Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, May 02, 2010

On Tristram Hunt and Champagne Socialism

Sorry, back once more to Tristram Hunt, I'm afraid. Profuse apologies. When his biography of Engels was published in the US it was titled 'Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels'. In Britain, it appeared as the slightly less strident 'The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels'. However, dedicated followers of young Tristram might have noticed that the new Penguin edition now has the title 'The Frock-Coated Communist: The Life and Times of the Original Champagne Socialist'. Even the slightest whiff of revolution or class war has been safely removed from the title, something no doubt not unconnected to his current attempt to enter Parliament as a Labour MP.

Yet what is quite amusing about the new book cover is that the new title makes no mention of Engels's name itself - so one might think that the work was actually an autobiography of Tristram Hunt himself - 'the frock-coated communist', the 'champagne socialist'. It goes without saying that Tristram, close friends of Peter Mandleson, knows more about champagne socialism than revolutionary politics - or at least he certainly will once he is a Labour MP. Moreover, as a historian, I am a little dubious about the new claim that Engels was 'the original champagne socialist'. Not only is it more than a little insulting to the old man himself, can we be so sure that say, Robert Owen for example never once even tried champagne?

Edited to add: Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson in a recent issue of Tribune on Tristram Hunt at the 1997 Labour Party conference (from here):

Seeing as how we’re stuck here kicking our heels in the crematorium car park until the hearse arrives, I might as well tell you a little story from the days when New Labour was in its pomp. It was at the 1997 Party Conference in Brighton, which for all the world was more like Versailles-sur-Mer for the duration of this week-long festival of Blairite self-congratulation. I was at some knees-up or other, in conversation with Tribune’s then editor Mark Seddon and my Tory chum, the journalist Peter Oborne, and we were, most likely, talking complete bollocks in the way you do when someone else is buying the drinks. Even so, we didn’t take too kindly to being interrupted by a tall, rather patrician youth who was gallumphing round the venue, repeatedly telling anyone who couldn’t make good their escape that, and I quote, albeit from memory, "Peter Mandelson is the most important fucking minister in this fucking government!"
Mandy was then Minister without Portfolio, so the youth’s assertions seemed slightly exaggerated, even though he was, we discovered, from the Young Fabians, then (and possibly still now, for all I know or care) a Mandelsonian glee club. Anyway, as he wouldn’t go away, and Seddon, Oborne and I had lost the thread of our conversation, I foolishly engaged with him, disputing his claims. What, I asked, about Gordon Brown? What, for that matter, about Derry Irvine? "Derry fucking Irvine?" he replied with contempt, waving his bottle of Mexican beer at me with what might, in different circumstances, have passed for menace. "Who the fuck’s Derry Irvine? And who the fuck are you anyway?" When I told him, the youth sneered "Martin fucking Rowson? So who the fuck’s Martin Rowson?"
By this stage Seddon had, I think, wandered off, but I was getting distinctly riled, so I gently took hold of the youth’s security pass hanging round his neck. Once I’d discovered his name, I’m afraid I played dirty. "Ah ha!" I exclaimed. "Tristram! Now there’s a name that rings down the annals of Labour History! A name to stand equal with Nye or Clem, eh?" At which point Dr Tristram Hunt, not yet a TV historian, sneered a final "fuck off!" at me and lurched away into the melee to annoy someone else.
And that would have been that, if a few minutes later he hadn’t returned, all smiles, to apologise. "Sorry! I didn’t realise who you were!" he said jovially, and thereby added being a creep to the already existing charge of being a drunken braggart and bully.
Well, good luck to him, though I can’t help feeling that the good people of Stoke Central deserve better. That’s not a reflection on either Dr Tristram Hunt or his many doubtless estimable qualities; but it still seems a shame that New Labour, even in its death throes, can’t quite kick the habit of treating the membership of the Labour Party as non-speaking extras, just there to provide some vaguely believable background atmosphere. Then again, in retrospect the kind of internal, backstairs courtier politics of the kind that has, for now at any rate, benefitted TV’s Tristram Hunt, is the only kind of politics New Labour has ever been really interested in, or actually any good at. Remember, the much vaunted "tough decisions" which Tony Blair would tell us he was so uniquely capable of making almost always rebounded on the Labour Party, on the rare occasions when they weren’t aimed directly at it in a pathology of serial abuse, in order to strip it of its rules, its principles, its policies and its dignity.
That, of course, was all necessary to make Labour electable. We all know that, don’t we?
But as I’ve said over and over again, New Labour’s greatest sin was that it turned a tactic into a strategy, which then ossified into principle. And where has that combination of rigid discipline and complete timidity got us? Apart, that is, from that bloke off the telly splitting the Labour vote in Stoke and heralding in the possible election of a Nazi? I write this the day before we all presume the General Election will be called for May 6th, and my heart sinks at the prospect. That’s not just because of the real prospect of the Tories winning, but because I find it so hard to convince myself that Labour deserves to beat them. Even when you factor out all the authoritarianism and croneyism, once more an election will be fought across a tiny ideological arc, on the one side by smirking Thatcherite throw-backs, and on the other ("our" side, God help us) by neo-Thatcherites who had a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity fundamentally to change an economic system which had collapsed under the weight of its own repulsive contradictions, but instead saved it and then, yet again, grovelled at its feet.
Well, by the time you read my next column, it’ll all be over. Personally, I’d prefer it if everyone turned out to vote, and then spoiled their ballot papers; failing that, a hung parliament would do nicely, with the Tories winning badly, but well enough to screw things up for six months before another election consigns them to the political wilderness for another generation.
But who knows? Ooh look, here comes the hearse at last. Hey, shall we have a peek in the coffin to see who it is? My money’s on Tristram Hunt. No? No, you’re probably right. That would ruin the fun...

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