Learning to live with your inner posh person

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When I joined the SWP one of the things which intrigued me was how few of the leading members seemed happy under their own skins. Tony Cliff and Chris Harman were painfully shy; Chris Bambery would tell anyone who’d listen how little he liked most of the people in the party. Lindsey German and John Rees had the true politicans’ skills at working a room (you enter; you approach the people you know, one by one, whispering malice about whoever you are smearing). The only time I ever remember Lindsey actually smiling was in the afternoons at the centre, with a chocolate biscuit in hand. Sugar deprivation may play its part too in the legendary grumpiness of our Professor. Certainly, his former PhD students describe keeping an unopened pack of polo mints on permanent standby. This was not for halitosis, but simply to dispel the Professor’s frequent sugar lows.

Now, as most readers will be aware, there are many stories about the Professor ranging from the best recollection of the person who used to have to collect Ruskin’s supply of Socialist Worker from his room in Oxford (“he was a bumptious little toad”), to various allegations that he is the poshest socialist in the history of Western Marxism – a title I am sometimes said to contest with him. It is a smear of course, his family were Aristocracy, mine mere Gentry. But even to raise the uncomfortable subject of how many current or ex-members of the SWP CC went to public school is to ask: can people from ruling class backgrounds ever do anything useful in the workers’ movement?

There is a model of course, but an equivocal one. The founder of Britain’s first Socialist party, the Democratic Federation (later Social Democratic Federation, or SDF) was HM Hyndman, an old Etonian, cricketer, explorer, barrister and Oxford graduate, who had made his way into Marxism via an interview with the ageing Tory grandee Lord Disraeli, who was disappointingly uninterested in a Tory-Radical pact (attempting to dissuade Hyndman: “private property … and vested interests … have a great many to speak up for them still”).

Here is Caroline Benn, the biographer of Keir Hardie (the first Labour MP, i.e. Hyndman’s rival) on the personality of Britain’s first Marxist leader: “Hyndman’s approach to audiences was to speak in the tall silk hat and frock coat of the upper-class gentleman he was, thanking his working-class audience for supporting him and his kind, and belittling them for their gullibility in accepting the yoke of capitalism. Even Hyndman’s most loyal supporters always had a ‘chill sinking of heart’ at his stockbroker appearance and continual harping on his upper-class origins…”

Hyndman was an intensely divisive figure; meeting Marx in 1880, when the far more talented German revolutionary was 24 years his senior, Hyndman insisted on lecturing the older man. Later, he published a largely-plagiarised manifesto England for All, in which Marx went unnamed. The manifesto also contains long passages praising the Colonial system as the special heritage of the British workers.

During an election campaign in 1885 he accepted a donation that came ultimately from a Tory agent (causing the SDF to be tarred for years with an association with “Tory Gold”). And in the same year, the most talented and best figures from the SDF (William Morris, Eleanor Marx) split from the Federation in rejection of Hyndman, setting the tone for the fissiparous 130 year history of British Marxism.

When I read Hyndman’s memoirs, even now, they make my head shake:

“My father, John Beckles Hyndman, was an Eton and Trinity Cambridge man, at which college, being then possessed of a very large income, he was a Fellow-Commoner…

“My mother, Caroline Seyliard Mayers, was a good mathematician, a good classical scholar, and generally a woman of great ability and accomplishments, numbering the well-known Mary Somerville among her intimate friends. In those days really well-educated women were rarer than they are to-day…”

“My forbears, whose name was Hyndeman, which means the headman of the hynde or hundred, lived in the North Country for many generations. They landed there as freebooters and homicides, and remained as farmers and raiders. When they got too thick upon the ground some of these Hyndemans of the Border thought it was high time to follow the example of their ancestors, and taking ship after the manner of their ancient progenitors they proceeded to remove from active life people in an adjacent island, whose farms and freeholds formed thereafter a convenient property for themselves…”

(Sorry, HM, but whoever Socialism was for; it wasn’t people like you…)

On becoming a socialist, William Morris had resigned on his Directorships and sat on his top hat, never to wear one again. Hyndman retained his, and it features in almost ever published story about him, including in the memoirs of Tom Mann, pioneering strike leader, syndicalist, and later founding father of British Communism.

Tom Mann was of course in every respect a greater person than Hyndman, a better reflection of the sort of left that every breathing socialist would like us to be.

Much of my way into the left was through reading its history and in my teens and early 20s I could think of no worse figure in its story than Hyndman. Yet the older I have become, I have grown to feel paradoxically a little fonder of him.

At the age of 35 I became a barrister. The primary qualification for the job remains education, and when I retrained I found myself surrounded by the sorts of former acquaintances that I had spent nearly twenty years avoiding. “Look, it’s Deh-vid!”, I heard, the first time I entered a Crown Court robing room. And my heart sank.

But there was a compensation; strangers’ assumptions about me changed too. It is easier being a socialist and a barrister – no-one is surprised to discover that you went to this or that school – no-one feels that you are deceiving them.

Of all the many former public school boys who I have met in the SWP, only one would talk openly about it (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/jul/25/1). He was the happiest of all us. When he spoke from a public platform, he spoke freely, and he made more socialists than anyone I know.

What was Hyndman supposed to do? He could have pretended to be a worker. He might have retrained as a teacher (leading socialists in this profession currently include at least one son of a Court of Appeal judge). But it wouldn’t have washed. It would have felt like he was “slumming it”, pretending to be something he was not.

The thing about Hyndman is that he never pretended to be anyone different from what he was. He never acquired a mock-cockney accent. Rather than being embarrassed about Guardian revelations that he went to public school (I’m thinking of a one-time leader of the SWP and Globalise Resistance, see the comments here: http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/these-dudes-are-wack/) he would have cheered out loud at being labelled posh and asked: “so what?”

I can’t help but feel that some of the grumpiness emanating from the Vauxhall bunker these past six months would be dispelled if the other Poshadists and Toffskyists presently in the leadership of my party would only out themselves, rethink their student clothing, and admit their privileged selves…

Come on comrades: it’s warm out here.

You might even learn how to smile.

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4 responses »

  1. Guido Baracchi, one of the founders of the Australian CPA, came from a tremendously posh background. One of my favourite quotes from him goes like this: ‘In expansive moments (in vino veritas), I occasionally brag of having been at kindergarten with [Governor-General] Casey, at school with [Prime Minister] Bruce and at university with [Prime Minister] Menzies, adding that between them, they made a Bolshevik of me.’

  2. The first time I ever socialised with the likes of the daughter of a governor of the Bank of England and the son of a Lloyd’s Name was when I joined a Trot group.

    Don’t get me wrong, I realise nobody has any say over the class into which they are born, and I am glad when anybody makes a serious commitment to the far left.

    But I do get pissed off at the way public schoolies so often rise effortlessly to leadership bodies. It’s like they are too the bleedin’ manor born.

  3. Sorry but Hyndman was a cunt. He might have been happy in his skin or whatever but that doesn’t make him a good bloke. He patronised Marx! Took Tory gold! Supported the First World War! Smile while you bathe in the blood of the workers. One day we’ll have the fucking lot of you.

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