The Democritisation of Everything
My name is Andy and I am a communist. As the AA mantra says, you have to know your condition before you can do anything about it. It is not that political belief is an illness (although many of our political leaders may make us nauseous). But it can certainly become a habit of imagination, a condition of thinking. As Adrian Mitchell used to say, my heart is still on the left. The alcoholic who has not had a drink for twenty years is still an alcoholic. It is twenty years since I held a Party card, but I cannot pretend that I am not still a communist. I even have an occasionally recurring dream in which the Party still exists. How sad is that? Well, not quite as sad as the realisation that the human dream of economic, political and cultural democracy was defeated in our lifetimes, on our watch. After the unification of Germany, somebody wrote on the monument to Marx and Engels in Berlin, 'we'll do better next time.' The problem is that it doesn't look like there is going to be a next time.
And yet I still cannot believe that there are not better ways of organising society than our present arrangements. After a quarter of a million years on this little planet, we ought to be able to look after ourselves and each other (and the planet) a bit better. There is an early Iain M. Banks science-fiction story in which the Culture - a technologically sophisticated and egalitarian civilisation - visit Earth. The Culture emissaries are appalled to find a humanoid species which has discovered nuclear power and space-travel so quickly, but which is still mired in violent and primitive ideas of religion, empire, class and private property. Their first instinct is to destroy the infection before it spreads:
'When they are not actually slaughtering each other they're inventing ingenious new ways to massacre each other in the future, and when they're not doing that they're committing speciescide, from the Amazon to Borneo... or filling the seas with shit, or the air, or the land... I wanted to hit the place with a programme Lev Davidovitch would have been proud of. I wanted to see the junta generals fill their pants when they realised that the future is - in Earth terms - bright, bright red.'
The twentieth-century Communist tradition represented the best attempt so far to make the earth a little bit 'redder'. It also committed the most appalling crimes in trying to do so. We have to know the worst before we can imagine the best. And for anyone on the Left, especially the ex-Communist or post-Communist Left, we have to begin by acknowledging our contribution to the worst. To describe yourself as a communist these days sounds like a wilful admission of madness or badness, especially now that, in Europe at least, the equation of Communism with Fascism is an intellectual commonplace. Anyway, most people under thirty don't know what the word means, beyond a vague idea that it was A Very Bad Thing, involving cold temperatures, walls and barbed wire.
I finally joined the Party in 1983, after several years of eager fellow-travelling. In retrospect it was a decision waiting to happen. I was born in 1956 (between the Kruschev Speech and the invasion of Hungary) in Handforth, Cheshire, now a part of Greater Manchester. My Dad was a radio-electronics engineer who worked on the Blue Streak guided missile system, later in computers. My Mum worked as a secretary in a local comprehensive school. They read the Daily Telegraph and the Methodist Recorder. I cannot remember a single political conversation in my childhood (my parents even refused to say how they voted). But I do remember a lot of hostility to the idea of politics. My Dad hated trades unions. I remember him growling when Mick McGahey and Hugh Scanlon were on Any Questions. He once tore-up a copy of Private Eye I had left lying around.
The strongest intellectual influence on my childhood was the Methodist chapel to which we were taken every Sunday. My Dad played the organ; my Mum sang in the choir. By the time I was seventeen I was teaching in Sunday-school. Although I left that world behind a very long time ago, my thinking is unavoidably shaped by that part of the Puritan moral vocabulary which requires us to bear witness, to testify on behalf of the speechless against the Pharisees, the powerful, the hypocrites and the liars. When I was a boy, Christ's denunciation of the moneylenders in the temple never failed to excite me. And the Nonconformist churches were miles ahead of the rest of British society in thinking about the Third World, the environment and the politics of under-development. My imagination is still patterned by the Puritan language of English Nonconformity - Manichean, antinomian and millenarian. The blurb on the back of my first book of poems, Nowhere Special, described it as being located somewhere 'between pessimism of the intellect and the chiliasm of despair' (or for those who recognised the quotations, between Gramsci and Edward Thompson). And of course all those years of standing in chapel and Sunday-school with a hymn book in my hand gave me an over-developed sense of rhythm, rhyme and stanza-form, of the power of metrical expectation and of shared symbolic language. The first poem I ever had published - at the age of eleven in the local newspaper - was a solemn little acrostic about the war in Biafra ('B for Biafra where there's bloodshed everywhere / I for the ignorance of people who don't care...').
