Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Barebones (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

A couple of months ago the social historian, F. A. Ridley, gave a talk on "English Revolutionaries". On the publicity material he was advertised as one of the founders of the European socialist movement. Of course, members of the Socialist Party were present to find out how justified this reference to socialism would prove. Sadly, we found that this term had once again been used merely as window-dressing, its direct application being dismissed as unsuited to the current millennium.

The talk began with a survey of revolutionary activity in England over the past 440 years, starting with Cromwell and advancing through Chartism to the two world wars, in which millions of workers were slaughtered in the interests of one capitalist nation or another. Our trip through the tunnels of confusion and disillusion ended with the recent Labour administrations of the profit system, and the current "blue period" of monetarism.

Ridley regarded as most revolutionary those periods in which there had been an apparent upsurge in the cries for reform and mentioned as paramount among these Cromwell's Barebones Parliament. From the audience we pointed out, firstly, that the socialists of the present century are revolutionary in pointing out the futility of reform. Present social problems can only be removed by a conscious, majority desire to change the basis of society. The, we demonstrated how the Barebones Parliament was a vehicle for reform in the interests of the ascendant capitalist class. The vote was granted only to those possessing over £200 and the real revolutionaries of the period, the Diggers, were routed and even put to the sword by Cromwell's Roundheads.

At this point, Ridley compared the Diggers with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and said that he would have full support for us if only we would retire from the field of active politics and become a merely educational body. To this the socialists present pointed out that for us, theory and practice cannot be separated in this way. The socialist movement has a function which is practical, political and educational. The Socialist Party enters the political field in order to expose and oppose every party whose policy works against the interests of the working class.

Another speaker from the floor began to defend the record of the Labour Party, referring to the building of "20 million" council houses during their periods of office. At this a cry of "slums" came simultaneously from various members of the audience, and Ridley pointed out quite appropriately how the Tory Party has in principle been equally prepared to endorse reform of this kind in order to ensure the smooth running of capitalism. Another question was raised about the existence of a "different form of society" in Russia, but Ridley again dealt with this pertinently by explaining that what has existed there for the past 67 years is state capitalism.

Clearly, Ridley has an understanding of how capitalism functions. He recognises the limitations of reformism and the inability of state control to serve the working-class interest. But what this meeting demonstrated was the urgent need for him, like the rest of the working class, to join the movement for world socialism without delay. Reformism has not brought us any closer to resolving the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society. Four hundred years of so-called revolutionary history demonstrated this.
AM/CS

Anthony Blunt: no sort of traitor (1980)

From the January 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did Anthony Blunt —that frail, effeminate, learned man — ever dream that we would be responsible for so much confusion?

Consider, first, the sorry plight of the left wing. Blunt might have been one of their heroes, for he turned his back on his past — the public school, one of the more exclusive Cambridge colleges — to become an agent for Russia, which has nourished so many left wing false hopes and delusions. Yet Blunt also enraged the left because the personified the cohesive protectiveness of their arch provocator — the Establishment. And worse, Labour ministers, including Wilson and Callaghan, connived in this apparent exercise of the Establishment looking after its own. No wonder Willie Hamilton fumed in the House of Commons: " . . . feelings of outrage . . . I have never felt so sick, angry and frustrated . . . squalid conspiracy in high places . . ."

Then there are the Tories, who work most comfortably on the assumption that the best of all possible property societies is one run by an indulgent elite from the best families, schools, clubs, regiments  . . . This elite pretend that they hold their privileges as an act of kindness to the rest of us; they don't really own those thousands of acres, stately homes, works of art, stocks and shares. They merely hold them in trust for the less fortunately born majority in society. If this theory is to be at all presentable, it is essential that no member of the elite should let the side down. When one of them does — and, in the case of Blunt, in the worst possible way, by spying — the Tories too are thrown into confusion, aggravated by the knowledge that their ministers also knew about, and protected, the spy.

Brilliant Young Men
And out of all the confusion emerges a picture of British capitalism which does not meet the demands of modern, thrusting, super-competitive capitalism. The Blunt affair, like its predecessors in the Great Whitehall Spy Drama, was taken by many people as evidence that Britain is run by a bunch of effete, disreputable upper class twits who all went to the same school, and who are too stupid, or too corrupt, to recognise a spy even if he was delivered to their In Tray in manacles. Well, there is nothing to be gained by discussing the accuracy of that caricature; it is more useful to point out some of the lessons to be learned from the infamous scandal of Anthony Blunt.

