Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers and Society—3: John Steinbeck

From the Writers and Society series published in the August-September 1956 issue of Forum

John Steinbeck is a novelist who fits better than most into the category of "writers about society." He has fairly consistently, at least in the 'thirties, written of the poor, the outcasts and misfits in society, and of their sufferings. This is not to say that he belongs to that group of "social realists" of the 'thirties with their stilted, unfeeling proletarian plots that followed the party line. As F. J. Hoffman says in The Modern Novel in America, Steinbeck is one of those "whose work lifts them above the dead level of the proletarian formula novel."

Grapes of Wrath, which is perhaps his best known work, deals with a group of migrant fruit-pickers in the U.S.A. It tells of a farming family dispossessed of their land, who trek across America in an ancient, battered truck to find work picking fruit in California. When they arrive in the promised land, they find that bad food, appalling living conditions and brutality is the lot of the "Okies," as the migrants are called. They find that thousands upon thousands of the unemployed and dispossessed have come to California, like themselves attracted by handbills promising high wages. Not only are the unprotected and unorganised "Okies" beaten and cheated by the fruit growers, but they are hated by the local inhabitants, who see in them a threat to their livelihood and property.

The elder in the family, Tom, is released from prison on parole, and becomes embittered by the treatment that his family receives at the hands of the fruit growers, and, when his friend is murdered by strike-breakers, he kills one of them and becomes a renegade.

This novel attained great popularity when it was published (1939), and created quite a furore, and eventually the government had to take steps to provide for the "Okies" reasonable living quarters and some kind of protection against the fruit-growers. The message of the book, however, is still relevant, for the migrant workers are still the worst-paid and least organised section of the American working class. In spite of some rather laboured symbolism, and philosophical reflections of the fatalistic kind, this novel is a most moving and impressive study of the struggles of a section of the subject-class.

Steinbeck's sympathy for the oppressed appears in another novel, In Dubious Battle, which is a story of a strike among fruit-pickers in the Torgas Valley, and it could be said that Grapes of Wrath developed directly from this work, in spite of the differences in presentation. The story is largely an account of the reactions of the three principal characters to the strike—the experienced strike-leader, the novice, and a doctor who is in the role of an observer. The discussions that take place between the three men have a certain amount of interest, and the study of the reactions of the individuals concerned makes this an unusual novel that stands out among the many that the depression brought forth dealing with similar subject-matter. The strike leaders are Communists, but of a peculiar kind. Steinbeck himself wrote: "My information for this book came mostly from the Irish and Italian Communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room. They don't believe in ideologies and ideal tactics. They just do what they can under the circumstances."

In this book also, Steinbeck's somewhat confused philosophy appears (in this case from the mouth of the doctor), although it must be said in fairness to him that he is always interesting, and sometimes rings the bell, as when the tyro Jim suggests that the violence of the conflict is necessary and that one "ought to think only of the end; out of this struggle a good thing is going to grow," to which the doctor replies that "in his little experience, the end is never very different in its nature to the means."

The characters who seem particularly to appeal to Steinbeck are the tramps, the lazy, good-natured, unemployable natives of the poor quarters of the Californian coastal towns. Cannery Row (1945) and Tortilla Flat (1935) both deal with groups of this kind, the latter, improbable though it may seem, being based on the Arthurian legend. This book deals with a group of Mexicans and their leader, Danny, who are by normal capitalist standards, misfits. It is a somewhat episodic series of adventures of this group, and their struggle (if such a term can be used) to exist happily without working. Although no more than a folk-tale, the book is extremely successful in holding one's interest and providing entertainment, which is more than one can say for ninety per cent. of the output of modern fiction writers.

Cannery Row is a similar tale, also episodic in character, but this time about a group of white vagabonds. Both of these books, although lacking the sociological punch of the two earlier-mentioned books, are extremely readable accounts of what was, and probably still is, an aspect of American life. The Wayward Bus (1947) is also similar in character, and one of Steinbeck's last published works, Sweet Thursday, is a sequel to Cannery Row. The characters are, in the main, the same as in the earlier book, and the action takes place after the last war. The book is amusing enough, but hardly justifies the re-opening of a mine that Steinbeck had already fully worked out.

Of Mice and Men, another of Steinbeck's more well-known novels, is also about migrant workers, but this time it is a story of two individuals. One is a feeble-minded lumbering giant, and the other a short, tough man who has become the other's protector and guide. It is a short, well-constructed book, which packs into its pages a wealth of telling description and quite convincing action and dialogue.

Lennie, the giant, has murderous impulses, more from animal fear than from badness, and George, his protector, is constantly struggling to prevent Lennie from getting into trouble. The tragic climax is extremely taut and moving, and the novel as a whole is certainly one of Steinbeck's more successful ventures.

A later novel, The Moon is Down, (also published in play form) seems to be a regression from the values that Steinbeck appeared to uphold in his earlier work. This story of an occupied country (presumably Norway) during the last war, appears to have been written more with an eye on Hollywood than on social problems, and in fact the novel was turned into a play and film script almost without alteration. The point that it makes is that the human spirit cannot be broken, and that an occupying power will never be able to force the submission of a "free people." It certainly does not give an accurate picture of the occupied countries, but as it was a wartime production, this is hardly surprising. As with the majority of Western writers and intellectuals, the destruction of fascism presumably became the most pressing need in Steinbeck's eyes.

Steinbeck's earlier novels, such as Cup of Gold and The Pastures of Heaven, are not particularly interesting, as they contain all the faults of the later books, without any of their compensating merits. The short stories are somewhat better, but here too, one is confronted with the top-heavy philosophy and a preoccupation with plants, insects and animals.

