Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spirit of 45 (2013)

Film Review from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spirit of '45 directed by Ken Loach is an impressive but sentimental documentary about the Attlee Labour government of 1945-51 which is nostalgic for 'Old Labour' and the 'cradle to grave' welfare state. The use of Hubert Parry's choral music to Jerusalem is an added touch of emotionalism.

Loach twice shows part of Attlee's election victory speech at Westminster Central Hall when he says it is a 'Labour movement with a Socialist policy' and that 'His Majesty the King has asked me to form a government.' There is footage of Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS and the Housing Plan declaring 'nothing but the best for the working class.' The description of the 1951 Festival of Britain as a 'celebration of working class heroes' is hyperbole. All this gives the impression that the Attlee government was running capitalism in the interests of the working class which is absurd and impossible. In 1945 the working class firmly rejected Churchill (there is footage of the working class recalling Churchill sent the army into Tonypandy and killed striking miners in 1910). Churchill's speech in June 1945 is important as it links Hayek's eccentric paean to capitalist market libertarianism The Road to Serfdom, and today's capitalist economic ideology: 'there can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the state.'

Loach looks at the nationalisation programme of the Attlee government particularly the railways and the mines. There is no socialist analysis identifying that 'nationalisation' is state capitalism (the wages system under new management), and the working class still have their surplus value robbed and need trade unions and the strike weapon in order to protect themselves from their employers.

The welfare state and the NHS are held up as beacons of enlightenment. The end of the commercial relationship between doctor and patient is trumpeted although private practice was allowed to continue, and some charges on the NHS were swiftly brought in soon after its creation when the capitalist state realised how expensive it all was. There was no socialist analysis in the film identifying the welfare state and NHS as essentially a 'redistribution of poverty among the workers', insuring the capitalist class against working class discontent and maintaining a sufficiently healthy and efficient working population. For the capitalist class the welfare state and the NHS meant increased profits and were seen as 'a necessary expense of production.'

Loach looks at the 1947 National Dock Labour Scheme which 'de-casualised' dock work although no reference is made to the 1945 Dock Strike which was condemned by the Labour Government. Attlee even sent the army in. In 1989 the Thatcher government abolished the National Dock Labour Scheme thereby re-introducing casual labour. In the film there is talk of the 'dignity and respect of work' in capitalism which underlines the lack of socialist consciousness. Marx put it eloquently when he wrote 'instead of the conservative motto a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, they ought to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchword Abolition of the Wages System.'

Sam Watts, an 87-year-old working class Liverpudlian makes some accurate and pithy statements towards the end of the film such as 'the profit system is rotten and corrupt and the quicker it goes the better' and 'the working class can change the whole of history but it has not grasped that it has this power.’

Spirit of 45 is about taking 'the crumbs off the Master's table' when what the working class need to do is demand the whole loaf, take over the bakery and have common ownership of the wheat field.
Steve Clayton

Thatcher and Thatcherism – A Long Time Dying (2013)

From the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hardly a day goes by without our being reminded that 2012 was a wonderful year. Not because of the weather which was lousy. Especially when it poured down on that flotilla of jubilee boats scudding along the Thames with their cargo of the royal family and that female chorus defiantly bellowing Rule Britannia through their sopping wet fringes. It was, we were regularly instructed, a time to shove into forgetfulness all that turgid stuff about the economy drowning in deficit as a result of a horde of idle scroungers sucking at the scandalously luxuriant system of services such as care for the redundant elderly or the vulnerably sick or the unreasonably injured. Whatever the difficulties, the royals and the leaders would see us through. Of course there were a few people unreasonably stubborn enough to refuse to partake of the popular exhilaration but they could be pinched out by reminders that this was some glorious time to be alive and in poverty.

Iron Lady
And now in 2013 it will be the sixtieth anniversary of Elizabeth walking into Westminster Abbey to get the crown on her royal head - which promises to be as sickening and pointless as last year's events. But that will not be for a month or so; meanwhile the plans are for us to be consoled by another female providing a virile incentive to prod our British pride into life. Not a female standing on a boat in the rain or waving to us from a remote balcony but one who has obligingly fulfilled several months' predictions by dying. Margaret Thatcher – she who was the Iron Lady, the one Not For Turning, the pitiless Snatcher of the Children's' Milk, who rasped No!No!No! from the Commons at the meddlers over the English Channel, the implacable enemy of any trade union threatening to bring the nation to a standstill. Her death has focussed attention on the controversies immovably associated with her very name; in some cases she is the subject of mindless worship and in others of intense hatred. She died, cosseted in London's most luxurious hotel, on 8th April. Was anyone bothered? Consider the response of one socially conscious young woman whose caring and industrious mother, some years ago dying of cancer, instructed that a bottle of expensive wine be laid down for drinking on the day Thatcher died – which was exactly what happened, in a gathering of joyful friends.

