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The Personal and Political

The Personal and Political
20 Years On

fan Craib
Thinking about 1968, the most interesting thing for me is 1967.

1967 comes back more easily; it is the signpost from which,
sometimes with difficulty, I can move forward to what I
remember of 1968. The reason is quite simple: in 1967, I was
in love, or thought I was in love, or at any rate involved in what
would not be called, with audible quotation marks, ‘a
relationship’. In 1968, there was no such involvement I think
this is important and I will try to explain why. The form of
these observations is neither philosophical nor theoretical, at
least in any systematic way; nor are they quite personal. I will
simply describe a change, not quite a reversal, in the way I
think about the world. Now, as then, it seems to me that ‘the
personal is political’; but the slogan has come to have a very
different meaning.

I can remember at the time, in arguments with the orthodox
Marxist left, feeling that there was a clear theory behind the
slogan and that it ought to be written down somewhere. In fact
there wasn’t and it wasn’t It was a collection of ideas which
for me had been culled from a number of writers: Laing, Sartre
and Marcuse come to mind. Other people had garnered a
similar collection of ideas from other sources: Mao, Guevara,
the situationists, Reich, and-for the more advanced intellectuals, who laboured to read French-Althusser and Lacan.

Whatever the sources, the general idea was that capitalism implanted itself in us in all sorts of ways, and somehow or the
other we had to root it out Sometimes it was a matter of
straightforward opposition to whatever was conventionally
thought good (‘We are dirty, dangerous, hideous, violent and
proud of it’); sometimes it meant a careful exploration of what
was meant by communal, socialist living. Out of the theoretical
confusion eventually grew the more coherent theories of
modem feminism: the first signs were just about visible in this
country in 1968, but only just I don’t think that there has been
any other lasting theoretical heritage from that period that
wouldn’t have been there anyway. Sartre, Mao, Althusser and
the others were a background to the events of 1968, not a
product, although perhaps they became more popular as a
result.

It is easier, but from this distance not easy, to remember it
all as a mood or an atmosphere. ‘The personal is political’

meant a number of different things. It is a slogan which I am
now sure could have meaning only against the background of a
profound optimism about the way the world was going, a
barely explicit sense that things could only get better and that
we would win, probably in the foreseeable future.

There was more to it, of course. In part, the slogan summed
up a critique of the old left and of left reformism, a rejection of
conventional and formal politics which could proceed without
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any real change in people’s everyday lives. It was an argument
that socialism, the revolution, should have tangible effects, in
its making as well as in its victory, and that involved living differently. In part, it had to do with morality, although I am not
sure that any of us would have used that word at the time.

There was a morality of sharing, co-operation and participation, of the rightness of subordinating one’s own interests to
those of the collective. In theoretical terms this was built
around a juxtaposition of representative and participatory
democracy-the latter typified in mass meetings that tried to
govern occupations, and our attempts to involve non-academic
staff in our actions. All this too was seen as involving some
sort of personal change, a breaking down of our own internal
barriers and an attempt to communicate with other people.

There was as well a sexual content-perhaps now, in the context of what the sixties have become in popular culture, that is
the aspect which springs most readily to mind. We should not
be possessive or jealous, we do not own other people.

Everybody, it was argued, had the right to whatever sexual
relationship they wanted with whoever they wanted, and there
was an implicitly assumed, if not explicitly stated, elevation of
the right to sexual satisfaction to the status of a basic human
right There was too, merging with the drug culture, an openness to new and different experience.

I’m not sure how this account must read. It will seem different to those who were involved than to those who were not
involved; and those who were involved will have different
memories and understandings of what was going on. I am
aware in my own summary of the influence of media interpretations, that somehow my memories have been changed.

But beyond this I do not feel happy with it. It has been a labour
to write, even in a few short paragraphs, about something
which happened a long time ago and my heart is no longer in it
Perhaps in 1967, my heart was there and that is why it comes
back to me more readily. Of 1968, I still enjoy remembering
the sense of defiance, of saying something important (even
though I cannot now remember what it was I said); but this is
coupled with a boredom, and the realisation that there was a
cost, above all some sort of personal cost
What I view differently now is the ‘personal’; it seems in
retrospect that I had very little know ledge of the personal, even
of my own experience. What I did know was what the personal
ought to be, and I knew that through thinking, through arguing
and reading. I did not know my experiences, my feelings about
the world. A number of things have changed since then. Perhaps I am doing what my mother said I would do when I first
joined CND in 1961: ‘growing up’-but I am still reluctant to
admit that. It is certainly a matter of experience, of looking

,

back from the vantage point, on the one hand, of failed political
movements, and on the other, from the wreckage of the broken
personal relationships that people of my generation and politics
seem to have accumulated. Above all, there is the personal experience of becoming a father; and the experience of
psychoanalysis, first as a patient and then as a trainee.