Edmund Wilson, on The Boys in the Back Room, has levelled much constructive criticism at Steinbeck and his work, but he does him less than justice when he suggests that all of Steinbeck's characters are lacking in humanity, and that they are presented in a clinical detached way in the manner of white mice or insects in the dissecting room.

It is true that Steinbeck, who is a keen biologist, is engrossed in the minutiae of the animal and plant kingdoms, and is especially fascinated by the wanton slaughter that goes on in them. In the early pages of The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, there is a lengthy account of a turtle laboriously making its way across a field to the road. There are many examples of this kind of thing in Steinbeck, and apart from the symbolism, they add little or nothing to the plots or action of his stories, except when they are brought in as an incidental activity of biologically-minded characters (as with Doc, in Sweet Thursday).

The preoccupation with biology, however, is little more than a personal foible, and does not affect Steinbeck's presentation of his characters to any real extent. Tom Joad, Ma, Casey and the others in Grapes of Wrath could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as clinical studies, and in fact their humanity and suffering is so skillfully presented as to make them completely convincing. Edmund Wilson himself recognised one aspect of this when he wrote "there remains behind the journalism, the theatricalities, and the tricks of his other books, a mind which does seem first rate in its unpanicky scrutiny of life."

It could be said with some justification, that after his violence and fervour during the depression, Steinbeck has dried up, said nothing further of any importance, and is merely settling down to a financially stable existence producing light, harmless, Hollywood-intended works with little or no bearing upon society or its problems. It is somewhat early in Steinbeck's career to make such a judgment, however, and one can only hope that Steinbeck will turn his attention and skill to the many problems that America offers to the intelligent writer. Even if this does not happen, Steinbeck will have already earned a niche in the not overcrowded gallery of stimulating writers about society.
Albert Ivimey




Writers and Society—2: Carson McCullers

From the Writers and Society series published in the June-July 1956 issue of Forum

The subject of the first article in this series was William Faulkner, an American novelist, who writes mainly about the South. Carson McCullers is another American whose novels are set mainly in the South, but there the similarity ends. McCullers writes in a much clearer and more straightforward manner than does Faulkner and generally speaking, her characters spring from a completely different world. The people in her novels, are generally "much nearer home" in the sense that they are often working-class town-dwellers who lead lives recognisably akin to our own, whereas Faulkner writes almost entirely of impoverished Southern aristocrats, misfits, criminals and the like.

Very few of her novels and stories have been published in this country, but those that have so far appeared have been of an extremely high quality. One of them—The Member of the Wedding—has been filmed by Stanley Kramer and those who have seen the film will have gained a fairly accurate idea of McCullers' approach, for the film was an extremely successful adaptation of the book, which is an account of an adolescent girl suffering the pangs of growing-up.

This novel, which is probably the most appealing of Carson McCullers' novels, deals with this girl, Frankie, and her development through adolescence. She is plain, awkward and almost friendless, and considers herself too old to play with the children in the dust of the streets, but she in turn is considered too young to be allowed to join the local youth club. Her brother, on his return from the forces, is about to be married, and Frankie, in her loneliness, fixes all her hopes and desires upon the wedding and decides to go away with them. Eventually of course, the result is unhappy disillusionment, and near-tragedy, but the resulting impression is not one of morbidity but of what Walter Allen called "the beauty that comes from a comprehensive and quite unsentimental pity for her characters." The other main characters in the novel, John Henry, the little boy next door, and the Negro cook-housekeeper, are also drawn sympathetically and the total picture is that of a sympathetic presentation of life as it really is and not a glorified picture-postcard substitute.

Her characters, particularly the children, are in general, human and likeable, drawn with a firmness and delineation that is quite unlike Faulkner, and as one reads, one can feel the characters developing during the course of the narrative. There is also no lack of ideas in her novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for instance, contains characters with shades of left-wing views. There is an old Negro doctor who is embittered by his people's struggles and wishes to lead Negro marchers to the Capital to seek human rights for his downtrodden people. Then there is the wanderer who thinks that the Negro problem is only one of the many social problems, which itself merits no special attention, and who considers that marches and the like merely fritter away the resources of the working class and who is all for spreading the word of the revolution. The resulting argument between them reads almost like a Hyde Park wrangle.

This novel is an account of how four people's lives become entangled by their association with a mute who becomes their confidante. The Negro doctor; the labour agitator; a lonely and philosophical cafe proprietor; and an adolescent girl, all turn to the mute as the one person who can help them sort out their own problems and ease their frustrations, although ironically, he is not really in sympathy with any one of them, and a large part of the time he does not even understand what they are talking about. The mute's death leaves a void in their lives and life becomes once more drab and lonely. The wanderer continues on his way, the cafe proprietor goes back to his observation of people, the Negro doctor is forced to rest from his struggles by serious illness, and the girl, who feels cheated by life, goes to work in Woolworths for a few dollars a week—("What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap—the store, then come home to sleep, and back at the store again. The clock in front of the place where Mr. Singer used to work pointed to seven. And she was just getting off. Whenever there was overtime the manager always told her to stay. Because she could stand longer on her feet and work harder before giving out than any other girl.") As an examination of Southern small town life the book is fascinating and extremely readable, but more than this, as a tale of human beings' attitudes to and their struggles against the crushing weight of capitalism's problems and frustrations, the book is a near-masterpiece.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a novel in a completely different vein to the two mentioned above. It deals with the lives of officers, their wives and a private soldier in an American army camp in peace time. The suspense and tragedy of the story is admirably drawn, as are the character portraits of the soldiers, their officers and the officers' ladies. The viciousness, monotony and pointlessness of army life is portrayed to great effect. ("One old corporal wrote a letter every night to Shirley Temple making it a sort of diary of all that he had done during the day and mailing it before breakfast next morning.") The horror of these people's empty lives leads up to a climax of tragedy which is as impressive as almost anything in modern literature.

