I spent last weekend trying to become a revolutionary. In early July the sunny avenues of Bloomsbury fill up with Marxists at their annual conference. The jamboree lasts a week (it's still going on right now) and there are lectures on a range of subjects from 'The Roots of Gay Oppression' to 'Luk•cs and Class Consciousness' and 'The Meiji Restoration: Japan's revolution from above'.
I passed a useful morning in a lecture hall attending a three-module course in political theory. I opened my eyes to historical materialism. I learnt with disgust about the oppression of the workers. I felt a thrilling revulsion at the vices of the ruling class. But at the end of the second hour, something unexpected happened. I grew thirsty and suddenly tired. The air in the cosy lecture hall began to bear down on my spirits. My fellow students, crouching attentively in their rows, were like a tribe that I no longer recognised. As the third speaker came to the podium, I glanced at my neighbour, a sallow boy wearing a black shirt and combat boots which were speckled with blood-red spots. He turned a fresh page in his recycled notebook and wrote a title with his bony fingers. 'Lecture 3. Alienation'. It was a concept in which I needed no instruction. I stood up and slipped furtively from the room.
Outside in the fresh air I came across a makeshift carnival of ideas. Activists stood at trestle-tables selling pamphlets, books and T-shirts. Others sat on the grass having picnics, drinking beer and chatting. All around us angry slogans fluttered from scarlet posters. Protest ...Unite ...Challenge ...Destroy ...Enough is enough! ...To the Streets! ...NOW!
I engaged in the debate. My objection to Marxism is simply this: lovely design, lousy building. I quizzed my fellow Zapatistas on the practicalities of a socialist paradise. How would those who exchanged goods for profit be punished? Is collective decision-making feasible? Under Marxism, would there be opposition parties, parliaments or even nations? Though I limited myself to these basic issues, all my queries were greeted with a baffled shrug. 'Never thought about it, really,' was a typical answer. Or I was offered dreamy soundbites: 'Oh, but Marxist society won't be organised along those lines.'
I asked a young woman from Nottingham if there would be money after the revolution. 'Gradually, eventually it'll die out, hopefully,' she said. She'd just qualified, she told me, as a human-rights lawyer. So did she favour a maximum wage? The idea had never occurred to her. She frowned a bit. 'Yeah. About £40,000.' 'OK,' I said, 'but then everyone earning more than that will emigrate.' 'Good,' her boyfriend chipped in, 'get the fuckers out.' Which concluded our seminar on wage control.
I bought a copy of Socialist Worker from a wrinkled blonde with a put-upon hairdo. She looked as if she'd spent her entire life crying over spilt milk. With very little prompting she began to rehearse for me the principle of manufacturing for need, not profit. 'I'm talking about basic needs,' she said. 'If you don't eat, you die; if you don't drink, you die; if you don't have healthcare....' 'Yes,' I said, cutting her short. 'But in some sections of society if you don't have trainers you die – of shame.' She nodded. 'Oh there's room for luxury. I don't see socialist society as just sackcloth and turnip soup.' This was encouraging. 'What's your idea of luxury?' I asked. She sighed and gazed into the trees. 'My garden chair.' Hmm. No wonder these people yearn for a better world.
The hard Left tend to dress carelessly and without any attention to style. Many are physically ill-favoured too. There were plenty of keen-eyed youngsters around, but I don't recall a single stunner. Guts, limps, spots, humps, corns, boils, scars, tics: these are marks that distinguish the species. Yet this year a rare zest and optimism has settled over the movement. The Socialist Workers party, which organises the conference, is enjoying the most glorious phase in its history. The reason – Iraq. The leadership of the Stop The War Coalition is closely affiliated to the SWP and on 15 February 2003 these forgotten left-wingers led a demonstration which brought millions of people on to the streets. Millions! To the Streets! Protest! Unite! To the SWP, this is the breath of life. They can't believe their luck. The question is, can they use it?
