Why should radicals look to ‘pretenders’ for inspiration? Amy Westwell and Cailean Gallagher trace the history of wild and illegitimate claims to power and ask how we might pursue the same across Europe today.
On New Year’s Eve, just before 8 o’clock, a spindly trade union bureaucrat was traversing the south-west corner of St Andrews Square in Edinburgh. He tugged a white and scarlet scarf around his neck, buttoned his jacket, hiked up his kilt, and plunged into the throngs of tourists. The partiers were amassing on Princes Street in defiance of the coming storm, pleased to be experiencing authentic Scottish weather. Our trade unionist was a spy, hunting for evidence of unpaid work (this being the quotidian remit of the modern leftist operative). The company overseeing the event, logically named ‘Underbelly’, had advertised for 150 volunteer ‘Ambassadors’, pitching the posts in particular to 16 and 17-year old school-leavers.
‘Ambassadors will play key roles in various locations around the event area. Ambassadors will be the welcoming faces to Edinburgh Hogmanay’s world famous Street Party. Ambassadors will assist those attending the party…’. So ran the advert – but the welcoming faces were not easy to find. Open your eyes at events like these and the size of the workforce is stunning. Five thousand were employed that night to keep the peace. The mole asked dozens of G4S security staff, but none had heard of the Ambassadors. One radioed the Underbelly office to pass on the query and the inquirer was told to email inquiries@underbelly with ‘urgent’ in the subject title – this elicited no immediate response. Another guard, a quiet old man who was standing in the dark next to the railings of the National Gallery, said he knew nothing but it got him down to hear about the unpaid workers. ‘It is a bad omen for the rest of us’, he said.
Eventually, a pair of orange-clads appeared. The bureaucrat wove through the crowd and introduced himself, explaining the concerns of the unions, and asking them about the content of their duties. The bearded middle-aged men sensed a threat to their self-worth and bore their teeth. “We’re here to make it fun”, snarled the first Ambassador. The next pair he found were loitering on one of the tram-stops halfway down the street. They were more equivocal. One of them, a long-necked student with a deep bass voice, admitted that although personally he was glad to be involved it seemed to be pushing the limits of acceptable volunteering right enough. The next pair was even more incongruous – one was a hyper American who was reveling in the crass spectacle, the other was morose – a middle-aged Leither who had felt compelled to take part having ‘made a commitment.
During union negotiations before the event, the campaign group Better than Zero had threatened to mobilise dozens of activists to protest and disrupt the party. More than anything it was this that had shaken Charlie Wood, the Old Etonian (OE) co-owner of Underbelly. Wood, OE, had clasped his hands and prayed of the union bargainers that they wouldn’t jeopardise party-goers’ joy. Many, both public and volunteers, were convinced by the Underbelly facade – this party was in the name of fun, not money. If you’re miserable working in hospitality, you just need to lighten up
Hiding workers, profits, and misery is a well-used tactic of bosses. Making such interests visible is laboursome, and yet even when such work is completed there is no natural reward. The far more difficult task is to convince people of the weight of their claim and the strength of their ranks. Such strategies are pioneered by precarious workers out of necessity – in the absence of workplace structures their strength relies on presumptuousness and pretence: one might say force and fraud, or pith and power. While these outriders often lack basis in law, or in traditional structures of trade unionism, they derive their principles from a set of convictions and instincts about tactics. Pretend that you are strong and ready, falsely prophesise an event or a rising, and the threat will bring power to make those things happen.
Pretenders in the European Tradition
It might seem a strange venture to start a journal aligning itself with the European populist-left after Article 50 has been triggered. Even when the institutional ties gave us a more recognisably common enemy in the form of the European Council, the intersection between European and British radicalism remained at the unhelpful poles of flattery and derision. But you Europeans have always been more use to us as enemies. While Europe spent centuries writhing in revolution, it was the possibility of invasion that kept the flame of hope alight in the minds of seditious Scots and treasonous Irish folk. How onerous it must have been to have always had Celtic low-lifes like Wolfe Tone and Thomas Muir hanging around your parliaments, entreating you to be our friends in arms once more. Our burden was a mixed government, the most stable regime of all, only threatened by pretenders utilising populism, military threats, and wild claims to sovereignty. Such claims are always illegitimate until they reach the tipping point of gaining real power.
