Peter Cadogan, was born on January 26, 1921. He died on November 18, 2007, aged 86
This website has some of his ideas & personal writings, it will continue as a as a memorial to him.
At the moment communities and neighbourhoods are getting a great deal of lip-service from politicians - when what they need is effective empowerment. This they are denied. There is even great difficulty over what these words mean! A community is any body of people who live within walking distance of a major shopping centre that features all kinds of services from the professional to the cultural,convivial and political - i.e. a Town Hall. A community of place (as considered here) is quite different from a community of interest that has no particular geographical limitation. A political community of place will commonly number some 10/30,000 souls, a feasible tax base.
A neighbourhood is much smaller and may number twenty or more to a community. A neighbourhood is a subtle unit of infinite variety, commonly based on a street or a collection of streets, a housing estate (public or private), or a catchment area round a pub, a small parade of shops, a school, a community centre or church. No one officially defines a neighbourhood. It has no political substance and perhaps for that reason it has an enduring quality lost to communities that have been so disempowered by central goverment over recent years that many people deny their very existence.
The community and the region have all the makings of the tax-base of the decentralised future. This is doubtless why, in Britain at least, their empowerment is so fiercely contested by central goverment. In Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandanavia and the Low Countries the situation seems to be much better. Britain and France continue to suffer from their over-mighty capital cities. The political future belongs to communities and regions, given the final eclipse of the militarism of the nation-state, made acute by current US policy. Everything is inter-connected.
THE RISE OF THE PERSONAL-POLITICAL - THE ULTIMATE CLUE Back in the Sixties we rediscovered personal responsibilty for the Bomb, Vietnam, life-style, the arts (dress, music, theatre, fashion et al) them we threw most of it away on drugs, faith in Party politics and sheer personal-political inability to think and act in depth. Today is is that depth that is imperative. Above all we never solved the question of how the individual relates to the family, the group (single-issue or multi-purpose), the community, the region, the continent of Europe and the wider world - in some structured, dynamic, feasible way, leaving party politics behind. Now with several extra decades under our belts we have a second chance, with a new sophistication and high tech to help us. We lost last time. We cannot afford to lose this time - the stakes being what they are. We are social beings with the power of individual genius. The challenge is to understand, achieve and sustain their match.
PETER CADOGAN December 21st 2001
In June 1987 1 took stock. 1 was sixty six and had been continuous engaged in movements for freedom justice and peace for forty-six years and seemed to have got nowhere. How could that be? Something was very wrong. 1 had done it all, starting from the Church and the Scouts as a teenager, gone through the Fabianism. of Wells and Shaw to the Far Left to the Communist Party, and after 1951 with the Labour Party and the Trot then into protest with the Committee Of 100 and CND, as founder Secretary: of the Save Biafra Campaign and finally as a professional Humanist. General Secretary of The South Place, Ethical Society 1970/81 -all to no apparent purpose. 1 had ended up as loner with nowhere to go. There had be an explanation and another way.
From 1981, until my retirement in 1993, 1 was a Lecturer in The History Ideas for the Extra Mural Department of Birkbeck and the WEA. It is helpful ideas are one's profession! Our culture is individualist (Puritan and then laisser faire), empirical and dualistic (turning on the scientific method and the separation the arts and sciences), industrial and imperial (yielding an incredible smugness and arrogance), religiously sceptical (the Church's form of Christianity having be, found out by World War 1) and lethally dependent upon Westminster, Whitehall centralised political parties and the City (as 'subjects' in a feudal hangover).
Since 1956, we have worked ourselves into a condition of spiritual a political abdication. Looking desperately for elements. of certainty we have seized on two things (1) American pragmatism, consumerism, money values and protest, the last fling of the best of the old values, the rejection of what is self-evidently bad, like the Bomb, the war in Vietnam, apartheid, male chauvinism. Thus the Age of Protest from 1956 (Suez and Hungary) to the mid-1980s and effective end of the peace movement at Greenham Common; and the last mass demo in London in June 1984. Action over the Falklands and Gulf Wars were transient post-scripts.
We ended up in a desert and called it Thatcherism, but it was deeper than that What is the heart of the matter? To ask the ultimate question: what distinguishes us, homo sapiens, from the great apes with whom we share 98% genetic identity? The apes are much the same today as they were five million years ago when the first proto-hominids, our ancestors, began their historic breakaway. Apes live by instinct, humans live by cultures that subsume and contain instinct. Birds fly, fish breathe water, humans invented symbolic forms: rhythm, dance, music, number, language, colour, design, ritual, magic, science, arts, crafts, religion, history and philosophy. They domesticated animals and plants and remade their environment out of their imagination. To ensure their command of surplus the few enslaved the many. Servility was born on earth.
By definition every human being has some of this imagination, creativity, genius -to make a culture and pass it on to posterity. If it was not so we would be gorillas or vegetables. Yet 'genius' is a tabooed word in our present culture. Why? Because its discovery explodes the whole class myth upon which civilisation is based. And genius is personal.
