Saturday, February 28, 2015

Where Leadership Leads

From the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Well-known for its stunts, street stalls and student activism, the SWP suffered a setback a couple of years ago which led to an exodus of members. One of them was Ian Birchall, the biographer of the group's founder Tony Cliff and himself a one-time member of the party's leadership. He had been a member of the SWP and its predecessor, the International Socialism group, for over 50 years. Last December he offered some views on his blog as to what went wrong (http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2014-so-sad/)

When it was formed in the 1950s as a Trotskyist group which recognised that the so-called USSR was state capitalist (as we'd known all along) it was organised on the same lines as many other left-wing groups in this country. Its members were in the Labour Party and portrayed themselves as left-wing Labourites. Then in the 1960s things began to change, they moved out of the Labour Party and in 1968 Cliff decided that it was time to re-organise the group on stricter Leninist lines.

What prompted this was the general strike in France earlier that year. Typically, as a good Trotskyist, Cliff attributed its failure to result in a socialist revolution to the absence of a revolutionary party to lead the striking workers (not that socialist revolution was the real aim of the strike though it was in fact a success from a trade unionist point of view). He concluded that what 'revolutionaries' should do in the light of this was to openly organise themselves along the same lines as Lenin's Bolshevik party which, according to him and Trotskyist legend, had led to a successful socialist revolution (even if in his view it later degenerated into state capitalism).

Lenin had set out his view on how a revolutionary party should be organised in his notorious 1903 pamphlet What is to be Done? In it he proposed a party of full-time professional revolutionaries which should seek to lead the workers and peasants by formulating populist slogans reflecting the level of understanding that 'the masses' were considered capable of reaching.

This might have made some sense as a strategy for overthrowing a backward, autocratic regime like Tsarism. As it happened, the Tsarist regime collapsed of its own accord under the pressures of the First World War but Lenin's organisational form did help the Bolsheviks seize political control once Tsarism had collapsed. This success led Lenin to proclaim that this was the way revolutionaries should organise too in developed capitalist countries, even those where political democracy existed.

So, in 1968 the members of IS changed the name of their paper from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker and, more importantly, abandoned its previous organisational structure under which policy was decided by a conference of branch delegates voting on motions proposed by branches and where the members of the executive committee were elected as individuals. This was all swept aside and the 'slate' system that the Bolshevik party had used was adopted and which had also been inherited by the CPSU in Russia (yes, Leninism did lead to Stalinism too).

Under this system the 'leadership' (politburo, central committee or whatever it is called) is elected en bloc at the party's conference. Delegates don't vote for individual candidates, but for a list, or slate, containing as many names as there are vacancies. In theory there can be more than one list but in practice there never is or has been. In the SWP (as in the USSR), there was just one – proposed by the outgoing leadership. Rather than trying to put forward a rival list, the leadership's opponents preferred to leave and form another group organised on the same lines (one explanation for the proliferation of Trotskyist groups).

It can easily be seen that this is a recipe for the emergence of a self-perpetuating leadership. Which is precisely what happened, as Birchall noted:
'recent events have shown the limitations of the slate system. It has become a means whereby the CC can indefinitely propose itself for re-election, co-opting approved individuals as it goes.'
There was another consequence in the SWP too:
'Moreover, a career path has now clearly emerged – comrades, generally former students, become full-timers, and if they are successful, they rise in the apparatus and become CC members. Thus we get a CC almost entirely composed of people who have spent most of their political life as full-timers and have very limited experience of work or trade unionism.'
The slate system was also applied to elect the branch delegates to conference:
'Back in the eighties, when strong branch committees existed, the branch committee would nominate a slate of conference delegates. While it was obviously possible for members to nominate an alternative slate, this was frowned on, and in practice was relatively rare. I recall a chairperson telling us the agenda for a branch meeting and saying “and then the conference delegates will be announced”. In practice he was right – this was what usually happened.'
So the SWP ended up a top-down organisation run by a self-perpetuating clique.