Many will squirm at the implication. There is a lazy republicanism at work in British left thought, which sneers at ideas of royalty and power residing in one person or institution. The other side of this proclaimed belief is less acknowledged – the republic in British political thought is the middle way, the restraint of the people and the rich to create a balance that will power commerce respectably. The challengers to the ideal republican order occupy a disgraced but romantic history – Tiberius Gracchus, Spurius Maelius, Marcus Manlius; The Old Pretender James, the Young Pretender Charlie. They tried to claim a kind of power that had no basis in law whatsoever, and were accused of affectatio regni, affecting to kingship. They were charged with madness and sedition for the absurdity of their schemes.
In Russia, pretenders are known as samozvanets, which means something close to ‘self-styled’. Associated with popular uprisings in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (more than twelve pretenders appeared in early-17th-century Russia), these imposters were described by Enlightened eighteenth-century historians as benefiting from the peasantry’s naive faith in their benevolence towards the common people (narod). Soviet historians sometimes depicted them as peasant leaders: one Soviet folklorist, Chistov, saw pretenders in the context of popular legends in which tsars or tsareviches who had been removed from power because courtiers feared they planned to liberate the people would one day return to implement their reforms and bring deliverance from economic and social oppression.
The implication of both Whiggish and Soviet historians was that the supporters of these False Dmitrys really believed that they had an objectively legitimate claim to the throne – like those who believed in a Jacobite claim, they were blinded by faith. Only realist historians like Sergey Platonov recognised pretence as a political device, used deliberately in the interests of, and with the backing of, those who wished to unite the people against courtly or commercial interests. They wished to unite the one and the many against the few, in a time-honoured tactic which has been cast aside by self-proclaimed atheists who claim that the whole strategy relied on ‘divine right’. But we have few enough avenues of action available to us, and can’t afford to misunderstand past tactics so clumsily.
The British republican tradition with which we are lumbered demands we view political power from an assumed basis of equality, where no one should be allowed to rise above their station on the basis of invented claims to power. But when commercial success determines empowerment, the denial of any other special claim to power or right will work wonderfully to preserve class hierarchies. A mixed government stops (the) people from elevating themselves. One pleb getting above themselves is affectectatio regni of the species that plunged the Roman republic into crisis and led to the redistribution of land amongst the plebs. When these pretenders were not brought back down to earth, Rome was on the road to civil war.
Character and Opposition
In an interview with Melenchon’s campaign director, Manuel Bompard, translated in The New Pretender, Bombard was frank about the leadership role Melenchon was intended to play. ‘As a joke,’ he said, ‘we would call his character “the people’s good teacher”:
“When we prepared for the two presidential debates, we wanted Jean-Luc Mélenchon to take the high ground, to remain above the fray, to express his views in the interest of the country and the people. Including if that meant that he had to lecture everybody. We wanted him to show that he mastered the different issues, and that his humanity did not mean that he was not serious or credible.”
Such honesty about the pretense involved in constructing the individual is unimaginable in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn unpretentiously rallies everyday experiences to suit his policy position. When he cares to rise above the fray, he is meant to do so in a completely natural way – it’s just his own lovely jam-making allotment-raking character being shown to the people, his singular, genuine, drain-spotting personality. Trumping up the leader’s character is considered a dirty tactic on the British left. But if the latter lost its self-righteousness for a while and built artifices that seemed both good and powerful they might more clearly see a route ahead.
Radicals like to think of themselves as the opposition to the elite – if not the Official Opposition: Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Government in Waiting, at least the popularly recognised legitimate resistance. Bompard stresses that both conceptions of opposition are hugely important for the development of La France Insoumise. The other option doesn’t bear thinking about – the illegitimate opposition, a court in exile. An exile is undoubtedly in a weak position: the Jacobite court in exile was so far from the business of power and politics that it found it near impossible to estimate its own relative power and virtue. While legitimate opposition can be a trap for radicals, exile can give them false confidence in their own power and false conviction in their own originality. But it might also mean that radicals avoid producing manifestos that will never be manifest. It might allow solitary or collective confrontation of the ugly reality of powerlessness. It might provide the opportunity for oppositional imagination – for thinking about invasion rather than revolution, creation rather than character, or lies rather than truth.