The future, then, depends upon our rediscovery of the substance and the forms of the personal. Blake was on to it, so were William Morris, D.H. Lawrence, John Macmurray, E.P. Thompson and any number of others including Nietzsche and Walt Whitman. But even the greatest genius operates within the limitations of his time. None, to date, have been able to identify its political form or see an end to the law of scarcity. Today that is possible for the first time: the eclipse of empires, the end of war between industrialised powers, and current miracles of production, management and communication made possible by IT have broken the mould of the past. Entirely new political and economic structures are not only desirable they are necessary because the old ones are breaking down. 1 defined the problem in my Direct Democracy (1975) but it was far too ahead of its time to be intelligible.
The new constituencies are indicated in the text within. Experiment shows that they work. The Age of Protest (always say 'No' to things) is to be followed by the Age of the Personal -Political (saying 'Yes' the things). It opens the way to an extraordinary future.
Lecture to the Ethical Society, 25 October 1998
We need a theory as a means of getting the past, present and future to hang together, to have intelligible meaning. Without it we shall be the victim of someone else's theory. If the twentieth century has taught us anything it has surely taught us that. We have had to endure Communism, Fascism, Naziism, Nationalism, Totalitarianism, Monetarism, Militarism and Thatcherism. We have been asked to choose between a free market and state control (through nationalisation and the welfare-state.) We have had both and look where they got us! Is there a third way? It is plainly a good question, a necessary question. In launching it on public opinion Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have done us a service. Whatever they make of it is up to them, whatever we make of it is up to us. Bad mouthing 'the third way', already a common practice on the Left, just throws away an invaluable opportunity.
We live in a land of victims cowed into silence and inaction by the disasters listed above. Back in November 1979 Edward Thompson gave it acute expression: The freeborn Briton has been bred out of the strain and the stillborn Britperson has been bred in. An operation has been done on our culture and the guts have been taken out. That calls to mind the last words of Winston in Orwell's 1984: 'And he loved Big Brother.' But there was worse to come:
`I doubt whether we can pass our liberties on and I am not confident that there will be a posterity to enjoy them. I am full of doubt. All I can say is, since we have had the kind of history that we have had, it would be contemptible in us not to play out our old roles to the end.' Writing by Candlelight
Like Bertrand Russell in 1960, he saw nuclear war ahead, and no way out. We could but go down gallantly. But within a month everything was changed. Circumstances do indeed alter cases! It was December 1979, the month that the western powers launched their Cruise and Pershing programme in response to the Soviet's SS21s. Edward rose phoenix-like from his own ashes and for six years blazed in the political firmament in a brilliant denunciation of both sides in the cold war. It was difficult to say who hated and feared him most -the CIA or the KGB! With Ken Coates and others he set up END (European Nuclear Disarmament) and called upon the people of Europe to rise against both super-powers. And soon the women of Greenham Common underwrote the same message. It went round the world. It was the Third Way of the 1980s.
From the Deed to the Word
By 1986 the job was done and he was personally burnt out. In December of that year he spoke to a packed valedictory meeting in St. James, Piccadilly. I took notes. He said, 'Since 1980 1 have spoken at 600 meetings and written thousands of words. 1 am exhausted and going back to the study to take up the writing 1 had to stop in December 1979.'
Shortly afterwards we went to India, where his father and mother had met and where the family had deep roots. There, unhappily, he caught the infection that was eventually to kill him. But that is to anticipate. His ultimate chapter was to be as at in words as his penultimate chapter had been in deeds. Of the three books he finished between 1986 and 1993 (the year of his death) most important, for present purposes, was his book on William Blake: Witness against the Beast. For Blake, as for Thompson, 'the beast' was the State, the Church, dogmatist, the authoritarian, the priestly arbiter of morality, the shallow materialist who misread the poetic genius of humanity. On his last page he sounds third way note that was missing in 1979:
Blake's vision had not been into the rational government of man, but into liberation of an unrealised potential, an alternative nature within man a nature masked by circumstances, repressed by the Moral Law, concealed by mystery and self-defeated by the other nature of self-love. Or, as Geoffrey Ashe put it many years ago, Blake's philosophy and vision is out living differently; and political and economic changes will only have real stance to the extent to which they serve that goal. For as Blake put it:
Man is made for joy and woe, And when that you rightly know Then through life you safely go.
The unofficial third way goes back for centuries, but to be fair to Mr Blair what is....
The Third Way -Official?
Tony Blair's own essay, a key text, The Third Way, was published by the Fabian Society in September 1998. It opens:
`I have always believed that politics is first and foremost about ideas. Without powerful commitment to goals and values governments are rudderless and effective, however large their majorities. Furthermore ideas need labels if they to become popular and widely understood. The Third Way is to my mind the label for the new politics which the progressive centre left is forging in Britain and beyond.'
So far so good. What are the goals, ideas and values? The Third Way 'is passionate in its commitment to social justice'; it is 'flexible, innovative and forward looking'; 'its values include democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation internationalism'; it is 'beyond an Old Left and a New Right'. It reconciles things? previously thought to be antagonistic: 'patriotism and internationalism, rights responsibilities, private enterprise and a public political attack on poverty and discrimination.' It unites two great streams of left-centre thought: democratic socialism and liberalism.
He then lists four values (1) The equal worth of each individual (2) The widest possible spread of wealth, power and opportunity (3) Responsibility for the environment, including the human environment (4) The communities to which we belong.
