Friday, November 21, 2014

Bolshevik primer (1969)

Book Review from the September 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The ABC of Communism by N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky. Penguin, 8s.

For half a century Bolshevism has been a blight on the working class movement. But recent years have seen an important tendency, especially among many young workers, not only to recognise Russia as state capitalist but also to question Bolshevik methods and the theories from which they are derived. To do this many have been going back to the classics of Marxism and Leninism and it is no accident that over the last few years several major works which have been unavailable for decades have suddenly been republished as commercial propositions. So the very fact that Penguin now find it profitable to bring out from its mothballs the ABC of Communism is significant.

Bukharin and Preobrazhensky belonged to the generation of old Bolsheviks which was systematically murdered by Stalin in the 1930s. After allying himself with Stalin against the opposition led by Trotsky and Zinoviev, Bukharin ended up as one of the defendants in the Moscow trials and was shot in 1938.  Preobrazhensky was expelled from the Bolshevik party along with Trotsky in 1927, but after 'recanting' he was readmitted for a short period in 1929 — only to be arrested and executed later.

Their ABC, however, was written before this (in 1920) as a commentary on the programme adopted by the eight Bolshevik party congress in March 1919. Over the next ten years it was accepted as "an elementary textbook of communist knowledge" and was published by Communist parties throughout the world.

The ABC now stands as a monument to the utopian dream of Lenin and and his comrades in the early days of Soviet Russia. World socialist revolution was the order of the day — "What Marx prophesised is being fulfilled under our very eyes. The old order is collapsing. The crowns are falling from the heads of kings and emperors. Everywhere the workers are advancing towards revolution . . ." But it is more than this — it also shows that, for all its defects, their understanding of capitalism and Socialism was far more penetrating than that of their latter-day disciples. So Bukharin writes that a fundamental "characteristic of the capitalist system is the existence of wage labour" and, referring to so-called "state socialism", that "here, likewise, there is no trace of socialism. We have state capitalism, based upon forced labour". Contrasted to this is "proletarian communism (or proletarian socialism)" — "a huge co-operative commonwealth". "The communist method of production presupposes  . . . that production is not for the market, but for use": " . . . we no longer have commodities, but only products". 

It is also interesting to note that while most would-be Bolsheviks now talk in terms of 'generations' before the wages system could be abolished in Socialism, Bukharin — even though he was influenced by Russia's industrial backwardness and low level of production — merely writes that:
At first, doubtless, and perhaps for twenty or thirty years, it will be necessary to have various regulations. Maybe certain products will only be supplied to those persons who have a special entry in their work-book or on their work-card. Subsequently, when communist society has been consolidated and fully developed, no such regulations will be needed.
So we can warmly recommend the ABC of Communism as required reading for all sub-species of neo-Bolshevik. Although it contains numerous theoretical errors, it should introduce many of them to certain basic socialist ideas — which they have certainly shown no signs of being familiar with up till now.
John Crump

Leigh Burr-Parti makes a mint of money (1976)

From the September 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard


Leigh Burr-Parti: "We are the masters now." (1976)

From the August 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard




Communities, International and Otherwise (2014)

From the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
The concept of a community is generally viewed in a positive light. So people may speak approvingly of community involvement in some project, or community support for some idea. You may live in a thriving community, or one that is undergoing community regeneration.
Dictionaries offer various definitions of community, often along the lines of ‘a social group residing in a specific locality and often having a common cultural and historical heritage’ (adapted from dictionary.com). A community can be a place itself, or ‘a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists’.
This last definition is the one that underlies such expressions as the gay communitythe Jewish community or the scientific community. The common characteristics may include sexual orientation, language or religion, among others, and need have little or nothing to do with where people live. There is often an assumption here that members of communities of this kind do indeed share the same interest, whatever that may be. People may claim to speak for a particular community or to be community leaders, though it is not always clear on what basis such claims are made.
Benedict Anderson wrote a book on nationalism called Imagined Communities, since nations could not be proper communities in any real sense. A similar point might be made about other uses of the word, such asthe business community, which presumably points to the capitalist class, especially one within a particular country. They may share the interest of deriving profit from those they employ and of having their access to markets and trade routes defended. Yet they hardly constitute a community in any other way, and are often at each other’s throats in terms of competition for sales and profits. They may resemble another group viewed in similar terms, the criminal community.
Another use, and a very frequent one, is the international community. This might be taken to refer to the General Assembly of the United Nations, but it usually has a rather more specific meaning. Noam Chomsky points out (www.chomsky.info/articles/200209--.htm) that it often just means the United States and some allies and clients, and he refers to this by the label Intcom. The international community in this sense is those who rule the most powerful capitalist state plus those who hang onto its coattails. Whenever you read or hear about the international community, you should ask yourself who it really includes: does it perhaps mean a tiny but extremely powerful and influential group of people who do indeed see themselves as ‘distinct in some respect from the larger society’? Of course, it is nice for them if they can pass themselves off as representing the consensus of the world’s population.
The Socialist Party’s Object speaks of the means of production being owned and controlled ‘by and in the interest of the whole community’. This means what it says: all the people of the Earth will own the land, factories, offices and so on in common. And we will form a true community, one with shared interests but not distinct from or in opposition to anyone else or any other group. The global community of World Socialism will truly be a positive notion, offering support and opportunity for all those who are part of it.
Paul Bennett

