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Strange Days Indeed. Francis Wheen. Review.

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Strange Days Indeed. Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate. 2009.

An Essay On Francis Wheen’s ‘Seventies. 

Francis Wheen burst into public view with a scandalous biography of gay Labour MP, Tom Driberg,  (1905 – 1976) “Poet, Philanderer, Legislator and Outlaw.” To the left he made his name with Karl Marx a Life (1999), a splendid study of Marx “the man”. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004) defended the Enlightenment against “holy warriors, anti-scientific relativists, fundamentalists, radical post modernists, New Age mystics or latter-day Chicken Lickens..” Wheen’s Marx’s Das Kapital, a Biography (2006) managed the almost impossible task of making intelligible a book that resembles a “vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created.” It is not everyone’s taste that the author-journalist associates with Nick Cohen and the view that ‘the left’ is menaced by ‘totalitarianism’. But, as a fellow Suffolk dweller, he has a lot of other things on his side. Wit to begin with.

Strange Days Indeed, is about “the most distant of times” the 70s. It was, he claims, a “golden age of Paranoia.” Years no-one would want to revisit. Dominated by “apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever”. Suspicion and fear seeped from heads of State, from Richard Nixon to Harold Wilson, to society at large. Conspiracy thrillers, such as the Parallax View, Pynchon’s novels and the Illuminatus! Trilogy (read by nearly everyone I knew when it was published), were wildly popular. The “frustration” of everyday life ratcheted up the tension. With secret agencies, bugging and infiltrating subversives, and politicians plotting in concealed cabals. In Britain there was talk of an authoritarian national government, military coups and building private armies to crush the left and unions. A decade when the bearers of the ‘60s counter-culture and the left were met with steady hostility and open repression.

This hatred often meant moral panic. Wheen has fun with the absurdity of the 1971 prosecution of Oz magazine for its School Kids issue. Written by a guest team of teenagers one of its greatest crimes was to re-paste a Robert Crumb cartoon with Rupert Bear, carrying a huge erection. The charge? “Conspiracy to corrupt public morals or outrage public decency”. They must have had a point about corruption – I still have a copy, bought when I was at Secondary School. I got my first political kicking from a guardian of decency (Salvation Army) when we OZ supporters tried to disrupt a Festival of Light March.

Much of Strange Days Indeed is devoted to high politics as they descended low. Of Wilson, MI5, Nixon, the CIA, Watergate, and the hideous twists of Mao’s China’s Mass Line. The Great Helmsman was plainly filled with violence and rancour, a scourge of ‘class’ enemies, and the sponsor of a Court that pursued their own ‘Marxist’ ultra-nationalist vendettas. The Chairman’s wife, Jiang Qing, was “afraid of sounds and strangers”, and devoted to her own “sadistic omnipotence”. Elsewhere there were the Russian ‘years of stagnation” during which dissidents were imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals. There are chapters on the FBI, the CIA and the fraught relations during Harold Wilson Premiership with his own secret services.

The Left, Wheen observes, shifted towards its own clandestine practice. There was a great deal of romantic fantasy about guerrilla warfare, which moved from rural foci to urban insurrection. Some, “convinced the revolution had begun” in 1968, moved from “street theatre” to fanaticism. Redoubling the effort while losing sight of any objective, they struck a pose, and descended into a hallucinatory parody of “revolutionary action”. Some launched their underground schemes, from the Baader-Meinhof Band (RAF), the Brigate Rosse,  the Angry Brigade, to more substantial metropolitan and rural guerrilla movements in Latin America, the South, East and South Asia. It was a decade when “the cities of the non-Communist world were alive with the sounds of explosions and police sirens.” Other far-left groups engaged in strident demonstrations and violent class struggle. The state responded in kind. Wheen fails to mention (if he even is familiar with this) in any real detail the tortuous history of the most important in Europe, Italian militarist leftist groups, notably the Brigate Rosse (surely the most serious case of wild, often justified, paraonia around). They quickly began to spiral into dubious actions, and mutual suspicion, no doubt aided by secret service manipulation.

Domestically, it is not the still influential Communist Party of Great Britain that gets much mention in Strange Days. Nor a great deal on industrial left-led militancy. There are pages on the Miners’ strikes in 1973 (the Battle of Saltley Gate – mass picketing), the Three Day Week (1973 – 4), and the ‘Winter of Dicontent’ . Nor are other working class rooted lefts examined. The largish leftist group, International Socialists, which lost its main Midlands industrial base in this period, is not seriously covered. . As it  became the Socialist Workers Party,  a ‘demoncratic centralist’ organisation, it set down hysterical and opportunist political norms which continue to have an impact on the left to this day.

