Wind Up Black Dwarfs  

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"If your creed is all or nothing, the man you hate most is not the man who offers nothing but the man who offers something. Suppose you accept the premise that Vietnamese children are frying in their own fat because of something intrinsically murderous in the American capitalist `system'; and accept further premise that the British 'system' bolsters the American; and the further premise that the overthrow of our 'system' is a required gesture against the American `system' and on behalf of those children. Then the man you hate is likely to be the man who tries to break down this chain of consequence — the man who says that the continuity of British society has an absolute virtue independent of the welfare of the Vietnamese children and that to contend otherwise is simply to be rhetorical."--"Wind Up Black Dwarfs" (1969) by Clive James

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Wind Up Black Dwarfs" (1969) is a text by Clive James published in London OZ 18.

The text is a comment on post-May 1968 communist revolutionary desires in Great Britain and criticized systems thinking which favored the world revolution and opposed idealism ("while there is a soul in prison, I am not free") to Realpolitik.

Full text[1]

The present generation of revolutionaries are precisely the people who are unwilling to be specific about the conditions of the immediate revolutionary future — the subject about which, as Orwell once contended, every revolutionary is forced to lie. Faced with the assertion that the liberties embodied in this country's institutions should be protected in the first instance, the revolutionaries proclaim those liberties meaningless by continually widening their definition of 'system.' British liberties are thus not really liberties because of the Americans; American liberties are not really liberties because of the Vietnam war; everything active in the system, even that which criticises, limits and modifies the system, is just part of the-system — except the revolution.

The historical strength of the classic Left in this country has been its practical recognition that society can be, and has to be, treated bit-by-bit even though an intellectual commitment to an ideology apparently insists that anything less than a total upheaval is meaningless. The revolutionaries, these newest of new brooms, noting only the failings and writing off all actual improvements achieved over the last century as a movement of history for which nobody is responsible and for which credit need consequently not be given, are able to present this strength as a weakness, and to suggest that a great number of honest men and women have been wasting their time.

This is a perisistent and extremely unenticing failure of the imagination, usually ascribable to conceit but in the case of the better part of this generation, I am sure, ascribable to a generous passion. This revolutionary generation, overwhelmed by the fact that a lot of people are still getting hurt, saves its maximum rancour for anyone who suggests that a total solution might hurt even more people and hurt them worse. If your creed is all or nothing, the man you hate most is not the man who offers nothing but the man who offers something. Suppose you accept the premise that Vietnamese children are frying in their own fat because of something intrinsically murderous in the American capitalist `system'; and accept further premise that the British 'system' bolsters the American; and the further premise that the overthrow of our 'system' is a required gesture against the American `system' and on behalf of those children. Then the man you hate is likely to be the man who tries to break down this chain of consequence — the man who says that the continuity of British society has an absolute virtue independent of the welfare of the Vietnamese children and that to contend otherwise is simply to be rhetorical. A man talks like that is bound to appear a demon, since he scorns directly the most self-consciously generous of all youthful sympathies — the sympathy that says, like Eugene Debs, 'while there is a soul in prison I am not free.'

