politically-motivated men

‘Politically Motivated Men’
Barry Hindess, ANU

In an address to the House of Commons in March 1966 the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson referred to

the pressures which are put on men I know to be realistic and reasonable, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organized strike committees in the individual ports by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last general election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise back-stage pressures, forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”1

This passage is particularly interesting for my purposes because it shows a professional politician at the height of his game disparaging motivations he describes as political. Wilson does not tell us much about the content of these motivations or his reasons for dumping on them: it is sufficient for his purposes to condemn them simply as ‘political’. Wilson’s pejorative use of the term ‘political’ should be distinguished from both the familiar lay-persons’ disdain for politics and the populist anti-politics in which individuals and organisations represent themselves as non-political and criticise ‘politics’ and politicians for what dispassionate observers might regard as political reasons (Hindess 1997). In Wilson’s case, it seems that there are respectable forms of politics, notably his own, and others that are not respectable. In the first part of this paper I present a range of examples, several of them from Australia, of people who live off politics – as elected politicians, journalists or commentators – disparaging ‘political’ motivations and ‘politics’ more generally before moving on, in the second part, to consider how we might understand such Janus-faced views of politics.

Wilson also used the phrase ‘politically motivated men’ in other contexts, notably in private Labour Party gatherings where I sometimes heard him describe criticism from the Left of the Party as politically motivated. He was by no means the first British political leader to have disparaged politics. More than a century earlier, in Benjamin Disraeli’s first novel Vivian Grey, published well before he became Prime Minister in 1868, Grey is warned by one of his elders that ‘[t]here is no act of treachery, or meanness, of which a political party is not capable—for in politics there is no honour.’ 2
Accusations of the wrong kind of ‘political’ motivation are not uncommon in Australian politics. We might recall, for example, the tired charges of ‘class warfare’ and ‘the politics of envy’, trotted out whenever Labor raises the issue of tax concessions – a.k.a hand outs – for the wealthy. These charges taunt Labor by portraying it as behaving like the socialist party some of its members may dream of but which it has never dared to become. It suggests that the politics of envy – class warfare on the side of the disadvantaged – unlike its right-wing counterpart – class warfare on the side of big business and the wealthy – represents a dangerous kind of politics that serious politicians should avoid

Following examples of the contemporary disparaging of politics by politicians themselves and by journalists and commentators, who live off mainstream politics, I will suggest that a minor variation on Max Weber’s understanding of politics is all we need to make sense of it.

The full paper can be seen at academia.edu

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