Friday, April 25, 2014

Orwell in limbo (1956)

Film Review from the April 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I observe . . . some lines of an institution which, in its original, might have been tolerable; but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions." Thus the king of Brobdingnag to Gulliver; thus one's thoughts ran, watching the Associated British Studios' film of 1984.

The credits describe it as "freely adapted" from George Orwell's novel. Some alterations were to be expected, and the minor ones obviously have been made with a view to the American market. Goldstein and O'Brien have become Calador and O'Connor, the dollar currency of Britain in 1984 is converted back to sterling, and two of the leading actors are American.

The last may not sound like an alteration but it certainly looks like one, since all the principals are remarkably miscast. Winston Smith is played by Mr. Edmund O'Brien, whose bulky physique speaks well for nutrition in 1984. Wearing a permanent puzzled look, Mr. O'Brien makes Winston an earnest, plodding chap, getting into trouble less through clear-than thick-headedness. Similarly, Miss Jan Sterling conveys languor instead of the sexy vitality from which Julia's rebellion arises, and thus never makes the point at all. O'Connor is played by Mr. Michael Redgrave, for all the world like a Frank Richards schoolmaster; indeed, one half expects him to flourish a birch in the torture-chamber and cry "Upon my word, Bunter! I shall deal with you most severely for this insensate behaviour."

Still, some alterations were expected. What was not expected was the transformation of 1984 into a reaffirmation that Luv Conquers All. True, the ending is not happy in the usual sense: Winston and Julia are shot down, reaching for each other, after finding their love unaltered (like Winston's weight) by the months of torture. The message remains, however. Brains can be washed, but not hearts; thought can be destroyed, but not Luv.

Orwell's is the best, most intelligent of the novels which have tried prognosticating what man will come to: far better, for example, than Brave New World or Ape and Essence, because it gives a more coherent account of human activity. Basically it is a throwing-up of hands: at the growth of central power and its obsessional wielding by the post-war Labour government, at Russia, at the new ground gained for mass suggestion, at the awful thought that this was where "State Socialism" would lead. For all its mistakenness, it has the virtue of being a passionate protest against the regimentation of minds, and the film scarcely touches that. With its torture machines and the plug-ugly police, it makes the 1984 regime dependent on physical suppression far more than inculcated acceptance.

Was Orwell mistaken, then? Of course he was. The assumption on which he founded Big Brother's utopia are that was war can be kept up permanently to sustain a particular economy and that power is an end in itself: neither can be justified. His book describes but never explains a class-divided society without a class struggle. Indeed, 1984 never comes to grips with the question of the proles: they love squalidly, they loll in pubs, their culture is pornography and sentimental songs—but what do they do? Presumably they are productive workers, since Winston, Julia and their Outer Party colleagues are government clerks—but what sort of production? Dictators and all other rulers rule just because of the labour and acquiescence of the great mass of productive workers, and that is the factor which Orwell discounted.

Most people have appeared unsure quite what to make of 1984 (except the Communists, who have danced with blind rage as if some cap had not only fitted but fallen over their ears). A not-uncommon reaction has been that it may be mistaken, but, well, it's a warning. So it is: a warning against prophetic works, especially when they are written with more indignation that understanding. All the same, Orwell's book is sincere and serious enough to have deserved better treatment from the film-makers. Television did much better by it.

The publicity for 1984 says with emphasis: "A Film of To-morrow to SHOCK you To-day." Fair enough.
Robert Barltrop


Miners in the U.S.A. (1963)

Book Review from the August 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Power by Howard Fast (Methuen 21s.)

Howard Fast has added another story to the many dealing with the bitter struggles of the American Trade Union Movement in the 1920's and 30's. His latest novel, Power, deals with a particular section, the mineworkers, and it is a tale of horror and bloodshed.

