Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why I Joined the SPGB (1976)

From the February 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

I was, of course, not the only one to leave the Communist Party. My main claim to distinction is that I was for many years a national official of the Young Communist League—its National Organizer, in fact. During most of the 'twenties I was the official representative of the YCL in Moscow, and subsequently, a member of the five-man secretariat of the Executive Committee of the Communist Youth International, the "Sanctum Sanctorum".

The manner of this was (as always) mainly the result of outside circumstances. You see, my older cousin, Fred Peet, was the acting General Secretary of the newly formed Communist Party in 1920, while Inkpin (the Secretary) was doing twelve months for publishing the Theses of the Third Congress of the Communist International.

Even as a fourteen-year-old kid I was a regular listener to the numerous meetings at Highbury Corner, near my dad's bicycle shop. There I heard Alex Anderson and Adolph Kohn—though the man who impressed me most of all of them was Charlie Lestor: he burst in on the London scene like a Canadian bison.

After mucking about in the Herald League for a bit I joined the CP in 1920, and was offered a job in the bookshop at 16 King Street. The Communist International was anxious to get a Communist youth movement going in Britain, and sent someone over to jog the CP into doing it. The procedure was quite simple. All CP branches were instructed to send delegates to a convening conference. This took place at the old International Socialist Club in East Road, City Road, in 1921. To my considerable astonishment, I was elected chairman. An Executive was elected, which at once appointed me National Organizer.

I should add here that despite (or more likely because of) my youth I had already taken to the outdoor platform, and made the grade as a Communist Party rabble-rouser. There were occasions when speakers didn't turn up (like now), or organized groups tried to break up the meetings. Up I jumped, and repeated most of what Charlie Lestor had said the last time I heard him. What was lacking in knowledge was covered by youthful enthusiasm; and at a comparatively early age I was in demand for meetings with the best of them.

I tried to look unconcerned when Zigi Bamattre (the Swiss CYI representative) announced: "You are coming back to Moscow with me." The gigantic upheaval in Russia had stretched out its mighty arms to Islington! In November 1922 I pinched myself to ensure that it really was me listening to Lenin and Trotsky in the marble and gold halls of the fabulous Kremlin in Moscow.

Rushed back to England, I did a speaking tour from Penzance to Aberdeen for six months, forming YCL branches (it was all done on one Tourist ticket costing £5). Back again to Moscow, to take part in the first major crisis for the British CP: the sacking of Inkpin and MacManus to replaced by Pollitt and Dutt.

So it went on for six years. Of course I knew the SPGB—hadn't I encountered those over-logical pests at many a meeting? At the Communists' 5th Congress there was an almost unique specimen—an SPGB-er who had joined the Communist Party, Frank Vickers from Tooting. I recall many times when members of the SPGB debunked my oratory: at Wood Green Corner, Tottenham, a little bloke murmured in my left ear "If they won't vote for it, they won't fight for it!"

A disturbing thought—but I was too busy predicting the imminent collapse of capitalism. In Moscow we were privileged members of the famous Dynamo sports club, with the best instructors and equipment: we were the golden boys, the Youth of the Revolution, destined to take over the world. Among them were Jacques Doriot, to become founder of the French Blackshirts; Liebknecht's son; and Naygen Ali Ivak, later known as Ho Chi Minh. In naval uniforms we lined up outside the Comintern building and marched back to the Lux Hotel singing "We are the Young Guard of the Proletariat".

Yet the writing was on the Kremlin's wall. 1925: struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. 1926: Trotsky's expulsion. 1928, and I resolved to return to England and refuse to accept any more paid employment in the CP. I did—I remember Eddie Fitzgerald, the translator of Mehring's "Life of Marx" saying to me "You must be mad! What job will a Communist agitator get in England?" I found a job as a foreign language telephonist (to be demoted by the Post Office when they found out).

There were the Great Depression and the National Government. Mosley's Blackshirts: Pollitt issued his call to break up opponents' meetings, and the CP formed the Workers' Defence Force, drilling with broomsticks in Epping Forest. I declared it ridiculous, and by 1934 was in active opposition to the Central Committee. I was summoned to a disciplinary court of the CP, to which the officials never turned up.

During this time I was still editor of the English-language edition of the CI's official monthly, the Communist International. When the Spanish Civil War started, Harry Pollitt asked me to go and see him: Would I proceed to Spain immediately as interpreter to the British battalion of the International Brigade? It dawned on me that all those in opposition to the CP's Central Committee were being cleared off to Spain, like my bosom pal Wally Tapsell who was shot in Galicia. It was to be a political execution. This was the end. To hell with you!

I obtained employment with the Workers' Travel Association as a courier, spending most of my time until the war in 1939 in Switzerland, Italy and France. Then, one balmy evening, I strolled in Hyde Park with a girl friend. We listened to Groves, Turner and Rubin on the SPGB platform destroying all the pretensions of the CP. This was it! I joined the Party the following week, and soon after that took the platform myself for the first time, One result of my advent was the discomfiture of the Communists who used to bawl at Party speakers: "Have you been in Russia?"

"Have I been in Russia?" I used to answer. "Listen, mate, I grew up there!"
Horatio

Three Plays Revisited (1998)

Theatre Review from the May 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Seeing a film or a play after an interval of several years is an interesting, and sometimes a very surprising, experience. We often seek out films and plays which we have enjoyed, only to find, occasionally, the second viewing very disappointing. A film which, first time round, made for a marvellous evening, now seems very ordinary; another which appeared exciting and unusual, has become bland and boring. Of course it isn't the film which has changed--unless that is we are now seeing it in miniaturised form on television, rather than in its full glory on a cinema screen. Most usually what has changed is that we have changed. We have "moved on", our perceptions. And what is true of films is frequently even more true of plays. Last night's revival appears slight and insubstantial, whereas an earlier production had us on the edge of our seats. What then of three new productions of well-loved pieces of theatre?
Joan Littlewood's production of "Oh What A Lovely War" at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East was, by any standards, an extraordinary theatrical event. Those of us lucky enough to see it are unlikely ever to forget its wit, pathos and savage irony. The experimental company at Stratford, which Ms Littlewood always saw as at the forefront of "people's theatre", wanted to do something about the First World War; especially the trench warfare that had extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. But there was a problem: events on the Western Front were so horrendous as to defy being presented in a straightforward way. By basing the show around the songs of the period, and performing it as a typical end-of-pier show so popular both before and after the war, the Stratford company came up with an inspired solution.
I wish I could report that the National Theatre's touring production (due in Brecon, Telford, Dewsbury and Chester in May, and Richmond, Salisbury and Nottingham in June), was a worthy successor of the great original, but it isn't. The irony has been largely lost, and pathos and genuine sentiment has become mawkish sentimentality. Fortunately, some moments are so intrinsically powerful as to survive the flaws. But what in the original was a celebration of the bravery and the stupidity, the humour and comradeliness of the working class in the face of cupidity and the arrogance, the conceit and the chilling indifference of their "masters and betters", is now largely lost.
Much more successful is the revival of David Hare's Skylight, at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Perhaps the actors don't quite make the impact of the original London team (see Socialist Standard, May 1996), but this serves only to mark up the quality of the writing and it's contemporary relevance. Great as distinct from only good plays, are so rich in nuggets as to reveal themselves fully only over several sittings. In this my third visit I noted subtleties that had previously escaped me: perhaps especially on this occasion Hare's contention that the entrepreneur is also a victim of capitalism. Marx argued that society's values and standards reflect its economic nature, and here is Tom forever striving for more, impelled by the inevitable imperatives of the market; wanting more and more happiness as well as more and more wealth, and destroying his relationship with his partner in the seeking.
Finally, the Oxford Stage Company is touring widely with Wesker's Roots. (Guildford, Cheltenham, Oxford and Worthing in May.) This is a play for all seasons, a definitive and unambiguous classic. Beatie and her struggle to find her own voice is both an intensely moving personal story, and also a metaphor for the enlightenment of empowerment of the whole of the working class of which she is a member. Abandoned by her boyfriend and deserted by her family, Beatie thrillingly finds her own voice in the play's final moments. It seems the most exhilarating ending of any play in the English language. If I had enough money I would want to engage a theatre company and take Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and Wesker's Roots on tour. Just imagine their impact!
Michael Gill

Saturday, August 30, 2014

History meets Hollywood (1996)

Film Review from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard


History is the story of what happened; economics is the story of why it happened. Rarely does popular history go beyond a look, invariably distorted by the perceptions of the historian, at what happened and, especially when the story is written for the Hollywood financial moguls, history is moulded to box office terms.