But then he adds something ominous: 'freedom for the many requires strong government - a large measure of pragmatism is essential.' Oh! Just what does that mean?
Then comes a test. For years now Tony Blair has taken the 1945-51 Attlee government as his model. In The Third Way he does it again. It was all before his time, but some of us lived through those days and remember. The Attlee Government:
• put all its money on an American alliance and turned its back on Europe.
• resolved on the hopeless venture of restoring the Empire; and put the French Empire back in Vietnam with appalling results.
• decided to make atomic/nuclear weapons without the sanction of Parliament, the Labour Party or the electorate.
• Perverted scientific research and development for military purposes for 50 years.
• Poured all Marshall Aid into the bottomless pit of the Treasury.
• based the future on borrowing -the US and Canadian loans of 1945.
• took a sellers' market for granted and did not try to update our industries.
• had no intelligent answer to the Cold War when it broke into the open in 1948.
• had no political or economic philosophy of its own and just did what it was told by the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the MoD, with disastrous results.
By 1951 it was glad to go. It had 'run out of ideas', so it was said. This was hardly true since it didn't have any ideas in the first place. The 1945/51 performance was pathetic and profoundly disappointing to my ex-Service generation. The huge goodwill and euphoria of 1945 was thrown away. Most of our present disasters can be traced to those days. If Tony Blair can read history as badly as that it is an ill omen for his third way -but it should not put us off from locating our alternative.
How can Tony Blair, a most able man, make such an appalling mistake? There is no secret about it. All politicians make the same mistake. They accept the system as god-given. Their first commandment is this: 'Thou shalt not doubt the Immaculate Trinity: Westminster, Whitehall and the Party System. Before these thou shalt bow down'. No one breaks ranks, not Tony Benn, not Ken Livingstone nor the late Enoch Powell. All thinking, all action has to be within The System.
All systems, even the best, break down eventually. Today we are witnessing the slow eclipse of the nation-state. The Tudors created it, Cromwell reinforced it, Bentharn rewrote it, the Webbs endorsed it -now it is falling apart. For that we can thank the departure of empire, the rise of the multi-national company, the UN, the EU, the end of the Cold War, the globalism of Information Technology, the rise of the regions, the out-dating of great-power warfare and the impending break-up of the UK at the end of the English Empire (over Ireland, Wales and Scotland).
All this has happened but our political constitution remains stolidly in the nineteenth century and is wholly unsuited to the requirements of the twenty-first. Political parties were born of the three Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884. They served their purpose well. The decay began in 1889 with the Great Dock Strike. We have Peter Kropotkin's word for that. He was there. The strike was a huge success -the dockers got their tanner, the unionisation of the unskilled took off. Politicisation of the movement began with the ILP of 1893 and the Labour Party of 1900. There were jobs, careers, in unionism and politics. The payment of MPs soon followed. The descent had begun. 'Me long arm of money had found its next victim.
A political party today is a company. You are recruited. You rise from the ranks. You do what you are told and you are suitably rewarded. If you question company policy you can expect to be fired. It is a matter of power and pelf. principle? Watch your language!
Gordon Brown, in an unguarded but honest moment, has questioned the whole system. Tony Blair and all his colleagues turn to focus groups (not constituencies wards) when it comes to policy. When it comes to hard practice they know that things have moved on. The writing on the wall in Scotland has been read. Blair's performance in Belfast last Easter Week was brilliant. Now we are promised Executive Mayors. Good! We may even catch up with European regionalism. Germany has sixteen Prime Ministers and one Chancellor. Why are we so slow?
And yet in high places there is still a fearful 'pull-up-the-drawbridge' mentality. Leaders are afraid to let anything go, in case everything goes. Whips rule. means that the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets much better. The age of the representative (MP or local Councillor) is fading as the age of the volunteer? and the partnership dawns. It promises a new kind of democracy, a different decentralised system.
Remember Gorbachov in 1985? He thought he could reform the system and the Party and the Soviet State. But they had failed for over seventy years. They were discredited and had to go - and he went with them. There is a lesson there, somewhere. But deep change means extensive and searching homework. We have used to not using our brains politically. That has now to change.
Roots of Living Differently.
Fittingly they go back a long way. I shall rest with recorded history. Deep down in country, throughout continental Europe, in the Middle East and the Americas is a tradition of great moment. It has no church and no political party. It has various names: Gnosticism, Antinomianism, The Inner Light, Jerusalem. The Gnostics date back to the very beginning of Christianity, before Rome had established its monopoly of the faith in the West. They believed that there were two Gods: the ultimate God who is 'the father' and a lesser God 'the Derniurge' a fallible who made a fallible world. The true believer had access to 'free grace' by of a direct relationship with the Father. Priests are redundant. Authority thus with the individual, not with any church. So, the gnostic Gospel of Phillip:
You saw the spirit, you became the spirit. You saw the Father, you shall became the Father. You see yourself and what you see you shall become. Whoever achieves gnosis becomes no longer a Christian, but the Christ.