Instead we get a tour of exotica. After the gestural neo-Situationist Angry Brigade, it is the antics of Gerry Healy’s much smaller Workers Revolutionary Party, and the even smaller International Marxist Group (IMG) that grab Wheen’s attention. The former, leader a “squat bullet-headed thug” considered the collapse of capitalism imminent. He bullied his way through the cadres and raped female members. The IMG, he considers, had different faults, political ones. They “drooled” over a wide range of guerrillas and supported the Provisional IRA (the correct formula here is “unconditionally but critically”).

It is true that while on this path the group found time to “lionise” some ‘heroes’ of very dubious dramas (echoing in reality, the enthusiasms of the Parisian left). * But this soon shifted. Perhaps the “reluctance” to take up arms was a sign of self-indulgence – though personally I would not have liked to end up like former Red Brigade members in exile, with unclean hands, brimming with mutual rancour. But if so, the gourmets of vicarious revolutions had other dishes to feast on. The IMG’s Fourth International thought in terms of a European ‘new mass vanguard’ of students and employees. They anticipated an “explosion of mass struggle” and “dual power” In Britain this was focused on calls for a General Strike. The IMG’s best-known public face (though far from its formal leader) Tariq Ali, Wheen observes, predicted workers’ Soviets across Europe in the decade. But then Tariq Ali later considered that Boris Yeltsin was a going to prove a good democratic socialist….

Drawn by the romance of armed struggle and individuals such as Ulrike Meinhof Wheen only briefly sketches the real mass uprising in Portugal during 1974. After post-Corporate Dictator Caetano Portugal a quasi-insurrectional landscape developed. The Carnation Revolution, as Tariq Ali predicted, saw near-Soviets in the Portuguese factories. This was not to last. Although, by contrast, land occupations endured years in the central Communist regions around Evora. The confused politics of the Revolution (including a counter-strike against an alleged Communist coup) soon ended in a stabilised country aligned to NATO, not the Warsaw Pact. As an activist in the original Portuguese-led Solidarity campaign, one began to get a sense of the importance of large-scale movements rather than striking personalities, or intense political factions. This, for many of us, signalled the route that much of the radical left would take in the coming years – away from Che Guevara and back to broader democratic socialist organisations. Such a turn, like the principal issues that dominated far-left activism during the decade – the rebirth of the Labour left as ‘Bennism’, and the large-scale violent street fighting with the National Front – get ignored in Strange Days. Though apparently he did go to a Rock Against Racism concert.

In pursing radical performance Wheen ventures into other areas he is not genuinely familiar with. To him the self-dissolution of the French Gauche Prolétarienne (GP) in 1974 was linked to disgust at the 1972 Black September Munich Olympics Massacre. This may have played a, delayed, part. But it was much more the result of enduring rancour at their 1972 witch-hunt against alleged killer of Brigette Dewevre (a miner’s daughter) at Bruay-en-Artois. A part of France that resembles the bleakest English proletarian North. The Maos called for the castration and lynching of the alleged murderer, a Notary, and Rotary Club notable, Pierre Leroy. Prominent GP members who protested at this hysteria were dismissed as “vipers”. A woman amongst them was called by the future Editor of Libération, Serge July, “the daughter of a bourgeois”, “afraid of seeing your father’s head on a pike”. Despite this certainty the case has yet to be solved.

The dissolution of the GP left many different legacies. What happened to its former supporters as the decade wore on? Wheen cites André Glucksman, as an emblematic leftist intellectual of the ’68 generation. He was a leading activist, not a leader. But his career is of interest. It shows something of the ‘70s Strange Days passes over. Glucksman had begun to drift from Marxism in 1972. He was heavily influenced by Solzehenitsyn, defending the “plèbe” (plebs) against class based Leninism. Another figure was Benny Lévy (‘Victor’). He, rather more central to the GP, was Sartre’s secretary – which explains the ties between them and the ageing Existentionalist. The strong reservations felt by Simone de Beauvoir (in La Cérémonie des adieux) about Sartre’s relationship with the ‘Maos’ stem largely from Lévy’s unbounded – changing – enthusiasms.

