Socialist Classics: Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

Issue 56 (June 2014) saw Tara O’Sullivan discussing a revolutionary approach to education and social change.

In 1845, as he was working out a way of seeing things which would revolutionise the world, Karl Marx noted that some materialists see people as utterly dictated by their education and circumstances, a view which forgets “that circumstances are changed by people and that the educator must himself be educated”. At the end of the day, education, education, education is at the heart of what socialists seek to do. This is not just a question of what goes on in school classrooms —crucial as that is—but how people learn to understand and shape their world, and how socialist ideas get presented and accepted. The idea that the way knowledge is shared is at the heart of social change, and that social change is at the heart of the way knowledge is shared, formed the foundation for the work of Paulo Freire.

Freire was born in Brazil in 1921 into a comfortable middle-class family. But the economic depression of the following decade took a toll on his family’s fortunes and, although they later recovered their position, the uncertainty of this period may well have helped to shape Freire’s outlook. He became a teacher, eventually working on literacy programmes among the country’s poor. They were so successful that he was forced into exile when a military clique seized control of the country, but he continued his work in Chile. He published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, expounding the philosophy behind his educational practice.

He characterises the conventional model of education bitterly:

This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).… Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositors and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and ‘makes deposits’ which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education…

While lip service is nowadays officially paid to a more mutual interaction between teacher and students, this is more appearance than reality. Even banks themselves have replaced the officious managers of old with a supposedly more customer-friendly open door, while still playing the same role in perpetuating inequality. Likewise, education is still premised on lodging information in students’ heads to be regurgitated as required for the sake of exams, points, quali­fications. Even with the best will on the part of teachers, the imperative to allocate people to roles in the capitalist economy ultimately shapes how they are taught.

Real education works very differently, insists Freire:

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information. …there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only men who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.

(The book constantly refers to the thoughts and actions of “men”, with women not getting a look in. While this terminological failure could be partly put down to the over-gendered language of the times, Freire’s failure to even mention the specific nature of how women experience the world is a more fundamental one.)

As against ‘banking’ education, which takes for granted the world as it is, “problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in trans­formation”. The educator’s “efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking”, meaning that “both are simultaneously teachers and students”.

the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students—no longer docile listeners—are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-examines his earlier considerations as the students express their own. …the organized, systematized, and developed ‘re-presentation’ to individuals of the things about which they want to know more.

Such education is unapologetically revolutionary, challenging the existing order of things and working towards a different, human society. Struggle for such social transformation is needed for emancipatory education to work, but the critical thinking entailed in such education is just as necessary to achieve that transformation:

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection… it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection…

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” The human­itarian approach to education essentially reproduces the ‘banking’ concept. While it is concerned with the well-being of the poor, and often sincerely, it still sees itself holding the keys to knowledge, allowing the oppressed judicious doses of cut-and-dried facts to be learned. Even if the avowed aim is to help them live better lives, “not even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift”.

Here and throughout the book, Freire is not just discussing the activity of educationalists as such, but of all who aim to bring people a greater awareness of the world. The lines between classroom education and the political education of a revolutionary movement aiming to change consciousness and the world are deliberately blurred —or rather, their basic identity is affirmed, “the eminently peda­gogical character of the revolution”.

So there is no room for the notion that a liberating pedagogy is something to be introduced ‘after the revolution’. First of all, this conception of revolution as a single point in time is mistaken: “the taking of power is only one moment—no matter how decisive—in the revolutionary process… there is no absolute ‘before’ or ‘after’, with the taking of power as the dividing line”. To postpone education based on dialogue and problem posing to an indefinite future means sticking with ‘banking’ education for the present. Even if the information to be deposited within passive learners is revolutionary in intent, this approach inherently contradicts the revolution:

they cannot use the methods of banking education in the pursuit of liberation, as they would only negate that pursuit itself. Nor may a revolutionary society inherit these methods from an oppressor society.… In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking method as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset.

Revolutionary education is a means as well as an end, a method of bringing about change as well as its result. The same goes for the way revolutionaries organise: “organization only corresponds to its nature and objective if in itself it constitutes the practice of freedom”. Indeed, critical and creative dialogue through every phase “is one of the most effective instruments for keeping the revolution from becoming institutionalized and stratified in a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy”.

However, “for the Leftist sectarian, ‘tomorrow’ is decreed beforehand, is inexorably pre-ordained”. He treats people “as objects which must be saved from a burning building” rather than as subjects of the revolutionary process. He “feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer”, considering himself “the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom—which must then be given to (or imposed upon) the people” by “monologue, slogans and communiqués”.

As against that, “Scientific revolutionary humanism cannot, in the name of revolution, treat the oppressed as objects to be analysed and (based on that analysis) presented with prescriptions for behaviour… cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers”. Their objective is

not to ‘win the people over’ to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.

From the word go, revolutionaries must learn while they teach: they

do not go to the people in order to bring them a message of ‘salvation’, but in order to come to know through dialogue with them both their objective situation and their awareness of that situation… Although they may legitimately recognize themselves as having, due to their revolutionary consciousness, a level of revolutionary knowledge different from the level of empirical knowledge held by the people, they cannot impose themselves and their knowledge on the people. They cannot sloganize the people, but must enter into dialogue with them, so that the people’s empirical knowledge of reality, nourished by the leaders’ critical knowledge, gradually becomes transformed into knowledge of the causes of reality.

But this does not mean stopping short at the views currently held by the people: “Neither invasion by the leaders of the people’s world view not mere adaptation by the leaders to the (often naïve) aspirations of the people is acceptable.” Freire gives the example of a grassroots demand for wage increases. It would be wrong to limit political action to such a demand, but equally wrong to “overrule this popular demand” in favour of immediate abolition of the wages system. A synthesis is needed which supports the demand while posing it as just one aspect of a wider problem whose solution necessarily goes far further than higher wages.

There are flaws in Freire’s analysis. He speaks of dialogue between “leaders” and “the people” throughout. “Usually this leadership group is made up of men who in one way or another have belonged to the social strata of the dominators”, he writes. Although he constantly stresses that they can’t be true revolutionaries until they leave behind them all traces of their old class outlook towards the poor, these leaders are an external force who “go to the people”. The vagueness, and even ambiguity, of an undifferentiated “people” is problematic, ignoring very important class distinctions and their political implications. But above all, there is no understanding that revolutionary consciousness can emerge from within the oppressed themselves, that in struggle they can bring forth their own leaders. In fact, Freire concludes that the people cannot work out their own salvation unaided: “Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders—in their communion, in their praxis—can this theory be built.”

