I became a Marxist out of sheer perversity. Well, perhaps that is unfair to my adolescent self: it was a mixture of conscientiousness and perversity. The official atmosphere in the California high school where I spent my junior and senior years was—hard as it may be to imagine this now—hysterically anti-communist. This was 1961, but the sixties as we know them had not yet begun. The doctrinal orthodoxy of the day was McCarthyism in its final, decaying phase. Accordingly, my senior civics class regularly showed us propaganda films, whose crudeness constituted a provocation to (not to say an insult to the intelligence of) any potentially rebellious 16-year-old. I can remember watching lurid graphics, in which red triangles pierced through defenseless red, white, and blue balloons, and then the slogan “Socialism and communism are the same thing” flashed onto the screen—all accompanied by a triumphal musical score whose climaxes underlined the most unsubtle messages of the narration.
Such films, inevitably, caused the more independent-minded students to think, “Whoa, hang on a minute. What is this you are so determined to make me believe, and why?” As one of my more thoughtful peers put it (in a very quiet voice), “Actually, I think a bit of socialism could help to protect a country against communism by making it seem less necessary.”
So it had started. This was the beginning of the skepticism that led to cynicism and then to disaffection: the suspicion that everything your country was telling you might be blinkered at best or malign at worst. But the real damage was done for me by the hugely influential film Operation Abolition. This was the faux documentary made by the House Un-American Activities Committee to celebrate its own procedures. With a patronizing didacticism that would now seem risible, the movie recorded the HUAC hearings in San Francisco, which hauled in “known subversives” to be hectored and pilloried by some of the most unattractive legislators in U.S. history. But the clash between the “known subversives” and the congressmen—who would not allow them to finish a sentence of their “prepared propaganda statements”—was not what affected me so deeply. It was the sight of the protesters against HUAC, who had gathered outside the chamber, being attacked with fire hoses by the police. The film described the demonstrators as “dupes” of a communist plot to abolish the heroic congressional committee (hence the movie’s title). As the water swept them painfully down the marble stairs of San Francisco City Hall, we were, I suppose, expected to cheer. We didn’t. We just thought our own thoughts.
What I thought went something like this: “There is something seriously wrong here. I have been taught that we live in a free country and that, of all the freedoms, free speech is the most important. Whatever it is that these people believe, they ought to have the right to express it without being hounded into silence. And whatever objections they have to this committee, I would like to hear them. And, furthermore, I didn’t know that I lived in a country where people who disagreed with congressmen got flushed down the stairs by fire hoses.” Of course, I was in a minority in these musings. Most students watched the film in trusting passivity. To the extent that they dwelled on the issues that it raised, they were inclined to accept the notion that communism—or socialism, or whatever—was a threat to their way of life.
Their version of the American way of life—which is to say, late 1950s, self-satisfied California affluence—rather appalled me. My family had come from the East Coast only two years earlier. Born in Boston and raised in New York, I had my own version of the American dream: a cross between New England Puritanism and cerebral Jewish idealism. The super-materialism and unapologetic selfishness of the California scene were entirely new to me. The utter incomprehension with which many of my school friends reacted to any suggestion of abstract social conscience genuinely shocked me. It became a (reasonably good-natured) joke at school that my trademark sentiment was the phrase “It’s against my principles.” The idea with which I had been raised—that life was, at least in some sense, a moral mission—was literally unintelligible to most of my friends. One of them responded to my strictures with explicit amazement. “But isn’t the whole point of life to make money?” she asked, ingenuously.
But all of this spiritual isolation came to an end when I arrived at Berkeley as an undergraduate.
For historical reasons that may never be absolutely clear, many young people who had thoughts like mine found themselves in the same place at the same time. Together, we invented the student revolutionary movement in 1964. So many of us have had second thoughts about its three major components—politics, promiscuity, and pot—that it is probably important to recall how serious the civil liberties issue was that gave rise to the original Free Speech Movement.
We arrived back on campus for the 1964–65 academic year to a Board of Regents decree that, henceforth, no political activity of any kind was permitted within the university boundaries. No one could distribute literature on behalf of any political cause. No political society or group could hold meetings. No speaker could address any student gathering on a political issue. These prohibitions amounted to a denial of the most basic constitutional freedoms of speech and association to a community of Americans who happened to live or work on the Berkeley campus. Many of us believed that the university had issued this edict at the behest of Oakland businessmen angry at student civil rights demonstrators picketing their premises in protest of racial discrimination in employment.