On Saturday afternoon I joined a throng of activists crowding into Logan Hall, a huge auditorium in the heart of the UCL campus. Our subject, 'The future of the anti-war movement'; our speaker, George Galloway, spiritual leader of the Left. On four occasions this year I've seen him speak. And he's good. He gives the crowd what it wants – passion, abuse, lots of good jokes and a few key phrases to wrap up and take home. The hall was not yet three-quarters full when he was spotted at the back. Applause broke out. The crowd rose to its feet. They cheered and waved. As he trotted down the aisle I was half-expecting them to strew his path with copies of the Worker's Hammer.
He has a distinctive presence – stocky rather than tall – but with one of those physiques which is enhanced and ennobled by baldness. His broad face is burnished by Iberian suns. The caddish moustache is neatly trimmed and his eyes sparkle with the shrewd exuberance of a man who enjoys his pleasures. He looks nothing like an MP, never mind a socialist. A casting director would choose him for those tough-guy roles where the gangster goes legit – the card-sharp-turned-casino-owner, the ex-hoodlum who breeds racehorses. There's an atmosphere of tainted glamour about him – a seedy, virile, predatory grace. Have you ever seen a boxing promoter at Glyndebourne? That's him. But on Saturday he was dressed for Ascot rather than the opera: tanned suede brogues and a stylish summer jacket of the very palest blue.
A gorgeous young woman prowled around the stage setting up a video camera. Mrs Galloway (aka Dr Amineh Abu-Jayyad) is a long-limbed Palestinian with perfect, nut-brown skin. She sported a chic white top and tight black flares, and despite the finish and freshness of her appearance she seemed unconscious of the great gulf that separated her from everyone else in the hall. It was like seeing a Saudi princess at a jumble sale.
Then Galloway got up to speak. After the applause had died, he filled the hall with the lilting rhythms of the Glasgow ghetto. His delivery is smooth, powerful and seductive, the sort of accent greatly prized by TV advertisers for its qualities of honesty and strength. He mocked his accusers in New Labour. Two grandees, he said, who were once his political allies, had quizzed him over his anti-war stance. 'One of them used to be Trotskyite.' Loud sniggers. 'The other was a Maoist.' Laughter. He smiled, shrugged and held out his hands as if in supplication. 'I've stood still. But they ...'and he swept his arms off to the right in a whooshing gesture. Tremendous laughter and huge applause.
After ten minutes of comedy, he came to the war. 'In Iraq,' he said, 'the United States is entering the gates of hell.' That may not look very impressive on the page, but when I heard it in that hall, the surfaces of my skin crept and shifted, and the little hairs stood on end.
But vilifying America is easy. The meeting's purpose was to decide how the anti-war coalition might use its popularity to build a mass socialist movement. Build, build. Expand, spread. The time is now! The turning point is here! At every debate throughout the conference I heard the same appeal. But on this question George Galloway was silent. He is smart enough to realise that the movement will forever lack a thesaurus of electorally viable ideas. A questioner from the floor asked if he intended to stand as an independent MP. Hi s answer was unexpected – a eulogy to the Labour movement. Its political roots are deep, he said. 'Hundreds of MPs, thousands of councillors and the electoral allegiance of millions. Don't kid yourselves about that.' Without the Labour machine he knows he will struggle to win a seat, even in an inner-city constituency where the old Left still thrives. It was a curious sort of abdication. He is content to be the movement's figurehead but nothing more, a wooden emblem driven forward by energies that no one commands.
Speech over, he sat down, and we all leapt up and cheered. He gave us a nod and a kittenish smile and then he leaned back, took out his worry beads and turned them idly through his fingers, holding his hand behind the chair in a small effort to conceal this oriental habit from the crowd. For months he has been touring the country, making speeches every day. He is greeted everywhere by crowds whose adulation borders on worship. Long practice has abbreviated his gestures of acknowledgment to a minimum. A small raising of the hand, a slight tilt of the head. He is acquiring the graces of a Caesar.
He must realise his time in Parliament is up, but he hasn't much reason to care. Win or lose against the Telegraph, he will emerge as a hero or a martyr. His financial future may be in doubt, but his popularity is secure. And as long as those sexed-up weapons in Iraq elude the busy search parties, his reputation will grow. A most unlikely phoenix has risen from the ashes of Baghdad.