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Alexei Sayle’s Intellectual Journey

This is a guest post by amie

Alexei Sayle made a remarkable recantation in the Sunday Times last week.

He describes how he as the 10 year old son of communist revolutionaries cheered for the USSR during the Cuban Missile crisis while everyone around him quaked.

He only finally realised what a fool he had been when the Wall came down in ’89:

“I realised there was still a part of me that had hung onto the ridiculous idea that there was a kind of equilibrium between East and West: that for every good thing in capitalist society — for instance, material wealth or free speech — there existed an equal benefit in communist countries, such as a universal safety net or a greater sense of communal life.

It was only when news of the true state of affairs in Eastern Europe began to emerge — the corruption, the constant snooping, the crime, the chaos and inefficiency, the endemic racism — that I realised my hopes that somehow, as Gorbachev had planned, communism could be reformed and the best of the system preserved, were idiotic. There was no best.”

The mea culpa is so eloquent one hesitates to be churlish and wonder why it took him 20 years from the age, a few years on from his 10 year old self- when he would presumably have been in a position to read more critically the history of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin, of ’56 and ’68.

Anyway, in ’89:

“I realised that I’d fallen into the trap that so many on the left constantly fall into.

The good side of radicals, progressives, liberals is that they wish for a better, fairer world and they try to speak for those whose voices are trampled by governments and big business. The bad side of these positivist tendencies is that there is an inclination for us to turn a blind eye to the imperfections of any society or organisation that asserts that it’s fighting for the rights of the oppressed.

We want to think that we are on the side of goodness and justice, and can’t cope with the moral ambiguities that attend most human affairs. Thus we can find ourselves defending despots, terrifying terrorist groups and plain madmen because they said they were socialists or anti-imperialist or just poor, and we so wanted to believe them, simply because their struggle had begun with a justified impulse.

Yet, while realising that I had not been clear-sighted enough over the catastrophic Soviet experiment, I still did not want to make the journey that so many writers, entertainers and journalists have made, that journey from wild-eyed lefty to curmudgeonly old rightist.”

Good choice Alexei, we don’t need another Peter Hitchens.

Well, here is the lesson he learned, better late than never:

“ So in middle age I continue to campaign for any number of doomed radical causes: justice for the Palestinian people, animal rights, an end to vivisection, prison reform. But the only way I can make amends for my previous myopia is to become obsessive in trying never to ignore the deficiencies of my own argument, to never glorify the people I am fighting for — to not assume that just because they are oppressed they are intrinsically noble (why would they be?) — and to keep in the back of my mind the idea that I could always be wrong. “

And how will he apply this lesson in the future?

“All this makes me a highly ineffective campaigner. Those whose causes I support sigh when I turn up at a rally or press conference, and they would much rather have me on the other side, since I’m constantly saying confusing things and agreeing with my opponent. But I hope in the end it is more important to do that than to resort to bombast and sloganising, and when I falter I always keep at the front of my mind the Latin proverb corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst. “

Excellent. So 20 years later, this is the new, nuanced Alexei in January 2009 leading the Gaza protests along with Annie:

“I think that Israel has an idea of itself as being noble.

“When you attack somebody but you have this idea of yourself that you’re the good guy – you think ‘how can this be?’

What you do is blame the people you have killed – and you hear all the time from Israeli spokespeople that they are angry with the people that they have murdered, for making them murder them.

“It is the psychology of the murderer, the rapist, the bully. And that’s what Israel is in this situation”

So Alexei redux turns out pronouncements on Israel’s psyche straight out of the Rose-Churchill School of Psychoanalysis.

Roll on the next 20 years as Sayle achieves even greater levels of wisdom..