I went to the local Grammar School, where of course we were given Animal Farm to read at the age of eleven (the teacher had to tell us about the Russian Revolution so we would understand the allegory). Later we were expected to read Lord of the Flies. If there was a revolution in the 1960s, nobody told us. English O Level left me completely cold. At the same time, however, we were given some Catullus to translate in Latin. I had never read anything like it. Toxic stuff to give a sixteen year-old. It was a real revelation, and the point at which I think I knew I wanted to write poetry. Especially when I realised how much my Dad hated it.
An English degree taught me a lot about reading poetry (one of my tutors was the critic and poet John Lucas), but not much about writing it; even less about the relationship between poetry and politics (I remember a visiting US academic arguing that Thomas More's Utopia was an anti-Communist satire). Not that there was much politics at Nottingham University in the late 1970s. In my first week I went to hear Tariq Ali speak at an IMG meeting on the campus. I arrived early, expecting to find an audience of hundreds; of course there were less than a dozen people there. Student politics at Nottingham seemed to be limited to the annual attempt by the Conservatives to persuade the union to leave the NUS. They were not successful. Nor was the campus Maoist who once stood for union president on a promise to close all the union bars. Politics seemed like a joke.
The impact of Thatcher changed all that. By 1979 it was impossible to avoid 'politics'. The great set piece conflicts of the early Thatcher years - unemployment, cruise missiles, the Falklands War, the miners' strike, South Africa, Nicaragua - naturally appealed to my dualistic imagination. The battle lines could hardly have been clearer. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of joining the Labour Party, then fatally preoccupied with its own internal battles.
I first came across the CP around 1980, while working as a part-time tutor at Nottingham University's adult education centre on Shakespeare Street. There was often a copy of the Morning Star to be found there. Compared to the ultra-left sects who somehow managed to be simultaneously ridiculous, unpleasant and dull, and a Labour Party that never actually did anything, the range and seriousness of the CP's political, intellectual and international reach was compelling. I attended public meetings in the city organised by the CP. I ran a half-marathon to raise money for the Star. I attended the last Communist University of London. My first book reviews were published in Labour Monthly and the Star. My first published poem appeared in Artery. It was only a matter of time before I joined the Party.
The day that the USA invaded Grenada, Dennis Healy and Geoffrey Howe were wheeled onto The World at One to justify the invasion as a choice between 'Democracy and Communism'. Well, if Reagan and Thatcher represented Democracy and Maurice Bishop represented Communism, I knew which side I was on. I resigned from the Labour Party and applied to join the CP that day.
I had just moved to Teesside in order to take up a teaching job at Leeds University's adult education centre in Middlesbrough, teaching and organising evening courses, week-end schools and summer schools in Literature and Creative Writing. It was my first full-time job. I had also just become a dad. New job, new town, new baby, new political party. What could possibly go wrong?
All the histories of the CP's last years are predicated on an idea of moribund districts, paper branches and rapidly exiting members, as the background to a political drama taking place elsewhere. And yet in its last decade, the Party was actually growing in membership and activity on Teesside. The Northern District may have been paralysed for several years by the growing divisions in the Party, but the Middlesbrough branch was relatively untouched by these arguments. The small neighbouring Stockton branch was implacably opposed to the direction of the Party, but - apart from an annual Morning Star bazaar - they never engaged in any public activity. After the internalised political life of the Labour Party, Communist Party meetings were a complete revelation. The first meeting I attended was a discussion of George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first responsibility I was given was to help organise a money-raising social featuring Sankomota, a band from Lesotho, for the Roads to Freedom sponsored bike-ride.
