Friday, January 10, 2014

Robert Blatchford (1924)

From the February 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robert Blatchford recently resigned his post on the Sunday Chronicle and Sunday Herald. The reason he gave was that he was "tired of all this dirty business of lying about the Labour Party and similar tactics" (Daily Herald, January 7th, 1924). This sounds fine, and it drew from George Lansbury a column of extravagant appreciation, but when one remembers something of Blatchford's career it seems particularly out of place that he, of all men, should be praised for his independence and disinterested enthusiasm for Socialism. He had in his own words "been associated with these papers for seven years," and during those years had reached the point of repudiating most of the views of his youth, including all that he ever held of Socialism. He had shown himself one of the most violent of the stop-at-home fighters who gloried in the knowledge that the workers were butchering each other for the class Blatchford was serving. After selling his "great genius" to the capitalist Press for seven years, Blatchford decides to desert them; curiously, just at the moment when the Labour Party is about to take over the administration; and for this we are expected to honour him!

There are some who charitably ask that Blatchford be forgiven his treachery of the past seven years as a "mistake." Must we then also forgive his even more transparent treachery over the Boer War, when the open Imperialism of the British capitalists was opposed by Lloyd George?

As for his work for Socialism, it is as well to remember that it was the Clarion and its editor who reaped all the glory, not Socialism. The activities he organised were "Clarion" clubs and choirs and vans, and, as shown below, he appears to have reaped no small advantage from them. George Lansbury's opinion certainly does not seem to have been shared by one who knew Blatchford well—his brother Montague.

In a letter to David Lowe, reproduced by him in Forward (December 22nd, 1923) Keir Hardie wrote as follows: —
"House of Commons,
"9th August, 1902.

"Dear Davie,
"I am sending you a Manchester Guardian. It is good. When at Halifax recently I spent an evening at a friend's house where Mont. Blatchford was present. The bottle went round, and he came over to say that the C. (Clarion) was about to burst. That Nunquam and Dangle had not spoken, save to wrangle, for weeks. He afterwards saw me home in the wee sma' 'oors. The two able men have quarrelled about the division of the spoil. Each has an income, presumably, all told, of £600 a year. He, M.B., was happy on less than half, but the others had inflated notions of living; the more they got the more they wanted; they no longer wrote for the love of the Cause but purely for what it brought them; the Bounder, when alive, kept things straight with his fine scorn, but now there was no one to intervene, and the meetings of the Board were a series of wrangles over money affairs. All this and more, with much reiteration. He was sick of it, and was going to clear out, and felt sure the whole thing was about to burst . . . " 
"Nunquam," of course, is Robert Blatchford, and "Dangle" is A. M. Thompson, another loyal servant of the employing class who may also be expected to develop a tender conscience now that his erstwhile comrades have become His Majesty's Government.
Edgar Hardcastle

Ten Years of Struggle. (1914)

From the June 1914 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the 12th June of this year the Socialist Party completes ten years of effort in the service of the working class. Of course it is mere sentiment to say that therefore the 12th of June is any more important than the 11th, but, after all, sentiment is a very real attribute of the human make-up, and has its uses. So we will indulge it to the extent of calling the day auspicious, if for no better purpose than that of doing a little stock-taking.

It has become a matter of history how a band of stalwarts, weary of struggling with the reactionary and traitorous elements in the S.D.F., and hopeless of being able to place that decrepit organisation on a sound basis, came out of it, and with a few others formed a revolutionary political working-class party.

There were prophets in those days, and the prognostications of those gifted with second sight concerning the period which would elapse before the "new party" went to pieces would make interesting reading now, in view of how it has fared with us and what has happened to them. But the "new party" was born with a strong constitution, and it survived—and even flourished.

The reason for this comes out with startling clearness after ten years of battle. It is simply that it is founded upon fundamental principles.

