Monday, March 17, 2014

Why I joined the S.P.G.B. (1975)

From the September 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Saying that one met members of the SPGB does not lead far — Winston Churchill was once chatted up by a member, but he never joined. The question is what made the Socialists' words acceptable: what chord of consciousness awaited being touched by them?

I was raised in East London between the wars, where everyone was poor. I knew jews, gentiles, black men, yellow men and the man in the sweetshop who loved Dickens, and they were all poor. There was a place in the town called "up the Labour" where everybody went, and when people met they didn't say How do you do; they said "Working?"

We lived on a corner near the main road, and sometimes men knocked at the door and asked for a drink of water. They had walked to London to look for work. I heard my parents say that one man had walked from Middlesbrough, and I looked on the map and saw where it was. Jesus! Yet even in this land of misfortune people thought they were better than others: some were said to be "common", and there were children one was not supposed to play with.

When I was I ten I was socially estranged myself. I got a scholarship to the grammar school, from my scruffy down-the-road school — I think it was the first one they had had since the 1870 Education Act. I had to fight nearly every boy in the neighbourhood. The scholarship was an opportunity, the grown-ups said. So it was: to find out that the paying pupils and the staff —M.A. Cantab., etc. — despised scholarship boys with Cockney vowels.

The effect on scholarship boys was interesting. Most became imitators, seeking to please and be accepted so that they could feel yes, they'd risen. But several joined the Young Communist League and the Fascists: having themselves been kicked, they wanted to kick someone else. I was in a thing called the Schoolboys' United Front, where we passed ferocious resolutions about the Means Test and the dole.

The school gave us languages dead and alive, and literature, because it was conducted as if we were all going to universities. Whereas for four-fifths the labour market waited: they were going to be office boys. Even for that, you had to pass "Matric". Some had several goes; their future—a life's penal servitude in a shipping office—was held to depend on it.

Unfortunately for the school as well as me, I liked the lit. and language and didn't want to be an office boy. The only alternative was manual labour. I humped heavy loads, scrubbed floors, became a packer, a builders' labourer, a gravedigger. I learned a trade: drawing the innards out of chickens. I was a small-time professional boxer and won more fights than champions have now, most of them for twenty-five shillings a time.

And everywhere I saw people were exploited and to be born in the working class was to be damned. I met men from whom I learned more about books than a university could have taught me — as Henry Miller says, "men who were fit to rule the world", only they weren't in that way: they were working for wretched wages, being hired and fired and treated like dirt. And the ones who were truly degraded: who scraped to the boss and thought how generous he was to employ them for two or three pounds a week, and what heights of magnanimity were in giving three minutes on the clock before stopping a quarter.

I heard about the system. The Communist speakers preached to crowds on Saturday nights. Their sermon was the one attributed to William Jennings Bryan, "that every man who has a clean shirt is a thief and should be hanged". They said, regularly, that the British Empire was at the crossroads. It had a thrilling, ominous ring, but what did it mean? They didn't seem to know themselves. The Labour Party had clean shirts and were always promising: promises were what the working class lived on. Or one could read Bernard Shaw, all aphorisms like toys and mottoes coming out of crackers, and about as useful.

What engaged my attention most in the SPGB was that it made no offer to do benevolent things and did no urging to love one's neighbour. It said the working class had got to see to its own salvation. The members were not even propitiatory. They found the working class and me both intolerably ignorant, and said so. When I showed my knowledge, they told me my brains were elsewhere than in my head; I voiced my opinions about society, and they told me to go and read my Marx.

I learned, in fact, that indignation and rebellion are only starting-points. Conscious that a great deal is wrong, you have to find — exactly — what it is; or confusion reigns. What is more, the truth can be unpalatable. Political parties and leaders achieve popularity by telling people what they want to hear, and the more passionate you are the more strongly you will insist on hearing it. "Something must be done" is the conviction: but what?

I approached the SPGB because I wanted the right answers. I joined it when they had knocked the impulse to the wrong ones out if me. The story does not have to be everyone's, but it is characteristic for a good many of my generation. And, though times have changed in some respects, the capitalist system and the truth about it have not altered at all.
Robert Barltrop

State of affairs (1988)

Book Review from the June 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Coercive State by Paddy Hillyard and Janie Percy-Smith, Fontana, £5.95

We all live, so the story goes, in a democracy, where governments are elected through free elections, as the result of open political processes in which everyone can participate. The state is supposedly run by democratically-elected politicians who are fully answerable to the electorate and who make relevant information and Government documents available for anyone to read. All citizens are equal before the law and stand to benefit from the state's welfare policies. Such, at any rate, is the liberal democratic theory, but the authors of this book present a very different picture: of the state as a coercive machine, run by a small, secretive minority and constantly interfering with the lives of ordinary people.

