Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Wobblies (1986)

This article was originally published in the August-September 1986 issue of the Socialist View, which was the journal of the World Socialist Party of Ireland, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement.

On the eve of the American celebrations to mark the centenary of the Statue of Liberty, Channel 4 gave us a rare treat indeed - a documentary film entitled The Wobblies. As America waited to unleash its professionally staged, hand in the heart, tear in the eye nationalism, The Wobblies provided an historic insight into the realities of the American version of "Liberty" and "Democracy".

The one and a half hour documentary was a poignant recollection of the courage and ideas of these Americans who were members of the Union, the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as "The Wobblies".

The reason this Union is interesting to socialists is two-fold. Firstly, it was a highly political union which understood the necessity to question the very basis of capitalist society and secondly, its history acts as a good example of how ideas become spread, and, more importantly, accepted.

The realities of Capitalism became stark in America during the latter half of the last century, and the beginning of this one. The growth of the big corporations, such as Rockefellers Standard Oil and Carnegie's US Steel Corporation bought up the vast supplies of cheap migrant labour which was flooding country. The new American capitalists were not slow in understanding their class identity and obligations: "Any man who pays more for labour than the lowest sum he can get it for is robbing his shareholders", is how one leading industrialist echoed the sentiments of this new "land of the free". "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half" said Jay Gould, Financier, exposing the representatives of democracy for the liars they are.

The new "American" working class, imported from all over the world, were, as always, the recipients of this new "freedom" and, having been bought cheaply by the vast corporations, many became more exposed to the ravages of the system because they were not properly organised in trade unions.

It was clear from the start that the I.W.W. was something new and fresh, and it was equally clear that they had an understanding and energy second to none. J.P. Thompson, I.W.W. organiser: "One class owns the industries and does not operate them - another class operates them and does not own them". This statement could have come from the pages of Socialist View but the ideas of the I.W.W. became even more interesting when reading their "preamble" or statement of objectives:
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wages System".

Nothing new in a Trade Union recognising the existence of the class struggle but a Union talking about the "workers of the world . . . taking possession of the earth" , was certainly new, and then to go on to state their aim as the abolition of the wages system, was revolutionary.

When we consider that the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain, the longest running companion party of the World Socialist Movement was formed in 1904, just a year earlier, it shows the significance of the formation of "The Wobblies".

Another significant feature of the I.W.W. was that membership was open to any worker irrespective of race, creed or sex. Bill Haywood, one of the I.W.W. founders: "This Union will open its doors to any man or woman who earns their living by brain or muscle". This feature set them apart from other established unions of the time which had membership restrictions on the basis of race or sex or did not allow Black and White workers to organise together. This made "The Wobblies" unpopular with the established unions many of which had become well immersed in the game of compromise. "The I.W.W. has never been anything but a radical fungus on the labour movement for those who could not fit into a normal rational movement" - Samuel Gompers, president of the A.F.L., a skilled workers union.

The fact that the I.W.W. came into existence and proved so attractive to many thousands of workers gives lie to the nonsense talked by those on the Leninist left today, like the Communist Party and Militant who tell us that the working class are not capable of understanding socialism. The I.W.W. with its slogan "abolish the wages system" represented the views of the most impoverished and least well educated members of the American working class. Taught, as they were, by the straightforward no frills arguments of "The Wobblies" these workers were able to understand that this system does not, and can not, serve their interests and that the only answer remaining is to abolish it completely. The reason that these ideas proved attractive lay, for the most part, in the way in which they put over their ideas and the commitment of their members.

Their propaganda was always lively and entertaining. They have left behind them a great stock of songs, poems and slogans all of which put their ideas over in the best possible way. "Wobblies" cherished their "little red song book" almost as much as their union card. Everywhere "Wobblies" met they sang these songs - at their meetings, on the picket line and in their work place. The songs represented their solidarity and iron resolve.

To the tune of "John Browns Body" they sang:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

To the tune of "Red Wing":
Workers all unite
We must put up a fight
To make us free from slavery
And capitalistic tyranny
This fight is not in vain
We've got the world to gain
Will you be a fool, a capitalist tool
And serve your enemy
Shall we still be slaves and work for wages?
It is outrageous - has been for ages
This earth by right belongs to toilers
And not for spoilers of liberty.

None of the traditional "values" were safe at the hands of "The Wobblies", least of all religion. They "took no prisoners" in their exposure of religion as capitalism's moral seal of approval and another aspect of working class suppression.

"Trust in the lord and sleep in the street" and "Jesus saves the willing slaves" are two examples of popular slogans which I.W.W. members used to show their attitude to the arrogant preachers who tell workers to work hard and pray hard. Their songs again put over their ideas in an entertaining manner.

To the air of "Onward Christian Soldiers":
Onward Christian Soldiers!
Blighting all you meet
Trample human freedom under pious feet
Praise the Lord whose dollar sign dupes his favored race!
Make the foreign trash respect your bullion brand of grace
Trust in mock salvation, serve as tyrants tools
History will say of you
"That pack of Godly fools"

Another "value" which the I.W.W. had no time for was that of the traditional "role" of women. Women played a leading part in the organisation and struggle of the union, so much so that the union was accused of pushing women to the front in order to get sympathy. This argument was countered by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, I.W.W. founder member and organiser: "The I. W. W. had been accused of putting women at the front - the truth is that the I.W.W. does not keep them at the back and they go to the front".

And go to the front they did playing an equal role in organising factories and suffering police violence on the picket lines. One typical example was Sophie Cohen and her friend who joined the I.W.W. when they were seventeen. They spent their time looking for work in unorganised factories so as to get in and organise. Once they had made their presence felt the boss, in disbelief that two such girls would ever dream of joining a union, would sack them. Their job completed, that of getting members into the union, they would simply go and look for a similar factory. Unsurprisingly, there were songs in praise of such courageous women too.

"The Rebel girl" (from the little red song book)
Yes, her hands may be hardened from labour
And her dress may not be very fine
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance shell hurl
For the only thorough-bred lady is the Rebel Girl.

For the I.W.W. solidarity was what made workers strong and they would not allow the divisiveness of racism or sexism to distort that strength. It was the sheer force of this solidarity which enabled "The Wobblies" to overcome many of the obstacles which the state, in its fear of working people organising together, placed in front of them. The I.W.W. was at the forefront of the fight for free speech in America. At a time when motor cars were rare, most people walked through and around town and "The Wobblies" used outdoor street corner meetings as a forum for their ideas. As these meetings became more successful they were made illegal (except for the Salvation Army). The answer of the I.W.W. to this ban was to overrule it by sheer force of numbers. Hundreds of speakers would congregate to do a single meeting. One would get up to speak, get arrested, and immediately be replaced by another, and another, etc until the prisons were filled with "Wobblies", all charged with vagrancy. This proved an embarrassment to the authorities to such a degree that the ban was eventually lifted.

It was this solidarity of action which got results. Joe Murphy., an I.W.W. member tells the story of such solidarity during a strike on the building of a dam in Seattle. All workers were out on strike but its effectiveness was being reduced by the employers who were importing "scab labour" from a town several hundred miles away. Joe, a striking dam worker himself went to the town in question and organised the local Wobblies members to register with the employment agency which was hiring the "scabs". Having been taken on they boarded with a train load of scabs to travel to Seattle. As Joe recollects the "hardened scabs" were dumped off the train during the journey and the rest joined the I.W.W. By the time they arrived at Seattle the whole train was singing "Wobblies" songs. This event in Joes words "pissed the bosses off" who had wined and dined these "Wobblies" during their journey.

This strength in numbers dismissed the need for the union to use violence in pursuance of their cause. Despite their reputation there is no evidence to suggest that the union engaged in a concerted campaign of violence to achieve their aims.