This is largely due to the influence of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, whose politics are often uncritically referenced by Freire. His mistake lies in not going far enough in his insistence that liberation can only come from the people themselves. Just as teachers and students merge into one in his educational model, leaders and workers must merge into one in revolution, their functions becoming complementary and undivided aspects of a unified praxis. But it is entirely in the spirit of Freire’s own revolutionary pedagogy that we should question and hope to deepen his ideas, in the hope of better fitting them for the work of human liberation which inspired him.

Lockout tales

In March 2014 (Issue 55) Noel McDermott reviewed a collection of essays on Dublin 1913 and its legacy.

One Hundred Years Later: The Legacy of the Lockout, Edited by Mary Muldowney with Ida Milne (Seven Towers)

Where this book differs from much of what has appeared around the centenary of 1913 is in its focus on oral history. A group of volunteers, motivated by an interest in working-class history and a desire to preserve it, have spoken to a range of people about the Dublin lockout, and presented the results in a series of essays around various themes and personalities. The result makes for more interest­ing reading than most of the more ‘official’ commemorative offerings.

This approach yields a fascinating, if disturbing, conclusion to the story of James Nolan, killed by the blow of a police baton the night before Bloody Sunday. Alan MacSimóin relates the story up to the mass funeral where thousands of trade unionists came to pay their respects to a martyred comrade. But his interview with a great grand-daughter of Nolan’s widow tells us that she struggled to provide for their three children before her own death in 1915. The two sons ended up in Artane industrial school, which one of them took particularly hard, leading to bed wetting. The Christian Brothers punished this with all the ferocity they are notorious for, and we can only hope the abuse went no further than that. A photograph of Nolan’s grave shows that a headstone was only erected decades later. It all adds up to a shocking story of the Irish labour movement singularly failing to remember and stand by those who suffered in its cause.

Not all the essays have as much to add, however. The Citizen Army’s chief of staff Michael Mallin has gone in recent years from being one of the lesser known figures of our history to one of the better known, with a biography and a television documentary telling his story. Unfortunately, Des Dalton’s essay on him is something of a step backwards. Mallin wasn’t “discharged from the [British] army when he got malaria”, but served his full term and more. When he took over the running of the ITGWU hall in Inchicore, he didn’t become “secretary of the union branch there”. The omission of any reference to Mallin’s less than comradely conduct at his court martial in 1916 is strange too. Mallin’s eldest son wrote articles about his father but, while their publication in book form is mentioned in passing, no detail is given here, nor any sign of them being drawn upon. (Mícheál Ó Mealláin by Séamas Ó Mealláin was published by Coiscéim in 2012, and reviewed in Red Banner 50.)

A century on, no direct oral history of the lockout can be collected, of course, and so what we have here is something the editor’s introduction calls “Post-memory”, traditional narratives of events as heard by later generations rather than the straight testimony of protagonists. This can still add very valuable insights, but works best when supplemented by contemporary records—and those authors who do so here succeed best.

Dublin has thankfully now progressed far enough along the scale of civilisation to name bridges after women, but hopefully Rosie Hackett will become more than that. We learn a good bit more about Hackett from her god-daughter (interviewed here by Mary Muldowney), including that she combined her mould-breaking union activism with very traditional Catholicism—quite a common blend at the time. On the other hand, we could gladly have done without a great grandson of William Martin Murphy telling Ida Milne how much of “a true patriot” he was. More nauseating was the same man’s appearance in a recent RTÉ documentary trying to rehabilitate Murphy as “a man who created so much employment”. Depriving people of a living will always remain his biggest claim to fame.

As for Murphy’s sworn enemy, this book shows that the last word on Larkin has still not been said. One anecdote tells of Larkin’s anger at seeing a butcher’s messenger boy struggling with an overloaded bike, vowing to visit every butcher in Dublin to put a stop to it. Séamus Fitzpatrick puts his finger on the fact that “Jim Larkin never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself”, suffering every step of the way with those who followed him. This was why “he was like a radical ghost” even in death, a lingering political presence for Seán Oliver’s father and people like him. At the same time the opinion of Seán Nolan recalled here rings true: “he was impossible to do anything with and impossible to do anything without”.

But it was Larkin’s words and deeds that made the difference. Fergus Whelan’s claim “that Larkin’s influence and Connolly’s influence on the labour movement was probably more profound from the songs that resulted rather than anything they wrote themselves” is well wide of the mark. There have always been trade unionists who liked a sing-song, but union songs never gripped the popular imagination in the way that republican songs, for instance, once did.

The essays here show some diligent research and promising exposition, and it is understandable if some are marred by easily avoidable errors. John Gibbons’s account of the 1911-12 Wexford lockout outlines the central role of union organiser P T Daly, but gets his first name wrong. Sarah Lundberg and Joe Mooney speculate that the 1901 Taff Vale judgement—which made unions liable for employers’ losses from strikes—may have hindered solidarity action in 1913, but that judgement had been famously repealed in 1906. Alex Klemm notes a reference to Máire and Sighle Maher running a shop in the Tara Street area which was often raided by the police in 1913 because of their sympathy with the strikers, but finds “No trace of either woman” in the 1911 census. However, once you remember that many people filled in their census forms in Irish, you can see Máire Ní Mheachair, “ceannuidhe nuaidheachta” (newsagent) at 9 Tara Street, and her sister Sighle around the corner at 3 George’s Quay with the rest of the family.

Lundberg and Mooney’s essay, the longest in the book, is a fascinating look at the ties of solidarity among Dublin dockers and the threats to them. They recognise that there were plenty of local scabs in 1913 before the employers started importing them. Late that year, a dock company evicted strikers from company houses on Merchants’ Road. The authors examine the local school register for the following year for the origins of those who took over their homes. This study—which deserves far more than a footnote—shows that two thirds of them were from outside the area, but many of those were from other parts of Dublin, even neighbouring parishes.

The close-knit nature of dock communities around the world is legendary. Working alongside neighbours and relatives meant “there was a strength because they were familiar to each other, they grew up with each other”, as John ‘Miley’ Walsh puts it. The cut-throat nature of non-unionised dock work necessitated tight bonds, but that tightness could also become exclusive. What Paddy Daly diplomatic­ally calls “The North/South thing” made enemies of people who had only the width of the Liffey between them, while demarcations of skill were jealously guarded against other workers. Like British mining communities, another iconic arena of the movement, the cohesion bordering on clannishness characteristic of dockers is far from typical, as most industries have always drawn workers from diverse areas and backgrounds. This is even truer today, and there is a recognition here of the need for new approaches to meet new challenges.

