Thursday, March 16, 2006

Is Socialism Dead? (1990)

From the May 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard
The following article first appeared in a university newspaper in Vancouver. We reproduce it as a welcome change from the general media line that events in eastern Europe represent "the failure of socialism". For those unfamiliar with the Canadian political scene, the "Socreds" are more or less the equivalent of the Tories in Britain and the NDP of the Labour Party.

What's happening in eastern Europe? We've all seen the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, repressive governments going down one after the other in the face of mass Working Class opposition, general strikes, even armed revolution. Most of the media tells us that socialism and communism are dead, now we know for sure it will never work; Marxism is history, so let's just get out there and join the young Socreds, make lotsa bucks and enjoy capitalism.

But wait a minute – what is Marxism, anyway? Isn't it supposed to be about fighting for workers' revolution? Wouldn't Marx have supported a mass movement for freedom? One hundred years after his death, you still can't open a daily newspaper without reading the name of Marx, but you will look long and hard for an explanation of what the man actually stood for or wrote about. The fact that Marx actively supported all the popular uprisings of his day, that he fought for radical democracy, freedom of speech and assembly, the rights of oppressed nations, and all civil rights is unreported.

And what is socialism anyway? You will see the word socialist used to describe societies as far apart as Sweden and Cambodia, under Pol Pot; parties as far apart as the Bolsheviks and the NDP; and individuals as different as Stalin and Pierre Trudeau. Does the word have any meaning anymore?

Actually, it does, and that's why the argument about socialism vs. capitalism rages on. But no other debate is so buried under such a mountain of mystification and distortion by vested interests, East and West.

It serves the interests of the Stalins and the Ceausescus and the Pol Pots to present themselves as the brilliant leaders of societies in which exploitation and oppression have been abolished. These are the pigs from Animal Farm. But it also serves the interests of the Western powers to tell the population that socialism already exists, it's that place over there where governments are so brutal and the soup lines are 5 miles long. As long as they can present capitalism as the most natural, prosperous and just system, they will be safe from the anger of their own working class.

Why are the People Rising? Why is the opposition in eastern Europe so massive? There are many justified complaints: widespread food shortages, government repression, corruption, lack of civil rights, lack of democracy, and so on. There is in some eastern Europeans an almost religious faith that western style capitalism and a free market can solve these problems. Is that true?

We in Vancouver are lucky to live in one of the most peaceful and prosperous backwaters of the world. For most of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the existence of a free market does not mean that "consumers have more choice". It means that the majority go hungry because they can't afford enough food. In the former "Eastern Bloc" they ration by keeping food off the shelves. In the capitalist market, they ration by keeping money out of people's pockets.

Last year there was a big media scare about poisoned fruit from Chile. Most reports didn't mention the reason the Chilean opposition poisoned export fruit – because most farmworkers in Latin America suffer from malnourishment while the mountains of food they produce fly first class to North America. This is the "miracle" of the free market.

The Globe and Mail had an interesting front page one day in December. On one side was the headline "Mass Protest Against Corruption in Leipzig". On the other side was "RCMP investigating 15 MP's". The ruling class in eastern Europe were certainly corrupt, like the ruling class anywhere – but they hardly hold a monopoly on corruption.

One of the things that upset people in east Europe the most was the revelation that their leaders, who never stopped telling the workers that they had to tighten their belts for the good of society, were living high in private compounds guarded by secret police and German Shepherd dogs. The media in East Germany and Rumania were given tours of private headquarters full of luxury goods and gold-plated bathroom fixtures and we all were shocked at the hypocrisy.

But in the west, the ruling class doesn't even bother to hide their wealth – they prefer to show off. You don't have to go to any secret compound – just take your car along South Marine Drive (there's no bus service – if you can't afford a car you don't belong there). We are so used to the inhumanity of the market that we hardly notice that millions of people living under capitalism sleep in the streets because they can't afford to pay rent, that millions die from disease because they can't afford medical care, that millions starve because they can't afford food, but we find it perfectly tolerable that someone like junk bond king Michael Milken should earn $500 million per year for doing no socially useful work of any kind.