Commons Grovelling
Remarkable as Thatcher had been when alive, in death she was even more so. Her long drawn-out decline had given all parties– the government and the Labour Party led by Gordon Brown, the media, the security forces – plenty of time to prepare. First with their share of hysteria was the gutter press who, as expected, slavered over her memory and lovingly crafted headline warnings to any protestors (perhaps like that woman with her mother's wine) about the reception they might get from the vengeful hordes of Thatcher idolisers. But the red tops were not alone in this; the day after the death the Guardian gave over 35 pages to her. Then there was the decision to recall Parliament so that toadying promotion-seekers could demonstrate their talent for obsequious grovelling. This was requested by David Cameron regardless of the fact that he was in breach of that thing beloved of Parliament – precedent – because such events are by tradition only for matters of national emergency (which might have been more appropriate on the day of Thatcher's birth). There was a predictably robust attempt by Speaker Bercow to frustrate this manoeuvre by Cameron but he eventually gave way to the weight of the Prime Minister's authority in arguing that there should be a proper response to the ‘strength of feeling’ over the death. And – perhaps just to rub in the point – the Commons were timed to spend seven and a half hours on their Thatcher toadying, as against the 45 minutes devoted to the end of Winston Churchill. Consistent with the fact that they had been involved from the beginning with planning this monster of hypocrisy, there were Labour MPs who joined in the ‘debate‘ to be washed along in the torrent of adulation. It was no surprise that their contributions were so widely impoverished of any original or perceptive comment.

For someone who allegedly didn’t believe in state subsidies, it is interesting that Thatcher's funeral is costed at between £8 and £10 million pounds. Some might think this is a bit steep for dragging a corpse through London except that there had to be all those other people in military uniform and others in a different style of uniform –  like dark suits – making long and meandering speeches on the threadbare theme of how historically wonderful she was. Like Cameron: ‘...a great leader, a great prime minister, a great Briton’; like Miliband: ‘we...greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength’; like Clegg: ‘...she left a unique and lasting imprint on the country she served.’ Well, she herself was responsible for much of this rubbish because she also was involved from the beginning in planning the funeral; she had no difficulty in forgetting that all the preoccupation with pomp and diversion was not in accord with her self-constructed reputation for being fearlessly frank in cutting unceremoniously to the core of any situation. She claimed to be a staunch defender of human freedom, which she said was particularly under threat whenever a trade union defended the interests of its members from her government's attacks on their conditions. But the flexibility of her notions about freedom was demonstrated in her support for the vicious apartheid system in South Africa which, along with the suppression, readily tortured and murdered its opponents. The crime, poverty and tensions of that country continue to bear witness to that gruesome time.

None of this affected the devotees of the myths that Thatcher was meticulously careful in all that she did, leaving nothing to chance. This was not borne out in her obstinacy over the poll tax and her many disastrous choices as ministers. It did however apply when in her Retirement Honours List she made her husband Denis a baronet. This was no ordinary baronetcy, which almost always applies just for the life of the holder; for Sir Denis was pointedly ennobled with one of the rare – hereditary –  honours so that when he died their son, in tune with her indulgence of him, became Sir Mark. Mark had been a forgettable pupil at the expensive, exclusive Harrow School (where Winston Churchill and John Profumo, among others, were also ‘educated’) he scraped through three O Levels before being delivered to a place at a posh firm of accountants but this did not last long and in any case he managed to fail his accountancy exams no less than three times. So he set himself up in business as a rally driver; however he turned out to be navigationally challenged and soon lost his way during a rally which went through the Sahara Desert, causing an expensive operation to bring him to safety. He then turned his talents to a number of suspicious ventures, one of which earned him a suspended prison sentence and, for a time, a ban on entering the United States. Through all such tests of character Mark Thatcher was fondly watched over by his mother who, while abroad on official business, proved her solicitude for him by corruptly influencing an arms deal he was involved in, between the British Firm BAE and the rulers of Saudi Arabia, which set him up with a £12 million pay-off. When Thatcher was under attack for this she contemptuously disposed of the matter by claiming that, like any properly patriotic citizen she had only been ‘batting for Britain.’