The ‘post-memory’ of the lockout is uneven. Some of those involved never mentioned it to their families. Mick O’Reilly thinks “there was more of a knowledge and an interest in the fiftieth anniversary”, which probably reflected the optimism of an expanding movement in the 1960s. Eimear Ging interviews fellow union activists in the Dublin health service, and finds an almost alarming gap in awareness of what happened in 1913. But those same activists have grasped the essential lesson, perhaps better than more accomplished historians have. Eileen Byrne points out that workers then “had no food in their bellies, but they had fire in their bellies”. Jackie Brown realises the need to reclaim that spirit: “I think people have to face adversity and, you know, hold it and just say ‘I have to get out there and show my force’”.

In the beginning

Henry Gibson reviewed an account of the roots of religion in Issue 54 (December 2013).

John Pickard, Behind the Myths: The Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (AuthorHouse)

This book looks at the genesis of the world’s major religions, and explicitly does so from a non-religious standpoint. They are “rooted in material social conditions”, the author insists: “the origin of these religions can only lie in the economic, social and political circum­stances of the time in which they were born”. He undertakes an all but forensic analysis of their backgrounds, referencing a bewildering range of religious and historical texts.

Unsurprisingly, the received wisdoms don’t stand up too well to all this. The Bible, for instance (to take the one best known in this part of the world), is not a book handed down by God but a collection of more or less distorted versions of texts written by different people considerably later than the events they purport to describe. The central figure of Jesus is unlikely to have been an actual individual, but at most an amalgamation of legends about the various preachers of salvation active at the time. One book of the Bible flatly contradicts another, and sometimes a book contradicts itself, because the Bible we have is a heavily rewritten version of the tales and beliefs it started out from. The revealed truth is revealed to be largely fiction.

Religions grew as an aspect of social and economic change. As slaves revolted against rulers, and empires gave way to rivals, religion often provided the battledress in which conflicts were fought out. When the will of a god and the actions of his disciples represented “the only political language of the day”, political arguments often took the form of claiming divine support for your own side and calling divine wrath down upon your opponents. When one social system pushed aside an old one, religious belief could act, in the words of a historian quoted here, “as a symbolic phrasing of the new social relations”.

The other-worldliness of religious teaching lends it a flexibility which fits it well to such a role. It is often “enigmatic and open to a variety of interpretations”, any of which can serve different interests in various times and places. So Jesus says that, when someone smacks you on the cheek, you should offer the other one. To a conservative, this is a counsel of quietly submitting to oppression, but a radical can interpret it as advising that you should continue to stand up to in­justice whatever the consequences. The enigma can even suit the same people in different circumstances. Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world probably meant originally that freedom for the slaves could only be realised by the overthrow of the Roman empire, but in times of defeat and despair it could offer the consolation that true freedom lay on the other side of death.

But of course, such a fate has been visited upon other philo­sophies too, even that which Pickard draws upon. When we read that “the priestly authors overlaid the entire traditional narrative and oral history with their own interpretation”, it is difficult not to think of the way Marx’s essential thought has been impoverished by explanations and expositions, consciously designed or lazily accepted, which rob it of its power. “Whereas the early Church had demonstrated a wide range of different beliefs—to a degree that would be inconceivable in any branch of the Christian Church today—the growing bureaucracy sought to consolidate its position through theological uniformity”: an ironic foretelling of what Marx has been subjected to. There are complex social reasons for this, but the philosophical root lies in replacing a critical and enquiring scepticism with a blind faith based on obedience to authority.

Happily, John Pickard doesn’t write as such a Marxist true believer. All the same, there are times when his Marxism is somewhat limited and limiting. He refutes a claim that monotheism arose from a growth in people’s self-awareness by saying: “there is no evidence for any change in the basic psychological capacities of human beings in the last few thousand years”. But such evidence exists in abundance, of course, and it is strange for a Marxist to imagine that immense change can taken place in society while human psychology remains still the same old story. Individuality is something which has developed in society throughout history, and would develop further still in a world free from class oppression. A similar downplaying of the role of human thought is evident in the fact that, amidst all the description of religion reacting to social relations, we get no real discussion here of religion’s role in reinforcing and promoting social relations in turn—surely a necessary aspect of a rounded Marxist explanation.

The book gives short shrift to the holy books, showing them to be historical products, shaped by the developments that gave rise to religious belief. This all proves pretty conclusively that they are not at all factual narratives of things that actually happened. However, the author seems to conclude that consequently, they have no historical value. But they should be treated as folklore, as records of commonly-held beliefs, retold and reshaped by subsequent generations. Properly evaluated, such sources are important for the historian, even when dealing with comparatively recent history, and should be invaluable when going back millennia. To say that “there is no historical evidence, other than the biblical story” for someone or something discounts the reality that such stories constitute historical evidence in themselves, even if only circumstantial evidence on the level of tradition.

Pickard writes that “a person’s religion, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, is a matter of the national, ethnic, cultural and family identity into which they were born”. This may be true in the formal sense of which box gets ticked on the census form, but it misses a lot of the deeper reality. Plenty of people reading this will have been born into a religion but feel far less attachment to it that their parents did, and will hardly recognise the attitude of their grandparents. Their “national, ethnic, cultural and family identity” may not have changed much, but their religion certainly has. A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests last year showed that most Catholics in Ireland don’t go to mass every week, think women and married men should be priests, don’t see homosexuality as a sin—in short, dissent from fundamental defining characteristics of Catholicism. There are reasons for this shift, arising from the development of Irish society, but it is a shift which does reflect people making up their own minds about religion in one way or another, rather than just going along with what they were baptised into. Seeing religion as primarily an accident of birth collapses the development of religion into general historical development, which may be more convenient for the historian, but fails to confront important qualitative changes in religious belief.

While certainly not pulling punches, the book does its best not to gratuitously offend religious believers. The Vatican is character­ised as “a reactionary, self-perpetuating political machine”, but it is empha­sised that no other religion has such a crowning worldwide institution, and that the same does not go for the beliefs and actions of rank-and-file Catholics around the world. The litany of official Catholic reaction is long, but the statement that “Throughout its history, the Church has been on the extreme right of the political spectrum, opposed to every single measure, in whatever country, that extended the right to vote, or extended women’s or trade union rights” is plain inaccurate. In Ireland, hell is not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the bishops for all they’ve done on us—but it is a matter of fact that they didn’t oppose the referendum lowering the voting age in 1972, the Juries Act 1976 providing for women jurors on an equal basis, or the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 making it illegal to sack people for trade union activity. A less sweeping statement, better thought through, would have made the point more effectively.

