Andrew Glyn is not a household name, and until I read his obituary yesterday in The Times of London I had never heard of him. But what an illuminating document that obituary proves to be, a perfect little insight into the age.
The opening sentence informs that Glyn “was one of Britain’s most prominent Marxist economists who produced searching critiques of capitalism,” going on to salute him as “one of the finest of Oxford dons.” He was apparently “more likely to be seen on a picket line at an Oxford factory than at the succession of black-tie events that are the circulation of Oxford life.” Even for a sympathetic fellow-traveller — as the writer of this obituary evidently is — that’s a pretty one-dimensional way of describing what goes on in one of England’s leading universities, but let it pass. No doubt this fellow Glyn was a proletarian stalwart in dungarees, always loyal to his class as he left his college to support whoever might be striking.
Oh dear, no, not at all. Glyn was an aristocrat, with the courtesy title of Honourable, as his father was the sixth Lord Wolverton. He was a descendant of the founders of a bank bearing his name, and as the obituary coyly puts it, “born into considerable banking wealth.” Educated at Eton, the famously elite school, [full disclosure: I was there too, but before Glyn] he was such a schoolboy success that his master judged “they don’t come better than this.”
What made him a Marxist? Some streak of rebellion, perhaps, if we are to be charitable about him. More likely, he imagined that Marxism would allow him to go on ordering other people about. Most likely of all motivations, he felt guilt about being so well-connected and rich, and wanted to build a fictional persona to avoid reality.
Think of the abuse of privilege. Think of the false pretences. Think of the damage he did spouting rubbish year after year to students who would be expected to parrot it back to him. To one student, he is supposed to have said, “the three greatest men who ever lived were Lenin, Trotsky and Charlie Parker,” – a sentence that the obituary writer hilariously links to “his depth of knowledge.” Some of the unfortunate students will have recovered freedom to think for themselves, but some will be permanently damaged. The obituary writer does in the end concede that Glyn “will to some extent be deemed to have backed the wrong ideological horse” — that “to some extent” is a qualification that goes so far beyond hilarious that it is almost majestic.
First, people bamboozle themselves, and then they bamboozle others, and who knows where that finishes ultimately. Glyn may not have been personally responsible for murder like his heroes Lenin and Trotsky, but he did his bit to create a climate of opinion favourable to it. His obituary, and in The Times that vaunts itself as the paper of record, shows how manipulation of this sort continues to misinform and deceive.