Peter Hitchens’ Trotskyist Years

I suppose that I found the conversation between James Delingpole and Peter Hitchens as being as much illuminating of my own life as it was of theirs.

When I was at university, quite a few students were Trotskyites/Maoists or whatever. But I didn’t move in their circles. I didn’t know any of them. The only thing that we shared were the same cafes, at which they would arrive carrying books featuring the names of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and so on. My friends were the hippie pot-smokers and their girlfriends, and that was a separate conversational and also musical world. We didn’t read books about Marx. We played records, smoked pot, and talked for hours and hours and hours about nothing in particular. We were not revolutionaries. We weren’t even political. I for one never joined any political party. When the university’s senate house was occupied by protesters in 1968 (in emulation of similar protests in France), and out of curiosity we visited it to see what was happening, and listened to a few speeches, we came away deeply unimpressed. And so the far left remained a closed book to me, and in many ways always has been, and Peter Hitchens’ description of his passage through their ranks was highly illuminating (starts 24 minutes 40 seconds in):

JD: You were lucky enough to have had another training that you haven’t mentioned which is that you went through being a Trotskyist, is that right?
PH: I probably joined the international socialists – there must be some records somewhere, but I think MI5 records for this year have been destroyed – in the late summer or autumn of 1968, and I resigned at some point in 1975. and I wrote a letter of resignation – which I used to think that MI5 had a copy… – so that’s about seven years of up-and-down, straightforward, avowed Marxism-Leninism, with some time before as a sort of teenage multi-purpose revolutionary, and some time afterwards on a sort of Koestlerian fringe of being a former revolutionary trying to find a way into social democracy.
JD: How did it make sense? With hindsight, looking back at what you believed then…
PH: I needed a world view. I’d been brought up before the cultural revolution as a Christian. I’d been brought up as a patriot. And I saw in my very early teens, in fact before that, quite visible, I saw the society that I’d been brought up to take part in disintegrating before my eyes. I can just remember Suez. What I didn’t realise at the timewas what a blow that had been to my father who was a naval officer. Almost certainly it led to the premature end of his career, because after Suez the conventional armed forces pretty much got cut to pieces and he was a victim of that. He would have had many more years in uniform without it. All authority began to leak out. The old Leninist maxim: Take the bayonet, push. If you find steel, withdraw and try again somewhere else. If you find mush, keep pushing. As a troublesome teenager I found with almost all figures of authority I pushed and it was mush. They’d lost their confidence after Suez. And they lost it even more after Profumo. And these things came one on top of another First of all they were dishonest. And then they were comical. And probably the worst blow you can suffer as any kind of authority figure or structure is to become funny. And Profumo made them funny. And after that there wasn’t any… And so there I was with no world view left, brought up for a world that no longer existed, and I wanted to believe in something. And I found that revolutionary socialism was a very appealing and enjoyable substitute. It believed that its ends were good. It was not soppy. On the contrary It was as hard as nails.
JD: Like a religion.
PH: No. Much more like old-fashioned British patriotism. This is what we believe in, this is what we defend, and this is what we fight for, and if attacked we fight back. And we’re hard about it. And that appealed to me too. So less like religion. The only resemblance to religion was the world view, the view of the cosmos which it provided…. which was of a place where there was no God and therefore Man was free to do as he wished in a way that religion would never have permitted.
JD: A lot of the people I admire ideologically, people like Brendan O’Neill. You probably think he’s splitter or traitor…
PH: Brendan is also a former comrade, isn’t he?
JD: That’s what I mean. Brendan O’Neill, Claire Fox, Frank Furedi, all these Institute of Ideas people…
PH: They came from a very specific area of the Marxist-Leninist spectrum.
JD: They did. When I said that I rather envied you having this background, it seems to me to be like having been a Jesuit, you get trained in an intellectual discipline, a way of thinking, and that’s probably been of advantage to you since.
PH: It’s a huge benefit. Trouble is it means I run ahead of people. The analysis still works and gives me a huge advantage in assessing things. But the problem is that it makes me into a Cassandra. I see what’s going on, but I’m not believed. I say things which appear completely outrageous to people. So when I say that New Labour was a eurocommunist project, which it was, people just goggle and say what on earth are you talking about, New Labour was right wing, New Labour was Tory. And I say It Wasn’t! I recognise it. I point out to people this thing I think at one stage six members of Blair’s cabinet, including Blair himself, were undeclared former Marxist-Leninists who’d never explained or regretted their previous position. Six! Including the defence secretary and prime minister. And people call this a right wing government! And Blair’s own confession to Peter Hennessy on Radio 4 a few months ago that he joined a Marxist organisation when he was at university barely featured in the public prints, and the reason for this is that it doesn’t fit with the conventional wisdom that Blair was actually a Tory.
JD: That’s almost my favourite Hitchens’ trope
PH: Blair himself … I’m sure that Mrs Blair was always and remains a more intelligent and acute person than he ever was. But the fact is he was a university Trotskyist. And one has to ask how he then ended up in the Labour party. Because one thing we all had in common, the Trotskyists of the late 1960s and early 70s which he is now known to be one, is that we despised the Labour party above all things.
JD: Can you give me a precis of what you were striving for as a Trotskyite?
PH: Global utopia. We were against the idea of nation states and borders. We believed that they and almost all cultural restraints such as Christianity,[ JD: “the family, Church”] were restraints on the development of civilisation towards its utopian ideal, which was the perfect socialist society of equality, love, peace, justice and brotherhood, which of course would be surrounded by a sea of blood, owing to the means necessary to get there, but we genuinely believed we would get there. What I now know is that utopia is approached across a sea of blood, and you never arrive…
…You could only sustain these opinions … living on a grant in a plate glass campus, completely separated from the real world, meeting only other people with whom you agreed. As soon as I had to earn a living, live in a bedsit, deal with policeman, borough councillors, fireman, teachers, and people who ran flower shows, you couldn’t sustain it. And you also discovered how bizarre, and how unappealing to normal people and appealing to abnormal people, the idea was.