Another short novel, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, is a somewhat Faulknerish tale of stunted lives in an American backwoods town. It has all the remarkable insight and invention of Faulkner with what most people would consider the added advantage of a clear prose style and sympathy which that writer lacks.

McCullers has been described (by David Garnett) as "the best living American writer" and if one's criterion of good literature requires humanity and sympathy of approach as well as sheer brilliant writing, then this statement is probably not far wrong. As V. S. Pritchett has described her she is "the most remarkable writer to come out of America for a generation. Like all writers of original genius she conceives that we have missed something that was plainly to be seen in the real world . . . . an incomparable story-teller."

This brief summary can only give a bald and inadequate outline of McCullers' work but anyone who takes the trouble to get hold of her novels and short stories will not be disappointed—there is a freshness, warmth and skill in her writing that is unmistakable, and that this writer finds irresistible.
Albert Ivimey

Writers and Society—1: William Faulkner

From the Writers and Society series published in the April 1956 issue of Forum

This series of articles is meant to be an introduction to some novelists of this century and their work, through socialist eyes. This is not to say that some, or even any, novelists write from a socialist point of view, but it is no coincidence that the problems of capitalism which the socialist is most concerned with are often written about by modern novelists to great effect.

As Coster has pointed out in his articles on Marxism and Literature, the economic background and social circumstances explain to a large extent the nature and content of the literature of the time, and literature, in its turn, tells us much about the society of the period. For this reason there is much to be gained from a study of the novel, as one's insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people of their respective periods depends largely upon the novels, plays and stories of the time.

It is perhaps in the United States that the twentieth-century novel has had its most prolific flowering, so perhaps that would be the best place to commence our survey.

William Faulkner is a novelist who has achieved a certain amount of fame (and criticism) in our day. he was born in Mississippi in 1897 and, after working in a bank as a young man, became in turn a lieutenant in the air force, a farm worker, a coal heaver, a crew member of a fishing trawler, a newspaper reporter, a deck-hand, and eventually settled down on a farm in Mississippi.

He has written a number of novels, the majority of them dealing with "The South," those troubled states below the Mason-Dixon line that contain a large negro minority. It is not perhaps, the South of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Tales of Judge Priest but it is certainly the South of Scottsboro' Boy and of reality, a seething cauldron of humanity which has erupted at various times into lynching parties; prison riots; race murders; and the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to the other problems of capitalism that we know so well - unemployment, poverty and disease. Faulkner portrays these problems and evils in vivid colours in his novels and deals with them with absolute sincerity and with tremendous power and conviction.

Faulkner has, however, the desire to express himself in a more vivid manner than straightforward prose allows him, and accordingly he has experimented in various ways in his novels. For instance, his latest novel, Requiem for a Num, which is an extremely fine story of a Negress, who is executed for the murder of a white baby, contains between the chapters of the story itself large amounts of "abstract" prose which veers between clearness and downright incomprehensibility.

His first novel, Soldier's Pay, is written in a clear straightforward prose style that has considerable impact. It is a story of soldiers demobilised after the 1914-18 war, and their struggle to get adjusted to the changed world around them. This novel probably represents the best introduction to Faulkner's work.

Perhaps his most well-known novel is Sanctuary (published in Penguins) which deals with a group of criminals, misfits and mentally deranged people living in the deep South. A white girl is raped and a negro murdered, and an innocent man is tried and found guilty of the two crimes (due to the evidence given by the raped girl) and eventually dragged from the gaol and burned by the mob. In this novel Faulkner almost makes the reader feel the experiences of his characters and, in the dialogue and particularly in the tortured thoughts of the lawyer who is defending the accused, one can see Faulkner's deep insight into the social problems of the South.

Again in The Sound and the Fury there appears this insight and compassion for humanity. It is a story of a depressed Southern white family with negro servants whose members struggle along in an ever-growing sea of problems. The novel contains some of Faulkner's most successful experiments in "impressionist" writing, part of the text representing the thoughts of an inarticulate feeble-minded member of the family. Another novel, Intruder in the Dust (filmed by M.G.M. in 1949) tells of an old negro who is arrested for a murder of which he is innocent, and the attempts of a white lawyer and an old white woman to exonerate him. This novel throws light on the colour problem and also deals with the kind of life that is led by a number of the white farmers in the South, and the poverty both of their means of living and their thinking.

A number of the novels, such as Sanctuary, Requiem for a Nun, Sartoris, and others, and also many of the short stories are set in the same locale, "Yoknapatawpha Country," and the plots and the characters are often interwoven. Not all of Faulkner's novels are in this setting however, or even in the South. One of his novels, Pylon, describes the miserable existence of the pilots and mechanics of "air-circuses" in the 'thirties and is written from the view of a physically emaciated and mentally unstable newspaper reporter. As in a number of the novels, the story ends in tragedy, but there is no doubt that, as with all of Faulkner's writing, it was written to stimulate and to make the reader wonder about humanity and its evils and capabilities.

William Faulkner has expressed the purpose behind his writings in his speech of acceptance for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949. He described his writing as being "a life's work in the agony and sweat of all the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before." Whilst it cannot be suggested that Faulkner is a socialist, it is obvious nevertheless that his approach to mankind is constructive, and at some points similar to the socialist's own.

The main fault in the general trend of Faulkner's thought, if one can pick out a general trend, is his somewhat narrow parochialism. He is still infected with the ideology of the "homogeneous South" that should have disappeared with General Lee's surrender. He seems to want to turn the clock back to those chivalrous slave-ridden days that were irrevocably lost when Fort Sumpter was fired upon in 1861.