Ten years have been a sufficient time for these principles to be thoroughly tested, and they have been so tested. They have been tested by the undesirables who came into the Party at its inception, and by those who have crept in since. But as always they have enabled the Party to purge itself clean and healthy. But they have been further tested by the inroads which time has made upon the roll of the founders. For while the membership of the Party is seven times as great as at its formation, the band of founders is sadly reduced in number. Yet our Declaration of Principles has proved, in other hands than those who framed them, a sufficient instrument for their revolutionary purpose. We know therefore that it will suffice to the end.

World War One – lest we forget (2002)

From the August 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

The German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg in 1914 was of military benefit but a political gamble. It enabled the German armies to flood into France by avoiding the main border defences and it allowed Belgian coal mines and factories to fall into German hands. The political gamble was whether or not this move would bring Britain into the war on the side of France.

For the previous century Britain had remained neutral in European conflicts, preferring to use diplomacy to maintain its top position in the balance of power by setting its capitalist rivals against each other. The British capitalist ruling class had supported Prussian aggression and a united Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and had applauded the formation of a German Empire. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century British capitalists began to realise that Germany was now rapidly replacing the traditional French enemy as their major commercial rival.

The unbridled European scramble for African colonies saw Germany savagely acquire four large areas of that continent. This new swift-growing capitalist society was in desperate need of sources of raw material, markets for their manufactured goods and regions for capital investment and possible emigration. When tremendous mineral wealth was discovered in the independent territory of Transvaal, the anti-British Dutch settlers (Boers) favoured allowing Germany to access these riches. This prompted the voracious British capitalists to embark upon a vicious and ruthless military policy of consolidation in Africa. By destroying, disarming and dispossessing war-like tribes (including the well-organised and disciplined military Zulu nation in 1879), they were then able to concentrate upon annexing the Boer territories of Orange Free State and Transvaal.

The first armed conflict between British and Boer (who were well-armed with German weapons) in 1881 resulted in a British disaster but led later to a far more determined action in 1899-1902 (known as the Boer War, during which 26,000 civilian Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. The eventual British victory assured British capitalists an additional bonanza in wealth and completely foiled the plans of their devastated German rivals. Having staked everything on an industrial society, German capitalists were left in a desperate situation of having no access to the raw materials that were so essential.

The German ruling class now turned their thoughts to the limitless riches that surrounded them in Europe. By expanding their control in all directions Germany could obtain all the resources her industries would ever need and would rocket Germany easily to top spot in the world capitalist league. Plans were made accordingly.

British capitalists were also anxiously aware of the possibility of Germany gaining access to Europe's riches and with the invasion of Belgium in 1914 the great fear was that such a state, with a powerful fleet controlling the Channel ports, could seriously challenge Britain's command of the seas. British capitalism could not allow this to happen.

Non-stop slaughter
So Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and had troops in France alongside her allies just in time to face an almighty military onslaught. A massive German army of 1½ million men stormed through Belgium with the objective of reaching and occupying Paris and the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. On the left of the line the British halted the German advance at Ypres where heavy fighting continued through to November. This was the first Battle of Ypres.

In the centre of the line the allies were driven back to the outskirts of Paris where, in September, the Germans were halted at the Marne river. Counter-attacks by the allies pushed the Germans back to the Aisne river by the end of 1914. The front line then stabilised and for 3½ years trenches and massed artillery transformed the war into a virtual interminable siege, extending from Switzerland to the sea.

All along this “Western Front” the names of obscure towns and villages became immortalised as grim reminders of the obscene indifference that exists towards the expendability and suffering of workers in our social system, known as “capitalism”. Young men were shot, bayoneted, gassed, blown to pieces or drowned in water-filled shell craters in their tens of thousands – human sacrifices to the God of Profit and Commercial Greed.

The fighting in capturing, losing and re-capturing a few yards of territory under the most horrific conditions and the great expenditure in effort and explosives plus the unacceptable casualties and loss of life, all became quite acceptable. The only significant movement, which swayed back and forth, was in the centre of the line between Loos and Verdun known as the “Somme Battles”.

