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Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love by Leo Abse

August 22, 2018

FMPWho can resist a book with such a title and by such an eccentric though accomplished author?

Using material showing masochistic influences bearing down on decision-making, Abse scrutinizes the politics of a number of world leaders and politicians, past and present, from Mao to Stafford Cripps and Lord Hailsham, from Stalin to Bill Clinton – Leo Abse claims it is masochism which is now finding expression in the self-destructiveness flooding our political landscape and our personal lives. Distilling thirty year’s experience as a great social reformer in the British Commons, and deploying his acknowledged psychoanalytical scholarship, the veteran Socialist, here scrutinises this malaise which he affirms now afflicts Britain and – as Clinton demonstrated – reckons that fellatio cannot be treated as a political irrelevance.

He offers “an analysis of the repressed homosexual components of the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair”.

“Politicians hate psychoanalysis,” he once said. “They are all extroverts who affect that there is no internal reality, that reality is only external.”

Abse, a solicitor, was MP for Pontypool from 1958 until 1983, and for Torfaen until he retired from Westminster in 1987. James Callaghan once wrote to him: “You do much more good in terms of human happiness than 90% of the work done in parliament on political issues…”

At eighty-three, the Freudian ex-MP to whom we owe the reform of the laws relating to divorce, homosexuality, suicide and children’s rights has produced this book whose opening is characteristically provocative, informing us in detail of how, ‘as a callow provincial youth of seventeen’, he was ‘for the first time proffered a blow job’. But the purpose of the book – a volume of essays on a common theme – is perfectly serious.

In addition to his distinctive sartorial tastes and his flair for securing publicity for his causes, Abse had a splendid turn of phrase.One of his most telling was to compare “imprisoning homosexuals for long periods in male gaols to incarcerating a sex maniac in a harem”.

Fellatio, one of the most intimate acts possible between man and woman, was, up to a generation ago, for the overwhelming majority in Britain, an unspoken of practice; today it has become the common coinage of casual sexual exchanges and part of the standard flirtation rituals of our adolescents.
What is the compulsive need that nowadays compels so many men, in Presidential style, to risk their whole manhood and place their trust in women who are often little more than strangers to them? Why, in a contraceptive world able to provide them with ‘safe’ sex, do they choose as balm for their sexual itch a coupling so hazardous and so potentially dangerous to them? And why, in the era of militant feminism, is there such a ready complicity in the practice by so many women?
Using as illustrative material the political conduct of a number of world leaders and politicians past and present – from Mao to Stafford Cripps and Lord Hailsham, from Stalin to Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph and Reginald Maudling, from Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and William Hague to Ron Davies and others – Leo Abse claims it is that masochism which is now finding expression in the self-destructiveness flooding our political landscape and our personal lives.

However, he thinks that fellatio falls short of ‘the main course, that it isn’t safe in an era of AIDs and that Enoch Powell felt emasculated in the age of women’s lib and envied the fecundity of blacks. All this lay behind his racist speech and Abse called him ‘Eunuch’. Apparently Powell confessed to having had a gay affair with a German during the rise of Nazism. Although he worked for law reform, he saw homosexuality as fixation.

Women were weaned too early so they grasped at oral sex. He thinks that the reason why Christ’s birth was not celebrated in the Millennium Dome was male castration anxiety. Men who had authoritarian, violent fathers get their own back by fighting for social justice, he reckons. He thinks that S & M is a perversion. Keith Joseph wasn’t Thatcher’s John the Baptrist.

Against the biblical principle of jubilee, he cites the example of Peter Thellusson whose will directed the income of his property, consisting of real estate of the annual value of about £5,000 and personal estate amounting to over £600,000, to be accumulated during the lives of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, living at the time of his death, and the survivor of them. The property so accumulated, which, it is estimated, would have amounted to over £14,000,000, was to be divided among such descendants as might be alive on the death of the survivor of those lives during which the accumulation was to continue.  The will was regarded by some as a peril to the country, and an act was passed in 1800 prohibiting similar schemes of bequest.