The author observes that “many of the key political issues of war, revolution and social upheaval are brought into sharp focus by what appear, on the surface, to be issues of religious faith”. But only on the surface: the rise of political Islam, he points out, is less to do with the spiritual power of the Koran than with the corporal power of imperialism in the Middle East and racism in Europe. Therefore, he criticises atheists who treat religion as “an intellectual debate in which the followers of religion are charged with harbouring inferior and in­consistent ideas”. (Richard Dawkins springs to mind, with his patronising insistence that people just drop all this silly religious nonsense of theirs.) The truth is that “having atheists debate and argue with people of faith will not lead many of the latter to change their views”.

But if all this is the case, why has he written 450 pages of very dense, often heavy-going, argument on quite esoteric matters around the historical origins of religions and the inaccuracies of their holy texts? Believers will immediately react to factual evidence by affirming that they rely on faith, on phenomena which pass human under­standing and mundane fact. The preface advises such people to “put the book down and read no further” because it is “aimed at under­pinning the beliefs of those atheists, agnostics and unbelievers who are opposed to… established religions”.

This smacks a little of The League of Gentlemen’s grotesque shop­keeper proclaiming that “There’s nothing for you here!” Can a Marxist argument on religion not be made in a way which also addresses those who have some kind of religious faith? The dividing line between believers and unbelievers is never as clear-cut as all that, and fuzzy edges remain to be probed everywhere. In fact, if indeed “Workers of all faiths and nationalities will walk side by side” against the ruling class, religion could well come up for discussion somewhere along the way. On the other hand, if atheists need their position strengthened, there must be easier and more effective ways than a line-by-line refutation of the ancient world’s religious echoes.

Marx and Engels get quoted throughout, including the bit about religion being “the opium of the people”, which is thankfully quoted at length rather than as a phrase out of context. But while both men had to struggle with religion in their youth, there is a reason why the subject featured less and less in their work as they moved on. As Engels once said of the average socialist, “atheism has already out­lived its usefulness for them… they are simply through with God”. A non-existent god shouldn’t detain us so much.

Pickard rightly states that religion is unlikely to succumb to academic debate or to repression, and that a society without exploit­ation is needed to create conditions where people will exert a greater control over their lives and free themselves of a need for religious explanations and consolations. In the meantime, “their religious affiliation will not prevent them moving on class lines to challenge the old order”. So where does a book like this come in? Those interested in the subject will find a painstaking account of how major religions arose amidst the social struggles of the time, but a materialist understanding of the role of religion today would derive more from confronting its modern realities than from combing through its primeval genesis. Even if he never existed, the man had a point when he said that we should let the dead bury their dead.

What a catalyst: Unloading the Eton Rifles

Following controversy over one of their hits, Michelle Charlton followed the political development of The Jam in Issue 53 in September 2013.

One reason to dislike British prime minister David Cameron—and we’ll have to stick to just the one reason, or we could be here all day—is the fact that he was educated at that bastion of English class privilege called Eton College. Unlike scholarship boy George Orwell who later turned against everything his old school stood for, Cameron’s mission in life has always been to keep the world safe for Old Etonians.

Soon after he started there, but before he enrolled in its cadet corps, the college entered the popular consciousness and the pop charts in the shape of the Jam single ‘The Eton Rifles’. Having floated to the top of the Conservative Party, Cameron looked back on the Jam’s influence in 2008, singling out that track as his particular favourite:

‘The Eton Rifles’, inevitably. I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.

The song’s composer Paul Weller didn’t quite see it the same way: “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”1 His incredulity only increased:

How could he not understand what ‘Eton Rifles’ was about? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We could have had a great socialist leader for our country who’s been inspired by that song, and instead we get David Cameron.2

It was even proof for him of Cameron’s political incompetence: “If you can’t take the time or intellect to see what the song’s about—you haven’t got much chance of running the country, have you?”3

When this was later put to Cameron he replied:

of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I’ve always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting.4

Perhaps Weller, like his song’s protagonists, thought he was smart when he took him on, but it’s time to take a peep in the artillery room…

‘The Eton Rifles’

Weller, lead singer, guitarist and lyricist with the Jam, wrote the song during a rain-sodden caravan holiday on the south coast of England. Years later he outlined what has come to be the generally accepted inspiration:

The story was there for me already—the unemployment march started out in Liverpool and passed Eton college. All the young chaps came out to jeer and take the piss. It was a mini class war being played out.5

As Britain’s dole queue hovered around the million and a half mark, unemployment was a big issue in the late 1970s. A Right to Work Campaign offered opposition in the shape of marathon marches linking up unemployment blackspots and workers facing redundancy. One such march passed Eton in June 1978, but no mini-class war seems to have broken out. Marchers put on posh accents to chant: “What does one want—the Right to Work”, but the college’s head boy appeared to sympathise, telling them: “I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere”.6

In contemporary interviews, Weller made no reference to such an incident. “I got the inspiration for the song from watching a programme on the BBC called, I think, Camera,” he explained. “They showed an old photo of the Eton Rifles and I thought, what a great name.”7 When it was released as a single in October 1979, an old photograph of the Eton cadet corps did indeed feature on the cover. News of the marchers’ visit to Eton in 1978 could well have been in Weller’s mind, but if so, he moulded the story into something more confrontational than the reality.

A similar march two years later did in fact spark a row, and Weller saw this instance of life imitating art as something of a vindication:

with the Right to Work march, there was a minor incident in Eton College. So looking back, ‘Eton Rifles’ is a quite feasible story really. It wasn’t as ridiculous as people make out, class warfare, it’s quite possible.8

He wrote the song “in one go as it reads on the page”,9 and in the demo version he recorded solo in July 1979 the lyrical and musical structure is identical to the final version. A handwritten copy of the lyrics from that session confirms that, the only difference being that Eton is misspelled “Eaton”,10 suggesting that Weller hadn’t en­countered the college too often in his reading.

The song opens with people being told to drink up and head for the Slough area where a fight is taking place, only to find that “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest”, and the Eton boys are made of stronger stuff: “We came out of it naturally the worst… We were no match for their untamed wit”. The defeat also owes something to the cowardice displayed by some of the would-be class warriors:

What a catalyst you turned out to be
Loaded the guns then you run off home for your tea
Left me standing like a guilty schoolboy

Protestors of a musical bent prove to be less committed in deeds than in words:

Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse
Tore down the House of Commons in your brand new shoes
Composed a revolutionary symphony
Then went to bed with a charming young thing

While ‘The Eton Rifles’ is written from the perspective of those opposing the posh pupils, it pulls no punches in announcing a clear Eton victory. Its criticism is directed at left-wing protestors who didn’t translate their radical talk into action when it mattered. Such accusations are common enough among protestors, sometimes un­founded and sometimes with justification, and as the song presents an imaginary scenario, it can’t be proved or disproved here. But Weller’s decision to include such an accusation reflects a jaundiced view of the left. Bracketing composers of revolutionary songs with such hypocrisy likewise reflects a suspicion of left-wing musicians.

