In this week’s cupboard, upper-class men of the people…
It was often said of the late Tony Benn that he had a wholly romantic view of the working class. It is a trait he shared, of course, with other high-born lefties. There is a fatal combination of complete unfamiliarity with ordinary people and a head stuffed full of abstract political theory about “the people”.
That may be slightly unfair on Benn himself, who undoubtedly met a huge number of people both as a campaigning MP and latterly as a sort of end-of-the-pier entertainer. Though being an active leftie politician is not in itself a guarantee of being at ease with those who used to be called “the lower orders”. Tom Driberg, for instance, was notoriously rude, contemptuous, and dismissive of waiters and taxi drivers and “the servant class” in general.
With those in the cultural sphere, who have no need to garner votes every few years, the disconnect between “people” and “the people” can become vast, and highly amusing. Doyenne of the type is Vanessa Redgrave, born to theatrical royalty who then spent years in the service of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party under the leadership of the unlovely Gerry Healy. At least Vanessa kept her acting career on the go. Her brother Corin sacrificed his best years to the cause, only returning to stage and screen in his final years – when Healy was safely dead and buried.
The writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, daughter of a housemaster at Harrow School, became an enthusiastic communist in the 1930s. Her idealisation of the workers did not prevent her from bewailing the fate of her lover Valentine Ackland during the second world war. Warner complained bitterly about the sheer unfairness of poor Valentine – a poet! – having to do war work in a factory.
My favourite English upper class revolutionary firebrand is the composer Cornelius Cardew [above]. (Oddly enough, he always used his middle name, Cornelius or “Cor”, rather than his first name, the more proletarian-friendly Brian.) Cardew was the son of the potter Michael Cardew, and though the family were not rich, he had a more than comfortable upbringing, and attended Canterbury Cathedral School as a chorister. Early in his career he went to Germany and became a pupil of Stockhausen, and his music was uncompromisingly modernist and experimental.
Around the time the Beatles discovered the Maharishi, Cardew fell under the spell of an Indian of a rather different stripe, one Hardial Bains. Like Gerry Healy, Bains was a full-time revolutionary, forever forming new parties and splinter groups as his theories evolved. Marxism-Leninism was the basis, naturally, but Bains’s path led him through Trotskyism to Maoism to, finally, a position where the only truly socialist state was deemed to be Albania under Enver Hoxha.
Cardew followed Bains with absolute obedience. He renounced his earlier music and published a book with the splendid (and self-explanatory) title Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. He turned his hand to writing jaunty tunes to words written by his mentor. Unfortunately, Bains’s words were not the easiest to sing. Here, for example, is the opening verse of “We Sing For The Future”:
In utter chaos the old order spews out unlimited decadence and parasitism.
It brings disaster to mankind and fights against progress with unprecedented ferocity.
Stricken by all kinds of sickness, this system’s in all-sided crisis with economics at the base.
Spiritual and cultural devastation – the crisis is social and political too.
Cardew spent more time on “the struggle” than on his music, though he would bash out his songs (including “Smash The Social Contract!”) on the piano at gatherings of the faithful. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident, aged just forty-five, in 1981. There were dark mutterings that he had been assassinated by the security services because of the imminent danger posed to the state by his activities. The reader can judge the likelihood of this theory. Here is a recording of Cardew urging the working class to rise up against their masters. Does it fill you with revolutionary fervour? Or does it sound like a quintessentially English Home Counties singalong?