Fighting was continuous all along the Western Front but ferocious major battles were unleashed at strategic points. On 22 April 1915 a heavy bombardment signalled another attempted “breakthrough” by the Germans in the second battle of Ypres. Civilians streamed out of the town and headed south. During the afternoon the Germans launched a poisonous gas attack, the first time such a weapon was ever used in warfare. Sixty-thousand allied troops died in this extended battle during which the Germans advanced two miles. This portion of the front was then pounded by artillery shells almost unceasingly for the next two years. The region was reclaimed marshland which was used as pasture. Farmers had been required by law to maintain drainage ditches which, of course, were quickly wrecked. Rains added to the already soggy terrain which eventually became a landscape of foul-smelling mud, peppered with water-filled shell craters. In time this treacherous morass would suck in and engulf men, horses, guns and later even tanks. Every new shell explosion would throw up rotted corpses which would slowly sink from view again.

In the Spring of 1916 the Germans launched a massive attack against the French at Verdun. For four months the battle raged and troops on both sides were massacred. The line held, but to relieve the exhausted defenders the allies mounted an equally massive offensive against the Germans on the Somme (1 July 1916). This first battle of the Somme was aimed at pushing the Germans back on a wide front. A seven-day artillery bombardment was followed by a “creeping barrage”, infantry advancing behind a screen of slowly progressing shell explosions. Constant pressure was applied to the German positions, British tanks appeared for the first time in September 1916. the few tanks became ineffective when this area of irrigation and river systems also turned into a quagmire. Conditions worsened during the winter but the “push” was resumed in the Spring of 1917. Progress was slow and at a huge cost in lives – 600,000 allies were lost for again of about 20 miles.

In April 1917 a British offensive captured some high ground overlooking Ypres, the notorious Vimy Ridge. The same month had the USA declare war on Germany but it would be a year before trained American troops arrived in France.

Life in the trenches after a battle has been described:
“By day, the only signs of life in the 'moonscape' of no-man's land was the hoarse and parched voices of the badly wounded pleading for help which would never arrive and the hawks and carrion crows alighting to gorge upon the many corpses. At dusk hordes of rats, seemingly in their billions, materialised to indulge in feasting upon the dead and the dying who were too weak to fend them off. Bodies were reduced to khaki-clad skeletons within hours.”
On 7 June 1917 the British eliminated another German position that overlooked Ypres. Nineteen mines were exploded in tunnels burrowed beneath the Messines Ridge. This was followed by an artillery barrage from 2,266 guns and howitzers and an infantry attack by 80,000 men. The rim of land was captured at a cost of 1,700 allies lives. This was merely a prelude to the third battle of Ypres, described even today as one of the most squalid bouts of butchery in the history of warfare – now more generally known as “Passchendaele”.

On 31 July 1917 4,000 allied guns pounded German lines for ten days. Four-and-a-half million shell reduced the villages to rubble and then turned the rubble to dust. For four months, mostly in heavy rain and waterlogged conditions, this mindless slaughter continued unabated. In October the Germans unleashed another new weapon for the first time, mustard gas which caused blindness and burns. On 4 November the Canadians captured a mass of shell holes that had once been Passchendaele. The allied line had advanced five miles for the loss of nearly 400,000 allies and at least 200,000. Six months later the Germans had recaptured all the ground the allies had gained since 1914.

On the night of 21 March 1918 the Germans hurled themselves at the British in the centre of the allied line in the second battle of the Somme. For a week the British were forced back but eventually halted the German advance at Amiens. The Germans then launched massive attacks against the French to the right which drove the line back once more to the Marne, where another stubborn resistance held the ferocious German attack.

War-weariness and exhaustion was affecting both sides by this time. The original British regular army had been destroyed in the first few months of the war. Kitchener's volunteer army, comprising those who had so enthusiastically flocked to the recruiting offices in 1914-1915, had been destroyed at the Somme. The British were now scraping the bottom of the barrel to replace the horrific losses. The very young, the old and the unfit were all being dragged in. When fresh American troops joined the final allied offensive which opened on 18 July, the Germans wilted and were rolled back until the final victory on 11 November.

