I have had so much response – some of it I’m afraid a little bizarre ‑ to my recent blog post “A Fair Price” that I feel compelled to return to the subject of ideology and commerce. Well that’s what I’m saying anyway.
A good few decades back, when I was for a few years proudly engaged myself in adding the halfpence to the pence, a phenomenon – a premature phenomenon perhaps – which later became known as “the tax marches”, occurred. Impressive numbers turned out during 1979 and 1980 to protest at the fairly indisputable fact that while the petty bourgeoisie were able to employ accountants (“legions of accountants”) to enable them to evade or avoid tax the wurkers (by hand or brain) couldn’t really fiddle anything at all. I remember watching a close political comrade (“the laughing Leninist”, we later called him) participating in one of these huge marches. I would indeed have participated myself except that I had to keep the shop open – it was that tight. Catching sight of me on the pavement he roared out in his splendid Cork accent “Send the bourgeoisie to the camps” and laughed like a drain.
Czesław Miłosz, in his memoir Native Realm, writes of his people’s (the quite impoverished Polish gentry’s) aversion to “getting on” and how, eventually, a relatively small number of people were able to leap classes without any great difficulty. Miłosz speaks of “a certain incompetence in practical affairs, a contempt for ‘elbowing one’s way up’ (because social standing clearly did not depend on wealth)”, all of which led these frugal squires to believe “that wage-earning was somehow below a man’s dignity”.
When Miłosz became a diplomat in the service of “People’s Poland” after the war, his social origins, he writes
caused me no trouble at all. On the contrary, my superiors viewed them very favorably, and in this showed great acumen. The real demons for them were the defenders of private initiative, the entrepreneurs, whether in trade, industry, or agriculture. By exterminating the acquisitive instinct, they believed that mankind could be raised to a higher level. On this point, they and I were in perfect accord – an accord that went deeper than any rationale, growing as it did out of an inborn aversion to counting, measuring and weighing, activities that symbolized the unclean. There is really nothing more anti-bourgeois than certain segments of the intelligentsia who are defenseless when it comes to money. They retain a medieval disgust for usury because private capitalism never rubbed off on them. My superiors, not necessarily realizing it, professed an ideology strongly marked by the atavistic resentments of impoverished noblemen, those begetters of revolution in politics and literature. One of these was Dostoevsky – when in the person of his hero Raskolnikov, he killed the pawnbrokeress, he was anticipating the expropriation of private capital … and the nationalization of private property. Another was Lenin. Still another was my fellow-countryman from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Felix Dzierżyński, the organizer of the most powerful police force on the globe, the Cheka. So a well-trodden path lay open, making it easy for the intelligentsia to become a partner of the “apparatus.” Emotionally I did not condemn the destruction of private shops and farms (this did not mean that I always approved of it intellectually); it even gave me a sadistic pleasure – which was certainly noted down in my favour as a positive indicator.
So, do we have any poets in Ireland today who can think for themselves about the society they are living in or are they all, whether consciously or unconsciously, in thrall to Yeats’s shallow and nasty line? Certainly we did have some, Heaney and O’Driscoll, whose hearts beat in sympathy with the generous, humane scepticism and comprehensive understanding of Miłosz. But those particular hearts are no longer beating.