World Ratings
In this defence she was pretty safe, since she had won for herself the title of a Prime Minister who had ‘made Britain Great Again.’ The harvest of this is being reaped now in the economic woes and the attendant depression in the living standards and expectations of the most needy people and the fact that in the ratings of the world's economy British capitalism stands some way below the leaders. In terms of Gross Domestic Product the IMF placed it in 2011 it at 8th and in 2012 the Centre for Economics and Business Research placed it at 6th – only just above Brazil. But never mind reality; at her end Thatcher was lavishly robed and looked after while a horde of compliant acolytes were eager to pay their last, well financed, respects to her.

Political leaders are remembered in a variety of styles and intensity, from blind adulation on one hand to seething hatred on the other, with a no-mans-land of apathy or ignorance stretching between the two. It is a gloomy fact that whatever the reaction it is seldom a natural response to what any particular politician has done or failed to do – which all too often has encouraged them to regard themselves as immune from dismissal by the voters. In Thatcher's case the flagrant pomp of her funeral was the work of her adorers – or the simply ambitious. The bitterness of the haters was so tense as to need relief through some kind of demonstration such as turning their backs on the funeral procession or playing the children warbling The Wicked Witch Is Dead. However incandescent the rage about Thatcher, however cynical the manipulation of her funeral, the crucial fact is that she was simply replaced by a succession of other leaders with nothing more to offer. Some twenty years after she was deposed, the working class are subject to the continuing problems of social humiliation.

Nazi Olympics
A parallel to this situation was in the 1936 Berlin Olympics –  when the black American sprinter Jesse Owens won three gold medals. This was not just a superlative achievement for it also went a long way to dismantling the carefully erected self-image of Hitler's Germany as a free, tolerant, sports-loving country when in fact it was a murderous, racist, anti-semitic dictatorship. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the Games had already been awarded to Berlin so one of the new government's concerns had to be to set up the event to gain the maximum possible credit for them as a country newly risen from the terror, the grief and the waste of 1914-18. They built a vast new stadium complex in Berlin and arranged for devoted crowds to flock there confident that German athletes would justify their leaders' insistence on their national, racial superiority. And since then there have been many examples in other countries of the application of the same distorting technique. One case was in Britain last summer when there was a massive governmental campaign to use any success on the track or in the pool or wherever to detract attention from the damage being done to the living conditions, the health and the expectations of masses of needy people.

Choice For Change
And Thatcher's death and her funeral, deliberately planned over a long period, are for the same objective – to obliterate any awareness of what is actually happening to us in this system of human misery .The Iron Lady? She who was not for turning? The scourge of interfering continentals? Take your pick, then consider the diversion from any progressive forethought about our lives and society. Consider how futile and damaging is the assumption that we must forever choose between the hairline differences of competing leaders. In terms of our security and well-being, what choice was there between Thatcher's repressive abrasion and Major's emollient manipulation? Then what benefit was there when the ruling party changed to put us under the blood-spilling Blair? In reality we do not have a choice, other than for radically applying out own talents to free the world of capitalism's continually chaotic deceptions.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Collapse of Trotsky’s Monument (1991)

Book Review from the October 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bad news for Tariq Ali. Having with Redemption written an outrageously funny novel about the pretensions, delusions and follies of the Trotskyist Left in which he was once a prominent participant, he has been denounced as a renegade, a traitor, a bourgeois philistine, a despicable leper . . . only the Leninists know how to denounce like that. Having deployed his wit against the world Trotskyist movement, the crumbling Trotskyist monuments have responded with their dependable witlessness. The totally humour-free Socialist Workers' Review dismissed Ali's effort as "unfunny".

We suspect that Ali can cope with such devastating assaults. Impossible to cope with for him will be what is here: an article in the Socialist Standard praising him as a novelist and recommending this satire to all socialists who for years have laughed their heads off at the antics of the would-be vanguards on the Left. Old Leninists desert all kinds of silly prejudices as they discard their old dogmas, but few of them lose their dislike for those four commonly-spat initials, the SPGB. Bad luck. Tariq – everyone else thinks your novel stinks, but this writer loved every page of it.