In those days the mine owners ("mine operators" Fast calls them) were quite prepared to use armed might against union organisers and striking workers. Threats, intimidation, violence and murder, none of these were shunned by the company police in their efforts to remove the threat to their bosses' profit margins. It is not really surprising, then, that mineworkers responded in like measure.

Fast builds his plot around two main figures—Ben Holt, a local mineworkers' leader, and Alvin Cutter, a young New York journalist who is sent to cover a strike which Holt is organising in West Virginia. "All characters . . . are fictitious . . . " says the usual caution at the front of the book, but the background against which the tale is told is certainly far from fiction. Like their British counterparts, the U.S. miners suffered terrible privations in those days. Tattered, hungry and emaciated, it is astonishing that they managed to fight back at all, and many were their defeats before they won even the legal right to organise.

Mr. Fast tells us all this, and more. Ben Holt endures agony with the rest of his men in the opening stages, but he is quick to realise the possibilities which leadership of the union holds for him. He claws his way to the union presidency, the very top, and ends up with a yearly salary of fifty thousand dollars. The rank and file, meanwhile, are struggling for a national minimum of four dollars an hour. It is, in fact, a familiar story of trade union leadership generally in recent years. Here in Britain, it has gone a stage further and we are quite used to ex-T.U. men are being appointed to lucrative posts by the government, to say nothing of the knighthoods which are dished out from time to time. We know, too, that mineworkers—and others—have had to come out on strike often in the teeth of opposition and even denunciation from their own elected officials.

Power is a hard-hitting book. It does not make its characters any more lovable than they need be. But then the story is hardly a pretty one. The struggling trade unionists of yesterday had to put up with naked and open brutality in their efforts to organise for better pay and conditions. That sort of thing is a rarity now, but we still have to battle with our employers over wages, hours, and the like. So in that sense, nothing has changed, and this is the point we can appreciate in retrospect when reading a book like this. It is a fight which is unceasing so long as it is confined to such a field. It will end only when the issue has broadened to embrace the very ownership of the means of life, and has been won.
E. T. C.

The Keir Hardie myth (1961)

From the March 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

The myth about Keir Hardie's attitude to war is very persistent. At an anti-Polaris rally in Glasgow last December, the Co-operative Movement representative had only to refer to him, ". . . if we could get Keir Hardie here . . ." to have his words drowned by applause. Whatever the sentiments of the audience may have been, it was certainly in error about Hardie's attitude to war.

In 1914, with the Great War drawing near, the Second International called for "Peace demonstrations" throughout Europe. On August 2nd, in Trafalgar Square, Hardie spoke at the "Peace demonstration". Sentimentality and emotionalism were offered in place of the sound education and organisation needed by the workers. Two days later the War began, and the Second International collapsed, its unsound base giving way beneath the strain. In the Labour Leader Hardie proclaimed, "The I.L.P. will at least stand firm. Keep the Red Flag flying!" Brave words indeed, but wholly false. For the I.L.P. turned out to be standing firm on one issue and that was on the question of party unity. To preserve this unity, to retain the greatest number of members within the fold, the most opportunist and unprincipled formulas were applied to justify the conduct of individual party members. The flag hoisted by Hardie and his fellow "Labour Leaders" was a clear and unmistakable Union Jack.

In articles directed at his electorate in Merthyr, Keir Hardie made his position clear. "A nation at war must be united especially when its existence is at stake. In such filibustering expeditions as our own Boer War or the recent Italian war over Tripoli, where no national danger of any kind was involved there were many occasions for diversity of opinion and this was given voice to by the Socialist Party of Italy and the Stop the War Party in this country. Now the situation is different. With the boom of the enemy's guns within earshot, the lads who have gone forth by sea and land to fight their country's battles must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home." (Pioneer, Merthyr 15th Aug., 1914). The man who recoiled from the talk of waging the Class War was quite prepared to have workers serve "their Motherland" in Imperialist War; he wrote that "We must see the war through, but we must also make ourselves so familiar with the facts as to be able to intervene at the earliest possible moment in the interests of peace" (Pioneer 15th Aug., 1914). Let no one be deceived by the mention of the "earliest possible moment" because for Hardie this was a very long way off and he was in fact prepared to support a long, drawn-out conflict in Europe. As he put it on 28th November, 1914, "May I once again revert for the moment to the I.L.P. pamphlets? None of them clamour for immediately stopping the war. That would be foolish in the extreme, until at least the Germans have been driven back across their own frontier, a consummation which, I fear, carries us forward through a long and dismal vista" (Pioneer, Merthyr).

