10 A Clash of Generations?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

The fact that ostensibly revolutionary associations can become merely, as it were, the "ex-servicemen's legions" of past struggles may mean that there will be older people in ossified movements, and younger ones in currently active movements. On the other hand, in some of the rebellions of today, though composed almost entirely of students, past philosophies such as Blanquism, Trotskyism, De Leonism, stride around with a fixed gaze like the Undead. The idea of classification by "generation" really comes from the university curriculum.

In the world in general, however, one finds that "the generation clash" is another abstract conception used to enslave. It is like the metaphysical idea of "the majority". Everybody knows that "the majority" do not support revolution. If they did so, there would be one. To "consider public opinion" and "respect majority decisions" is to place oneself entirely in the hands of politicians who manoeuvre such opinion and decisions. The idea of the majority is in itself a means of persuasion to adopt the opinions attributed to the majority.

Once one goes against those opinions, one will be regarded as a "minority". The conception of a generation gap transforms what is becoming a majority, into yet another minority whose opinions "we" naturally respect or treat with the contempt they deserve, according to "our" degree of liberality. For the art of rule by persuasion is to re-define according to necessity the distinction between "us" and "them".

Driven to admit that there is, perhaps, some tension in society, when perhaps overwhelming pressure brings industry to a standstill or barricades to the streets years after the liberals had dismissed the notion as "dated romanticism", the journalist invents the theory that this constitutes a clash of generations. Youth, after all, is not a permanent condition, and a clash of generations is not so fundamentally dangerous to the art of government as would be a clash between rulers and ruled.

The explanations of the mass media are not only accepted by the bourgeoisie and framed into social theories by the academics, they become accepted gladly by pseudo-revolutionaries and mistakenly by real ones. Some French students who have rejected the class war, think there is an age war. "The young make love, the old make obscene gestures," says one. Does he mean that his virility will cease at thirty, forty, fifty? Do those "new rebels" who state that youth (and imply "educated youth") is the "revolutionary class" mean that they themselves will cease to be revolutionaries when they have graduated? Unfortunately, this is often exactly what they do mean. The ruling class has never objected to Prince Hal spending his days roystering if as King he made good use of them.

It is natural to a property-owning system that there should be a clash of generations in the possessing class, because of the hereditary principle. The eldest son has to wait for the old man to die before he can come into his "rightful" inheritance, and gets a bit impatient. Feudal society was full of this inevitable filial antagonism, well illustrated in the hatred of fathers and sons in the Hanoveran dynasty. This type of generation gap lasted for a long time within the aristocracy, since the eldest son was not willing to go "into trade" (laziness had been idealised) and one of the few ways of easing the pressure was to put him into the Commons before he went into the Lords. It was called "warming-pan politics", and though made difficult by the Reform Bill, has not entirely disappeared.

Economic antagonism between the generations was less prevalent in the bourgeoisie, where the father could take his sons into business, and-certainly in the period when wisdom and respectability were reckoned in terms of the years one had lived-the patriarch sheltered his sons until they achieved business maturity. It is no coincidence that prosperous capitalism was patriarchal. Only the scapegrace son, a stock figure in the era's fiction, waited impatiently for the old fool to die so that he could squander his "good" money away.

The clash of generations was almost unknown in the working class, where the property to be left was negligible or nothing, and all that the virtuous children got out of the old man dying was the expense of the proper send-off. Both father and mother could pass on their skills to their children, and one of the bitterest complaints against laissez-faire individualist capitalism was the way in which the home life of the workers was broken up. The woman, taken from her loom to become an automaton in a factory, could not pass on her home skills to the younger generation, and, as she felt, her children were robbed no less than herself. The workers turned to the British revolutionary movement, the Luddites.1 So feared was it by the capitalist class that to this day the term has connotations of terror to the bourgeoisie greater than that of Bolshevik, and enjoys the privilege, with the word Anarchist, of being used as a pejorative word to excite prejudice against something quite different from what it plainly means.

At a time when the older proletarian had been able to amass little or nothing, he was less dogmatically opposed to revolution because of age. Once possessed of radicalism, it did not vanish with advancing years. Reformism gave the older worker a stake but also made him captive to it. He needed quick reforms "within my lifetime". Reaction made a division between generations -- younger labour came cheaper. The ruling class divides as it conquers.

In more recent times there has been the notion of youth itself as an idealised political concept. It gave the opportunity for new adventure and new adventurists. Democratic feudalism was advocated by Disraeli's Young England, and the end of feudalism by Young Germany. The Young Turks swept away despotism and the Italians brought it back, singing as they did so the official fascist anthem that youth was the springtime of beauty.

One leaves this type of enthusiasm for the attention of the psychologists and sociologists, already as busy as vultures on defeated causes, and turns almost with relief to the careful attitude of the social-democrats weighing up the utilitarian values of young vigour but unwilling to let it take over. In the Labour Party it has always been accepted that there should be a youth section, carefully corralled off, and it has played an important part in building up the party organisation. It has been recognised that it is permissible, under a certain age, to become a rebel, and that this may even be a necessary preliminary to becoming a member of the right wing. But whenever the youth organisation has been able to express its views, it has inevitably been more dynamic than the parent body, more or less progressive according to the prevailing standpoint, and has equally inevitably been dissolved, or has quit.

The Communist Party, which at one time created this embarrassment for the Labour bureaucrats, now finds itself in exactly the same dilemma with the Young Communist League.

The rebellion of bourgeois youth today against the pettiness and conformity of the elderly bourgeois is not merely a rebellion against age. Those of the former who think it is prepare the way for their later defection when they, too, are elderly and still bourgeois. It is a rebellion against bourgeois values as such, and a conscious choosing of values other than those of conquest and rule, or of buying cheap in one market and selling dear in another. By insisting that the present rebellion all over the world is a generation clash and confined to students at that, the makers of public opinion hope that by so defining it, they have determined its character.

This is part of the art of rule-by-persuasion. It is no longer generally believed that using this art is a conscious conspiracy by the ruling class. Yet the fact remains that the art exists, even if the idea of "conscious creation" of domination and the attitudes that perpetuate it was no more than an inspiring myth. It may be that by a process of mutation only those ruling classes survive who happen to use these methods.

If this is the case, it is easier to understand some superficial contradictions in the art of government. It would be over-Machiavellian to assume that somewhere a supreme council has decreed that pop groups should make their fortunes supposedly catering to, but in fact trying subtly to influence towards establishmentarianism, the young rebels of today; or why educational grants should be lavishly spent on university research enabling academics to explain to the revolutionaries what they are really thinking; or why politicians need to exploit divisions and antagonisms within society. But it is because they feel that such "spontaneous" movements help the ruling class to survive that many rebels turn to mass demonstrations, feeling that the more they frighten the bourgeoisie, the better, and let them bring out their heavy artillery if they will. For the storm troopers are there in reserve all right, even if some of the gruppenfuehrers are saying, not "Sieg Heil!", but "I was quite sympathetic to them until . . . ."

  • 1cf. E. P. Thompson "The Making of the English Working Class". Luddism, incidentally, comes not from a Ned Ludd, if he ever existed, but from King Lud, the mythical British king commemorated in Ludgate Circus in London. The evocation of his name brought back the idea of a happy past before "the conquest", the idealised medieval past and a craftsman's utopia freed from those who had come to rule.

    "As the liberty lads o'er the sea,
    Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
    So we boys, we, will die fighting, or live free,
    And down with all kings but King Lud!"