According to the historical flashes which introduce Michael Collins to its audience, the emergence of the IRA in 1916 and the subsequent guerrilla war of 1919-22, which was largely masterminded by Collins was the culmination of seven hundred years of struggle by the people of Ireland to throw off the yoke of British oppression. In fact much of the historical conflict in Ireland was an agrarian struggle and while this was aggravated by English rule and landlordism established by the English, often as a means of rewarding feudal military adventurers, the concept of nationhood, as we understand it today, was not invented until after the establishment of capitalism.

The idea of a republican state in fact was introduced into Ireland some two hundred years ago by a Dublin lawyer, Wolfe Tone, and was most coherently expressed by northern Protestants who saw national independence as an essential corollary of economic development.

The economics behind the history that is the Michael Collins story emerged in the latter part of the last century and was originally represented by Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell, like Sinn Fein later, opposed British rule because it denied the political representatives of a nascent Irish middle class the power to legislate which they perceived to be essential to the development of a thriving southern-based native capitalism.

The film raised bile in the moronic patriots of the English gutter press and, of course, it has infuriated the diehard brigade of Ulster Unionism. It is argued that it gives solace and respectability to the IRA and will encourage young people to become involved with the present Provisional IRA. If there is truth in that assertion then it could be argued that most films, and especially war films, should be banned.

Those who condemn the film are not concerned with the futility it depicts; the futility of workers, many of them semi-destitute, taking up arms to fight for a class that was actively exploiting them and sought victory as the means of intensifying that exploitation. Instead they carp that the heroes shown are not their heroes or, with distinct animosity, that the pen of the screen writer has taken a few incidental liberties with fact in order to package his story within the time limits of a feature film.

Liam Neeson as Collins is well cast and his portrayal is close to the mark. Big and bawdy leader from the front who has worked out the essentials of guerrilla warfare and instils those essentials without pity in his ragtag followers.

Alan Rickman, as Eamon De Valera, presents a man who is piously soured, insular and duplicitous; the man, who more than any other, fabricated the legend in which the current breed of armed-struggle republicans find legitimacy - even though, when history respectablised him and he became Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, he had more republicans hanged than the Ulster Unionists. Rickman's presentation of De Valera is superb to the point where you begin to feel a loathing for the character he depicts.

This Hollywood version of an important phase in Irish history makes little effort to expose republican warts and is, therefore, dangerously simplistic history. Still, if you like an all-action drama with moments of tenderness and a little humour, Michael Collins is a safe bet.
Richard Montague

The Downside of Upgrading (2014)

The Proper Gander column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we splash out on something like the newest phone upgrade, we like to think that we’re making our own decision. But how free is our choice? Jacques Peretti, in his documentary series The Men Who Made Us Spend (BBC2), looks for answers in the wily world of marketing and product development.
The first episode focuses on an ‘open secret’ of the capitalist marketplace – planned obsolescence. This is how the lifespan of a commodity is deliberately reduced by the way it’s designed. Doing this means that manufacturers can manipulate us into buying a replacement and therefore increasing their profits. This approach has been applied to many products since a cartel of lighting luminaries agreed to limit the lifespan of lightbulbs in the 1920s. More recently, ink cartridges have been fitted with counters which click down when each page is printed. Our printers tell us that the cartridge needs replacing when the counter reaches zero, not when it actually runs out of ink.
Planned obsolescence not only relates to how a commodity is made, but also how it is perceived. Often, a product only lasts as long as we’re told it’s fashionable. If a new smartphone, car or games console is announced, we’re more likely to fork out for it if we’re made to think our old one has just become as outdated as a mullet. And if the advertisers have done their job well, we’ll be eager enough to queue outside a shop for weeks to be among the first to buy the latest iPhone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with replacing gadgets for different or better versions, of course. As Peretti’s polemic explains, it’s only capitalism which corrupts this by manipulating our desire for the new. He argues that planned obsolescence has been used to help boost consumer spending during its various dips, and has led to today’s ‘limitless consumption’, with shopping seen as a duty. He takes the stance that our spending habits are driven by innovations in marketing strategies. The relationship is more reciprocal than that, as new approaches to selling build on previous spending patterns. And on a wider scale, consumer spending is influenced more by economic forces than small-scale changes in ideology. Despite overstating marketing’s role in the economy as a whole, Peretti’s perceptive arguments will remain relevant until we plan to make capitalism itself obsolete.
Mike Foster

Pray Silence for the Veterans (2014)

The Greasy Pole Column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Confronted with overwhelming evidence of their impotence to deal with capitalism's persistent barbarities our Members of Parliament are prone to disguise their discomfort behind what their Whips call 'a wall of noise'. Except that when a Member whose 'service' in the Commons qualifies them to be known as a 'veteran' considers that there is a matter of sufficient gravity to justify their rising to speak it is customary for them to be heard in respectful silence – apart from a few grovelling ‘hear hear's’. No matter that the veterans' past does not justify them claiming any exceptional insight into those barbarities. There is, for one, Peter Tapsell, MP for Louth and Horncastle whose unbroken presence there has given him the title of Father of the House, known by one observer as 'the grandest of grandees' who does not speak so much as 'intone superbly'– which he perhaps employed when he was once severely critical of his late leader Margaret Thatcher.

Baldry
But Tapsell has decided that he will not be there after the 2015 election, which brings us to Tony Baldry, who is 20 years younger than Tapsell but has been MP for Banbury in Oxfordshire for over thirty years. He recently persuaded the government benches to be silent when he rose to put a 'question' to David Cameron about Ed Miliband as a teenager delivering election leaflets which promised that Michael Foot would take a Labour government out of the European Union. As Miliband sat squirming Cameron seized his chance. Ignoring the fact that capitalist politics is a process of the parties trying to reshape the confusion between their past and the present he bellowed: 'If as a 14-year-old that was his idea of fun obviously, you know, we have to, you know, make room for everybody'. Which had the Tories choking on their false laughter. As Baldry knows, feeding dummy questions to the party leadership is often essential to the hopes of an ambitious MP.

Banbury
He got involved in politics while a student at Sussex University, with its reputation as a hot-bed of left wing turbulence. By the time of the general election of February 1974 he had begun his serious involvement in a political career, holding a series of jobs as Personal Assistant (in other words spin doctor) to Tory ministers including none other than Margaret Thatcher – before she had earned the title of The Iron Lady. His reward for this in 1979 was to be selected to stand for the Conservative Party at Thurrock where he did well enough against an entrenched Labour majority to be later selected to succeed the retiring Tory MP at the very different Banbury in Oxfordshire. The scale of his victory there in the 1983 election, with his previous experience, put him in line for promotion and he held a succession of promising jobs including another for Thatcher (his role as the persistent servant and assistant to all those luminaries caused his civil servants to stick the name 'Baldrick' on him).  The Banbury Tories were reputed to be devoted to him and the voters went along with this, giving him a majority of over 18,000 in the 2010 election.

