“That feeling of being superior to the official political thought – a feeling that never left us – was not the fruit of unjustified presumption. There was nothing personal in it; it was the natural result of our theoretical position, for we were standing on a higher peak.”
Trotsky: My Life
For half a century, they have been certain – with an unquestionable, instinctive conviction – that they could not conceivably be in the wrong (when did anybody ever hear people such as Germaine Greer or Tariq Ali express an uncertainty?). For the whole of their adult lives, they have known themselves – implicitly and without doubt – to be on the side of justice and freedom, good and right.
How could the boomer generation that was inspired by les evenements in Paris in 1968 be anything other than virtuous when they cared passionately – or so they said – for poor people, for the planet, for personal love? They abhorred war and, over decades, poured into the streets in hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their resistance to a succession of wars. Did those displays not in themselves signify that their participants were people of the highest moral uprightness? They cared for education, for art, for good buildings, for beauty. They were in love with progress and liberty. They were people of joy, even though they habitually saw themselves as struggling under the heel of oppression. In millions across the developed world, they shared each other’s understanding and sympathised intuitively with each other.. Why would it even enter their heads that they might, collectively and individually, be mistaken?
Yet, on a wide range of its key articles of belief, the political generation that developed out of the 1960s and 1970s followed comprehensively false deductions to fatally mistaken conclusions. They took the revolutionary spirit of the Sixties and drilled it into ideological forms that, like Iron Maidens, were to strangle the life out of the age.
They misunderstood the nature of social and technological developments which were occurring in front of their eyes. They misconstrued the eruptive and historic changes that were going on under their feet. They misrepresented the past and they misinterpreted the present, bequeathing confusion to the future. They fell for totalitarian simplicities, many dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to explain complex new developments (such as the social changes that were occurring between the sexes) that Marx and Engels could never have foreseen. All their social enthusiasms have turned out to be catastrophically misplaced and misguided, leading to immensely problematic and continuing crises for succeeding generations.
If you run a check to assess how the world has been improved by the 1960s generation which is now coming towards the end of its active life (and can, therefore, begin to be assessed for its full contribution), it is not easy to come up with anything beyond the Internet (a colossal achievement of imagination and ingenuity) some marvellous records and films, some funny fashions and some quirky art. Against those benefits, they are responsible for having given birth to some terribly serious social troubles.
Most of those troubles result from the Leftist interpretations that the 1960s generation placed upon a group of key social issues that they misconstrued as being primarily concerned with their own personal freedom. At the bottom of their malign effects in our time is the adolescent motto that “The personal is political”.
Thus it is their fault – because it proceeds from their demands for liberties for themselves when they were newly post-adolescent – that drugs and drink are now openly consumed in the streets by schoolchildren and that drug-related crimes of theft and violence are now a widespread general menace. It can be laid at their door – because it derives from their arguments about sexual freedom and the oppressive nature of marriage and the family – that nearly half of all children under 16 are living today with only one of their natural parents. It is their fault – because it results directly from their demands for freedoms for themselves as individuals – that around 200,000 abortions are effected every year in Britain. They are responsible for having created an education system that leaves in one in four of its pupils functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate. They are responsible for having fostered a stifling and sterile political climate in which all discussion and argument is reduced to a meaningless division and opposition between Lefts and Rights that actually exist only in name and in their own cosmology.
They belonged to the most privileged generation that had ever lived. Not only were they the first to be offered higher education more or less freely but they were the first, ever, who would live their entire adult lives without any risk that they might have to face war themselves. Throughout their lives they have enjoyed low unemployment, continuous social prosperity, high personal incomes, previously unknown standards of material well-being, unprecedented levels of health care and peace in their own international sphere
And yet this same generation of people has constructed a world view which is frequently based upon victimhood and oppression, routinely alleging that they themselves were victims of disadvantage and prejudice.
Why did such privileged people – the best educated generation in history – choose to portray themselves as victims? Why did they believe so readily in fictions that could not possibly be true – such as the fiction that one in four women is the victim of domestic violence and that women, in general, are in danger of violence from men in general? Why was this generation so eager to believe in propositions that would disintegrate if any degree of sceptical inquiry or analysis had been applied to them – such as the idea that men and women belonged to antagonistic social classes and that women had to fight a battle for emancipation from an oppressive patriarchal system?
