Friday, November 9, 2012

"It will never work because . . . " (1985)

Editorial from the December 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Numerous undesirable social condition have been and still are explained away or justified by the glib remark that "you can't change human nature". Yet the science of anthropology shows these conditions to be cultural acquisitions, subject to change, and not the inevitable result of something inherent in people. Let us try to see, then, the particular ways in which human nature is supposed to be unchangeable, and what follows from thinking in this way.

Human nature is held by opponents of socialism, to be unalterable in certain respects that effectively prevent any conscious improvement in social conditions. Human beings, it is said, will go on acting in the same old ways, and so inevitably bring the same problems that have "always" faced them. Of course, if this were the case then it would be useless even to try to improve things, we might as well face the "inevitable" now. But those who hold this view obstinately refuse to have the courage of their convictions, and they are often found taking very active measures to avoid a fate, such as grinding poverty, that they forecast for others.

What are the reasons for holding and propagating the idea that "you can't change human nature"? From the point of view of those seeking to justify capitalism, there are many reasons. People are unemployed because they are "naturally lazy"; fight wars because they are "naturally belligerent"; cheat, injure and bankrupt each other because they "naturally act on the profit motive".

There are many variants of these arguments, and not all are put as directly as the examples quoted. Sometimes the objector to social change will try to coat the bitter pill that he forces himself to swallow. "Of course, it would be a good thing if people could always live in peace, but until we get a new race of human beings I am afraid this will be impossible". He wants social change, but only provided that certain impossible conditions can be fulfilled - which amounts to not wanting social change at all.

We can now see where all these arguments lead. It is toward the prevention of future change through the spread of a philosophy that justifies present evils. If people can be persuaded that what they want is impossible to achieve then they will give up struggling for it. Instead, they will content themselves with whatever crumbs they can pick up within the present set-up, in the knowledge that all social evils from which they suffer are "natural", and therefore unavoidable.

"Incurably selfish"
There are two main ways in which human nature is said to be unalterable. One is that we are supposed to be universally and incurably selfish, and the other is that mankind is mostly stupid and unteachable, and that intelligence is the prerogative of a few "born" leaders.

Let us examine these statements to see what truth they contain. If we were really incurably selfish, then there could never have been any sort of stable society, because no one would have co-operated with anyone else. If people were really so stupid by nature, then they could never have overcome previous obstacles to the development of their productive forces, and capitalism could never have grown out of feudalism.

When we take a closer look at the "incurably selfish" argument, we see that it rests on the assumption that everything that we do involves loss or sacrifice for other people. Now there is no question that some of the things people do have that effect. But there is equally no question that society depends for its very existence on the fact that there is co-operative behaviour, and that people do work at things which are of no immediate benefit to themselves.

We may infer from this that behaviour which benefits other people is at least as consistent with human nature as that which harms other people. Nevertheless, granting all this, it might still be true that selfishness exists in human nature side by side with social-mindedness, and that therefore it cannot be eradicated. Or, to put it more concretely, there are some things which we need so badly that we will injure other people in order to get them.

The answer to this is that, though such behaviour exists and may even be the general rule in property society, it is not natural to human beings. The fact that there is unselfish behaviour means that selfishness is not inherent in us. People only act selfishly or anti-socially when they can see no other way of obtaining what they desire (by co-operation, for instance) then there is no reason to suppose that they will not choose it when they see that it is better to do so.

Justification for behaviour
It is important not to confuse selfishness with self-interest. Self-interest is the satisfaction of one's desires at the expense of someone else. Self-interest is an integral part of human nature, but selfishness is not - unless it is assumed that everything we do is at someone else's expense. But we continually do things without detriment to other people, and the satisfaction of some of our desires, such as companionship and love, involves the satisfaction of other people's. Any selfish, anti-social behaviour that is present cannot therefore exist in the desires themselves, but only in the way they are sometimes satisfied.

Having seen that there is nothing to human nature that necessitates injuring one another, we must conclude that there is nothing in human nature that necessitates war. War can occur under certain conditions, but as far as human nature is concerned these conditions need not exist.