Baldry has done well out of the system through which our governors congratulate themselves. He was made a Privy Councillor and in 2012 he was knighted so that we should acknowledge him correctly as The Right Honourable Sir... And then he was appointed as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, responsible for answering MP's questions about the Commissioners. All of which is designed to induce in us a state of comfortable admiration for those who claim to make themselves responsible for modelling our behaviour under the stress of this society of privilege and property. In the case of Baldry, as in so many others, it is not so straightforward for there is a maze of interests – financial and political – which have to be taken into account.

Ibori
His time in the higher reaches of government and the law has been punctuated by a series of diverting and complicated events. In one example in 1997 he wrote in support of awarding the CBE to London solicitor Sarosh Zaiwalla. He did not mention that he had recently benefited from a large personal loan from Zaiwalla; in consequence he had to apologise to the House of Commons. In February 2010, as a barrister instructed by Zaiwalla, he wrote to David Miliband who was then Foreign Secretary, warning that a police investigation of James Ibori, who had been president of the Delta State in Nigeria, would 'damage British interests in that country'. At the time Ibori's assets in Britain, including houses and motor vehicles worth some £17 million, were being frozen as he was facing charges of theft of public funds, abuse of office and money laundering. At Southwark Crown Court in April 2012 Ibori was sent to prison for 13 years and much of his assets, described by the head of the Crown Prosecution Service central fraud squad as being acquired 'at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world', were confiscated.

Food Banks
That original question from Baldry is typical of his compliant support of the government. On the issue of the cuts in welfare benefits he consistently opposes any suggestion about easing the misery and despair which they aggravate. Instead he offers an almost Dickensian version about the division between the deserving poor and the un-deserving. The most catching idea he offers, based on events in Merseyside, is that anyone who is starving and has to resort to begging at their local Food Bank, should instead undergo a course in cookery and nutrition – at 50p a session – with the idea of making what little food they have sustaining and affordable. At the end of the course they will be rewarded with a book of recipes. His principle that 'I think everyone is agreeing that as a nation we have to get welfare spending under control' ignores the crucial fact that poverty and its symptoms are disastrously out of control of the victims. If he survives long enough in the raucous uproar of the Commons, Baldry will become a veteran to match Tapsell. With about as little to show for it.
Ivan


Friday, August 29, 2014

Writers and Society—4: Scott Fitzgerald

From the Writers and Society series published in the October-December 1956 issue of Forum

It is a convenient fact that American outlook in recent years, and consequently American Literature, can be divided fairly accurately into decades—the 'twenties, the 'thirties and the 'forties. After the first world war, the first period takes us to the financial crash and the depression, and the next lasts until the beginning of the second world war.

The 'twenties were remarkable years in American history, and the films, plays and books of the period bear convincing testimony of the post-war disillusionment, the denial of former moral values, and the gangsterism and political corruption of the time. It was an age of bitterness and frustration, but a frustration that was expressed, at least among the middle and upper classes, by wildness and irresponsibility. Hip flasks, cocktail parties, speakeasies, petting parties, flappers and jazz-mania were all aspects of this breakdown of pre-war values.

As far as literature is concerned, the most significant spokesman of the age was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who actually gave the period its name — "the Jazz Age." Fitzgerald himself was one of that class fresh from Princeton or Yale, who found themselves pushed into a war whose cause they were unable to appreciate. The war over, they found life unreal and purposeless. The sons of the rich families, or poorer boys infected by the easy money ideology, they had not time for the outmoded doctrines of Carnegie or Rockefeller exhorting them to "win wealth by hard work." The pace of life for them quickened until it became a crazy merry-go-round that crashed to the ground with the stock market in 1929.

Fitzgerald's earlier novels, "The Beautiful and Damned" and "The Far Side of Paradise," are skillful and often moving accounts of the emptiness and pointlessness into which these people's lives were channeled. They do show, on Fitzgerald's part, a struggle to express himself and also to express the frustration of his age. Although not a "social critic" in the direct sense, he became a far more important social critic in the sense that he accurately presented the lives of people in this situation, of whom he was one, and consequently made the greater impression. The first novel is an account of the childhood, schooling, and college days of one of these sons of the rich, and the second is almost a continuation, dealing with the lives of a young man a flapper, and their hardening by the conditions of the futile world they knew.

The focal point in Fitzgerald's career was "The Great Gatsby." Although some might argue that it is not his best novel, it is certainly the hub of his work. The early works look forward to it, and the latter ones seem to refer back to it. It is the story of an ambitious nobody, Jay Gatsby, who achieves his riches by racketeering, and becomes almost a legend in the display and extravagance of his parties and style of living. His tragedy is basically that of all the people around him-they have not what they want, and do not even know what it is they want.

The irony of the novel is that in spite of Gatsby's lavish hospitality and the enormous parties that he gives, he is almost completely friendless, and his funeral produces only two mourners—the one friend who tries to help Gatsby find his desires, and one out of the thousands of people who had taken Gatsby's hospitality.

The novel is much tighter in construction than the earlier works, and has a much more stimulating plot. The narrator is Gatsby's  friend, and, because it is the view of an outsider looking in, the tragedy is made the more intense.

This was a period when current psychological thought had a considerable effect on American, and other literature. Fitzgerald himself, although sufficiently interested in Freudian psychology to make extensive use of it in his novel "Tender Is The Night," never closely examined the background of the life of his characters, and never enquired into the basic motives and causes that gave rise to them. It could be said that this is the secret of Fitzgerald's success as a writer. He does no more than honestly and skillfully depict the lives of people as he knew them, and for this reason his characters and situations have far more conviction and applicability to life that the intentional propaganda works of writers such as Upton Sinclair and Jack London.

"Tender Is The Night," has been regarded by many literary critics as a failure, although Fitzgerald himself thought highly of it. In order to overcome what he considered to be the main flaws in construction, he revised the form of the novel in 1940, and it was subsequently published in this form (it is available in Penguins). The latter version certainly seems to have gained clarity and interest, but the basic faults remain, that is, the veering between an onlooker's view and the writer's omniscience, and a tendency to over-complicate the story by an unnecessary wealth of characters and incident.

This novel takes us from the world of flappers and speakeasies to the world of the older rich expatriates at play on the Riviera, and having their psychological problems sorted out at the clinics of Zurich. Even if it does not come up to Fitzgerald's intention of making it the best American novel of the century it certainly presents a superb and engrossing picture of the lives of these people.

Fitzgerald's last and unfinished work, "The Last Tycoon" (published in 1941 in a form edited by Edmund Wilson), reverts to the earlier successful method of "Gatsby" and the story is told through the eyes of Cecelia Brady, a daughter of a Hollywood producer. Here also, we have a story of tragic failure, this time of a "wonder-boy" producer of the order of Irving Thalberg. Many of the characters are recognizably real-life Hollywood titans, and the book represents the most convincing and authentic account of Hollywood in literature (with the possible exception of Nathanael West's satire, "The Day Of The Locust"). In possessing this authenticity, it becomes a damning indictment of the American film factory, and clearly indicates that the horrors of "The Big Knife" and "The Day Of The Locust" are no exaggerations.

Some of Fitzgerald's short stories, too, well repay attention. Many of them are trite and banal, and were produced not as a labour of love, but merely as a means to provide the wherewithal to pay for an extravagant existence. On the other hand, some of them are brilliantly contrived, and rank with the novels as examples of efficient and persuasive writing. "May Day" or "The Diamond As Big As The Ritz" are stories which favourably bear comparison with any American short story writing of the period. The best of the stories are published in a collection entitled "Borrowed Time."

As with many other novelists, much of Fitzgerald's work is plainly autobiographical. The first two novels are apparently based on his early life at Princeton and after, and even in his later works, the echoes of his own existence are apparent. Dick Diver's failure in "Tender Is The Night" is a reflection of Fitzgerald's own failure in life, and even the reference to Diver's publication of a "popular" work on psychology and the perennially unfinished treatise, seems to indicate a conscience troubled by the glib short stories that Fitzgerald turned out in order to raise easy money, at the expense of his serious work.

