Saturday 25 April 2015

Lenin and Hitler vs Grant Shapps

When you're dealing with the broad sweep of history, of the collective efforts of billions of people as they produce, consume, go to war, and compelled to struggle among themselves for scarce resources, what role for the individual personality? For the majority of us, the point is moot. The vast majority of us will have our latter day three score years and ten, and fade into the background noise of the human story, though the digital footprint we leave behind will probably endure long after our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances have shuffled off too. Some, however, will have names and personalities that live on long after their deaths because of their contributions to their fields of endeavour, or are forever associated with historical events posterity labels pivotal. History isn't a procession of great men - and it's nearly always men - who bend the course of social development to their will, but it sometimes appears that way.

Let's look at a famous example from the Marxist canon, depending where you sit on the Trot/Tankie spectrum. In his masterful The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky pauses his gripping narrative to consider what would have happened had a brick fallen on Lenin's head in between February and October, and comes to the conclusion that the seizure of power by the Soviets would not have occurred. Writing some 30 years later in his equally superlative biography of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher takes Trotters to task for this observation. Here, the founder of the red army is taken to task for lapsing into idealism and, inadvertently, contributing to the cult of the personality Stalin created around Lenin as a foundation stone for his own legitimacy. Deutscher rightly observes that historical processes are the tectonics of millions upon millions of people moving simultaneously. Lenin did not create the conditions for the revolution, and in all likelihood the momentum of grievance would have made it without him.

Trotsky was more right than Deutscher, however. While it is true that Lenin was frequently in a minority on the Bolshevik central committee over the question of immediate socialist revolution, he had to wage a protracted political struggle to win them and the wider membership over to his famous April Theses. It's reasonable to assume that on the level of myriad micro social interactions and transactions, the figure of Lenin was absolutely crucial - as this otherwise silly right wing counterfactual also concludes. This however wasn't the basis of Trotsky's argument, though it was important. What was was Lenin being more than just Lenin as an individual. He was the figurehead for a real mass revolutionary movement in Russian society, a condensation that was made possible over many years of factional struggle, dissemination of writings and Bolshevik propaganda, and who - with his programme - was able to pull growing numbers of radicalised peasants and proletarians into the orbit of his party. Lenin was just a man, but effectively he was also a social movement, a figure that was the collective property of millions. This collectivity invested a great deal in him, so that his premature death would have constituted a major defeat for that movement.

Let us consider someone who's Lenin's polar opposite: Adolf Hitler. As the subject of more counterfactuals than practically any other historical figure, Hitler is taken as a 'great man' upon which the pivot of history hinged. If only he'd launched Barbarossa earlier. If only he listened to his generals more. If only he hadn't embarked on the industrial extermination of Europe's Jews. If only von Stauffenberg's bomb had got him. However, like Lenin, Hitler sat atop and was the collective property of a social movement. As Nazi Germany started collapsing under a shower of allied bombs and military defeat, the solidity of German society - which in 1944-45 was losing around 300,000 people a month - was maintained by the fuhrer cult. Support for the Nazis even as they were visiting ruin on themselves remained because of the legitimacy initially secured through the attraction of mass support, and then a ceaseless let up in regime propaganda around Hitler's superhuman qualities. In a society denuded of ideological resources save those sanctified by the Nazis, Hitler was less a projection of fear and more a source of hope for beleaguered Germans. Hence his movement had raised him up to the point where his whims and moods was not just life and death for millions of people, but determined the course of history.

The characters of each men say a little something about the movements they personified too. Lenin, by all accounts, was single-minded in his pursuit of socialist revolution. Everything about him was subordinated to that goal. He also, again it is generally agreed, did not have a trace of egoism - he resisted the personality cult, for example. Written into his character were the revolutionary aspirations of Russia's growing proletariat, of a class excluded from what passed for official politics and was ruthlessly suppressed; despite the fact he wasn't drawn from that class himself. Hitler's personality too was suited to the movement that made him. His prejudices, his sense of entitled victimhood, his nationalism, his taste for the high life, these were qualities that commended him to the petit bourgeois, the middle class, and the declassed elements of Depression-era Germany.

What then could these two possibly have in common with the Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, a man destined to be nothing more than a footnote in this country's political history? Hitler and Lenin are names indelibly linked with the human story. Shapps is a man liable to be forgotten way before he retires from Parliament. Well, this is because what Lenin and Hitler say about their movements, so Shapps sheds light on today's Tory party.

I have had a correspondence acquaintance with Shapps. Back in the day I wrote to him in his then capacity as housing minister. Under his watch Shapps scrapped a particular house building scheme - the name escapes me (it was not Building Homes for the Future) - that saw a nice return to the Treasury for every pound the taxpayer put in. Using the clipped, precise language one uses to address civil servants writing on behalf of their Whitehall masters, I invited him to explain to the constituent for whom the letter was written why he had withdrawn funding from an initiative that was a net contributor to UK finances. The reply that came was the kind of stupidity we've come to expect from the Tories. "We've got to get the deficit down" and, um, that was that. Points not acknowledged, let alone answered. While this was common among Tory ministers - IBS over at the DWP being a particularly egregious example - some did at least try and address the points put. From that point on, I've filed Shapps under D for Dumb.

It could have been for 'dishonest' too because he stands out among the cabinet as the shabbiest of Dave's gang of chancers. Take the claims about Shapps manipulating his own Wikipedia entry and making alterations to others, all to the greater glory of, um, Shapps. The denials were issued like clockwork, but are hardly believable. While small beer politically speaking, if you're prepared to be so dishonest over the little things then you can hardly be trusted with the big. but it's not just Shapps's political habits and lying, sorry, "over-firmly denying" his business activities while a front rank Tory politician, but his business activities themselves. Shapps has long been a laughing stock over his Michael Green alter ego (and lying about it too) and the peddling of get-rich-quick schemes. There's also the small matter of dodgy internet marketing, which encouraged his customers to plagiarise others' content. Shapps business is not only morally dubious from the standpoint of online ethics, it's entirely socially useless.

Appropriate, you might say, that such a man can rise without a trace within the latter day Tory party. As the political home of high finance and low pay, of spivvery and huckstering, of stupidity and decadence, that a man who distinguishes himself as a serial fibber and had made millions from digital snake oil should find himself in charge of the party machine is no accident. As it decomposes and frays, as the more forward looking and astute representatives of capital give it a wide berth, so its more lumpen elements come forward.

Hitler and Lenin were condensed and embodied their rising movements. As the Tory party degrades and decomposes on its slow slope to oblivion, it too will find itself represented by people best suited to reflect its decrepitude.

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