In interviews around the single’s release in October, Weller was clear that he wasn’t taking sides. The song was “just a piss-take of the class system… It’s also obviously a piss-take of these trendy socialists and fascists as well.”11 While it is healthy that Weller wanted to dismiss fascists too—at a time when they threatened to become a real danger in Britain—nothing in ‘The Eton Rifles’ resembles any ridicule of them. All of its ridicule is reserved for trendy socialists.

Cameron’s claim that the song had an influence upon his fellows is confirmed by an interview Weller gave to the Eton College Chronicle, no less:

Basically, it’s, like, taking the mickey out of class. It’s meant to be humorous—I think for a start the title’s funny. It’s an imaginary setting, the two classes clashing, with the trendy revolutionary saying to the man in the pub, “Come on, sup up your beer, there’s a row on up the road,” and it’s like, “The revolution will start after I’ve finished my pint.”

He admits that he had never gone near Eton himself, and emphasises that he meant no offence: “I’ve got nothing against Etonians personally. Eton’s just a symbol for the song. They’re not annoyed about it, are they?” On the contrary, the interviewer tells him, to which he replies: “Great, that’s fantastic. It’ll probably go to Number One.”12 Young Master Cameron must have been chuffed.

Before the Rifles

If the Jam and ‘The Eton Rifles’ being other than left-wing comes as a shock to some, it should be no surprise in light of the band’s history. While their home town of Woking in Surrey earns a footnote in socialist history as the place Friedrich Engels was cremated, it has been a rock-solid safe Tory seat for over a century now, despite seeing an influx of workers with its expansion after the second world war. Coming to mass attention in 1977, the Jam were open enough about being working-class Tories. In their first major interview Weller claimed:

The queen’s the best diplomat we’ve got. She works harder than what you or I do for the rest of the country.… All this “change the world” thing is becoming a bit too trendy.

He was more explicit a week later: “We’ll be voting Conservative at the next election.” Drummer Rick Buckler concurred: “It’s the unions who run the country.”13 Publicity pictures showed the band posing by Big Ben in Union Jack suits, a flag which also draped the stage at their gigs.

Within a few years Weller would be dismissing such sentiments as a cunning plan to wind up left-wing bands rather than a true reflection of the Jam’s politics, but other contemporary statements suggest they were expressing honestly held beliefs. Their lyrical forays into politics were cut from the same cloth. In ‘Time for Truth’ on their debut album, Weller lays into “Uncle Jimmy”—Labour prime minister James Callaghan, a deserving target—but not from the left. “Whatever happened to the great empire?” he sings: “You bastards have turned it into manure”. Nostalgia for the good old days of British imperialism is a hardy annual of working-class Toryism. The song demands justice for the killing of a man in police custody, even accusing Callaghan of wanting “a police state / So you can rule our body and minds”. But Weller explained his concerns in an interview:

I don’t think people realise how close we are to a police state. The Labour government will want everything state-owned soon. It’s getting to be like 1984 already.14

He was rightly worried at the expansion of state coercion in 1970s Britain—even if he exaggerated it—but lumped it in with the Tory bugbear of nationalised industry, and saw it as Labour’s fault specifically. Thatcher’s plan to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ seems to have appealed to him, and he wouldn’t be the only working-class person not to realise that she only wanted rid of those frontiers where they interfered with the accumulation of capitalist profit, intending to reinforce them beyond recognition where they might be needed to uphold it.

The Union Jackery was part of this plebeian conservatism, but also was intended as a nod to the Who, a key source of inspiration for the early Jam, with the Big Ben pose referencing the cover of their My Generation album. As it became clear, however, that the imagery would feed into the fascists’ attempt to gain a foothold on the music scene, the flag was put away. The criticism they came in for stung, as Weller admitted later that year:

I’m sick of everyone calling us conservatives and saying we’re not radical enough. I think Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher are cunts. I don’t trust any of them. All I said at that time was that I thought the Tories would do less of a bad job…15

He was partially motivated by a refusal to go along with a left-wing orthodoxy among bands, an admirable desire to think for himself rather than following the herd. But the opinions he held at the time were conservative ones, at the end of the day. By 1978 he was admitting: “I said a lot of very naïve things last year. If anything I’m apolitical now.” He was likely to vote Labour just “to keep the right-wing fascists out”.16 But above all, he was about making music, not political statements.

Politics can’t help but intrude, of course. In ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ Weller established the Jam as a real lyrical force. Those fascists make an appearance in the menacing scene evoked by the song, as its protagonist is assaulted by drunken thugs with the smell of “too many right wing meetings”. While this wasn’t left-wing in and of itself—thankfully, opposition to fascism in Britain in 1978 was not confined to socialists—the political note makes an important contribution to the nightmare.

However, Weller still seemed determined not to be a trendy left-wing songwriter. In January 1979 the Jam recorded a demo of ‘Strange Town’,17 although Weller had only one verse written to accompany three renditions of the chorus. This tale of a new arrival’s difficulty fitting in with the habits and attitudes of London was finished off that month, now including a pop at the urbanites’ political stances:

We’ve got our own manifesto
Be kind to queers
And oh so glad the revolution’s here

Weller proved that the casual homophobia wasn’t off the cuff when miming the song on Top of the Pops, flicking a limp wrist to accompany the word “queers”.18 The back cover of the single featured a poem—uncredited, but clearly by Weller:

we gotta solution
shoot all the rich men
put them in camps
give all the money to the poor man so he can be rich
don’t shoot us though we’re rock and rollers

His tongue is in his cheek here, and there is undoubtedly much to mock in the left-wing shapes thrown by some pop stars. But the very idea of far-reaching social change is being dismissed: Weller couldn’t see a way of being left-wing without falling into the tired cliché of the radical rocker.