Bill Haywood: "The I.W.W. advocates violence of the most violent sort. Violence that consists of keeping our mouths shut and our hands in our pockets, By doing this, and staying on strike, we are committing the most violent of acts - cutting off our labour. Let them weave cloth with Bayonets" (our emphasis).

In this respect they realised their real strength as the possessors of labour and therefore as the class which produces wealth. They realised also the redundant nature of the capital1st class if they do not have the use of our labour. One Socialist used to say "Labour power is your most precious possession, use it sparingly", and the I.W.W. would surely have agreed with this sentiment. Using their labour power sparingly was what they did in pursuing their policy of sabotage To "The Wobblies" sabotage meant "The conscious withdrawal of efficiency".

They understood the futility of burning down the factories which meant workers losing their jobs, the alternative was to slow things down, do enough to get by, but not to allow the boss to squeeze you too tightly.

In 1917 when America got involved in the first World War, the I.W.W. again took a unique stance. Other unions made agreements with the Government not to strike during the war years. The I.W.W. refused to do this knowing that the war was not being fought in the interests of working people, the same working people who would die fighting it. During 1917 the I.W.W. organised 50,000 lumberjacks out on strike up and down the Pacific coast. also in that year they organised 40,000 copper miners in a strike.

The state used this, along with the nationalistic fervour brought about by the war, to discredit the I.W.W., accusing them of helping the Kaiser. In the same year of course, the Bolshevik revolution took place in Russia which caused internal friction in the union between those who supported the revolution and those who understood that it was not, and could not have been, a socialist revolution.

The national support for the war gave the American government a perfect opportunity to squash this union which had proved a thorn in its side for so long. I.W.W. headquarters across the country were ransacked and hundreds of members arrested and put on trial.

Their solicitor, George Vandeveer, fought a skilful battle in the courts on behalf of the arrested members saying "These people are being tried for nothing more than belonging to a labour union, a labour union which recognises that this war is not being fought to save democracy, but merely to expand industrial markets".

Despite his defence, eighty members were imprisoned, many more fined and others left America for fear of future recriminations.

Regrettably these events effectively marked the end of the I.W.W. as a major force serving the interests of working people. The I.W.W. is still in existence today and although only a shadow of its former size, appears to be experiencing a small upsurge in activity and interest.

The W.S.P. may well have disagreed with many of the policies and actions of the I.W.W. but these stand as insignificant beside that on which we agree - the abolition of the wages system and winning the world for the workers.

It is from movements such as the I.W.W., Poland's Solidarity movement, and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa - and the countless other examples around the world - that we must look to in order to properly appreciate our strength as a class. If we organise together and decide what we are aiming for then, as long as there are enough of us, we can not be beaten.

The W.S.P. can only offer you the ideas - you must offer your support - together we too can grow strong.

Originally published in the World Socialist Party of Ireland journal, Socialist View, Vol 1, Nº 2, August-September 1986.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Chomsky's Weakness (1998)

From the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Noam Chomsky has been celebrated as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century His popularity cannot be doubted. Books and lectures are bought and attended in the thousands and he has a strong influence amongst the left and anarchists. But mere anti-capitalism is not enough as it encourages reformism.

Chomsky's analysis of capitalist society broadly hits the mark and socialists could find little to disagree with generally. However, the leftist and anarchist supporters who look to Chomsky for inspiration miss the wider point. While Chomsky blames capitalism for poverty, human rights abuse, limited democracy and so on, his ranks of supporters support anarchist sects and fruitless reformist campaigns banging the capitalist table with a begging bowl, waiting for some new "right" like a dog barking for a crumb from his master's plate.

To blame Chomsky for his supporters may seem a touch harsh, especially as he has consistently spoken out against the following of leaders (in fact opposing a documentary for raising him up like an icon and personalising political issues), but Chomsky fails to come to the conclusion that his analysis deserves. Knowledge of how capitalism works and oppresses is not enough. Without an alternative, opposition to capitalism leads nowhere. A"right" here or there in capitalism has the unerring habit of suddenly disappearing when profit is hindered.

Granted, many who read or hear Chomsky will arrive at something close to anti-capitalist conclusions but without the aim of abolishing capitalism itself this means relatively little. Chomsky does little to redress this.

Although consistently stating the limitations of legal and other changes to capitalism, he does not oppose reformism as such and so unfortunately his analysis serves to assist futile reformism, however much this may not be his aim. While Chomsky's anti-leadership, anti-capitalism stance is sincere it runs counter to the adoring hoards of trendy leftists who persist in quoting his analysis while campaigning for minimal gains (e.g. pro-drugs, human rights, Law Society and other assorted moralists) and not for the abolition of the system which creates the need for such demands that seek to address problems which capitalism inevitably cannot solve. Capitalism subverts human need to profit and this is at the heart of the problems Chomsky so ably denounces. No amount of tinkering within capitalism can change this essential characteristic.

In general, Chomsky traces the origin of the abuses prevalent in modern capitalism to property. land and trade and the interests of a small commercial and industrial class (capitalists, i.e. those parasites who live by extracting surplus value from the working population) which run counter to those of the majority of the people (the working class). Big business and the interests of a corporate elite feature strongly in Chomsky's analysis. For example, he highlights numerous cases of US foreign policy which are clearly followed in the interests of profit and plunder but which are mysteriously absent or fudged over in the world media. Haiti is an obvious example where workers were plainly inconsequential and dispensable pawns in the capitalist pursuit of profit, policy being chopped and changed according to what would be likely to create the most conducive environment for profit-making. Harsher governments are regarded as eminently suitable for investment because of the strong control they exercise over the population and the absence of trade unions, while broadly progressive governments which offer basic rights to workers are regarded as bad investment areas due to higher costs in terms of wages, taxes, tariffs etc.

Elite control
Chomsky has stated his opposition to the "renting" of workers for their abilities in return for survival. He also opposes the state as a form of social organisation and suggests that alternatives may exist that are greatly preferable to the present system of organised robbery. Although he puts poverty, hunger, human "rights" abuses and the rest down to capitalism and its organisation, he does not see reformism and moralistic campaigns as a damaging side-track to the conclusion that capitalism itself is the problem and as such attracts the adulation of single-issue reformists.

This is not to deny Chomsky's, at times, outstanding analysis of capitalism and of the motives of its leaders and their sidekicks. In a pamphlet Media Control he discusses the nature of democracy under capitalism, coming to the conclusion that, in the capitalist state, democracy is devoid of any meaning as far as popular participation is concerned. This Chomsky puts down to the various "democratic" theoreticians who justify control by a Leninist-type elitism whereby the ruling elite are assumed to know what is best for the majority (over jobs, investment, welfare cuts, etc); under capitalism there is an unconscious movement towards policies which benefit the capitalists and keep the majority enslaved to interests which do not serve them but which are nonetheless applied in the "national interest".

Chomsky goes on to discuss the highly efficient elite control of the media and the role of education and other institutions in maintaining capitalism, citing the billions of pounds spent on public relations every year.

Chomsky himself has often been the victim of the capitalist propaganda effort as he has commented in interviews with David Barsamian. In capitalism, propaganda is not carried out by central state institutions but by exclusion from mass media which is monopolised by the owning class:
"Our system differs strikingly from say, [the former] Soviet Union, where the propaganda system literally is controlled by the state . . . Our system [western capitalism] works much differently and much more effectively. It's a privatised system of propaganda, including the media, the journals of opinion and in general including the broad opinion of the intelligentsia, the educated part of the population" (Chronicles of Dissent).

However, on how to halt the tide of capitalism, Chomsky is incredibly weak:
"[on the] issue of human freedom, if you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, etc., there's a chance you may contribute to making a better world" (Chronicles of Dissent).