He is, first and foremost, a Southerner, and his convictions are so bound up with the pre-Civil War mentality of the South, that he has gone so far as to state that he would be prepared to fight against the North in another civil war if the Southerner's rights were threatened. In a remarkable interview with the Sunday Times (4/3/56), Faulkner said: "I grant you that it is bad that there should be a minority people who because of their colour don't have the right to social equality and to justice. But it is bad that Americans should be fighting Americans. That is what will happen, because the Southern whites are back in the spirit of 1860. There could easily be another civil war and the South would be whipped gain."

Edmund Wilson, in an admirable essay, "William Faulkner and the Civil Rights Program," dealing with this aspect of Faulkner's writing, pointed out that however much faith Faulkner placed in the Southern "Liberals," it is to a large extent the outside pressure of Northern opinion that forces the South to think seriously about the negro problem. Faulkner however, looks upon the problem in a different light. He regards John Brown, the Civil War, and the Supreme Court decision on segregated schools as retrograde steps so far as the Negroes are concerned. The bitterness and racial intolerance aroused by reconstruction after the civil war will be equalled, he would say, by the bitterness aroused by the Court's decision. He can see the evils of the colour problem (and indeed, his novels contain sympathetic and stimulating treatment of the subject) but he insists that if bitterness, bloodshed and race-riots are to be avoided, the South must be left to find its own solution, and not have ready-made solutions imposed on them by the North.

At least Faulkner can see quite clearly the economic basis of the problem - "To produce cotton we have a system of peonage. That is absolutely what is at the bottom of the situation. I would say that a planter who has a thousand acres wants to keep the Negro in a position of debt-peonage and to do it he is going to violate his daughter. But all he wants at the back of it is a system of peonage to produce his cotton at the highest rate of profit." What he cannot see is that the movement against race-prejudice has an equally economic background. If because of labour-shortage, Negroes are employed in skilled jobs in factories on an equal footing with with workers, then race-prejudice must tend to break down. South Africa is a case in point. The feudal Boer farmer and their allies are attempting to keep the coloured people subjugated, whereas the capitalists are using their influence to end segregation (not from any liberal convictions but from necessity), and if South Africa is to become an efficient capitalist nation, it will be the anti-segregation group that will win out.

In fact it is capitalism itself which at appropriate periods breaks down the barrier, and not the efforts of liberal-minded whites, North or South. The Civil War was caused through the South's refusal to recognise realities and see that as far as the United States was concerned, Northern capitalist industry was the norm and dominant influence, and the feudal Southern cotton plantations were outmoded. The present trouble spring from the same sort of ideology, the Southern whites this time refusing to accept that capitalism needs (at least in time of boom and labour shortage) efficient unsegregated workers, black or white. Race prejudice will tend to break down with the termination of the Negroes' subjugation as a race and their general merging into the undifferentiated working class. The Supreme Court decision in essence, therefore, is not the culmination of a campaign of liberal opinion, but is merely the rubber stamp on a process that capitalism itself has brought about.

Nevertheless, this cannot detract from the high quality of Faulkner's writing and should not prevent socialists from getting a great deal of pleasure and mental profit from his work. After all, every socialist is, or should be ready to learn more about the world in which he lives, and there is no doubt that there is something to be learnt from the works of novelists such as William Faulkner.

Recommended books: - Soldier's Pay; Sartoris; The Sound and The Fury; Sanctuary; Light in August; Pylon; Intruder in the Dust; Requiem for a Nun; As I Lay Dying; Knight's Gambit (short stories); Collected Stories.
Albert Ivimey




Rosa Luxemburg and the National Question (1978)