I think that the main lesson I drew from that was that the loss of empire – which perhaps only became manifest in the 1950s during the Suez crisis, when Eisenhower overruled France and Britain – had resulted in a profound loss of British self-confidence. Britain was no longer a great power. It was not something that actually affected me very much, because I wasn’t living in England much during the 1950s, but I always guessed that it probably had a very great impact on the British establishment. And Hitchens seems to have been very aware of this, as the son of a British naval officer.

Also, as Hitchens describes it, this loss of self-confidence and self-belief was what resulted in Hitchens needing a new world view, a new set of beliefs. Had the British empire not ended, and Hitchens’ father had remained a naval officer, there would have been no loss of self-confidence, and no need for a new worldview to replace the lost one, and Peter Hitchens would by now most likely have only just retired as Rear-Admiral Hitchens, and so would his brother Christopher, and Britannia would still be ruling the waves – instead of the US Navy. And what Hitchens calls “the cultural revolution” (which I think is what I just call the 60s) might never have happened, because in the UK at least, it was a consequence of the loss of self-confidence in the British establishment around that time.

I suppose that what I don’t understand is how people could get caught up in utopian ideas of one sort or other. But my friends during that time were as utopian as anyone, but they sought utopia with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll rather than Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, and went to India for their gurus rather than the Soviet Union. But I think they were both unsustainable ideologies, in their different ways, and they could perhaps both only be sustained while being students “living on grants in plate-glass campuses”, and these illusions would get swept away during any encounter with the real world outside the universities. All of which makes me think that a lot of the continuing problems we’re having with students could be resolved by simply closing down most of the universities, and thereby pricking the bubble of their illusions early, and maybe saving them an insupportable burden of debt.

P.S. The above transcript was of a passage 10 minutes long. I could read the transcript in 3½ minutes, maybe even less. And that’s the value of a transcript, I think: You can get through it much faster than you can by just listening.

About Frank Davis

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12 Responses to Peter Hitchens’ Trotskyist Years

  1. >And that’s the value of a transcript, I think: You can get through it much faster than you can by just listening.

    Agreed.

  2. RdM says:

    JD: Can you give me a precis of what you were striving for as a Trotskyite?
    PH: Global utopia. We were against the idea of nation states and borders. We believed that they and almost all cultural restraints such as Christianity,[ JD: “the family, Church”] were restraints on the development of civilisation towards its utopian ideal, which was the perfect socialist society of equality, love, peace, justice and brotherhood, which of course would be surrounded by a sea of blood, owing to the means necessary to get there, but we genuinely believed we would get there. What I now know is that utopia is approached across a sea of blood, and you never arrive…

    It just reminds me once again of
    https://www.crossroad.to/heaven/Excerpts/books/revolution/socialist-phenomenon/foreword.htm
    and the full book linked therein at the very end.

    But I’m suspicious…
    Godber reputedly ‘relinquished’ his Communist ideology too after some outrage, I forget what, and for PH the ‘sea of blood’ was apparently too much, so now disavowed…

    I’m not convinced that they were weren’t convinced co-opted or coerced into switching tracks and using their influence to obtain their utopia by different means.

