Labour spent a lot of time last week making furious complaints about Conservative ministers filling public posts with Tory sympathizers. A predictable portion of the media actually took this seriously. The rest of us fell about laughing. As was frequently pointed out amid the hilarity, the last Labour government was spectacularly successful at stuffing every public body, quango, and national institution within its reach with soft-Left placemen who could be relied on to cultivate the ground for its programme.
Now, Conservative ministers are left facing a wall of institutionally embedded, mutually supportive ideological enemies, snugly ensconced in virtually every arm of the country’s social, educational and cultural apparatus. And so, they are forced into an apparent war of political patronage – and are doubly disadvantaged by having to deny that they are engaged in any such thing.
Because the Left has politicised so much of public life, particularly in areas that affect mass opinion, such as the broadcasting media and education, the dismantling of that process itself becomes a political act: appointments that might once have been non-partisan and politically neutral must now be part of a campaign to counteract a deliberate manipulation of public influence. Having created the problem, Labour then gets mileage out of its opponents’ need to unravel it.
But let’s leave that aside. Michael Gove can fight the small battle of who will be the chairman of Ofsted with his usual unblinking determination. Deciding who is to be head of this, and director of that is the least of the problems that his department, and any Conservative government that truly wants to change social attitudes, has to face. By far the more insidious – and more intractable – power-grab of the past generation was by the hard, not the soft, Left, and it was quite independent of any government direction. It was, in fact, a phenomenon about which New Labour was deeply ambivalent.
The Labour party in the Eighties may have had a highly publicised struggle with the Militant Tendency in its own membership, but it never confronted the infiltration of wider civic life by Left-wing activists, partly out of cowardice but mainly because the rabid anti-Toryism, which those activists could be relied on to inculcate, was not unhelpful electorally.
So as someone who spent her youth as a Left-wing activist, let me try to explain how we got here. Lots of people this week have referred to that memorable slogan of infiltration, “the long march through the institutions”, and most of them have wrongly attributed it to the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. In fact, it was coined by one of the iconic New Left figures of my generation, Rudi Dutschke, in the late Sixties. The prevailing philosophy of our time was that violent revolution – a mass uprising by the organized working class – was largely out of the question. Bourgeois capitalism was too monolithic and too successfully deceptive: the proletariat was deluded, forced into a state of false consciousness, and would never spontaneously rebel against their oppression.
The only solution to this was to invade the areas of life that were most directly responsible for opinion-forming and the bending of minds: to “work from within”, as we used to say, to alter the consciousness of the masses, who would then be made to see the reality of their own situation and become more receptive to the message of revolution. I had dozens of comrades on the New Left who became union officials, broadcasters, teachers, and lecturers (the old polytechnics were full of such people) with this explicit motivation.
Anti-capitalist, class-war jargon permeated public discourse in the Seventies to an extent that now sounds risible. The Haringey primary school that my children attended was forced to end its Suzuki violin classes because the NUT representative on the staff declared the violin to be “a bourgeois instrument”. Later, the national curriculum turned subjects such as geography into polemical condemnations of colonial empires. The worst of this may be passed now in the schools, but not before whole generations were put through a sheep-dip of hatred for their own historical culture. For Mr. Gove, the deconstruction has only just begun.
But there is a larger story here – and one that is even more difficult to uproot than the takeover of state education by what used to be called “vulgar Marxism”. It is about the obsessive dedication of political activists who believe themselves to be on a moral mission and the almost insurmountable difficulty for Conservative or apolitical people in dealing with them.
It is almost impossible for those who lead normal lives with private preoccupations to win out over professional activists who are trained in the techniques of public influence. An example of this is the way in which groups of activists conduct themselves at public meetings. We were always instructed not to sit together but to scatter ourselves through the audience, so that when we made noise (which we were encouraged to do) it would seem as if the whole hall was joining in.
This is precisely what Left-wing activists in BBC Question Time audiences do, by the way. Whenever I’ve been on the panel, I have been struck by it. The audience is not, as the folks at home often think, overwhelmingly on the Left: it is just that the Leftist groupies have positioned themselves around the room and are causing enough ruckus to intimidate those who disagree with them. The producers of this hapless programme always claim that they screen out activists with their advance audience questionnaires. So let me tell you something else about committed political agitators: they tell lies. And they do that – I mean this quite charitably – with the most honorable intentions.
In the name of the exploited working class, any amount of deception is justified: any intervention in battles about which you know little, any instruction to go along and help the comrades in their struggle at such-and-such a factory or in such-and-such a borough, with your mass-produced placards and your copies of Socialist Worker. Shove your placard in front of the cameras, chant your slogans and create a sense of organized momentum. Dominate the news coverage and distort the public perception of the event. Any tactic – vote-rigging, outright election fraud, the orchestration of a party leadership contest – is done in the name of the proletariat against which such great historical crimes have been committed.
The version of Marxism that was disseminated was garbled and diluted but its main tenets came through clearly enough: wealth creation is generally wicked, and poverty is an inevitable product of capitalism. Showing why both those statements are wrong and dangerous is going to be a long slog.