How could they consent so broadly to the proposition that abortion involved only an individual woman’s right to determine issues of her own fertility – excluding all other considerations, such as the rights of the unborn baby, the rights of the father and the rights of the society that was expected to provide and pay for the abortion? Why was this generation so wilfully blind to the obvious truth that a society which endorsed the freedom of individuals to get off their faces with drugs would end up as a society that was half-demented with drugs and drink?
Obviously, the unprecedented collapse in religious faith and observance in the 1960s contributed to the adoption of irrational Leftist faiths by the 1960s generation. They lived through many changes that nobody in the world had ever experienced – most obviously, the introduction of infallible contraception – but the collapse of Christianity may have been the most influential and the least recognised.
At the end of the 1950s, almost everybody in Britain shared some degree of Christian faith, as they had for a millennium. Everybody born in Britain around the time of the Second World War would grow up in households and in schools that followed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and dedication, the teachings of the Christian churches. By the end of the 1960s, only a very small minority of those baby boomers would retain any Christian belief. In their own homes, when they became adults, the great majority of children would be brought up in an atmosphere of agnosticism and of indifference to religion or of outright atheism. In a single decade and a single generation, Britain had been transformed from a nation of faith to a state of unbelief.
This was an earth-shaking change, a colossal cultural revolution that took place at the speed of light but which was taken more or less for granted by those who lived through it. Looking back now over 50 years, however, it appears that the evaporation of Christian belief gave rise to a clutch of beliefs which were not less superstitious but which were, equally, founded upon articles of faith.
It is a commonplace now to say that the growth of belief in astrology, crystals, wizardry, witchcraft and other New Age faiths has been substituted for orthodox Christian observance; but the gullibility of the Soixante-Huitards goes further. In place of Christian orthodoxy, the 1960s generation also substituted a host of social and political irrationalities that have led us all into very serious confusions.
Those irrationalities now constitute the core beliefs of the body of people – it is sometimes called a tribe by its members – which remains of the British Left. That Left may have nothing to say or it may speak with muted or divided voices on such vital functions of state as Brexit, the electoral system, taxation, defence, the monarchy, the police, education and health. But it remains unified, unanimous and unequivocal – retaining the fixed positions it adopted in the 1960s and 1970s – on a number of key questions such as abortion, domestic violence, gender relations and women’s inequalities.
The stances adopted by the Soixante-Huitards on these questions – the attitudes they struck – are logically untenable and unsustainable. Yet they cannot be abandoned by their adherents because they are indispensable to the identity of those individuals and to their position in the tribe. Can you imagine a commentator such as the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee admitting that the case she has been arguing about domestic violence for 30 years rests upon a set of indefensible fictions? Might as well expect Trotsky to have admitted error, viewing the world as he did from his superior peak.
The generation of the 1960s is now drawing towards the end of their lives. As their adherents are removed by death, the irrationalities to which that generation has clung will also be swept away by time and tide. At last, then, after more than 200 years of the largely artificial and tribal division between Left and Right which dates essentially from Rousseau and the French Revolution, it ought to be possible for citizens to address their own political and social needs without paying lip-service to those ancient shibboleths and outmoded superstitions.
The guiding light in which society might see those interests in future should be this: that the tax-payer will no longer pay to subsidise behaviour which is plainly damaging to the interests of society. Mill’s dicta on the sovereignty of the individual over matters concerning his or her own personal life needs to be extended and revised to allow for a social interest in forms of behaviour that are damaging to our wider needs when masses of people follow them. Instead of slavishly following the principle that the personal is political, society might more beneficially in future adhere to the principle that the personal is private up to the point where personal conduct involves a public interest, which may not be identical the interest of the individual. At that point, society has an essential right to determine and to prescribe its political policy regarding the conduct of individuals.
Following that principle could mean, for instance, that abortions should no longer be free and that single mothers would not receive state benefit to support their children. It could mean lowering the school-leaving age to 14 so that the only people who continued in further education would be those who could demonstrate a convincing case that they would benefit; and they might receive lavish funding from the state to continue their studies both at school and at university (funding which would, of course, be withdrawn if they didn‘t prove that they deserved it). It might mean legalising the sale of marijuana and other drugs through licensed and heavily taxed vendors, restricting their sale to adults over the age of 18 and savagely criminalising illegal trading and supply to under-18s.
These may be radical thoughts; but a new style of radicalism is now needed. The radicalism of the 1960s is now thoroughly exhausted and discredited. Increasingly, our society appears to be burdened with the fixed ideas of a long-ago age.
In their place, we now need fresh ideas and a new ways of thinking about politics.
It will only come when those spoiled, selfish, self-righteous old bastards are edged out of the way.