Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mythtaken Identity

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

When were ‘the Olden Days’? Between 10,000BC and when your parents were children, suggests Ian Hislop in his documentary series about history. In The Olden Days: The power of the past in Britain (BBC2), he examines our need for a belief in a ‘heightened, idealised, imagined past’. ‘The Olden Days’ is history as what we want to believe happened, rather than what really happened.

The first episode describes how Dark Ages kings Arthur and Alfred have been invoked as national heroes at different times. Ninth Century cake-burner King Alfred has been portrayed as the founding father of various British legal, military and educational institutions, regardless of his actual involvement. King Arthur, who probably never existed, has been romanticised as a mighty, mystical monarch by groups as disparate as Henry VIII, the Pre-Raphaelites, Welsh industrialists and New Agers. Over the centuries, the legends of both rulers have been used by institutions to get credit. Alfred was spun into being the creator of Oxford University to gain the favour of Richard II, and a bunch of twelfth century Glastonbury monks turned their supposed discovery of Arthur’s bones into a moneyspinner for their monastery. The Arthurian myth still helps draw in the dosh, now from visitors to Glastonbury’s trinket shops and Tintagel Castle. Alfred’s popularity has declined, perhaps because the institutions he represents are trusted less these days. The future will see different interpretations of Alfred and Arthur, hopefully in the direction of stripping away the myths.

Hislop could just as easily have focused on Che Guevara, Jesus or even Father Christmas, whose personalities have also been reinvented according to changing ideologies. The malleability of historical figures demonstrates how unreliable the ‘Great Man’ theory of history is. Hislop’s examples show how economic forces help shape our views of figureheads like Arthur and Alfred, usually by invoking them to attract power and money. The programme usefully reminds us that our view of the past isn’t set in stone; it’s carved out again and again according to contemporary tastes, especially those of the ruling class.
Mike Foster

The Strike Situation (1974)

From the March 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

In every action of resistance by the workers against their exploitation the Socialist Party of Great Britain is on the side of the workers. The Miners and Railwaymen have all our sympathies in their efforts to get more pay - but we as Socialists have a lot more to say than that. We hold, with Karl Marx:-
At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing the direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought therefore not to be exclusively absorbed in those unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.
It is a tragedy of the present situation that the two strikes are not at all part of a carefully planned and organized working-class movement to defend or to raise the standard of living of the working class as a whole, but predominantly sectional efforts; by the miners to get a pay level above that of the workers in other countries, and by ASLEF to widen the margin between their wages and those of railway workers in other unions. In this the two unions on strike reflect the sectional outlook of the 450 unions into which trade unionists are divided.

And what of the TUC, supposedly a co-ordinating body for trade-union struggles? Representing as it does the political leanings of its affiliated big unions, and working hand in glove with the Labour Party leaders, its preoccupations has not been seriously to organize working-class industrial action but to manoeuvre to secure the return of a Labour government at the next election.

For their part the Heath government has likewise been using the strikes as a platform for the election campaign. "Standing up to the unions" helped them to win the election in 1970, and they hoped to do it agin this time.

The background to the strikes is that British capitalism is in difficulties, partly because of the monopoly squeeze organized by the oil producers, but mainly because of the thirty-year rise of prices, now approaching six times the pre-war level. That inflation has been the direct and inevitable outcome of a policy shared by the Tory and Labour Parties and solidly backed by the NUM and ASLEF and other unions - the fallacious Keynesian belief that it is possible to humanize and regulate capitalism on a course of steady expansion, rising living standards and full employment. Average earnings of men in manufacturing industry have risen since 1938 from about £3.50 to £40 a week, but all except a very small fraction of the rise has been lost running faster and faster on the cost-of-living treadmill.

Whatever the strikers may get out of the dispute to offset the loss of pay and hardship caused to themselves and other workers is being eroded all the time by rising prices.

The National Union of Mineworkers has in its programme "abolition of capitalism", and other unions have paid lip-service to the same slogan. It does not mean a thing, and neither the NUM nor any other union has ever done anything to promote it. Instead, they worked for half a century to get industries nationalized, and have now had a quarter of a century seeing its utter futility. Nationalization is state capitalism and solves no problem whatever for the working class.

In our generation the unions have been fighting over and over again the same battles they were fighting in the nineteenth century, without ever achieving their aim of "fair wages" and security. They have ignored the advice given to them by Marx: -
Instead of the conservative motto 'a fair day's wages for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword 'Abolition of the wages system'.
This is of course not an aim that has application inside capitalism: it means working for the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. Socialism cannot be achieved or even brought nearer by following the traditional trade-union policy of supporting the Labour Party. From the working-class standpoint it makes no material difference whether they are exploited under a Labour government or a Tory one - both are committed to the continuance of capitalism.

Nor is Socialism advanced by strikes to unseat governments, still less by the dangerous folly advocated by so-called left-wingers of engaging in violence against the police and armed forces.

The trade unions in their long history have, as Marx said, been fighting with effects; they and the rest of the working class need to change course and start dealing with the basic problem of the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. The only road to Socialism, a world-wide social system based on common ownership and democratic control, is through dislodging the capitalists and their agents from power -  that is, from their control of the machinery of government including the armed forces.

This is the road of political action. When the working class grasp that Socialism alone is in their interest the road to emancipation is open to them. In this country they command nearly ninety per cent. of the votes but so far, while doggedly fighting the defensive struggle on the industrial field, they have never got round to using their votes in their own class interest.
Edgar Hardcastle