From the April 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is there some "right of nations to self-determination" which Socialists should support? This was a question debated by Social Democrats before the first world war, especially in Russia and Austria which were then both multi-national empires. Lenin, true to his opportunist view that any slogan was useful if it helped "mobilise the masses", answered yes. Among those who answered no was Rosa Luxemburg.
That this was so has long been known to us, but until the recent publication of a selection of her writings on The National Question (edited by Horace B. Davis, Monthly Review Press, 320pp., £9.25), we have not had the opportunity to judge the worth of the arguments she used. That her writings on this question—as opposed to those on economics and other matters—should have remained unavailable for so long is no accident. Left-wing publishers have just not been interested in publishing a criticism of what has become a dogma in left-wing circles: that Socialists are duty-bound to support struggles for "national liberation".
Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871 in Zanosc (though she was brought up in Warsaw) which, on today's maps, is a town in eastern Poland near the Russian border. But in 1871 it was part of the Russian empire since Poland had not existed as an independent State since 1795. Over the period 1772 to 1795 in fact Poland had been partitioned amongst Russia, Austria and Prussia. About two-fifths of pre-1772 Poland went to Russia and about one-fifth each to Prussia and Austria.
When the Social Democratic movement grew in Germany and Austria towards the end of the 19th century it also spread to the Polish-speaking areas of these countries. At first Polish-speaking Social Democrats joined the German and Austrian parties, but in 1892 separate Polish parties were formed in both countries. Later that year these amalgamated to form, with representatives from Russian Poland, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The PPS made its principal demand the reconstitution of an independent Poland within the pre-1772 boundaries. The following year a number of young Polish exiles in Zurich, including Rosa Luxemburg, split off precisely on this point and set up the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP).
The choice of this odd-sounding title was deliberate, for the "Kingdom of Poland" was the official name of Russian Poland. The party's name therefore proclaimed that it was a party operating only in Russia. And in fact when the Russian Social Democratic Party got off the ground the SDKP (or more precisely, after the adhesion of a Lithuanian group in 1899, the SDKPL) was its section in Poland and Lithuania.
The issue of whether or not Polish independence should be supported came up at the 1896 London Congress of the Second International to which the PPS had submitted a resolution which declared "that the independence of Poland represents an imperative political demand both for the Polish proletariat and for the international labour movement as a whole". Rosa Luxemburg was resolutely opposed to this and wrote a series of articles in the international Social Democratic press arguing that workers should organise irrespective of nationality within the frontiers of the capitalist State in which they found themselves and should not seek to re-draw these frontiers, the struggle to achieve which would merely divert workers from the class struggle and Socialism. The PPS motion was not in fact voted on but was replaced by a vague general resolution which nevertheless still referred to "the complete right of all nations to self-determination".
In opposing an independent Poland Luxemburg was going against a demand supported by Marx throughout his political life. She was well aware of this and did not hesitate to describe Marx's views on the Polish Question as "obsolete and mistaken". Since this is a position the Socialist Party of Great Britain has also taken up it will be interesting to examine Luxemburg's arguments on this point.
In 1848, she pointed out, western European democrats, amongst whom Marx must be included, wanted an independent Poland established to act as a buffer between Tsarist Russia and West Europe so as to remove the threat of Tsarist intervention to halt the extension of political democracy there. This, she said, was a tenable position in 1848 but not in the 1890's and 1900's (nor even in 1880 when Marx made a further declaration in favour of Polish independence). For in the meantime, thanks to the introduction of capitalism and with it of an urban industrial proletariat, Russia was no longer the monolithic force for reaction it had been. As capitalism and the working class developed in Russia so did-and had-developed the possibility of overthrowing Tsarism and establishing a political democracy there too. Turning to Poland, she argued that the introduction of capitalism had tied Russian Poland so close to Russia (Polish industry served the Russian market) that the proposal to re-establish an independent Poland was anyway a "utopian fantasy".
Luxemburg went on to point out that the demand for an independent Poland was a demand for the establishment of another capitalist-and inevitably expansionist and oppressive-State. This, she said, was not the task of the workers; what concerned them at that time was winning various elementary democratic freedoms. She thus urged Polish-speaking workers in Russian Poland to struggle, together with the workers of all the other nationalities to be found within the borders of the Russian empire, to overthrow Tsarism and establish political democracy in Russia. (Polish-speaking workers in Germany and the Austrian empire should likewise be struggling with their fellow workers there to establish political democracy). Luxemburg regarded an end to discrimination on national or language grounds-with full provision for the use of minority languages in all aspects of social and political life-as an integral part of the political democracy she was urging to be established under capitalism as a means of facilitating the struggle for Socialism. In fact she went further and argued in some detail, in a series of articles published in 1908–9, that Poland should be given autonomy within any all-Russia democratic republic. Thus the SDKPL countered the PPS demand for the restoration of an independent Poland with a demand for home rule for Russian Poland within a democratic Russia.
We would not deny that in the absolutist political conditions of Tsarist Russia the working class was obliged to struggle for political freedoms such as the vote, freedom of the press and the freedom to form trade unions and parties, but this should-and could-have been done in conjunction with a clear-cut and uncompromising struggle for world socialism. Luxemburg of course knew what Socialism was and did carry out propaganda for it, but as a Social Democrat was committed to the mistaken theory that a socialist party should have a "minimum" programme of political and social reforms to be achieved within capitalism as well as the "maximum" programme of socialism.
Nevertheless it can be said in favour of Luxemburg's formulation-that the workers of Russian Poland should struggle with the other workers in Russia for an all-Russia democratic republic-that it made no concession to nationalism; it appealed to them as workers not as Poles. She knew that a campaign to establish an independent Poland would unleash nationalist passions which would divert the working class in Russian Poland not just from the struggle to establish Socialism but even from the struggle to win elementary democratic freedoms. She was proved right on this point: when Poland got independence in 1919 an authoritarian nationalist dictatorship under former PPS-leader Pilsudski soon came to power.
But events proved her wrong for believing Polish independence to have been a "utopian fantasy". If she had confined herself to saying that an independent Polish State would continue to be dominated by Russia or some other big power she would have been right, but she was suggesting that even formal political independence for Poland was impossible. The fact that Poland got such independence in 1919 makes her arguments on this point quaint reading today, but it still remains true that Poland has never really been independent of one or other imperialist power. Twenty years after being "restored" Poland was again partitioned between Germany and Russia and since the war has been a mere Russian satellite. Indeed parts of pre-1772 Poland are now back in Russia again. Luxemburg's mistake here should be a warning to Socialists not to be dogmatic on issues such as this: capitalism can be very flexible in its political institutions.
The issue of the "right of nations to self-determination" came up again in 1903 when the Russian Social Democrats officially incorporated this demand into their programme. Once again Luxemburg opposed this not only as politically wrong but as theoretically unsound. Her arguments on this last point are the same as ours:
"A "right of nations" which is valid for all countries and all times is nothing more than a metaphysical cliché of the type of "rights of man" and "rights of the citizen".
When we speak of the "right of nations to self-determination", we are using the concept of the "nation", as a homogeneous social and political entity… In a class society, "the nation" as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and "rights"."
Included in an appendix to Davis' selection of her writings on this question is a statement published in 1916 by some members of the SDKPL in an obscure Polish-language journal in exile. This shows a remarkable degree of understanding on this issue, especially the following:
"The so-called right of self-determination is also used with the proviso that it will become a reality for the first time under socialism and is thus an expression of our striving for socialism. This proposition is open to the following objections. We know that socialism will do away with all national oppression, because it removes the class interests that furnish the driving force of such oppression. We also have no reason to assume that the nation, in socialist society, will form a politico-economic unit. By all indications it will have the character of a cultural and linguistic unit; for the territorial division of the socialist cultural unit, insofar as this will survive at all, can only follow the needs of production, and this division would have to be determined, not by individual nations separately, from their own power (as the "right of self-determination" demands), but through the joint action of all interested citizens. The carrying over of the formula of "right of self-determination" into socialism arises from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of socialist society."
We could hardly express it better ourselves. Unfortunately most of those who expressed such views were later diverted by Bolshevism and the Russian revolution and soon disappeared from the scene of history.
Although Luxemburg knew what Socialism was and had an honourable record of opposing the First World War as well as both reformism within Social Democracy and the undemocratic practices of the Bolsheviks, she too made her mistakes. But on the question of nationalism, with her criticism of Marx's position as "obsolete and mistaken" she made an important contribution to socialist theory. The publication in English of her views on this issue will hopefully help towards debunking the slogan of "the right of nations to self-determination".
Adam Buick