    New, more modern means… of perhaps more public influence than the former seas of blood.

  3. RdM says:

    OT:

    I just tuned in late on live TV to the second part of this documentary on the Greek financial crisis, I haven’t yet seen the first part, but both re online here:

    https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2015/07/agora-democracy-market-150701120718536.html

    Obviously a bit old, nearly three years; they’re running a repeat, but still touching and informative.
    It took four years to make… so if not seen before may be worth a look.

  4. Rose says:

    The old communists of New Labour
    2002

    “The black arts of Millbank seem to owe much to the arcane mechanics of the old Kremlin. Will it all change in the party’s new HQ?
    This week the Labour Party embarks on an agonising organisational experiment. Charles Clarke, the party chairman, is insistent that the move out of the Millbank HQ to cheaper and more modest offices in Old Queen Street is very much more than a mere change of address.”

    “The influence of the Communist Party on New Labour has been neglected. One day it will be an important subject for a dissertation or PhD by a university graduate. It is not merely the case that a significant number of figures in the Government machine – John Reid, David Triesman, Peter Mandelson, Charlie Whelan to name a few – belonged to the Communist Party of Great Britain in all its King Street grandeur.

    Many others – Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn among them – were connected in one way or another with the obscure sub-Marxist organisations that abounded in the 1970s, doing their best to tear down capitalism. Even those, like Jack Straw, who had no Marxist sympathies at all, were obliged to come to terms with communist methods and adversaries in the shadowy internecine struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. It is these methods – as opposed to the now despised Marxist dogma about ownership of the means of production – that have endured to influence the Blair Government. Millbank admittedly borrowed its technology – rebuttal units, the Excalibur computer etc – from the United States. But the obsessive secrecy, centralisation and intolerance of dissent which were such overwhelming characteristics of the Millbank operation reek of the CPGB.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/aug/25/labour.tonyblair

    How Labour used its election troops to fake popular support
    2005

    “In America, they call it ‘astroturfing’: the faking of grassroots support for a politician or a product whose popularity is on the slide.
    Now it emerges that a tactic invented by US pharmaceutical firms to promote drugs – and promptly adopted by the Republicans to shore up George Bush after 9/11 – was imported to Britain to help get Tony Blair re-elected.

    A documentary to be screened on Channel 4 tomorrow, filmed by an undercover journalist who got a job in Labour’s war room, reveals how party members and supporters were systematically used to create the impression of ‘real people’ passionately backing the government.

    Model letters were drafted for them to ‘write’ to local papers, as if they had been spontaneously roused to complain about Michael Howard’s tactics – while party staff were drafted in to represent ‘local people’ whom Tony Blair could meet on campaign visits. ‘Spontaneous’ demonstrations against rival politicians were also organised, with activists instructed to use handwritten homemade-looking placards.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/may/22/uk.election2005

    I was of the belief that what one party broke, the other one fixed, until I experienced New Labour.
    I found the explanation for what happened to us much too late, but it’s interesting non the less.

  5. sackersonwp says:

    Minor point but I agree about reading vs listening, I won’t do podcasts.

  6. garyk30 says:

    Do these people never study History.
    The perfect society of equality, justice, and love has been a silly dream for over 4,000 years.

    Urukagina, who usurped power as “lugal of Lagash” about 2400 B.C., promulgated so many reforms in the interest of the oppressed common people that he has been called the first social reformer in history.
    Forward a couple of thousand years and we have Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle haggling over the same dream.

    Now, another couple of thousand years on, we have the social justice warriors telling us that they have the answer to these age old problems.

    Beneath a thin layer of civility, mankind has been and always will be little better than feral animals.

    Wishes and dreams can not change mankind’s basic nature.
    There will always be those that kill, rape, and torture for the sheer pleasure it gives them.

    There will always be those that prefer to steal from others rather than work for what they want.

    There will always be those, about 2% of the population, that do not have the brain power to function in society and are no better than dumb animals.

    Thousands of years of history have shown the above to be true.

  7. Philip Neal says:

    I was struck by the bit about Suez too. The EU is so often a substitute empire for people, like Tony Blair, who one could imagine as colonial governors in a past generation. I mean the whole combination of high mindedness and low greed, doing good and doing very well out of it too.

  8. waltc says:

    The “cultural revolution” of the 60s took place here, too, and we hadn’t lost our empire. And a similar cultural revolution happened in the 1920s when your country and mine had seemingly won a war (but lost a generation). I can find no encompassing theory except a widespread sense of generational disillusionment.

