League after that.
Before I met them I had had an epiphany during the sit-ins at the LSE. I realised that what matters in politics is not whether you are left-wing or right-wing but whether you act with autonomy or comply with authority when making decisions about your life and your actions. An authoritarian is not the same as an authority. (Witness Michael Gove decrying experts.) Authoritarian personalities tend to fascism, bullying and blame in politics, while autonomous personalities are natural democrats who welcome debate and look for equitable solutions. I think, looking back, that Mark and Sarah were a troubled couple with personality problems in an abusive relationship. They belonged to the authoritarian hard left of the time. They would have been just as happily unhappy in any authoritarian cult or religion. As for me I became wary of any extreme organisation that puts obedience and deference above self-respect.
Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of Labour on the Twitter-fed surge of a new left-wing I have thought about Mark and Sarah. Describing a socialist as a Trotskyite was an insult back in 1968. As far as I could determine this was because Trotskyites remained wedded to a fundamentalist and pure socialism that would never sully itself with any of the compromises that are necessary to change society. They stuck to the god-given Marxist word of how and when capitalism would collapse and die and no changes in the existing world could alter the path prescribed by Leon. Is Momentum’s support for Corbyn a repeat of some of the fruitless efforts of 1968? Will a fundamentalist left finally split and kill off Labour and democratic socialists? I hope not.
Sarah and Mark may already be dead or simply incarcerated in a closed anarchist commune (which might be the same thing). Possibly they joined the 1980 Militants. Perhaps their ghosts fuel the hard left today, but I doubt it. Unable to work with other socialists, unable to cohabit with other human beings, they were socially dysfunctional. It seems that some few of Corbyn’s supporters may be the same.
If I was to take a poll among my friends about their views on Trident, on war, on benefits, on the NHS, on nationalisation I probably would find that they were as left-wing as Corbyn and as idealistic. What I would find, however, is that they would be pragmatic, realistic team-players with what is most essential for good politics – a sense of humour and a readiness to talk to and to listen to other points of view. Among the Twitter threats and insults heaped on people who do not support Corbyn are there any signs of a readiness for a debate that can take the left forward to a poll victory?
Among all this noise and confusion Jeremy Corbyn shines like the Virgin at her Assumption. I have seen this rapture before on the faces of the born-again into new life. It doesn’t last. Corbyn seems a man possessed by the belief that he is leading the very few faithful into a left-wing heaven. He is extremely naïve and innocent for a socialist. The rest of us know all about the friability of celebrity status. Cults are made to die and cult-leaders who fall from grace aren’t absolved. They go eventually but after causing the disintegration of their cause. They care little for those who they consider to have left the narrow path.