The Earl Marischal was both the most principled and the most pragmatic Jacobite strategist. He hated those who urged the exiled James VII to make his move in 1745. Marischal’s gripe was not so much that this imprudent counsel exaggerated the Jacobites’ readiness and numbers, but that the exaggeration was totally unconvincing – both for their foes, and for the people. There had been only a feeble attempt to stir the Scots clans into action, with an absurd dependence on the angelic leader, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the idea of the ordained right to rule of the Stuart line. For generations and more, this principle had had divine sanction, but the revolution of 1688 had proved that usurping the Stuart line did not bring cataclysmic ruin upon the nation. Nevertheless these principles still had a hold in the exiled court, alongside more radical rebellious ideas, and so they were hazarded to the people as the reason for a rising. This was not the only tactical flaw. Marischal, having spoken with the French authorities, was totally unconvinced of their military support. He had been waiting for something else emerging at home – some crisis or disruption that would provide the opportunity for the false prophecy of a French invasion to ring true, and for the pretender’s claim to build enough support that it would punch its way to power. As the forces gathered, it became clear that there was no army joining the masses, nor would the people in Scotland rise in sufficient numbers. The Earl remembered a gospel story about a sick man who waits in vain by a pool which an angel is said to periodically prod into becoming a healing fountain. The righteous realist wrote that during the invasion he sat at Boulogne, waiting without expectation for the angel to stir the pool.
Whether it is a metaphor, a test-case, or a piece of history, the story of the Young Pretender gives a strong sense of the eccentricities of populist tactics. If you can’t credibly argue that you pose a threat, you won’t get anywhere. If your ideas are out-of-date, your leader-figure too incredible, if you cannot point to some crisis or rupture that allows for a new dawn, you will disappear into the abyss of romantic history. At the same time, you can’t simply wait for the right threat, the right ideas, the right leader or the right crisis for too long – that is similar to waiting for the angel to stir the pool. Credibility and even events can be created through artifice and duplicity. One of the great stimuli of popular support is the conviction and confidence that all around, in every workplace, on every street, people recognise this new pretense to power.
Cast loose on a sea of realism and fortune you would do well to ask what is good or valuable in this life of scheming and exile. Fine, we can identify exciting stories from the past, but we all know that precarity is numbing, exhausting, maddening. On one Classical definition, madness is when your balance is overturned by an excess of a particular virtue. We can easily see this in the lives of errant revolutionaries, committed to the cause or to the people to the point of self-imisseration, lying and scheming until the good they fight for has faded to a memory. An excellent depiction of this journey is given in Leon Rosselson’s ‘Song of the Old Communist’. It is indeed the popular portrayal of the Stalinist generation we are currently outgrowing.
The republicans, Whigs, liberals (whatever you desire to call them) would have you believe that practicing politics requires the kind of moderation in character that excludes our populist self-styled pretenders from citizenship, let alone legitimate power. Using a Ciceronian canon, moderates have been successful in framing their virtue as the only virtue, thus casting out heterogeneous renegades and bohemians into the realm of vice and loneliness. But it’s not their way or the highway. Radicals and revolutionaries, especially those far from power, should give a thought to how pretense and prophecy can be part of a life of radical virtue. This is a project we hope to write more about soon.
As for those who see this whole scenario as unnecessarily bleak, you may have the fortune to exist in a political community or political party which either has a shot at real power or depends on optimism. There are many, however, who do not share this power or hope, and this is why the New Pretender’s internationalism, both across the nations of these isles, and across Europe, is vital. There is much to learn from the tactics and virtues of radicals in other countries, and the cross-British left has always been particularly reliant on Europeans and Russians, as well as comrades across internal borders, for ideas about strategy. Liam Farrell’s recent article on the ‘Vulture Republic’ provided a wealth of ideas about the tactics of language in housing activism that could inform Living Rent (Scotland’s Tenants’ Union) on how to challenge and manipulate a newly national Scottish policy language. As ever, there are radicals with different agendas, electoral cycles, ideologies and histories who can nevertheless offer each other tactics and visions that appear quotidian in their home country but imaginative when exported. And their exchange will avoid the risk of standing still and watching events and characters flow by, instead allowing all to be swept up in the fortunes of others, caught up in an alternative political time that encourages activity and virtue. Over-empathy with the struggles of others, as well as with the struggles of the past, can be a spur to imaginative tactics that use pretense to tell new truths.
Amy Westwell is a historian of political tactics who lives in Leith
Cailean Gallagher works for the Scottish Trades Union Congress and researches populist Jacobitism