But he was being pulled leftwards despite himself. ‘When You’re Young’ was hastily recorded in July 1979 as the Jam needed another single. It tells of the joys of youth, swearing “you’re never ever gonna work for someone / No corporation for the new age sons”, only to be brought down to earth by the crushing reality that “life isn’t like that… the world is your oyster but your future’s a clam”. The single’s B‑side ‘Smithers-Jones’, written by bass guitarist Bruce Foxton, is a great tale of a loyal member of the rat race commuting to the office to hear that his hoped-for promotion turns out to be the sack. The final verse, contributed by Weller,19 generalises his fate:

…now you’ve worked your arse off
But the only one smilin’ is the suntanned boss
Work and work and work and work till you die
There’s plenty more fish in the sea to fry

Setting Sons

By now the Jam were working on their fourth album. Weller intended Setting Sons to be a concept album focussing on three friends who meet up again after a civil war: “one joins the left, one veers off to the right while the third one doesn’t feel any particular affiliation whatso­ever. He’s the abstainer.” Asked which character was closer to himself, “‘The Abstainer,’ he replies immediately.”20 In the event, only about half of the album’s tracks fitted in to this concept, but it did allow Weller to explore political themes.

‘Thick as Thieves’ bemoans the loss of youthful comradeship and its ideals, while ‘Wasteland’ tells of devastated lives in a devastated landscape. ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ offers a totally different take on the “great empire” Weller once sang of, as a politician lures someone to “Shoot, shoot, shoot and kill the natives… beneath the flag of democracy” with the assurance that “God’s on our side and so is Washington”. In ‘Burning Sky’, written as a prose poem, the right-wing character cries off the friends’ reunion because he has an important business meeting:

I don’t want you to get me wrong, ideals are fine when you are young… there’s no time for dreams when commerce calls… And it’s only us realists who are gonna come through… and you’re just a dreamer if you don’t realise and the sooner you do will be the better for you… and we’ll all bow down before the burning sky.

Whether ‘The Eton Rifles’ is part of the concept, with the abstainer addressing the left-winger, is unclear.

It is preceded on the album by a song written in the same caravan on the same holiday,21 ‘Saturday’s Kids’. This unsentimental story of people like those Weller grew up with originally ascribed a level of political resistance to them: “it’s the system / hate the system / smash the system!”22 But by the time the final version was recorded on the same day as ‘The Eton Rifles’, that last line was transformed from defiance to bewilderment: “what’s the system?” Weller was being drawn to the left in his lyrics, but was valiantly resisting the attraction. This is the immediate context of ‘The Eton Rifles’ as far as his political development is concerned: a songwriter hesitating warily on the brink of political commitment.

After the Rifles

As it turned out, the support of Etonians wasn’t enough to get ‘The Eton Rifles’ to the top spot, but its peak at number 3 made it the Jam’s first top ten hit. Their success was confirmed in March 1980 when their next single, ‘Going Underground’, went straight in at number 1. The line “A show of strength with your boys’ brigade” seems to hark back to the Eton cadets. The song is scathing about the state of the world, but while its injustices “Make this boy shout, make this boy scream”, Weller suggests that few share his indignation, leaving him no alternative but to retreat:

You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don’t get what this society wants
I’m going underground

Retreat was less of an option, however, for an honest songwriter with something to say about Britain in the 1980s. An alternative was hinted at in the single ‘Start!’ in August. Its stress on the power of real human communication, however ephemeral, can apply to many situations, but Weller himself was inspired by Homage to Catalonia, and specifically George Orwell’s fleeting encounter with an Italian who had come to fight Franco like himself:

As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.23

Weller told an interviewer: “there’s a lot of talk of the ‘egalitarian society’ where all people are equal but this was it, actually in existence, which for me is something very hard to imagine”.24 Reference to the Spanish revolution was well hidden in the lyrics, though, and could hardly be fathomed in the absence of Weller’s external explanation.

‘Start!’ was chosen as a single in preference to ‘Pretty Green’, a forceful take on the power of money:

This is the pretty green, this is society
You can do nothing unless it’s in the pocket
…power is measured by the pound or the fist
It’s as clear as this

Both appeared on that year’s Sound Affects album, which featured an excerpt from Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ on the back cover (“Rise like lions after slumber… Ye are many, they are few”). ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ contrasts the mutually blinkered visions imposed by class. ‘Set the House Ablaze’ takes to task someone seduced by fascism because “we’ve lost sight of the goals we should be working for”. ‘Scrape Away’ answers in advance those who would dismiss the attitude now emerging from Weller’s lyrics:

Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick
Your open disgust for “Idealistic naive”
You’ve given up hope, you’re jaded and ill
The problem is you’ve got a catching disease

Politics was becoming an increasingly overt aspect of the Jam’s lyrics. With fascist groups still infesting the margins of British politics, ‘Funeral Pyre’ in May 1981 envisaged a neo-Nazi book burning:

I could see the faces of those who led
Pissing themselves laughing
Their mad eyes bulged, their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger

The following February ‘A Town Called Malice’ delineated with exceptional poetic skill the destruction wrought by capitalism “Struggle after struggle, year after year”. But this “magnificent howl of outrage at Thatcherite Britain”25 concludes that now “it’s up to us to change / this town called malice”.

By now the Jam were regular participants in benefit gigs against racism, youth unemployment, and particularly the nuclear arms race. ‘Just Who is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ on The Gift, released in March 1982, presented the worker as the real creator of wealth, overwhelmed by bills and harassed by the rich. Commenting on the track, Weller was at pains to downplay the importance of his own position: “the nurses and the miners are the real heroes because they keep the country going—and not pop stars”.26 The album also featured ‘Trans-Global Express’:

Imagine if tomorrow the workers went on strike
not just British Leyland but the whole world
who would earn their profits?
who would make their bombs?
you’d see the hands of oppression fumble
and their systems crash to the ground

This unambiguously socialist statement pinned the Jam’s colours to the mast, but the vocals were mixed so low as to be unintelligible without the album’s lyric sheet in hand. The political message is almost smuggled in under the northern soul beat, and only those hearing it performed live could hear the outspoken message.

The Gift was the Jam’s last album, with the band breaking up at the end of 1982. Weller’s frustration had been growing as he saw the group becoming a fetter on progressing in the musical directions he was interested in exploring. The split had a political element too, at least after the fact. Certainly the greater freedom Weller found in the Style Council was reflected in a brace of classic socialist songs.

What a catalyst

David Cameron is wrong to see ‘The Eton Rifles’ as a protest song ridiculing his fellow cadets. The ridicule is aimed at the other side of the barricades—or at those not prepared to man them, at least—and at class conflict in general. Where Cameron gets it right is that calibrating your musical taste to an artist’s political views is a particularly idiotic way to tune your ears. It unfortunately remains common on the left, and occasionally appears on the right too. In fact, Cameron’s own attempts to embrace the Jam, the Smiths and Radiohead cannot credibly rid themselves of the odour of spin, a dishonest attempt to portray himself as a common man listening to cool music rather than a rich parasite impoverishing millions.