Leigh Burr-Parti: Whom did you do in the second Great War? (1976)

From the July 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard



Let’s Make a Real Socialist Revolution (1967)

From the November 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Revolution” has an exciting ring. It is an advertiser’s word, a punchy politician’s word. Like all such words it is over-used, and losing a lot of its force. Every new model of car has its half-dozen or so revolutionary innovations, and every new model of politician calls for a revolution in our approach to this, that and the other.
Clearly at least one meaning of the word is a very big change. That is why the adman and the MP use it so often. They spend their days trying to pretend to us that little things are big.
When socialists say that we need a revolution, we too are calling for a very big change. But we are not using the word as a sales gimmick. In the sort of world we want there will be no private or government ownership, no money, no state and no armies. You must agree that this kind of sweeping change would indeed deserve the name “revolution.”
We need a revolution because the world’s most terrible problems, such as war, poverty and loneliness, cannot be solved any other way. Reformers, social workers, charitable individuals, priests and other well-meaning folk, have all failed. By now most of them realise they will never actually solve the problems they are tackling. They are like nurses on a battlefield: all they can do is to keep slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter will stop. And to many of them occurs the agonising thought that they are helping to keep it going.
If revolution is the only answer, why can’t people see that this is so? Because they are trained not to see it. The brainwashing we get at school, on television and in the news, papers tells us that things are getting better all the time, that it is good to be patriotic, that everything hinges on “our” balance of payments, that we have a duty to work harder, that the sweet life is within our reach.
But the most effective indoctrination does not come through the mass media. It comes from our family, friends and workmates. We all desperately need the acceptance and approval of other people, at 1east someother people. In the homes, factories, offices, pubs, bingo halls and shops these words are uttered thousands of times a day: “You can’t change human nature.” “Just look after number one.” “Why don’t they go back where they came from?” “We fought for these youngsters and look how they repay us.” “Britain’s going to the dogs.”
These are ritual statements. The people who make them don’t want to discuss them, have probably never speculated that they might be wrong. Every society has its stabilising platitudes, along with more or less universally accepted codes of conduct and belief, but that does not mean they cannot be changed if they are called into question strongly enough. For the moment, however, the workers continue to accept the “rules of the game”. It is quite all right to put on a uniform and kill thousands of little boys and girls with bombs and napalm, but perfectly hateful to kill one little girl on Cannock Chase . . . that’s just one of the rules, no more open to question than "Fiddle the company but don’t fiddle your mates." In the same way, most people will readily condemn those who live off the Social Security when they could be working, but will vigorously defend the rights of the much larger number of people who live in luxury yet never work because they own capital.
It must also be admitted that the routine of life under capitalism does not always tend to arouse a questioning or critical attitude. Our work is miserable so we live for our "free" time. But our jobs so mould our outlooks and sap away our exhilaration that even during our leisure we cannot live life to the full. So we seek to tickle our tired selves with ever-hotter, ever-faster, ever-shallower experiences, or we are frightened into a frantic drive to get more personal possessions, since these seem to give a measure of security. We are so involved in the daily struggle to make a living that we have no time for living. Nor, in most cases, for thinking. People prefer to be lulled.
Many workers can clearly see the vast gulf between the pampered minority who own the world, and the rest of us, the propertyless wage-slaves. But they think the way out is merely their own individual advancement, not a social revolution. Obviously there is nothing wrong with a person’s wishing to move up within capitalism: it is inevitable that workers will want to do so. But rags to riches stories are rare: that is why they make headlines. Under feudalism the ambition of the capitalists was first of all only to become feudal lords, and some did. But eventually the interests of the capitalists became so much opposed to feudalism that they had to destroy it. In the same way the modern working class is learning that any progress within the confines of capitalism leaves the roots of the problems untouched, and often creates new problems.
Despite all the ideological cul-de-sacs and mass-produced soporifics, capitalism goes on sowing the seeds of its own-destruction. It demands healthy, educated slaves, workers trained to think clearly and critically. In the West, it promises an age of automated abundance and maximised happiness (after we’ve all tightened our belts for a few years, just to get us over these annoying little economic upsets). Soviet capitalism is lumbered with an even more onerous prospectus: it promises its workers the withering away of the state and free access to wealth  socialism, in fact. But in Russia, as everywhere else, the state is constantly extending its sophistication and scope, and cash becomes an ever more hallowed icon.