"The Last Tycoon" too, reflects Fitzgerald's own experiences in Hollywood. With regard to this part of his life, "The Disenchanted" by Budd Schulberg, is based on Scott Fitzgerald's experiences as a script writer, and is well worth reading as a novel, in addition to the light that it throws on Fitzgerald's life and Hollywood generally.

A competent biography of Fitzgerald—"The Other Side of Paradise" by Arthur Mizener, also makes interesting reading, and helps considerably in an appreciation of Fitzgerald's work, as does a collection of notes and observations entitles "The Crack-Up," which also gives an insight into the tragedy of Fitzgerald's last days. Fitzgerald's life, like those of his heroes, was a failure. Like so many of his contemporaries, he saw his age, tied to a thriving industrial and financial giant, come crashing down in 1929, and after this he never again really got to grips with the world. He suffered nervous breakdowns, mainly caused through heavy drinking, and eventually died in 1940.

So much then, for the work of an absorbing writer, who in the words of Frederick Hoffman in "The Modern Novel in America," was successful beyond all of his contemporaries in keeping his work free of the pretentious intellectual faking that has handicapped so much of American fiction since Norris and Dreiser." In spite of all his flaws, Fitzgerald sums up an age of capitalism in an entertaining and stimulating way, which is more than be said for nine-tenths of the so-called social historians.
Albert Ivimey

Drinking from the Skulls (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
On the centenary of the War that didn’t end all wars it was always inevitable that patriotic pundits would be parading across the small screen to explain why the Great War was necessary and why carping critics who say otherwise are plain wrong.
Historian Ian Morris went one better recently by arguing that war has in fact been good for us. Why? Because ‘war made states, and states made peace’ (New Scientist, 23 April).
Setting aside current ungentlemanly excesses in Ukraine, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and other hotspots, Morris describes a historic trend away from war which, by a twist of circular reasoning, he attributes to war itself. So upbeat is he on the theme that he claims ‘war may be so good at delivering peace and wealth in the long run that it finally seems to be putting itself out of business.’
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on the Steven Pinker argument about the historic decline in violence (see the Socialist Standard special issue, November 2013), with the difference that it takes the neo-Hobbesian ‘ignoble savage’ thesis that humans must be ruled by strong states and adds a kind of teleological Pangloss to it.  It’s a bit like saying that rape and wife-beating forced societies to make laws protecting women, therefore rape and wife-beating were ultimately good for women.
There is never a shortage of right-wing loonies who, regarding any anti-war statement as pinko propaganda, will argue that war is good because it drives technology, as if we would never have invented the plough, the fridge or the space satellite if it weren’t for an inbuilt urge to murder each other. Morris isn’t that kind of loon, so in his own words, ‘what sort of person goes around saying that thousands of years of mass murder have had positive consequences?’ His answer is, somebody who looks at the evidence. Our answer is, somebody who needs to look a bit harder at the evidence.
For a historian, Morris is surprisingly vague about dates. Consider the statement that ‘the Stone Age, we now know, was a rough place’. The source this statement links to is a study of 350 skulls in Britain, of which a surprising number had been bashed in. He goes on to describe how, ten thousand years ago, with few behavioural restraints, homicides were therefore a regular fact of life. But which Stone Age is he talking about? Ten thousand years ago was the end of the Paleolithic period of hunting and gathering (HG), followed by the development of farming in the Neolithic. The skulls, however, date from between 4,000 and 3,200BC, meaning that whatever skull-bashing was going on, it was certainly going on in the post-HG Neolithic period, a fact made very obvious even in the title of the original article (‘Muggings were rife in New Stone Age’, New Scientist, 11 May 2006).
Why talk about violence in the HG period using evidence from the much later farming period? In order, surely, to support the Pinker argument that HG violence was at epidemic rates. Indeed, he goes on to claim that ‘by many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans’.
This ‘appalling toll’ simply doesn’t make sense. Imagine a group of 30 HG individuals of whom half are male, and follow the common assumption that violence was almost exclusively between males. 10 to 20 percent means a death rate of between 3 and 6 males out of 15, year on year. What group could withstand this rate of loss? In 5 years at most the supply of males would be exhausted. Assuming female mortality is included, the situation gets even worse, because of the loss of breeding potential. Had we really behaved like this in the Paleolithic, we would have died out like the Neanderthals and the lately-discovered Denisovans.
But Morris presses on with his conviction that the life of hunters and gatherers was nasty, brutish and short, and states that ‘Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on Earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves by hunting and gathering, on the equivalent of less than $2 per day in today's terms’. Leaving aside the silliness of giving HGs a dollar allowance as if they were in the same squalid situation of poverty as today’s ‘bottom billion’, the life-span estimate involves the ploy of using a mean instead of a modal average, thus taking no account of high rates of child mortality. On other estimates, Paleolithic humans who made it to age 15 had an average modal lifespan of 72 years (Gurven Kaplan paper).
Why is it so important to blacken the name of the Paleolithic in this way? Because if the longest period of human existence on the planet was in truth relatively peaceful and lacking in organised violence or warfare, as Marx and Engels thought and many anthropologists still think, then the Panglossian theme of Morris and Pinker is utterly undone. If there was no war in the Paleolithic, as the evidence in fact suggests, then there has not been a steady decline in violence from the dawn of humanity. Instead what happened is that farming and the invention of property society unleashed a holocaust upon a species which had known a million years of peace. If today this same property society has developed to the point where, as Morris hopes, it might be able to contain the problem of war, then it is only solving a problem it created in the first place.
But can it even do that? What’s stopping the next world war is that, given nuclear arsenals, the costs for any aggressor currently outweigh the gains. But that assumes all leaders are rational, which clearly some are not, and it also assumes the gains won’t increase, which clearly they will as states become ever more desperate in their competition over resources.
Ever since the fall of Soviet ‘communism’ there has been a Western feel-good factor among populations who grew up under the shadow of the bomb. Morris has tapped into this feeling that ‘the worst is over’ and is attempting to find a positive spin on a dark past. But the assumption of a continuing trend towards total peace is the same probability fallacy as the boom-time argument that there will never be another slump. In reality, there are wars all over the place, all of the time, and there’s no saying when a black swan event might crop up to send the world into a new abyss.
Marx, looking at the same history, didn’t simply cross his fingers and hope for the best, nor did he try to put a positive spin on the indefensible and obscene. Instead he said this: ‘When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production … then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.’
Competition over property caused war in the Neolithic, and still does today. We are now in a historic position to abolish war by abolishing property and sharing the world. Meanwhile to give the state, built on mountains of skulls, the credit for abating the worst excesses of its own evil nature is like giving the psychopathic bully a peace prize for not beating us up more often.
Paddy Shannon

21st century Chavism (2011)

Book Review from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Venezuela. Revolution as Spectacle by Rafael Izcategui, translated by Chaz Bufe, Sharp Press.

Rafael Izcategui, editor of El Libertario, Venezuela’s longest-running anarchist periodical (and on-line at www.nodo50.org/ellibertario), offers a Venezuelan anarchist’s critique of the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez in particular. There are many endnotes for those interested in seeking further information or corroboration but most of them are in Spanish although El Libertario does have an English language section.

Included is a brief review of the oil industry through the various regimes; an industry the development and management of which resulted in mass migration of populations to oil-producing regions, seeking better employment, depopulating the countryside, turning an agricultural exporting country into a major importing country in a short space of time and followed by all the knock-on social and economic effects. The petroleum industry was originally nationalised in 1976, long before Chavez came to power. Then came a reversal of this policy starting in 1992 which involved employing ‘mixed-enterprises’, i.e. foreign companies’ investments. The mixed-enterprise policy was continued and expanded with transnational companies when Chavez came to power in 1998, the country’s economy being highly dependent on oil and gas as the main sources of wealth.