And then again from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
If you bring forth what is in you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
No wonder that to this day gnosticism is regarded as the ultimate heresy by all established hierarchical churches. It is a Third Way beyond Catholicism and Dissent.Superimpose that on immensely powerful and persistent folk-pagan traditions of egalitarian substance and we are looking at a great human reserve without a name.
From the first century to the present day the Gnostics have been persecuted crushed by both ecclesiastical and secular officialdom -from Upper Egypt to Bulgaria, from Bosnia to Southern Italy, to the South of France and the Albigensian Crusades against them. In England the tradition surfaces as the Lollards, the Anabaptists, The Family of Love, the Diggers, the Universalists and the early Quakers. It appears in sects like that of the Muggletonians. In face of persecution it tends to take refuge in secrecy, but is ever-recurring.
In the C19 it turns secular and political with the Fourierists, the Owenites, the pre-Raphaelites, the Quaker-Unitarian revival before 1834, the South Place Ethical Society (1793), Morris's Socialist League -always a return to the source, without being over-specific about what 'the source' is. It has something to do with conscience and the 'inner light'. It latched on to the word 'socialism' and was let down by it. It related to the spiritual and intellectual ferment of 1883 and 1889 and of 1956/68.
Enter William Morris:-
Ned, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, was William Morris's life-long friend. He has left us the most remarkable picture of Morris:
When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect and apprenticed himself to Street and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and them he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that he must be a poet again and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time he must learn dyeing and lived in a vat and learned weaving and knew all about looms and then made more books and learned tapestry and then to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for and to make wonderful rich-looking books -and all things he does splendidly -and if he lives printing will have an end -but not, I hope, before Chaucer and Morte d'Arthur are done; then he'll do I don It know what, but every minute will be alive.
That is what Morris wanted for all human kind: 'for every minute to be alive'. That is the heart of the third way; it is wholly human, post-political. If he was a hundred years ahead of his time, then this insight has the deepest implications for us today. He had no time for party politics of any kind or for mere representative democracy. He was for the self-governing community, fraternities of craftsmen and women, Orders of Chivalry & monasticism, Saxon moots, collegiate government, direct democracy. But like Bernard Shaw he had read Marx's Capital in French. It was this that in 1883/4 led him to join Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, call himself both a Socialist and a Communist and then break away to start The Socialist League with its paper Commonweal. His deepest concern was, he said, for liberty and justice and his favourite slogan was: 'Agitate! Educate! Organise!' His devotion to his new cause was extraordinary. He never did anything by halves.
Recent years have seen two massive biographies, that by Edward Thompson in 1955 and the other by Fiona McCarthy in 1994. The Bume-Jones quotation comes from the second volume. The Thompson date of 1955 is important. It was one year before the annus mirabilis of 1956 when Khruschev's revelation of the truth about Stalin and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution led to an internal explosion in the Communist Party world-wide that was eventually to lead to its demise in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. From 1946 to 1956 he was an active founder-member of the Party's Historians Group (with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and many others including myself). in 1956 he led the breakaway against Stalinism in the CPGB through his publications The Reasoner and the New Reasoner.
When he was writing his William Morris Edward was a loyal, apparently orthodox, party member. Inevitably he tended to play down Morris's deeply anarchic, antinomian sympathies and make more of his marxist predilections. Three's later, in 1958, he was invited to speak to The William Morris Society on the subject of The Communism of William Morris. The publication of the paper was delayed until 1965.
Speaking of the differences between Morris and Engels he said: 'I was less honest in my appraisal of the difference in outlook which divided them.' He her presents a very different re-appraisal of Morris himself. He quotes Morris:
We are living in an epoch where there is combat between commercialism or system of reckless waste and communism, or the system of neighbourly common sense. (My stress [PC.]) I found that the causes of the vulgarities of civilisation lay deeper then I thought, and little by little I was driven to the conclusion that all these uglinesses are but the outward expression of the innate moral baseness into which we are forced by our present form of society...'
At the end of the day Morris reverted to plain English and dropped the ideological labels in favour of True and False Society as indicated above. Thompson summarises: 'In True Society, the unit of administration must be small enough for every citizen to feel a personal responsibility. The community of Communism must an organic growth of mutual obligations, of personal and social bonds, arising m a condition of practical equality. And between False and True Society there lay a 'river of fire', the Revolution. We cannot shuffle off the business of life onto shoulders of an abstraction called the State.'
'Morris was a great moralist, a great moral teacher, one of our greatest men because he was a great revolutionary, a man working for practical revolution. It is which brings the whole man together. It is this which will make his reputation as the years advance.'
In taking his ultimate stand on the individual-in-community Morris was echoing Blake's 'brotherhood is religion' and, like Blake, he saw mutual forgiveness he final test. Incredibly, he not only forgave his wife's lovers -Rossetti and Blunt t included them among his closest friends
What is the New Imperative?
Given that (a) the gnostic, antinomian, holistic solution is the authentic third way (b) It needs to find a feasible political form and (c) the virtue of the Blair initiative at it opens this open-ended debate that does not need to accept the constraints of Westminster, Whitehall and party politics -what might be both the heart and the form of the matter now?