I had to look up sansculottes = (“without knee breeches”), in the French Revolution, a label for the more militant supporters of that movement, especially in the years 1792 to 1795. Sansculottes presented themselves as members of the poorer classes or leaders of the common people, but during the Reign of Terror public functionaries and educated men also adopted the label to demonstrate their patriotism. The distinctive costume of the typical sansculotte was the pantalon (long trousers) in place of the culotte (silk breeches) worn by the upper classes

FMP 2Quotations:

Initially the Miners’ Lodge was the centre not only of industrial life, but of all political and social life as well. Local health schemes began there and blossomed in the National-Health Service as Nye Bevan applied to the nation the lessons he had learned in the Monmouthshire Lodges. From the Lodges came the Miners’ Institutes, their clubs and their libraries. Through the Lodge the miners acquired their own cinemas, their billiard halls and even a corporately owned brewery. The male-voice choirs and brass bands of Wales were all spin-offs from the Lodge. The sublimated homoerotic bindings, established in the hazardous work in the darkness of the pit, came aboYe ground and gave life on the surface to a community — not a ramshackle society.

But even as pits were being closed at the top of my valley constituency and this communality was being eroded, a new town was being built at the bottom of the valley. This new town had the benefit of housing some of those who were brought up within the culture of the mining communities, and they brought their spiritual capital with them, mitigating to some extent, by their valiant efforts, the loneliness that can afflict so many of those living in new towns. Most of those new towns were peopled by men and women torn far away from their original surroundings, away from the intimacies of the terraced streets to live within the sanitised architecture of the new towns where space, not closeness, was the leitmotif. Grandparents and supportive—extended families did not abide there. A condition, known to all our new towns, was endemic — it was called the ‘New Towp. Blues’. Even in the harshest of times it was a disease unknown within the mining communities.

Unlike the residents in mining communities, where work provided a bonding leaving no man to feel he walked alone, the workers in the factories of the new towns so often found no relief in their workplaces from their depressive moods. More than 150 years ago Marx was already warning: Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all original character and consequently all charm for the workman; he becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, the most monotonous and the most easily acquired knack that is required from him.

But Marx could not have anticipated the remarkable escalation in mechanisation and automation which brought about the triumph of the machine over man — of dead labour over living labour. When I took my motor component workers from my constituency to view the first robots installed at British Leyland’s factory at Longbridge, I sensed that their wonder at the robots was tempered by their concern with the role of the ‘robot-minders’. Robotics was isolating those men from their fellows and they told me that when they were, in effect, alone with their robots, they were lonely and missed the old fellowship of working in a group. Indeed, the foreman supervised his section of the factory on a bicycle, pedalling hundreds of yards from one worker to another. Our technology can thwart Eros’s binding purpose, for in these large factories, so often men and women increasingly work alone, not libidinally bound to their fellow workers but chained to a machine. Soon, no doubt, they will be totally commanded by the computer; in 1987 a record number of robots were installed across the world and, as the price of robots falls relative to wages, robots will be even more widely used in still more areas ­including services.

In his study of the culture of a large factory, the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques explored the nature of the psychic defences often afforded by group organisations against the depressive anxieties of the individual; but many of the benign benefits that can arise out of factory-based group organisations are rapidly diminishing. When, before my RAF bounty enabled me to become a solicitor, I worked through my teens on the factory floor and acquired membership of the Transport & General Workers Union, I learned how civilising, not disrupting, are the libidinal ties to be found in an active trade union branch. The binding is not simply to fight employers for more pay and better conditions, but, albeit inarticulately, to give both courage and fun to workers who had to endure the dreary monotony of factory life. As in the RAF, comradeship could be real and supportive.

This threat of technology to such social bonding is now awesome and increasingly the individual is incited to work from her or his own house. The office takes over the home, and so often the only link the employee has with others in the company is the computer. The employer so often treats the worker as a desiccated calculating machine, and his relationships with others becomes increasingly shrivelled. Work, once the cement binding so many of us together, now becomes a corrosive.