Much of the author’s criticism of Chavez is with regard to the many contradictions between his rhetoric and his actions; a president as leader of a vanguard movement cannot equate to socialism; his anti-imperialist rhetoric against the US whilst attempting to build a bloc in the south to counteract it; his top-down decrees for new organisations rather than encouraging real initiatives from the base. According to Izcategui, Chavez is just one more in a string of populist leaders: it is a well-established concept in Latin American countries – the role of the military strongman, the cult of the macho man, politics as a matter of urgency or emergency – everything starting anew with each new individual in power. The first ‘Bolivarian’ government, that of the Democratic Action Party between 1945-8, following a military coup which ceded power to civilians, saw a ‘new social order’ seeking to be inclusive, democratic and not corrupt. This was ended by another military coup. The author contends that the current regime is just one more phase in a kind of circular politics.

In a chapter discussing various social movements he strongly questions Chavez’s rhetoric, about the people becoming the subject and object of the revolution, for this has to be a question of ownership. Autonomy cannot be imposed from above; people have to want it and work for it. This is a recurring theme, that Chavez is very much about imposing his ideas from the top, ideas which in many areas don’t match what social groups are seeking for themselves, and that there is a gulf between words and results, between ideas and realisation. For instance, the communal councils are directly linked to Chavez’s executive power, not routed through municipal or parochial councils, and have direct government funding for their projects – a way of garnering and maintaining their support?

There have been many demonstrations and riots incurring various levels of restraint in Venezuela’s history often resulting in efforts at redistribution of oil wealth. Some of Izcategui’s examples and people’s personal testimonies are an effort to show the outside world that nothing much has changed with Chavez, that this still is a nationalist state with a neoliberal capitalist economy that leaves many of the population sidelined. He selects two self-labelled anarchists for particular criticism because having an international following they should be especially aware of the need for objectivity; Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert. He views them both as too ready to take Chavez and his government spokespersons at face value without checking the voices at the base of the supposed revolution.

It seems that, in the end, ‘21st century socialism’ comes down to a self-named revolutionary government, manipulating by rhetoric and an illusion of resistance and social mobilisation, but in reality following a well-trodden path culminating in different forms of resistance and social struggle which then become criminalised and persecuted. (Statistics provided in the book.) A movement attempting to distance itself from US hegemony it may be; anti-imperialist but not anti-capitalist. If it is nothing else, this book demonstrates the fundamental requirement that for true socialism to take hold the most important consideration is for the overwhelming majority of the working class to be aware of the need to develop to the full their socialist understanding and consciousness. Socialism is the ongoing task of the majority; it cannot work top down; it cannot be imposed and cannot be legislated for by one or more leaders or vanguard movement, however well-intentioned. If populist, charismatic, paternalistic and concentrated in the most subordinate sectors, using anti-elitist discourse and redistributive methods in a dependent client context with the aim of constructing a base to gain the support of the popular sector – then a socialist revolution it is not. Beware of wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Janet Surman

The Economic Causes of the First World War (2014)

From the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism with its minority ownership of the means of production and distribution, and the resulting economic struggle for profit means the capitalist class has a motive for using armed forces in wars to protect its vested interests. All members of the capitalist class do not have identical interests in foreign trade and investment; there are divisions over free trade and tariffs. The policy of a government is dictated by which capitalist group is predominant at the time but the capitalist class as a whole has the same interest in defending itself and their privileged position based on their private ownership of the means of production and distribution against the working-class. They are all prepared to use armed force to maintain that position against the working-class.
Capitalism is the cause of the international rivalries that lead to war. When socialists say that capitalism is the source of wars we do not mean that wars are deliberately plotted by individual capitalists or groups for the purpose of making money. The capitalist system of society is rooted in conflict, and war is one of the products of that conflict. War is not an accidental interruption of the peaceful operation of capitalism but is inherent in the structure of the system itself, it is not the outcome of diplomatic stupidity or miscalculation, or of the arrogance and mistakes of statesmen. War is an extension of an underlying contest going on at all times. Governments in trying to handle the problems and antagonisms created by capitalism turn to war when other means fail. As Clausewitz wrote 'War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.'
In 1914 an explanation for the First World War was the defence of neutral Belgium but no mention was made on the Allied side of the atrocities in the Congo Free State which had been privately controlled by the King of Belgium. Here defenceless natives were maimed and slaughtered for profit, up to 8 million of the estimated 16 million native inhabitants died between 1885 and 1908. Native Congo labourers who failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off. The First World War was also blamed on the personality of the Kaiser or the acts of individuals such as the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip at Sarajevo. Professor Pigou in Political Economy of War, dismissed the Sarajevo incident as being the occasion not the cause of war. It was 'the match to the powder magazine. The real fundamental causes are those that lie behind the assembling of the powder.'
Economic competition between capitalist groups leads to the encroaching on the markets and resources of foreign rivals, and governments retaliate with tariffs, quotas, subsidies and other methods of excluding goods from the market. In the last resort the struggle leads to wars of conquest, the object of which is to acquire control over markets, or over territories rich in mineral and other resources and in an exploitable working-class. Marshal Foch, French military leader in the First World War wrote in 1918 of the commercial nature of the forces leading to war: ‘What do we all seek? New outlets for an ever-increasing commerce and for industries which, producing far more than they can consume or sell, are constantly hampered by an increasing competition. And then? Why! New areas for trade are cleared by cannon shot. Even the Stock Exchange, for reasons of interest, can cause armies to enter into campaign' (United Service Magazine, December 1918). Even Keynes in 1936 identified that 'competitive struggle for markets' is the predominant factor in 'the economic causes of war' (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936). Capitalists who have money invested in some foreign territory will do their utmost to secure protection for their property through the activities – including in the last resort war – of their government. So it is capitalism itself which produces these conflicts over markets, trade routes, raw material which cause war. As we wrote in 1914, 'the capitalists of Europe have quarrelled over the question of the control of trade routes and the world’s markets.'
German competition
The origins of the First World War lay in the fact that the nineteenth century industrial, military and naval predominance of British and French capitalism was being challenged by the rapid expansion of Germany. As German industry grew, German production and exports were catching up with the British and the French. Germany was only unified in 1871 and its economic development had been rapid: in 1870 coal production was 40 million tons, in 1913 280 million tons (60 percent from the Ruhr but also from Lorraine, Silesia, and the Saar. Germany was developing modern industries such as the chemical and electrical industries, and in textiles by 1914 they exported more and imported less than Britain. The German annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 linked Lorraine ore with Westphalian coal, and Germany’s pig-iron production jumped ahead of Britain's.


In Britain a Commission on the Depression of Trade Report of 1886 regarding German competition in world markets stated 'A reference to the reports from abroad will show that in every quarter of the world the perseverance and enterprise of the Germans are making themselves felt. In actual production of commodities we have now few, if any, advantages over them, and in a knowledge of the markets of the world, a desire to accommodate themselves to local tastes or idiosyncrasies, a determination to obtain a footing wherever they can and a tenacity in maintaining it, they appear to be gaining ground upon us.'