Hope is not, however, enough. A century of hope has produced nothing but more capitalist misery and failed reformist efforts. Only organisation for socialism will do. The working class must organise not to reform capitalism but to abolish it and establish a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of productive wealth. A society of free access and real democracy and an end to classes, states, governments, frontiers, leaders and coercion. A world without vested "interests" and freed from the constraints of profit.
Colin Skelly

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Britain Is Not A Classless Society (2002)

From the December 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

In October the Cambridge Union invited the Socialist Party to take part in a debate on the question "This House Believes Britain is a Classless Society". Our speaker was Pieter Lawrence who made the following contribution.

It is often claimed that there are many ways of looking at the question of social class, but socialists argue that we should use a method that tells us most about the world we live in. To begin with, it should be agreed that statistics on the ownership of property are a important guide. These confirm what we see around us. We would have to spend our lives wearing blindfolds not to notice that British society is scarred by great differences in property ownership and in our use and enjoyment of the good things of life.

But we should not see class solely through the distribution of property. Class is a social relationship that invades all our lives. Class has changed and developed throughout history, it is not a static thing. This indicates the possibility of not just changing it but of abolishing it altogether so that we can all enjoy what would be the benefits of a classless society.

The statistics are many but just a few will tell us a great deal. If we look up the web site on "Who Owns Britain" we find that in England and Wales almost 26 million acres of land is owned by just over 150,000 families or individuals. This is 0.28 percent (about a quarter of one per cent) of the population who own 64 percent of the land. If we take land owned by the Dukes of Buccleuch, Westminster and Northumberland we have just three individuals who jointly own 531,500 acres valued at just over �14.5 billion. Three persons would be lost in our meeting tonight but in fact this trio owns a very big chunk of the country.

At the other end of the scale, according to the Economist for (23 February this year), for the years 1999/2000, the number of children living in poverty in this country was 4.1 million. (Poverty being defined as children living in families receiving less than 60 percent of the average wage). What this means is sub-standard housing, poor conditions of life, poor diets and cultural deprivation. A study published by the Rowntree Foundation has said that 8.3 million of our population live in these circumstances and this is not improving with time. This 8.3 million living in poverty was 100,000 more than in 1996/97. How then, can we sensibly dispute that what these figures mean is that we continue to live in a deeply divided class society?

But we may agree on one thing. I trust that we would all at least prefer Britain to be a classless society. To be a class-ridden society is to create conflict and great problems. It is morally and materially indefensible. I assume that what we would prefer is that all people should be able to live their lives, free from the disadvantages of underprivilege and class injustice. To live in a classless society would be in all our interests. The freedom for every person to develop his or her skills and talents on equal terms could benefit everyone. This would enrich all our lives. So surely we agree that a classless society would be a basis for a true community of shared interests.

Now, if this is the case, as I'm sure it is, it places a great importance on the need to get our answer to the question of the debate right. If through complacency, or what we imagine might be self-interest, we choose to pretend that we now live in classless society when in fact we do not, then quite obviously we are in no position to think sensibly about how to achieve the truly classless society that would benefit us all. So, I want to argue how we can think and act constructively so we can escape class divisions. As we know, classification is one of the important means through which we understand the world and this is no less true for social class. Our understanding of class can help us to take charge of our destiny and enable us to create a better world.

This should be easily within our reach. Who will doubt that we are people with great talents? In science, technology, in art, design, and in our trades, skills and many other fields, we can look back on great achievements. So given our great talents why is our society in such a mess? Why do we live in a world of great problems which appear to be beyond our control? Why is our politics cursed with persistent failure and disillusion? Why does social class linger on and on when it is part of an outdated system? To find the answers to these questions we need to know how society works. Above all we must not allow any privileged interest or power group to prejudice or corrupt the serious work of our enquiry.

What is true is that an economic definition of class is manifest in the entire way we are organised as a society. It is fundamental to our explanation of how we produce and distribute wealth and the commercial motives that are involved. It helps tell us how the operation of the market puts profit before needs and places constraints on all our activities. Our lives and the quality of our society depends upon on production and on the services we can provide. An analysis based on economic class tells us who gets what from the pool of wealth that is available. It explains how a privileged class has accumulated great wealth and property and therefore explains the great social differences that we see about us.

I am not concerned here with what I regard as the trivia of the debate. I fully accept that not so long ago "toffs" were people who played golf and went on motoring holidays, touring the Continent. Nowadays, millions of us from all walks of life do these things. That tells us that working people are now able to enjoy a share of the extra wealth that they alone have created through the greater efficiency of their labour. But this in no way alters the economic, class relationship between capital and labour which dominates the way we live. At the point of production, the workers and capitalists who may be sharing a golf course in their leisure time remain in a relationship of conflicting economic interests which must always, whilst it continues, condemn our society to the class divisions of strife and to the many ugly comparisons that we see of poverty amidst luxury.

It is not just society in Britain that is class-ridden. Regardless of the various political forms they may take, whether they be based on private ownership, or the state capitalist regimes that recently reigned in Russia and Eastern Europe, or the state systems of China and places like Cuba, the class system is a world system and it is in deep trouble with many threats to life.

Every country operates a market system that puts profits before need. And as a result, all over the world the great skills and talents that define our genius are constrained by the tawdry limitations of market capacity or what can be sold. The point is surely to release these great talents for the benefit of all people. That should be the main object of our societyâso how do we get there?

It is right to feel outrage at the great class divisions that exist but socialists do not come to this debate in a negative spirit of class hostility. Our aim is to end it. Class conflict has gone on for too long, there has been too much strife and we have to heal the wounds of history.

The way to end our class society and to reconcile our interests is through common ownership.

By this we mean that all people should stand in equal relationship with each other about the means of producing wealth, about natural resources and our entire world. On this classless basis, without the market system, in all the important activities of life, citizens of a genuine community of interests will be able to co-operate to serve the needs of all people. We are not speaking here only of our material interests. We have an urgent need to dignify our community relationships with social equality so as to enhance the quality of every part of life. As I have emphasised, a classless society based on common ownership is the only way to win freedom for the whole of mankind.

The motion "This House believes Britain is a classless society" was lost by 31 votes in favour to 284 against.

Oscar Wilde and Socialism (2000)

From the November 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oscar Wilde died a hundred years ago this month, in exile in Paris. This will be the occasion for a lot of talk about his achievements and accomplishments but we doubt that much will be said about the fact that he once wrote a socialist pamphlet. So this is a good time to take another look at Wilde's The Soul of Man under Socialism, which was first published in February 1890.

Without necessarily agreeing with every last word in the essay, we would accept that much of it is as true and as relevant today as it was 110 years ago. (Don't worry about Wilde's use of the word "soul"âhe clearly means "mind" or "spirit", and obviously wrote "soul" because, as a virtuoso literary craftsman, he savoured the euphony of the word with "Socialism".) To start with, he realized that socialism and communism mean the same thing:
"Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community. It will, in fact, give Life its proper basis and its proper environment . . . Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity andhappiness of the society."

So-called "human nature" is no bar to this society. The idea of an unchanging "human nature" is repudiated: "The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it."

Wilde condemns the demented rush after money that capitalism demands of all its subjects. In capitalist society, "man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property". No one is free from this basic imperative. "There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor". Furthermore, "why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it".

The rich salve their consciences by disgorging at rare intervals a minute fraction of their loot. But charity, however well-meaning, is no answer:
"Their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system from being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good . . . It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair."

State capitalism, particularly when imposed by an authoritarian state, which many people confused then and confuse now with socialism, was no answer:
"Of course authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine . . . If the Socialism is authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first."

Government itself will disappear in socialism: "The State must give up all idea of government . . . All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised".

Wilde saw that there would have to be a revolutionary change in the economic basis of society, and that this would have inevitable repercussions in the way people behaved:
"When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist . . . Though a crime may not be against property, it may spring from the misery and rage and depression produced by our wrong system of property-holding, and so, when that system is abolished, will disappear . . . Crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness."

