This is our truth, tell us yours
In which Carter attempts to achieve balance, and to link his odd tastes in folk and rock music, sex and politics in a sensible critique of the Left’s approach to swinging and minority sexualities. Yes, I know we could be focussing on loonies like Nadine Dorries but a bit of balance does no harm. And, in a rare example of left wing humour, Carter pinches the alternative title of the article from a sectarian article about the perils of sectarianism.
Let’s start with a tribute to our North Eastern origins. This is a sound recording of the great Alex Glasgow, Low Fell’s finest songwriter, doing his wicked pisstake of bar room revolutionaries, ‘As Soon As This Pub Closes.’
John Sullivan chose Glasgow’s song title as the title of his wickedly accurate and intellectually stimulating analysis of the British far left. Even John’s friends and admirers would comment on his sometimes intolerant manner – he ‘had little time for feminism, gay liberation and other ideological trends that became prominent within the post-’68 socialist movement…’
There again, the left had little time for women, gay men or the like. Or dissent. My first experience of that was on a Young Socialists summer camp in the 1980s, when I was exposed to the Militant Tendency’s hilariously homophobic belief that being gay was a bourgeois deviation that would die out after the revolution. Asking the Militant Tendency to explain their views on sex was brilliant preparation for those threads on swingers forums that begin ‘I’m not gay, or bi, but my wife wants me to suck another man’s cock and I quite fancy the idea….’ Arguing with the Millies that maybe some people enjoyed sex simply because it was fun, and for no other reason, brought the suggestion that I should join the Young Liberals ‘because they believed that kind of middle class shit.’
Something of the flavour of that opposition to dissent can be captured in this review of Sheila Rowbotham’s book on the 60s; the author is clearly a member of a Leninist party irked by Rowbotham’s criticisms of vanguardist parties. Much more fun could be had with the idea that Rowbotham was ‘Too anarchist to be a Marxist, too Marxist to be an anarchist…’ as if Marxism is not a method or an analytical tool but merely a belief system or philosophy, but that’s not the ground the reviewer wants to fight on. Sheila Rowbotham in this article portrays Tony Cliff of the SWP as being viscerally opposed to feminism, even as she admits that the SWP’s women’s group was closed down at the same time as a whole raft of other internal SWP groups (such as the Rank and File movement). Feminism is the ground Rowbotham wants to fight on, so that’s what she sees. Incidentally, that article contains a contribution from Stan Newens, who went from being a revolutionary Marxist to Labour MP, brilliantly epitomizing the last verses of Alex Glasgow’s Socialist ABC;
Now that I’m not a little tiny boy,
Me daddy says to me,
‘Please try to forget those thing that I said,
Especially the ABC.’
For daddy is no longer a union man,
And he’s had to change his plea.
His alphabet is different now,
Since they made him a Labour MP
Want to make sense of the Left? It’s near as damn it impossible if you see it from the Left’s own perspective. All the parties, factions, tendencies and groupuscules on the left have accused all the other parties, factions, tendencies and groupuscules of being, in turn, doctrinaire, inflexible, unprincipled and opportunist. An old friend once gave me the following handy guide to criticisms of left wing groups;
They’re doctrinaire – they expelled me
They’re inflexible – their meetings clashed with football on the telly
They’re unprincipled – They changed their minds and I left
They’re opportunist – I feel used.
In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx said ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.’ It’s arguable that the left, in Britain at least, finding themselves on unpromising ground, recast that in a way recognisable from current politics – ‘the marketing men have labelled the people, in various ways, the point is to recruit them.’ It’s easy, when angry or feeling betrayed, to see some larger wickedness in the dispute with former political colleagues, but in truth the small parties of the left did no more than major parties do now; searching the population at large for opportunities for recruitment or support. The small parties of the Left though did not have Acorn or Mosaic, so they functioned on guesswork masquerading as analysis, allied to a desperate search for international analogues who could provide an example, funding or credibility.
One of the problems of the Bolsheviks is that they turned situational leadership on its head. In short, situational leadership says that you change your behaviour, as a leader, while you retain your principles and goals. The Bolsheviks, frequently, changed what they said, and their principles, while retaining their vanguardist behaviours. The degree of opportunism involved depends on how genuinely you believe the Bolsheviks were committed to their goals. So if you look to Kollontai’s writings as a guide to what socialists think about sexuality, you may find more than one account of her beliefs, depending on what the Bolshevik party thought was required at the time, or, later in her life, on what Kollontai thought would keep her alive in the violence and horrors of the Stalinist purges.
Each time you hear a politician of the Left talking about sex, you have to ask yourself if they’re making a principled statement or a tactical intervention designed to help them identify their likely supporters or shore up their existing party. The Militant Tendency, for instance, was homophobic principally because they wanted to recruit lots of young people and didn’t want to waste time challenging homophobia or addressing other ‘bourgeois’ concerns. The differentiation between principles and tactics was part of the story of how the WRP managed to acquiesce to, if not consent to, Gerry Healy’s repeated sexual assaults on party members and their children. I can’t even begin to describe the madness of a particularly obscure sect where, because they believed gay men were automatically more oppressed than straight men, one of my friends decided to be gay to experience oppression for himself. I’m not sure spending a year sucking the cock of a central committee member did much for his political education although, to be fair, it has been argued before that many politicians are only in it for the blowjobs.
If you’re a swinger, and you don’t want the state meddling in your sex life, you probably need to make common cause with other people who don’t want the state meddling in their sex lives. Even if their tastes are not yours. Of course there has to be a limit, somewhere around the principle of informed consent, but beyond that rule, anyone who doesn’t want the state interfering in their sex life has to embrace the principle that the state shouldn’t interfere in anyone’s sex life. Many on the Left will agree to that in private, but will refuse to make a priority of it in public for fear it challenges their ‘line’, or the preconceptions of the potentially revolutionary segment of the population they’re focussed on.
Does that go further though? Does it mean that swingers should automatically be libertarians? With the proviso that it’s possible to be a left wing libertarian, yes. If that posits a challenge to strong state models of socialism, then that’s something that needs to be worked through.