Tag Archives: the Professor

Learning to live with your inner posh person


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.

Losing an argument about Lenin


“[Kelsall’s] face was ascetic-looking almost to sourness, but he had an unusually long forelock which – like Rupert Brooke’s – was brushed back above his ear. One other vestigial indication of his middle-class origin was his green sportscoat, shabby now with leather patches on the elbows but it had probably been expensive when bought and was the kind of thing worn by university aesthetes in the ‘twenties.” …

“Well, what exactly is the problem of yours that you want to talk about?”

Elsie was ready with the wording of her answer.

“Lately I’ve become a bit confused”’, she used the apologetic phrase customary with Party members when they wanted to express inability to accept official policy completely – “about the theoretical line that the Party seems to have adopted since the war.”

Kelsall asked almost snappishly,

“Why do you say seems?”

“I mean I’m not altogether clear about it. Apparently it is different in some ways from the line that Lenin laid down in State and Revolution.” …

“What grounds have you for supposing that the Party has departed from Lenin at all?”

She wasn’t prepared for this, Alan knew. She hadn’t really doubted Kelsall would admit that the leadership had modified Lenin’s theory, and she had expected him to defend the modification with reason which would either convince her – and she was she sure she was willing and even eager to be convinced – or which if she found them inadequate, as she suspected they might be, she could demolish and thereby set going in his mind a process that would end by his being persuaded, and in turn persuading the rest of the leadership, that the Party’s theoretical line was wrong. Before she could think how to answer him, he added.

“If you had taken the trouble to read Party publications over the last year you would be less likely to come out with such half-baked assertions”

“Does it occur to you as you sit nattering there, that you are criticizing comrades who not only have more experience politically than most of us but who have international contacts?” …

“What did Lenin think of the line taken by Parvus and Trotsky about the 1905 revolution?”

“I don’t remember what line they took. I suppose it was leftist. Did they want the Social Democrats to aim at setting up a workers’ government and not a bourgeois democratic one?”

“You don’t remember”, Kelsall said, with a surprise that was quite crudely sarcastic, though he didn’t say she was wrong. “I advise you to go and read Lenin’s two articles on the subject which were published in the thirteenth and fourteenth numbers of Vperiod.” Elsie’s face was beginning to show a glumness recognizable to Alan as a sign that she had taken deep offence and would not soon get over it. Kelsall went on: “I suggest that you too study what Lenin said and wrote in 1917 during the period between the overthrow of the Tsar and the start of the October revolution. I think this might help you to see that there’s no departure from Lenin in our Party’s present policy”

from E. Upward, The Rotten Elements (1969)


Kelsall is a composite. His closest historical counterpart is probably Rajani Palme Dutt who edited the Communist party’s A5-sized theoretical journal Labour Monthly for about four decades from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, complete each issue with a ‘Notes of the Month’ taking up the first half-dozen paes, offering a retrospective analysis of the latest developments in world politics, incorporating them always to the latest twists or turns of the policies coming out of the Stalinist high command in Moscow.

Duncan Hallas describes Dutt’s role well: “Month by month, his Notes of the Month arrived from Brussels, like papal encyclicals, expounding and defending every twist and turn of the Stalinist line with never a backward glance or explanation. It supported the rightist line of the CPGB in the run up to and during the 1926 general strike, the turn to lunatic ultra-leftism in 1928-29 (which met with strong resistance at first in the British party) and then the abandonment of class politics altogether with the popular front.”

Dutt’s response to Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech, admitting only the most heinous of Stalin’s crimes, was as follows: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper”. He retired on a pension paid for by Moscow, finally donating to the British Library a collection of his carefully cut-and-pasted articles for the various publications of the Communist Party, which he no doubt assumed would receive the full “Collected Works” treatment previously reserved for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. They have never in fact been published; who, today, would read them?

Green sportscoats fell out of fashion among Oxford undergraduates before the end of the 1930s. By the early 1970s, it seems, they had been replaced on the clothes pegs of  university aesthetes by leather jackets in brown.