Who will do the dirty work? Machinery will do it, said Wilde. (And, of course, machinery is enormously more developed now than it was in Wilde's day to do all the jobs which people do not wish to do manually.) "All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery". This will release each individual to help the community in his or her own way by doing service or producing things which will satisfy each person's need to be active, to contribute and to help. Wilde summed it up: "The community by means of organization of machinery will supply the useful things, and . . . the beautiful things will be made by the individual".

Thus Wilde was able to demolish the myth that socialism and individualism are in some way opposed, in some way different. In fact, only socialism can provide the basis for individualism, only socialism can allow individualism (for all, not merely for a fortunate few) to flourish:
"Private property has crushed true individualism, and set up an individualism that is false . . . With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all."

If these ideas had been accepted and acted on at the time, what an enormous amount of human misery would have been avoided.
Alwyn Edgar

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Beauty Trap (2004)

From the May 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

I was born facially disfigured with neurofibromatosis a spontaneous mutation in my case, the affliction usually being congenital and an affliction it is believed that seriously deformed John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Being thus afflicted it was more or less evident that my trek through life was never going to be smooth and that I would meet with a fair bit of subconscious, inbred prejudice.

I was thus delighted to read in the broadsheets of mid-March, that after 150 years of debate, a panel of judges had decided upon the sculpture that will grace the fourth and hitherto vacant, plinth in Londons Trafalgar Square. The successful artwork is Marc Quinn's marble statue of Alison Lapper, naked as the day she was born, eight months pregnant and disfigured with a condition known as phocomelia, the outward appearance of which gives armless Allison the form of a victim of the 1960s maternity drug thalidomide.

As could be imagined, the decision met with much criticism, largely from those campaigning for the plinth to be given to a statue of the late parasite of Buck House, the Queen Mum, the Daily Mail included. Others, including the Disability Rights Commission, welcomed the forthcoming statue as a blow against the culture of perfection. From what I have read of the criticism, the choice of Quinn's sculpture has been slated chiefly on the grounds that the work is all message but no art. Undoubtedly much of this disapproval is rooted in uneasiness with the subject matter, a popular held belief being that representations of disabled people should only be deemed satisfactory when the significance relates to charity.

Being interviewed in the Guardian (17th March), Alison was quite upbeat about her deformity, commenting that there was not a single thing about her body that she would change. "If you told me I could have any bit of plastic surgery that I wanted, I wouldn't take it because I'm just fine as I am, thank you very much. It is an exceptional and brave outlook to hold in todays world but there again Alison is an exceptional woman. She works as an artist and lives the life of a single mum, looking after her 4-year-old son Parys.

In a video that accompanied one of her exhibitions, in which her own disability takes centre stage, she commented:

Why do I use myself? That's a good point. My body isn't this ugly . . . I had always assumed it was because I'd been told it was . . . You are disabled so therefore you are ugly. So now, I think I almost throw myself at the public, if you like, for want of a better word, then say, well actually, look again . . . I don't feel ugly, and I forget that people become quite shocked by my nudity and by what I'm doing, but then great . . . if that's had an impact . . . good.

Though Alison has found significant success as an artist in her own right, consider when you last saw a disabled newsreader, a crippled Miss World hobbling onto the stage in an ill-fitting bikini, a facially disfigured Club 18-30 rep or a compere at the Oscars fumbling as he passes the golden academy award to best supporting actor with his misshaped hands. You could think all night and not recall any such moments because, quite honestly, the general public would find them unsettling, having been conditioned to see them as inappropriate. Instead, we expect the above to look about as perfect as it is possible to look.

Of course Alison, and certainly myself and others not cast in the generally accepted human mould, are not that unique. Indeed, normal people everywhere feel less than perfect and intimidated by societys notion of what is and what is not beautiful and feel their expectations and opportunities are limited because of their physical appearance.

Every day of our lives, everywhere we go whether reading a newspaper, watching TV, looking at bill hoardings or the elongated adverts on buses as they pass we are constantly inundated with idealistic images of how we should look. Our opinion of ourselves is under relentless attack from the advertising and media industries and our insecurities sharpened and thus easily exploited by those who seek to make a profit out of our fears, whether it be from dieticians and food and clothing manufacturers, the cosmetic industry or the plastic surgery fraternity.

We are conditioned to aspire towards quite impossible standards of beauty and are exposed daily to the myriad miracle products and procedures that exist to refashion us. We are weaned on the benefits of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants, manicures, Botox parties, face lifts, lip collagen injections for a fuller pout, vibration beauty therapy the list is endless. Our email is bombarded with penis enhancement spam. We buy products that remove hair from our legs, nostrils and crotches, restore it to our heads and change it to any colour of the rainbow. Just pick up any glossy-paged Sunday supplement and try looking for someone who resembles, in outward appearance, yourself.

Women in particular are bombarded with images of what the perfect woman ought to look like. She is a stunning blonde, a sensuous looking brunette or dark, mysterious and exotic looking, aged in her mid-twenties, tall and slender with two rows of gleaming white, film star teeth, devoid of any visible flaws and with her clothes hugging her body like a second skin.

I know women who have spent a small a fortune visiting beauticians, sometimes for complete makeovers all to enhance their own self-esteem and the fancied image of themselves in the eyes of others. Every external inch of our bodies are shown to be inadequate and in need of improving, from our eyelashes to our toe nails. If a woman has a rounded, shapely, Rubenesque body perfectly acceptable in the 1950s she has too much cellulite. If her breasts dont measure up they require liberal dollops of silicone and if her face shows the lines of maturity she is made to feel like a wizen-faced hag. Meanwhile, men enter the dressing room with trepidation, the member they once felt comfortable about now derisory.

Under constant attack from the media and advertising industry, women are left feeling happiness equates only with looking beautiful, whilst men can only find contentment in being affluent and powerful, there being no generic look to male success. In short, todays beauty culture creates needless anxiety for people, women in particular, maintaining that if you don't look perfect, or make some effort to improve your appearance, there must be something wrong with you, that you lack self-respect and have let yourself go.

All of this needless anxiety, stress and concern with, what is after all truly superficial, represents a terrible waste of human energy. How much good is lost to society for the want of a little confidence and self-esteem is anyones guess. Again, we can only speculate how far the working class have been steered away from their historic mission by the obsession with such false needs.

What a wonderful tool of suppression the master class have at their disposal our opinion of ourselves. What marvellous instruments of counter-revolution are the insecurities we have and which they know they can target. What better distraction from the really pressing issue in life how to establish a world free of waste and want and war and to displace from power our ruling elites than to deflect any outward thoughts the workers have inwards and on to themselves.

There are many ways we can help shape the socialist society of the future in the here and now. One is to recognise that there are powerful forces at work night and day (the media and advertising industries, cosmetic companies and food manufacturers, for instance) with only one objective in mind to profit by making us feel less than normal.

If Alison Lapper and many like her can feel good about themselves and challenge some of the most basic assumptions society holds head on, why cant we all? As the final battle with the master class is to be waged on the battlefield of ideas, what better way to limber up for that offensive than to gain confidence in ourselves as individuals by liberating our minds from false notions of what it is to be perfect? As a class, united by the same basic needs and desires, we stand as perfect as any revolutionary class before us, and as much in need of a philosophy of beauty dictated from on high, as a medieval peasant was of his oppressive religion.
John Bissett

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Genoa and Anti-Capitalism (2001)

From the September 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

An eye-witness account of what it was really like at the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Genoa.

