by Milly Allinson
Torn between equal, opposing claims, her situation is impossible. Try as she might, Maggie cannot reconcile her inner progressive values with her conservative family and community. This is where the rural left enters the stage.
Maggie Tulliver, the protagonist of George Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, is torn.
On the one hand, she loves her lower middle-class family and the mill they run in rural Lincolnshire. On the other, she is independent and intelligent, and wishes to pursue her own happiness. To her family, this is selfishness. Her relationship with the equally intelligent - but already taken - Stephen Guest requires the destruction of her ties to family and friends, particularly with her beloved, but conservative brother, Tom.
If Maggie stays with her family, she loses her true inner self; if she leaves them, she loses her emotional bonds. Torn between equal, opposing claims, her situation is impossible. Try as she might, Maggie cannot reconcile her inner progressive values with her conservative family and community. This is where the rural left enters the stage.
Earlier this year, I was disturbed to find out the Heritage party was running for local council in my constituency. In their ‘manifesto for social conservatism’, the party stated they stood against police ‘kneel[ing] before Marxists’, ‘transgender propaganda’ in schools, and ‘draconian coronavirus laws [...] for a disease no worse than a bad flu season’.
Fortunately, they didn’t win the election, but the dominance of the Conservative party within the rural county was strengthened. Of Lincolnshire’s 7 constituencies, only 4 non-Conservative candidates have been elected since 1983. All our MPs are now Conservative, as are 54 of our 70 county council seats. In the recent local council elections, Labour received approx ⅕ of the vote of the Conservative candidates in certain areas.
It’s important not to misrepresent the issue. The rural working class is not a hivemind. Within my community, I have met intersectional radicals - from the outspoken black working class Corbyn supporter to the retired long distance lorry-driver who professed his interest in state Communism. I am situated firmly within their community. I continue to love the communities I grew up in.
The issue of rural conservatism is responded to with knee jerk reactions from the left. Some advocate for cutting off these areas and their ‘boomer’ residents as a lost cause. This ignores the fact that conservative-voting workers are living within systemic networks of ‘manufactured consent’ stemming from poor education, lack of local funding, and tabloid propaganda.
Meanwhile, class reductionists claim that to regain working class trust, the left must jettison intersectionality. Trans struggles for healthcare, job opportunities and self-actualisation are callously disparaged as ‘trans toilet debates’. Turning away from marginalised groups to score ‘woke points’ with right-wing voters is not only morally repugnant - it doesn’t work. From comments about clamping down on ‘anti-social behaviour’ to statements against the 'defund the police' stance of BLM, Keir Starmer has distanced himself from the intersectional left at any opportunity. His reward? A polling lower than both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson.
So, how can we, as rural leftists, reconcile our equal opposing claims? By the end of The Mill on the Floss, it seems that Maggie will never be able to resolve the conflict with her stubborn brother. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a flood rises. Maggie singlehandedly powers her friend's boat to go and rescue Tom. He finally recognises his sister’s true nature. Finally, the pair are reunited...and then they both drown.
Compared to the strict realism of the rest of the novel, the magical (and depressing) ending seemed ludicrous. Then I realised: that was the entire point. George Eliot was a dialectical novelist who faithfully depicted the conflicts that arise between individuals and their socio-economic circumstances. Maggie can't change her intelligent nature, nor Victorian’s England’s patriarchal social structure. So, if her struggle is impossible to resolve, why not make the impossible possible? The fantastical ending implies that a change of biblical proportions is needed to sweep the characters' differences away. From that perspective, the ending becomes a prophecy of what is to come.
Without widespread support, leftist movements cannot progress. But if we lose our intersectional socialist values, there's no reason to keep fighting. Perhaps Maggie suggests we're looking at the problem all wrong. Our conflict cannot be solved by trying to appease one side at the expense of the other. To create a widely-supported intersectional leftist movement, we have to let the flood in and rebuild our world anew.
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Milly Allinson is a Lincolnshire-based writer and dreamer. She makes lo-fi LeftTube videos as Millicent Cusack, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @millicusack