At the risk of stating the obvious, socialists should listen to and enjoy ‘The Eton Rifles’ because it is an excellent song. The lyrics are illuminated by a rare wit, and succeed in painting an enduring picture. While lyrics have been to the fore in this discussion, the song is a powerful piece of music too. Not just Weller’s guitar, but Buckler’s drumming and especially Foxton’s bass craft a memorable soundscape, admirably matching the threat and confusion of the scenario.

The song makes fun of the left, but that only adds to the charm. Firstly, the left often makes mistakes and fails to live up to its proclaimed principles, and should have the guts to admit it. Secondly, even our best attempts sometimes end in failure and farce, and we should be able to laugh at them even as we try to learn from them. The class war isn’t all doom and gloom, after all, and often features the absurd as well as the noble. An inability to face this leaves us in a poor position to fight.

“Though some of the lads said they’d be back next week” is the final affirmation in ‘The Eton Rifles’. Even though its author was un­sure whether or not to take the leap of faith towards socialist politics, he was aware that the class war of which he sang wasn’t going away because of an isolated battle here or there. Like it or not, that struggle is not one we can just opt out of, and the unavoidable defeats, humiliations and betrayals are themselves a necessary part of the process whereby, one day, we will be able to outwit and outclass the enemy.

Notes

  1. Both quoted in John Wilson, ‘Chasing the blues away’, New Statesman, 15 May 2008.
  2. Quoted in Paul Moody, ‘Paul Weller: “Success does strange things to people”, Uncut, December 2008.
  3. Interview with Channel 4 News, 19 April 2010, http://www.channel4. com/news/paul-weller-returns-to-politics-with-a-small-p.
  4. ‘David Cameron, we have a few questions for you…’, 25 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/25/david-cameron-answers-questions?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038.
  5. Paul Weller, Suburban 100: Selected lyrics (Century, 2007), p 55.
  6. Socialist Worker, 17 June 1978.
  7. Quoted in Graham Willmott, The Jam: Sounds from the street (Reynolds & Hearn, 2003), p 129. A similar statement from another interview is quoted in John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus, 1996), p 99.
  8. Quoted in Lynden Barber, ‘Light my Pyre’, Melody Maker, 23 May 1981.
  9. Weller, p 55.
  10. See Richard Buskin, ‘Classic Tracks: The Jam, “The Eton Rifles”’, Sound on Sound, May 2007.
  11. Quoted in Reed, p 99.
  12. Quoted in Willmott, p 129-30.
  13. Quoted in Steve Malins, Paul Weller: The Unauthorised Biography (Virgin, 1997), p 45.
  14. Quoted in Reed, p 74.
  15. In his own words: Paul Weller, edited by Michael Heatley (Omnibus, 1996), p 57.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcts9zBH-jE.
  18. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V_OZLcmJz4.
  19. Paolo Hewitt, The Jam: a beat concerto (Riot Stories/Omnibus, 1983), p 78.
  20. Nick Kent, ‘Weller’s Immaculate Conception’, New Musical Express, 18 September 1979.
  21. Weller, Suburban 100, p 38.
  22. In the demo version, available on the 1992 Jam album Extras.
  23. George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin, 1989), p 1-2.
  24. Quoted in Malins, p 81.
  25. As critic Graham Lock called it: quoted in Hewitt, p 109.
  26. Quoted in Reed, p 134.

Hitchens through the looking glass

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book on controversial critic Christopher Hitchens in Issue 52 (June 2013).

Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso)

In this full-frontal assault, the late Christopher Hitchens gets a dose of his own strong medicine. Richard Seymour presents the case against Hitchens to the world in forensic detail, in a manner that consciously parodies Hitchens’s own book-length diatribes against Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. It is a trial in which the verdict was already decided upon before the first word of this eloquent prosecutorial tract was typed. Having convicted the late (and, for him, unlamented) Hitchens long before page one, Seymour closes with a quote from the nineteenth-century radical essayist Hazlitt: “He became ‘a living satire upon himself’.”

Seymour first used the long-form version of that quote against Hitchens when responding in The Guardian to the news that Hitchens had been posthumously honoured by the Orwell Prize:

Yet in his final years, Hitchens resembled nothing so much as the wretched apostate assayed by William Hazlitt—haunted by “the phantoms of his altered principles”, driven “to loathe and execrate them”, offering “all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards… at the shrine of matured servility”, becoming, at last, “one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself”. And it is a sorry thing, but I suspect it is that Hitchens [my emphasis] who has been posthumously honoured…

In the course of these more than one hundred pages Seymour lands many heavy punches on Hitchens’s corpse. There’s the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to vote Labour in the 1979 general election, his apparent infatuation with (the now also late) Margaret Thatcher, his support of the Falklands war, his ambivalence about the British Empire and, of course, Iraq. High crimes and misdemeanours, to be sure. Before you lop someone’s head off, though, even if that head belongs to a dead man as it does in this case, it’s important to know exactly who is doing the accusing.

Seymour correctly points out that Hitchens had a tendency to avoid difficult issues, particularly in his best-selling memoir Hitch-22. For example, in 1998 Hitchens swore in an affidavit for the House of Representatives impeachment trial of Bill Clinton that his (then) friend Sidney Blumenthal had told Hitchens that Monica Lewinsky was “a stalker”, i.e. a woman obsessed with imposing her affections on Clinton’s hapless willy. Blumenthal telling Hitchens this lie was part of a Clinton administration attempt to spin the story against the woman on whose dress the President memorably ejaculated. It is possible that Blumenthal, who was given the job of spinning this story to journalists he believed would be sympathetic, did not know that it was a lie. In his own testimony to the committee, Blumenthal denied that he had ever smeared Lewinsky’s character in that way. He was not happy, to say the least of it, when Hitchens told the Republican-controlled congressional committee the truth. This wound to their friendship never healed. No surprise there. It is a little odd, though, that Blumenthal’s name appears not even once in Hitchens’s 424-page memoir. Surely there must have been something to say about this friendship that was sacrificed on the altar of a committee chaired by Representative Henry Hyde—a man who had previously argued that, though Oliver North may have lied to Congress, his cause was a noble one: fighting communism, which made all the lying and other skullduggery OK, if not even slightly heroic.

Such interpersonal issues aside, Hitchens was upfront about his previous political associations. In the aforementioned memoir he goes into some detail about his recruitment to and membership of “a small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”. Hitchens was an active member of said small, but growing sect while a student at Oxford University and for some years after. Until earlier this year Richard Seymour was also a long-standing member of the afore­mentioned sect. It is true, certainly, that anyone who has followed Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb could not but be aware of his political affiliation. But it would be possible for a newcomer to read his indict­ment of Hitchens from beginning to end and not be exactly clear about that.

