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Political Awakenings

How family, feelings and unlikely accidents can shape a lifetime of politics…

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October 18, 2019

I grew up in an era when social democracy in Britain was (to my naive eyes at least) indistinguishable from Thatcherism. Tony Blair, for he was PM, had recently invaded Iraq along with George W. Bush. And he would boast about Britain’s draconian trade union laws.

And so, I decided to become a communist. Initially it was more of an oppositional identity than an active political affiliation, a way of thumbing my nose at the stuffy Right-wing adults who seemed ubiquitous in  rural Somerset, where I grew up.

My youthful radicalism didn’t involve standing on picket lines chanting slogans, but I did have an answer to every question. As Arthur Koestler wrote in The God That Failed, with an ideology like communism, “the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke”.

Put another way, I no longer needed to think hard about anything complicated. ‘Dialectical Materialism’ provided all the answers.

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Inevitably, given these leanings, I travelled to Cuba in 2006 to learn more about the political culture. I spent a month there, travelling around, hanging out with locals, eating and drinking with them. I even got to see Fidel Castro speak one morning.

It was an eye-opening experience. Material poverty was a feature of everyday life, but the intellectual landscape was equally bleak and the system was repressive and punitive. There was only one newspaper. Official permission had to be given if you wanted to move to a different part of the country or travel overseas — and it was often denied to those who criticised the system. Independent trade unions were banned and the state acted brutally against those deemed politically suspect: according to Fidel Castro, there were around 15,000 political prisoners in Cuba in the 1970s.

Not that such grimness put off the regime’s foreign admirers. Gabriel García Márquez, a personal friend of Castro and a supporter of Cuba’s communist government, demonstrated the hypocrisy of those who praise despotic regimes from a distance when he told the New York Times that he personally could never live under the Cuban system:

“I would miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world.”

I hated this attitude and still do. It stinks. Under this schema, Cubans were not people but props that allowed others — who usually lived in great comfort — to retain their mental model of the world. It was revulsion at this hypocrisy, which I saw everywhere in western leftist circles, that prompted me to question my own worldview.

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Later on, after I had thrown out the Marxist books about Cuba I owned, I began to discover a rich tradition of exiled Cuban writers. The most fearless of these was Reinaldo Arenas, author of Before Night Falls, an autobiography of his time inside Castro’s prison system.

Arenas eventually escaped from Cuba. But when he did, he began to encounter a type of person he came to refer to as a “Communist Deluxe”. These were western academics who would relativise away Cuban suffering as either an acceptable price to pay for the triumph of socialism, or a consequence of United States aggression. Arenas recounts one such encounter in his autobiography:

“I remember that at a Harvard University banquet a German professor said to me: ‘In a way I can understand that you may have suffered in Cuba, but I am a great admirer of Fidel Castro and I am very happy with what he has done in Cuba.’

While saying this, the man had a huge, full plate of food in front of him, and I told him: ‘I think it’s fine for you to admire Fidel Castro, but in that case, you should not continue eating that food on your plate; no one in Cuba can eat food like that, with the exception of Cuban officials.’

I took his plate and threw it against the wall.”

I gained very little from my brief phase as a teenage communist. But I did glean insight into the psychology of changing one’s mind. A denial phase is common in cases where a person loses their faith. Paradoxically, the more doubts I had about socialism, the more vociferously I would defend the Cuban Revolution.

As I began to doubt, my initial reaction was to double down. Arguing with political opponents who understood the reality of the Cuban system better than I did, I would aggressively trot out the phrases I had heard other communists using: Cuba had great education and health care, Cuba was under attack by the United States, there were different versions of democracy.

I held onto my pride, but I was losing my ideological footing. The rhetorical arguments of my opponents were registering somewhere in my brain. Underneath the bluster, seeds of doubt were germinating. And I had many Cuban friends telling me the reality of what was happening in their country. It would have been grotesque to lecture them about the system they had grown up in.

Was mine another of those journeys from Left to Right that have become a tedious dinner table cliché?

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Perhaps. But it wasn’t much of an ‘awakening’. That would imply a Damascene conversion of some sort — the exchanging of one set of ideological certainties for another. My own change of heart represented instead a loss of faith — a weary acknowledgement that no single political doctrine was ever going to answer all the questions I had about the world. I imagine that most politically conscious people go through something like this. It is a necessary pre-requisite to political maturity.

It feels especially depressing, then, that today it is certainty — the conviction that I am right and you are wrong— that is popular among political activists of all parties. To want to think about things, with a curiosity about what works and what doesn’t, has become synonymous with weakness, vacillation and a lack of authenticity.

It would be wrong to view the recent past — the supposedly ‘non-ideological’ age that preceded this one — as an abode of good sense and reason. I’ve already mentioned some of the disasters that turned me away from the mainstream as a teenager — Iraq, Blairite spin, a supposedly Left-leaning government constantly kowtowing to the tabloids.

Yet all of that said, it does feel like we’ve collectively immatured with age in the decade since the financial crisis. Perhaps it’s time for a mass political awakening. If so, I hope it resembles my own in one sense at least: I hope we’ll see a loosening of those ideological bonds which delude us into thinking we already have all the answers.

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