The essential clue is deceptively simple. It lies in the feminist slogan of the seventies: 'The personal is political.' When I first heard that 1 felt completely baffled by it. What on earth did it mean? The answer is that it means just what it says. We are not numbers consumers voters clients, buyers or sellers, taxpayers or subjects. We are human beings, individuals with hearts and heads, hopes and fears, feelings and relationships. It is these that are important, critical, and we need a social and political system that provides for them at every level in society.
Civilisation itself is fundamentally flawed. It is based on exploitation, coercion and war. It also has its positive side in the domains of the spiritual, artistic, science and philosophy, but the flaw remains. The Army is the State and money is God. The many have always been the victims of the few. And to be a victim is to be denied the fruits of the personal. To attain the personal is to transcend civilisation itself. As Ned said of Topsy (Morris's nickname) 'every minute will be alive.' The new imperative is to move into post-civilised society, to leave the impersonal behind us.
The challenge is to structure the personal-political. It is not difficult because the elements are all round us, commonplace. What is new is to recognise that they constitute an alternative politics. The power of custom militates massively against any such recognition. People are deeply stuck with Westminster, with constituencies, wards and political parties. That is politics. It was politics! There are four new units that, together, provide a new political base that is different in kind.
Firstly there is the single-figure group whose essential feature is that its size rules out hierarchy. Everything is face-to-face. Doing things together is the norm. We are all familiar with groups from quartets to octets. They may have pecking orders related to different talents, but that is one of nature's assets. The group can expand into modest double figures but there is a danger area -instant communication starts to break down -that has to be watched. The single-figure group is the base of all else. It includes the family. It is a synonym for the team. During the last war this country was run in spectacular fashion by a War Cabinet of five. Personal interaction is both dynamic and conducive to instant decision-making. Philosophy reverts to its original character, the love of wisdom in action.
Secondly, for millions of pre-civilised years we lived in hunter-gatherer groups of fifty, half being children. We are genetically programmed accordingly. There were no military or priestly castes, no inherited rank, no inscribed Law. Custom ruled. It was a static society, but holistic and classless. Its folk-memory gave rise to antinomianism -the rejection of Nomos or the Law, the assertion of liberty and justice, the secular sequel to gnosis. The fifty bracket survives all round us in the neighbourhood, the small company, the voluntary society, the sect, the village. The personal element remains but in the dangerous context of the self-centredness born of competitive materialist society. The threat of hierarchy and of petty empire-building is the inevitable concomitant of augmented size. The agency of correction is that of the small group experience.
Thirdly, and decisively from the political point of view, there is the community. We need to be very particular in defining it, for as Morris and Thompson point out, it is the heart of the Third Way. A community is an aggregation of people in a given geographical area who are substantially self-sufficient. Ibis means that they have their own High Street or its equivalent with nearly all the shops, services and cultural facilities they need. If a Town Hall or College of Further Education is missing then that is a deficient community in need of remedy. Until 1835 and the abolition of all Town Charters save that of London, we had Town Meetings requisitioned by the citizens and presided over by the Mayor. Those meetings survive in Vermont in the USA and there is, today, a move back to them in the guise of community Forums. Governors and governed meet face-to-face, the personal touch sustained. Community sizes vary within the 10/30,000 bracket.
Fourthly and lastly there is the city-region, the product of the industrial revolution, the successor to the county except in certain rural areas where the shires retain their historic position. The city-region is simply a fact of life, an amalgam made necessary by virtue of industry, trade, communication, transport. By and large it takes a city-region to sustain a University. It can pass the test of the personal if it adequate powers (like those of the Prime Ministers of the 16 German regions) is internally decentralised by relating closely to the three smaller social and political dimensions listed above. The city-region is our next great constitutional -experiment, an idea with a great future. The Greater London Authority is its test bench.
Under this dispensation what will be left of London's powers, Westminster's Whitehall's, as the leadership of a nation-state? We shall need a Britannic federation, a Council of the Isles, whereby England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, all presumably regionalised, will do together all those things that they cannot do apart. British Empire has gone, the English Empire (over the rest of the British Isles) yet to go. Then we shall all be free.
That leaves the European Union, its creation and recreation, so that it matches greatness of its classical inheritance, of Christendom, the Renaissance and ,subsequent scientific, social and cultural revolutions, now that it has transcended its curseses i.e. international war within and huge empires without. Both are now behind It is this, no less, that makes a third way possible. It is an entirely new circumstance.
Last Word Rests with Thompson:
Thompson clinched the legacy he left us with his last truly remarkable book: Witness; Against the Beast, a study of William Blake and the antinomian tradition. It presupposes some detailed knowledge of Blake's own work, his life and times, and of the preceding English Revolution of the 1640s. It also says something very important about the author himself. He had given his life to 'the cause' and called it socialism, communism in the marxist tradition. He could never bring himself, formally and self-consciously, to renounce it. He kept his Party card (the Labour ~ card) to the end, even though he had no time for it. But it is, after all, the deed counts and Witness Against the Beast was his deed. In it he rediscovers the knowledge of the human spirit and leaves all else behind.