The coach driver had been told not to take us into the city because it was dangerous, and left us at the outskirts. The Convergence Centre was five hours walk away. We had no maps, no money, and no idea where we were. All the shops were closed, and the banks. The buses were not running their full routes, there were no taxis, and the government had ordered the mobile phone networks to close down. An hour walking in ferocious heat and we encountered the steel barricades of the "Red Zone", fenced by ranks of heavily armed carabinieri in battle formation. It looked like a scene from Gladiator, apart from the incongruous armoured cars and gas grenade launchers. In the harbour, the politicians' luxury ship sighed gently at anchor.

"No bus. You walk, capito? Ha ha."

Genoa is built on a cliff face. They had sealed off the centre of town, and the only way to reach our Convergence Centre was to go up and round, for a distance of six miles. The carabinieri grinned at us as we went. They might be hot under their armour, but we were going to be a lot hotter. There was nowhere to leave our luggage and large packs of leaflets, it all had to be carried. The older ones amongst us gritted their teeth, and said nothing. We were not fit, or trained, and it was clear this was already a battle, and one for which we were unprepared.

We were tired before we even arrived, that was the trouble. The journey had taken twenty-seven hours including three searches by British, French and Italian customs. One coach member was deported at Calais for possessing a gas mask. A move by some gung-ho SWP women to stage a sit-in there and then was defeated after much argument. We SPGB members kept an amazed silence as teenagers attempted to talk fifty people into certain deportation at the hands of French police who were clearly not going to tremble in the face of SWP agitation. Much the same thing happened at the Italian border, where two more were turned back for obscure reasons and certain SWP members again proposed blockading the whole road. The carabinieri looked on with amusement. You could imagine them thinking, like Dirty Harry: "Go on punks, make my day." None of these setbacks, however, prevented certain members of the coach party from making speeches from the front about how we were all going to close down the G8 and bring down the multinationals. The young first-timers applauded, wide-eyed and enthused. The old-timers like me shut our eyes and thought, oh please.

When we were finally decanted at the drop point, it became apparent for the first time that Globalise Resistance, the SWP front which organised the coaches and trains from Britain, had not really thought the matter through. Nobody knew where the hell to go, and nobody had a decent map. Thoughts about buying what was needed evaporated into the hot air as it became obvious that the Italian government wasn't joking about closing down the whole town. Even the gung ho women looked at each other uncertainly. It wasn't that the plan was going wrong. There wasn't any plan to begin with. Within half an hour the group was dispersed, "affinity groups" split up, and nearly everybody lost.

We climbed for hours, taking wrong turns and blind alleys, descending only to meet barricades, climbing again. For every mile we advanced, we wasted at least three. Every step was heavier than the last. A smoky cloud descended on us, a bittersweet and perfumed smell. Oh great, now they were tear-gassing us as well. Out came the masks and goggles, the vinegar, the lemon juice. This is the new stuff that sticks to clothes and skin, designed to make you suffer for hours. It all seemed ridiculously unfair, as if we were innocent bystanders in someone else's war.

At one point we jumped a bus that should have taken us where we were supposed to go. Instead, after a few stops, it met a petrol tanker parked across the road, placed there by the police. Nothing for it, everybody out again.

Six hours, seven, eight, and we were close to collapse. We had still not found the Convergence Centre, that Shangri La of civilisation, food, shelter and money that all our hopes were pinned on. We never did find it.

"Don't go there, it's been gassed and burned out. Try and get across the river."

Just as well we didn't make it, or we'd have been batonned in our sleep and dragged off to the detention centres where, some embarrassed police later confessed, widespread torture took place.

From the heights we could see the fighting. Someone pointed out the Police Station, which had been attacked in an orchestrated assault that morning by the Black Bloc. Across the city there was a huge march down a boulevard. Between us and the river there was a street battle. Nobody wanted to go downhill, but we couldn't stay where we were. The heat was unrelenting. Some nuns stood outside their convent gates and smiled at everyone while filling water bottles with a hose and offering sugar to keep people's energy up.

We didn't know much then about the Black Bloc, or the petrol bombs, or the dead boy and the terrified recruit who shot him. We only heard later about the wave after wave of Ya Basta forcing the police lines and retreating under gas and baton charges. But we were experiencing a profound political process of our own, the mutual aid and generosity of people who had almost nothing in common but who knew how to act in common. People helped us, and when we could, we helped them. In the heights above the war zone, a strange camaraderie took shape among political strangers. We relied on people for what they could do, not what they believed. Out of conflict, harmony, or at least tolerance. I thought, why can't we be like this back home? Dunkirk spirit, I suppose. Pity we only get it when being comprehensively stuffed.

Finally we descended into the devastation. The streets were deserted, silent, horrific. Cars lay upside down, burned. Shops, banks, bottle bins, all smashed and laid waste. A cyclone had swept through the centre of town and left an eerie calm in its wake. On a bridge I saw a burned-out bicycle, former possession of some capitalist health nut, presumably. We trudged unmolested to the Carlini sports stadium, where 20,000 people were trying to rest amid endless Tannoy speeches, and constant low-flying police helicopters.

"ASSASSINI, ASSASSINI!" Fists waved as they passed. Everyone knew by now about Carlo Giuliani. A perpetual fear of police attack pervaded the place. Yet among the anarchists, the Wombles, Ya Basta and numerous injured fighters we at least felt safe. In the noise and the fierce glare of the stadium lights we finally fell asleep, exhausted, on the sloping concrete sides of a fleeting metropolis of Europe's radical youth.

The march next day was vast and seemingly endless. The streets had been cleared and cleaned in the night, so that, but for the smashed windows, there was almost no trace of what had gone before. It was bizarre, as if the city itself was in denial. Meanwhile the ordinary Genovese leaned out of their high-rise apartments and, wonder of wonders, cheered the procession, waving red handkerchiefs and throwing buckets of water down on the sweltering crowd. An enormous sign read: Workers of the World, Welcome to Genova. After everything that had happened, it seemed incredible that they were still on our side. The Black Bloc had not won, despite their best efforts to discredit everything about the anti-capitalist movement. The police agents who were no doubt behind most of the violence had not succeeded. The spirit of resistance to capitalism and to global poverty was alive and flourishing. A shout thundered through the crowd, as if from the heart of a mountain: "Genova Libera, Genova Libera!"

We gave out what leaflets and cards we had left, feeling like boys throwing pebbles in the ocean, but we couldn't stay with the march. We had five hours to walk in an uncertain direction to find our pickup point later that evening. Once on the outskirts we found an open supermarket, and some kind SWP members who gave us Italian money, and we were at last able to buy food. In Italy, interestingly, they give away yesterday's bread for free. We ate together that evening, feeling almost like family now who had formerly been strangers, preparing for the marathon coach journey home.

Reaction set in, under the stone arcades. In the incessant wail of police and ambulance sirens, we sat and regarded each other silently. Two days had felt like two months. We were lucky and we knew it. As this goes to press, 100 protesters are still missing and a second subsequent death has been reported.