The Middlesbrough Branch of the Party was traditionally a large and overwhelmingly working-class branch, with a distinguished record of local campaigns and public agitations, influential in the shipbuilding, steel, railway and local government trade unions. In the 1920s, the Party had led the NUWM in a bitterly fought struggle to hold public meetings at Stockton Cross. In the 1930s, Communists led the campaign against the BUF on Teesside. In 1937, the Party successfully persuaded Middlesbrough dockers not to load the SS Haruna Maru with pig-iron bound for Japan, the first of a series of industrial actions in British ports taken in protest at the Japanese war-effort in Manchuria. A number of Teesside Party members fought in Spain, most notably Dave Goodman, Dave Marshall, Tommy Chilvers, Jim Worton and John Longstaff. Tommy Chilvers later engraved the memorial plaque to the Teesside International Brigaders now hanging in Middlesbrough Town Hall.
Prominent local Party members had included George Short, who had trained at the Lenin School in Moscow in the early 1930s; John McDonald, who used a Union Jack as his doormat; the Unity Theatre, RSC and Coronation Street actress Anne Dyson; Maurice Sutherland (later Labour chair of Cleveland County Council); the distinguished ICI scientist Norman Levy; the long-standing President of Middlesbrough Trades Council, Jack Feeney; and - according to Brian Clough - the Middlesbrough goalkeeper Peter Taylor. In its last years Party members included the writers Bert Ward, John Longden, and Nina Hibbin, formerly the film critic of the Daily Worker (and The Lady).
In the 1930s the YCL had their own premises in Middlesbrough; YCL members started Teesside Unity Theatre, taking political sketches round working men's clubs in the town. For many years the Party had offices on Grange Road. During the Second World War Teesside was strong enough to be organised as a Party District, with George Short as Secretary. After the War, the Party was variously involved in the Squatters' Movement, the Peace Movement, the CRE, the Pensioners' Movement and the Trades Council. During the 1966 World Cup, the branch made a presentation to the North Korean team playing their group matches at Ayresome Park.
Although never in a position to challenge the Labour Party machine in elections, the Party had a long tradition of standing candidates (in the 1940s the Party won several seats on Stockton Council), if only to ensure that there would be more than one candidate, and therefore an election. Over the years the Party had established itself as a lively alternative to the brain-dead combination of careerism, patronage, intellectual inertia and one-more-push electoralism of a Labour Party that had no presence in the life of the town between elections.
While the Left in the local Labour Party spent the 1980s trying, without success, to de-select MP Stuart Bell, the CP branch held twice-monthly open meetings, published a monthly newsletter, and ran a popular travelling bookstall. We stood candidates in local elections, went leafleting and fly-posting, ran jumble-sales, sold 7 Days in the town centre on Saturday mornings, published regular letters in the Evening Gazette, and demonstrated against South African goods in supermarkets. There was small but lively YCL branch, we started a Men's Group and a Marxism Today discussion group, and we worked with local churches to organise One World Week. We published a series of historical pamphlets, notably Dave Goodman's Spanish Civil War memoir From the Tees to the Ebro, Bert Ward's I'll See Socialism in My Time and Arthur Clegg's From Middlesbrough to Manchuria: the Story of the Haruna Maru. A young comrade at the local art-college designed and made a new branch banner; we even had our own T-shirts printed.
We were responsible for organising the Middlesbrough-York legs of the Big Red Bike Ride, and hosted a series of big money-raising solidarity concerts - for the ANC, Nicaragua Solidarity, Chile Solidarity, CODIR, CADRI, Anti-Apartheid and CND. We ran a programme of education meetings on Marxist theory, and held public meetings with local, national and international on issues of the moment - for example on the Miners' Strike, Iraq, Iran, Section 28, children's television, Palestine, William Morris, Nicaragua, the Poll Tax, South Africa and the 1987 Abortion (Amendment) bill. Gordon McLennan spoke at a big public meeting shortly after he met with Mikhail Gorbachov. We held debates with the ILP and with the SWP. Martin Jacques came up to debate with the leader of Middlesbrough Council, Mike Carr. In 1989 we organised 'What's Left?' - a two day conference of seminars and debates with speakers from local trades union and community groups. Cleveland against the War in the Gulf was established at an open meeting called by the branch.
