I turned out to the splendour of the ICA’s Nash Room on a Monday night for the same reason as I assumed other people would go – to see that traitor of the left Nick Cohen publicly crucified on the painted stucco walls. The title was a ruse, the 1968 New Left sub-plot merely to draw this Quisling out into the open to be held to account for his support for the invasion of Iraq.
To fast forward to the end of the event the only thing keeping me awake is the desire to ask the panel how we’ve managed to talk about the left for nearly two hours without mentioning the working class once. Not once did Hilary Wainwright, Mick Hume or Cohen mention the working class. Martin Kettle talked about how the New Left of 1968 was a rejection of workerism – well as an Oxford grad that would have appealed wouldn’t it.
Nick Cohen predictably enough saw it as the point at which the left dabbled with the dark forces with the non-western extreme right such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mick Hume seemed to think the left owed its inheritance to the Enlightenment.
None of this was a left that I recognised. My inheritance came via my grandfather who went from the coalmines of Co. Durham to the trenches at Vimy Ridge and back to shifts in the Wycombe paper mills. I’d grown up thinking my political inheritance went back through the Trade Unions (another word not used) to the Diggers and the Peasants Revolt via religious non-conformists.
It ended up, contributions from the floor included, as posh people talking about the Third World and postmodernism, intervention, environmentalism and multiculturalism. Nobody mentioned class or property or ownership. These were the bedrock of the left, not interventionism. Not Iraq – I know plenty of people down in Devon who are pro-hunt and anti-war, bloody hell even the Daily Mail are against the war now, it’s hardly a left issue. But class is a Left issue, when Nick Cohen bangs the drum for war it's working class men who'll fight it, just as my step-grandfather did in Iraq in the 1920's (before seeing out his days in the engineering works).
The question I was left with at the end, was not to Nick Cohen about how he lost the plot and joined the Neo-Cons and became one of the people he writes about who calls themselves Left-wing whilst supporting the far right. It wasn’t to Mick Hume the supposed Lefty who takes the Murdoch dollar. But to all of them, was this New Left legacy that they supposedly represent a Non-Left, a splintering into bourgeois single issue groups, the politics of the farmers market, a smug belief in property and investment and that we’re all better off than we used to be.
I withdraw, frustrated, to the pub with Jerry (we met at Hilary's 'Socialist' paper in '92 - I made tea and opened the post) and over the next couple of hours and pints (excuse the typos, blame the Stella) found a left that we recognise, one in which the event of '68 are a blip. We talk about Venezuela not in starry eyed, distant terms but as "well if they can do it why can't we?".
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