Redemption is an almost relentlessly funny novel. What Malcolm Bradbury did to the trendy campus clowns in The History Man, Ali has done to the bar-room Bolsheviks of the Trotskyist left. The story concerns the aftermath of the east European uprisings of 1989 and the preparations for and holding of a congress of the Trotskyist Fourth International to formulate a new political position. The old Bolshevik formula is in worldwide disrepute: the proletariat have kicked out the dictatorship and the only believers left are the would-be dictators. These "leaders" are shown as pathetic, deluded, dishonest, unscrupulous and, not infrequently, insane men.

There are several easily identified caricatures of Trotskyist leaders. They are painfully accurate. Ali is ungenerous and spiteful towards these superstars of the sects, but they in real life are ungenerous and spiteful people whose opportunist tactics and contempt for working-class understanding makes them fair targets for Ali's poison pen. There is Frank Hood (the late Gerry Healy) who has young women from his party, the Hoodlums (WRP), sent to him for sex sessions. Another leading Hoodlum is Laura Shaw (Vanessa Redgrave) who drives to Trotskyist meetings in her chauffeur-driven Rolls and has Hood's body embalmed after he dies at the shock of a young female "comrade" discovering his artificial penis. There is Jed Burroughs (Ted Grant), the Shadow-Shadow Prime Minister and leader of the Burrowers (Militant Tendency) and Jimmy Rock (Tony Cliff), author of The Rockers Guide To Soviet Realities and leader of the Rockers (SWP).

The chapters on these latter two sects, which are both as detestable as each other, are the funniest pages in the book. Also captured with an accuracy which only a novel could capture so acutely (a pamphlet would be libellous, after all) are John Justice and his Satanist Tendency (the ultra-barmy Spartacist League in real life – real life?). Jemima Wilcox, editor of the "New Life Review" (New Left Review), Diablo (a parody of the ex-Trotskyist veteran Pablo) and Jim Noble, the archetypal fascist/Leninist leader of a party based on the American SWP called in the novel the Proletarian International Socialist Party of American Workers -PISPAW for short; get it? This was the section of the Fourth International that Ali used to be involved in.

Ali seems to think – and he should know because he has been closer to the Trotskyist leaders than most of us – that these people are motivated either by sexual disorders, whereby left-wing fantasising becomes a form of replacement for a humane sensuality, and/or egomania. These sound like cheap smears, and might have been intended so, but the analysis is not without insight We live in a society of perverse notions of success. Leninism, as a strategy for successful power-taking, is deeply authoritarian and is bound to attract those for whom the rhetoric of power (dictatorships, central committees, democratic centralism, smashing states, orders from above) is appealing. For such political personalities the power obsession becomes functional rather than instrumental. It should come as no surprise to materialists that the men who run power-hungry sects are created out of the ingredients which make up other authoritarian bosses who expect to have their egos massaged by their followers – and not only their egos.

Emma Carpenter, a disillusioned American Trotskyist in the novel, tells Jim Noble that the Trot sects are mirror images of Stalinism; Hood/Healy is referred to as an "inverted Stalinist". The capitalist system has screwed up a lot of people in its time, so what is odd about the fact that some of them try to screw up their unwitting political followers in a futile attempt to unscrew themselves? Maybe some of the characterisations are a touch crude in their depictions of the psycho-pathology of the fantasy lives of lefty leaders, but there is nothing far-fetched about the novel's description of they way in which so-called radicals have often treated women like dirt. (Let's fight for equality, but tonight, Me Dictator, You Proletarian). Left-wing sexism, an infantile disorder?

Redemption has some interesting things to say about the way that the Left treats women – one half of the species. The character of Maya, the young Brazilian beauty who is made pregnant by the seventy-year old Ezra Einstein, reminds us that while geriatric dogmatists play at revolutions in congress halls it is often women who are connected to those feeling of humanity without which there will never be any genuine socialism.