The branch's last significant intervention in local - and briefly, national - life, was during the 1987 Cleveland Child Abuse crisis. We called a meeting, at which over two hundred people heard Bea Campbell begin to develop the analysis that would later be published as Unofficial Secrets. At that meeting a decision was taken to establish the Cleveland Campaign against the Sexual Abuse of Children (CAUSE). For our efforts, we were denounced by Stuart Bell in a double-page article in the Daily Mail, warning darkly of a 'Communist-Lesbian plot' to overthrow the family.
In 1989, Teesside communists were involved in establishing Writearound, an annual Cleveland-wide community-writing festival. One of the branch's last acts was to organise an open poetry-reading in protest at the invasion of Iraq. When the Party was dissolved, the book-stall account was used to set up Mudfog Press, a small poetry press still publishing local writers.
Being a Part
In short, this was a busy, friendly, active organisation, a space where people could pool their energies, share their concerns and collectively develop their responses through open discussion and inclusive activity. The Party was always a great place for an argument, for principled, reasoned disagreements. I loved it. All of it. There was no task too menial or too boring that I would not undertake for the Party. I worked very hard for the organisation, as membership secretary, literature secretary, branch secretary, area committee member, district committee member and eventually as the last Northern District secretary - organising meetings, booking rooms, writing newsletters, booking bands, obtaining drinks licenses, stuffing envelopes, leafleting and flyposting, delivering a weekly 7 Days round, collecting speakers from Darlington station, speaking, chairing meetings, writing minutes, typing agendas, putting the chairs out. But the Party gave me back much more - it gave my life purpose and meaning, shaping my political imagination, my expectations and reflexes. It brought me into contact with a great many extraordinary and selfless people, from whom I learned a great deal. And I miss it. All of it - the activity, the comradeship, the sense of inhabiting a shared historical narrative, of belonging to an organisation that was always much bigger than the sum of its parts. The Party's historical international loyalties may often have been an unsupportable burden, but as late as the 1980s they were also a continuing source of pride (the SACP, the PCI, Gorbachov).
Teaching in university adult education always felt like a perfect fit for a communist (Edward Thompson had taught Literature for Leeds University's adult education department after the War), discussing books and ideas with working-class adults, helping to develop a native Teesside literary scene. Through the Party I came to know a number of distinguished writers, particularly Margot Heinemann, Jack Lindsay and Arnold Rattenbury, who were each extremely encouraging of my first efforts at writing poetry and criticism. Between them, they taught me how to write. By the mid-1980s I was writing for 7 Days, Marxism Today and Red Letters. My first book, Red Letter Days - a study of British Popular Front fiction - was of course published by Lawrence and Wishart. I wrote and presented a series of programmes about mostly CP writers from the 1930s, based on the book, for Radio Four.
I suppose my position would have been described as a 'Centrist'. My overwhelming loyalty was to the Party and its activities, not to any of its competing factions or tendencies. I supported the leadership of Gordon McLennan and Nina Temple, but if the 'opposition' had won control I would probably have remained in the Party. At the same time, it was clear that the Party's developing analysis, as it emerged through the pages of Marxism Today, then in Manifesto for New Times, was irresistibly compelling. The implications may have been hard to swallow, but it was the only serious account to make sense of the rapid changes taking place in Thatcherite Britain. Long after the other institutions on the British left had fossilised into cartoon versions of themselves, the Party was still taking intellectual risks. One of the attractive things about the Party was the sudden access of humility it enjoyed in its last years. While it was apparent to everyone that we no longer knew the answers, we were still interested in asking questions.
Moreover, the Gramscian analysis of the changing balance of political, social and cultural forces, seemed to me to be wholly consistent with the development of the Party's positions since the middle 1930s. From the United Front, the Popular Front and the anti-Fascist war, via The British Road to Socialism and the Alternative Economic Strategy to MT and New Times, the Party was most effective when it sought the democratic mobilisation of the greatest number of people around winnable positions. An organisation with such a weak purchase on British life always needed allies. It had enough enemies already.