Rarely can a wall be built between the working life and the personal life; the isolation and the loneliness of the one seeps into the other. Work, where once Eros could triumph, is now the playground of Thanatos. The anomie and the destructiveness that can be occasioned envelops the man; his habititude at work prevails in his leisure. His sex life is confined to tumescence, and onanism and poverty-stricken fantasies become the means to attain a temporary homeostasis. The only advance from having masturbatory ‘fun on the phone’ is to lap-dancing restaurants and table-dancing clubs or, at most, simultaneous but not shared masturbation within fellation. The sadness of the workplace and the poignancy of lone self-pleasuring and non-related sex are as one in articulating our contemporary despair. Never has Thomas Carlyle’s prophesy been more fulfilled: ‘Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.’

In my lifetime, the martyrdom of the saints which over the centuries recharged the benign consequences of identification with the crucified Christ, has not retained its hold, but no secular vehicle more effectively took over the sacrificial ethos embedded in Christian concern for humanity than the British Labour Movement. Our marching song for nearly a hundred years has been the self-declared hymn, ‘The Red Flag’, a declaration of faith to be maintained even unto death:

FMP 3Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,

This song shall be our parting hymn.

It has been a call to us to be ready to become martyrs for our socialist cause:

The people’s flag is deepest red;

It shrouded oft our martyred dead,

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,

Their heart’s blood dyed its every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high!

Within its shade we’ll live or die.

Tho’ cowards flinch and traitors sneer,

We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

The song has been sung with fervour at hundreds of Labour and trade union meetings and rallies. It is still sung at Labour Party conferences — but not, it is certain, for much longer, as the political thieves who under Blair have stolen the soul of the party find it an encumbrance and offensive to Woking Man. And, with its fading away, derided as absurdly anachronistic, a vacuum has arisen as personal aspiration is lauded, and dedication and self-sacrifice for others increasingly finds no place in a managerial Labour Party devoid of doctrine and with no aim beyond striving to be inoffensive to Middle England.

For my generation and the one preceding, the hymn was meaningful, never an historic period piece. I recall when as a young man in the RAF in the Middle East, the army military police descended upon the unit in which I was serving, arrested me for my political activities, and bundled me into a truck to take me down to Suez Port with the intention of my being sent to isolation upon an arid island in the Persian Gulf, that in the lurching truck, crossing the Nile Delta, unconsciously and comfortingly I was humming to myself the familiar and sustaining song.

Arrest, imprisonment and victimisation were experiences suffered by so many of those who shaped the early Labour movement — even the most respectable socialist agitators, like Arthur Jenkins, the father of Roy Jenkins, who before his death represented my constituency in the Commons, could find himself imprisoned for a short period as a consequence of involvement in what was deemed to be a riot. And it was the common lot of those who fought for the cause- in factory or pit to be dismissed and refused work for years by any employer. For them, and those reared in yesterday’s political and industrial struggles, singing `The Red Flag’ was no piece of hyperbolic self-dramatisation. Politics then was not, as now, a career choice; it was a dedication involving sacrifice, not the gain of pelf and place. The deliberate de-politicisation that Blair incites means that for the first time in Britain’s history we are living in a land almost devoid of religious faith and of secular ideology. No effective container is in existence, as hitherto there always has been, to hold our maso­chism, and as a consequence we are severely stricken. Thanatos’s toxins enter uncontrolled into the body politic, and our present febrile personal relationships between man and woman, parent and child, spell out to us how little immunity we have to the resulting infections.

For those knowing, as Margaret Cook says, that ‘his intelligence and ability were unmatched at Westminster’, the dismay that his defection from the role of upholder of traditional Labour values against Blairism is in itself a ‘public interest’ justification, perhaps the only justification, to seek to explicate further his anguished marriage. Disenchanted and dismayed Labour activists and their sympathisers, seeing headlines, as in The Times of January 1999 ‘Cook hits back with praise for Labour leaders’, witness his unconvincing attempt to rebut his former wife’s ‘sold his soul’ allegation, and with little or no disguise thus see him bringing his private marriage altercations into the public arena. Dedicated followers, bewildered by their lost leader, upon whom they rested so much of their hopes, are surely entitled to understand that the debacle comes not from flaws in their own convictions but in the blemishes of the man who they saw as equipped to be the leader of Britain’s Left.