There is one contradiction in the argument of "selfish human nature" that we must point out. If it really is selfish then we all must share an equal guilt, and it is a case of one sinner condemning another. But those who use the argument give the lie to it themselves, because they impute incurable selfishness only to others and never to themselves. We have never the objector to socialism who seriously maintains that if an article were freely available he would still fight someone for his share.

The real reason for the doctrine of human selfishness is not hard to discover. It is a justification for the anti-social behaviour that a highly competitive society produces. The employer blandly counters the accusation of "selfish profiteering" with "selfish wage demand", and the worker who is not class-conscious falls for the trick. In reality, all the antagonisms result from the nature of the system that all except socialists support, and not from the selfish natures of either capitalists or workers.

"Stupid and unteachable"
The other way in which human nature is commonly said to be unalterable is that people are, on the whole, stupid and unteachable. Human intelligence is supposed to be too weak to enable people to solve the complex problems that face them - they must fight a losing battle with ignorance. The particular form in which we usually meet this argument is that most people are incapable of understanding socialism. Allied to this is the assertion that ordinary people would never be able to run society in their own interest.

It must be noted that, although most people are supposed to be incapable of understanding what are sometimes called the abstruse principles of socialism, the understanding of such complicated matters as the balance of payments or the American electoral system is assumed to be quite within their power. Propagandists for capitalism never tell us that we are too stupid to understand the tortuous arguments used, for instance, to prove that the way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. The point is not that arguments either way are too complicated and therefore beyond universal comprehension, but that the will to learn is actively discouraged when its threat to the continuation of capitalism becomes apparent.

From the unwarranted assertion that most people are stupid flows the equally unwarranted assertion that therefore they must always have leaders. And why must they have leaders? Because those who are in the position of having a following do not wish to lose their privileged position. The existence of leaders and "the led" implies that the former have the power to make decisions, whereas the latter have not. In co-operative enterprises the concept of leadership is foreign, since all the participants have a common purpose. When you know what you are doing you do not need somebody else to "lead" you to do it. The leader is thus the reflection of "the led", and the measure of their ignorance (not stupidity), and both disappear when people know what they want and how to get it.

Human nature is strictly what is common to the natures of the vast mass of all human beings. It has nothing to do with possession or non-possession of knowledge, which is governed by environmental factors, such as whether the particular knowledge is available to people.

The varying capacity for acquisition of knowledge means nothing more than that some people learn certain things quicker than others, and does not prove that some are incapable of learning.  Language - the expression for all communicable experience - is the possession of humanity as a whole, and it is the crassest prejudice to suppose that its fruits are beyond the reach of any individual or section of society.

Demanding the Impossible (1996)

Editorial from the March 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the Socialist Party was formed in 1904 our opponents called us "impossibilists", revolutionaries who took little notice of the practicalities of life, simply content to "demand the impossible" - the working-class conquest of political power for the immediate establishment of socialism, instead of reforms of the present system.

Over 90 years later, socialism still hasn't been achieved and is still considered a dream, mainly because the so-called "possibilists" - with their immediate demands and promises of reform - have diverted the attention of the working class away from fundamental social change. The modern day "possibilists" of Tony Blair's New Labour and Scargill's SLP still plough the reformist furrow, offering variations on an interventionist theme, but disillusion with their so-called "practical politics" is rife.

And why shouldn't it be? The twentieth century has been the century of reform par excellence, yet the problems of the capitalist system remain, with new ones emerging by the day. War, unemployment, stress, insecurity of life, environmental abuse, crime and many other evils haunt the working class and are impervious to the efforts of the reformers. In countries like Britain the rich get richer while the poorest get poorer still, and on a world scale the gap between the rich and poor is probably greater than at any other time in history. Most people on this planet are living in varying degrees of misery and yet the fundamental cause of the problems and misery - the market economy - remains unchallenged.

A principal contention of the Socialist Party at our foundation was that the market economy, having brought about a situation of potential abundance, could never be made to harness its productive potential in the interests of the wage- and salary-earning working class. As the century draws towards its close, we stand by that contention.

