Saturday, June 06, 2009

Old St. Cole

wikipedia quotes G.D.H. Cole:

I became a Socialist because, as soon as the case for a society of equals, set free from the twin evils of riches and poverty, mastership and subjection, was put to me, I knew that to be the only kind of society that could be consistent with human decency and fellowship and that in no other society could I have the right to be content.”

Cole practiced what he preached. I'm not so consistent, but then few are even among the few who still believe in socialism. Still, those who are raised to be good rather than "successful" recognize in Cole's words, echoed in Debs's famous declaration "while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free," the moral necessity of socialism.

Good socialism is idealist and personal and organic, like the better forms of Christianity. (Concomitantly, the worst forms of socialism -- Trotsky's, for instance -- are like the worst forms of Christianity: universalist, coercive, synthetic.) Good socialism is also aesthetic: it rejects any making of peace with the Establishment with all the tacky materialism and social climbing that that usually entails; or, as Christopher Hitchens said of Norman Podhoretz's awful Making It, people were appalled by the sheer "crumminess" of the Pod's ambitions. But mostly, socialism is about trying to be Good and, trite as it sounds, making the world better.

Good socialism is a religion without metaphysics or theology -- in other words, it is a body of ethical reasoning; what Jefferson's Bible was to Christ's teachings, socialism is to Marx's -- or at least it was for people like Cole. Yet there can be an oft-putting high-mindedness in it. People are frequently base and often wicked; everyone is a person. In other words, we're all sinners. But some, through much dedication, sin markedly less than others, perhaps because they have a bit of a egotist-masochist will to martyrdom, or perhaps because they simply care more about being Good than the rest of us. Cole was that sort of man, a socialist saint. Alan Taylor[1] shows Cole in greater detail:

Cole's rejection of capitalism was total. Though comfortably off, he refused to invest his surplus money or even to take interest from his bank. When I remarked to him that he was making a present of interest to the bank, he replied: 'Better that my banker should commit mortal sin than that I should.' Christopher Hill, as an undergraduate, was delighted to hear Cole say at a meeting: 'Of course, I should prefer the whole system smashed.' ...In one of his last speeches he urged fellow-socialists not to think that 'socialists can afford to give up being levellers.'

There was a paradox, even a contradiction, in Cole's political life. Though a revolutionary in outlook, he was practical and reformist when it came to action. Maurice Reckitt described Cole best as having 'a Bolshevik soul in a Fabian muzzle'. During the First World War he acted as expert advisor to the trade unions... He believed in the working-class movement... There was also a personal contradiction in his public behaviour. In private Cole was cool, rational and at worst slightly disdainful. Once on a committee he became ruthless and impatient. Beatrice Webb describes how, when defeated at a Fabian meeting, Cole said: 'I withdraw the word Foold. I substitute Bloody Fools,' and flounced out of the room. He often resigned in anger and then returned some months later without a word of apology. Despite his democratic principles, Cole never shook off the belief that there was in the world one Just Man.... His last words, when his strength finally ebbed, were in character: 'I'm sorry to be a nuisance.' Douglas Cole came as near to complete integrity as any man of his time. I venerated him.

But then Taylor knew Cole; for we who did not, there's this:

He was, I think, the only Left figure never tinged with communism and yet equally free from anti-communism.

Youthful flings with communism were common in Cole's generation and in Taylor's. Taylor succumbed; Cole did not, no doubt because his family background was conformist, which is to say conservative (Taylor, in contrast, was raised by radicals). At any rate, Taylor is right to laud Cole's sensibility. He is also exactly right to imply a moral equivalence in his formula: in England, it was equally easy or difficult to be commie or anti-commie and each path presented an equal moral hazard; while in America it was far more easy to be anti-communist, and far more corrupting.*

Elsewhere, in an essay on Ernest Bevin in which he recounts many of that leader's inconsistencies**, Alan Taylor contrasts Cole's style and substance with that of Bevin:

[Bevin] once wrote to Cole: 'Really, old man, look how you have boxed the compass.' In fact, Cole erred, if at all, from rigidity of principle; it was Bevin who boxed the compass at a moment's notice, and, when he changed, everyone had to follow him.

Contrast this with A. L. Rowse's[2] take on the same episode:

[T]he biggest crackpots of the Left [were] alienating the most powerful, the biggest-minded, man [Bevin] in the Trade Union Movement, and Cole -- reluctantly -- capitulated.

The effect on Bevin was permanent: it confirmed his distrust for intellectuals for good and all. His attempt to work with them in a common effort [against the National Government of the 1930s] went by the board. To Cole he wrote, 'How could anyone have followed you in the last ten years?' -- referring to Cole's book on the Next Ten Years. 'Really, old man, look how you have boxed the compass.' 'When we have tried to associate with intellectuals, our experience has been that they do not stay the course very long. ...You see, the difference between the intellectuals and the trade unions is this: You have no responsibility, you can fly off at a tangent as the wind takes you. We, however, must be consistent and we have a great amount of responsibility.'

Rowse's quote puts things in the proper historical context, but Taylor's version illustrates the contrast in personalities.

At any rate, there's a shitload of irony here. Cole was indeed an intellectual born into economic comfort; Bevin was thoroughly working-class, instinctive, autodidactic; he was also everything Cole was not personality wise -- loud, charming, bullying (despite what Taylor says of Cole's behavior in committee). If Cole was too doctrinaire, Bevin was not doctrinaire enough. Another layer of irony here is that Rowse himself was a miserable snob albeit of working class origins, one of those cartoonish Oxford Don figures given to voluptuous displays of elitist self-love. Rowse liked Cole, but also sneered that he had no grounds to pontificate on issues like miners' working conditions because he had no experience of them. Fair enough, but Cole was more consistent on these issues than Bevin, and far more right on these issues than Rowse who, in typical bright boy fashion, had through hard work, shrewd politicking and a bit of luck, made himself upper-middle-class, and expected that everyone else worthy should do the same -- and if unworthy, should perish as nature requires.

*Cf. Gore Vidal: "I really am... a dedicated anti-anticommunist, a category far more vile to the true believer than a mere communist."

** Cf., again, Gore Vidal: "'Pragmatism' is often just a code word for 'opportunist.'"

[1] Politicians, Socialism and Historians
[2] Glimpses of the Great