Friday, 27 October 1989


Paul Anderson, review of Negotiating the Rapids: Socialist Politics for the Nineties by the Socialist Society (£2.95), Tribune, 27 October 1989

And now, after all the military metaphors – the "forward march", the "war of position", the "fight back" – something that really fits eighties Britain.

Yes, we're canoeing. It's unclear whether this is some local government-funded youth-club scam or the real thing, self-managed by autonomous creative subjects, but the Socialist. Society is out for adventure in the mountains, paddling dynamically through the white water of our political predicament.

It certainly makes a change from the rooms filled with smoke and fat trade union fixers, and the pacifist in me cannot help but applaud the scrupulous avoidance of the left's traditional rhetoric.

The metaphor is telling none the less: canoeing down mountain streams is virtuoso stuff, and for most people something to be admired from the riverbank, even if the canoeist insists that it's easy really and everyone ought to join in. If the canoeist shows all the signs of being about to capsize or founder on rocks, of course, it's much worse than that.

Which is not to say that most of us could not do with a breath of invigorating libertaian fresh air, and there's plenty here: denunciations of "the exhausted traditions of the Second, Third and Fourth Internetionals"; assertions that socialism is "a process of collective self-emancipation, deferring to no established authority"; insistence that any future socialism ' must be green.

But the canoeist's approach to the hostile stream is unreliable. The dangers of deep right-wing social democratic currents are systematically overestimated: those of Leninist boulders are ignored unless than can be labelled "Stalinist". The possibility that "new-look" Labourism might have just a few features that make it significantly better than Wilson-Callaghanism (its policies on the environment, transport, health and decentralisation of power, for example) is not seriously considered. Nor is the possibility that it might just be worth continuing to keep up the libertarian left pressure on the Labour leadership from within the Labour Party.

Meanwhile the near-total failure of vanguardist politics in Britain – not just Arthur Scargill's handling of the miners' stirke, Militant in Liverpool and Ted Knight's Lambeth debacle, but also the way that the Trotskyist sects' hyper-activism and megalomania have turned off thousands from any sort of socialism – is simply overlooked.

I get the feeling that, if the Socialist Society were to succeed in its long-term aim of creating a green left party, it would be immediately swamped by the 57 varieties. Then again, given that a green left party could thrive only under proportional representation, and PR is at best unlikely in the foreseeable future, perhaps that's the sort of problem that need not exercise us overmuch.

So, although there is much sense in Negotiating the Rapids (and I've not mentioned some excellent critical passages on identity politics, environmentalism and Ireland), it finishes the course badly holed. The Socialist Society might be going in the right direction, but it still has a lot to sort out before its practice and its rhetoric of left renewal are fully integrated.

Friday, 13 October 1989


Paul Anderson, review of A Vain Conceit by D J Taylor (Bloomsbury, £4.99), Tribune, 13 October 1989

D J Taylor believes that British fiction is in a bad way. The big names — Margaret Drabble, Kingsley Amis, John. Fowles, Iris Murdoch — write books that ' fail to connect with the realities of our society. Their reputations are sustained by a literary establishment of obsequious, lazy, middlebrow, xenophobic, philistine publishers, reviewers and reviews editors. Meanwhile, iconoclastic, politically committed writers are ignored.

There's some truth in this thesis. Many of the big names of British fiction do produce tedious, cliched, polite, petty-bourgeois drivel. Most Fleet Street reviewers are insufferably servile. Coteries abound.

The problem is that there are enough exceptions to the rules for Taylor's argument to appear foolish. Many of Taylor's favoured authors — Martin Amis, Kazuro Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Graham Swift — might be considered dangerously subversive by their stuffy elders, but they are hardly outsiders. All get serious money out of writing.

Nevertheless, in the course of his polemic, Taylor scores several direct hits. His withering critiques of Drabble and Amis senior are both amusing and apposite, and his account of the business of reviewing is, for the most part, depressingly accurate (though the nepotism is inexplicably underplayed). Taylor is suitably irreverent about the impact of structuralism and post-structuralism on both critics and novelists, and he does a wonderful demolition job on the populist anti-intellectual snobbery so widespread in Britain.

On the other hand, Taylor can't resist the unsubstantiated assertion. In particular, he makes much of "the futility of thinking that you can satisfactorily represent in fiction the complexities of life in modern Britain"; "writers have lost the ability to describe and define the society of which they are a part"; "any attempt at the panorama effect is bound to fetch up as a queerly narrow perspective". Really? And, if so, why?

Taylor also has little to say about the implications of the takeover of British publishing by conglomerates, and hardly mentions the growing tendency of publishers to concentrate advertising budgets solely on would-be best-sellers. Yet these changes in the publishing industry are crucially important reasons for the stagnation and exclusiveness that Taylor so deplores. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has missed a golden opportunity to blow the gaff.