France had experienced a loss of prestige after defeat in 1870 by Germany, its pride was hurt by the loss of Alsace and Lorraine with its iron ore and coal mines. Thus France had an outstanding interest in reclaiming Alsace and Lorraine. Also the Saar with its wealth of coal deposits coupled with its location on the border between France and Germany meant the Saar was important. Historically, the Saar was a Prussian/German territory but in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War the French attempted to seize it but failed.
Places in the sun
A major factor in capitalist rivalries was imperialism, particularly the 'scramble for Africa' and Germany's search for a 'place in the sun.' Germany had entered into the colonial scramble but they developed late and found all the best territories and strategic ocean highways already dominated by Britain, France and others. Britain had acquired most of its empire before 1870; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and other parts of the globe were acquired to protect trade routes. The prime motivator for empire was trade, the East India Company drove the expansion of the British Empire in Asia. First came the missionary and the trader then the soldier and Governor with the flag.
Germany annexed Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, and Tanganyika and made efforts to connect the south west colonies with the eastern colonies which threatened British expansion north from the Cape. German support for the Boers against Britain in mineral-rich South Africa antagonised the British. Dr Heinrich Schnee, formerly Governor of German East Africa wrote in 1936: 'The colonies offer an assured market for our own industrial produce; they afford a field of investment for the savings and capital of the Mother country.'
Colonies were necessary for investment, resources, raw materials, markets for manufacturers and raw materials not available or in short supply in metropolitan countries e.g. rubber in the Congo. The colonial markets became more important after Free Trade was abandoned in Europe in the 1870s. Joseph Chamberlain, British Secretary of State for the Colonies said in a speech to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1890 that 'All the great Offices of State are occupied with commercial affairs. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and in defending old ones. The War Office and the Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparations for the defence of these markets and for the protection of our commerce' (Leonard Woolf, Empire and Commerce in Africa: A Study in Economic Imperialism, 1920).
Prior to 1914 German capitalism was rapidly encroaching on British and French markets, the international situation was intensely difficult with two basic problems: Alsace and Lorraine in the west and in the east the Balkans. The Serbian Pork War inflamed Serbian nationalism in Serbia and amongst Bosnian Serbs, and a Bosnian Serb would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which would link Germany to the oilfields in the Persian Gulf, putting it in striking distance of British oilfields in Persia, Russian oilfields in the Caucasus, and British India, was deemed a serious threat.
The German invasion of Belgium meant British capitalist interests were endangered directly by Germany becoming master of ports on the English Channel. Prime Minister, Asquith wrote on 2 August, 1914: 'It is against British interests that France should be wiped out as a Great Power. We cannot allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base. We have to prevent Belgium being utilised and absorbed by Germany.'
British War Aims Achieved
The British war aim in the First World War was to restrict German access to the Persian Gulf and the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty accomplished everything that Britain and France wanted; Germany lost its colonies in Africa which became mandates of the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire was broken up and Britain received as mandates Mesopotamia and Palestine, and the French got back Alsace and Lorraine, and received the mandates of the Levant (Lebanon and Syria). The Saar Land became a mandate of Britain and France from 1920 to 1935, and after the Second World War the French got their hands on it again but only until 1956. Germany achieved one of its war aims albeit briefly: the March 1918 Brest Litovsk Treaty forced on the new Bolshevik government in Russia meant that Ukraine, 'the bread basket of Europe' with its fertile steppes of rich black soil and vast fields of wheat, gained 'independence' from Russia but was essentially an economic satellite of Germany.
The First World War did not start overnight through an assassin’s bullets at Sarajevo, it was the outcome of years of conflicting capitalist interests. After the war we wrote 'While competition between capitalist groups for routes, markets, and control of raw material exists, the cause of war remains.' We had even written as early as November, 1914: 'the facts point irresistibly to further great wars. They indicate that no sooner will the present struggle have ceased than diplomats will be at work forming new alliances.' And it was these alliances and the rivalries that were engendered by them that eventually led to the next world war in 1939.
Steve Clayton

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers and Society—3: John Steinbeck

From the Writers and Society series published in the August-September 1956 issue of Forum

John Steinbeck is a novelist who fits better than most into the category of "writers about society." He has fairly consistently, at least in the 'thirties, written of the poor, the outcasts and misfits in society, and of their sufferings. This is not to say that he belongs to that group of "social realists" of the 'thirties with their stilted, unfeeling proletarian plots that followed the party line. As F. J. Hoffman says in The Modern Novel in America, Steinbeck is one of those "whose work lifts them above the dead level of the proletarian formula novel."

Grapes of Wrath, which is perhaps his best known work, deals with a group of migrant fruit-pickers in the U.S.A. It tells of a farming family dispossessed of their land, who trek across America in an ancient, battered truck to find work picking fruit in California. When they arrive in the promised land, they find that bad food, appalling living conditions and brutality is the lot of the "Okies," as the migrants are called. They find that thousands upon thousands of the unemployed and dispossessed have come to California, like themselves attracted by handbills promising high wages. Not only are the unprotected and unorganised "Okies" beaten and cheated by the fruit growers, but they are hated by the local inhabitants, who see in them a threat to their livelihood and property.

The elder in the family, Tom, is released from prison on parole, and becomes embittered by the treatment that his family receives at the hands of the fruit growers, and, when his friend is murdered by strike-breakers, he kills one of them and becomes a renegade.

This novel attained great popularity when it was published (1939), and created quite a furore, and eventually the government had to take steps to provide for the "Okies" reasonable living quarters and some kind of protection against the fruit-growers. The message of the book, however, is still relevant, for the migrant workers are still the worst-paid and least organised section of the American working class. In spite of some rather laboured symbolism, and philosophical reflections of the fatalistic kind, this novel is a most moving and impressive study of the struggles of a section of the subject-class.

Steinbeck's sympathy for the oppressed appears in another novel, In Dubious Battle, which is a story of a strike among fruit-pickers in the Torgas Valley, and it could be said that Grapes of Wrath developed directly from this work, in spite of the differences in presentation. The story is largely an account of the reactions of the three principal characters to the strike—the experienced strike-leader, the novice, and a doctor who is in the role of an observer. The discussions that take place between the three men have a certain amount of interest, and the study of the reactions of the individuals concerned makes this an unusual novel that stands out among the many that the depression brought forth dealing with similar subject-matter. The strike leaders are Communists, but of a peculiar kind. Steinbeck himself wrote: "My information for this book came mostly from the Irish and Italian Communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room. They don't believe in ideologies and ideal tactics. They just do what they can under the circumstances."

In this book also, Steinbeck's somewhat confused philosophy appears (in this case from the mouth of the doctor), although it must be said in fairness to him that he is always interesting, and sometimes rings the bell, as when the tyro Jim suggests that the violence of the conflict is necessary and that one "ought to think only of the end; out of this struggle a good thing is going to grow," to which the doctor replies that "in his little experience, the end is never very different in its nature to the means."

The characters who seem particularly to appeal to Steinbeck are the tramps, the lazy, good-natured, unemployable natives of the poor quarters of the Californian coastal towns. Cannery Row (1945) and Tortilla Flat (1935) both deal with groups of this kind, the latter, improbable though it may seem, being based on the Arthurian legend. This book deals with a group of Mexicans and their leader, Danny, who are by normal capitalist standards, misfits. It is a somewhat episodic series of adventures of this group, and their struggle (if such a term can be used) to exist happily without working. Although no more than a folk-tale, the book is extremely successful in holding one's interest and providing entertainment, which is more than one can say for ninety per cent. of the output of modern fiction writers.

Cannery Row is a similar tale, also episodic in character, but this time about a group of white vagabonds. Both of these books, although lacking the sociological punch of the two earlier-mentioned books, are extremely readable accounts of what was, and probably still is, an aspect of American life. The Wayward Bus (1947) is also similar in character, and one of Steinbeck's last published works, Sweet Thursday, is a sequel to Cannery Row. The characters are, in the main, the same as in the earlier book, and the action takes place after the last war. The book is amusing enough, but hardly justifies the re-opening of a mine that Steinbeck had already fully worked out.

Of Mice and Men, another of Steinbeck's more well-known novels, is also about migrant workers, but this time it is a story of two individuals. One is a feeble-minded lumbering giant, and the other a short, tough man who has become the other's protector and guide. It is a short, well-constructed book, which packs into its pages a wealth of telling description and quite convincing action and dialogue.

Lennie, the giant, has murderous impulses, more from animal fear than from badness, and George, his protector, is constantly struggling to prevent Lennie from getting into trouble. The tragic climax is extremely taut and moving, and the novel as a whole is certainly one of Steinbeck's more successful ventures.