More discussion of politics took place on the return journey, yet now it was more muted, more speculative and exploratory. The gung-ho had gone home for a rest. For the first time I felt able to contribute something, and some people came and talked afterwards, and asked questions. For what I had said was not something they had heard before. In the organisations they belonged to, Socialist Alliance, SWP and others, there is very rarely any discussion of what kind of society they would like to replace capitalism with. That this was our whole purpose in going to Genoa seemed a novelty to them. Even the few anarchists we had met showed no real curiosity about this aspect of anti-capitalism. It seemed as if, for the sake of a desperately fragile unity, it was better not to express any idea which might cause division. Not only did most of those present have no knowledge of the SPGB case, they seemed to have almost no knowledge of their own organisation's case either. This is what happens when people idolise activism at the expense of "theory". The Argentinean writer Miguel Benasayag , writing in the French paper Libération (21 July), summed it up:
"When you want to learn the clarinet, you know it'll take time and hard work. You don't expect to be a great musician straight away, and think it perfectly normal to take lessons. Changing the world is altogether more complicated but everyone wants to do it all at once."
Whether anyone learned anything from Genoa is debatable. Members of the Black Bloc not actually working for the police still seem to believe they are the heroes and pioneers of a new social disorder, and that the rest of us should somehow be grateful for their courage and sacrifice. The white overalls, the "tutte bianche", piously condemn violence yet manage to justify direct confrontation with the police as politically useful and ignore the inescapable conclusion that it was by their instigation that violent tactics became an inevitability. Some people shook their fists at the "vicious state murder" of a young worker while privately calculating the advantages of having a martyr and procuring more of the same. Others, confused and saddened, saw only two frightened young workers, one in uniform and one in denim, set against each other by forces neither could control. A senior Carabinieri officer complained bitterly that the killer was an untrained boy who should never have been there. Another unnamed policeman later expressed shame and humiliation that he had taken part in gratuitous beatings while his friends had threatened to rape captive female protesters with their truncheons. Politicians floundered for words as Berlusconi, the Italian PM, came out for the police and Romano Prodi, the EU president, came out against. Police violence overshadowed the anti-capitalist agenda almost completely, while the actual proceedings of the G8 summit disappeared without trace. If there was a point to all this it was not clear to anybody.

The repercussions continue still. There is talk of holding the next G8 summit somewhere remote and inaccessible in Canada. Yet everyone knows the G8 is just a photo-call by the puppets, not a meeting of the puppet-masters. For that, you need to target the annual and semi-mythological Bilderberg conference, yet strangely the anti-capitalist movement does not seem to have thought of this. All the argument is about the "next move" by both sides. As we warned at least a year ago in an SPGB leaflet, there would be deaths if this confrontational strategy were continued. There is still no consensus about any other strategy, even though it is obvious that you can't defeat the army and airforces of the world's capitalist states by street violence. The logical direction, into the political, ideological and economic spheres, seems shunned because it doesn't fit most young activists' concept of political activism. But despite all this, only a fool would write off this movement as politically doomed. It may thrive or it may die, but we are still only watching it being born.

Eight hundred different organisations are not a movement. They are not even anti-capitalist, in the sense that they haven't yet agreed on a definition of capitalism. Far less is there yet any talk of "post-capitalism", or what that might mean. But they are a stirring. In a world where political parties all offer listless soothing platitudes to cover the global screams of suffering, the initiative for change obviously does not lie with governments. There will probably be other Genoas. There will certainly be more violence, especially if the state gets its way. But if the police agents and the adolescents don't succeed, the history of the future may well be written by the more sober-minded and serious majority who were there at Genoa and who have still to settle their own differences of opinion. That, of course, is the where the real battleground lies.
Paddy Shannon

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Joining the Party (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Politically speaking before I applied to join the Socialist Party of Great Britain I had all but given up. Many years of my life had been spent either within or on the periphery of reformist organisations. I voted Labour and for years I marched in the columns of CND. I was a member of the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party. I became a Trotskyist and admit that to my shame I joined the Labour Party for infiltration purposes. I was twenty five years old and thought of myself as madly revolutionary. I must have been suffering from chronic amnesia. I had forgotten how excited I had been, to what extent my imagination had been fired, when at about the age of thirteen my father talked to me about a world without money.

I must have heard talk of free access when I was still in my pram. The theory was according to my father that the then Soviet Union had state capitalism but eventually the state would wither away and money would be abolished. Every day I scanned the Daily Worker to see whether the Soviet Union had turned into a moneyless society. Needless to say there was no sign of the state "withering away".

At school I embarked with zeal on my own propaganda exercise. In every essay set for us by the teachers I managed to include in mine a reference to the idea of a world without money. I was childishly optimistic about this. I was convinced that one day the English teacher's interest would be aroused and a class discussion would ensue. When this didn't immediately happen I decided to talk to my classmates about it. They thought I was nuts. Then one day a marked essay was returned to me and to my chagrin all my remarks about money had been deleted with red ink. It was a composition about the English countryside and I had waxed lyrical about the beauty of Kent. My suggestion was that if we did not have a monetary system the countryside could be even more beautiful. I supplied a few reasons for why I thought this but can no longer remember what they were. I adored my English teacher. She and I shared a love of reading but from that day on my conviction grew that she wasn't all I had cracked her up to be. I exchanged my interest in free access for boys, clothes and dancing.

I joined the SPGB in 1994. Yet I feel I have always been a member. A comrade was selling the Socialist Standard in the city and I bought a copy. My preconceptions warned me that the SPGB was just another one of those outfits like the Socialist Workers' Party. I skipped through the pages, skimmed one or two of the articles and tossed it aside. My husband asked if I had read the Declaration of Principles. I had not.

I read the Object: "The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community." And I read on. That did it. SPGB, where have you been all my life? Whilst I was marching against war, agitating for better conditions in the workplace and voting for a Labour government that supported capitalism the SPGB was waiting in the wings. How had I missed it?

Every member knows that it is not easy to join the Socialist Party. It is not just a matter of filling in an application form and receiving that little red membership card through the post. I know of no other political organisation requiring potential new members to understand their aims and be capable of arguing for them. I mildly resented the twelve questions. I felt the Socialist Party should be grateful to me for wanting to join their ranks. It was rather like sitting an exam. I thought it would be a doddle. It wasn't. But goodness how it focused my mind. I do not think I made a very good job of the twelve questions but my answers must have been satisfactory enough for someone to write back and tell me I could join if I liked. There are times now when I am tempted to ask for those twelve questions again. Next time I may give a better account of myself.
Heather Ball

Cleaning Houses (2000)

From the January 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is something about the interiors of other people's houses that makes me feel uncomfortable. In about eight out of ten visits I might make to a friend's or a neighbour's home, I return to my own abode, survey my sticks of furniture, my cluttered kitchen, my shabby living quarters and make a resolution to smarten the old place up a bit, then I become absorbed in something else and that's that. Until the next time.

Other people's houses are too clean. I have never lived in a very clean house and the reason for this is that I am a woman, and therefore there is an assumption that I am solely responsible for keeping it clean. I long ago ditched the idea that I should spend every minute of my available time making sure my house is dust-free. Yet it seems to me that almost every other woman I know takes her housework seriously. Spotless, fitted kitchens as well-tended as any Intensive Care Unit in a hospital, wall-to-wall carpets likely to suffer premature balding from so much vacuuming, immaculate chairs and sofasno crumbs, no stains, no tears, and bowls of fruit as perfect as wax imitations. Perfect houseplants too. And never a book out of place. Often never a book. No piles of papers abandoned on rickety shelves (as in my house) and no vases harbouring very dead flowersbeen there for weeks, months even. In these same houses no grimy jars on dusty shelves containing this and that; all essential to the sort of alchemy that takes place in my kitchen. Here things are prepared, cooked and eaten all from scratch, and jars of what will one day be wine stand in rows to ferment for months. I could take a bet on it that the inside of my house is never going to arouse feelings of envy in any other woman or man in the world. But it hasn't always been that way.

When first married I did dust and polish and remove cobwebs from corners, but you wouldn't catch me doing that these days. Within a very short space of time I grew depressed by it all. Outside the sun shone, books were waiting to be read, life was waiting to be lived. And what was I doing?polishing a table. I became resentful. I not only went out to work, I shopped and cooked and cleaned house too. We are only willing slaves to something all the time that we are unaware. Just as soon as there is awareness then the slave-mentality is challenged.

Few of us would choose to live in a slum, but it seems to me that a fetish is made of housework. How often have I called on someone unexpectedly and been asked to "Excuse the mess." What mess? Could she mean the magazine lying on the arm of the chair? Some women immediately rush to the bathroom to pull the chain if I casually express a wish to visit the loo. And in the kitchen a well-known brand of disinfectant is at the ready in case the plague strikes suddenly.

