What would Freud have said about the Socialist Workers Party?
Of the many small delights and delicacies thrown up and out by the election, my own favourite came during the Liberal-Conservative negotiations.
William Hague emerged from a Whitehall building to give a short press conference. As he stood on the steps of a neo-Classical lovely, some kind of background noise obliterated most of what he was saying. It took time to figure out what the noise was, but I got there in the end.
It was a chanting crowd, I soon realised. They were complaining — obviously — about William Hague and, I guessed, the Conservatives in general. After a little more listening, I was able to make out what they were chanting. It was: Tories out!
I thought: how fantastic is that! (I guess that means I have just used up my annual allocation of exclamation marks. Oh, well. It was in a good cause.) A party that hasn’t even come to power yet is being drowned out by a bunch of chanters who already want them out. That’s not politics, I remember thinking. It’s conceptual art.
Then the camera panned round on to the crowd. There was even a banner. (If I hadn’t used up my exclamation allocation, there would have been one a the end of that sentence, too.) I realised right away that it was the Socialist Workers Party. No one else has that kind of world-class overnight banner delivery system. And I thought: what would Freud have thought about this?
First, though, I should point out that I don’t have a problem with the SWP. For starters, they are a fine part of our national heritage — and should, by now, surely be supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and in line for a substantial National Lottery grant. Consider the SWP’s contributions to modern Britain:
* Those banners, of course, with their distinct modernist typography — a really substantial contribution to the surface of the modern world
* The design of Socialist Worker — one of the all-time best-looking tabloid newspapers
* Rock Against Racism — almost every inch an SWP front organisation — I don’t think it recruited many neophytes to the Trotskyist cause but it did give the world The Clash in Victoria Park and many other wonderful shows.
* Various chants — Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out was a hardy perennial (Its only real competitor, I guess, was: What do we want? Revolution! When do we want it? As soon as the pubs have closed!)
Further, not only do I appreciate the SWP’s contribution to English heritage, I was even — briefly — a member of its embryonic predecessor, International Socialists. The brevity of my association was, in good part, because head office (or whatever it was called — the central executive, perhaps, or something similarly Orwellian) disbanded the branch I was in — despite the fact that we sold more newspapers etc than anyone else. The reason given was that we weren’t serious enough. I took this somewhat personally — probably correctly. I never did, though, get to the bottom of what exactly this lack of seriousness involved. Was it . . .
. . . that my understanding and use of the word ‘party’ had un-Leninist ambiguity to it?
. . . that there was an immoderacy to my enthusiasm for the music of James Brown — Nixon voter, owner of several radio stations, ardent proponent of ghetto capitalism?
. . . that I came to realise that my comrades actually meant what they said?* While generally a good thing for the rest of humanity, such directness is necessarily inadvisable in the necessarily disingenuous world of politics.
. . . that, as someone recently reminded me, I was in the habit of pointing out that that in October 1917 a good number of Muscovites woke up and wondered why their bins hadn’t been emptied?
So what would Freud have thought of the SWP? I think he would have considered that mid-negotiations cry of ‘Tories out!’ and decided: repetition compulsion. Or: the compulsion to repeat. His proposition/theory, that is, that seeks to explain the meaning and genesis of neurotic symptoms. It’s the central thing in his 1920 version of his theory, Beyond The Pleasure Principle.
Roughly speaking (very roughly) and taking an everyday example, it’s the matter of why we keep on dating the same girl/boy — or, in David Bowie’s mordant phrase, always crashing the same car. Much beyond that basic point, though, Freud’s theory is somewhat hard to grasp and maybe even, er, incoherent — certainly according to Laplanche and Pontalis’ standard dictionary of psychoanalysis.
Why should we continue to do something that is manifestly unpleasurable for us? Freud’s idea was that it somehow linked with a fundamental urge for non-existence. ‘The aim of all life is death,’ he wrote. No, never really made sense to me, either. Though it must be said, of course, that there is something deathly about the SWP’s chant — or, at least, something that evokes an urge for death to steal over you.
Perhaps a more useful way to think of the chant, though, would be to concentrate on the joy it seems to give its chanters. Banished are those long Labour years when it was forced to lay, unneeded and unloved, in the deep soul of the far left’s memory. Oh, joy of man’s desiring.
I find myself thinking of the tango of sadomasochism. Who needs each other more? Which is the sharper desire, the hitter for the hit or the hit for the hitter? The Tories need for the far left or the SWP’s need for William Hague?
I find myself thinking, too, of some Lucinda Williams’ lyrics . . .
‘If we lived in a world without tears,
How would bruises find the face to lie upon?
How would scars find skin to etch themselves into?
How would broken find the bone?’
* To begin, I don’t think I really realised the comrades were talking literally — much as, when younger, I’d been deeply shocked out of my already vestigial Catholicism when told that transubstantiation wasn’t meant to be symbolic but an actual change of wine to actual blood and little white round biscuit thing to actual flesh. A precociously metaphorical child, I thought: I mean, come on! (Oops, now I’ve got a structural deficit in my exclamation account.)
PS1 If all that was a bit too politicky for you, try this gorgeously charming rhythm thing and/or this opportunity for cheap (but wholehearted) laughs at foreigners’ difficulty with the English language.
PS2 I’ve become — immodestly and selfishly — quite taken with this idea of guessing what Freud would have thought of various things. So . . .
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