Reporter: COMMIE DES GARCONS
Not since Tom Wolfe invented radical chic has it been so cred to be red. Howard Byrom explains why revolution is the ecstasy of history
Sunday 29 March 1998
Meanwhile, James Birch, the art dealer responsible for inflicting Gilbert and George on Moscow, is taking the concept of communism in the marketplace one step further. He's seeking premises for Marx, a new bar-cum-shop in Islington - a former hotbed for revolutionaries in the days before Tony Blair made it unrespectable. "Communist ephemera hasn't ever been done," says Birch, somewhat playfully. "I like the concept of Marx -- the lifestyle. The shop will be very minimal. I'll open one day a week - maybe on a Friday 2 till 5. I like the idea that even when it's open you still might not be able to buy anything. I know a moody Russian girl who could dissuade the punters from buying things. She'll snap 'No, you can't buy that, I'm too busy.' Same with the bar, minimum of stock, and you might need to wear a uniform to get in." Kapital idea. It's reassuring to think that not everybody's ruled by the constraints of supply and demand.
With the Soviet Union now a hazy memory, and a government even its most desperate enemies could not accuse of harbouring reds under the beds, commie chic is looking attractive once again - who knows, the New Statesman might even replace The Face as a style bible. "Red" Ken Livingstone MP, once considered the scourge of decent society, is now a must-have guest at fashionable parties. "The most odious man in Britain", as he was once described by the Sun, now pens a restaurant column for the Evening Standard, and last week was favoured with an invitation to the opening of the new Moschino shop.
But apart from the somewhat kitsch notion of radicals cosying up to the society circuit, and vice versa, next season's colour is definitely pinko. Prague, Vietnam, and Cuba are just about the hippest destinations you could choose for your hols, and very soon the book shops will be groaning with titles commemorating the 30th anniversary of May 1968's heady events. Perfect for the plane to Ho Chi Minh City. Even if you aren't quite up to revolt yourself, you can read about the others who have been there and fought capitalism for you. There's one from veteran lefty intellectual, Tariq Ali; a joint effort from Tom Nairn and Angelo Quattrocchi called The Beginning of the End, an account of Paris's student revolt; and even fashion mag Dazed & Confused are putting together a May 1968 issue. Now, more than ever, revolution is the ecstasy of history.
As the red menace recedes into history, defused by the gentle glow of nostalgia, the left, it seems, becomes cuddlier by the day. Remember when coal miners were greedy, over-paid, work-shy louts, intent on decimating the economy and throwing things at the boys in blue? Now they are dear, brave souls, their struggle a proud part of the nation's history. On the other hand, nobody's exactly queuing up to ask the Socialist Workers Party to chic parties (which is just as well, because, let's face it, what would they wear?). Doesn't Marxism lite strike a discordant note with those who are still engaged in real, sweaty, studenty banner-waving? Not at all, says Pat Stack, National Treasurer of the Socialist Workers Party, which claims - OK, rather spuriously - that membership has risen to 11,500 since the election. "Mainstream politics has become a dichotomy for many people. There are a great number of people who don't accept that Thatcherism is as good as it gets. Any interest in a Marxist revival is helpful." Thatcherism? What's that?
Still, now that New Labour have taken the stand and failed to deliver, Marxism's makeover is gathering pace. Only last week the NME ran "Betrayed - The Labour Government's War On You", a piece that sounded more like a battle cry from the Socialist Worker than a feature from a music weekly. Jarvis Cocker, Kirsty McColl and Echobelly's Sonya Aurora Madden are among the popsters who have seen fit to attack the party - from the left. Even Alan McGee of Creation Records, who slung them a generous wad before the election, is now making his disillusionment known. And thank heaven: things have come to a pretty pass when pop stars are throwing their weight behind a viable party of government.
The intelligentsia, too, are going for it. In the Modern Review Charlotte Raven praised Marxism as "a ruthless criticism of everything existing" comparing it to a sturdy pair of boots next to postmodernism's dress made of spiders' webs. But isn't that just typical? The very instant you get a grasp on the slippery theories of Barthes, the chattering classes have switched to discussions of dialectical materialism.
Dinner table discourse about the Marxists on Wall Street is all well and good, but is there still a place for revolutionary politics in 1998? "Many of those ideas are valid today," says Robin Blackburn, editor of the New Left Review and veteran of the demonstrations in Grosvenor Square in 1968. "Marxism could have an enormous impact on capitalism, at the end of this century. All the funds sloshing around the global markets are largely pension funds. And rather than being used for investment around the investors' own village in Yorkshire, the money's being invested in somewhere like Chicago. The fruits of their toils are being used to oppress them, just like the Old Boy said."
So now south east Asia's tiger economy has failed and Sterling is going through the roof, is it time to unite? After all we have nothing to lose but our mobile phones, Nikes, Sony Playstations, CDs, GTIs... er, just how long is it before the revolution? "I couldn't put a date on it," says Blackburn, "but definitely in the next century." Phew, plenty of time to take up the class struggle, then.
The 'Modern Edition' of the 'Communist Manifesto', with a new introduction by Eric Hobsbawm, is published on 2 April at pounds 8
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