Most women are assigned this role from birth and that is not to deny that men are assigned roles too. When living at home I did not help my mother much in the house but there was, I think, a tacit agreement on both our parts that I would one day do exactly as she did. When later I didn't I knew that she was horrified. She would run the tips of her fingers over my furniture when she thought I wasn't looking and become tight-lipped when she found dust, as she invariably did. I had challenged her role in the world as a woman. I cleaned the house, yes, but not very thoroughly and not very often. It was scandalous. What kind of a daughter was I? I tried to tell her what kind of a daughter I was. I said that when I was born nobody had announced "It's a girl. She'll clean houses." And even if they had it still didn't mean I wanted The Housewife of the Year Award. What I wanted was to live and learn and become a real person, not someone who cleaned houses because they thought it would bring respect from other people, envy even. What sort of a life was that anyway and what was enviable about it?

Mine was a mini-rebellion and you may not think of it as significant, but it seems to me that unless we question what appears to be our lot in life then we stand in darkness or at least half-shadow. In other words we accept. And when you think that there is an acceptance of war, poverty and that biggest confidence-trick of all (the cause of much misery, ignorance and injustice) money, then perhaps you will see that my objection to becoming a slave to cleaning houses is just another example of how we can escape the conditioning we each of us experience before we can throw off our chains. As the proverb saysfrom little acorns oak trees grow.
Heather Ball

Saturday, May 6, 2006

George Orwell, Spain and anti-fascism (1997)

From the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sixty years ago this month the events began which inspired George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia. Left-wing militias in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, opposed to the government's policy of restoring capitalist normality in the territories which had not fallen to Franco, were attacked by Republican paramilitary forces under Communist command.

Orwell witnessed these events while on leave from the front where he was fighting as a member of one of these leftwing militias, that of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista, or Workers Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was basically a dissident Communist Party which didn't believe in taking orders from Moscow. It has been called a Trotskyist party (not least by supporters of Stalin) but, although it did contain some Trotskyists, this is inaccurate. Trotsky did try to tell it what to do, but the POUM no more followed orders from Trotsky than it did from Stalin.

Orwell had joined the POUM militia because he wanted to fight Franco not because he agreed with their political views. He knew some people in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and they put him in touch with the POUM with which the ILP had some links. He was not a dissident Communist himself and never had any sympathy with Leninism or Trotskyism. As he pointed out in a book review in January 1939:
"It is probably a good thing for Lenin's reputation that he died so early. Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy - that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin - or at any rate someone like Stalin - is already on the way." (from George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters , Vol 1, as are all the quotes in this article).

After May things in Barcelona got worse. In June the POUM was banned. Its leader, Andres Nin, was arrested and later murdered by agents of the GPU, the Russian secret police. Other POUM members were detained and tortured, including non-Spanish members of their militia. Orwell and his wife had to go into hiding and eventually got over the border into France.

Homage to Catalonia describes Orwell's own experiences in Spain but it also defends the POUM and the anarchists against the lies the Communist Party and their stooges put out about them to the effect that they were in contact with and acting on behalf of Franco's fascists.

Orwell knew this to be completely untrue and, out of honesty as well as loyalty to his former companions-in-arms, he denounced this. Needless to say, the Communists suggested that he too was a fascist sympathiser and "Trotsky-Fascist". It left him with an abiding disgust with the Communist Party, its ideology and its methods, which was to inspire his later novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four which, rightly, show them no mercy.

Russian Foreign Policy
Orwell had gone to Spain as someone who had vague pro-working class feelings. His experiences there politicised him and he left holding radical leftwing views. What he learned in Spain was, first, a respect for the capacity of ordinary workers to run things on their own and, secondly, that the Communists were bastards: that they were committed, not to furthering the interests of the working class, but to furthering the foreign policy objectives of the Russian state and that, to this end, they were prepared to lie, cheat and kill. Hence his damning, but wholly accurate, description of them: "the more vocal kind of Communist is in effect a Russian publicity agent posing as an international Socialist." (Inside the Whale)

In 1935 the Comintern under Stalin carried out one of its U-turns. When the 1930s began, Social Democratic and Labour parties were still being denounced as "social fascists" and seen as being as bad, if not worse, than the real fascists. With the coming to power of Hitler, however, Germany came to be seen by the Russian rulers as a threat to their interests. Russian foreign policy then changed, from a more or less equal hostility to all the openly capitalist powers to seeking an alliance with capitalist France and Britain against capitalist Germany.

The Communist Parties had their role to play in this strategy: to work for the broadest possible anti-fascist alliance to include openly pro-capitalist elements as long as they were anti-fascist, i.e. in effect anti-German. Everything was to be subordinated to the creation of such a broad anti-fascist front. All talk of "revolution", "soviets" and the like was dropped; the red flag was replaced by the Union Jack, and patriotism became de rigueur.

Orwell, having experienced first hand the application of this policy in Spain, saw through this, writing in a private letter n September 1937:
"Of course all the Popular Front stuff that is now being pushed by the Communist press and party, Gollancz and his paid hack set etc, etc only boils down to saying that they are in favour of British Fascism (prospective) as against German Fascism. What they are aiming to do is to get British capitalism-imperialism into alliance with the USSR and thence into a war with Germany. Of course they piously pretend that they donât want the war to come and that a French-British-    Russian alliance can prevent it on the old balance of power system. But we know what the balance of power business led to last time, and in any case it is manifest that the nations are arming with the intention of fighting. The Popular Front baloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites, etc instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government provided that the Government is on the 'right' side, i.e. against Germany. But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism, will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it and, if we are in alliance with the USSR, taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. After what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be 'anti-Fascist' while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic country, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one's own country. If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle 'against' Fascism, i.e. against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting fascism in by the back door".

This position put Orwell far, far to the left of the Communist Party and in June 1938 he joined the ILP. The ILP, which had been one of the original founding elements of the Labour Party, had broken away from Labour in 1932 and was a home for all sorts of leftwing critics of Labour's short-sighted reformism. At different times, both the Communists and the Trotskyists tried to take it over, but without success. While some of its members had notions of socialism, generally speaking it was a confused organisation which was unclear both as to what socialism was and as to how to get it, and was itself reformist in the sense that it campaigned for reforms of capitalism.

Orwell was not out of place in the ILP since he, too, only had a vague notion of socialism. For him it was the general idea of a decent society without private ownership of the means of production or a privileged class and where ordinary people would run things democratically in their own interest. Orwell, however, was clear on one thing: Russia was not socialist or anything like it.

In a book review in June 1938 he asked of Russia: "is it Socialism, or is it a peculiarly vicious form of state capitalism?" His answer was that, whatever it was, it wasn't socialism. Later he embraced the theory that Russia was a new exploiting, class society best described as "oligarchical collectivism" where a self-appointed and self-perpetuating oligarchy ruled through a one-party dictatorship on the basis of the state (collective class) ownership of the means of production. For although Orwell was primarily interested in literary matters he also followed very closely the arguments that went on in Trotskyist, ex-Trotskyist and ex-Communist circles on the nature of Russian society, a knowledge he was able to put to later use when writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Capitalism and War
In one of his letters Orwell mentions that he had written an anti-war pamphlet. This has not been found, but it is not difficult to work out from his other letters and articles what it would have said. Its basic premise would have been what Orwell set out in book review he did in August 1937:
"1. That war against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.
2. That every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac ('militarist' Germany in 1914, 'Fascist' Germany next year or the year after).
The essential job is to get people to recognize war propaganda when they see it, especially when it is disguised as peace propaganda".

