From left to right: on the mid-life political conversions

A celebrated playwright turns his back on liberalism and the chattering classes are aghast. Yet the tradition of former firebrands abandoning their youthful radicalism in later life is a long and intriguing one. Andy McSmith reports
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David Mamet

The American playwright and director has appalled many of his liberal admirers by publishing an essay in New York's leftish newspaper Village Voice with the self-explanatory title "Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal". Mamet, above, claims that "for many decades" he subscribed to a "liberal" world view that "everything is always wrong" and yet at the same time "people are good". Now he has decided that people are basically out to look after themselves – but also that life in the US is not at all bad. Mamet also provocatively suggested that George Bush is no worse than John F Kennedy.

The Independent's Arts Editor, David Lister, cautions that: "Mamet was never simply a liberal. He is not now simply a conservative." All the same, the playwright has clearly been through some sort of dramatic political metamorphosis, and the chattering classes are understandably startled. Yet Mamet is not by any means the only prominent liberal to undergo such a conversion ...

Paul Johnson

When he was 24, Johnson was shocked by the violence with which the French police put down a riot in Paris, where he was working as a journalist. He became a socialist, an associate of Aneurin Bevan and, in 1965, aged 37, editor of the New Statesman.

As one of the country's foremost left-wing journalists, he wrote a memorable tirade against the "sex, sadism and snobbery" of the James Bond novels. Then he abruptly switched sides when his former Oxford contemporary Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Johnson became one of the Iron Lady's first advisers and loudest cheerleaders. He also admired Tony Blair, and regarded Chile's General Pinochet as a great statesman. Perhaps that was why there was so much glee on the left in 1998 when, after he had written one too many righteous pieces about marriage, his long time ex-mistress revealed how he loved to be spanked.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

In 1849, when Europe was in revolutionary turmoil, the young Dostoevsky joined a secret circle that discussed political and philosophical questions. It was probably harmless, idealistic chat, but in the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, anyone who secretly discussed politics was assumed to be a revolutionary. Dostoevsky and his associates were sentenced to death and taken out into a freezing yard, where the firing squad was ready and waiting – only to be told that the Tsar had reprieved them. Dostoevsky's four years of hard labour in Siberia, amid the dregs of Russian society, convinced him of the need for a strong tsar. He returned a committed Orthodox Christian and monarchist who loathed liberals such as his rival writer Ivan Turgenev, and was appalled by the revolutionary ideas of the young.

Benito Mussolini

Mussolini's father, a blacksmith, and his mother, a schoolteacher, were socialists who named their firstborn after the Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez. At 19, Mussolini moved to Switzerland, studied Karl Marx, and joined the movement. Back in Italy, he became a well-known left-wing journalist, jailed in 1911 for opposing Italy's invasion of Libya. Emerging from prison a hero, he was made editor of the country's main socialist newspaper, Avanti. In 1914, like other socialists, he was all for staying out of the war, but in 1915 he was suddenly enthused by Italy's decision to join the French, British and Russian alliance. Sacked by Avanti, he founded a rival paper financed by the French and by rich Italians, and was expelled from the Socialist party. He went off to war, and on his return he founded a nationalist movement, Fasci Italiani di Combattimeno (Italian Combat Leagues). The rest, as they say, is history.

Irving Kristol

Now 88 years old, Kristol is recognised in the United States as the founding father of neoconservatism.

During the Cold War, he and his fellow ideologues berated liberal intellectuals who defended the civil rights of communists, arguing that the favour would never be returned. He has also argued that the First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids states to pass laws that inhibit freedom of speech, should not apply to "advocacy of homosexuality". His son, William, was one of the first intellectuals to call on George Bush to invade Iraq. His wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is a historian who has praised Victorian England for the moral sanctions it applied to recipients of poor relief. Yet the couple met – in New York in the early 1940s – at a meeting of the Fourth International, the body set up by Leon Trotsky. Kristol is proud of his ultra-left past. He says that neo-conservatives are "liberals mugged by reality".