A later novel, The Moon is Down, (also published in play form) seems to be a regression from the values that Steinbeck appeared to uphold in his earlier work. This story of an occupied country (presumably Norway) during the last war, appears to have been written more with an eye on Hollywood than on social problems, and in fact the novel was turned into a play and film script almost without alteration. The point that it makes is that the human spirit cannot be broken, and that an occupying power will never be able to force the submission of a "free people." It certainly does not give an accurate picture of the occupied countries, but as it was a wartime production, this is hardly surprising. As with the majority of Western writers and intellectuals, the destruction of fascism presumably became the most pressing need in Steinbeck's eyes.

Steinbeck's earlier novels, such as Cup of Gold and The Pastures of Heaven, are not particularly interesting, as they contain all the faults of the later books, without any of their compensating merits. The short stories are somewhat better, but here too, one is confronted with the top-heavy philosophy and a preoccupation with plants, insects and animals.

Edmund Wilson, on The Boys in the Back Room, has levelled much constructive criticism at Steinbeck and his work, but he does him less than justice when he suggests that all of Steinbeck's characters are lacking in humanity, and that they are presented in a clinical detached way in the manner of white mice or insects in the dissecting room.

It is true that Steinbeck, who is a keen biologist, is engrossed in the minutiae of the animal and plant kingdoms, and is especially fascinated by the wanton slaughter that goes on in them. In the early pages of The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, there is a lengthy account of a turtle laboriously making its way across a field to the road. There are many examples of this kind of thing in Steinbeck, and apart from the symbolism, they add little or nothing to the plots or action of his stories, except when they are brought in as an incidental activity of biologically-minded characters (as with Doc, in Sweet Thursday).

The preoccupation with biology, however, is little more than a personal foible, and does not affect Steinbeck's presentation of his characters to any real extent. Tom Joad, Ma, Casey and the others in Grapes of Wrath could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as clinical studies, and in fact their humanity and suffering is so skillfully presented as to make them completely convincing. Edmund Wilson himself recognised one aspect of this when he wrote "there remains behind the journalism, the theatricalities, and the tricks of his other books, a mind which does seem first rate in its unpanicky scrutiny of life."

It could be said with some justification, that after his violence and fervour during the depression, Steinbeck has dried up, said nothing further of any importance, and is merely settling down to a financially stable existence producing light, harmless, Hollywood-intended works with little or no bearing upon society or its problems. It is somewhat early in Steinbeck's career to make such a judgment, however, and one can only hope that Steinbeck will turn his attention and skill to the many problems that America offers to the intelligent writer. Even if this does not happen, Steinbeck will have already earned a niche in the not overcrowded gallery of stimulating writers about society.
Albert Ivimey




Writers and Society—2: Carson McCullers

From the Writers and Society series published in the June-July 1956 issue of Forum

The subject of the first article in this series was William Faulkner, an American novelist, who writes mainly about the South. Carson McCullers is another American whose novels are set mainly in the South, but there the similarity ends. McCullers writes in a much clearer and more straightforward manner than does Faulkner and generally speaking, her characters spring from a completely different world. The people in her novels, are generally "much nearer home" in the sense that they are often working-class town-dwellers who lead lives recognisably akin to our own, whereas Faulkner writes almost entirely of impoverished Southern aristocrats, misfits, criminals and the like.

Very few of her novels and stories have been published in this country, but those that have so far appeared have been of an extremely high quality. One of them—The Member of the Wedding—has been filmed by Stanley Kramer and those who have seen the film will have gained a fairly accurate idea of McCullers' approach, for the film was an extremely successful adaptation of the book, which is an account of an adolescent girl suffering the pangs of growing-up.

This novel, which is probably the most appealing of Carson McCullers' novels, deals with this girl, Frankie, and her development through adolescence. She is plain, awkward and almost friendless, and considers herself too old to play with the children in the dust of the streets, but she in turn is considered too young to be allowed to join the local youth club. Her brother, on his return from the forces, is about to be married, and Frankie, in her loneliness, fixes all her hopes and desires upon the wedding and decides to go away with them. Eventually of course, the result is unhappy disillusionment, and near-tragedy, but the resulting impression is not one of morbidity but of what Walter Allen called "the beauty that comes from a comprehensive and quite unsentimental pity for her characters." The other main characters in the novel, John Henry, the little boy next door, and the Negro cook-housekeeper, are also drawn sympathetically and the total picture is that of a sympathetic presentation of life as it really is and not a glorified picture-postcard substitute.

Her characters, particularly the children, are in general, human and likeable, drawn with a firmness and delineation that is quite unlike Faulkner, and as one reads, one can feel the characters developing during the course of the narrative. There is also no lack of ideas in her novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for instance, contains characters with shades of left-wing views. There is an old Negro doctor who is embittered by his people's struggles and wishes to lead Negro marchers to the Capital to seek human rights for his downtrodden people. Then there is the wanderer who thinks that the Negro problem is only one of the many social problems, which itself merits no special attention, and who considers that marches and the like merely fritter away the resources of the working class and who is all for spreading the word of the revolution. The resulting argument between them reads almost like a Hyde Park wrangle.

This novel is an account of how four people's lives become entangled by their association with a mute who becomes their confidante. The Negro doctor; the labour agitator; a lonely and philosophical cafe proprietor; and an adolescent girl, all turn to the mute as the one person who can help them sort out their own problems and ease their frustrations, although ironically, he is not really in sympathy with any one of them, and a large part of the time he does not even understand what they are talking about. The mute's death leaves a void in their lives and life becomes once more drab and lonely. The wanderer continues on his way, the cafe proprietor goes back to his observation of people, the Negro doctor is forced to rest from his struggles by serious illness, and the girl, who feels cheated by life, goes to work in Woolworths for a few dollars a week—("What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap—the store, then come home to sleep, and back at the store again. The clock in front of the place where Mr. Singer used to work pointed to seven. And she was just getting off. Whenever there was overtime the manager always told her to stay. Because she could stand longer on her feet and work harder before giving out than any other girl.") As an examination of Southern small town life the book is fascinating and extremely readable, but more than this, as a tale of human beings' attitudes to and their struggles against the crushing weight of capitalism's problems and frustrations, the book is a near-masterpiece.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a novel in a completely different vein to the two mentioned above. It deals with the lives of officers, their wives and a private soldier in an American army camp in peace time. The suspense and tragedy of the story is admirably drawn, as are the character portraits of the soldiers, their officers and the officers' ladies. The viciousness, monotony and pointlessness of army life is portrayed to great effect. ("One old corporal wrote a letter every night to Shirley Temple making it a sort of diary of all that he had done during the day and mailing it before breakfast next morning.") The horror of these people's empty lives leads up to a climax of tragedy which is as impressive as almost anything in modern literature.

Another short novel, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, is a somewhat Faulknerish tale of stunted lives in an American backwoods town. It has all the remarkable insight and invention of Faulkner with what most people would consider the added advantage of a clear prose style and sympathy which that writer lacks.

McCullers has been described (by David Garnett) as "the best living American writer" and if one's criterion of good literature requires humanity and sympathy of approach as well as sheer brilliant writing, then this statement is probably not far wrong. As V. S. Pritchett has described her she is "the most remarkable writer to come out of America for a generation. Like all writers of original genius she conceives that we have missed something that was plainly to be seen in the real world . . . . an incomparable story-teller."

This brief summary can only give a bald and inadequate outline of McCullers' work but anyone who takes the trouble to get hold of her novels and short stories will not be disappointed—there is a freshness, warmth and skill in her writing that is unmistakable, and that this writer finds irresistible.
Albert Ivimey

Writers and Society—1: William Faulkner

From the Writers and Society series published in the April 1956 issue of Forum

This series of articles is meant to be an introduction to some novelists of this century and their work, through socialist eyes. This is not to say that some, or even any, novelists write from a socialist point of view, but it is no coincidence that the problems of capitalism which the socialist is most concerned with are often written about by modern novelists to great effect.