Time after time Hardie fed workers the lie that they were part of a "nation" and as such were bound up in the quarrels of their masters. Not "International Working Class Solidarity", but "Class Collaboration" was his rallying cry, for Hardie was a patriot and proud of it. "I am not a pro-German", he wrote, "and still less am I a pro-Russian. I am a pro-Briton, loving my country and caring for her people. Any war of aggression against the rights and liberties of my country I would resist to the last drop of blood in my veins. But I have not seen, outside the columns of the yellow Jingo Press, any proofs that our interests as a nation were in any way imperilled or threatened by a war in which Austria and Germany and Russia and France were involved" (Pioneer, Merthyr. 22nd Aug 1914).

But although he was a patriot, Hardie would not appear on the official Government recruiting platforms. In the first place he could not stomach the crude jingoism and Imperialism that emerged from these platforms and secondly he wished to remain free to present the I.L.P. version of the events that had led to Britain's involvement in the war. He believed that if the people were told frankly about the "Secret Diplomacy" that had piloted Britain into the war, and were shown how the war, though "unjust," had put the country in peril, the needed volunteers would emerge and there would be no need for jingoistic exhortations or conscription. This in Hardie's view was the "right method" and belief in this method led Hardie to boast that he had been instrumental (together with his colleagues) in securing more recruits for the Armed Forces than his Liberal opponents.

Writing in the Pioneer of November 28th, 1914, Keir Hardie made his claim thus: "I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting; I know too well all there is at stake. But, frankly, were I once more young and anxious to enlist, I would resent more than anything the spectacle of young, strong, flippant upstarts, whether MPs or candidates, who had the audacity to ask me to do for my country what they had not the heart to do themselves. Of all causes, this surely is the one in which actions speak louder than words. If I can get the recruiting figures for Merthyr week by week, which I find a very difficult job, I hope by another week to be able to PROVE that whereas our Rink Meeting gave a stimulus to recruiting, those meetings at the Drill Hall at which the Liberal member or the Liberal candidate spoke, had the exactly opposite effect." Hardie was so determined to prove his point that he tried on a number of occasions to obtain the relevant recruiting figures.

The figures were refused him, but this did not daunt Hardie. In the meantime, his staunch supporter J.B. (John Barr). writing in the Pioneer enthusiastically endorsed Hardie's claim; he wrote. "I am still of the opinion that the Rink meeting gave a fillip to recruiting, and my opinion is based on the belief that the I.L.P. method is the right one. . ."

Two weeks later Hardie was able to proclaim that he had obtained the recruiting figures for his constituency and was able to make good his boast. He set out his claim in this manner: "(1) That for the five weeks before the Rink Meeting. recruiting had been steadily going down week by week; (2) that our I.L.P. meeting was held on Sunday, October 25th, and that for the next three weeks the number of recruits secured in Merthyr kept steadily rising. . . If Mr. Jones challenges this statement I shall produce the figures, though not inclined to do so for very obvious patriotic reasons. Unlike my colleague I am more concerned with aiding the army than with trying to take a mean advantage of a political opponent" (Pioneer, 19th Dec., 1914).

Ample evidence exists to prove that in supporting the War Hardie in no way acted as a renegade. His actions were in fact in concord with the actions of his colleagues in the party leadership and these actions were never repudiated, but were endorsed and underwritten by the party as a whole.
Melvin Harris