Listening to the ‘lickspittle lackeys’

BERNARD HUGHES spends an entertaining evening with a group of ex-Commies-cum-carping columnists

The title of the meeting asked, ‘Where do ex-Communists go?’ Well, about 70 of them went to London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts to listen to the opinions of five figures on this question.

The composition of the panel, indeed, might also have provided an answer to the question in the meeting’s title: it seems ex-Communists go off to become columnists. On the platform were David Aaronovitch (Guardian), John Lloyd (formerly New Statesman, now Financial Times), Suzanne Moore (Mail on Sunday) and Beatrix Campbell (various), while Francis Beckett (even more various) took the chair.

There were a number of obvious things that could have gone wrong with this event. First, it could easily have had an audience consisting entirely of thirty-somethings and forty-somethings working in the media or public sector management, and who would spend the entire event peering at each other as they vaguely recognised someone they last saw at a CND or anti-apartheid demo in the early 1980s. In fact, the audience’s ages seemed to range from 20 to 80, and questions from the floor demonstrated a pleasingly wide range of perspectives.

But the second danger – that the event would consist simply of wistful nostalgia – loomed as the speakers concentrated on personal reminiscence. John Lloyd spoke of a sense of profound shame about the activities of the movement of which he had been a part. Suzanne Moore, who seemed out of her depth at times, recalled editorial battles at Marxism Today that had more to do with magazine design than politics. Bea Campbell at least brought some analysis to the personal history, making a couple of thoughtful points about the conflict between feminism and the democratic centralism of the Communist party.

Attacking the left

But David Aaronovitch, who is even more combative in person than his newspaper columns suggest, finally brought us up to date at the end of his initial contribution, attacking those on the left who had criticised the elections in Iraq and describing them as representing the antithesis of the progressive ambitions of Communism. He despaired of the uncreative oppositionalism of much of the left, whether it be on PFI hospitals or George Bush’s foreign policy, urging all leftists to remove the word ‘resistance’ from their vocabulary and concentrate on what can actually be achieved.

The tone of all four contributions was almost unremit- tingly gloomy, but the mood was saved by a contribution from the floor. An elderly member of the audience recalled the educational opportunities that involvement in the Communist party had provided him and other working-class people in Lanarkshire between the wars. The force and articulacy of his impromptu speech went a long way in itself to proving his point. Francis Beckett’s delight that the meeting had drawn attention to a positive aspect of the party’s history was almost palpable.

But the question that the meeting was supposed to address – where do ex-Communists go from here? – became limited to discussion of two issues: the war on Iraq and the ‘who do we vote for now?’ question. At least the divisions were clear with Aaronovitch and Lloyd both for the war and Labour, while Campbell and Moore were against the war and critical of the government. John Lloyd described the Blair administration as the best Labour government he had ever known, causing Francis Beckett to remind us pointedly that Lloyd is old enough to remember the Attlee government of 1945-51.

In a way, it seemed an appropriate tribute to the party’s demise that the meeting ended in rancour and disorder. The catalyst for this was a contribution from a veteran Communist in the audience who recalled Lenin’s infamous ‘lickspittle lackeys’ denunciation of journalists and remarked that it seemed an appropriate description of certain members of the panel.

History of abuse

John Lloyd appeared to have defused the situation by remarking levelly that there had been a sad history of Communists resorting to abuse rather than debate and that it was disappointing to see this practice continued here. But the remark provoked David Aaronovitch into a lengthy and bombastic rant, which eventually had Francis Beckett asking him to refrain from personal attacks on audience members while simultaneously trying to deal with Bea Campbell’s demand for a right to reply, she having been the target of a sideswipe earlier in Aaronovitch’s tirade.

Campbell was allowed to begin her reply, but was only 20 seconds into it when further interruptions from Aaronovitch caused the chair to call the meeting to a halt. Referring to his decision to allow Campbell an additional response, Beckett sighed, ‘Oh, well – it seemed like a good idea at the time.’

So did the Communist party, I suppose.

‘Where do ex-Communists go?’ was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in February 2005