    Meanwhile, this phrase of Lenin’s seems to sum up the success of the anti’s: ” Take the bayonet, push. If you find steel, withdraw and try again somewhere else. If you find mush, keep pushing. ….I I pushed and it was mush. “

    • Frank Davis says:

      The “cultural revolution” of the 60s took place here, too,

      But was it the same cultural revolution? There were perhaps different forces in play. In Britain it was very much a musical revolution, with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other groups, many of whom went on to conquer America, and set off the same musical revolution there, but with an American flavour.

      But the American cultural revolution, at around about the same time, seemed to be closely connected to the Vietnam war, and the protests against it. That war didn’t affect us Brits. We didn’t have any skin in the game.

      There are also other differences, like the US Civil Rights movement, which was historically rooted in slavery, which was pretty much unknown in Britain, although there were plenty of slave-owning British families (they just didn’t have British slaves).

      The thing I learned from Hitchens was that the impact of the end of empire on the British establishment was enormous. Lots of people lost their raison d’etre. Hitchens himself (and his brother as well) was a product of that (in ways that I was not, because I was insulated from it by not being in Britain during most of the 50s and not being part of a military family like Hitchens). And I think that the new confidence of working class kids like the Beatles was a reflection or response to the loss of confidence of the political establishment.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Meanwhile, this phrase of Lenin’s seems to sum up the success of the anti’s: ” Take the bayonet, push. If you find steel, withdraw and try again somewhere else. If you find mush, keep pushing.

      Perhaps that’s because the antis and the Trotskyites are the same people? Sir Richard Doll was a communist, and so was George Godber. The erstwhile friend of mine who was working in Smoking Cessation moved in left wing circles. They’re conducting a cultural war on absolutely everything. It’s a cultural demolition project. Where they make progress, they go further. Where they meet resistance, they step back.

      • Rose says:

        Don’t forget Horace Joules of the Socialist Medical Association.

        TOBACCO AND SMOKING.
        By HORACE JOULES, M.D., F.R.C.P.. Central Middlesex Hospital.
        DEATH RATE FROM LUNG CANCER. AND CONSUMPTION OF CIGARETTES AND ALL TOBACCO in ENGLAND AND WALES 1900 – 1950
        http://pmj.bmj.com/content/postgradmedj/32/367/226.full.pdf

        Interestingly, his graph showing the correlation between tobacco and lung cancer neatly pinpoints the start of the rise in deaths as being just after WW1 when troops were exposed to Mustard gas by both sides.
        It was found that if you survived the gas attack, chronic bronchitis followed by lung cancer in later life was often the result.

        Horace Joules

        “Horace Joules graduated in 1925 from Middlesex Hospital, proceeding to his London MD with gold medal in 1928. After an appointment at Selly Oak Hospital in 1929, he came to the Central Middlesex in 1935 and for many years was its medical director.

        The Times described him as one of the stormy petrels of the early days of the National Health Service. ‘His pen and his voice, both of which he could use with facility and abrasiveness all too often did him and his cause a disservice.’ Those who knew him better and worked with him were more generous in their appreciation. There was no doubt that he was a fighter. If he saw anything he considered wrong, either in the abuse of power or of vested interests he considered it a personal challenge. Frustration often made him angry but never led to despair. But fierce battle in committee never led to personal antagonism or rancour; many who disagreed with him publicly came to appreciate his warmth and friendship in private.”

        “Following Doll and Hill’s work in 1952 he campaigned strongly against cigarette smoking. He had been a heavy smoker for 30 years but managed to break his addiction. In the Lancet he wrote, ‘Cancer of the lung continues to cause more and more deaths. It is in the approach to this grave national problem that the Ministry of Health has manifested its weakest aspect. We are witnessing an epidemic form of cancer which has been unknown in human society before. Unless trends are modified a million people in England and Wales will die of this cancer before the end of the century.’
        http://munksroll.rcplondon.ac.uk/Biography/Details/6826

        “This paper locates the political impact of Bernie Ecclestone’s controversial donation to the Labour Party, just before its election to government in 1997, in a recurrent concern among British socialists about the relationship between smoking, health, and the just society. It does so by turning to an earlier episode in the history of British socialism, specifically to Horace Joules’ political agitation from 1951 onward, within the Socialist Medical Association, advisory committees to the Ministry of Health, and the British popular and medical press, for government action against smoking.”
        https: //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11697355

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