Plus ça change

I was thinking about revolutions today. I’ve taken part in, or witnessed, two of them:

  • The Digital Revolution (since 1940)
  • The Revolution against Revolutions (in effect, against political Ideology) – the end of the Socialist systems of Eastern Europe (1989)

Historians write about dozens of revolutions – the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and many others –  and we assume that revolutions are more or less identifiable events with known causes, and known outcomes. All of the ones I’ve listed happened more than a hundred years ago. The past is easier to describe. But what more recent events or periods will future historians identify as revolutionary? Will they write of the Digital Revolution, or the Revolution against Revolutions? Or the Ecological Revolution? Or the Human Rights Revolution?

I also started to think about the character of revolutions. For a start, people don’t really notice them when they’re happening. Even in retrospect it’s hard to say where and when they happened, or why. They’re made up of ideas (often a mix of quite incompatible ones), a few brave, fiery, madly motivated and foolhardy individuals, an accident or two, a skirmish here or there, and a lot of stuff happening quietly behind the scenes. It’s only later, and usually for reasons of propaganda, that events are identified as clustered, noticeable and critically significant –  events but for which there wouldn’t have been revolution, or so it seems later.

For example, I don’t think daily life was immediately affected by the October Revolution in 1917.  Our imagining of the Storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 – black and white figures streaming across a square –  is formed entirely by a staged and exaggerated recreation of the event three years later. It was probably no more than  a few vehicles drawing up at a kerb.

For most of the urban population it was probably a perfectly normal day in Petrograd, followed by many more normal days, and, yes, eventually the Gulags, but not suddenly. A revolution is not obviously an abrupt change of direction. And certainly it wasn’t a case of the unalterable forces of economics at play. The Bolsheviks won only because they (cynically) promised the army an immediate cessation of hostilities with Germany. It had nothing to do with the laws of economics and the triumph of the proletariat.


I remember drinking tea at the Café Europa in Wenceslas Square in Prague in March 1989 whilst demonstrators hurled insults at the Czechoslovak police outside and were roughly manhandled and pushed down the square. One could pop out of the café for a moment to see how it was getting on. In retrospect it was the beginning of a revolution that brought down the entire regime just six months later, but tea and cakes were just the same at the Café Europa that morning, and a few more streets away no one would have known anything was happening at all.

It is only in retrospect that revolutions appear to be a logical sequence of inevitable and influential events guided by the hand of history, ideology or a charismatic political leader. For most of those who are eventually and gradually affected by revolution, revolution itself is just another day at the office. And that’s something we forget. The most surprising feature of revolution is continuity. A few heads roll, and a few heads rise, but most of the faces stay the same. It was thus in Eastern Europe. Those who wielded mid-level power continued to do so after 1989. Those who knew how to make things work for themselves, even for others, went on doing so, to the bitter disappointment of the taxi-driving philosophers who thought their time had come.

Most people adapt to the ideology of the day. ‘Revolution’ – someone’s invention – happens above their heads. One day it’s this. Another day it’s that. The fact is that revolution is not an enemy of continuity.  It’s just an acceleration of change, a faster form of evolution. Anarchy is the danger. Which is why the worst thing you can ever do is to threaten the daily progress of the ordinary life of the compliant majority. Military victories and defeats are revolutions of a kind. When the Iraqi Army and the Baath party were foolishly disbanded in Iraq continuity was destroyed, and potential revolution became anarchy.

It’s hard, also, to put your finger on the Digital Revolution. I first became aware of computers when my brother wrote a Fortran program to generate discordant music in the 1970s (it never caught on as a method of composition), and I remember my father talking about computers being used for stock control even in the 1960s. There were big mainframes in the 1970s followed by PCs and networks from the mid-1980s. Most influentially, for most of us, the dotcom revolution of the late 1990s put information, reach and computing power into everyone’s hands. It’s been a sixty year revolution already and there’s no single identifiable event that stands out (might it have been Turing’s decrypting bombes of the Second World War, or his paper on the computability of numbers in the 1930s, or the machine that was used to model nuclear fission at Los Alamos in the early 1940s?).