The aftermath
Left behind, marking the position of the Western Front, was a scene of utter destruction. Every landmark had been wiped out and was unrecognisable. But nature healed the man-made wounds of the landscape. Shattered tree stumps threw out leaves and the ground became covered in poppies – a plant that thrives naturally wherever soil is badly disturbed – which became an emblem and trademark for a new “Remembrance” industry. Towns and villages were painstakingly rebuilt and today only the pages of history and the many man-made memorials make the visitor aware of the insane carnage that was acted out in these areas.

Accurate numbers of losses on the Western Front are unknown but, even today, bones and skulls are unearthed by ploughs and ditching machines. Many memorials list names of those “lost without trace”, 55,000 engraved at the Menin Gate, 34,000 at another memorial nearby and so on. These are just the names of British and empire troops and do not include French, Belgian or German losses. Acres of war graves litter France in which those whose remains were found are laid to rest.

Today, in this year of 2002, the land on which these war graves exist has become valuable and the French government have made it known that they intend allowing these grave sites to be used for capitalist development. The thought of bulldozers and construction activity operating upon these plots is abhorrent to many workers who see this as a lack of respect, gratitude, reverence and esteem, etc for those who died for “freedom”. The harsh question should be asked: What respect, gratitude, reverence or esteem did these reluctant and unsuspecting heroes ever have when they lived? A basic understanding of capitalism would indicate that the only freedom workers ever fight for in wars is the freedom for their national, capitalists to do exactly as they wish to make a profit.
Ron Stone

Screening The Working Class (2014)

The Proper Gander Column from the January 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Occasionally, TV companies allow programme-makers to bite the hand that feeds them. A recent mouthful was the Royal Television Society Huw Weldon Memorial Lecture Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays The Working Class (BBC4). In this insightful and engaging polemic, Owen Jones explains why it’s become acceptable for television to denigrate the working class.

As the broadcasting industry expanded from the late 50s, new opportunities arose for people from lowlier backgrounds to enter the profession. Consequently, a growing number of TV shows reflected working class experiences, from Galton and Simpson’s edgy sitcoms to gritty dramas like Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. By the mid 80s, the working class had been weakened by the decline of the unions and the rise of individualism. The media and the government started to drum into us that ‘we’re all middle class now, apart from those scrounging chavs’. The popular perception of class has shifted towards being defined by culture, according to a study by polling group Britain Thinks. Someone who listens to Radio 4 and owns a cafetière is ‘middle class’, while someone who reads tabloids and watches soaps is working class.

Worryingly, the term ‘working class’ has often become equated with the derogatory term ‘chav’. Because of this change in the way we see class, and fewer opportunities being available for people from poorer backgrounds to enter the television industry, the traditional blue collar working class has virtually disappeared from our screens. The schedules have become dominated by ‘cops, docs and frocks’, with the ‘docs’ – or documentaries – often being voyeuristic prole-baiting sneerathons. Gypsies, for example, are presented as ‘a strange breed to be prodded through the bars of their cages’. Extreme examples of benefit claimants, such as families with a dozen kids, are paraded as the tips of uncouth, freeloading icebergs. It’s now the norm for television to depict the working class as ugly stereotypes like Vicki Pollard and those chewed up and spat out by The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Jones’ argument usefully illustrates how television mirrors and contributes to the current belittling of the working class. He wants to fight back with a return to programming which reflects working class struggles honestly, and not through the distorting prism of bourgeois ideology. He doesn’t spend long enough discussing how the belief in a ‘middle class’ gives a misleading view of society’s real class structure. However, he rightly prefers to use definitions of class based on ‘wealth and power’, rather than lifestyle. After all, ‘an aristocrat who watches The X Factor is still an aristocrat’.
Mike Foster