Working till we drop (2006)

From the January 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

The motto of the ancient Roman slave owners was that slaves should work, or sleep. It seems the modern capitalists’ version of that term is that wage slaves must work till they drop. In November last year the media was filled with furore over the publication of the Turner Report into the future of the pension system – calling for the retirement age to be increased from 65 to 68 by 2050.

The proposals in the report appear to try and be balanced, playing off the increase in retirement age with an end to means-testing, restoring the link between pensions and earnings (so that pensions will rise with wages and thus be a more secure hedge against inflation) and compelling employers to contribute towards individual pensions of employees. It also proposed that individuals should be encouraged and facilitated in providing a personal pension for themselves. Essentially, the report seeks to spread the burden of the ageing population among all concerned parties. Turner himself told the BBC: “Unless we want the state pension to get meaner and meaner we either have to have higher tax or a higher state pension age, we have decided on both.”

That’s how it is presented in the media, that is. We are all getting older, and so pensions are going to cost more. How are we going to pay for them? Put another way, though, with the reality of the class struggle in mind, the problem looks more like: workers living longer means that the share of the national income going to the working class and away from the capitalists will rise if the current settlement is maintained. This is clear from Turner’s choice. The reality of paying for the pensions through higher taxes would have been to take the cost of pensions from the surplus value produced by the working class as a whole and channel it back into their total life-time wage packet. It would have meant a transfer from capital to labour.

It obviously cannot be about real privation, real shortages – there is more than enough food, clothing and housing to go round. What will happen, though, is that relative to capital invested – and more importantly capital put aside in pension funds – the cost of outlays will rise. From this comes the myth that we are not saving enough – as if in choosing not to eat a loaf of bread today, it would mean there will be two loaves of bread tomorrow. Further, many of these retirees go on to do much useful work in the community or in family life – but it is work which does not generate profits directly and so is invisible to the capitalist planners.

This is a clear example of capital holding back production and distribution – causing complications and distortions to rational economic activity by compelling us to play the game of turn-over. The system always ensures that production leads to the creation of more money and value and ultimately more money (and capital) for capitalists real and imaginary. Put another way: the advances from our labour – including an increased life span – are being clawed back by capital to its advantage.

In seeking, therefore, to try and spread the pain around, what the report is proposing is in fact to push the burden from the capitalists and onto the workers. We need to be clear: raising the retirement age of workers is a very real pay cut. We will be asked to work more years and for a greater proportion of our lives than we expected. For some this will be a very real loss.

Already there is a marked difference in life expectancy across income groups, with unskilled manual male workers having an expectancy of 71 years as compared to an average of 79 for professionals (and of course, these being averages means a great many do not reach them). That means that more than just cutting these workers’ pay, these proposals will actually cost them a great deal of any extra life expectancy they might gain by 2050.

The distinctly Old Labour reforms to pensions of ending means-testing, linking pensions to earnings and compelling employer contributions are just a way of buying off the unions and disguising the reality of the attack. Of course, this report is just a set of proposals and it will be up to the Government to implement changes which may include some parts and not others. Already Gordon Brown has been making ominous noises of concern – preferring his model of means-testing (he calls it targeting resources on the poor) to a general simplified and slightly increased state pension.

The unions, though, are obligingly making noises about the poorest and least well off being hit hard by these proposals, but are essentially content with them. Now that ‘class warfare’ is a term to be derided in the labour movement, these organisations are blinded to the reality of the situation and the working class is left intellectually disarmed before a media barrage of lies about people living longer meaning paying more.

Rousing the unions to defend the workers’ position within capitalism, though, isn’t the job of socialists. Even if these reforms were stopped, the next economic crisis, the next half-baked excuse would soon come along to try and roll back the workers’ share. Our mission is to show clearly both how we are robbed and exploited by the system ruled by capital and how we can untap the wealth of our collective productive power by taking control of the means of production directly.

In socialism everyone would have the opportunity to contribute to the community for as long as they could. Their contributions would not have to be strictly rationed nor controlled and all would be able to share in the common produce. The creation of second class cast-off workers known as pensioners would cease to be and in its place we could have a fair share for all. The struggle for such a society is in our immediate practical interest.
Pik Smeet

Obituary: Bill Clarke (1988)

Obituary from the September 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Bill" Clarke was born in 1899 at Litherland, County of Lancaster, of respectable, religious and teetotal parents.

When Bill was a boy, his father was dismissed from steady employment as a crane driver on the mighty Liverpool docks because he came to the aid of a boisterous workmate. He, a teetotaller, was falsely charged with being drunk. In the ensuing years, William senior went to sea, working his passage on the Adelaide Steamship boats around the Australian coast, with the intention of bringing his family to Australia. In 1911 the SS Koombana, pride of the coastal fleet, sailed into the eye of a cyclone off Port Headland and vanished with all hands (including Bill's father). 

