The Only Pure Acts
"And [you] expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life."
The Public Schools Act 1868 in Britain was a reform to whom and on what basis boys were educated at leading boarding schools in the nation in response to allegations of abuse, mitigating factors in admission guidelines like income and religion, and ultimately, create a regulatory body for administrating these schools to ensure these practices remained in place. However, chiefly, what this did was create the modern British Independent schools, or public schools; the act does not allow for Parliament (or any public body— they are called public schools because of their accessibility to students geographically and regardless of these discriminatory factors like religion) to legislate for these schools, and instead boards of governors are tasked with this, and in much of the lore around these schools in the century and a half since the Act centers on the sort of social dynamic most recognizable from The Lord of the Flies, with students at the top of a social-disciplinary order, with an alienated class of administrators of faculty unconcerned with conditions outside of the classroom, at least in terms of a functional social ecology.
In the time since the Act came into practice, these schools began to shift from primary clergy-led classics-based educations to more generalist curriculum, which in and of itself, is not a problem, but in depiction, the culture of these institutions banking on legacies of educational and sociocultural elitism (particularly once many of these schools that had been founded as charity schools, now re-accessible to less wealthy students after having become largely the domain of the upper-classes before the passage of the Act) while the narratives in fiction depict a social order dependent upon an a strange hybridization of anarchic, totalitarian oligarchy— students of tremendous influence, for whatever reason, and perhaps more severely the more marginalized a background such a student comes from who hadn’t rejected the elitist ideology, exert outsized, total autonomy over the students in their purview.
There is a reason boarding schools make such a good backdrop for political allegory, and particularly in the 1960’s, in Britain. These schools, effectively, become the ant farm for the rest of society—because it’s a microcosm, its extremes don’t register, the experiment never seems to apply to the real world, even as it mirrors it in very pointed ways.
“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” says lower-sixth former, Mick Travis, one of the protagonists of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If…, and ultimately this film is one about reforming a repressive, but institutionally and cultural bound, institutions like the school in the film where, ultimately, Travis and his friends do, indeed, attempting to induce such a change. Travis, like many of the students under the gaze of the prefects, is subject to highly disciplined rules and procedures, extra-academically, intending to strip them of autonomy. Timed and rigidly enforced showers while the commanding prefect bathes; overly prepared dramatic corporal punishment, replete with the glee of the prefects; all of this at the behest of housemaster, Mr. Kemp, who gives the prefects free reign with this tyranny that aligns with the rules and their duties, but executed in an exploitative and abusive manner— they are the authority.
Mick and his friends are clashing with this authority all throughout the film, and only outside the construction of this power framework does he come to understand there are options for change; the laws on the books should be protecting and providing for them, but the reality is that they are not— they are at the mercy of an apathetic board o governors, and sadistic prefects who are, in effect, class traitors. What are they to do?
In fleeting moments when the facade that the power structure isn’t an organic constant, Mick’s impulsivity comes through. During a military drill, they group fires live ammunition into a crowd; during a runaway sequence where he steals a motorcycle, Mick consorts with a woman from the cafe, he fantasizes about animalistic and erotic wrestling with her, validating the tolerances of a world of experiences outside the rules and society of the school; the pieces all begin to fall into place, and take shape for liberating the minds of his peers, who’ve accepted this reality inside the schools as, mistakenly, interchangable with order and function.
One theme of the film seems to be that order for its own sake in the service of preserving class prerogatives, or what seem to be class prerogatives because, in this case, a “lie of the oppressor” is that the prefects have any real authority or distinction from fellow students in the eyes of the administration. Another, and the one that seems to be the driving force towards consciousness for Mick and his friends, is that there is a natural world that this order is defying.