I still regard myself as on the left, even as a radical, although I seem to have less in common with my active ex-comrades than ever and the last time I engaged in any sort of political action (apart from routinely voting Labour, which I am willing to accept is not a political action) was demonstrating
against the arrival of Cruise missiles; what I remember most
clearly about that is watching my students and the local kids
block Colchester High Street during the rush hour, and feeling
pleased that they were continuing the tradition. Perhaps I have
become what I was actually accused of being twenty years ago,
a tired old leftist What the twenty years have without doubt
involved is an encounter with the truly personal in an inescapable way, and a suspicion of any sort of theory.

I still agree with the slogan: the personal is political; and I
still have the feeling that the meaning I give it is written down
somewhere, in one book. It still isn’t There is still a collection
of thinkers. Strangely, Foucault is the first who comes to mind,
although his style and the content of his arguments irritate me
to the point of abandoning any attempt to read him properly.

Christopher Lasch has been most important, but not necessarily
because I agree with him. Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott
are important although they have little to say about politics,
and I disagree with what they do say. Basically, I now see the
statement, the slogan, as indicating not something to be
embraced but something to be criticised. That the personal is
political is a condemnation of the society that has made it so:

the personal should not be political. There is something
totalitarian about such a state of affairs, a police state of the
emotions. If the same battle over right and wrong, the same
struggle for power and survival, exists, as it does, in personal
as well as political life, then it is to be feared. It is, I suspect,
the sign of an increasingly powerful state eating into our areas
of personal autonomy.

If there is a theory with which to embrace this, it is in the
concept of ‘defence mechanisms’ that we find in modern
psychoanalysis. Defence mechanisms are ways of denying a
painful reality, whether it be internal or external. It is common
for people to project their internal conflicts onto the outside
world, and to see the outside world in terms of their own
problems. The distinction between the inside and outside is a
constant matter of experimentation for all of us. It is also common to deny the internal world by seeing it in terms appropriate to the external world, and this really does reproduce
inside us the world as it is outside. This latter is exactly what
we were doing with the slogan ‘the personal is political’. We
were trying to understand our own internal realities and experiences in terms appropriate to the external world of politics.

It was in fact a denegation of the personal; by elevating it to a
central place, we denied its existence.

Now I would see this personal inner world, and what, after
Winnicott, we might call the ‘transitional area’, the area where
external and internal reality meet which includes the area of
our closest relationships, as the place where anything new
originates, an area of freedom against political systems, and an
area where political change begins. But it cannot be understood
in political terms, by taking a revolutionary ideology which is
part of an external world and trying to organise our experience
according to it.

Viewed from this point of view, the aspects of personal life

I wrote about at the beginning appear very differently. The
ideas of collective living seem to involve an invasion of personal space, unless they can allow for very wide differences of
opinion and feeling. In 1968, the idea was that the collective
gave us more power and would work through open debate
towards agreement and action. The individual would find him
or herself through the collective. I do not now think this is
wrong, rather that the practice meant the individual being absorbed into the collective. That was certainly my experience,
and that of friends I have discussed the matter with since then.

Now it seems to me that the collective process should enable
freer forms of individuality, which can stand alone against the
will of the collective without causing it to break apart, and that
this implies a collective which does not need to force its will on
dissident individuals. I cannot remember that condition being
reached or even aimed at.

~YPHAJ1

111 CK.YCCTB

To regard people as private property is, of course, wrong,
but private property is a matter of law, of external social structures, not of feeling. There are changes which can be made in
the legal system and in the labour market which, for example,
contribute towards freeing women from their economic dependence on men. Feelings are different I have come to value
jealousy. It means that somebody is appreciated for their own
personal qualities, and not simply as an object of desire, a consumer product which is eventually interchangeable with others.

Similarly, commitment in a relationship at the expense of selfgratification now seems to me quite an admirable quality, and
totally counter to the values of late capitalist society. The interpretation we gave to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation now
seems itself an example of repressive desublimation, a transfer
of built-in obsolescence from cars to relationships.

It is a truism, found everywhere from soap operas to
psychoanalysis (and leaving aside the question of whether there
is any difference between them) that unless you can love yourself, then you won’t be able to love anybody else. It can be
generalised into the political statement: unless you treat yourself and your own life with respect, then you won’t be able to
treat anybody else with respect, and that is surely a precondition of anything like a free or a socialist society. To try to run
your life by an ideology, a theory or a philosophy is not treating yourself with respect
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