Not all political extremists are mad - I should know
Daily Telegraph, 26 November 2013
In 1993, when I was 19, I did something that not many 19-year-olds were doing at the time: I joined a communist party. A revolutionary communist party, no less. The Revolutionary Communist Party, to be precise.
While my politically minded peers were either throwing themselves into the whiffy anti-roads campaign (having given up on human beings in favour of defending trees), or signing up as activists for a party which within a decade would have destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq and civil liberties (Labour), I was becoming a communist agitator. This was three years after the fall of communism in Europe. Thirty years after it had stopped being remotely sexy to be a communist agitator. And 70 years after the Russian Revolution ended in Stalinist disaster. What can I say – I’ve always been behind the times.
Memories of my past as a young buck in a revolutionary communist outfit came flooding back on Monday, as newspaper headlines told us that the alleged slaves in south London may have been part of a “revolutionary communist group”. Great, I thought – as if it isn’t bad enough that people always ask: “Were you sexually abused?” when you tell them you were an altar boy, now they might also ask: “Were you brainwashed?” when I mention I was a revolutionary communist in the Nineties.
So, for the record, I wasn’t brainwashed. I wasn’t enslaved. I wasn’t led astray. On the contrary, I had a hoot in my communist outfit (which disbanded in 1996): I met some very brainy people, made great friends, read loads of books I would otherwise never had read, shouted my head off on colourful, exhausting demos against war, censorship and authoritarianism, and got to rile the hell out of my old mates who had joined the Labour Party by saying: “Are you happy now?” every time Tony Blair said or did something stupid, which was all the time.
The allegations about what happened in south London – where it is claimed that three women may have been emotionally manipulated by a Maoist man and his wife over three decades – have unleashed many a commentator’s prejudices about small, radical Left-wing groups. This is what happens, they say, when you mix extreme politics and individual passion: you get a cult-like atmosphere in which people sacrifice happiness in the service of the greater god of a communist utopia.
The alleged interpersonal dysfunction of that household, where a couple are suspected of having behaved shockingly badly towards three women, has been interpreted as political dysfunction, as the inevitable outcome of what happens when people devote themselves to what looks like a harebrained cause. An infinitesimally small group of people’s allegedly depraved behaviour has been held up as an indictment of small far-Left groups in particular, and of strong ideological beliefs more broadly.
So Dr Suzanne Newcombe, a cult expert at the London School of Economics, says the case – if proved – would confirm that “ideological beliefs of any sort can have an incredibly powerful effect on how people behave”. Other experts say that what allegedly took place was on the one hand very peculiar, but on the other quite typical of what happens when you have tightly knit political organisations devoted to a cause.
Actually, such behaviour isn’t typical. At all. I know many people who were in small far-Left groups and none of them experienced anything remotely like what is said to have taken place in south London. Yes, they worked hard towards their political goals, sometimes lost friends over political matters, often spent all day Saturday doing political stuff while the rest of the populace were chilling in cafes or walking their dogs. But such consensual activity cannot be sanely compared to what allegedly unfolded between a handful of Maoists south of the river.
Surely we can make a conceptual distinction between someone devoting his life to a political goal – however cranky you think the goal is – and someone allegedly making three women into his servants through millenarian warnings of a showdown between communist China and the “fascist capitalist” West?
Some are using the south London story to air their prejudices about ideological belief, political passion and devotion to a cause. Instead of asking: “How could a seemingly odd, one-off couple manage to mistreat three women like this?” they’re saying: “This is where ideological commitment gets you.” The alleged events are being interpreted through today’s broader suspicion of strong belief and political faith.
At a time when everyone is encouraged to obsess over their personal identity, to nurture their self-esteem, to devote more energy to the narcissistic pursuit of therapeutic self-improvement than to any big political project, the whole of the Seventies and Eighties look increasingly odd to us. We can’t believe people lived and breathed politics. We can’t believe people sacrificed some of life’s pleasures in the pursuit of political ideals. We can’t believe those things happened because they seem so alien in this era of navel-gazing selfie-taking, in which writing a tweet is considered political activity and all big systems of meaning – whether Left-wing, Right-wing or religious – are seen as foolish, dangerous and corrupting.
So far, the commentary on the case in south London hasn’t shone much light on what happened there; but it has exposed modern observers’ allergy to anything that has the whiff of political commitment to it.
Read more of my articles for the Telegraph and other publications here.