At first I was horrified by the EC's proposals to transform the Party into what became Democratic Left. I could have been persuaded to oppose the EC's proposals if the opposition had not been so unremittingly committed to defending the indefensible aspects of the Communist tradition. After a lot of hard thinking, I was persuaded that ending the Party was the best way of saving it. At the time it seemed the last chance we had to rescue something from the wreckage, to escape from the overwhelming burden of the Party's bad memories. By 1991 the European communist tradition had become untenable. If the PCI thought the game was up, who was I to argue? It also seemed like an opportunity to build on the experiences of the Party on Teesside, where we had been successful to the extent that we were able to involve people who were not members of any political party. I even spoke at the last Congress to our branch's amendment proposing the removal of the word 'party' from the draft constitution of Democratic Left.
It should have been a liberation. It was a disaster. Most Party members on Teesside did not join the new organisation, including those who had supported it in the pre-Congress discussions. Overnight a busy and energetic organisation was reduced to a handful of confused individuals. When, at our first meeting, we discussed the election of branch officers in order to get things done, a visiting EC member admonished us for still being locked into 'old politics'. So we did nothing. DL asked nothing of me, and I gave it nothing back. I stayed out of loyalty to a bad decision until the transformation to the New Times Network in 1998 gave me the opportunity to slip away quietly, still ashamed to have been complicit in exchanging something valuable for something so useless and so risible.
I still live with an overwhelming sense of loss. The end of the Party was the first of a series of abrupt endings which have shaped my life with disappointment and dismay. About the same time as the Party was dissolved, my first marriage broke up. Not long afterwards, Leeds University closed its adult education centre in Middlesbrough; the building was sold, knocked down and replaced by flats. I resigned from Leeds University, which, like most British universities, is no longer interested in teaching working-class adults. A new editor passing through the Evening Gazette closed down my weekly poetry column in the paper. The Writearound festival folded after eleven years. In the name of 'Producer Choice', my Radio Four producer lost his job and I lost my access to programme making. One of the last programmes we made together was a thirty-minute documentary about the end of the Party and its literary traditions. Suddenly I was a poet without a living tradition, an adult educator without a classroom, a part-time dad, a Communist without a party.
I was thirty-five when the Party finally unravelled itself. Now I am fifty-five. The last two decades have been years of great personal happiness, in which Nikki and I have brought up our children together and sent them out into the world. Since 1991 I have published a great many books and given poetry-readings all over the UK; last year I read in Moscow, New York and Siberia. This should be enough. And so it is. But I can't pretend that I don't still feel a kind of nagging intellectual agoraphobia. The desert horizon is limitless, but I don't know in which direction to walk. So I walk backwards.
Since the end of the Party I have been politically isolated and woefully inactive. Every election I end up writing 'none of the above' on the ballot paper. I am still a member of CND, I was involved in the Yes campaign during the referendum for a Northern Assembly, and I am still on the editorial board of Socialist History. After a break of twenty years, I started reading the Morning Star again. I disagree with the paper's hostility to the EU, and cannot take seriously its belief in the prospect of reclaiming the Labour Party. But it is a lot more readable, a lot less sectarian than it used to be. For the last nine years I have written a regular monthly poetry column for the paper.