The present upheaval in China is but part of capitalism’s growing pains. However we should not discount the effect of capitalist revolutions on working class thinking. Marx’s researches were part of the welter of thought aroused by the French Revolution. The Great Proletarian Cultural Fiasco, though much of it is sublime idiocy, directly affects the lives of a fifth of the world’s population. It is helping to sweep away archaic family structures and other traditional “dead weights”. Capitalist revolutions have always appealed in their propaganda to the “broad masses”, and represented their aims as being the welfare of the majority, but ultimately this makes trouble for capitalism, because there are always some workers ungrateful enough to take their masters at their word, and to wonder why, after all, we never seem to reach the Promised Land.
In Europe and America we have seen the rapid growth of “peace movements” like CND, followed by their collapse as they came up against the stone wall of capitalism’s essential need for competition backed by violence. We have also seen a great deal of disillusionment, despair, and escapism  and the growing realisation that problems like war cannot be amputated, or treated in isolation, but are bound up with the whole organisation of society. The satire wave, Bob Dylan, the Provos, Hippies and Diggers are all signs that many thoughtful people  especially young people, not yet brought to heel by war or slump  are casting around for an answer.
The workers will increasingly see how deeply entrenched are the causes of their misery. Patches, tinkering and minor adjustments will in the years ahead seem more and more futile. The crying need for root and branch change will be obvious to ever greater numbers. The membership of the Socialist Party, and its six companion parties, will grow at a faster rate, and new parties will be established in more and more countries. As the socialist movement’s size grows, its ability to spread its ideas will also grow.
Faced with the spread of this determined, uncompromising movement, with its withering contempt for stock idols like “the national interest,” the promises of our rulers will become even wilder. To stem the socialist tide the capitalist parties will sink their differences and draw closer together, much as religions do today in the face of the world avalanche of atheism. Reforms now derided as Utopian will be two a penny - in an attempt to fob off the workers. Perhaps, for example, capitalism will provide a batch of free services, on the understanding that this is “the beginning” of a free society, but socialists will not be taken in.
Finally the time will come when a majority of workers, in the majority of countries, will send their delegates into the parliaments of the world, thus taking control of the state. From then on production will cease to be organised at the dictate of profits. Instead, the (now rather eccentric-sounding) principle will prevail that things will be produced to satisfy needs.
Immediately there will be a rapid growth in the amount and quality of useful goods produced. There will no longer be any patents, so all productive units will have access to the most advanced technical processes. There will no longer be any banks, stock exchanges, wages offices, advertising agencies, and although some of the workers previously in these fields will continue to be concerned with statistics relating to production and distribution, hundreds of millions will be released for housebuilding, food production and other rapidly-expanding sectors. It is reasonable to suppose that, since the revolution will not take anyone by surprise, many workers will have been, within capitalism, training themselves for their new occupations in socialism. Resources and manpower invested in armaments and the space race will be switched to the satisfying of human needs.
Onslaughts will be made upon centres of backwardness and destitution: these will not be given the ludicrous cinderella priority now awarded to “community development,” but instead the top priority now given to “Defence”. In fact, since socialism will grow directly out of capitalism, the present organisational machinery of the armed forces could be used for this end, since they are the best thing capitalism has developed for moving men and materials fast.
Socialism will be a planned society, not in the present-day sense of an authoritarian state empowered to sort out the conflicting interests of hundreds of profit-grabbing corporations, but as Engels put it nearly a century ago: “The seizure of the means of production by society puts an end to commodity production, and therewith to the domination of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organisation on a planned basis . . . The conditions of existence forming man’s environment, Which up to now have dominated man, at this point pass under the dominion and control of man, who now for the first time becomes the real conscious master of nature, because and in so far as he has become master of his own social organisation . . . It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.”
Steele

A (well-deserved) turn for the worse for Leigh Burr-Parti (1976)

From the June 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard



The Rake's Progress (1976)

Book Review from the December 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Harry Pollitt, by John Mahon. Published by Lawrence & Wishart, 1976.

Reading Johnny Mahon's fairy story, one wonders why anyone else ever bothered. A little bloke from Manchester called Pollitt did it all. You name it, he did it. Who stopped munitions going to Russia? Who organized the strikes in the 'twenties? Who rallied the dockers, boilermakers, policemen, tailors and busmen? Who initiated the hunger marches? That's right. Who organized the Minority Movement? Oh, blimey. Who put the Communist Party back in its feet in 1923 and 1929? Who inspired the British battalion of the International Brigade? Who instigated the Second Front and put Britain on the right road to Socialism? Our Harry.