As Coster has pointed out in his articles on Marxism and Literature, the economic background and social circumstances explain to a large extent the nature and content of the literature of the time, and literature, in its turn, tells us much about the society of the period. For this reason there is much to be gained from a study of the novel, as one's insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people of their respective periods depends largely upon the novels, plays and stories of the time.

It is perhaps in the United States that the twentieth-century novel has had its most prolific flowering, so perhaps that would be the best place to commence our survey.

William Faulkner is a novelist who has achieved a certain amount of fame (and criticism) in our day. he was born in Mississippi in 1897 and, after working in a bank as a young man, became in turn a lieutenant in the air force, a farm worker, a coal heaver, a crew member of a fishing trawler, a newspaper reporter, a deck-hand, and eventually settled down on a farm in Mississippi.

He has written a number of novels, the majority of them dealing with "The South," those troubled states below the Mason-Dixon line that contain a large negro minority. It is not perhaps, the South of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Tales of Judge Priest but it is certainly the South of Scottsboro' Boy and of reality, a seething cauldron of humanity which has erupted at various times into lynching parties; prison riots; race murders; and the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to the other problems of capitalism that we know so well - unemployment, poverty and disease. Faulkner portrays these problems and evils in vivid colours in his novels and deals with them with absolute sincerity and with tremendous power and conviction.

Faulkner has, however, the desire to express himself in a more vivid manner than straightforward prose allows him, and accordingly he has experimented in various ways in his novels. For instance, his latest novel, Requiem for a Num, which is an extremely fine story of a Negress, who is executed for the murder of a white baby, contains between the chapters of the story itself large amounts of "abstract" prose which veers between clearness and downright incomprehensibility.

His first novel, Soldier's Pay, is written in a clear straightforward prose style that has considerable impact. It is a story of soldiers demobilised after the 1914-18 war, and their struggle to get adjusted to the changed world around them. This novel probably represents the best introduction to Faulkner's work.

Perhaps his most well-known novel is Sanctuary (published in Penguins) which deals with a group of criminals, misfits and mentally deranged people living in the deep South. A white girl is raped and a negro murdered, and an innocent man is tried and found guilty of the two crimes (due to the evidence given by the raped girl) and eventually dragged from the gaol and burned by the mob. In this novel Faulkner almost makes the reader feel the experiences of his characters and, in the dialogue and particularly in the tortured thoughts of the lawyer who is defending the accused, one can see Faulkner's deep insight into the social problems of the South.

Again in The Sound and the Fury there appears this insight and compassion for humanity. It is a story of a depressed Southern white family with negro servants whose members struggle along in an ever-growing sea of problems. The novel contains some of Faulkner's most successful experiments in "impressionist" writing, part of the text representing the thoughts of an inarticulate feeble-minded member of the family. Another novel, Intruder in the Dust (filmed by M.G.M. in 1949) tells of an old negro who is arrested for a murder of which he is innocent, and the attempts of a white lawyer and an old white woman to exonerate him. This novel throws light on the colour problem and also deals with the kind of life that is led by a number of the white farmers in the South, and the poverty both of their means of living and their thinking.

A number of the novels, such as Sanctuary, Requiem for a Nun, Sartoris, and others, and also many of the short stories are set in the same locale, "Yoknapatawpha Country," and the plots and the characters are often interwoven. Not all of Faulkner's novels are in this setting however, or even in the South. One of his novels, Pylon, describes the miserable existence of the pilots and mechanics of "air-circuses" in the 'thirties and is written from the view of a physically emaciated and mentally unstable newspaper reporter. As in a number of the novels, the story ends in tragedy, but there is no doubt that, as with all of Faulkner's writing, it was written to stimulate and to make the reader wonder about humanity and its evils and capabilities.

William Faulkner has expressed the purpose behind his writings in his speech of acceptance for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949. He described his writing as being "a life's work in the agony and sweat of all the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before." Whilst it cannot be suggested that Faulkner is a socialist, it is obvious nevertheless that his approach to mankind is constructive, and at some points similar to the socialist's own.

The main fault in the general trend of Faulkner's thought, if one can pick out a general trend, is his somewhat narrow parochialism. He is still infected with the ideology of the "homogeneous South" that should have disappeared with General Lee's surrender. He seems to want to turn the clock back to those chivalrous slave-ridden days that were irrevocably lost when Fort Sumpter was fired upon in 1861.

He is, first and foremost, a Southerner, and his convictions are so bound up with the pre-Civil War mentality of the South, that he has gone so far as to state that he would be prepared to fight against the North in another civil war if the Southerner's rights were threatened. In a remarkable interview with the Sunday Times (4/3/56), Faulkner said: "I grant you that it is bad that there should be a minority people who because of their colour don't have the right to social equality and to justice. But it is bad that Americans should be fighting Americans. That is what will happen, because the Southern whites are back in the spirit of 1860. There could easily be another civil war and the South would be whipped gain."

Edmund Wilson, in an admirable essay, "William Faulkner and the Civil Rights Program," dealing with this aspect of Faulkner's writing, pointed out that however much faith Faulkner placed in the Southern "Liberals," it is to a large extent the outside pressure of Northern opinion that forces the South to think seriously about the negro problem. Faulkner however, looks upon the problem in a different light. He regards John Brown, the Civil War, and the Supreme Court decision on segregated schools as retrograde steps so far as the Negroes are concerned. The bitterness and racial intolerance aroused by reconstruction after the civil war will be equalled, he would say, by the bitterness aroused by the Court's decision. He can see the evils of the colour problem (and indeed, his novels contain sympathetic and stimulating treatment of the subject) but he insists that if bitterness, bloodshed and race-riots are to be avoided, the South must be left to find its own solution, and not have ready-made solutions imposed on them by the North.

At least Faulkner can see quite clearly the economic basis of the problem - "To produce cotton we have a system of peonage. That is absolutely what is at the bottom of the situation. I would say that a planter who has a thousand acres wants to keep the Negro in a position of debt-peonage and to do it he is going to violate his daughter. But all he wants at the back of it is a system of peonage to produce his cotton at the highest rate of profit." What he cannot see is that the movement against race-prejudice has an equally economic background. If because of labour-shortage, Negroes are employed in skilled jobs in factories on an equal footing with with workers, then race-prejudice must tend to break down. South Africa is a case in point. The feudal Boer farmer and their allies are attempting to keep the coloured people subjugated, whereas the capitalists are using their influence to end segregation (not from any liberal convictions but from necessity), and if South Africa is to become an efficient capitalist nation, it will be the anti-segregation group that will win out.

In fact it is capitalism itself which at appropriate periods breaks down the barrier, and not the efforts of liberal-minded whites, North or South. The Civil War was caused through the South's refusal to recognise realities and see that as far as the United States was concerned, Northern capitalist industry was the norm and dominant influence, and the feudal Southern cotton plantations were outmoded. The present trouble spring from the same sort of ideology, the Southern whites this time refusing to accept that capitalism needs (at least in time of boom and labour shortage) efficient unsegregated workers, black or white. Race prejudice will tend to break down with the termination of the Negroes' subjugation as a race and their general merging into the undifferentiated working class. The Supreme Court decision in essence, therefore, is not the culmination of a campaign of liberal opinion, but is merely the rubber stamp on a process that capitalism itself has brought about.

Nevertheless, this cannot detract from the high quality of Faulkner's writing and should not prevent socialists from getting a great deal of pleasure and mental profit from his work. After all, every socialist is, or should be ready to learn more about the world in which he lives, and there is no doubt that there is something to be learnt from the works of novelists such as William Faulkner.

Recommended books: - Soldier's Pay; Sartoris; The Sound and The Fury; Sanctuary; Light in August; Pylon; Intruder in the Dust; Requiem for a Nun; As I Lay Dying; Knight's Gambit (short stories); Collected Stories.
Albert Ivimey