Ah yes, socialism. This is where Ali has advanced no further than his days in the Trotskyist mad-house. Ali still believes that socialism came about in Russia in 1917. He applauds Leninism, but is embarrassed by the Leninists. On page one he writes of how popular wisdom had "consigned insurrections to the museum of Europe", but throughout his book he never touches on the root of the Trotskyist fallacy: the belief that by a vanguard-led insurrection working-class liberation, and therefore, socialism, can come about. In this he is at one with the political nutcases in his novel. He quotes Emma Carpenter's grandfather's Menshevik criticism of the Bolshevik adventure, but takes neither that critique nor any of his own a step further. He parodies Rock/Cliffs thesis that state capitalism came to Russia in the 1920s after years of Russia having been socialist, and rightly ridicules such unhistorical drivel, but what does he say about the serious state-capitalist analysis stated persistently since 1918 by the Socialist Party? Trotskyists have never liked to admit that they are simply Leninists who did not like Stalin's continuation of what Lenin began. This writer recalls challenging Ali to a debate several years ago on this very question. He replied that there was nothing that the wise Marxists of our party could possibly learn from him. No, that was not the point of the educational exercise.

The novel concludes with the congress of the Fourth International adopting a strategy from its master theoretician, Ezra Einstein (Ernest Mandel), to infiltrate the religions of the world. More could be gained from this than from boring within the left-reform parties, he believed: "Within ten years I predict we could have at least three or four cardinals, two ayatollahs, dozens of rabbis, and some of the smaller Churches like the Methodists in parts of Britain could be totally under our control. Our aim is to occupy the Vatican and elect a Pope from our movement". The PISPAW delegation responds with a resolution to form a new Trotskyist religion based upon the "dictatorship of the Angelariat". Very funny – nearly as hilarious as so-called Marxists telling workers to vote Labour at election time.
Steve Coleman

Thatcher, the Icon (2013)

Editorial from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In life, Margaret Thatcher, never humble, gladly accepted her transformation from shopkeeper’s daughter into capitalist icon. She was The Iron Lady, TINA, and the woman who made Britain great again. She was the architect of ‘Thatcher’s Britain,’ a tough, free-market economy whose backbone she stiffened with ‘Victorian values.’ To her supporters, Margaret Thatcher arose as the conquering hero who broke the power of the unions and saved the country. To her detractors, she was the harpy that devastated working-class communities, destroyed British industry and took pleasure in doing it. Francois Mitterrand, the French ‘socialist’ president fancied he saw in her, ‘the eye of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’

The Thatcher myth obscures the reality. In truth, the grocer’s daughter followed policies that were neither exceptional nor original. When she came to power in 1979 capitalism in much of the world was experiencing its biggest economic depression in 30 years. In Britain, as elsewhere, business enterprises were failing, production had slumped and unemployment had begun to soar. Governments of all political colours were reacting to the economic downturn in the only way that was possible under the iron laws of capitalism, by cutting back on spending and allowing the system to take its course. Those who acted otherwise were soon given a lesson by the system.

If there was anything distinctive about Thatcher’s politics, it lay only in the enthusiasm and energy with which she set herself to her task. ‘Thatcherism’ was a political style: abrasive; uncompromising; and ruthless. It was unapologetic. ‘There Is No Alternative’ she said and hammered the words home again and again. Her message was simple and accurate. Capitalism runs in accordance with its own laws and, despite the assertions of many politicians, offers little choice to those who claim to run it. TINA cut back on government spending, opened the nationalised industries to the discipline of the market, allowed unprofitable businesses to fail and sank her teeth into the miners. She was very, very thorough.

Yet the myth prevails, and we should beware of it. Above all, we should beware of the myth promoted by those that hate her for what she did. Thatcher the hate figure is of immense value to capitalism. It is easy to imagine embodied in the woman herself all the ugly and anti-working-class features of the system: its relentless drive to minimise working-class incomes; its unconcern for working-class lives; and its insatiable demand for profit above all other things. These are its unchanging features; Thatcherism was merely its naked political expression. It may be necessary to remind ourselves at this time that the death of Thatcher, real and symbolic, does not imply the possibility of a more benign management of capitalism. That would be to create another dangerous myth: Thatcher the scapegoat, symbolically carrying into death the sins of capitalism and purifying the system. But capitalism can only be run in the interests of the capitalist class.

For socialists, celebration is premature. The death of Thatcher changes nothing. We will save our celebrations for the time when capitalism, the real enemy of the working class, is defeated.