Blake's unique image of Christ, simultaneously humanist and antinomian [`Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not rules') could be, in the available Philosophy, derived only from the inspiration of a 'madman'. It is exactly the absence of such an affirmative in the complacent doctrine of 'benevolence' to be found in the Godwinian circle which alienated Wordsworth and Coleridge. One it add that these affirmatives cannot easily be derived from materialist thought today. That is why every realisation of these values (such as Blake`s) is a plank in the floor upon which the future must walk.
Lecture to the Ethical Society, 14 May, 2000
We are told that the days of the three-generation extended family are over. This is substantially true of the South East, but much less so of the Midlands, the North and the West Country. But let that pass. We are further aware that the nuclear family of father, mother and 2/3 children has fared little better in face of a 40% divorce rate and the rise of the single-parent family. Plainly it is time to take stock. What is the future of the family?
The family. as an institution, is so old that it is older, even, than human kind itself. Our prehuman primate ancestors lived in families over five million years ago before the proto-hominids, from whom we are descended, appeared. They still do. The last few years have seen intensive studies of the social lives of chimpanzees and gorillas.
The idea of the family goes to the very roots of our being, with an important difference. In the case of the primates the roots are genetic and instinctive. We have those same roots, but in our case they are mediated through culture and surface as custom. We have culture, the animal kingdom does not. Our evolutionary history yielded something entirely new -the extraordinary power of the imagination, the power to invent. Our original ancestors invented music and dance, number and symbol, language, colour, design. These made it possible for us, self-consciously, to understand and transform our environment. No other animal can do that.
The means that although the genetic base for the family remains a constant in us, its form is subject to constant flux for cultural reasons -political, economic, religious and aesthetic. The modern period, dating from the Renaissance, the Reformation, The Discoveries and the birth of the nation-state is based on the rise and rise of individualism built on an extraordinary mixture of reason, the inner light, vision and experiment. The family was continually transformed along with property relations. 500 years of violence did incredible damage to the place of women in society. We are only now starting to put that right.
The end-product was an age of empire and the industrial revolution that can be usefully dated from 1776 when Watt's multi-purpose steam engine made its first commercial appearance. We have since had 225 years of a get-on-your-bike entrepreneurial culture yielding Mrs Thatcher's immortal proposition that 'there is no such thing as society'. She tried to except the family, but it was wishful thinking. As we have seen to our cost, the family too goes down to near-destruction at the call of market values.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
The family will come back. Nature will reassert itself. There is no way that five million years and more, with a genetic base, can be undone by a mere 500 years of cultural deviance. But it will be different. There will be a new kind of family.
Since the end of World War 11 there has been a major change in our way of life. It has crept up on us slowly, so much so that we may not be aware of it. 1 can well remember the 'thirties' when the extended family was still the norm. There was also, however, an uncritical assumption that monogamy was, and had to be, the rule. To live with someone to whom you were not married was 'to live in sin', an invitation to social ostracism. It was 'not done', and they were powerful words indeed. Social pressure making for conformity was massive and effective. The rich and powerful, as always, got away with it as did some others, known as 'bohemians', outside the pale of polite society!
Now all that has changed. We are into serial monogamy. The average individual can reasonably expect that he or she will have two or more partners, with or without marriage. The consequence is liable to be two or more sets of children and a new complex of half-brothers and half-sisters, step-parents and step-children. This is the shape that the future will take, is already taking. A major cultural transition usually takes between 60 to 90 years, 3/4 generations. My guess is that a new blood-based extended family will now emerge over such a period. It will be quite unlike the extended, nuclear or single-parent families of old.
But Can We Wait 60/90 Years?
Plainly we cannot and will not! Folk wisdom has it that if you cannot choose your family you can, at least, choose your friends. Over the last fifty years the breakdown and dispersal of the family has been such that we relate first and foremost to friends. At Christmas time, for a couple of days, we return to our blood relations. Does this have a deeper meaning? But before answering that question it would he fruitful to raise a wider matter.
It concerns community. There used to be a complex of structures making for community: churches, settled residence in one place, clubs, political allegiances, places of work (a job for life followed by a pension), unions, craft loyalties and fixed, stable, class boundaries. That has mostly gone, suffering the same fate as the family; the change compounded by new ethnic divisions making for a pluralist society. Integration, again, can be expected to take 60/90 years.
We have a huge raft of customs and institutions that date mostly from the nineteenth century and are now passing into history. For some older people this is extremely painful; they can hardly recognise the country they are living in.
There are plenty of good compensating factors: the huge growth of the DIY voluntary sector since 1956, the communications revolution via the Internet and the mobile phone, the way mod cons have relieved sheer drudgery, the birth of ecological and feminist ideas and the end of empires and the Cold War...
So we have two sets of related problems turning on the simultaneous decline and fall of the family and community. This is now being officially recognised. A torrent of publications and projects are to do with neighbourhoods, communities, partnerships, participatory democracy, the grass-roots and 'listening'. What it means is in doubt, but there is no doubt about the fashion.
A New Start?