In truth, we were not really "impossibilists" in demanding socialism and nothing but for the working class at all - history has demonstrated that the real impossibilists were those who thought it worthwhile attempting to patch up capitalism. In demanding a humanised capitalism they have been demanding the impossible for decades. It is about time they took stock of the situation and admitted they have been wrong. They can then join with real socialists everywhere in building a society capable of solving social problems rather than only creating them.

Capitalist values rejected (1996)

Theatre Review from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Skylight by David Hare

Some moments in the theatre last forever. I remember in 1959 being overwhelmed by Beattie Bryant's dramatic and revelatory act of self-discovery at the end of Wesker's Roots -  a play which will always carry its inspiring message for socialists that people can change; that they can learn, individually and collectively, to take charge of their own lives and transform the world in which they live. Skylight by David Hare, now transferred from the National Theatre to Wyndham's Theatre, has much the same power to remain resolutely part of the memory.

I first saw Skylight soon after it opened last May. Months later when its impact continued to resonate I bought a copy of the script, the better to understand the nature of its claims on my memory. And now I am clear that here is a minor classic; a play of its time, full of insights about the mean-minded, miserable nineties, yet also full of optimism about the possibilites of desirable change.

A chamber play for three players - Skylight follows the meeting of two ex-lovers - Tom a successful entrepeneurial restaurateur in his early fifties, and Kyra a struggling teacher in her early thirties. Hare writes captivating dialogue of great weight - witty, honest and revealing. He is much helped by two amazing performances from Michael Gambon and Lea Williams, and by Richard Eyre's impeccable direction. Tom and Kyra stand as emblems of their respective classes: he is a thrustful money-maker; she a put-upon employee. But Hare doesn't make the mistake of making Tom a pantomime villain and Kyra only the course of goodness and light. Tom is insensitive, dogmatic and macho, but he is also lyrical, amusing and compassionate. Kyra is principled, steadfast and courageous; but she is also acerbic, self-righteous and stubborn.

What remains for me are memories of an enthralling evening and the almost epic quality of Kyra's daily struggle to teach deprived, poverty-stricken children. "You care for them. You offer them an environment where they feel they can grow. But also you make bloody sure you challenge them." Kyra has a first class honours degree in maths and Tom cannot understand her motivation. He accuses her of throwing her talents away "teaching kids at the bottom of the heap", and of doing "anything rather than achieve".

The last page of script begins with Kyra offering this ringing defence: "I have to eat quickly. There's a boy I'm late for. I'm teaching him off my own bat. Extra lessons. Early, so early! I sometimes think I must be going insane. I wake at five-fifteen, five-thirty. The alarm goes off. I think what am I doing? What is this all about? But then I think no, this boy has the spark. It's when you see the spark in someone  . . . This boy is fourteen, fifteen. His parents are split. He lives in this place I cannot describe to you. It's so appalling he has to the bloody common to work . . .  And that is it, that's being a teacher. One really good pupil. That's enough."

To those who would have us believe, mistakenly, that human nature is intrinsically fixed and selfish, Kyra's behaviour is inexplicable. Yet there are many thousands of teachers whose benevolent behaviour mirrors precisely that of Kyra. Even in this rotten catch-as-catch-can world such people reject the egocentric selfishness of capitalism. They seek satisfactions in ways which help others. Imagine the explosion of concerned, caring behaviour when strife and competition are replaced by sympathy and co-operation. The struggle to create such a world is given substance by Skylight.
Michael Gill

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm: Historian and Leninist (2012)

From the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1 October marked the end of a generation of left-wing historians who, while advancing historical materialism, rejected Marxian politics by embracing Leninism.