The Utopian model of socialism has had a long history with a tradition of socialists and anarchism in the United Kingdom, and I’ve discussed the problems with utopianism before, but in short, it requires an underclass to preserve the equality of the comfortably equal— utopian socialists like Ethel Mannin praise the French for their inclinations towards ecological socialism in their would-be utopias, while imagining a utopia of Britain’s own without the class struggle required to walk back pre-WWII economics and its own burgeoning working class:
Human nature is capable of being incredibly base, stupid, brutal. The end of 1943 in England saw a mob hue-and-cry, the lynch-law mentality rampant, when a man who had never been charged or tried — and a very sick man at that — was released from prison after three years; there was a hanging-in-effigy in a public place, and a demand for the wretched man’s reimprisonment. Soon after this, in a so-called socialist country, 50,000 people turned out to see four men hanged, and after the motor- lorries on which the men had been standing with the nooses round their necks had driven off, leaving them hanging, ‘when it was clear that all four were dead the crowd drew close to the gallows’. Back in the ’thirties a similarly huge crowd thronged an open place just outside Paris to see a man beheaded, standing on the roofs of cars parked all round, as at a race meeting. It is easy to say, with such things in mind, ‘There is no hope for humanity ’, to see it only as incredibly base in the mass, and only isolated individuals as fine. There are pictures on the other side, too — the heroic struggles and sacrifices of peoples for justice and freedom, the stubborn resistance of the unarmed Bardoli peasants against the Bombay government in 1928, the epic struggle of Easter Week in Dublin, 1916, matched only by the epic of the Asturian miners against the government in 1934, the mass risings in the cause of bread and justice in this country in the early nineteenth century, the sway of popular opinion'in 1919 against Churchill’s intervention against the Russian revolution, the heartening incident of the Jolly George , when British dockworkers refused to load munitions intended to be used against the Russian revolutionaries. . . . Human nature in the mass can be base and ugly; but it can also be fine and beautiful.
I’d argue this is a crucial part of the history of socialist and anarchist writing, because the history of these political frameworks is the history of labor in this part of the world: The masses would seem “base” and “stupid”, and dismissively “brutal”, if one made no effort to organize them or clue them into their own exploitation, if they weren’t (they were) already aware; this was, afterall, one major societal backdrop for Marx’s theorizing. It identifies a problem without identifying the means to the solution, necessarily, bore out in the history of anti-capitalist revolution, while celebrating the consciousness that fuels such a revolutionary spirit. What Mannin gets correct, however, about utopia, and its role in any kind of communalist politic is that the ecology has to be a consideration in what a revolutionary government, however the sovereignity manifests, must consider. This, I believe, is not lost on the message of the film in its depictions of Mick’s impulses as animalistic, manifestly violent, albeit, in context, defensive and liberating.
What glossing over the role of class struggle in pursuit of self-determination is that suppressing or policing the expression of what, necessarily, has become a hallmark of overthrow of violently oppressive tyrannical states, even if it does not become the law of the land (consider the example of Latin American revolutions where post-revolution, the military leadship is not sound political leadership), it often requires violent conflict, and denying this, creates extremists, reactionaries. As Mick puts it, at one point, “There's no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”— you end up responding instinctually, or calculatedly, and that will very likely inform your effectiveness at combating repression. The film’s themes somewhat culminate in one major thesis, that there’s no oppression nature won’t develop a reaction against.
“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” Mick says of last resorts, a society which evolves logical outcropping of hierarchy and order into systems of oppression; something of some poignancy in the UK from the development of serfdom to life under the post-revolution empire that preserves many of its oldest social traditions, if not the absolute rule of the monarchy post-Cromwell and restoration. Murray Bookchin, in The Ecology of Freedom, of hierarchies: “The earliest victim of this domineering relationship [that of patriarchy, derived from initially necessarily divisions of labor in prehistory] was human nature, notably, the human nature of woman. Although patriarchy represents a highly authoritarian form of gerontocracy in which the elders initially began to rule society as a collective whole, woman increasingly lost her parity with man as the latter gained social ascendency over the domestic sphere of life with the expansion of his civil sphere.”— you find yourself with a power imbalance that, at some point, becomes tradition, and then canon, and then, well past the point of any concievable utility as even rhetoric, the boot to get out from under.