Back in 1987, at the height of the Thatcher era, aged 66, 1 stood back and took a look at my own record. It was a nothing. Forty-five years and more flogging 'socialism', nuclear disarmament, humanism, ecology, third world rights. civil liberties and the rest. 1 had done it all. To what end? 1 had ended a loner, a non-joiner without a cause. 1 had either to go back to the beginning and start again, or quit. And there was no way 1 could quit. Although most of my all-too-bitter experience was negative, there was positive message that came through viz., that if you are on to something really important (some truth that for some reason others have missed) and have done the company of a few good friends -then the chances are that you can move mountains. You have (a) to get it right and (b) locate the like-minded. Even then may fail, but you will put down a marker and the future will be your vindication
Why not organise personally and politically on that basis and forget about political parties, the alleged 'mass' movement, dogmatic ideologies and endless negative protest? Why spend one's life trying to stop this and ban that? Why accentuate the positive? And what is the purpose of trying to put the world right if you cannot handle your own back-yard?
So 1 then spent the next four years working the thing out and looking for a-dozen like-minded people. It took me all those four years to find them. The group met in my flat in 1991. Over the years it grew to ten strong, with associate members in other parts of the country. It was pledged never to exceed twelve, no officers apart from the convener and host, met every six weeks without an agenda or minutes and there was no subscription (if we needed money the hat went round) Each occasion was well endowed with food and drink. Our discussion covered the waterfront and if action and publication were called for we did it. In 1998 we largely responsible for setting up The London Alliance to put the independent over the GLA Elections this year. This was so big a commitment that meetings o original group were suspended for the time being. We now have to make a major assessment of the future and our part in it.
My submission is that we have stumbled on something. We never called ourselves a virtual family, but that is in effect what we were and remain. What important was mostly temperament. Did we get on together? Were our goals roughly comparable? The group was hand-picked to exclude compulsive talkers and the tripping fraternity. All meetings were for members only but we usually invited guest. It was serious and it was fun.
The voluntary movement in this country suffers from serious internal limitations. It is overwhelmingly single-issue. This leads to short-term life-cycles narrow range objectives and transient relationships. There is also the fatal split between alleged armchair 'experts' and activists. In a sane world ideas and action aspects of each other and equally important. There is a lethal preoccupation with next demo and a marked reluctance to engage in serious study. They should match.
Without being aware of it. we have been schooled for years in the virtual family there a soap that is otherwise? So we have an interesting contradiction. While self-seeking culture drives us ever deeper into isolation and the destruction of the family, the media attaches us vicariously to the virtual families of the soap-millions love it. For any number of people soaps have become life-lines dominate domestic time-tables.
It is important to think about numbers and what they do to human relation my experience the basic number for a creative relationship, getting things done, is four, the irreducible quorum. Seven or eight is the ideal. Over twelve and you into trouble because informal communication breaks down and we are Chairmen and Agendas and Minutes. Then there is the truly dreadful rule that no can speak twice until all have spoken - dialogue dies!
Everybody Should Belong
My experience of creative group activity has yielded some important conclusions:
(1) A group needs to have a clear single-issue or multi-purpose goal and multipurpose is the need of the hour, following the failure of the churches and political parties.
(2) The members need to be friends and enjoy each others company. Matching temperaments are the key to success.
(3) Ideas need to be taken seriously; and practice, experiment, equally seriously.
(4) Conviviality, food and drink, are essential.
A group does not grow in the direction of a virtual family if it simply 'does the business' and goes home. And it is important that a virtual family be not defined and no claims be made for it. It happens or it does not happen. It has all to do with the subtlety of human chemistry. VFs will come and go and have their share of crises, even tragedies. There is no limit to the number of virtual families one can belong to, but the time factor is critical. It means spending time generously and enjoyably in the company of others -there are no paper members.
The Virtual Family That Built Conway Hall
The South Place Ethical Society was a substantial congregation with a Sunday morning attendance running well into three figures. A young man called Frank Overy joined the Society in its old Chapel in 1901. The Chapel, in the City, became isolated as the residents moved out. In 1913 the discussion about making a move began. The war stopped everything -until 1918. My 50th Anniversary Lecture, given in 1979, tells the complicated story of what happened then. (It was duly published in The Ethical Record.) Some ten people were actively involved up until the climatic moment of the ceremonial opening of the brand new Conway Hall on 23 September 1929. They were Frank Overy who found the site in Red Lion Square, the architect Herbert Mansford who designed the Hall, C.J. and Edward Pollard, Conrad Theis, John Rawlings, J. Christie Tait, Alfred Clements and Mr Lidstone. In 1920 Frank Overy became Joint Secretary of the Society with Mrs Fletcher Smith who held office for the the amazing term of 47 years, retiring only when the move to Red Lion Square was made in 1929.
The opening ceremony was presided over by Delisle Burns, an Appointed Lecturer, whose ideas, values and personal example moved Rose Bush to join the Society in 1924, aged 25. She and Frank Overy became close friends at a time when he had to recognise that his marriage had broken down. Frank was the Secretary from 1929 and in 1931 Rose joined him as Joint Secretary.
The original plans for the Hall were extremely ambitious and had to be drastically cut on grounds of cost. The old Chapel was sold, then hired back for the time being. The Concerts had to find a new pro tem venue, the office likewise. There was fund raising to be done, day-to-day relations with contractors during the construction period -key decision~ had to be taken by the day. The 'few who took them had to live in each others pockets and keep the General Committee, the Finance Committee, the Membership and the Trustees happy. It was a fitting climatic achievement. And it all went so well! But...
