David Thompson recently linked to a video site where you can view Vanessa Engle’s BBC documentary series, “Lefties.” The series profiles three radical projects in Margaret Thatcher-era Britain: the attempt to start a socialist newspaper, revolutionary feminists who declared that political commitment required women to become lesbians, and middle-class university graduates heralding “the revolution” by living as squatters in South London. It’s a fascinating documentary, and it’s hard not to feel a mirthful derision and contempt for many of the ideologues profiled—all the most unpleasant aspects of the self-righteously indignant and sanctimonious lefty are presented in vivid fashion.
Nevertheless, I found myself feeling something close to sympathy for a few of the folks in the series. Most of us want to change the world in certain ways and to be part of a community that shares that desire. We all face moments when our vision of the way the world is—often built up over long periods of time and through considerable effort of thought and debate—is eroded by the indifferent reality of the world as it actually is. When this happens, it can be very painful to do the right thing: to alter our even abandon our theory in the light of the facts.
In the battle between belief and reality, the lefties in “Lefties” almost all choose to preserve the purity of their vision no matter the complications, and even to goose themselves into ever greater heights of absurdity and dissonance with the world they live in. It’s an act of defiance, and somewhat admirable in the way bizarre feats of will power, like eating sixty-six hot dogs in twelve minutes, can sometimes be, but it’s also indistinguishable from the homesteaders in the loonier precincts of religious millennarianism. The squatters who insist on the imminent arrival of the revolution are not much different from the Seventh-Day Adventists that confidently predicted the exact date of the second coming only to push the day ahead just as confidently every time the Nazarene failed to return.
I wonder if there’s some retrospectively obvious turning point where each of these people could have chosen to alter their theory rather than wall themselves off from criticism or common sense. The difficulty lies in the fact that they may have started out trying to realize worthwhile things—sexual equality, poverty relief, a new newspaper. But they’ve convinced themselves that altering their mental edifice of political “certainties” would be to abandon those earlier idealistic commitments, which of course is not true.
Listening to them makes you realize how easily we deceive ourselves. Self-deception is the well-spring of both great tragedy and comedy, which is why this film is so funny and so mortifying at the same time.
It also has a great soundtrack, culled from the era: Joy Division, the Smiths, Magazine, and more.