Recent 'March for the Alternative' reminded me of this short piece I wrote for the PABS website a few years back:
Recently I’ve been reading parts of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left”, slightly later than is strictly topical but worth a look nonetheless. In it Cohen argues that the decline of socialism as a coherent programme for government and the exhaustion of the liberal agendas has rendered the left rudderless and confused, leading to some odd behaviour by the liberal-left around the whole Iraq palaver.
Cohen cites the old adage that ‘when someone stops believing in god, he doesn’t believe in nothing he believes in anything,’ adding that this still holds true for the left just as long as the anything is broadly anti-western imperialism. I agree with much of what Cohen says in general, and in particular his chapter on the anti-war movement is worth reading. It brought to mind some of the ideas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that had previously struck a chord.
Cohen describes this new left of the twentieth century on the march; the big, confused mass that, he says, had abandoned all the old notions of camaraderie and internationalism in favour of opposition to an American hegemony. I went down to the end of one of anti-war marches and saw this lot in Trafalgar square in what seemed, in the end, to be a bit of a pantomime. The socialist workers, aging middle class hippies, journeymen pacifists, the CND, jowly class warriors, and new-agers who’d come to get pissed and dance about a bit to some bongos vaguely audible half a mile away; dough faced eco-numpties from Notting Hill to Stoke Newington commingling with more thoughtful protesters whose moral indignation was unevident on youthful but hirsute faces; and the rest who had just come along for the day. All were there having a grand day out. Impeach Bush! Not in my name! No more gastro pubs! Bash the toffs! Bring back real ale! Save our cafe! Politicians, what are they on ?! War is rubbish! Dying is bad! Good stuff not bad stuff!
Had Milan Kundera witnessed the protest he would rightly have identified it as “the kitsch called the grand march.” In his novel he explains that despite Europe being divided roughly into left and right since the French Revolution, it is impossible to define one or the other by the theoretical principles it professes. This he says is because political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes but on fantasies, images, slogans, archetypes, and collective myth that collude to form ”this or that political kitsch.” The Grand March is the political kitsch that joins leftists of all tendencies in:
“The splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles withstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be The Grand March … what makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the grand march.”
Kundera’s take on kitsch is brilliant, and it’s worth reading the book for this alone. For him the essential function of kitsch is as ”a folding screen set up to curtain off death, ”and a ”basic agreement with being.” His definition of it is perfectly encapsulated here:
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes the kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of men on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”
Cohen quotes Ian McEwan in Saturday, a novel he set on the day of the march:
“All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.”
The two tears flow in quick succession. The first one says: How nice to be out here protesting against things. The second tear says: How nice to be moved together with everyone else by being out here protesting against things.
I’ll admit to being a card carrying cynic, so I agree with James Joyce when he said “No man (…) can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude.” And I also tend to agree with Kundera’s character Sabina when she thought that “behind communism, fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic evil, and the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.” Or marching by shouting whatever received opinions are circulating at the time.