Most people's participation in politics begins and ends with voting, and electoral campaigns are dominated by the media and the bigger parties, the latter not even being run by their own members. Local authorities have lost many powers to the central state, and information which reaches the general public is filtered by many devices, from outright state censorship to the prejudices of the press barons. The law is used against rather than for ordinary workers, and has instrumental in extending the Government's scrutiny of individuals and invasion of people's privacy. The welfare system is more concerned with sanctions and control than with meeting needs. Meanwhile, police powers are expanded, and more and more people are brought before the courts.

It is a devastating catalogue, and makes nonsense of Thatcher's claim to be "rolling back the frontiers of the state". To take just one example, one-third of all households in Britain are in receipt of housing benefit, which means that, simply in order to have a roof over their heads, their members must provide the state with extensive details of their daily lives. A recent form for this purpose contains over a hundred prying questions.

The book presents an effective exposure of the democratic pretensions of the state. If it can be criticised, it is on the basis of what is left unsaid. For one thing, it is open to the interpretation that things weren't quite so bad in the past; that the state was perhaps once less coercive and closer to the liberal ideal. The authors make it clear that they are not just dealing with the post-1979 Conservative government, and have some cogent comments on past Labour governments, such as their use of Special Branch against trade unionists, their meddling in the lives of the poorest claimants and their attempts at censorship. Nevertheless, it is easy to gain the impression that the truly coercive state is a relatively recent development.

Related to this is the point that the reasons why the state functions coercively are left very much aside. This is important, because concentrating on specific instances might suggest that, if these were altered or removed, the state would be properly democratic. There are some passing reference to the state acting in the interests of the political and economic elite, but no spelling out of the fact that the state exists and is used to defend the interests of the capitalist class. That is why the state can never be democratic, because it is not just a coercive state but a capitalist state.
Paul Bennett 

Nicaragua - Truth Will Out (2014)

The Material World column from the March 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many liberals, including the newly elected mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio, were inspired by the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in the 1980s. Indeed it was difficult for anyone not have some sympathy for the Sandinistas. After all, they were being confronted by the might of the United States who were not only sponsoring acts of terrorism against them but actually engaging in acts of war by mining Nicaragua’s ports, acts for which they were duly found guilty by the World Court (although they totally ignored the verdict). Nor could many help but admire their achievements in literacy and health-care.
Nevertheless, the Socialist Party could see through the false claims being presented that a Sandinista Nicaragua was in some way socialist. The Socialist Standard wrote at the time ‘Needless to say, the Socialist Party is hostile in every way to the Contra terrorists and their backers. But the enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a friend... Socialists do not support the state-capitalist government of Nicaragua and to the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign which implores us to do so we respond that our only support is for workers of all lands in their struggle against the capitalists of all lands, be they imperial exploiters or native ones, left or right wing’ (July 1987).
Ortega may have been a Sandinista rebel who helped defeat the Somoza dictatorship but now he has managed to transform himself from 'revolutionary' leader to simply just another revolting capitalist ruler.
With the subsequent re-elections of Ortega’s FSLN our cautionary counsel has been proved wise. In November 2013, Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister visited the UK to promote his country’s stable economy, potential for growth, infrastructure development and favourable fiscal legislation to international investments. He underlined the political stability, attractive set of labour laws, tax incentives and the comparative advantage that his country offers to British and European investors.
Under the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a trade and economic cooperation pact that includes Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela, Ortega, by presidential decree, established Councils of Citizen Power under the control of the Sandinista party to administer and distribute much of the social spending but which also provides an estimated $3 - 500 million in funds to be personally administered by Ortega with no public accountability.
Since being reconciled with the Catholic Church, Ortega has become a strident opponent of abortion. In a country where the population is 85 percent Catholic it is always helpful in elections to have the blessing of the Church even if it means supporting a ban on therapeutic abortions that has set back women's rights. Even a pregnancy that cannot possibly result in a viable baby – an anencephalic or ectopic one – has to be carried to term. A pregnant woman with cancer has to have the baby first, then treatment for the cancer, no matter what the risk to her chances of survival. A woman who gets pregnant through an act of rape or incest has to have the baby. In 2012 the government forced a 12-year old girl who had been raped and impregnated by her stepfather to remain under ‘state protection’ in a Managua hospital until she gave birth. Sonia Castro, Nicaragua’s Minister of Health, even anointed herself ‘protector-in-chief,’ making sure the child did not escape from the hospital.
The Independent wrote ‘Today in Nicaragua, two years after the Sandinistas' return to power, there is no idealism, no poetry, no romance. The regime over which President Ortega presides is an anthem to brute cynicism. Or a parable of human weakness, the old story of what happens with idealists, always and everywhere, once they have tasted power. It is Animal Farm all over again’ (21 Nov 2008).
The objective of socialists is to assist in the emancipation of the workers from our enslavement to the capitalist class. Ortega’s Sandinistas have not betrayed their core principles or ‘values’. Their socialist credentials were always weak and in fact made no claim to being socialist. The Sandinista movement was officially designated ‘a popular, democratic, and anti-imperialist revolution.’ How often have disillusioned left liberals cried ‘betrayal!’? It’s a simple matter of understanding economic systems. No one need be fooled by propaganda spin.