Prominent amongst this group were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, but the list also includes Maurice Dobb, A.L. Morton, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Victor Kiernan, Raphael Samuel and George Rudé. They entered the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and were active in the Communist Party Historians Group. Despite their political shortcomings, in the decades following the Second World War their work was part of a challenge to the arid, high-political history of ‘great men' that had previously dominated the academic study of history. Some went on to be active in the founding of the Society for the Study of Labour History and were part of the rise of social history ‘from below’ as an established academic subject. They produced works of historical scholarship which sometimes received a warm welcome from Socialists eager to absorb scholarship with a historical materialist perspective. Some of the work of this group of historians will continue to be a rich resource for socialists. If only they could have applied their historical materialism as rigorously to their own times as to their respective periods of study, perhaps they would not have politically affiliated to Leninism.

Hobsbawm, like many of the Communist Party historians who later rose to prominence, was radicalised during the inter-war years, pinning his hopes for the future on the Soviet Union. Nonetheless most of them left the Communist Party after the Russian repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, already disillusioned by the dawning realisation of the horrors of Stalin’s Russia and ongoing state repression. Hobsbawm was unusual in that he did not leave the Communist Party but remained a member until its collapse and to some extent continued as an apologist for Bolshevism until his death.

Hobsbawm was no unrepentant Stalinist, being an advocate of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and a supporter of Neil Kinnock’s reform of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but he retained a sense of the Soviet Union having been a worthy experiment gone awry. In his memoirs he wrote that the “dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.” (Interesting Times, p.56) In an article in the Guardian (14 September 2002) Hobsbawm said, “In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine … Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”

But it wasn’t that or nothing. As a member of the CPGB Hobsbawm supported the Soviet Union because it represented the hopes of those who mistakenly believed that a brutal form state capitalism could transform itself into a genuinely socialist society. As such he was an opponent of the Socialist Party, which then as now, seeks to establish socialism on the basis of real common ownership and democratic control of the means of living without a ‘transition period’ involving state capitalism. In one of his articles, originally published in New Left Review, Hobsbawm wrote on the subject of H. M. Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and referred to the Socialist Party of Great Britain as a “wholly irrelevant conventicle”. For a historian known for his grasp of detail, however, he wrongly stated the date of the formation of the party as 1906 instead of 1904. Doubtless this is because, like most historians who dismiss the Socialist Party out of hand, he had never taken the time to seriously examine its historical background or record.

The article went on to call for a reassessment of the SDF which had previously been scoffed at by left-wing historians. The SDF, argued Hobsbawm, had demonstrated longevity, had a proletarian character and had many left-wing workers that passed through it. It was characterised not by sectarianism but by an understandable intransigence (although, as a good Bolshevik, Hobsbawm remarks that the SDF was “quite unable to envisage … the problems of revolt or the taking of power.”). Hobsbawm’s qualified acknowledgments of the achievements of the SDF are all equally applicable to the historical place of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in British working-class political life. But one thing rules it out of contention for inclusion in the historical record of socialism in Britain for left-wing historians – it did not feed into the formation of the CPGB in 1920 but opposed it. For Hobsbawm, the SDF had historical credentials as part of a political exercise of looking for British native antecedents of the CPGB. The Socialist Party has stood for socialism as understood by Marx – non-market and non-state – and was therefore anti-Bolshevik. Because of this, the Socialist Party has been ignored or summarily dismissed by historians of communism and the labour movement who have generally been Leninist, Trotskyist or Labourite.

Disappointment with the realities of the Soviet Union led many of Hobsbawm’s contemporaries in the CPGB to ultimate political disillusionment and subsequent trajectories into other variants of left-wing politics. Whilst that generation of historians has itself become history, the Socialist Party still carries on the political task ignored by them – that of trying to begin to make the Socialist revolution that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia could never have achieved. That task necessarily involves an understanding and rejection of the strategy of the insurrectionary seizure of the state and the establishment of state capitalism as a route to Socialism. Today Socialists still have much work to do to recover the words socialism and communism from their association with state capitalism and the brutality of the political strategy supported by Hobsbawm.
CSK

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Presidential follies: the Reagan landslide

From the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

You have entered a movie theater after the beginning of the story so you sit through the brief intermission between showings in order that you might piece together the parts. Ultimately, the tale begins to come together; you have now seen it all and the story is complete in your mind so, generally, you will turn to your companion and say: "This is where we came in, let's go."

Well, after observing US Presidential elections with varying degrees of comprehension since the race between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith back in 1928, this writer can certify that the sole reason he has been unable to walk out on any of them is that, short of marooning himself on an uncharted desert island, there has been nowhere that he could take himself to escape. One cannot turn it off - one can only suffer through the periodic re-runs. The only changes worth noting are the occasional substitutions.

After more than a half century of involvement to lesser or greater degree in the ranting, raving, fuming and spluttering that are seemingly the essence of the politics of American capitalism he can understand why it has been that such a large percentage of the eligible voting population - being unaware of any alternative type of political activity (the politics of revolutionary socialism) - have so frequently passed up the opportunity to cast a ballot. For whatever reason, the 1984 Presidential election in which the old-time Democratic approach as represented by Walter Mondale was ostensibly buried in a Reagan landslide victory (525 Electoral College votes to 13 - 49 out of 50 states) brought out an unusually high voter turnout - some '55%. Analysis of all of the results, however, indicates strongly that the gut feeling remains high that there is little, if any, difference between the "philosophy" of the contending Parties. How else can one explain the fact that the same voters who rejected the "liberal" Walter Mondale for the "right-wing" conservative Ronald Reagan denied the conservative Republican Party enough seats in the House of Representatives to afford them any sort of control in that important body? Indeed, the fact that voters seem traditionally to cross party lines in elections would seem to indicate that they perceive no important ideological differences among the parties of capitalism.

One all-important lesson to be learned from the 1984 election is the fact that, as President Reagan himself put it: "The people are in charge." And that explains why politicians of capitalism - even Ronald Reagan and his ilk - strive to keep their ears to the ground in order to detect majority attitudes that must determine their degree of liberalism or conservatism. The politicians with the keenest ears are the ones who usually win elections. It also explains why socialists maintain that once "the people" (a majority of whom constitute the working class) grasp the concept that enlightened self-interest determines a need for a sane, classless, social system, old-line politicians will either be compelled to go along with popular conception or be buried in a revolutionary political landslide.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY: A NON-ISSUE
But let us get down to brass tacks on at least some of the issues that have shaken up the American electorate in this year. Issues? You bet there were issue - a plethora of them. The propagandists of airwaves, press and pulpit have cajoled, scribbled, and thundered on the subjects of the national deficit and whether or not taxes will have to be raised in order to lower it; the right of the expectant mother to abort vs the right of the fetus to mature and be born; prayer in the schools vs separation of church and state; "star wars" in the skies (missiles that would be designed to destroy enemy missiles en route to us) and new, improved nuclear weapons as opposed to up-to-date conventional fire bombs and block-busters capable of inflicting mass murder and mayhem in a somewhat more confined area and with fewer potential side effects; women's rights and minority (ethnic) rights and so on and on. You name it - America's capitalist politicians have it; issues all based on the assumption that there is no other system of society possible than what is now extant in the world.

One of the main issues in the campaign was the state of the economy, but is this really a matter that should be of concern to the working class? To a limited extent, perhaps. In the sense that a healthy economy indicates a better opportunity for jobs it is, but in no way does that indicate that wage rates and living standards will necessarily be better for those who perform the jobs. In fact, in a significant number of cases workers with jobs are worse off than when they were unemployed since they will be cut off from welfare benefits that they may have had - services and other benefits that are frequently unaffordable on low and even on moderate salaried income.

The all-importnat fact to bear in mind, though, is that the economy of a nation is the business of the capitalist class or, in the case of "communist" dictatorships, of the state capitalist bureaucrats and other highly privileged strata of surplus value eaters. To put this matter in a homely and understandable way, a popular concept, even among radicals, is a huge pie which represents the sum total of a nation's production. The working class, according to this philosophy, receives for its share a relatively small segment of the pie because, being compelled to live on wages, workers can only buy back the equivalent of their pay in tangible goods and services. But upon reflection, this just does not make sense because it would seem to be in the capitalists' interests to force increases of pay on their employees, thereby enabling them to buy more and increasing the total of production and profits.