In all marriages, except those totally dead — and sometimes even in those — sado-masochistic patterns are woven into our bondings. We punish our partners and are punished by them, sometimes in subtle exchanges and sometimes far more overtly. However, the Cooks’ public presentation of their marriage, setting out in excruciating detail with all diffidences abandoned, surely gives us a florid example of a marriage of long duration which was always kept alive by the sado-masochistic charges continuously triggered by one or other of the partners. Infidelities were inflicted upon the other and then, in order to ensure the maximum degree of torment was aroused, each recounted to the other, apparently in a mixture of triumph and remorse, their waywardness. Each of these highly intelligent people, as an expression of indifference amounting to contempt, refused to take any interest whatsoever in the work and professional activities of their partner.

The catalogue of continuous slights Margaret Cook claims to have suffered understandably prompted Edwina Currie, in reviewing Cook’s book, to ask the question: ‘Why did she stay so long?’ But the answer is clear: the pains propped up the love and without them the marriage would have collapsed. In my younger years, when practising in the magistrates’ matrimonial court, I found so often that in violent disputes between steelworker husbands and their wives that it was only when the beating stopped that the marriage could be said to have irrevocably broken down. Margaret Cook has averred that but for the intervention of Blair’s lackey spin doctors, more concerned with presenting a suitable story for public consumption than stabilizing ….the marriage, they would probably still be together. She is perhaps right, and they would then no doubt have continued to torture each other ’til death did them part. That indeed would have left Robin Cook untarnished and uncompromised, not needing Blair’s  patronage to survive, able to have been unyielding and to use his considerable talents to defend Labour’s traditional. Cook’s failure has brought profound disappointment to many and, in particular, to stalwarts in the Labour Party, and that cannot be diminished. Perhaps the bitterness  felt by them, because of their perception of Cook as a defector, may however be tempered by some understanding of his interior life, of the          unconscious forces that appear to have led the most able of Labour’s front-bench spokesmen to become so politically entrapped. Such an empathic mode may help to prevent their dedicated political  enthusiasm, as they declare their wish to put Labour back into ‘New Labour’, from turning into cynicism. Certainly such an approach, any attempt to explore Robin Cook’s psyche, might well show that some, but not all, of the dilemmas with which he finds himself entangled come from the prevailing zeitgeist which has excluded the assion. Cook’s total repudiation of Christianity and its core container of masochism ‑ identification with the suffering Christ — although claimed by him to have been reached by intellectual appraisal in his first year at             university and not by a ‘sort of Damascene non-conversion’ was nevertheless too violent a break with his past to be  regarded so cerebrally. He had come to university but a few months before with the   intention of entering the Church as a minister, and he commenced his English degree, as a preliminary .to taking a Divinity degree. His whole upbringing as an only son within an intense and closely knit family had taken place in a mortified ascetic Protestant household, one enveloped in a severe and austere Christianity. During his  primary schooldays he unfailingly accompanied, every Sunday, his parents to church and was a prizewinner in the recitation competition of the catechism and gladly linked himself to the task of planting nasturtiums all the way round his church on wet and windy Sunday afternoons. In the duties and observances of a Scottish Presbyterian ethos, his childhood and adolescence were well provided with socially approved rituals possessed of a sponge-like porosity, well able to absorb much of young Cook’s masochism.

A few terms after his entry into university, evidently endeavouring to shake off the dominance of his father’s creed and practice, in the flat his ever and over-protective father had just bought for him, came the great rebellion: he denounced the God­father and ‘came to the view that there was no God and since then I have been a signed-up and conforming atheist’. The abruptness seems more like a delayed Oedipal response than, as he has claimed, the consequence of considered rationalist exploration. In throwing away his Christianity he, however, disposed of more than an oppressively caring father — he left himself bereft of the vehicle which lightened the masochistic load which this man carries.

He sought to find less demanding alternative and smoother routes, ones where he could ease his burden and where, without shame, he could openly carry his considerable ambitions. With partial insight he has described the immediate consequence of his bid to emancipate himself from the God-father: ‘What then happened psychologically inside me is that my commitment to the Church of Scotland as a minister of religion transferred itself, into the Labour Party and socialism.’