In a sense, all my writing since 1991 has been an attempt to stop the sand blowing over the ruins until a younger generation can rediscover the necessity of democratic revolutionary change, by trying to keep books in print and writers in circulation. Specifically, books like Red Letter Days, Out of the Old Earth, Comrade Heart, A Weapon in the Struggle, Selected Poems of Randall Swingler and Red Sky at Night (edited with Adrian Mitchell) sought to rescue the Party's remarkably rich literary history from the usual lazy Cold War caricatures of Russophilia and clenched fisted propaganda. No political organisation ever took imaginative writing so seriously, or contributed so much to British cultural life as the CP once did. Most histories of the Party attend rather more carefully to the Party's relationship with the Soviet Union, to its industrial struggles and its anti-colonial and Peace campaigns than to its cultural life. And yet the Party's literary culture may prove to be one of its most enduring achievements. For over seventy years the British Communist Party conducted a sustained, concentrated educational and imaginative intervention in British literary life, quite out of proportion to either its size or political influence. In European terms, none of this may seem remarkable. But in the context of British political life it is a unique and extraordinary record. British political culture is generally afraid of the arts, as British artistic culture is hostile to politics. Economism and electoralism leave little room for the imagination. The Party represented a long-term, educational project to debate and popularise ideas about the relationship between understanding and action, between culture and politics, writers and readers, literature and society. British life has hardly been improved by its disappearance, or by the ruthless airbrushing of the Party's literary achievements from the historical record.
I set up Smokestack Books in 2004, partly as an attempt to promote the work of radical poets whose work has been unavailable in Britain - Nikola Vaptsarov (Bulgaria), Francis Combes (France), Martín Espada (Puerto Rico), Victor Jara (Chile), Andras Mezei (Hungary), Gustavo Pereira (Venezuela) and Jim Scully (USA). One of Smokestack's earliest titles was the Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham, the first commander of the British Battalion in Spain. One of Smokestack's most recent titles was A Rose Loupt Oot: Poetry and Song Celebrating the UCS Work-in.
Writing sometimes feels like a poor substitute for participating in civil society. Nevertheless, writing, especially poetry, allows me to say things that I cannot say in other ways. The other things I do - working in schools and prisons, writing books for children - are simply ways of extending the conversation. Several collections of poetry, notably Nowhere Special, Just as Blue, Comrade Laughter and Sticky, have tried in their different ways to describe the long defeat of Utopianism that began in 1991. Two comic-novels in verse, Ghost Writer and Nineteen Forty-Eight, have proposed counter-factual narratives to aspects of communist history. Three Men on the Metro (written with Bill Herbert and Paul Summers) explicitly addressed elements of Soviet history, its utopianism and its cynicism, its heroism and its crimes, its victories and its defeats.
I don't write about 'politics', certainly not about political parties, government legislation or parliamentary elections. But I am interested in the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, in the uses and abuses of power, and the ways in which the powerful maintain their positions and privileges. You do not have to be interested in politics to be repulsed by ludicrous and violent figures like Blair, Sarkozy, Bush, Berlusconi, Putin and Cameron. My definition of 'politics' in this sense would be something like St Paul's - 'For we do not wrestle only against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.'
The great communist poets of the twentieth-century - Ritsos, Aragon, Neruda, Hikmet, Vaptsarov, Alberti, Éluard, Hernandez, Vallejo, Brecht - lived in a period of rapid social and political change. They grew up in the newly-literate, urbanising societies of the early twentieth-century, characterised by new mass-media, mass politics and mass participation in civil society. Their writings were shaped first by their involvement in the early Modernist movements, and then by their rejection of Modernism, articulating more democratic ways of responding to the challenges of Modernity. Between them they lived through war, revolution, economic depression, Fascism, civil war, illegality, prison and exile. These were the circumstances out of which they created the most extraordinary body of work. While they may see unlikely ingredients in the creation of exceptional poetry, we can see now that it was these exceptional conditions that made them.
These poets made poetry out of politics and took politics into the worlds of poetry. They were able to write about the private and the public, the lyrical and the satirical, the utopian and the historical, combining documentary record, formal experimental and traditional forms. They were all great love poets. They each celebrated the poetry of everyday life, of everyday objects - as Ritsos called it, 'the celestial side by side / with the everyday'. And they insisted on the poetry of ordinary language, demotic, colloquial speech. Above all, they found ways of synthesising the struggles for personal, political and national liberation as a single narrative - consider the poetry which Hikmet wrote in Istanbul and Bursa prisons, Brecht's 'Svendborg Poems', Neruda's Canto General, Aragon's Le Crève-Coeur, Vaptsarov's Motor Songs, or Ritsos's Romiossini.