The huge strain on Frank Overy as both Secretary and prime mover over Conway Hall, on top of the failure of his marriage, took its toll. In 1932 he had a nervous breakdown and went down to Brighton for a break to aid his recovery. His friend Julian Roney, also of the Society, went with him. There a week later, in the loneliness of his hotel room, Frank Overy hanged himself. Tragedy!
Rose Bush resigned as Joint Secretary and abandoned the active ranks of the Society for the next thirty years. She played an active part in setting up the new Progressive League with Professor C.E.M. Joad and others. In the 1960s at the urgent request of older members of the Society concerned about major internal divisions, Rose came back into South Place, joined the General Committee and remained most active Christmas 1977 when, outside Waterloo Station, she was fatally injured in a motor accident. It was a great loss and a vital link with the critically important 1920s was . Her next birthday would have been her 80th.
Matter of England
Today this country's political culture is in a parlous condition. As Matthew Paris has put `The twentieth century never found a voice. There has been much noise but in the end concert; much movement, unbelievable change, but in the end no map, no figuration.'
It may take a trauma to wake us up and be more than a pastiche of America -some military or financial disaster that hits everybody where it hurts, some war into which we ragged by the US -and we lose. That would do it! But do we wait for that?
Earlier in this talk 1 indicated my 1987 conclusion: If you cannot get results in own back-yard, then, brother, sister, you are a non-starter. That was hard for me, especially after a life-time spent on great causes. It was true, it remains true.
The first prime feature of anyone's backyard (1 am suggesting) is one's family. If has gone sick then something has to be done about it. There are two courses open . Firstly we can accept that monogamy has been replaced by serial monogamy and leads to an extended family of a new kind that will need some two generations to establish itself. The prospect is good, but difficult, and will not be rushed. There are no political decisions to be taken. This is an intensely personal matter.
The second course is deeply political since in involves how we take social decisions and spark such changes as we think freedom and justice demand. It is not political in the old sense i.e. it has nothing to do with party politics. It has everything to do with the free association of individuals in small groups, among whom original thinking can take place with action to match -thus providing the essential seed-bed for change in society.
These groups 1 call virtual families, but the name ought not to matter and 1 hesitate e it in case it puts people off! But 1 am inclined to the Chinese view that a thing not exist until it has a name or a label. Hong Kong -a problem? 'One country, two systems.' Problem solved! And it works.
So privately 1 think in terms of the virtual family, while publicly 1 will use the conventional language of small-group theory and affinity groups. It has been a commonplace of established management theory and Murray Bookchin for years. To it the family label, as a make-weight in recognition of the decline of the traditional family, is an exercise in upgrading called for by impending political collapse. We have define where we stand in terms of our responsibility to each other.
But clearly this cannot usefully happen in isolation. How are single figure groups. virtual families going to relate to the wider society? There is a constitutional answer just waiting to be recognised and acted upon. It turns upon the political recognition of the urban township or village. In 1899 in Britain the urban parish, the vestry, was abolished and replaced by Boroughs and Urban Districts. The urban civil parish (not to be confused with the church parish) had been invented in the reign of Queen Elizabeth as the new basic unit of local government outside the chartered boroughs. It was small, it was run entirely by volunteers and it worked well for three hundred years. What it could not cope with was the new scale of government in the new cities generated by the industrial revolution. So it went to the wall in 1899.
Recasting the Personal/Political Base of Our Society
Ever since that time the scale of government, nationally and locally, has increased, been massively bureaucratised and ever more impersonal - so much so that millions have lost interest in the political process itself, witness the turnout at elections.
It is imperative that we now recreate conditions of political confidence and to do that means taking on and solving the problem of scale. We cannot revert to the vestries, but their scale was right. People could and did relate to them. Provision has already been made under the Local Government Act of 1997, under which a township can set up a Community Council with a limited but real power of raising its own rate. This is already happening round the country and especially in Wales. For some reason London is excepted from this particular provision, but that can easily be remedied by an amending Act.
Today we suffer from a caricature of democracy. Just the other day 1 was talking to a Camden Councillor who told me what 1 already knew, that discussion in Council or Committee was quite unreal because whatever the subject, the matter has already been discussed and decided in a caucus meeting of the ruling party. Thus we have what John Stuart Mill called 'the tyranny of the majority'.
The way to get out of this appalling bind is to devolve as many powers as possible to Community Councils where a vast reservoir of volunteers is available to share responsibilities and where party politics can be relegated to the past.
Modest, piecemeal, cosmetic reforms will avail us nothing. Our malaise goes back for centuries, to the top-down structure of our society, to the Norman yoke itself. Jonathan Freedland has highlighted this in his book Bring Home the Revolution. We have a shallow myth that we have no written Constitution because we cannot point to any single document. That is true, but we have an amalgam of a thousand published documents that are, together, as written as any constitution anywhere.
The effect of centralisation has been to exile the personal and to render the individual helpless in face of the machine. This situation cannot be remedied fromwithin the system. It needs to be overturned by the positive assertion of new qualities manifested in new structures. A combination of the virtual family with the Community Council promises just that: authentic, but non-violent, revolution.