No wonder he said himself, after twenty years of this lark, that he was exhausted. he even ran the Committee for Work among the women for a while. What a man! The sheer strain of trying to keep up with Stalin's manoeuvres was enough to upset anybody. And (as is well known) poor old Harry was not too good at reading the signs of the times: even with Svengali Dutt behind him. In fact, Dutt was even poorer at it. This phoney guru, with his fake Eastern Mystic act, was worse that his pupil—predicting the collapse of capitalism for six months in 1930.

Pollitt made the ghastly mistake of jumping to the conclusion that Stalin would oppose Hitler in 1939, when it was obvious that he would unite with anybody to save his own skin. Mahon says they "were surprised" when they heard of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Springhall came back from Moscow with Stalin's orders: "it was an Imperialist war—nothing to do with the workers." In three days the Central Committee of the CP turned a complete somersault — opposed the war, and sacked Pollitt. And who was the louse who effected his dismissal? His own great mentor, R. Palme Dutt.

Packed off to Manchester in disgrace, he replied, when somebody said the office was cold: "It's my Siberia." But give the devil his due. Nine months later, Hitler did invade Russia, and the Imperialist war became "a war of liberation" and "an anti-fascist war" overnight. This could have been Harry's moment of truth. His critics confounded, he could have proclaimed "I told you so"—if he hadn't already made the most crawling capitulation, writing to the Central Committee that he would loyally carry out their instructions "to the letter".

Actually Pollitt was by no means the best orator in the CP. He was a maudlin sentimentalist, a hysterical crowd-puller, playing on the emotions. As one who listened to dozens of his efforts, this writer never detected penetrating erudition or studious application. His orations were of immediate, usually trivial import—"the day-to-day issues". The lengthy list of pamphlets, books and articles attributed to him were frequently written by others (including Mahon himself); certainly by Dutt, or Petrovsky the Comintern agent shot in Russia.

The story of his life is typical of dozens of bright young working men at the turn of the century. The workers were becoming articulate. Tom Mann, John Burns, Ben Tillett and scores of others emerged. Pollitt was the secretary if the Openshaw Socialist Society and wrote the first election leaflet it published. It disaffiliated from the Labour Party and the Trades Council and ran a radical campaign attacking reforms as a capitalist trick.
The word Socialism implies a complete revolution in the internal workings of the Capitalist system. Social Reform proposes nothing of the kind  . . . Reforms serve two important purposes. (1) They keep the worker in a better working condition. (2) They bolster and patch up the evils of Capitalism,
This was written by Pollitt in 1910, and according to Mahon he learned it from Moses Baritz (page 28). How was it that Pollitt could finish up going to see Lloyd George to ask him to help inspire the Second Front, and standing on Tory platforms supporting Tory candidates? It is obvious that even in the 'twenties he had become a job-hunter, applying to the ILP in West Ham for a paid organizer's job. His first position was as full-time organizer of the "Hands off Russia" campaign. Any real biography would have shown him to be a slick and wily operator, seizing control of the "Industrial Dept" in 1923 and the Executive in 1929.

Mahon has written 500 pages about Pollitt without even mentioning his disastrous order to break up other parties' meetings (Daily Worker, 1932). His book calmly quotes Pollitt's complete renunciation of his life's work (the violent overthrow of capitalism by "heavy civil war") in oily phrases about "peaceful take-over", "Only by the majority", "re-adjusting the State" (not smashing it)—denying everything Lenin advocated. This, Mahon says, is Harry's great contribution to the debate on "the British Road to Socialism". He should have gone into advertizing!

Right up to 1952 Pollitt was in Moscow eulogizing Stalin. But in 1957, after Stalin's death and exposure, Mahon says, Pollitt "didn't know" of the systematic extermination of the entire Bolshevik Old Guard. He "didn't know" of the assassination of Bukharin, Ryansanov, or the Losovsky he professed to admire so much. This is like the people in Germany who "didn't know" there were ant concentration camps.

At a comparatively early age (66) Pollitt had burned himself out. All to be "the leader". Was it worth it? Certainly not for the working class.
Horatio

Utopia (2012)

Book Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Searching for Utopia. The History of an Idea, by Gregory Claeys. Thames and Hudson, London, 2011. £24.95.

Gregory Claeys has provided an extensive and lavishly illustrated survey of utopian thought. In its early chapters it ranges from ancient origin myths through to the classic texts of Thomas More. It then moves on to look at the modern era; it includes visions of model communities by Robert Owen and others, and comes right up to date with modern science fiction and dystopian views of the future. Claeys’ definition of utopia is broad and covers the exploration in a plausible way of “the space between the possible and the impossible”. The role of utopia, for Claeys, is crucial to the process of social change as it transcends the distance between this world and the ideal described. Utopia can be used as a literary means of closing the gap in our imaginations between where we are and where we want to go.