Perhaps surprisingly, Birchall does not draw the conclusion that this is where the slate system, a central tenet of the Leninist vanguard party concept, was bound to lead. He still thinks in terms of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries organised on Leninist lines. His beef is not with the theory but with the way it was applied in the SWP – bureaucratically rather than democratically. But for him 'democracy' is not a decision-making procedure but merely a means of providing information to the leadership so that it can formulate the best policy to pursue and the best slogans to put before workers for them to follow:
'... a revolutionary leadership needs to know what is going on in the working class. It cannot do this by reading the Financial Times, it has to listen to comrades who have roots in different sections of the class and who can report on what is happening on the ground. As Cliff argued: “… they have to learn from their fellow workers as much as – or more than – they have to teach. To repeat, the job is to lead, and to lead you have to thoroughly understand those you are leading.”'
This is not democracy in any meaningful sense. It's still saying that the wage and salary working class is incapable of freeing itself on its own but needs to be led by a self-appointed vanguard. It is still rejecting the view that socialism, as a fully democratic society, can only be established democratically, both in the sense of being what a majority want and in the sense of employing democratic methods.

To establish socialism the wage and salary working class does need to organise itself to win political control, i.e. as a political party, but in a democratic party, not to follow a vanguard party or any other would-be leaders.

There is, however, one thing that Birchall seems to have learnt after more than 50 years as a Trotskyist/Leninist:

'The important thing at present is the battle of ideas; as William Morris put it, “it should be our special aim to make Socialists”.'

This is a quote from the Statement of Principles of the Hammersmith Socialist Society, drawn up in 1890. It's what we've been saying for over 100 years.
Adam Buick

Voice From The Back

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Inequality
The Scottish National Party claims that Scotland is a more equitable society than the rest of Britain but it too has a completely unequal society. 'Holyrood's health and sport committee has completed an inquiry into health inequalities which mean that a boy born today in some affluent areas can expect to live 28 years longer than if he had been born eight miles away' (Times, 5 January). Not only do the rich live more rewarding lives they even live longer.
A Depressing Society
Capitalism with its threat of unemployment, rent arrears or mortgage payments is a depressing society. Quite how depressing is shown by the latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Society about the use of antidepressants. 'Almost one in ten people in Britain is taking antidepressants with GP prescriptions for them almost doubling in ten years. Doctors last year issued 55 million prescriptions for pills such as Prozac,up from 50 million the year before and nearly twice the 2004 amount' (Times, 6 January). Last year £280 million was spent on the drugs.
An Eleven Hour Wait
The volume of misery for NHS patients continues, but the suffering in some cases is difficult to comprehend: 'a frail 81-year-old woman lay on the floor for 11 hours overnight before an ambulance arrived. Her son David Cunningham said his sister called 999 at 9.07pm on Monday, then rang back several times for updates. He said the family were told it was going to be two hours, then four hours, then six hours. Mr Cunningham, 56, said he heard that ambulances carrying patients were "stacked up" at the hospital' (Daily Express, 5 January). A spokesman for South Central ambulance service apologised and blamed ‘the sheer volume of calls’.
2000 Avoidable Deaths
Air pollution in Scotland's towns and cities has created a public health crisis, according to environmental campaigners. The claim by Friends of the Earth Scotland came after an analysis of official data for two toxic pollutants. The group said the figures showed pollution levels were continuing to break Scottish and European limits. 'Air pollution in Scotland's towns and cities is creating a public health crisis, according to environmental campaigners. High levels of NO2 [nitrogen oxide] are linked to asthma and other respiratory problems . . . Last April, Health Protection Scotland said air pollution may have been responsible for 2,000 deaths in Scotland in a single year' (BBC News, 11 January). Inside capitalism business is much more important than curbing pollution.
Cancelled Operations
The sharp rise in the number of procedures hospitals are at present postponing has prompted the leader of Britain's surgeons to warn that patients affected will suffer ‘considerable distress’. 'Unprecedented demand has led to a third more elective (planned) operations being cancelled in England this winter than last year, latest figures show. A total of 12,345 were called off at short notice between 3 November and 4 January, a rise of 32% on the 9,320 seen in the same period in the winter of 2013-14' (Observer, 11 January). Cancellations included some 3,771 procedures such as hernia repairs and hip or knee replacements in the three weeks before and during the festive season.
Cuts In Cancer Treatment
Health chiefs have announced that twenty-five different cancer treatments will no longer be funded by the NHS in England. 'NHS England announced the step after it emerged the £280m Cancer Drugs Fund - for drugs not routinely available –was to go £100m over budget in 2014/15. Some drugs will be removed and others restricted –a move charities say could leave some without crucial treatments' (BBC News, 12 January). Another example of government cuts coming before essential treatment for the working class.
Class Room Crisis
Council leaders warn that the cost of creating places for the 880,000 extra pupils expected in England by 2023 could push schools to breaking point. 'The Local Government Association fears the demand for school places could soon reach a tipping point with no more space or money to extend schools. The LGA wants the government to fully fund the cost of all the extra places, calculated to run to £12bn' (BBC News, 13 January). Official government figures, published last year, project that by 2023 there will be a total of 8,022,000 pupils in England's schools – up from 7,143,000 in the current academic year. This increase has no budget to deal with the problem.