Glucksman, and Lévy, were, by the end of the decade fierce opponents of the Union of the Left, and increasingly of the “actually existing left” as such. The former became associated with the ‘nouvelle philosophie’ (which saw totalitarianism in Marx himself). During its heyday 1976- 77, he was linked with media celebrity Bernard Henri Lévy (whose leftist phase was much briefer). Glucksman’s more recent backing for Sarkozy was rewarded last year with the Légion d’Honneur. In another direction, Sartre’s aide, Benny Lévy became a student of the Torah and descended into obscurity. Not everyone became a renegade to the left. A part of the GP went into mass movements (such as the supporters of the mid-70s Lip Watch-making factory occupation). Individual former GPers have continued in leftist campaigns to this day. Yet others became highly respectable. Serge July became a 1980s ‘social liberal’ who enthused about quasi-Blairite modernisation in the formerly leftist, Libération. ** A small fraction went on to become real terrorists, in the 1980s Action Directe. To explain these careers would need a lot more than any tale about the consequences of leftist ‘paranoia’. Though the New Philosophers certainly tended (and tend) to see the threat of the Gulag behind any left-wing movement.

There are unfortunately many other flaws in the book. Most of the history and the anecdotes are known to all who care to read (On Mao, see Simon Leys, writing in the 70s, well before Chang and Halliday, on the Soviet Union, Zhores and Roy Medvedev – whom he cites). The US President’s equal opportunities bigotry and psychological blemishes are as notorious as Homer Simpson’s love of Duff. Wilson’s PM years, his fear of intelligence agencies, and his ‘fat spider’ and ‘blind beggar’ stage, are so well known they are practically in dictionaries of quotations. And the history of the 70’s left, including its flirtation with ‘armed struggle’ has been done to death – on the RAF and the far left. In France a cottage industry regularly publishes weighty tomes on the post-68 radicals. Many of whom are still around. Little is “distant” or “strange” here. Nor is Wheen’s main thesis of much solidity: there is never any indication that the ‘paranoia’ evoked came anywhere near, to mention the obvious, other historical waves of pathological suspicion – take that of the Great Terror in 1930s USSR.

Strange Days, then, lacks investigative depth. No doubt there is much to say from the vantage point of the New Statesman during the decade. But it was not a good listening post from which to gather material for the ambitious story, englobing such a wide political spectrum, and real movements that he attempts. Wheen’s fleeting encounter with the ‘alternative society’ came at its alleged end. Though I can recall squats and flats in London that still flew this flag up to the end of the decade. He does not appear to have read accounts of how some from this trend, far from becoming obsessed with ‘changing themselves’, ultra-violence, or ‘them’, got involved in the serious left precisely during the ‘70s. There is next to nothing about how feminism engaged with of the left. Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal’s revealing autobiographical writings illustrate the real transition from the ‘underground’ to socialist feminism are absent. Their Beyond the Fragments with Hilary Wainwright,  summed up the development of their, and the next, generation. There is nothing on the growing influence of Marxism – however transient – on the intelligentsia.  The work of Stuart Hall, who examined the rising star of Free-marketeers, and the ‘Great moving Right show”  that led to Thatcher’s ‘authoritarian populsim’, does not shine on Wheen’s horizon. Nor, as we already mentioned, is there much on the growth of  the Labour Left and the radical left’s engagement with the labour movement.

Still, Wheen has some perceptive observations (as an essay marker would say). Give me time and I’ll recall them. As someone who participated in the left during the decade, I would like to be able to say that I never fell for the romance of violent revolution. But I can’t. All one can observe is that it was force of circumstance that drew us away from conspiracies, real or imagined, and into democratic left politics.

Whatever. This is a world far from today’s “fusion paranoia”. This thesis about the 70s can only bear so much. In a much more limited way the concept has been put to good use by David Aaronovitch – Voodoo History indeed. It certainly stands good when applied to the various Truth Campaigners worrying like dogs over the bones of 9/11 victims. But Wheen stretches his argument too far – and the famous humour cannot cover what is a rather thin dish of gruelling effort. That is, an attempt to squeeze a complex world into a theory rather than to test it. Rather similar to conspiracy theorising in fact.

* On the IMG’s mentor, the Fourth International (USFI), and its flirtation with Latin American ‘armed struggle’ see Ernest Mandel. Jon Willem Stuje. 2009. Pages 186 – 192.

** A very amusing polemical book by the pioneering gay activist Guy Hocquenghem summarised some time back the developing careers of many former ’68 revolutionaries in this vein, Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary.  1986.

Strange Days Indeed


Written by Andrew Coates

February 7, 2010 at 11:23 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] for reviews. Malachi does C4’s Mo Mowlam biopic, while Coatesy tackles Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Fight Back! covers what looks like an interesting book on the Colombian FARC. And you always get […]

  2. […] Strange days indeed: Andrew Coates reviews Francis Wheen. Published in: […]

    Poumly « Poumista

    February 10, 2010 at 9:44 pm

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