Claeys, however, goes much further in his claims for utopia, without which, he argues: “humanity would never have struggled onwards towards betterment. It is a pole-star, a guide, a reference point on a common map of an eternal quest for the improvement of the human condition” (p.15). In a rather bleak concluding chapter the future of humanity is proffered as hinging on the success of a “realistic utopianism”, which is liberal, forward-looking, scientific and tolerant.

For Claeys it is the idea, the vision of society depicted, which drives change. There is no explanation offered as to why ancient societies looked back to religious or mythical origin-myths or why utopia became more and more anchored in this world. Nor is there an exploration of why some utopias fail to connect with wider society whilst others add fuel to rapid social and political change. Claeys points out that ancient and medieval utopias assumed scarcity and hierarchy but that this changed in the modern era as utopias came to stress the possibility of abundance and equality: “The decline in religious belief accompanying modernity has …displaced the search for equality in the afterlife by an enhanced desire to achieve it in this life” (p.13). He does not, however, discuss how these changes in ideas about human potential relate to the material world in which the ideas emerge.

The treatment of Marx suffers for the same reasons. Claeys’ approach results in a skewed perspective as it searches for Marx’s ideas of what a socialist future would look like. There is an attempt to see Marx “as the greatest of all modern utopian writers”because he projected “the utopian scheme”of community of property to a large audience. It is argued that in the Communist Manifesto Marx (and Engels) proposed “a highly centralized system of economic administration in which credit, transportation and the method of production generally were to be managed by the state” (p.145). This is taking some proposals in the Communist Manifesto and using them to make conclusions about Marx’s thought that are grossly distorted. In 1848 Marx and Engels envisaged state control of industry as a means of developing further the means of production to allow the possibility of communism –a proposal Marx did not think necessary later in his life as by that time the means of production had vastly expanded.

In fact, Marx was loath to lay down ideas of a future socialist society beyond its broad character of bringing class exploitation to an end (of which the end of money and the state would be consequences). His contribution to socialist thought was not to propose ideas of what socialism might look like but to further understanding of the social and economic processes that created its possibility and necessity.

Claeys’ book is a wide-ranging primer on the history of utopian thought.  For the socialist reader it highlights the still useful distinction made by Engels between utopian socialism and scientific socialism. The former seeks to implement an idealised plan of society which would spread by force of example. The latter seeks to develop an understanding of the underlying material forces operating in society, now and in the past. In so doing it aims to build a consciousness of class exploitation and the need for a revolutionary transition to socialism based on working class social and political consciousness of this economic exploitation. The idea of socialism as a plan of an ideal society has little relevance to scientific socialism because the future society emerges from class conscious revolution moulded in the process of working class self-emancipation and not derived from a prior blueprint.
Colin Skelly

Put one in his leg, Ellen (1954)

From the June 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Case of Mickey Spillane
"The most startling mystery story writer in the publishing world today" has, the papers say, given it up. Well, time will show; in the meantime, his seven novels go on selling and his film goes on showing.

Mickey Spillane found fame as nearly overnight as makes no difference. His first book, "I The Jury," was published in 1949; his fifth, two years later, sold two and a half million copies at the first printing in America. In this country, where the reading public borrows rather than buys his fiction, something over a quarter of a million Spillane novels have been sold. To call them mystery stories is misleading; they belong to the literary genre known as "toughies," and the mysteries are only less transparent than the heroines' dresses.

The aim of the "toughies" is to assault the senses, chiefly through the description of sex and violence (together or separately, and in every conceivable form). Malevolence, brutality and lust are the unvarying subject-matter; everything is larger than life and only half as natural. The style of writing is a magnifying glass held to the profusion of ere'histic incident. Its facile craftsmanship—extraordinary in its technical excellence, and as unrelated to art as a chorus girl to a ballerina—leaves no effect unexploited. Spillane reduces description to a series of simple, evocative metaphors; buildings are "towering canyons," a bridge "a spidery steel skeleton." Incident is iterated and reiterated to impress by cumulation, as in this passage from "One Lonely Night":
"Two murders. Two green cards.
It was the same way backwards. Two green cards and two murders.
Which came first, the murders or the cards? Murder at odd angles. Two murders. Eight odd angles. Yes, two murders. The fat boy got what he was after. Because of him the girl was murdered no matter how. So I got him. I was a murderer like they said, only it was different. I was just a killer."
It is the school of journalism's sixth-form stuff, a tale told in headlines. The stories unroll rather than unfold with scarcely ever a pause: something is always happening—generally something unpleasant.