It is completely unacceptable to the people of eastern Europe that they have no democratic control over the state bureaucracy. It is true that in the west in many countries we have the very valuable right to vote for this or that member of the ruling class to misrepresent the people in parliament. But MPs actually don't have much power. You can never vote for those who have the real social power in our society – you can never vote for the boss. You will never lay a democratic finger on the industrialists, the bankers, the bureaucrats, the IMF and the World Bank, the newspaper magnates, the executives of the multinationals, and all their kinfolk, because between them and the working class stands a Chinese wall – the institution of private property, backed up by the constitution, the law, the judges, the police, and if necessary, the army – in short, the state.

If you look at it closely, all the complaints which led to the uprising in eastern Europe exist in the west in even greater measure. And if you look at Marx closely, you'll find that he was any enemy of the state as much as he was an enemy of the market.

Real socialism, where working people control all of society and its wealth, never existed in eastern Europe. Real democracy, where people run their neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces democratically from the bottom up, never existed in the west.

The real socialist revolution has yet to come.

Film Review of Steven Spielberg's Munich (2006)

From the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Munich (2005) Directed by Steven Spielberg Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Based on Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-terrorist Team by George Jonas

Early in the morning of 5 September 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed the quarters of the Israeli delegation to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, killing two athletes and taking nine others hostage. In the botched German police raid that followed, one policeman, five of the eight kidnappers, and all nine hostages were killed. The three surviving kidnappers were released by Germany after the hijacking of a Lufthansa passenger jet the next month. Steven Spielberg's latest pseudo-historical film, Munich, tells the story of the Mossad hit squad charged with tracking down and killing the terrorists thought to be responsible for the Munich massacre.

To head the squad, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir personally selects her former bodyguard, Avner. Joining him are Hans, a former antiques dealer who forges the group's documents; Robert, a toymaker who builds their bombs; Carl, the `worrier' who erases evidence from the crime scenes; and Steve, the Jewish-supremacist getaway driver. Though none of the five men have prior training as assassins, they successfully engineer the shootings and bombings of some half dozen of their eleven targets. Much of their intelligence is purchased from Louis, a shadowy French anarchist who helps them in the mistaken belief that they are not government agents. Louis's father was a French Resistance fighter during the war but is now disillusioned with statism. "We paid this price so Vichy scum could be replaced with Gaullist scum, and the Nazis could be replaced by Stalin and America ... We don't work with governments,'' he says, as if complicity in an assassination is somehow justified when no state is involved.

After the first few killings, the hit squad begin to have doubts about whether what they are doing is right. The mild-mannered Robert has trouble reconciling his behaviour with his sense of identity as a Jew ("Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong... We're supposed to be righteous.") and later as a human being. Avner frames the dilemma in more practical terms, noting that they have been given no proof that any of their targets had any hand in the Munich incident, and moreover that for every terrorist they kill a new and more fanatical one steps in to take his place. Only Steve remains resolute in his devotion to their task. "Stop your agonizing!"' he barks to the others. "It's counterproductive." However, in the end the other squad members are unable to come to terms with their actions. Three of them are killed – one probably by suicide – and Avner eventually returns home to his wife and child with deep emotional scars.

That Munich does not endorse any political point of view comes as somewhat of a surprise from Spielberg, an ardent supporter of Israel. The film's purpose is simply to show the effects of politically motivated violence, both on its victims and its perpetrators, and to demonstrate its futility. For this reason, it has come under attack by both the left and the right, the former for humanizing the Israeli assassins, and the latter for making uncomfortably close comparisons between the Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli counter-terrorists. What socialists will find distressing about the film, however, is that it offers only the shallowest of analyses of the socio-economic causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and likewise does not point to any particular solutions. These flaws are especially disappointing considering that screenwriter Tony Kushner describes himself as a "historical materialist socialist". Some characters in the film see the conflict as a religious and racial issue, but the film never uses historical materialism to trace these views to their socio-economic source, nor socialist theory to show that the Israeli and Palestinian assassins, as members of the working class, have more in common with each other than with their respective government leaders. The best we get is some unresolved moral agonizing and the failure of religion and patriotism to assuage the assassins' guilty consciences.

