The young revolutionary...and erm...is that a horn sticking out from my head?
The first political book I bought was a biography of Lenin by David Shub. I showed it with some pride to John Ward, an active Young Socialist and electrician, who asked to borrow it. The following week I asked what he thought of it. ‘I threw it in the bin’ he said. ‘It was thoroughly rightwing.’
It would be neat conceit now if I was to use this anecdote as an early insight into a closed, totalitarian world, but as an earnest ‘class warrior’ and afraid of being labeled petit bourgeois, I swallowed the hurt. A true Leninist had to be disciplined.
My self-image, the man I aspired to be was ‘Strelnikov’ the Bolshevik zealot in ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ striding the streets of a revolutionary Liverpool, in greatcoat and boots. The reality I disguised from myself for as long as I could was the petit bourgeois spirit that had shaped me from birth. Grandfather Parry worked in the Docks but he was a man of aspiration. His father had owned a small business, his sister a ‘Ballroom Dancing School. Grandfather Keyton had died a Sergeant in the Boer war, his widow bringing up my father single handedly, and he in turn had risen from deck-hand to Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy. A Catholic education gave it the final gloss.
I read the book, Dr Zhivago and I remember crying (in private) when Zhivago lost Lara. I cry quite easily - Jude the Obscure did it for me some years later. My daughter’s quite embarrassed by it. I’m old enough not to be.
But then - the late sixties - it was a different matter. Bolsheviks were calculating and cold. I was Strelnikov lacking only the scar. We discussed Zhivago when the film came out and I remember the general sneer that the story in itself was trivial, ‘petit bourgeois’ - the masses were portrayed unsympathetically - the revolution revealed as an unnecessary inconvenience to the love life of a bourgeois doctor - and so it went on. I loved the poetry but said nothing.
By this time I was devouring the works of Trotsky, rehearsing his arguments, wishing that I too might one day be a great and inflammatory orator. And then I met Peter Taaffe and realised that someone had beaten me to it. Peter was a key figure in ‘The Militant’, a Trotskyite organisation that was infiltrating the Labour Party. He was a powerful and persuasive speaker with a habit of ending a provocative sentence with ‘…you know!’
The ‘you know!’ was delivered in the imperative, and the effect - in my case at least - was for my head to nod…of course I knew!
I began this post with the observation that it in many respects it was a closed and totalitarian world I had entered - and as hard as any cult to break out from - not because of any overt or sinister pressure on the part of those around me, more the guilt and habit of mind I had created for myself.
The Militant was, I know, monitored, almost certainly penetrated by our Security services; it had its share of scoundrels along with men and women of immense moral stature and strength of will.
I discovered eventually that I was no Strelnikov and that I cried too much to be a true revolutionary. I’d resented the Church telling me what to do, and now I realised I resented - really resented John Ward, telling me what books I could and could not read. Basically I hate being told what to do. No Leninist then. But I’m grateful for what ‘Militant’ gave me - belief in myself - an intuitive Marxist sense that life is largely governed by class, and an acceptance of my petit bourgeois heritage.