There is now a well-established view on the Right that dedicated communists and fellow travelers incited the Berkeley uprising by persuading naive undergraduates to create chaos. That is not how I experienced it. To the extent that I and most of my peers were egged on in our rebellion, it was almost entirely by the ham-fisted actions of the university and its own police. We couldn’t help but feel that it was not us but the Regents who were being manipulated (or at least improperly influenced) by organized business interests. I can remember vividly my own rage and frustration when the Oakland newspaper (owned by some of the same businessmen we believed were pressuring the university) ran the blatantly false headline: 25,000 STUDENTS IGNORE [FSM] STRIKE AT BERKELEY. Lies told about your most sincere and heartfelt efforts do not inspire charitable thoughts. True, I did feel misgivings when the socialist grouplets to which I gravitated spoke of “infiltrating” the Democratic Party and of the “realignment” of liberal politics toward the Marxist Left. But those doubts took many years to mature.
You know the rest of the student revolution story. To adapt a bit of famous rhetoric, the word went out from that place that a torch had been passed to a new generation. At the outset at least, and speaking only for myself, I believe that the intention was to live up to the American democratic ideal, not to undermine it. But it was an easy step from the belief that racist businessmen could suspend your constitutional rights to the conviction that the Vietnam War was being fought as a favor to Dow Chemicals. Corporate capitalism seemed a plausible enough enemy when much of what was then called the Third World seemed to indict it as the cause of their misery.
In that implacably despairing state of mind, I took myself off to Britain, where Harold Wilson’s Labour Party had recently been elected with a tiny Parliamentary majority (which would be vastly increased in the general election of 1966). The possibility of living under European socialism, even of a tenuous kind, seemed too exciting a possibility to miss.
What struck me first about my new life in Britain, as it strikes virtually every American, was the presence of a visible and audible (especially audible) class system. I had never encountered anything like this before. Of course, the U.S. had regional accents, parochial social divisions, and huge disparities of wealth; but what I encountered in Britain was something else altogether. British working-class people were not simply superficially identifiable as being uneducated, provincial, or even poor—as many Americans might be. They seemed to live in a parallel universe to the professional classes: to be consciously and deliberately a world apart, locked into their own self-defeating social patterns, low expectations, and perversely destructive behavior, which seemed designed to prevent them from aspiring to any condition other than the one into which they had been born.
My first job in Britain, teaching “liberal studies” in a technical college, brought me into contact with boys from East London with no occupational ambitions beyond becoming factory hands. They greeted any suggestion that they might consider professional or higher academic training with flabbergasted hilarity. My teaching colleagues made clear that the occasional rescue of a bright student, by persuading him to try for university, was a once-in-a-lifetime triumph. But, I argued, the boys themselves might just be subject to peer pressure. Surely we could enlist their parents to help them see the value of higher education and professional achievement. Hollow laughter: the parents, it seemed, were part of the problem. British working-class parents hardly ever urged their children to do better in life than they had done themselves. On the contrary, the adage was, “What was good enough for us should be good enough for them.” Self-improvement and ambition were not traits to be admired but rather signs of class disloyalty and snobbery. I had never before met people who, when urged to let their children go to university, said, “Don’t go putting ideas in his head.”
All of this was of course benighted, but it could, with charity (and a left-wing conscience), be excused as a lingering consequence of a brutal industrial revolution. These were, after all, the descendants of people who had learned bitter lessons about the dangers of “getting above yourself.” And the British middle and upper classes have perfected lethal cruelties for humiliating those who rise from below them. British manners and social codes, as many a bemused American expatriate has discovered, are almost impenetrably arcane, their subtlety and complexity aimed precisely at separating the sheep from the goats in class terms. The British put-down extends deeper than anything that even the most snobbish American could contemplate, and, most excruciatingly, it is almost always delivered under the cover of patronizing kindness. For example, at a formal English dinner one doesn’t eat one’s salad with the main course, but later, as a freshener of the palate before the dessert and cheese courses. I can recall one painful incident in which a dinner guest who had helped himself to salad along with his meat course (without uttering the disarming disclaimer, “May I be rude and have my salad straightaway?”) receiving the excruciatingly gentle benediction, “You are quite right, Simon. So much nicer not to wait for the salad.” That—in coded British terms—is as cruel as it gets.
But what was less explicable than this working-class defeatism was to hear those who regarded themselves as progressive liberals conniving in it. The Left in Britain then (and scarcely less now) believed deeply that personal ambition was a petit bourgeois vice to be despised. Such left-wing antipathy to supposedly vulgar social striving became particularly vicious during the Thatcher years. The most telling left-liberal character assassinations of Thatcher herself focused on her being a “grocer’s daughter.”