We have already said that Blunt is a very learned man — although it is another matter whether his talents would ever have seen the light of day had he been born into a working class family, who rely on selling their labour power to live. There is little demand among employers for experts in the works of Nicolas Poussin. But then the other spies Blunt was associated with — Philby, Maclean, Burgess — were also very clever. Burgess, said Blunt, was " . . . one of the most remarkable, brilliant, and one of the most intelligent people I've ever known". (He might also have used words like 'drunken' and 'abusive' except that such minor faults can be overlooked in one of such rare gifts.) Philby too was once highly thought of, the rising star in the Secret Service, described by Hugh Trevor Roper (The Philby Affair) as " favoured by society, liberally educated, regarded by all who knew him as intelligent, sensitive, transparently sincere".

Stalinist Murders
Now the working class are depressingly willing to pay their respects to people who are described as 'intellectuals' even when, like this bunch, they are blind to some obvious facts of reality. Blunt has told us their version of reality in the Thirties:
. . . in October 1934 I found that  . . . almost all the intelligent and bright undergraduates who had come up to Cambridge had suddenly become Marxist [sic] . . . and there was this very powerful group, very remarkable group of Communist intellectuals in Cambridge . . . 
(This provoked a doctor to write, irritably, to the Daily Telegraph from Moreton-in-theMarsh: "I was up at Cambridge in 1935 and many of my circle were bright. But had any of them expressed Marxist views he would have been debagged and thrown into the Cam")

But what was happening in Russia at that time to impress all those incredibly brainy undergraduates? In 1934 the 17th Party Congress was held, with perhaps many of the participants being as brainy as those bright young men in Cambridge. Unfortunately, their leader Stalin was not favourably impressed with them, and soon afterwards he had over half of them shot, along with nearly three-quarters of the Central Committee they had elected. This was a comparatively minor incident in the horrifying story of imprisonment, torture and murder which characterised Stalin's rule over Russia. One estimate of the total casualties during these years appeared in Robert Conquest's book The Great Terror. Conquest used a variety of sources — participants' accounts, official statistics and the 1959 Census — and he came to the conservative estimate of 20 million dead.

Forgetful Politicians
Much of the information about this was available at the time, but it did not impress those brilliant students at Cambridge. Some of them were even prepared to justify the August 1939 pact between Russia and Nazi Germany. "We argued", said Blunt, "that it was simply a tactical necessity . . . " In fact he carried his enthusiasm a bit too far, continuing to pass British secrets to Russia after the two staters were in the war on the same side. This illustrates not only his blind devotion to the blood-soaked dictatorship but also the actual fragility of the unity between capitalist powers, even when they call themselves the Allies.

But it was not only Blunt and his fellow geniuses who have been confused, because several prominent politicians said they had quite forgotten being told that a senior member of the royal household was a Russian spy. One of these politicians is Lord Brooke, who could never be accused of being an intellectual and who 'forgot' quite a few things during his time as Home Secretary. So how much more do the leaders of capitalism 'forget'? Do they 'forget' the realities of capitalism — its power cliques, its privileges for the few, its international conflicts, its cynicism and deceit? Do they 'forget' that the whole rotten mess is kept in being by the very people who suffer under it — the working class — the people who get excited about the Blunt Affair because they have been induced into a trance of patriotism? And who will help them 'remember'?

One thing to remember is that international conflict is ineradicable under capitalism. Those conflicts are fought out by all appropriate means and not just in the military sense; all sides have an elaborate machinery of espionage. Those who operate that machinery develop an especially cynical devotion to the interests of the master class they serve. The schemes they hatch often have an arithmetic a lot more intricate than that of a simple double cross.

Concepts in Privilege
If one side uncovers another's spies they usually give vent to a great blast of innocent indignation, which is designed to obscure the fact they they have their own agents busily at work. Thus Burgess, Maclean and the rest had their counterparts — Volkov, Petrov, Dolynytsin and, arguably the significant of them all, Penkovsky, who passed to the Western powers thousands of items of secret information, including some on Russian rocketry, notably at the time of the Cuban crisis.

Nobody needed Anthony Blunt to tell us that capitalism is a society in which a small minority are privileged a long way above the rest of us. But he throws an interesting light on the extent of that privilege. His job in the royal household, for example, consisted of looking after the Queen's pictures, rehanging them and redecorating the rooms where they hang (or at any rate ordering other people to do the actual hanging and decorating). As a flunkey to a super-parasite, he lived in a different world to the rest of us, with concepts and expectations quite foreign to those of the majority. He described his interrogations between 1951 and 1964 as 'mainly comfortable conversations'. This is in stark contrast to the treatment habitually handed out to workers who 'help the police with their inquiries' over some offence against capitalism's laws. On the very day of Blunt's press conference, a fatal 'accident' inquiry in Glasgow was told by a former policeman of how sickened he had been at the violence meted out by the police there to a man who later died from his injuries.There are few 'comfortable conversations; between the police and the workers they arrest in places like Glasgow.