The political circumstances today are wholly different. But the questions these writers tried to answer to still need to be asked, in our own time. We too need a new relationship between the intelligentsia and society, between writers and readers, between poetry and politics. Poetry is uniquely placed to familiarise, popularise and mobilise ideas and feelings. It can combine memorable performance and quiet reflection, immediacy and enjoyment. And it can express a shared common-sense counter to the prevailing narratives of government and national media. Poetry is still, potentially, a way of saying things that cannot be said in other ways; a place of refusal and dissent, of public testimony and personal affirmation, of generous vision and imagination.
Unfortunately poetry and politics in Britain are expected to occupy separate, if not antagonistic worlds, like notions of the private and the public. Demotic language is now the poetry of advertising; British society is inoculated against the music of poetry just as much as it is against socialist or democratic ideas. British mainstream culture is very good at recognising what it already knows. Although it talks a lot about the 'new', the Next Big Thing usually turns out to be just like last year's dull model. Poets, readers and publishers are increasingly squeezed between Arts Council cuts, high-street monopolies, internet price-wars, Creative Writing battery-farms and book-signing festivals. Just as the democratic process is increasingly blocked by political inertia, authoritarianism and deceit, the contemporary poetry scene chokes on self-promotion, celebrity prizes and the travelling festival circus.
Hugo Williams, prize-winning poet and a Forward Prize judge, recently complained that these days there are too many entries to the competition. 'I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything - that everyone's got a right to get a book out. I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth...' In a sense he was right. Poetry is about the 'democratisation of everything'. It's a way of extending the common ownership of experience, feeling and language. Poetry is a Republic, not a meritocracy of the lucky, the talented or the privately-educated. It requires the proper democratic humility necessary for any art. That's why it scares old Etonian cultural gate-keepers like Hugo Williams. And why contemporary British poetry, like the body politic, is dying on its feet.
'Communism' was, for me, always about the 'democratisation of everything.' It was defeated in the name of Democracy, and now politics is again the preserve of a tiny, wealthy elite. The public's only role is to legitimise their depredations by swelling the crowd-scenes for the tv cameras every five years. At best we are spectators to a series of palace revolutions (Blair-Brown, MPs expenses, the banking crises, News International). At suitable intervals minor players are thrown to the crowd in a parody of democratic process. But it is no longer anything to do with us.
At the time of writing, Britain is at war again for the fifth time in twenty years. The dishonest pretexts for each new round of imperial slaughter become increasingly implausible. The narrow, consensual space between Cameron, Clegg and Miliband means that the only permissible debate regarding the continued military occupation of Afghanistan appears to be about helicopters and body-armour; public discussion of the riots of 2011 was quickly boiled down to racist dog-whistles about law and order, national-service and capital punishment. Anyone who thinks that a New Labour revival is the answer, has forgotten what the question was.
There is no point underestimating the seriousness of the situation. We still don't understand the extent to which progressive ideas and forces have been defeated, at least in Europe, in the last twenty years. The victory-march of the Right - economic libertarians, social authoritarians and violent imperialists - has been accompanied by the atrophying of the political process and the narrowing of democratic discourse. There is not much room for internationalism between the ugly nationalisms of the Far Right, the brutal supra-nationalism of the EU and the violent internationalism of globalisation. From the current European-wide assault on the Welfare infrastructure to air-strikes in Libya, there is no alternative narrative to the triumphal history of the victors.
It would be foolish to argue that anything could have been different if the Party had survived the fall of Gorbachov. In retrospect, it seems incredible that the Party lasted as long as it did. The space it once occupied - combining local activity and international solidarity, intellectual enquiry and cultural innovation, philosophical analysis and day-to-day campaigning - has long since closed down. But as a result, I live apart from the society in which I find myself, and not as a part of it. The Communist Party, for all its comic-opera absurdity, its spectacular hubris and its self-defeating innocence, was a congenial and habitable political space that offered a way of participating in and of belonging to the world. I want it back.
from After the Party: Reflections on Life Since the CPGB (Lawrence and Wishart, 2012)
Andy Croft © 2012/14