One of my more vivid 1980s recollections is of an upper-class woman, whose family had been colonial officials in Kenya, saying airily, “When I was a child, profit was a dirty word.” This Jane Austenish disdain for the grubby business of trade strongly marked anti-Thatcherite rhetoric. The notion that private prosperity could transform the lives (and self-image) of ordinary people was viewed as faintly obscene. The great social caricature of the 1980s was “Essex Man”: the quintessentially vulgar upstart who had gotten money and property and was now busily spending (and flaunting) it in a myriad of crass ways. Everything about Essex Man, from his brash manners to his cleaned-up Cockney accent, came in for ridicule. His female equivalent—Essex Girl—was the butt of jokes too obscene to be published here. But Essex Men, with their sports cars and brassy wives, were not just thought to be ludicrous. They were a deeply sinister sign of the times: people without breeding and without the proper class connections were getting money and the confidence to spend it where they liked, for the first time in living memory.
Not only did the left-wing intelligentsia dislike uppity lower-middle-class arrivistes: they positively discouraged the most deprived working-class people from rejecting their “roots.” With a sentimental complacency that astonished me, they venerated the very social habits and attitudes that seemed to me so perversely backward. (A whole school of British film and television drama perpetuates the romanticized myth of working-class life—a kind of “noble savage” genre that utterly falsifies the grim repressiveness that this life actually embodies.)
The left-wing elite castigated teachers for attempting to correct the working-class accents and dialects that help trap children in the limitations of their own backgrounds. Correct grammar and properly pronounced English were, left-wing commentators argued, simply a middle-class dialect, with no claim to inherent superiority over the subliterate speech familiar to working-class children. Therefore, to inflict proper English on children who spoke the systematically ungrammatical dialects of the British proletariat was a form of cultural imperialism. Bourgeois values were the real enemy of working-class self-respect, because they made people who did not subscribe to them feel alienated and insecure. The socialist ideal was not to free people to fulfill their personal potential but to guarantee that no one would ever feel inferior to anyone else in any respect—intellectually, socially, or economically. Marxist veneration of the “working man” meant preserving, as a function of class cohesion, the behavior that I saw as symptomatic of self-loathing.
How had it come to this? Why did liberals who were supposedly advocates of egalitarianism collude in this blatantly repressive aspect of British social and political life? How did they reconcile their commitment to socialism, which I had always understood as being about the liberation of humanity, with a romanticizing of what anyone in his right mind should have seen as a cruelly inadequate and culturally degraded way of life? So much of what passed for left-wing thinking in Britain seemed to be steeped in middle-class guilt and self-hatred.
What decisively transformed my views was my growing understanding of the consequences of the welfare state that Britain had constructed out of a wartime command economy: it both reinforced the fatal passivity of the lower classes and provided a moral justification for the paternalism of the upper classes. The realization was slow but inexorable. It came through concrete example and abstract argument. By the end, it was so blindingly obvious that I wondered how anyone could ever not have seen that the socialist solution—the great, generous dream of perfect fairness—was inevitably destructive of the human spirit.
Welfare programs in Britain far exceeded anything that even the most radical Democrat would propose in the United States. When I arrived in 1965, more than half the population of the country lived in government-subsidized (“council”) housing. Council estates were not simply bigger and more ambitious versions of the housing projects familiar to Americans. Elite opinion saw them not as a stop-gap remedy for the very poor, but as an ideologically preferable alternative to private property. Government effectively seized whole tranches of major cities—including Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool, and East London—and turned them into what can only be described as working-class reservations: social ghettos where people were rehoused in a massive social-engineering exercise that ran roughshod over familiar neighborhood patterns and family networks. Officials often justified this move by the fact that heavy wartime bombing had destroyed vast areas of housing in the industrial cities. But the socialist ambition was not just to build new homes to replace the old, or to alleviate slum conditions. It was, quite consciously, to build a new society, in which the housing of many would be in the hands of the state, whose own commitment to fairness and the redistribution of resources would eliminate the squalor that private landlordism produced. (This mentality survived through to the 1980s—which is why Margaret Thatcher’s belief in a “property-owning democracy” and her policy of allowing tenants to buy their council houses seemed so dangerously radical.)
