Monday, July 28, 2008

Surrendering to the wisdom of age

(First published Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 23)

There’s a well-known quote that goes: “A man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, but a man who is still a socialist at 40 has no brain”.

I’ve seen the statement, or variations of it, attributed to Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, the French politician Aristide Briand, CIA director William Casey, US president Woodrow Wilson, the French statesman Georges Clemenceau and Count Otto Von Bismarck (all men, which perhaps explains why the quote seems to assume that only blokes have political thoughts).

But never mind who originally said it. What’s interesting is the proposition that as people grow older their perception of the world changes, and with it their insights. Youthful idealism is gradually supplanted by an appreciation of life’s complexities that leads them away from reliance on simplistic solutions, such as the socialist dream of the benign but all-powerful state (which history has proved to be a contradiction in terms) that fixes every problem and remedies every injustice.

Stephen Franks, the former ACT MP, calls it being “mugged by reality”. He’s one of a number of people I know who started out on the left of politics and ended up on the other side. An idealistic young Labour Party member at Victoria University, he remembers having political arguments with his conservative father (who doesn’t?). But his blinkers were removed on a trip to China in the mid-1970s.

He went there intending to live on a commune and saw at first hand the repression and hardship imposed by Maoist communism. When he met the famous New Zealand expatriate Rewi Alley in Beijing, he saw soldiers stationed outside Alley’s house and realised with a shock that they weren’t there to protect him – they were making sure he didn’t go anywhere. That marked the start of a radical political conversion that saw Stephen (now the National Party candidate for Wellington Central) become a champion of free enterprise and hands-off government.

There are many others like him, such as the former Labour cabinet minister Michael Bassett. Originally one of the radical young intellectuals of the Labour Party’s famous Princes St (Auckland) branch, he is now thoroughly disillusioned with the left and has become one of the Labour Government’s most trenchant critics (and one of the most effective, because as a former insider he knows exactly what he’s talking about).

Bassett rose to prominence in an era when most leading thinkers were left-wing, but like many others he learned in government that left-wing theory doesn’t always work in practice, often leading to unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Several of his colleagues – notably Richard Prebble, Roger Douglas and, to a lesser extent, Mike Moore – underwent a similar conversion.

When I think of lefties who have turned, I also think of my old journalism colleague Nevil Gibson. Nevil was a Trotskyite in his student days but renounced any lingering leftist sympathies after seeing how bleak and miserable Eastern Europe was under Soviet-style communism, and observing Britain’s economic and social transformation under Margaret Thatcher. For many years now, as managing editor of National Business Review, he has been a strident critic of left-wing folly and an uncompromising advocate of the free market.

Nevil makes the interesting point that leftists are often people who are attracted to radical solutions, which can make them also receptive to extreme right-wing ideas (such as the “muscular capitalism” of economists like Milton Friedman) that might frighten off more timid minds. Seen in that light, the route from extreme left to extreme right may be shorter and more direct than, say, from extreme left to centre.

Many members of the baby-boomer generation, raised on a diet of righteous protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid, find it hard to resist the natural tug to the right as they grow older. It can be quite entertaining to hear people like Brian Edwards, a lifelong leftie, getting all cantankerous and reactionary – despite himself – on Jim Mora’s afternoon panel discussions on The Station Previously Known as National Radio. And I sometimes imagine I can detect, in the cartoons of my former colleague Tom Scott, an uneasy tension between Tom’s old radical inclinations and the natural conservatism (I would call it common sense) that comes with age. There’s a natural reluctance to give up attitudes and values passionately adhered to when we were younger.

On the other hand some old radicals have clearly decided the game is up and it’s no use fighting. Just look at Tim Shadbolt, an incorrigible stirrer in his younger days, who was recently agitating on law and order issues – once considered the preserve of the kneejerk right – and has been a bitter opponent of some Labour Government policies.

Of course many people remain socialists for life. Some stay that way because that’s how they were brought up and it never occurs to them to question it (the “I’ve voted Labour all my life” syndrome). But there are also a few lifelong socialist intellectuals who have thought deeply about politics, and I wouldn’t dare argue that anyone who remains a socialist in middle age and beyond can only be a fool.

I think of people like the charismatic Professor Jim Flynn, emeritus professor of political studies at Otago University, who in retirement seems as staunchly left-wing as ever (he’s the Alliance Party spokesman on finance and tax). Or the columnist and commentator Chris Trotter, who seems never to have deviated one millimetre from the socialist path.

I might not share these diehards’ views, but I would never make the mistake of thinking they weren’t smart. In the case of people like these, belief in the ideals of socialism has nothing to do with intelligence or lack of it; it’s all about embracing an ideology. I would argue that they personify the triumph of idealism over experience and evidence. But dismissing them as silly is – well, silly, in the same way as it’s wishful thinking for an atheist to condemn as foolish and deluded all the brilliant thinkers who have been devoutly religious.

But back to that quote. Implicit in it is a recognition that socialism is founded on a worthy impulse of concern for one’s fellow human beings. That’s why it describes the man who is not a socialist at 20 as having no heart.

Does this mean that people who renounce socialist ideals as they grow older cease to have a heart? Cynics would probably say that. They would argue that the reason people become more conservative as they age is that with prosperity, they grow smug and selfish; or that with the passage of time, idealism and compassion are overtaken by economic anxiety, bigotry and fear of change.

It’s easy to stereotype conservative people as greedy and concerned only for themselves. But most of the thinking conservatives I know are no less concerned about the wellbeing of their fellow humans than the most ardent socialists. They all want a world that is peaceful, prosperous, just and secure for all its inhabitants.

The argument is not about the final goal. It’s all about how to get there.

No comments: