One of the shibboleths of the now ageing New Left is that 'the personal is political' and so there is no distinction between private and public spheres, no area of life off-limits to political activism. I reject this world-view as totalitarian and one of the origins of what we have come to call political correctness. Yet at the beginning of my recent book, I might be said to pander to it, for I start with a conversation at a private dinner party in North London, which quickly--and to the bemusement of my host--became a heated debate. The other guest, an American academic who will be referred to as Jeff, has since become a good friend. He has, nonetheless, the full armature of liberal-left prejudices which have become commonplace in arts faculties these days. Jeff began the argument by lambasting me for belonging to an all-male club. He believed that such clubs were morally offensive and that they should be forced to admit women in the interests of 'equality' and 'universal human rights'.
Jeff, although once married, is a gay man who cares profoundly about discrimination against gays. I, a younger man, prefer to say that I am a 'chap who likes chaps', because that is apolitical and always raises a smile. I pointed out to Jeff that men's clubs are places of masculine conviviality, where sexual orientation is quite irrelevant. Indeed, in these days of repressive openness, they are among the few places where a man's sexuality is a private matter, or merely a minor detail. True to politically correct dogma, Jeff replied that homosexual men who joined 'such clubs' were 'colluding with discrimination' and suffering from 'false consciousness'. The fact that they simply enjoyed male company meant nothing to him, except as proof that they were 'sexist', which gays have 'even less' excuse for being than straights. Homosexual members of men's clubs, he continued, would benefit from 'changes in the law' that would outlaw our free associations. Then they would realise that their true interests lay in 'form ing coalitions' with lesbians, feminists and 'minority groups'. This was not merely something that they should do, but something they 'had to' do. They also had to be grateful for the people who were working to 'secure their rights'. I was 'ungrateful' and did not appreciate what was being 'done for me' by tireless campaigners who were fighting for the right to ban my club and free me from self-oppression.
By this time, nothing surprised me. For in months of researching political correctness, the words 'have to', the expectation of gratitude and the accusations of false consciousness rung in my ear. The theory of false consciousness was first applied by Marxists to explain the lack of enthusiasm for revolutionary change amongst the industrial working class and the workers' corresponding support for gradual reform. The Tory-voting dinner lady, the industrial worker who preferred his football team or (heaven help us) his religion to political activity are classic victims of false consciousness. They require Marxist intellectuals to 'demystify' them, by persuasion or force, and ultimately a revolutionary elite to impose its will. The development of political correctness marks a shift in left-wing thought from economic class struggle towards racial or sexual politics and culture wars. Thus, just as Marxists once berated workers for false consciousness, the cultural left berates its chosen constituents. There are fe w denunciations more vindictive, for example, than those of feminists towards women who wish to choose traditional roles. Take these remarks by Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre's childless consort: 'No woman should be authorised to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.
In the same interview with Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, de …