Orwell, as we have seen, regarded the campaign for an anti-fascist "people's front" as just such war propaganda disguised as a peace campaign. It merely opposed one type of capitalism by another type of capitalism, in the interest of one particular alliance of capitalist-imperialist powers. So his anti-war pamphlet can be expected to have denounced mere anti-fascism as a means of preparing workers ideologically to support Britain, France and Russia in the coming war against Germany and Italy

But if mere anti-fascism was not a genuine alternative to fascism, what, in Orwell's eyes, was? Orwell looked to the emergence of a mass democratic revolutionary movement that would be anti-capitalist as well as anti-fascist. Reviewing Franz Borkenau's The Communist International (which should be read by anyone wanting to learn about the various turns the Comintern effected in the 1920s and 1930s) in September 1938, he wrote:
"Where I part company from him is where he says that for the western democracies the choice lies between Fascism and an orderly reconstruction through the cooperation of all classes. I do not believe in the second possibility, because I do not believe that a man with 50,000 pounds a year and a man with fifteen shillings a week either can, or will, co-operate. The nature of their relationship is quite simply, that the one is robbing the other, and there is no reason to think that the robber will suddenly turn over a new leaf. It would seem, therefore, that if the problems of western capitalism are to be solved, it will have to be through a third alternative, a movement which is genuinely revolutionary, i.e. willing to make drastic changes and to use violence if necessary, but which does not lose touch, as Communism and Fascism have done, with the essential values of democracy. Such a thing is by no means unthinkable. The germs of such a movement exist in numerous countries, and they are capable of growing. At any rate, if they don't, there is no real exit from the pigsty we are in".

Unfortunately, no such movement did emerge and in September 1939 the widely predicted war broke out. Although previously he had envisaged going underground to oppose the war (in January 1939 Orwell had written to Herbert Read, the anarchist art-world figure, "I believe it is vitally necessary for those of us who intend to oppose the coming war to start organising for illegal anti-war activities"), when the war did break out he not only didn't go underground but he actively supported it - and not just on anti-fascist but on old-fashioned patriotic grounds.

He tried to enlist to go and kill German workers himself but was turned down because he had signs of TB. Instead, he spent the war churning out patriotic propaganda (some of it nasty stuff: he referred to pacifists as "fascifists" and denounced conscientious objectors as "pro-Nazis") aimed at getting British workers to go and kill German workers and Indian workers to kill Japanese workers.

It was a betrayal, an unpardonable one from a socialist point of view, of the working-class internationalism he had initially adopted as a result of his experiences in Spain.
Adam Buick

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Darfur: Not Yet A Genocide? (2004)

From the September 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once again the world is faced by an artificial humanitarian disaster. Once more pictures and accounts of victims of a war not of their making confront us daily Taking advantage of the respite provided by an "interim" "peace settlement" signed in April the Government of Sudan has turned its attention to its troublesome citizens in the western region of Darfur. Killing, rape, pillage and abduction are the order of the day. The international "community" and its political leaders, while frequently condemning genocide elsewhere, have been slow to interfere for fear of jeopardising the recent ceasefire between Khartoum and its southern rebels.

As with the conflicts of the past twenty years in Sudan the situation in Darfur is not simply a bloody-minded continuation of long-standing ethnic conflict. It is part of a struggle over resources. Claims that uncontrolled rebels alone cause the mayhem are untrue. The victims are pawns in a power struggle over the distribution of the profits from oil and other resources, and the economic advancements they make possible. The exploitation of the oil reserves in the south of the country some of which underlie the southern part of Darfur province are leased to foreign oil companies from as far apart as Canada and China. Central government has redrawn internal boundaries so that the benefits of development are appropriated by the Northern elites through their control of the state machine. Revenue from the oil industry is now used in an attempt to repress rebellion there.

Shut out from the possibilities of social advancement in Khartoum part of the excluded ruling elite have taken advantage of local grievances in the hope of using them to topple the ruling National Islamic Front. Darfur has a history of clashing economic interests over access to water, land and grazing. The two main groups are the largely nomadic "Arab" pastoralists who herd camels or cattle, and the mainly "African" sedentary subsistence farmers. In the past these difference, both within and between groups, were worked out locally by elders of the tribes concerned. However a period of drought, increasing desertification, and subsequent large-scale population movements, have recently sharpened differences. It is these troubled waters that outside interests have begun to fish.

The government of Sudan had in the 1980s started providing weapons for militias of Arab descent (the "Jangaweed" armed horsemen) who were already in the habit of raiding both Arab and non-Arab alike in search of plunder. According to Amnesty International, the Jangaweed now "work in unison with government troops, with total impunity for their massive crimes." Crimes mainly against people taking no part in the armed rebellion.

In response to this proxy military and policing arm local tribes have now started arming and training their own defence militias. Claims and counter claims are made about supposed attempts to appropriate the best land and about supposed minority domination of the local administration in Darfur. The ruling National Islamic Front has only a very low level of support in Darfur and has suffered defections to other parties there. In 2000 Hassan al-Turabi (then speaker of parliament in Khartoum) split with the NIF and in a bid for popular support made advances toward the majority but marginalized non-Arab population. In reaction the central government jailed al-Turabi until late last year. According to the International Crisis Group, he and others have hijacked the Darfur rebellion for their own purposes.

The manipulation of "race" and ethnicity has polarised the situation. Assertions of Arab cultural and economic superiority have been made in order to justify their claims to greater representation at all levels of government. The uncovering of an alleged plan to establish Arab domination in Darfur backed by disaffected Islamists from outside the region has led to the mobilisation of non-Arabs. Local army opinion favoured negotiations with the rebels with the intention of reaching a political solution. This was rejected by the central government and the then-governor of North Darfur, was sacked for making the suggestion. A number of initiatives by exiled opposition leaders and others aimed at reaching a peaceful political settlement all failed.

In the meantime denial of access to Darfur has prevented international relief aid reaching those most in need and a programme of village burning has been implemented aimed at denying the poor what very little they do have. President al-Bashir has opted for a military solution: "Our priority from now on is to eliminate the rebellion . . . We will use the army, the police, the mujahedeen, the horsemen to get rid of the rebellion."

Opposition to the the government in Khartoum has, according to the recently emerged Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, coalesced around them. Their objective according to their Political Declaration issued in March, 2003 is "a united democratic Sudan on the basis of equality, complete restructuring and devolution of power, even development . . . and material prosperity for all Sudanese." A viable unity must be based on an economic and political system that addresses the uneven development in Sudan and ends "political and economic marginalisation" under "a decentralised form of government based on the right of Sudan's different regions to govern themselves autonomously through a federal or co-federal system."

To the outside world the twenty year long civil war with its death toll of an estimated two million was presented as an ethnic and religious conflict between an "Arab" and Islamic north and an "African" and Christian or animist south. As usual this picture is vastly oversimplified for ease of sound-bite presentation and consumption. Other Northern groups who are also Arab and Islamic oppose the government in Khartoum, dominated by an elite centred on the northern river provinces. In the south much of the fiercest fighting has been between nominally Christian African tribal groups forming and reforming a shifting system alliance and defections as the leaderships pursue personal gain.

In reality the civil war concerns interests related to economic development between a politically privileged central ruling group of capitalists and a politically and economically marginalised periphery of would be capitalists. The outcome of the struggle will settle just who determines the priorities of economic development of land, water and oil. The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army were not included in the Naivasha Agreement on Wealth Sharing signed in January. This interim agreement covered the division of oil and non-oil revenues, the management of the oil sector, the monetary authority and the reconstruction of war-affected areas and the SLM/A are concerned to make sure they do not miss having a say in the carve-up.

And precisely how long the current "interim" agreements will last is unclear. On past evidence the whole process could break down and return again to a vicious resource war between organised armed groups and the consequent murder and displacement of local populations none of whom will benefit economically from any final outcome.
Gwynn Thomas