The Clarke family's situation was now desperate. The older children sought employment, and young Bill got a job as "hugger off" in the local woollen mills:
Dean Clough Mills, ten stories high.
A thousand girls they do employ,
And if you are five minutes late
Down goes your name on a big black slate.
Jobs in the mills for 12-year-old boys were appalling. William resolved to run away to sea, stowing away on a French windjammer, but was unceremoniously bundled back home to a fearful mother by the harbour master. On land he flitted from one degrading junior job to another.

At the outbreak of World War I, the army mistakenly dragooned Bill, then under age, into military service in his older brother's stead. Once in the army, there was little chance of getting out. But, rather than accompany the Northumberland Fusiliers into Ireland to quell civilians whom the Asquith government deemed to be hindering the war effort, Bill slipped away to sea and landed in New York.

His adventures as a young hobo resembled those of Jack London. American jobs for 15-year-old boys were just as degrading as English ones. Always poor because he sent his earnings home to mum, and ever on the move, he rode the "rods" from town to town, dodging railway cops on the lookout for freeloaders.

Eventually he returned to sea, joining the British Mercantile Marine Gunnery Unit, and escorted convoys throughout World War I. At night he would stroll the deck, reading his bible, and pray for the destruction of German U boats, until it occurred to him that doubtless there were young German boys praying for exactly the opposite. Religion then lost its charm for him.

After the war he worked in a lighthouse tender in the Gulf of Mexico. The state of Texas was then dry, and bootleggers from the West Indies frequently dogged the tender boat to hide from the machine-gun-toting excisemen of the coast guard.

In 1919 he joined his first Australian ship and, on arrival at the dock, immediately succumbed to the spell of his chosen country. Before reaching his majority, he was already spokesman for the union, insisting on award conditions. He had read Darwin's Origin of Species with the help of a dictionary, was writing verse and had taught himself Esperanto and shorthand. He even subscribed to the celebrated Literary Digest. He was self-educated in the best sense.

In Australia he met many of the then feared IWW radicals (Wobblies) whom Billy Hughes had jailed for their opposition to conscription, but instinctively he steered away from these celebrities towards a tiny group of men: Jack Temple, Bill Casey, Barney Kelly, Jacob Johnson and Stan Willis, who espoused the democratic socialism of the small Socialist Party of Great Britain. Their vehicle was the ballot box: you can only create a democratic world democratically - you can't impose it. Their method was education.

Having reached this position, Bill never wavered. He knew that majority class consciousness was a long way off and accepted that he might never see socialism in his lifetime. In succeeding years, as the handful of supporters dwindled, he never despaired. He understood man's social being and was confident.

Then followed the dramatic years: the founding of the Socialist Party in Australia in 1924. Bill ran open-air and indoor meetings, lectures, classes, debates and edited the party's journal. In the mid-1920s it took rare courage and political understanding to hold that the Russian Revolution was merely a revolution against feudalism - just like the English and French revolutions before it - and that Russia had become a totalitarian capitalist state.

This was the time of the celebrated attempt by the Bruce-Page Government to deport Jacob Johnson and Tom Walsh, officials of the Seamen's Union; the exposure of the defalcations of the Communist Party officials by Johnson, Casey and Bill, and the rise of the Socialist Party officials. Bill became Federal Secretary of the union and editor of its journal.

Then followed the disastrous 1935 seamen's strike, foolishly started by posturing Communist Party officials. Bill openly opposed the strike in grounds accepted long after by historian Brian Fitzpatrick. The collapse of the strike saw the setting up of a scab union by the Communist Party in league with the ship owners and the Labour government, and finally the smashing of the legitimate union. Throughout this period, the tiny group of socialist union officials had a national influence far greater than their numbers.

In the 1934 federal election, when Bill stood as socialist candidate for the seat of Port Melbourne, he urged his huge personal following 'not to vote for me personally but for socialism. I only want votes from people who understand what socialism means and who appreciate its implications". He polled 10 per cent of first preference votes in a three-way contest against Holloway, who had previously unseated Prime Minister Bruce.

Major political parties offered him plum jobs, but these had no allure for him. He stood solely for a world in which people have risen to a mastery over property, not one in which people are mastered by it. As such, he was the world's first democratic-socialist candidate: the first to stand solely for a vision of socialism.

During this period he met Marie Stanley, a young woman who shared his vision and became his lifelong companion. It is not easy to survive in a world in which the overwhelming majority of your fellows totally oppose everything you stand for, and yet somehow this couple managed to do so with the quiet aplomb of conviction.

In the late 1930s Bill and Marie ran a small poultry farm out of an old 1860s goldrush hotel in country Victoria. His companions at this time included Charles Sundberg, last survivor of the old timers. After World War II he took up journalism (the Communist-dominated union determined to prevent him from returning to sea) and for 25 years had a congenial job, retiring in his mid-70s.

In retirement he contributed socialist articles and returned to Esperanto, French and German. After Marie's death in 1982 he continued to write and publish political and historical articles, he was writing verse in January, prior to a debilitating stroke. In the previous twelve months he had typed 60,000 words of critical Australian industrial and political history.

Bill died on 15 May having kept alive the elusive vision of a world free from poverty, hunger and war throughout his adult life of almost 70 years. Those were pearls that were his eyes.
World Socialist Party of Australia

Bill will be fondly remembered, not only by his Australian comrades but by members of the Socialist Party who met him on his infrequent landings here. We strive to follow his example.

Greed is Good?