Given this nebulous treatment, there is the danger that viewers will be led to conclude there is no solution to conflicts such as those in the Middle East. But perhaps at least some will be stimulated into thinking about the real source of political violence, whom it benefits, and how to stop it once and for all.

Tristan Miller

Orwell's Nightmare (1983)

From the December 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face . . . Forever."

Surely no date has ever been awaited with such foreboding as 1984. The reason is George Orwell's novel of the same name which paints a nightmarish picture of a world divided into three huge superstates: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania. It is a world characterised by dreary squalor, permanent warfare, spying telescreens, the "thought police", and Big Brother:

"The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons – a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face."

In Oceania all hopes of social change, revolutionary or otherwise, have been systematically eliminated by the all-powerful totalitarian state. History has come to a stop.

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in Mothari, India, in 1903. He was educated at Eton and held a variety of jobs including an Imperial policeman in Burma, a private tutor, a school teacher, and a bookshop assistant, He is best remembered however as a writer and social commentator who presented, analysed and advocated political ideas. In 1947 in a short essay called Why I Write, Orwell spelled out his aims and motives as a writer:

"What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice."

Not a bad starting point, but what were the political ideas Orwell advocated? They are difficult to pin down with any precision as Orwell did not wish to be compromised by commitment to a doctrine or programme – a subject he wrote about in the essay, Writers and Leviathan. His "socialism" was in fact little more than a moral stance, a call for "justice" and "liberty" and for a more humane and decent world. He attempted to live up to these convictions and in the Spanish Civil War enlisted in the POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist-Unification), a popular militia fighting at the Front. Eventually, political expediency led to the POUM being denounced by the Communist Party as a "fascist fifth column". Persecution and executions followed, forcing Orwell and his wife to escape into France. It was these experiences (vividly recaptured in the autobiographical Homage to Catalonia) that led to both Orwell's anti-Communist Party attitude and his distrust of "intellectuals".

Orwell's writing life lasted less than twenty years. His book output was relatively small although it was bolstered by his numerous essays and journalism. In January 1950, aged 46, he died from tuberculosis from which he had suffered for some time. Since his death his growing reputation as a writer stemmed largely from his last two novels, Animal Farm and 1984 – both satires on totalitarianism. In a recently published book (George Orwell: The Road to 1984), P. Lewis says

"One of the many paradoxes about him is that thirty years after his death, his work is more alive than in his lifetime . . . He is increasingly read, becomes more influential and remains perfectly relevant."

The novel 1984 is an extremely influential book. It has appeared in more than sixty languages, its sales are in the millions, it has been put on the curricula of schools and colleges and was turned into a film and a television play (the latter, in 1954, caused one of the BBC's biggest controversies). The book's appeal stems from its dramatic treatment of important ideas; 1984 has influenced the way in which people think about society and the future. It has introduced into everyday speech a number of words and concepts: even people who have never read the book are familiar with "Big Brother", "Doublethink" and "Newspeak".

One of the main themes in 1984 is the use of language to corrupt and distort thought. History is written in the Ministry of Truth, facts inconvenient to the regime are pushed down the memory hole, and Newspeak is the official language rendering certain modes of thought impossible. All of this is epitomised in the three slogans of the Party: "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery", "Ignorance is Strength". Today, the very term "Orwellian" has become an adjective to describe any institution or event which evokes oppression and organised lying. You may wonder why it is not used more often.

Since its publication in 1948 the novel 1984 has generated diverse theories to explain why Orwell should have written such a book. According to one view, 1984 is a deliberate and powerful attack on "socialism". Isaac Deutscher (the biographer of Trotsky) referred to the novel as an "ideological weapon in the coldwar". While the novel has been used with great enthusiasm by the opponents of socialism, there is good evidence to show that even by Orwell's confused notions this was not his intention. When controversy surrounding the novel began he stated explicitly:

"My novel Nineteen Eighty Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism . . . . I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences" (Letter to F. A. Henson, l6 June 1949. CEJL, Vol 4, p. 564.)