I won’t go into detail on the history of UK anarchism, as this simply isn’t my historical expertise, but in the years after the war, proletariat-minded politics developed (unsurprising, given the anecdotal origins of Marx’s theorizing to begin with), and share no small influence on the media I find myself describing today. Albert Meltzer writes exactly of the phenomenon I’m describing in Anarchism, Arguments For and Against, and creates a compelling case for how class struggle is a necessary and ineveitable part of any revolutionary politic that can, and necessarily must, enable a utopian’s vision of the future: “Revolutionary Anarchism is based on the class struggle, though it is true that even the best of Anarchist writers, to avoid Marxist phraseology, may express it differently. It does not take the mechanistic view of the class struggle taken by Marx and Engels that only the industrial proletariat can achieve socialism, and that the inevitable and scientifically-predictable victory of this class represents the final victory. On the contrary: had anarchism been victorious in any period before 1914, it would have been a triumph for the poorer peasants and artisans, rather than among the industrial proletariat amongst whom the concept of anarchy was not widespread.”
However, we’re not discussing, of England in 1968 or anywhere else in 2020, a society ready to revolt, if it even has the constitution to do that, let alone organize in its own self-interest at a mass scale; this is a fictionalized England, a protagonist speaking to a simmering underculture amidst frameworks sold as constants of a well-functioning society, while displaying all the hallmarks of the sorts of oppression that supposedly the prevailing structure guards against. However, as Bookchin reminds us:
“Self-denial and the increasingly heightened contradictions of rule create tensions so inherently destabilizing to "civilization" that class society must always be armored — not only psychologically by the State it cultivates within the individual, but physically by the State it institutionalizes. As Plato reminded the Athenians, the slave's nature is an unruly one, a philosophical formulation for a condition that could periodically become an explosive social reality. Where morality and psychic introjection fail to contain mounting social and personal contradictions, class society must have recourse to outright coercion — to the institutionalized system of force we call the political State.”
Whether or not the run-of-the-mill Englishman, or many living in the West™, can personally relate (intergenerational trauma notwithstanding— this is its own element to all of this to explore for so many that, I believe, amplifies on the need for self-determination) to the experience of being a slave, in a literal sense, the Platonic reference here is that oppression is met by resistance, and how that intermix of repression-resistance correlates to action or rebellion is always variable, but never non-existent as a function of the framework, the basis upon which a lie of the oppressor is implemented. A society that tolerates a high ratio of these things, probably has a low constitution for pushing back, and maybe that’s as good an explanation for the distance these systems have gone in the modern Western post-revolutionary-era.
While not the most lengthy stretches of the film, I think the interplay between patriarchy, and those subjected it to it, are on display in Mick’s interactions with the unnamed girl, played by Christine Noonan, he meets from his day off-campus. In the Mann novel, The Magic Mountain, the residents of the sanitarium represent the different prevailing inter-war political ideologies of the Weimar government’s task in Germany. I believe this to be true of the revolting group of If… as well: Ultimately, it is the unnamed girl who is, decidedly, most deterministic in her response to the authority of a headmaster of a boys-only school, and as the vanguard of the interests represented in the group leading the assault on this school at the film’s end, wherein he’s not the most effective, despite being framed as the most put-upon throughout the film by the school’s authority, he is persistent, following the lead of these outsiders to the school taking the most, and perhaps judicious, umbrage with what the institution represents, in the universe of the film.
“As victim and aggressor, woman and man are thus brought into blind complicity with a moral system that denies their human nature and ultimately the integrity of external nature as well.” writes Bookchin— at its most extreme, doesn’t this sound a bit like the rejection of a renegade Mick Travis expressing his deepest desires for companionship amidst an acknowledgement of supreme alienation from, both, man’s agency and from nature, and left only faced with a choice between rebellion and societal and personal, simultaneously, ego death? “There's only one thing you can do with a girl like this. Walk naked into the sea together as the sun sets. Make love once... Then die.”
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