A great deal of indignation has been spilled out over Anthony Blunt, but outraged workers would do better to direct their feelings against this social system itself. Capitalism is a society in which one class, although numerically insignificant, owns the means whereby the rest of us live. That fact is central to all privilege — the aristocrats, the clubs, the old boy network, the cover-ups in high places. It is also a society in which a lot of effort goes into persuading us that we should devote ourselves to the work of keeping capitalism going on the orders if some super-intellectual beings. Anthony Blunt has provided the latest piece of evidence to show what a myth that is. Workers should not trust leaders, no matter how allegedly brainy or evidently stupid they are; they should organise their own confidence to run society on a different basis, in their own interests.

The sordid story of Blunt and his clever friends is but a minor episode in the horrendous, cynical passage of a society which can operate in no other way. Blunt betrayed his own ruling class, but to capitalism itself he was no sort of traitor; he was, and remains, its most devoted, if devious, servant.
Ivan







Obituaries: Richard Montague and Sandy Easton (2014)

Obituaries from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Obituary: Richard Montague

It is with great sadness that we have to announce the recent death of our comrade Richard Montague in Belfast only a few days before his 89th birthday.

Richard was political from a very young age. As a boy he found himself in the Republican Movement, and, at the age of 16, he also found himself in jail – or as he always referred to it, ‘Chokey’ – for a short spell. He soon became disillusioned with nationalism. When he looked at the problems that affected the vast majority of the working class in every country, he realised that nationalism, and concern for artificial borders between people, held no solutions and he quickly turned against it. One of his favourite stories was how, when he left the Republican Movement, he was proud that he’d taken 4 or 5 people out of the IRA with him.

Richard came across the SPGB when he was working in London. He vividly recalled sometime later how, after reading some of the Party’s literature on the big questions of the day, his first thought was ‘where have these people been hiding?’

In finding the Socialist Party, Richard had found his political home for the rest of his life, and the Socialist Party had found one of its most stalwart, most articulate, most enthusiastic, most liked, most respected and most admired members. During the coming decades the sheer ability of the man was revealed: writing, speaking, debating, organising, letters to newspapers, electioneering, answering correspondence – even printing Party literature! Richard bought and trained himself to run an old duplicator, turning out leaflets and makeshift pamphlets in the days when that was no small feat. When he wasn’t physically active, he was talking socialism. With him, the personal was indeed always the political and vice versa.

When he was a young man, Richard kept company with some local Trotskyists – though he was never a member of any of their groups. The question of socialism was bound up at the time with the question of what existed in Russia. Richard knew instinctively that he was opposed to what existed in Russia, for he naturally detested anything based on coercion, or leadership or hero worship. And besides, he knew his Marx well enough not to be taken in by bogus Leninist claims.

Richard didn’t hide his views on religion. At the age of 13 he was able to embarrass his would-be teachers, the Christian Brothers, by explaining back to them the absurdity of their own nonsense. .

Richard soon became a contributor to the Socialist Standard. Writing was in his blood, he loved to write and he was certainly one of the best writers the Socialist Standard ever had in my opinion – and we have had some great writers over the years. His articles on Irish history have been praised by many. A history of the Party published in 1975 by a non-member rightly states that anyone wanting to get an understanding of what was called ‘The Irish Question’ would do well to read Richard’s articles. The Party’s stock pamphlet on Ireland entitled Ireland, Past, Present and Future was written by Richard and his novel, Frank Faces of the Dead, was a story about the troubles. Published at the height of the conflict, nothing sums up Richard’s hatred for violence and division within the working class better than the dedication he wrote for his book. It was dedicated to all the victims of the troubles – including the British soldier, IRA member, protestant paramilitary, RUC member and UDR member.

Not only was Richard a fantastic writer – and he wrote great poetry and short stories just as he wrote articles and pamphlets and books – but he was an avid reader too. His knowledge of literature was extensive and would easily put any professor of the subject to shame. He effortlessly connected numerous writers to politics and his own socialist views. Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Marx, Shelley, Keats, Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, to name but a few - Richard had them all at hand and could quote them all.

