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.