The Mickey Spillane novels represent the latest stage in the development of the thriller, which practically dates from the Industrial Revolution. Its original form, the Gothic novel, derived from the sentimental reaction against the rapid onset of the machine age—a mediaevalist enthusiasm which, running through literature, painting and architecture, enthroned ruins, broken traceries and ivy-clad towers as symbols of romance, beauty and freedom. From a revolt against restraint and ugliness, however, it became a drug for minds bored and uneasy; the ruins became popular literary settings where—to quote from one of the novels—"horrid noises and still more  horrid sights were heard and beheld." The new conditions of town life and the division of labour were—and are—responsible for the lack of variety and emotional satisfaction that in its turn created a demand for vicarious satisfaction, even though the mass reading public had yet to come into being. Some of the titles tell their own stories: "The Nocromancer," "The Mysterious Warning," "Who's the Murderer?" and "Horrid Mysteries."

With the development of the centralized State, the main stream of thrillers gradually evolved from simple eeriness, through crime stories where graduated exercises in legal justice were performed, to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes embodied all the social ideals of his time; a townsman of remarkable individuality, contemplative, a scientist yet something of an aesthete too, thrusting  at crime and recalcitrancy with the sure lance of logic that the Queen's subjects might ride at peace in their hansoms. The police, agents of a still immature State machine, were clumsy accessories to Holmes's analytical feats, even though the ultimate glory was theirs. Thirty years later, however, crime stories had a new maestro—"Edgar Wallace for thrills," the yellow covers said—and in his novels the police were supreme. The formula was much the same—crime, mystery, clues and climax—but the social setting had changed. Science, which afforded Holmes his weighty deductions and his monographs on dust and cigarette ash, now had produced fast cars, telephones and forensic laboratories. Liberalism was slipping fast into its grave, and the State had become more efficient, more powerful and more impersonal. Even the language had changed; the leisurely prose and the meticulously reasoned explanations which held Watson spellbound had given place to the slick, terse narrative of modern popular journalism.

Whatever the other differences between these writers and Mickey Spillane, one is paramount. The "toughies" are all violence; Conan Doyle and Wallace never considered it. Few of the Sherlock Holmes stories have murder as their cause, and some do not even involve any criminal offence. The master criminal, Moriarty, is an intellectual megalomaniac, representing possibly another facet of the same social ideals. Almost the same may be said of Wallace's books. His characters are more sophisticated, but little less pacific; the most frequent crime is burglary, and at least one of Wallace's thrillers does not deal with crime at all.

The "toughies" arose in America in the late nineteen-thirties, though the most famous early exponent, James Hadley Chase, was not an American. Their style owed much to Hemingway and the other realist writers, their content to "True Police Cases" and "Real Crime Stories." Reference has already been made to the mode of writing. It is writing for an age of speed, aiming at quick impact through simple graphic images and emotion-laden phrases, its staccato sentences echoing the rattle of the typewriter. Everyone calls everyone else a bastard; everything is told brusquely and forcefully in such terms as "She gave him the drink in the eyes, glass and all" or "If he tries to scram, put one in his leg, Ellen."

There is an obvious debt, too, to the films—though its nature is not quite so obvious. In recent years "toughies" have come to the screen, but it was the classic gangster films of twenty or so years ago that established and popularised the conventions of the fabulous gangster world. Essentially, those films were "horse operas" in disguise, with Buicks instead of snow-white steads, gats instead of six-guns, racketeers instead of rustlers and crap games instead of rodeos. Apart from the properties and conventions, the films' biggest influence in the tough gangster story has been a matter of technique of narration: the close-up, the heightening of sensation by viewing from unusual angles, the dramatic possibilities of swift cutting and so on.

There are two outstanding motifs in the Mickey Spillane novels: stimulation, and escape into a world not far away where desires are realised. The two are interwoven—take this passage from "The Big Kill":
"The little guy stared too long. He should have been watching my face. I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone. He dropped the sap and staggered into the big boy with a scream starting to come up out of his throat only to get it cut off in the middle as I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel. The big guy tried to shove him out of the way. He got so mad he came right at me with his head down and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling."
Plenty of stimulation, for those who want it; and a phantasy—helped by the use of the first person—of revenge for the humiliations of everyday life in an unequal world.

By the same token, there is little room for thought or knowledge in Spillane's world. Mike Hammer, the moronic private detective of the novels, is guided by drums pounding in his ears that tell he must kill: "I make my own rules as I go along and I don't have to account to anybody." The rules allow all-in beatings-up, slappings-down and tuppings, and strictly exclude mental holds.