Of course the constant pressure is entirely different: rather than increased production via higher wages the eternal outcry is for increased productivity and lower wage costs. Since labor power is a commodity, what increased productivity means to the worker is that he is required to give more of his commodity without a corresponding increase in pay. It also means that his life-store of commodity labor power is used up at a younger age and anyone who believes that old saw: "hard work never hurt anybody" should look more closely at the condition of the working class.

The workers do not share the "pie" that they produce. They have been paid in wages/salaries, and whatever the amenities that have been granted - grudgingly or otherwise - to "bake" it and the whole damed shell, with all of the fillings, is the property of the capitalist class. Ironically, they have been paid out of previously produced capital which is the fruit of their previous toil. In other words, they must even produce the wages that the capitalists pay them: a con game (albeit and honorable) if ever there was one.

So the lesson that workers must learn is simple enough. As long as capitalism exists they must resign themselves to the indignity of exploitation. But they are not compelled to swallow the cock-and-bull story that makes of them "partners" in capitalism's industries, in capitalism's economy.

THE PARTIES OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM
One of the more exasperating responses a socialist can get to his pitch for a sane society goes something like this: "Of course, I agree with you that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, is a menace to the very existence of our planet, and should be abolished lock, stock and barrel - and the sooner the better. But you know as well as I that the working class is not ripe for such action so, in the meantime, I am going to vote for the lesser of two evils. Walter Mondale (or whomever) would be better as President than Ronald Reagan (or whomever) . . . "

Most of those who make such a choice seem not to realize the significance of their action: they are avowing their perception of which party best serves the interests of American capitalism. And the truth is that when one gets down to the kernel of what the politicians of both sides have to say, and their published platforms, the difference between them is akin to the difference between two rotten eggs, one prepared "sunnyside up", the other flipped. Strong condiments might disguise the odor and even the flavor but the effect on one's gastro-intestinal system would be similar if not identical.

So true is this, in fact, that we have the spectacle of President Reagan, Vice-President Bush and others of the Republican Party extolling the virtues of those late Democratic Party heroes - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy, to the dismay and horror of the Democrats. When these Republican orators are called to task for it by Democratic bigwigs, they reply, simply, that the present Democratic Party has abandoned the tenets and principles of their forebears.

If Reagan is allegedly trying his best to manipulate US into a war in Central America, didn't F.D. Roosevelt allegedly manipulate Japan into making the first military strike at US back in 1941? And if Reagan's foreign policies threaten a drift toward nuclear war, how about Roosevelt, Truman, and the A-bombs dropped on Japanese cities during WWII? Or Truman with his Korean "Police Action"? Bringing it a bit closer to our present times, how about Kennedy all but scaring the wits out of the world with that Cuban missile crisis? And all of those Democratic Party heroes and their pursuance of the Vietnamese War?

Even on the domestic front Reagan can look back admiringly to actions by those Democratic Party knights-in-armor. If he (President Reagan) busted the Air Controller's Union and fired the entire membership for striking against the Government, didn't F.D.R. federalize the National Guard to break a strike against North American Aircraft in Los Angeles shortly before America entered WWII? And a number of years prior he had informed Works Project Administration (WPA) workers that "You can't strike against the government." And didn't Harry S. Truman use Federal troops to break a railroad strike after the War? The list that justifies Reagan's extolling those great Democratic Party Presidents is long. So what are the leaders of the Democratic Party beefing about?

LAME DUCK REAGAN
Finally, if there have been cuts in social welfare programs under Reagan - which there have been - they were not accomplished against Democratic Party opposition. There was some compromise on the degree but there was definite collaboration between the parties. There is no such thing in America's political machinery of government as a President with anything approaching dictatorial powers. Nor, for that matter, are either of the two political parties in control of US capitalism monolithic in make-up. The Democratic Party has a bloc of Southerners, known as "Boll Weevils" who frequently will unite with conservative Republicans on critical votes while within the Republican Party there are always a number of "moderate" and liberal types who will support the "liberal" Democrats to the discomfiture of their fellow Republicans of conservative bent.