Although as a home the traditional Labour Party has been a more ramshackle structure than the Church, nevertheless it has, with its emphases on the motifs of the subjugation of self in the interests of the community, always been a lure for many of the more masochistically inclined, a haven from which they can work to alleviate the sufferings of the disadvantaged. In itself, therefore, Cook’s switch from God to Party is unexceptional, although it does provide a neat illustration of the therapeutic lineaments that can be sought, not always as successfully as in religion, within an institutionalised secular ideology, the collapse of which may release unspent masochism that can destroy personal relationships.

The nineties have been malevolently influenced by views such as those set out in a notorious pamphlet written by Harriet Harman who, for a mercifully short time, was Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, a woman whom in the Commons I found possessed a conceit matching her obtuseness,

In 1967 Jim Callaghan became Home Secretary. He came to his new office shell-shocked. Devaluation and his subsequent resignation from Chancellorship of the Exchequer had left him stunned and depleted. He was poor in his boyhood and it led him to be over-fascinated by money. Mixing with bankers and economists had shored him up, leaving him with a profound sense of security that he had rarely been able to enjoy. The total collapse of his assumptions and of the pound was felt as more than a policy failure; he was a shaken man. Bewildered, he invited me, as doubtless he invited other backbenchers who had in the past fully involved themselves in political programmes that were part of the responsibility of the Home Office, to come and talk to him privately; he wanted instruction. I seized the moment, and told him he could be remembered as the man who had revolutionised Britain’s child laws. The notion of being the ‘Children’s Protector’ immediately appealed to him; as a very young boy, Callaghan lost his seaman father and the widow was left to fight a bitter struggle to maintain the family. The impress of those early years is irrevocably stamped upon the adult man; in this case, it acted to my advantage.

Blair’s claim to be a practising Christian does not, of course, draw upon Tawney’s interpretation. Blair claims he was fascinated by the works of another academic, the Christian moral philosopher John Macmurray, which, Blair tells us, are central to his own thinking: ‘If you really want to know what I am all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray. It’s all there.’ His enthusiasm for this minor figure in academic theology was such that he trekked, as an undergraduate, to Scotland from Oxford in the vain hope of sitting at the feet of the then elderly guru. If he had met him, he would have received unpalatable advice, for on the philosophical peregrina­tions that this man trod, Blair would not have encountered any resting place where he could have found ‘the coincidence between the philosophical theory of Christianity and the left of centre politics’ to which Blair claims Macmurray led him.

When in my teens I first heard Macmurray lecture, he was over­praising the positive teachings of the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism and seeking, by way of subdued reserva­tions, to accommodate Christianity to its tenets. Subsequently he abandoned these forays and, indeed, in a later book, the one specifically named by Blair as his ‘guide book’, Macmurray’s earlier neo-Marxist essays are not listed among his previous publications. Macmurray ended his life as a pietist and a Quaker, and Blair most certainly could not have obtained any encourage­ment from him to seek any political answers to the woes of the human predicament. On the contrary, the late works which Blair, unconvincingly, claims to have read mock politics and politicians; community was to be found in religion and politics were to be eschewed. The warning Blair would have received from Macmurray was unambiguous:

If we track the State to its lair, what shall we find? Merely a collection of overworked and worried gentlemen, not at all unlike ourselves, doing their best to keep the machinery of government working as well as may be, and hard put to it to keep up appearances. They are, like ourselves, subject to the illusion of power. If we expect them to work miracles, we flatter them, and tempt them to think they are Supermen… Those of them who are wise enough to know their limitations, and to be immune to the gross adulation of their fellows, will resign; and government will be carried on only by megalomaniacs.

The crusading Blair inciting Western Europe and the United States of America into battle, in Kosovo, drew nothing from the faith of the absolute pacifist Macmurray; nor -does his outward display of Christianity, in his church-going and in his despatch of his children to a fee-paying Roman Catholic school, have as its source the self-abnegation which Macmurray urged upon his acolytes. We can no more expect that Christianity will inhibit this Prime Minister’s eulogising of the materialism in this technologically advanced society than we can expect any brand of socialism to impress itself upon his New Labour policies.

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