Now that sympathy, and not much more, is to the credit side of the ledger. On the debit side the entries are densely packed and piling up fast. Leaving aside the greater part of the Underground which is content to enjoy its practical existence in a non-theoretical continuous present, hasn't the remarkable thing about this particular revolutionary generation been that it advances its own innocence, its own impatience and its own ignorance as positive qualities? There seems to be this general impression that society doesn't have to be analysed or understood in its dynamism, that it is in fact static and needs to be replaced holus-bolus by a new and true dynamism in which all values will have their genuine beginning. In the fervour of this general impression, the objective nature of intellect as regarded as a drawback; the analytical heritage is reduced to symbol-ridden myth in which Rosa Luxemburg becomes a swinger in a maxi-skirt; and the emotional initiative passes to the 'invisible international', the gentle people who are supposed to be everywhere and will effect a universal change of heart once they solve the problem of asserting their will without coercion. But as you can see already, merely to expound is to expose. This new revolution, while relatively (not wholly) guiltless of philosophically justified brutality, is nevertheless characteristically anti-intellectual, ahistorical and obscurantist. Ideology, pared down to a mood-determined minimum of 'ideas' and all the more powerful for being free of analytical determinants, attains a new spreadability, like butter left a long time in the sun. Anyone can have a go. If you feel young and all the world looks wrong, you're in. The residual dislike of the bourgeoisie, though vociferous, is determined by rejection of mores rather than analysis of class-function. This is why classic Left figures like Grass in Germany and Pasolini in Italy were unable to discommode the young student revolutionaries by accusing them of being what they in fact were — well-heeled sons of daddy and mummy. The revolution as a whole, rather than having 'objective class-enemies' in the old Stalinist sense, only has objective intellectual enemies — people who feel broadly what the revolutionaries feel but think differently about the revolution. It's a sweet set-up. If you want a revolution, no matter how much of a bastard or idiot you are, you're part of this most popular of all popular fronts. If you don't want revolution, no matter how deep your concern for liberty, mercy and justice in individual cases and in society at large, then you are part of the system — this static system which has never really changed, until last year in Paris and of course next week here.

The classic Left in this country over a long period has largely managed to free itself from ideology by realising that `society' is simple a word doing limited linguistic duty for a complex actuality that always changes. Gradually it has abandoned the notion of stasis (along with its counter-notion, crisis) and come to see that society is merely coherent — it is not rationally interrelated and is therefore not subject to being totally changed any more than it is subejct to being totally described. This is not a mud-hut country where you have to break up the ceiling in order to make furniture; nor is it a high-rise country in which the bourgeoisie suddenly falls into the basement to re-emerge, black with dust, as Nazis; it is a mature society much more complex than any metaphor which can be thought up to describe it.

The huge upheavals which look total in other lands, in this land are held closer to the surface and squeezed further into time, giving the apocalyptic revolutionary, whose hunger is as much for brute experience as for justice, the opportunity to say they never happen. In fact these upheavals cannot be stopped happening — except, paradoxically, by revolution, which really can arrest history in Hegel's definition of the word (the story of liberty growing conscious of itself) or anyway slow it down to a crawl. The revolutionary approach to politics, fastening on the superficial similarities of our society and say, Batista's Cuba, recommends revolution here because of its necessity there. But these supposed similarities (`capitalist') are absolutely nothing compared to the differences between the two places as states. Britain is so immeasurably more advanced that it is practically indescribable — which is most of the trouble.

The logic of the thing is ruthless. Since all the world is the system and nothing in the world is not the system, the countries which naively offer the maximum of tolerance may be regarded as its weakest points. The complex countries, the centres of revolutionary thought, while not immediately the most vulnerable to revolutionary activity are certainly the most hospitable. This ought logically to mean that they are the last places one should try to start a revolution, but no, it has come to mean the opposite. Retaining from classical Marxism only a vague notion of capitalism as a social concept, and inflating this notion into an even vaguer interpretation of the state (a job Marx himself never systematically tackled), the revolutionaries inflate that into a vision of the world where justice, love, peace, creativity and sanctity cannot really exist until everything is changed. The grimly ironic thing is that it's exactly the way the Americans think about Vietnam, where they, too, are trying to impose an interpretation of reality on reality itself. And of course it is killing them. Like a fire-breather who has taken too much fuel into his mouth, they have ignited a flame which is running backwards inexorably towards its trembling source, and their own steadfastness can only concentrate the inevitable explosion. But if American society is wrecked, must ours be wrecked with it? Isn't this just the time to realise that Britain is an inherently pluralist society with its own uniqueness to protect against both American and revolutionary interpretations of reality? This country is a centre of civilisation — which is a phenomenon complex and valuable beyond any sociological opinion which can be formed of it, beyond any political concept which can be derived from it, and beyond any single idea which can be had in it. At present it is being held in contempt by young people whose love of justice is' unquestionable but who do not realise that to a certain extent this is a passion they were bred to feel here, in these islands.

Clive James





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