From the December 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism would call the property baron Nicholas van Hoogstraten a success, if he hadn't arranged a hand grenade attack on one business rival back in the 60s, or been convicted of the manslaughter of another, for which he was jailed for 10 years in October. Apart from such violence, the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, George W Bush et al have frequently praised and encouraged us to develop Hoogstraten's other traits: his ruthless competitiveness, his desire to acquire profit, his obsessive love of money, and his hierarchical survival-of-the-fittest view of human life, where rich go-getters are good, and poor tenants renting his flats are worthless "filth", who deserve to be exploited and abused.
If he hadn't gone a bit too far, transgressing laws designed to stop the system descending into barbaric chaos, the political servants helping capitalism to run as smoothly and fruitfully as possible would have been holding Hoogstraten up as a role model to be celebrated and emulated along with Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and other "self-made" moneybags of the world.
It is an appalling fact that, without the Hoogstratenisation of society, capitalism would be in dire trouble. Our education system under government control must, and will, Hoogstratenise children, teaching them that competition, entrepreneurship, employment, market forces, profits, personal fortunes and money are all splendid, so that the system is perpetuated by maintaining the thinking and behaviour at its core.
And though other capitalists and their political puppets would now distance themselves from Hoogstraten, the actions of millions of Britons and the imprisoned businessman are much the same. The working class are urged to work hard to get on. Hoogstraten also "worked" hard to get on, buying properties cheaply with sitting tenants, then "winkling them out" (as he put it) in order to sell on for far more with vacant possession. If our income is threatened by possible unemployment, we might be minded to work harder and longer so that if anyone's sacked, it'll be someone else. When Hoogstraten's income was threatened by an imminent fraud trial, he was minded to send in a pair of tooled-up heavies. We want to possess a nice home, so did he–a new £40 million copper-domed pad called Hamilton Palace in East Sussex. We are driven by capitalism (the cause of property crimes) into trying to keep strangers away from our homes by fitting good locks and burglar alarms. Hoogstraten blocked off a footpath that came near his home with barbed wire and big industrial refrigeration units. We are urged to save for our retirement. Hoogstraten has saved some £60 million.
And just as Joe and Jane Public are aware that there are more powerful people who can help or harm their finances, and who have to be sucked up to, like a bank manager, so it was, too, with Hoogstraten, who tried (and failed) to curry favour with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, hoping that extensive land he owned there would escape invasion and seizure by squatters.
Money drives and heavily influences the daily lives of non-wealthy working, unemployed, sick and retired people, as it did Hoogstraten. Was his money mania significantly different from anyone else's pursuit of this tool of capitalism? Hoogstraten's fixation with money caused him to tell the jury at his Old Bailey trial "whatever money you have, it's never enough". Even after he was found guilty, and told by the judge that he must pay one third of the prosecution's costs (£120,000), his preoccupation with his monetary worth reared its ugly head again, with the tycoon retorting "and you're suggesting I'm not the victim, I suppose?".
Capitalism wants us to believe that by copying people like Hoogstraten (minus bombs and murder), we can go from rags to riches. Just as this multimillionaire landlord began his empire by supposedly selling his stamp collection as a teenager and buying cheap property, you too can acquire great wealth through competition, investment, speculation and exploitation for profit, if you succumb to the brainwashing.
Which brings us to the psychiatric report that the judge requested, and Hoogstraten went along with. The psychiatrist who examined him told the court that Hoogstraten was not mentally ill, but exhibited "narcissistic and paranoid" personality traits. But narcissism, being an exceptional interest in oneself, is a capitalist requirement for making lots of money. You don't get rich by worrying about how chasing profit may be causing discomfort or upset to others. And paranoia is necessary in business, as a failure to be highly suspicious and wary about the activities of similarly ruthless competitors can bring financial ruin.
Me-first thinking and extreme concern about others getting the better of you are actually necessary personality traits within capitalism, and Hoogstraten had become so heavily influenced by these, and the goal of obtaining ever more money that accompanies them, that in reality he had become mentally disturbed. But his sickness is our sickness. Anger, arguments and violence caused by money are rife in our society, and there have been many other deaths involving poor working class people attacking one another because of it. Capitalism is a sick system that requires mental sickness for it to continue. The cure is socialism.
Max Hess

Against the State (But Not Quite Yet) (2014)

Book Review from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Noam Chomsky: On Anarchism. Penguin £6.00
This is not a book with new material but a collection of articles and interviews published originally between 1969 and 2010. It is therefore not a place to look for an overview or consistent statement of Chomsky’s approach to anarchism. It is, however, interesting to see how close some of his political positions are to those of socialists.
For one thing, he rejects any idea that Bolshevism is ‘Marxism in practice’ and quotes approvingly Paul Mattick’s critical remarks on Leninism. Moreover, he says, a consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the concomitant wage slavery, which he describes as ‘intolerable’. Capitalism is anti-human, and its unbridled version (one subject to less state regulation) would lead to extreme authoritarianism.
On the other hand, it is not clear if Chomsky’s conception of socialism is quite the same as ours. He is against the idea of providing a detailed plan of a future society, preferring to rely on general principles. He favours making changes piecemeal, since we cannot know the effects of large social changes; and if one change works out well, make further changes. But he does not explain how a major change to abolish the wages system could be carried out piecemeal.
And many anarchists will disagree with him when he advocates defending and strengthening some aspects of state authority. His stance is that only the (US) federal government can protect people from the tyranny of corporations. He gives the example of environmental regulations, but admits that these have only a limited effect.
The longest chapter here criticises the way the Spanish ‘Communist’ Party undermined anarchist-run areas in the Civil War. The volume as a whole has much worthwhile content, as long as you do not expect a fully-developed argument.
Paul Bennett