Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Oh What a Lovely War (2014)

The Mixed Media Column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London revived in February this year the anti-war musical entertainment Oh What a Lovely War to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The original production by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, and Gerry Raffles opened at the same theatre in March 1963. Littlewood's Theatre Workshop was notable for left-wing and proletarian productions such as Brecht's Mother CourageA Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, Brendan Behan's dramas and the musical play Fings Ain't What They Used T'Be by Frank Norman.
The 2014 production was directed by Terry Johnson, writer of Insignificance. Production design was by Lez Brotherston who wrote 'Joan Littlewood wrote it as a piece for a bunch of actors presenting a story, rather than very real characters. It was very Brechtian.' Littlewood indeed used Brecht's ideas on the politicisation of theatre to better convey the realities of war, using minimal props and Brecht's half-curtain for rapid scene changes. Littlewood like Brecht was searching for truth in the dramatic realisation of soldier's stories. Littlewood was influenced by the Expressionist techniques of Meyerhold in Russia, Erwin Piscator's use of newsreel in Germany, and the Theatre National Populaire use of bare stage and pinpoint lighting. She combined a European aestheticism with a deeply English love of popular theatre evidenced in the Pierrot costumes. Oh What a Lovely War is a pierrot show with songs, battles, a few jokes and is anchored in a seaside tradition. The presence of music-hall is evident in the way the MC (Shaun Prendergast in the 2014 production) chats to the audience as they come in.
Oh What a Lovely War is sourced in the songs of the First World War, Barbara Tuchman's August 1914, Haig's diaries, memoirs by Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves plus Alan Clark's 1961 military history The Donkeys. Clark identifies the High Command of French, Rawlinson and Haig as responsible for the virtual destruction of the old professional British Army in 1915. Clark's book title originates with Falkenhayn's Memoirs where it is written 'Ludendorff: 'The English soldiers fight like lions', Hoffman: 'True, But don't we know that they are lions led by donkeys.' The play clearly portrays working-class lions being exploited by upper-class donkeys, the main villain being Haig whose contempt for the working class is clearly evident in his diary entry 'mostly gamekeepers and servants' after hearing 13,000 men were killed in three hours during the battle of Passchendaele where they gained one hundred yards.
The working class soldier is central to the play, everything is viewed from his perspective and sympathy for the working class soldier is paramount. We wrote in the Socialist Standard ofAugust 1964 that it was a 'witty and savage denunciation of the murder of a generation.' In a letter to Littlewood and Raffles on 5 June 1963 Bertrand Russell wrote ‘a statement on war such as I have not experienced... I wonder that it has been allowed on a London stage.’ The newsreel panels in the show are grim statistics of the casualties in the so-called 'Great War': 10 million dead, 21 million wounded, 7 million missing, the battle of the Somme July to November 1916 – 1.5 million casualties. The 1963 programme read: 'In 1960, an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War One into the computers they use to plan World War Three. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn't have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties.' We wrote in the Socialist Standard of August 1964: 'When war broke out in 1914 it was much vaster and grimmer than anything the Victorians had seen, something for which people were totally unprepared.'
In Act Two the MC announces 'Part two of the War Game, find the biggest profiteer' and we have a scene of British, French, German, and American Munitions Manufacturers with a Swiss banker, which identifies international capitalism as the cause of the First World War and the ultimate beneficiary: 'two peace scares in the last year. Our shares dropped forty per cent, caused a flutter on Wall Street' and 'I'm a patriot, but I'm also a businessman; my stockholders must have dividends.' The suffragette and anti-war left-wing communist Sylvia Pankhurst makes an appearance reading a letter from Bernard Shaw: 'The men of this country are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the lusts and lies and rancour's of bloodthirsty men who love war.'
American capitalist Henry Ford was honest when he said 'Tell me who profits by war, and I will tell you how to stop it.' Oh What a Lovely War contributes to an anti-capitalist and an internationalist outlook but needs some socialist rigour so we say, as we did in 1914, 'Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.'
Steve Clayton

Designer politics (1987)

From the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are many ways to try to persuade people to buy a magazine: from putting a picture of a glamorous celebrity on the cover to promising a "shock, horror" story inside. Other magazines and journals try to attract readers by advertising special offers and free gifts. For organisations whose main concern is profit this comes as no surprise. The competition for readers is intense not least because a large circulation will attract profitable advertising. It is little wonder that the packaging and the gimmicks become as important as the content.

So, bearing that in mind try to guess which monthly journal in a recent issue contained within its stylish covers a special offer for unisex boxer shorts ("They're stylish! They're fashionable!"); another offer for "extra strength" condoms ("Teatless for the aesthetic among us"); and a feature on what to buy and where to go on Valentine's Day? A number of possible candidates come to mind. City Limits or Time Out perhaps whose main purpose is to inform young Londoners where to go or what to see? Or one of those glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan directed at the "liberated" woman-about-town? Or a spoof article in Private Eye maybe? 

No! It was the magazine that still refers to itself as the "Theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party" - Marxism Today. To be fair there was an attempt to try to give the boxer shorts some political significance. The reader was offered a choice of two styles - one with the word "Proletariat" in cyrillic lettering printed all over them; the other featuring the Aeroflot logo! (No, this really wasn't a Private Eye spoof). It was perhaps slightly surprising that Marxism Today was selling boxer shorts with an apparently pro-Soviet appeal since it is the journal of the Euro-communist lot in the CP. Or maybe it was a closet gesture of support for Gorbachev, who, if the western media are to be believed, is as trendy and style-conscious as Marxism Today. It was harder to try to discern any kind of political message behind the ad for the condoms, although they are, we are told, "brought to you exclusively by Red Stripe".