The innumerable sexual adventures of Spillane's surly Samsons are unvarying variants on a single theme—domination over beautiful women. The girls are always over-developed both physically and emotionally; a jerk of the head brings them running and a shake of the head leaves them waiting. Thus, Mike Hammer and the brunette from Texas:
"She said 'Mike  . . .' again and struck the match . . . There was only the sheet over her that rose and dipped between the inviting hollows of her breasts. Ellen was beautiful as only a mature woman can be beautiful. She was lustful as only a mature woman can be lustful.
'Tuck me in, Mike.'
The match burned closer to my fingers. I reached down and got the corner of the sheet in my fingers and flipped it all the way back. She lay there beautiful and naked and waiting,
'I love brunettes,' I said'
The tone of my voice told her no, not tonight  . . . "
Opportunity, as they say, would be a fine thing; and that, presumably, is what the reader feels.

What distinguishes Mickey Spillane's novels from others of their kind in the occasional interpolation of a crude philosophy, spoken in the first person, justifying the brutality and all the rest. Apart from adding a little in the way of realism, these discourses are curiously near the truth. For example:
"He had to go back five years to a time he knew of only second-hand and tell me how it took a war to show me the power of the gun and the obscene pleasure that was brutality and force, the spicy sweetness of murder sanctified by law.
That was me. I could have made it sound better if I'd said it. There in the muck and slime of the jungle. . . . I had gotten the taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization."
Spillane—who was a wartime pilot, and is a Jehovah's Witness—plainly identifies himself with his heroes. His photograph on the jackets is almost a reconstruction from Mike Hammer's self-descriptions; the name is the same, and there are several references to his war service.

It is clearly intended that the reader, too, should identify himself with the hero. Every kind of herd prejudice is appealed to. "One Lonely Night," written in 1951, is a fierce attack on Communism. There is not the faintest indication of what Communism is about, only a Black-Hand-Gang atmosphere. The Communists' headquarters is straight out of a boys' adventure yarn, with maps and secret plans and microfilmed documents, and the conspirators themselves are all so vividly labelled—long hair, sinister looks, etc.—that one wonders they dare walk down the street. But, whatever they were up to, Mike deals with them. McCarthy is weak stuff compared with Mike. Mike shoots the lot.

Why has all this come to be? Why are violence, prejudice and near-pornography best-sellers in the civilised world in 1954? Partial answers have already been given; the whole answer is that the "toughies," like all popular reading matter, mirror the consciousness of the age. Nothing in Mickey Spillane is immoral—nothing, that is, conflicts with the commonly held ideals and behaviour-patterns of our time. The brutality is used by "good" against "evil"; the ends justify the means, say the mores of modern society. If the big bombs are justified by their purpose, it is hardly in proportion to complain of Mike Hammer's gun. Spillane himself says much the same thing when he writes of "murder sanctified by law." The State everywhere trains killers—and they kill because, like Mike Hammer, they have been given strong enough prejudices.

As for the sex, that goes with the rest. The family is no longer the stable, carefully preserved group of the days of Gothic romance. Lust goes hand in hand with violence, and violence is always incipient in our power-ridden, war-haunted world. Socialists want to change it for a world in which "The Big Kill" won't exist—the Mickey Spillane sort, nor the nuclear fission sort.
Robert Barltrop

Leigh Burr-Parti: Whose side is he on (as if we didn't know)? (1976)

