“Theory is grey my friend but the tree of life blooms forever green”, as Lenin put it quoting Goethe. It means that society, class struggle and politics do not develop in simple linear ways but in surprising and unforeseeable forms requiring new tactics and analysis.
History does not move at a uniform pace and in direct ways: it jumps, stops and doubles back on itself. At times it feels less like a tree and more like a bramble patch. Not only that but new movements and social developments do not express themselves directly but often in old forms and languages.
So it is that the new movements rejecting austerity and neoliberalism have taken the form of the 1980s. It’s as if the ghosts of 30 years ago walk the Earth. In Greece and Spain Eurocommunism rises from the dead; in Britain comes a rebooted Bennism with the rise of Corbyn. Left reformism springs from the dead and buried, a new movement in old clothes and language.
If new political movements take the stage wearing the clothes of past times so the stale remnants of Britain’s imperialist heritage and role as sidekick to bully America have evolved in new and increasingly desperate ways.
The weaker and less effective the armed forces have become, defeated first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, the more they are put into the public eye. They have become part of an ideological battle, with the Tories ditching and trashing multiculturalism in favour of a new/old identification of being British and proud of our glorious past.
Like many vile things, this development is a continuation of a trend from the Blair years. During the Blair wars the British armed forces aimed to play a similar role with America’s armed forces as the Ghurkhas do in the British army — a specialised unit loyal and useful to their imperial masters. But even this has now proved to be beyond them and the decline of British power is mirrored in the rise of pomp and wallowing in a mythical glorious past.
At times Britain seems stuck in the 1940s unable to move beyond reliving aspects of the Second World War, at others an endless remembering of a mythical past. Since the Blair days the BBC has enforced the compulsory wearing of poppies in November, as the world wars become less and less a remembering and more and more enforced inane patriotism.
Regiments now march through city streets, an armed forces day is celebrated and every possible anniversary of every possible war and battle is commemorated to the hilt.
It seems every month another monument is built to honour the dead of one war or another. At the same time that welfare is cut to the bone, homelessness increases, food and soup kitchens open up — never has there been so much money spent on building more and more monuments to the dead.
When Britain actually was a great power it used to make fun of other countries for their waste of resources in pomp and military displays — the stupidity of Ruritanian or Prussian ritual and ceremony. Britain is now at the centre of such reactionary waste and delusions, part of a government campaign to revive patriotism, rewrite history and try to use the armed forces as an ideological tool for a right wing nationalism.
For history is never just a record of past events; it exists not in the past but in the present, which is why it is always such a contested area and why the Tories are so keen to rewrite it, claiming to return to the old certainties when in fact wallowing in new myths.
The actual ex-military traumatised by their experiences often end up on the streets (surveys find that up to a third of the homeless are ex-military) and sleeping in the monuments to the glorious dead. According to the Telegraph the chancellor is to announce in the autumn a further £400,000 to be spent on RAF monuments to those who fought the Germans in the Second World War. This is in addition to the £55 million spent on First World War events so far. The military dead it seems have no programme of austerity or cuts. War graves are tended and renewed and monies spent on ceremonies celebrating Britain’s mythical imperialist past expand in proportion to the shrinkage of the monies spent on the living.
Walking through London today has become a stroll from one military monument to another. Hyde Park Corner is now a mini monumental city of the dead crowded with monuments that have got bigger and bigger and uglier and uglier, the latest being to Bomber Command for their work on Dresden and similar mass raids on German cities.
It is not even that the monuments have any artistic value even when compared to the older examples, some of which at least had some artistic merit. The monument to the Machine Gun Corps (pictured) at Hyde Park Corner by Francis Derwent Wood is an example of a rather dated classical style but is at least done well. It contrasts glaringly to the more modern ones that it shares Hyde Park Corner with, which are either too literal or have a meaningless abstract design.
The waste of expensive marbles used in these monuments could be said to be an unintentionally ironic comment on the senseless waste of human lives in wars. But it is in fact a sign of a declining and senile ruling class that spends so much time and money reliving an invented past, it is no longer willing or able to look at reality. Don’t panic, keep calm and daydream on.