The Valentine's Day feature began with an overt attempt at making a political connection by suggesting that "the obvious gift for an activist" is a telephone answering machine. "Late for meetings?" it continued, "buy them Stephen Rotholz Icon watches". Or perhaps a £650 hand-made bicycle is more up your street as a present for your "Valentine"? Or a piece of Lalique glassware costing, we are helpfully informed, from £50 to £15,000. And for that special Valentine's night out? How about dinner for two at a Burmese restaurant which will cost you £30? Marxism Today even comes up with a suggestion to fill the pregnant pauses should the after-dinner conversation begin to flag. Shares and share fluctuations, of course! And for anyone with a conscience then Marxism Today helps us off the hook by announcing that "popular capitalism may be subverted with information from Stewardship Unit Trust, who will invest your money in ventures which don't have connections with alcohol, tobacco or defence industries". Well that's okay then. Ideologically sound shares!

Marxism Today claims to be a serious political journal. It's true that in between all the trivia quoted above there were some serious political articles aimed mostly at the trendy broad left rainbow coalition of good causes. Class politics are out. Life-style politics are most definitely in. Forget about trying to change society in any meaningful way and concentrate instead on changing your image and Marxism Today will tell you how. Design, presentation and packaging are being used to disguise the emptiness of their politics in much the same way as Conservative, Labour and Alliance parties which give as much attention to the colours, logos and wrappings of their policies as they do to the content in their attempt to sell them to the punters. The idea that you can win people over to your side by the packaging rather than the content of policies is nothing new. Elections, in particular, have always been long on fine-sounding rhetoric and short on incisive political analysis. Offering their readers designer Marxism Today condoms and boxer shorts is just the 1980s' version of politicians "buying" workers' support with free beer.

Marxism Today must be totally out of touch with the lives of the majority of workers in this country for whom whether to buy Lalique glassware or an answering machine as a Valentine's Day present is not a decision that they are likely to be losing much sleep over. Most people do not lead the lives of trendy lefties giving support to a handful of "good causes" because they've received the ideologically sound seal of approval from the political "style" gurus. Trying to win support and readers with gimmicks like boxer shorts and condoms shows contempt for workers and is no substitute for sound analysis of capitalism and convincing arguments for socialism. The Communist Party has always been short of both so perhaps, after all, it's not surprising that they've given up trying to sell politics and have turned to selling "lifestyles" instead.
Janie Percy-Smith

The Falling Rate of Profit (1)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

In his much talked-of book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (to be reviewed next month) Thomas Piketty has a section headed ‘Back to Marx and the Falling Rate of Profit’ where he accuses Marx of holding that ‘capitalists accumulate ever increasing quantities of capital, which ultimately leads inexorably to a falling rate of profit … and eventually to their own downfall.’ Earlier he had said that Marx’s theory ‘implicitly relies on a strict assumption of zero productivity growth over the long run.’ Since Marx’s ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ is based precisely on a long-run growth of labour productivity this is a bizarre accusation.
A clue as to what is behind it is a passage elsewhere where Piketty equates ‘economic growth’ with ‘growth in output per capita, which is productivity growth’. So it is this that Marx is accused of ignoring. It is true that Marx does not employ this concept but it is not true that he was unaware of it, as in section 5 of chapter 25 of Volume I of Capital on ‘The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation’ (which Piketty himself cites) Marx does compare the rate of increase of profits and the rate of increase of population for the period 1853 to 1864. He even quotes from the Registrar General’s report on the census of 1861 that ‘rapidly as the population has increased, it has not kept pace with the progress of industry and wealth.’
In any event Marx would not have regarded total output per capita as a measure of productivity at national level. He would have defined this rather as total output divided by the number of productive workers.
What Piketty appears to be trying to do is fit what he thinks is Marx’s view into his own categories. He lays down as a ‘first fundamental law of capitalism’ that the share of income from capital in national income = the rate of return on capital multiplied by ratio of the stock of capital to national income. This last, known in conventional economics as the capital/income ratio, or the stock of capital expressed as a multiple of national income (or output, the same thing), is obviously affected by the rate of growth of national income.
Piketty is accusing Marx of assuming an unlikely very high and rising capital/income ratio. According to his first fundamental law of capitalism, the higher is this ratio the higher too is the share of income from capital in national income. If, for instance (as Piketty points out Marx assumes in some of his examples), the stock of capital is ten times annual national output and the rate of return on capital is 5 percent, then capital’s share of national income is 50 percent. Piketty adds that if the capital/income ratio ‘is extremely high, then the rate of return on capital must get smaller and smaller and closer and closer to zero, or else capital’s share of income will ultimately devour all of national income.’ This was why, according to him, Marx had to assume a falling rate of profit.
Piketty says that the only way out of this difficulty is a reduction in the capital/income ratio brought about by an increase in the growth of national income per capita. But Marx does not need rescuing by introducing this since he never held the theory Piketty attributes to him. Marx did hold that there was a slow long-run tendency for the rate of profit to fall (though not for the reason Piketty gives) but he also listed a number of counteracting tendencies too. This meant that there was nothing ‘inexorable’ about it.