The radical British journalist Paul Foot died July 18. Foot, who longed for revolution and campaigned for many years for the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party, was born into a distinguished, well-connected, and moneyed family. His father was Governor of Cyprus and his uncle, Michael, once headed the Labour Party.
The Guardian reported the death on its front page, informing us that Foot, “though a child of privilege, educated privately,” nevertheless “reacted fiercely against his own background.” The obituary recounted this reaction with a kind of breathless astonishment, as though it were an unprecedented phenomenon. But when Fidel Castro dies, the Guardian doubtless will write, with exactly the same astonishment, “though a child of privilege, educated privately,” nevertheless “he reacted fiercely against his privileged background.”
Of course, some scions of privilege sacrifice more for their ideas than others. Say what you will about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, they did actually forgo their comforts to put their ideas into practice. No British revolutionary journalist has ever done this. While Foot might have reacted against the politics of his class, he never reacted against the tastes of his class. Tastes usually lie deeper than opinions.
The Guardian also informed us that Foot died aged “66 going on 21.” The paper obviously meant this observation admiringly, as if eternal adolescent rebellion were the highest state of wisdom that a man might aspire to, and immaturity were a virtue. On this Peter-Panic view of politics, the intellectual’s role is never to sustain or contribute to a tradition but always to destroy it and replace it. Youthful egotism becomes the beginning and end of political wisdom.
This attitude may mark the fundamental difference between the modern conservative and the modern radical: the conservative thinks he is a drop in a stream; the radical thinks he is, or ought to be, the stream itself.