Earth-shattering in retrospect, the Digital Revolution has been gradual and continuous. I was never more aware of this than when, already grey-haired by the time of the dot-com boom and bust in the very late 1990s, there was talk of the sweeping away of the ‘digital’ professions as we knew them, and which I lived from. The world, we were told, would belong to the young, to the upstarts who had broken the mould. True, it belonged to some of them, but continuity soon reasserted itself. Experience counted, in the end, as it counts today. Many of the dot-com generation hadn’t the first idea about how to manage a business or how to manage people. I remember rejecting (albeit with a little anxiety) an idea put forward by our crazy but enthusiastic Romanian general manager that we should rename our company (LLP Group) as Dot LLP Group. I would have been very embarrassed a year or two later. I don’t doubt that the Zuckerbergs, the Gates and the Jobs of this world are supported by armies of greyer-haired support staff who advise on finance, and management, and perhaps even IT.

Revolution overstates its case. There is no march of history that makes events inevitable.. History is just one small thing after another in billions of different places. It has no sense of direction, except towards the future and the total extinction of life. There’s only the contention of billions of very similar human beings seeking to satisfy the same basic needs for food, safety, freedom, comfort, meaning, knowledge, control, happiness and health for themselves and their families, needs that are best satisfied through cooperation. Thwart those basic needs and you risk the rise of intolerant religious and political ideology – anarchy, not revolution. Let us be glad that everything changes, and everything stays the same.

Lovely, but Unelectable

There is much to admire in these three undoubtedly lovely men, all stalwarts of the ‘old’ and principled Labour Party, all unelectable.

tony benn

Tony Benn (1925 – 2014)

michael foot

Michael Foot (1913 – 2010)

jeremy corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn (1949 – )

Of these three, only Michael Foot has so far led his party into a General Election (1984), losing disastrously with the fewest votes for half a century or more. If the polls are correct then Jeremy Corbyn might soon win the chance to do the same.

Though each is of a different generation, and each came to his radicalism by a different route, all three share some of the same qualities.

  • They’re not in it for themselves (Jeremy Corbyn, for example, claimed fewer expenses in 2010 than any other MP)
  • They care deeply about inequality, poverty, injustice, etc., and oppose it vigorously, seeing Labour’s policy as the best suited to alleviate disadvantage
  • They are anti-establishment and anti-elitist
  • They have a fond belief in the essential goodness of humanity (except perhaps that of ‘capital owning humanity’ whom they see as rapacious and essentially selfish)
  • They believe that state ownership and state intervention are the route to a more equitable and a more efficient society

Michael Foot’s convictions were formed during the conflicts of the 1930s, when capitalism and socialism were stark and incompatible opposites, and when capitalism seemed to tend inexorably towards Fascism (as a young journalist he vigorously opposed the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government). He was an intellectual socialist, and he stuck to the belief that socialist economics could work. He campaigned throughout his life for nuclear disarmament (even unilateral disarmament) and it was probably Labour’s disarray on this topic that lost him the election in 1984. He was a notably kind, funny, personable, man.

Tony Benn nearly became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981, but profound influence on the policies of the Labour Party in Government ultimately eluded him. He, too, was convinced of an old-fashioned, ideological, class-warfare kind of socialism. He was happiest in the company of union officials, drinking mug after mug of tea (not for him the fine clarets and champagnes of New Labour). Perhaps, like Marx, he believed that socialism could transform human nature and resolve the conflicts that arise from personal or class interest. He was also a notably kind, funny, personable, man, and, even in his later years, still a man of the people, travelling to Parliament and back by bus.

Jeremy Corbyn is an activist, allied to all the radical (and often admirable) causes of the last thirty years, including nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Iraq War, the extradition of General Pinochet, and many others. He has never been a member of the Shadow Cabinet, and was, during the last Labour Government, the most rebellious Labour MP. He has never been a Party man, and clearly never fed at the Westminster trough. I’m not sure he is as witty, warm and personable as Tony Benn or Michael Foot, but he comes across as an ordinary, soft-spoken, even if passionate man.

But none of these three is imaginable as Prime Minister.

