Plato, Kipling & Safe Spaces

soviet propaganda poster muslim women

(Trigger warning- this post mentions without condemning Rudyard Kipling, a Dead White Man)

In one of his poems, The Disciple, Kipling wrote-

HE THAT hath a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind,
Though he serve it utterly —
Body, soul and mind —
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain —
It is His Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.

Although couched in Christian terms and first published at the end of his story The Church that was at Antioch clearly the author had a more universal application of the principle in mind. This is shown by the final verse which references both Islam and the religions of India-

He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won
(Carpenter, or cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son),
Many swords shall pierce Him,
Mingling blood with gall;
But His Own Disciple
Shall wound Him worst of all!

The point is a simple one which is that visionaries and pioneers have their hopes wrecked most of all by their successors. That which drives people to create great movements such as the world spanning religions or the great ‘isms’ of the 19th and 20th centuries- Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Nationalism, Fascism etc etc- is the internalising of some partly seen glimpse of one of the Platonic ideals. That is, an Idea in its perfect abstract form is seen and then an heroic attempt is made to make that form a lived reality here upon earth.

Such revolutionary impulses are something of a mixed blessing since all too often they contain strong procrustean tendencies and merrily proceed to hammer rough edged human pegs into ideally shaped smooth holes. The advantage which they sometimes bring is that caught up within the scope of the grand vision are a myriad of lesser issues which touch upon vital matters of ordinary life and great changes for the better occur during the process of the long march towards the New Jerusalem. Whether Fascism is a price worth paying to get the trains to run on time or Communism to achieve universal literacy in Russia is of course another question.

The Soviet experience, indeed, is an instructive one. The Lenin’s, Trotsky’s, Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s, a generation of deep thinkers and sharp debaters, were succeeded by the dull and pedestrian minds of Stalin and his acolytes. Leaving aside the historical peculiarities of 1920’s Russia we could generalise that the attempt to impose an ideal vision into the interstices of daily life for millions of people requires a focus on the banality of the every-day and only banal minds can or will perform this task. If one reads, as I did in my misspent youth, the debates and speeches at Soviet and Comintern conferences one is struck by the way that years of genuine argument about ideas and underlying principles is succeeded by unanimity and an abandonment of intellectualism. The process has happened, I think, so often in history that one is justified in thinking, as Kipling clearly did, that it more or less amounts to a universal law (unless human frailty is overcome through divine assistance as, I believe, is the case with the Catholic Church.)

So, what has all this to do with safe spaces? One of the phenomenons of recent years has been that students activists have made two significant demands. They seek to exclude from debate and discussion, to ‘no-platform’ in the jargon, those whose views they deem to be grossly offensive and, since this can never be 100% successful, they also try to create safe spaces where no unpleasantness may ever by any chance occur. Among those whom they aim to no-platform are often pioneers of the very ideas which the students endorse, people such as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and others of that generation. This is an experience which the Danton’s and Trotsky’s of history would recognise. In one sense it means that the revolution has been won. The feminists, LGBT activists, social liberals and cultural marxists of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s have made their ideas a part of the social, legislative and intellectual framework of the Western world.

The downside of this for those who support these ideas (and I don’t) is that leadership has now passed into the hands of the Kiplingesque disciples. Unanimity is sought, intellectualism is cast out, banal minds regurgitate half-digested ideas which they have passively accepted not arrived at through ratiocination or debate. The ground, in fact, is being cleared for the revolution to defeat itself. The question is what legacy will it leave? There is much, amid the idiocies of current student politics, that is worth salvaging out of the vision of the pioneers, that women’s status and viewpoint are never secondary considerations, that people should not be persecuted merely for their sexuality and so on. This legacy question is as important for us as the “what happens next?” question and it is up to us to answer both of them. And, also, to hope that we are never cursed by having disciples.


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My other blog is Catholic Scot

The picture is a Soviet propaganda poster from the 1920’s aimed at Muslim women





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