An all-out Donnybrook is expected to materialize before the 1988 Presidential elections in both parties between "liberals" and "conservatives" for control and the opportunity to capture the White House. For this Presidential Follies of 1984 has been Ronald Reagan's  "Last Hurrah." He is now - in the parlance of American political English - a Lame Duck.
Harry Morrison


Friday, November 2, 2012

Previous convictions

From the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

I was fifteen before it dawned on me that the pain I had been getting between the eyes was not a malignant tumour which would quickly grow to the size of a melon, invading every lobe, capillary and ventricle of my brain until I was blind, deaf and dumb and reducing me to a dribbling, mewling vegetable until I died in excruciating agony - but only a bad case of boredom with school.

I cut down at once on my aspirin intake and my sense of recovery was complete when I realised that my boredom was not entirely due to my being a loutish, spotty adolescent but was also something to do with how I was treated in the classroom. My school masters were bringing me to a state bordering on sensory deprivation by "teaching" me stuff which was patently incorrect. It was too much, to expect them to make it interesting.

In any case I was feeling dissatisfied with society at large - although pretty satisfied with myself - because of my recent addiction to politics. My theories were startlingly simple and illuminating false. Before 1939 there had been all sorts of problems - slump, unemployment, extreme poverty, strikes, culminating in the war itself. The governing party for those years had been the Conservatives. Therefore, those problems had been preconceived, designed and implemented by the Tories. Therefore, the way to a happier, abundant, peaceful society was through ditching the Tories and electing a Labour government.

I was in favour of nationalising everything; the state machine was potentially the overall benefactor of us all and must be given the chance to operate in this way. I propounded this idea with an arrogance which bewildered my parents and irritated my schoolmates. Any event in the entire history of the human race could be quickly explained by me in a few illuminating words, leading to the conclusion that Clement Attlee should be Prime Minister. This made things rather difficult for me at school but I was saved from the inevitable crisis confrontation by a bout of food poisoning, the symptoms of which lingered for months, until I could reproduce them almost at will. Eventually, a kindly but gullible doctor diagnosed me as a case of neurasthenia and in need of a long rest. I had, he surmised, suffered emotional damage through the stresses of the war - the air raids, the rationing, the worry of the king having to be evacuated to Balmoral when a stray German bomb fell in the capacious grounds of Buckingham Palace. The timing of this diagnosis was lucky for me; with suspicious speed the school accepted the suggestion that I leave early and I was allowed to step through the gates for the last time, into an agreeable year of reading, dreaming and political activity.

I blush now to recall what that activity amounted to. I had spent much of that early summer working frenziedly for the return of the 1945 Labour government. Each evening, instead of crouching over my homework, I had gone to the local Labour committee rooms, gathered up literature and canvassing cards and sallied out to harangue countless bemused voters on the evils of pre-war Toryism. My special devils were Baldwin and Chamberlain; if anyone was unkind enough to remind me of Macdonald and Snowden I contemptuously dismissed them as under-cover Tories who had been exposed just in time to save the soul of the Labour Party, which was now safe with Attlee, Bevin, Morrison . . . 

The constituency I campaigned in had been traditionally a safe Conservative seat, which a blue-rosetted monkey could have won but which was held by a titled fop who could hardly put together a coherent speech and who had insurmountable problems in answering the simplest of questions. At his public meetings my seething outrage would erupt into shrill schoolboy heckling. Even worse to me, the MP had been an admirer of the Third Reich and had posed for photographs beside Hitler at big Nazi rallies. In the 1945 delusions about Labour's brave new world that was the sort of constituency which fell in droves to the Labour Party but in this case the fop held on by his manicured finger nails, keeping a little patch of blue on the constituency map amid an ocean of red. My chagrin at our failure to humiliate the Nazi baronet was mollified by my pleasure at the overwhelming return of the Labour government. As the committee rooms shut down I began to spend my time at numerous ward, committee and Labour League of Youth meetings. I now had the party members to harass instead of the voters on their doorsteps and I was not overwhelmingly popular but I justified it by saying that there was a lot to prepare for; the workers of Britain, after almost fifty years of travail, was about to arrive at the Promised Land.