The fact is that there are some truths about the world that in their goodness and idealism these lovely men don’t see. Perhaps it is because they have never worked extensively in the commercial world. Take this passage from Tony Benn’s diary from 1965 (when he was Postmaster General and obsessed with the idea that the Queen’s head should be removed from postage stamps):

This highlights in my mind one of the great difficulties of being a socialist in the kind of society in which we live. The real drive for improvement comes from those concerned to make private profit. If, therefore, you deny these people the right of extending private enterprise into new fields, you have to have some sort of alternative. You have to have some body which wants to develop public enterprise, but our present Civil Service is not interested in growth.

Benn rightly sees ‘private profit’ as an engine of growth, as motivating ‘improvement’, and he’s struggling, in painfully good faith, to come up with a substitute for this in state-owned industry. But he completely misses the point. Private profit leads to improvement only if there’s competition (it doesn’t work if there’s a private monopoly). Competition is the point, not profit. Profit is the means, not the end.

This point, blindingly obvious to most of us, just doesn’t occur to this well meaning, but naïve and, in terms of practice, inexperienced man. Yes, it’s certainly hard to see how competition can be fostered within or between state-owned enterprises. The shabby unproductive factories of Eastern Europe are witness to the lack of it. ‘Growth’ and ‘improvement’ cannot be directed, even by the best motivated Civil Service in the world, or by the most well-meaning Government. Benn seems to know that something is lacking, but doesn’t see what it is.

And all three of these lovely men are still devoted to the old class-war rhetoric that talks of ‘working people’ as if these are still the oppressed. exploited manual labourers toiling in mines or in Satanic mills. They forget that capitalism isn’t any longer unfettered (and never should be), that there’s the national health service (which could be better), there’s free education (that could be better), there’s a minimum wage (that could be higher), and myriad health and safety regulations that protect the ‘worker’ (whether struggling with a machine or at a call centre) from the mercilessness of capitalist greed. And they forget that everyone, whether ‘worker’ or not, aspires to better his or her lot. Whether you believe that the balance should be tipped more in favour of the disadvantaged or not, there’s no class war being fought, is there?

Admirably, none of them has the slick establishment gloss of the career politician, the pragmatic, non-ideological, unprincipled, deal-making skill that the likes of Tony Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron, even Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown possess.

But what do we want our politicians to be? Good men, unsullied by the realities of the world, averse to compromise, certain of their mission and clearly principled? Or realists?

There is currently a global, certainly European, aversion to establishment politicians. Conviction politicians, and anti-establishment parties of both the left and right are winning the votes of the disaffected, whether old or young. Syriza, in Greece, is a case in point. But what are the realities of power? Alexis Tsipras has, finally, been forced to accept a deal that is worse than the one his people rejected earlier in a referendum.

Labour party members or affiliates must ‘get real’. Unhappily, I agree with Tony Blair, that Jeremy Corbyn would be another disaster for the Labour Party. As Gordon Brown said yesterday, the Labour Party must be credible, radical and electable.

Nostalgic for Socialist Realism

I felt a reluctant nostalgia for socialist realism during my recent trip to Vietnam. Not because I missed the silly utopian hope of Soviet-era propaganda, but because Soviet-era Hungary was my home for five years 27 years ago, and the absurdly bright posters proclaiming Vietnamese Socialism reminded me of how the streets looked all those years ago, and of those exciting times in the late 1980s when the communist regimes of eastern Europe were all falling apart.

It’s a long time, in fact, since I’ve seen such audaciously hypocritical optimism in public art. Vietnamese socialist realism actually exceeds in fervour anything I ever saw in Eastern Europe  Even in the declining last days of Soviet-style socialism, the optimism was only half-hearted, and never as brazenly presented.

poster 1

The irony, of course, is that Vietnam is no longer a socialist country. Taxes rise progressively only to 25%, there is very limited social security, no entirely free schooling or medical care, and all disbursements of public money are hugely depleted by bureaucratic corruption. The engine of Vietnam’s rapid growth since the early 1990s is not the ideology these posters promote, but rather the opportunity for personal gain, and the Party is perfectly happy to accept that some of its citizens can be very much more equal than others.

poster 2

Nevertheless, there is something magnificent about this art. Eyes raised to a utopian sunrise, these improbably healthy workers, soldiers, bureaucrats, and artists, march forward in harmony towards the promised world, still, incongruously, under the same old hammer and sickle, their eyes necessarily averted from the Prada, Hermes and Armani shops that are, in reality, the favoured destination of the Vietnamese privileged classes.