What were these totalitarian ideas which Orwell was attacking? Firstly, they were the ideas of the "intellectuals", especially those on the left wing, who were prepared to distort history and obscure the truth in order to further their own ends:

"The truth is, of course, that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini . . . All of them are worshipping power and successful cruelty. It is important to notice that the cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes." (Raffles and Miss Blandish, 1944. CEJL, Vol 3, p.258.)

Secondly, they were the tendencies Orwell saw around him in 1948 – in particular the growth of central state power. Fascist Germany had been defeated but there was state-capitalist Russia, and a nationalising post-war Labour government in Britain.

Others have attempted a psychoanalytical explanation of the novel, believing it to be the cry of a disillusioned and dying man. An examination of Orwell's earlier writings shows quite clearly that this is not the case. 1984 is the fruition of a number of ideas and preoccupations which Orwell had been developing for a number of years. As his friend R. Rees says, ". . . he succeeds in packing into 1984 nearly all the ideas of his previous books". It is interesting to see how Llew Gardner of the Daily Worker (18 December, 1954) managed to combine both of these theories to attack Orwell (obviously unhappy to see the ugly face of Russian "communism" so accurately portrayed:

"When he wrote 1984, the anti-socialist work that shocked the nation on television, George Orwell was sick in body and mind, a fast dying man."

This must have a familiar ring to it, especially for the numerous Russian dissidents who are sent to hospitals for "psychiatric treatment".

Most ridiculous of all is the use of 1984 as a yardstick to measure future developments. For example, in September 1974, the Daily Telegraph magazine produced a special issue devoted to the novel. It had in bold print on the cover: "George Orwell predicted complete oppression by 1984, and a soul-less society, without love or freedom". A recent article in New Scientist by C. L. Boltz ("1984: A Passed Future") criticises Orwell for, among other things, not foreseeing the growth of feminism and the revolt of the young. This type of explanation not only misses the point of 1984 but attempts to turn Orwell into something he never claimed to be – a prophet. On the contrary, he said:

"I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive." (Letter to F. A. Henson.)

Certain important criticisms must be made of 1984 arising from Orwell's limited understanding of the nature of class and power in society. For example, what are we to make of his vision of the "proles"? Can the class struggle be subdued so that nobody ever protests about the appalling conditions in Oceania? Most serious of all, can we really be expected to accept the central argument of the book that "power", as an end in itself, is the motive force of the whole social system?

Every study of Orwell sooner or later discusses his obsession with his own social background and upbringing. In The Road to Wigan Pier he describes himself as a member of the "lower upper middle class". Commentators talk of the "transformation" of Blair into Orwell as the rejection of his upbringing and the search for a new social identity. This may explain Orwell's attachment to what he considered "the working class". Yet Orwell never understood what class meant. Class is an economic condition, an objective social relationship, derived from an individual's relation to the ownership and control of wealth production. There are only two classes in capitalist society, those who possess but do not produce (capitalists) and those who produce but do not possess (workers). There is no choice in the matter; there are no alternatives. If you work for a wage or salary you are a member of the working class. It follows from the existence of a class-divided society that the two classes pursue antagonistic interests: there is a continuous class struggle. Yet although production continues in the class-divided society of Oceania with the "proles" doing all the necessary work social unrest, the other side of the coin, has disappeared. Orwell never explains why there are no more strikes, no more stoppages, no more disputes. Finally, it is because of Orwell's inability to explain class that he is unable to detect the real material force behind capitalist society – the relentless pursuit of profit.

Despite this criticism 1984 remains an important and stimulating book. And as for Orwell? We can apply the epigraph he uses for one of his own characters, George Bowling, in Coming Up for Air:

"He's dead, but he won't lie down."

Brian Rubin