A number of the leaders of this political tendency—including one who was apparently recruited to the group by Hitchens—are presented as witnesses for the prosecution in the chapter ‘Christopher Hitchens in Theory And Practice’. Ironically, Seymour has since fallen out with said Hitchens recruit because of a serious scandal which saw a leading member of the group accused of raping a female comrade. The leadership have been accused of covering the issue up, and Seymour has bravely taken to an oppositional barricade. One result of this has been that he, and many of his co-oppositionists, have found themselves outside the fold.

But when Seymour wrote this book, he was still a true believing member, and happy to quote as reliable witnesses people whose word he clearly, in the light of recent catastrophes, no longer accepts as gospel. The testimony of a serving member of a far left group against someone who has departed the fold is, quite simply, never to be believed. Particularly when it is based in any part on warmed-over anecdotes by old-timers who, dammit, always suspected that deep down he/she was an incurable bourgeois hound from the get-go. It is not enough to say that the ex-member is no good now: it must be proved that he/she was always dodgy. In such a campaign of reputational revision, no smear is inadmissible. The converse is also the case, as Seymour would now no doubt have to agree: if you are a serving leadership loyalist in such a group—and the one in which Hitchens and Seymour served their time is not at all unique in this regard—then even if you happen to have dead children buried beneath a conservatory which you are forever extending when you’re not out selling papers or attending branch meetings, this will not be spoken of. Until you resign your membership. I exaggerate… perhaps.

Once the reader knows that the Richard Seymour who wrote this book is several rungs below the jilted ex-husband on the reliability as a witness league table, you can give his case against Hitchens its proper weight. Hitchens was someone who tended to lurch about the place at speed politically, and make things up as he went along. He was wrong about many issues, and when he was wrong, he was very, very wrong. For example, his attempt to excuse the Bush administration for its monstrous mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans was, well, shite talk pure and simple.

Hitchens was a man drawn to the grand idea—a hangover from his days in that “small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”, no doubt—and when reality got in his way, the deeper the hole he was in, the more furiously he dug. His polemics against religion, in God is not Great and elsewhere, leaned too heavily on only part of Marx’s famous quote about religion being “the opium of the people”. The rest of it says that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, as long as there are oppressed creatures in a heartless world, then many of those oppressed creatures—in the absence of a better offer—will continue to imbibe the religious opium. This is not to say that such use of opium a good thing, or that it shouldn’t be argued against. But you’re not going to wean people off such super­natural hopes by mere argument alone.

Seymour appears to dismiss Hitchens’s famous polemic against Mother Teresa on the grounds that she was an easy target. In what way? In 1995, the year Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice was published, the book’s subject was not only still alive but the most successful religious conwoman in the world. She had been a friend of the Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier and of the deranged Albanian Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. She had accepted financial support from the convicted Savings and Loans fraudster Charles Keating. She was lauded for her work with the poor in Calcutta, though this was to an overwhelming extent illusory. She campaigned not only against abortion but also against all forms of family planning in, of all countries, India. That November she stopped off in Dublin to join the call for a No vote in our divorce referendum. Mother Teresa was an ultra-reactionary pest whom the world showered with prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize, though she never even claimed to do anything to promote peace. Her speech at the award ceremony in Stockholm in 1979 was all about the evils of abortion. I’m currently compiling the shortest list in history: Irish liberals and lefties who took Mother Teresa to task. So far, there are no names on it. Not even my own. Hitchens’s smashing of the icon that was Mother Teresa is a book which should be force-fed to everyone who thinks that Michael D Higgins is very brave in the way he’s speaking out right now, or that Mary Robinson is an important ethical voice for our time.

George Galloway was another of Hitchens’s victims. His debate with Galloway about the Iraq war at Baruch University, New York in 2005 was a classic heavyweight contest in which no stone was left un­thrown. Unlike Mother Teresa, Galloway answered back. In an inter­view broadcast after Hitchens’s death, Galloway gloated that now Hitchens knows that God is indeed great. It should have been absolutely possible to both oppose the Iraq war and to say that George Galloway is an egomaniacal charlatan with a serious addiction to French-kissing the buttocks of any sordid little tyrant who’ll let him. Yet I can only think of one person on the entire British left who consistently said that it was so: Peter Tatchell, the legendary gay rights campaigner who also very actively opposed the Iraq war. The vast majority have been not at all keen to examine the phenomenon that is Ungorgeous George, and resented Hitchens for his attacks on their hero.

Yes, most will admit, Galloway is flawed, but he’s on the right side. The thing is, though, he’s not. He presents a programme on the Iranian regime’s propaganda station Press TV, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and openly supported the Iranian police and militia when they shot dead a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, during their crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential election in 2009. In 2010 Galloway described Bashar Assad’s Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”. It depends what one’s definition of dignity is, of course. Ireland’s recent discussion about abortion has been bad, but it could have been worse. As well as having to suffer Breda O’Brien and Caroline Simons, just imagine what it would have been like if Mother Teresa was still alive and George Galloway lived in Galway. For such small mercies are we truly grateful. Seymour doesn’t choose to discuss Hitchens’s great debate with Galloway. No doubt it didn’t suit his grand anti-hegemonic political scheme.

Unhitched is well written, if a little verbose in places. Indeed, Seymour’s writing style calls to mind that of Hitchens himself. To read this book is to look at Christopher Hitchens through the looking glass: one cannot help wonder where on the political spectrum its relatively youthful author will end up? So Seymour is a good writer and possesses no small amount of courage. He has that in common with his subject. But to paraphrase 1970s crooner Dean Friedman, he’s not as smart as he’d like to think he is. Certainly, he convicts Hitchens of not having a coherent political alternative to those on the left whom he savaged. But Hitchens was never a writer of manifestos: he was a smasher of sacred statues, statues which for the most part absolutely deserved the smashing he gave them. And his words will live after him.

For example, the Catholic hierarchy has implied that politicians who vote for the government’s X Case legislation may face ex­communication. It reminded me of one point Hitchens made in one of his many debates about religion:

Like many Nazi leaders, Josef Goebbels started off as a practising Catholic and was the only one to be excommunicated—not because of his Nazi crimes but because he married a woman who was not only a Protestant but divorced. So, we do have standards, then!

Wouldn’t it be delicious to see some whispery-voiced cleric reminded of this fact during the Irish abortion debate? A good boy like Fintan O’Toole would never even think of saying such a thing. Michael D Higgins might say it in private, at a fundraising dinner party at which known Trotskyists were present. Hitchens, on the other hand, would say that and worse to the whole listening world. And for that, if nothing else, we must love him.