The rest is a history which did not reassure me in the making. Right at the beginning, Clement Attlee went to Buckingham Palace not, as I had dreamed, to inform the king that the revolution had come and that henceforth the royal homes would be taken over as shelter for homeless workers who, after all, had won the war and then put Labour in power. Instead, he went to kiss hands, swear loyalty and agree to form a government which would keep the class represented by the royals secure in their wealth and privilege. Then the Russian workers became abruptly transformed from our staunch allies in the fight against fascism into our mortal enemies. We could not, it seemed, expect to arrive at the Promised Land until we had dealt with the threat from Moscow and with other enemies as well - unofficial strikes, the Greek Communists, the Communist Party over here, the East Germans, the North Koreans, the Chinese. The list seemed endless; it even included the Americans, whose dominant economy had undermined the Imperial Preference system, which was supposed to bring such benefits to us from the British Empire. It was all very confusing and frustrating to a recent survivor of brain cancer and adolescent acne and I resolved to look elsewhere for the soul of true socialism.

I began, daringly, to attend public meetings addressed by dissident Labour MPs like Konni Zilliacus and John Platt-Mills who, in spite of their membership of the party, seemed to oppose almost everything the government did. In particular they were clear that the Russian ruling class, headed by the remote and sinister Joseph Stalin, was devoted to PEACE while the American rulers, represented by bland, diminutive Harry Truman, was intent on WAR. These dupes of the Communist Party - which itself was a collection of unwavering dupes of Russian capitalism - appealed to my sense of outrage and bewilderment at the compliance of the Attlee government with so many of the things I wanted to see abolished from human society. The Communist Party began to look very attractive to me. Of course there were a few problems in arguing away a great deal of recent history and experience -  the show trials of the '30s, the Russo-German pact, the murders and repressions of Stalin's pitiless rule - but I managed it. My time in the Labour Party had obviously taught me something.

And that is about when I met Charlie who, wherever he is now, is probably unaware of his vital, unintentional, formative influence on my political ideas. Charlie was an old friend of the family; in the army during the war he had been through some nasty battles and had been demobilised to a homeless wife and child. He at once joined the local squatters movement, which was taking over disused military buildings under the encouragement of the Communist Party. Once his family was housed, Charlie joined the CP; he also got himself a job as a bus conductor and it was on his bus that I met him again, one morning in the dreadful winter of 1946/7, as I hunched miserably against the cold in a workbound trolley-bus. I was startled to feel my proffered fare pressed firmly back into my hand and looked up as Charlie grinned an invitation to "have this ride for nothing, Comrade".

I began to see a lot of Charlie after that and we always argued about politics, with me too ready to accept his Stalinist chop-logic, if only because it always led me to the conclusion that what really mattered was the "education of the workers" - with people like us, of course, as the educators. This encourage Charlie to believe that he had persuaded me into joining the CP and indeed that may have come about, had we not arranged to meet one Saturday evening at the local common, where all sorts of political and religious groups held outdoor meetings. I really went along in the hope of getting in a bit of Tory-bashing (in spite of all my doubts and confusion, they were still the final enemy). I moved from one platform to another until I came to one where a young guy with daringly long hair was speaking about a world without classes, money, war.

A few weeks later, trembling with anxiety, I applied to join my local Socialist Party of Great Britain branch. Charlie was furious: "Armchair bleeding theorists," he snarled, "Better than actually doing anything though, ennit?" He just did not know what a relief it was to be free of those political agonies of my schooldays, not to have to chop and twist in order to survive in a discussion, to have an explanation of society and an arguable reason, instead of an emotional spasm, as the basis of working for a new world order. It still worried my parents but with my previous convictions in the past, I became a reformed character.
IVAN