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth did not just write about daffodils; he was also a man of strong political opinions, drawn from personal experience. As a youth, he visited France only months after the fall of the Bastille, returning a keen reformer. He was furious when England declared war on the young French republic. His revolutionary fervour dimmed when the Terror took hold, but he continued to protest at the condition of the poor in England. Then, when Napoleon came on the scene, Wordsworth veered to the right. He lived to be 80, becoming Poet Laureate, living off a generous state pension and, like his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a committed conservative. He was shocked at Lake District liberals who thought that girls should be given a rounded education. He opposed the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of Catholics, parliamentary reform, the abolition of capital punishment, and most other liberal causes. He also objected to plans to bring a rail service to the Lake District, for fear that it would bring the wrong kind of people to the area. Wordsworth is today's featured poet in our series of Great Poets mini-books.

Julie Burchill

The "queen" of tabloid journalism was brought up a communist in a working-class household in Bristol. Burchill, above, won herself a job on New Musical Express in 1976 at the age of 17, by sending in a review of Patti Smith's LP Horses. Young, hip and radical, she demonstrated that she was no orthodox leftist when she developed an admiration for Margaret Thatcher. She seems to have seen in Thatcher the sort of qualities she also admired in Joseph Stalin. More recently, she supported the invasion of Iraq, visited Israel, and became besotted with the country. The affection appears to be mutual: on her website she proclaims herself to be "Israel's favourite columnist" (although she also claims to have given up journalism). This is the writer who is reputed to have once said: "The only kind of socialist to be is a Stalinist, and the only kind of woman to be is a Bitch."

Kingsley Amis

Amis joined the Communist Party as a student at Oxford University, although his general attitude to authority made it inconceivable that he would ever be a disciplined party member. After he quit, he became famous as an "Angry Young Man": a scourge of the right-wing establishment. Then, when students were marching in protest against the Vietnam War, Amis came out in favour of it. He published an essay in 1967: "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" – Lucky Jim being the title of his first novel – and launched a campaign against comprehensive education and the expansion of higher education. When Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, he wrote to Philip Larkin: "Bloody good, eh?" His biographer, Zachary Leader, reckoned that "he was a communist when at Oxford, partly to annoy his elders, his father in particular; when he was older he moved to the right, partly to annoy fellow literary intellectuals and academics."

Christopher & Peter Hitchens

Back in the 1960s, both the Hitchens brothers were members of what is now called the Socialist Workers Party. Old comrades claim that Peter was an enthusiastic newspaper salesman, with a beard. He later switched to the Labour Party, but resigned in 1983, when he was appointed a political correspondent for the Daily Express. Before long, he had become famous as a baiter of Labour politicians. He joined the Conservatives for a while, but quit when he concluded that, in effect, they were not sufficiently right wing. His older, smarter brother, Christopher stayed on the left for many years. After 11 September 2001, however, he too showed signs of a change of stance, becoming an outspoken opponent of "Islamofascism". Consequently, it was Christopher who supported the foreign policies of George Bush, including the Iraq war. Peter, the right-wing religious iconoclast, was against the war, on the grounds that it did not serve Western interests.

Garry Bushell

Bushell, now the television critic for the Daily Star Sunday, is a man of several parts. He was an amateur boxer and a punk musician before becoming a TV critic. As a staff writer for The Sun, he had extraordinary contacts: during the 1983 election he secured an interview, through a medium, with the long dead Joe Stalin, and established that he was supporting Labour. He also contacted Queen Boudica, who was backing Thatcher. In the 2005 election, Bushell stood as a candidate for the English Democrats Party, which wants to pull out of the European Union and restrict immigration. Who would think that this was the same Garry Bushell who, in the 1970s and early 1980s, was a left-wing firebrand from the Socialist Workers Party?

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