From the May 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard



The Real War to End Wars (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Attempting to explain how a four-dimensional being would view three-dimensional humans, Carl Sagan in Cosmos invited us to imagine our 3D selves looking down on beings in a two-dimensional universe. To us they would appear as cut-outs on a flat page, with length and breadth but no height, with no distinction between public and private space, with nothing concealed either inside their bodies or outside. If we tried to talk to these 2D beings, they would be astonished to experience our voice as appearing to them from everywhere at once, both internally and externally and through all their senses, like a ghost from some spirit world.
The far-sighted Sagan presented this analogy without the least expectation of it coming true. And yet in a sense it has come true. The internet has made it so.
Now we are all able to look down on the two-dimensional world of the internet screen and speak to it like a god, anonymously, as if from nowhere and everywhere. Simultaneously, we are all trapped in that 2D world, and anyone can look down at us, from above, right into the core of our being. And what is the result? Public and private spheres are now in collision, not just with the hacking of celeb or child nude pictures from cloud storage, not just by government agencies ferreting through our private correspondence, but in even more sinister ways. Now we are seeing inside the skin of humanity, as it were, into the hidden depths, and it’s not a pretty sight. Before the internet, communications were largely constrained within the social protocols of politeness and good taste. Nobody imagined that society had an inner beast or if there was, it was confined to a few demented freaks and kept well and truly out of view and behind closed doors. The ‘troll’ was a being that existed only in nightmares.
Now the lid is off and we are peering in on a panorama of earthly delights redolent of Hieronymus Bosch. This is not what anyone expected. It’s not just a case of a few intemperate hotheads firing off ‘flame’ emails or carelessly worded texts without explanatory ‘smileys’. Celebs are leaving Twitter and celeb Twitch gamers are turning off their feedback comments because of the amount of abuse and threats of ‘doxing’ – having their private information posted online. Sexting has resulted in new laws to prevent ‘revenge porn’. In the instantly reactive online environment, a stray word can result in death threats. Presenter Judy Finnegan and her daughter were recently threatened with rape (quite possibly by women) for making the innocuous suggestion that violent rapes were worse than non-violent ones (‘Madeley warns trolls over rape threat’, BBC Online, 16 October). In the GamerGate scandal, in which female games programmers have been terrorised for speaking out against the depiction of women in games, a planned feminist games conference had to be cancelled due to threats of a spree-style massacre (‘Feminist video-games talk cancelled after massacre threat’, BBC Online, 15 October). As tablet-toting children from 9 upwards join in as spectators of cyber delights including hard-core porn, 22 percent of boys aged 12 – 15 and 30 percent of girls report being bullied online, and at least as many know someone who is bullied or has suffered from deliberately embarrassing online exposure (‘Call for teens to self-regulate net use ‘, BBC Online, 15 October).
Society responds with more new laws to expose trolls by lifting up their stones of anonymity before they can scurry away out of sight. There’s no doubt that trolls are nasty pieces of work. Most commentators don’t feel the need to explore the question why. Trolls are just a fact of life. Every barrel has a few rotten apples. It’s human nature.
In what other familiar reality is it common for bullies to prosper and fear to silence critics? In what circumstances are rape and random shooting sprees considered normal? Where do we find social agreements torn up, civil rights trashed, human dignity laughed at, intelligence recruited in the service of stupidity, and anger geysering up as if from a limitless well?
We typically find those things in a war.
Looking inside the skin of society, as the internet now allows us to do, we are seeing many of the classic hallmarks of warfare.
This issue of the Socialist Standard carries the first of a series on current wars, beginning with ISIS. It’s a truism for a socialist to say that capitalism causes war, but as a statement it’s not nearly strong enough. It’s like saying that football causes knee injuries or that water skiing involves getting wet.
Capitalism is war, plain and simple. It’s not just market society with a war on top, it’s war all the way down, and can only be properly understood as such. Peace is a social myth we have constructed to delude or amuse ourselves in our leisure moments eating rat stew in the trenches.
Nation states, schools and commercial businesses are organised hierarchically, like armies, and we are all reluctant conscripts, squaddies whose task it is to fight whoever we’re told to fight, whose received ambition may be to make NCO or officer but whose real ambition, if we’re not blinded by patriotism or xenophobia or bloodlust, is to not get killed.
Understanding that capitalism is war helps to make sense of the news in a way that nothing else does. Random acts of violence no longer seem random. The fear and the paranoia and the endless search for scapegoats and snake-oil cures become explicable, even predictable. The impotent and irrelevant posturings of politicians are meaningless precisely because they are war propaganda, as bogus as Hollywood fantasies, monarchical pomp or religious preaching. This is not civil society with a few oddballs and quirks, it is society in shellshock, having a continuous mental breakdown.
Obviously this comes as a surprise to a lot of media pundits who fondly imagined society as different from this, and who now search anxiously for reasons, alibis and justifications. But what do well-fed semi-detached liberals know about the anger of the food aid queue and the final demand? It’s war, the reality show, and now on prime time and social media for your entertainment.
And where do you fit in? There’s no room for shirkers or conchies in this war. You don’t have a choice not to fight. If you struggle to make ends meet, you’re in the war. If you struggle against disability prejudice, you’re in the war. If you feel oppressed by white racists, loud-mouthed bigots, the council, the boss at work, the ‘male gaze’, you’re in the war. You don’t have a choice not to fight, but you do have a choice what to fight, and how to fight.
For socialists, the only part of this war that makes any sense, that is worth fighting, that might realistically stand a chance of ending war forever, is the class war, the war against the idea of capitalism itself, the mindset of private property and public poverty, the universal acceptance of oppression. Everyone else is fighting to win, or not lose, or just survive. If we were to win the class war, it would remove the main reason for fighting all the other wars. In socialism, society could finally start to recover from the hell it has put itself through.
There is an upside to the internet’s opening of Pandora’s Box. Humans are being forced, albeit reluctantly, to face their demons, to acknowledge the real state of affairs instead of paying lip service to ritual, custom and pretence. And capitalism, which traditionally masks its ugliness with these same rituals, is increasingly running out of dark holes to hide in. The faster we are communicating, the more we’re beginning to understand, and the more we understand, the sooner we will act.
PJS