His knowledge of Shelley’s poetry in particular was second to none and he could quote huge swathes of it, for he loved Shelley. The Mask of Anarchy, a poem Shelley wrote in protest against state violence, was a particular favourite and Richard knew it by heart. And he didn’t just recite it. Indeed, he sometimes claimed that Shelley was the true originator of many ideas accredited to Karl Marx.

Socialists don’t follow leaders, and we don’t give much credence to what’s called the great man theory of history. But we do recognise the worth of a person as an individual. Richard was one of the worthiest of individuals.
Nigel McCullough


Obituary: Sandy Easton

We are sorry to have to report the death (aged 60) of our comrade Sandy Easton, for many years a member of the old Islington Branch and before that of the old Croydon branch, then latterly of North London Branch. Raised in Edinburgh where he also attended university, Sandy joined the Party there in 1974 after hearing Socialist Party orators at the Mound. He was very active throughout most of his membership, serving many times on the Party’s Executive Committee and being a former long-standing member of the Media Committee and its predecessors.

Sandy was a dedicated socialist, always interested in the historical detail of theory and diligently committed to the principles of fair process. He was open-minded, much influenced by his huge interests in folk-music (and its meanings) and in radio drama. He was a fine actor in his own right; some members once saw him in a superb performance of Wesker’s ‘Roots’ in which all the parts were played by blind actors. He was also a very accomplished keyboard player and singer too – indeed many attendees at Conference socials over the years will remember his particular penchant for mining disaster songs! We will also remember his incredible ability, as someone who was blind, to navigate his way around London streets and the underground system with minimal help or assistance from others. And there are many who will swear even now that Sandy could tell who’d entered the room by the distinctive sound of their footsteps or other, barely detectable means that indicated their presence.

In a great many ways he embodied the principles for which he stood. It is impossible to think of Sandy without hearing a calm, reflective, knowledgeable socialist voice. For many years he was a telephonist for a bank though in the Party his vocal abilities were often put to even better use as a Party speaker and debater. He was a lovely, gentle and incredibly insightful human being who will be greatly missed.
SC/DAP

Putin Rehabilitates World War One (2014)

From the September 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The embalmed corpse of Lenin must have turned over after hearing Putin's speech in August at the unveiling of a monument to Russian First World War 'heroes'.

Putin's speech (eng.kremlin.ru/news/22756) sought to rehabilitate the First World War and use it to bolster Russian nationalism and capitalism. Putin is busily rewriting Russian history; 'Russia did everything it could to convince Europe to find a peaceful and bloodless solution' but Russia as a world power was as culpable as all the western capitalist states. He spoke of 'our people's spiritual and moral upsurge at that moment' which is bunkum considering Russia was a semi-feudal, autocratic Tsarist Empire with no democracy and the peasantry just a couple of generations away from serfdom. Maybe he was talking about the priest Rasputin 'lathering up' the Russian Empress.

According to him, ‘our country had no choice but to rise to the challenge, defend a brotherly Slavic people and protect our own country and people from the foreign threat.’ He even glorifies the 1916 Brusilov offensive which cost the Russians a million casualties. ‘Victory’, he claims, ‘was stolen from our country. It was stolen by those who called for the defeat of their homeland and army, who sowed division inside Russia and sought only power for themselves, betraying the national interests' when in fact it was the Russian peasant and proletarian soldiers in the army who walked away from the front and demanded land, bread and an end to the slaughter. We hold no brief for Lenin and the Bolsheviks but we can recognise that the one good thing they did, in response to Russian soldiers voting against the war with their feet, was to take Russia out of the First World War. Putin would have sent millions more to the slaughter.
Steve Clayton

The Call (1918)

From the December 1918 issue of the Socialist Standard

Come from the slum and the hovel,
From the depth of your dumb despair;
From the hell where you writhe and grovel
Crushed by the woes you bear;
There are joys that are yours for the taking,
There are hopes of a height unknown,
A harvest of life in the making
From the sorrows the past has sown. 
Come from the dust of the battle,
Where your blood, like a river, runs,
Where helpless as driven cattle
You feed the insatiable guns.
You fight when your masters bid you,
Now fight that yourselves be free,
In the last great fight that shall rid you
Of your age-long slavery. 
There's a murmur of many voices
That shall roll like thunder at last;
The shout of a world that rejoices
In a harvest ripening fast.
For the slaves their shackles are breaking
With wonder and ecstasy;
There is life, new life, in the making
In a new-won world made free.
F.J. Webb