Bernard Levin and the SPGB (1976)

From the June 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bernard Levin is a well known columnist, a public figure, and if he isn't well known it is not due to lack of effort on his part. A journalist who is under a regular commitment to produce a daily newspaper column, as distinct from reporting news, is a man under constant pressure — a man eternally looking for something to say. Consequently, it is quite impossible for Levin, or anyone else for that matter, to keep up the pace and deal with matters other than superficially. Those who have followed the literary efforts of Levin over the years will have no difficulty in accepting this fact.

Levin wrote a criticism of the SPGB in an article entitled Creda Quia Impossible (The Observer, 18th April 1976) — and here we must add dog Latin to his many other talents. The article patronized us and what he described as the "glorious nonsense" emanating from the SPGB. This attack on the Party gave the impression of an amused tolerance for a "sect" based on "eccentricity" (his words) and was made in a review of a book called The Monument — the story of the SPGB. Unfortunately for Levin, some of the facts and anecdotes contained in The Monument, despite its many merits, are a personal version and the Party does not accept any responsibility for its contents.

Levin says, quite correctly, that the SPGB "has remained absolutely unchanged in its beliefs from 1904 to the present day". However, the SPGB bases its propaganda on the world of today not the world of 1904, as any reader of the Socialist Standard and listener to the spoken word will appreciate. The Object and Principles of the Party were formulated by our founders in 1904, and these Principles laid down the frame of reference for a revolutionary Socialist party. They are not a catechism, nor are they out of date any more than the Newtonian principles or any other scientific principles. We can well understand the amazement of Mr. Levin and others that such a strange phenomenon as a political party with a clean-cut object and principles should actually exist.

He says our position is "Marx is right; the SPGB interpretation of Marx is right". We do not accept that Marx was always right, and we have in the past criticized Marx. Nevertheless, we agree with the main Marxist theories of Historical Materialism and his analysis of capitalism.

Finally the SPGB has never been opposed to, or supported, reforms. Levin is confusing the political action which is necessary to get reforms with the content of the reforms. Nobody could oppose the introduction of safety working measures, of which Levin accuses us, free heating for old age pensioners, or other reforms, and we have never done so. If workers wish to sell their votes for a few crumbs of social reform that is their privilege, and equally, it is our privilege and duty to show that there is an alternative. We want them to take political action that will remove the need for reforms.

We mention these few facts in the rather forlorn hope that Levin will correct his mistaken view of the Party. We would also bring to his notice that no member was expelled or disciplined for carrying a gas-mask, nor is it true that "every time there was a vote on an expulsion those who had voted against it were themselves forthwith expelled". Levin can satisfy himself on this score, as the weekly Minutes of the Executive Committee are intact from 1904 and photocopies are available.

What a world we live in, and what peculiar standards of value we have which set great store on writings like Levin's. He follows a long tradition of instant intellectuals who are bankrupt of ideas and, having little real knowledge in their own right, can provide amusement in the knowledge that this suffices for many of their readers.
Jim D'Arcy