It is not hard to imagine what happened to people who went to live wherever the state put them, who were not permitted even to change the color of their front doors or to keep pets without explicit permission, and who were surrounded by a neighborhood of similar passive recipients of government beneficence. They did not develop, as their socialist patrons had expected, a stirring pride in their new collective identity. Having none of the rights of ownership over their own property—and no likelihood of escaping from that condition, since being housed by the council was regarded as pretty much a permanent condition of working-class life—they became less responsible and more dependent than ever. The desire and the ability to help yourself was not only unrewarded; it was seen as positively pernicious: a threat to the moral order of public ownership, which guaranteed that no one would go without the basic necessities—at the price of condemning anyone who dared to desire more than the minimum.
In the 1970s, as I clung to my Marxist convictions, I heard an interview with Sir Keith Joseph, one of the great architects of the Thatcherite revolution. He described the dangers of what he called “the pocket-money society.” If the state provided all of the basic human needs—housing, health care, education, care for the elderly—it left nothing for people to provide for themselves, other than the more trivial recreational things. Their own earnings became like children’s pocket money, to be spent on toys or self-indulgence. The state took all of the significant economic choices of adult life out of their hands, diminishing them as responsible, moral beings. Joseph’s words did not convert me on the spot, but they shook my beliefs to the roots, because they chimed so convincingly with the evidence that I saw around me.
This was the reality of the collectivist ethic in which each should be striving for all, not for himself and his own. It amounted to the infantilizing of people, who had come to believe that they could not, positively should not, be making life-determining decisions for themselves, because their choices might deprive someone else. This view permeates the philosophy behind the National Health Service. The present Labour government still mouths the received wisdom that it is wicked to pay privately for an operation (even though you continue to support the state system through your taxes), because doing so will be using some of the finite resources that might have gone to an NHS patient. The reason, of course, that the resources are quite as finite as they are is because the central government controls and rations the entire system. The number of medical-school places cannot expand according to need, as they would in a market system, but can only increase by government order—and economic stringency keeps them to the minimum thought necessary. Better for more patients to wait for surgery than for any of them to have an advantage over others.
The logic is remorseless. What cannot be had by everyone (at the same time) should not be had by anyone. Equality means that everyone should suffer deprivations in a uniformly inadequate service. If improvements are to be made in a public service like health care or education, they must be made universally at the same instant, so that no one, at any moment, can be said to be disadvantaged.
But of course fields like medicine and teaching progress on the basis of individual innovation and experiment. Advanced research by one specialist at one hospital, or an experiment in teaching literacy in one school, might eventually be copied as best practice throughout the entire profession, but in the first instance, there must be the incentive—and the liberty—to deviate from the norm. Centralized uniformity expressly forecloses such deviation, in the name of equality. (Hence the recent cases of hugely beneficial drug treatments being denied to MS patients because the National Health Service could not afford to prescribe them to all patients. Better that all should suffer equally, than that some should receive what others did not.)
Finally, came the infamous winter of 1979, now legendary as the British “Winter of Discontent.” All my political misgivings came into very sharp focus as the militant unions, egged on by left-wing local government, effectively shut the country down. I had two small children. My husband and I, artist and writer respectively, were piecing together a living out of part-time lecturing and free-lance work. We earned less (and certainly had less job security) than most of the striking municipal workers who allowed rubbish to pile up on our doorstep and refused to clear snow from our streets, making them impassable. Our electricity—and with it our heat and light—went off regularly because of the striking miners and their brother supporters in the electricity and railway industries. Living as we did in a London borough run by Trotskyist councillors, we withstood an exceptionally harsh dose of all this. When the school janitors went on strike, our council obligingly closed the schools “in solidarity” with them. So my elder daughter stayed locked out of her primary school for six weeks.
A bunch of us (incorrigibly upper-middle-class) mothers formed a rota to teach the children ourselves. We asked their regular teachers to come to our houses, or at least to supply books and teaching materials. They would not—because to do so would be, in effect, to cross a picket line. This was what socialist class war meant: not just depriving seven-year-olds of their lessons, but senior-school students of crucial preparation for exams that would determine whether or not they went to college.
It also meant hospitals reduced to emergency cover by striking medical aides, and the dead left unburied by striking municipal gravediggers.
Being plunged into darkness several times a week gave you plenty of time to think. What kind of idyll was it that was supposed to emerge from this ugly, vindictive battle? Was left-wing politics anything more than a gloss for envious vengeance on the one hand, and—on the other—a sinister desire to control the lives of others? And, in the end, wasn’t it the achievements and the nobility of individuals, not collectives, that gave the human condition its point?
The answers to those questions came to me in the darkness of that very cold British winter of 1979. Once heard, they could not be forgotten.