Moore of the Same (2004)

Book Review from the January 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Michael Moore is a phenomenon. His book Stupid White Men has become a bestseller, having sold well over half a million copies in the UK, and he is a massively popular film-maker (Bowling for Columbine), as well as a stage and TV comedian-cum-political critic and activist (see the January 2003 Socialist Standard for some Socialist comments on him). His new book Dude, Where's My Country? (published by Allen Lane) is a further example of his talent for invective.
Dude really lays into President George 'Dubya' Bush, attacking him as mendacious, cowardly and corrupt, plus other less pleasant attributes. While much of what is said in the first chapter is in the form of questions rather than outright accusations, it does at the very least present some interesting points. For instance, the Bush family have had, and still have, close business links with that wealthy Saudi family the bin Ladens (who have by no means broken off relations with their 'black sheep' member Osama). The Bushes also have business connections to the Saudi royal family, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship featuring arbitrary arrest, with no political parties or trade unions. Of course the US benefits from massive amounts of Saudi oil and Saudi investments, which is why Dubya and Blair have been in no hurry to “defend freedom” by invading it.
Were the 11 September attacks really organised by some dissident faction of the Saudi royal family? Of greater general significance perhaps is Moore's claim that Dubya's campaign for the presidency was partly financed by companies like Enron and Unocal. They wanted a president who would let them get their hands on Afghanistan's oil and gas. They were considerably helped in this by Dubya's appointment of a Unocal consultant as US ambassador to Afghanistan and installation of a former Unocal employee as the new Afghan leader. And – guess what – an agreement to build a new pipeline to export Afghan gas was signed just three and a half months after 11 September, which provided an excuse for getting rid of the uncooperative Taliban. And did Dubya really run scared on the morning of 11 September? It hardly matters, though I suppose it would be nice to think he is a coward as well as a bloodthirsty bully.
Then we are introduced to even more of Dubya's lies, most especially his confident pronouncement that Iraq had nuclear weapons. This is followed by similar exposure of claims about Saddam Hussein having biological and chemical weapons: he certainly did have them in the 1980s, when he used them against the Kurds, having obtained them from US companies in the first place. Moore is almost apoplectic on this count:
“Weapons of mass destruction? Oh yeah, he had them at one time. All we had to do was check the receipts and count the profits as they rolled into the bank account of the campaign backers of Reagan and Bush.”
As for the view that Saddam was the world's most evil man, there have been plenty of rivals for this crown, many of them aided by the USA. Even apart from Saudi Arabia (see above), the cases of the murderous Mobutu of Zaire and the genocidal Suharto of Indonesia spring to mind.
What, next, of the supposed campaign to oppose terrorism? Moore sees the best way to stop terrorism as being . . . to stop acting as terrorists. But this campaign has had primarily domestic uses:
“Perhaps the biggest success in the War on Terror has been its ability to distract the nation from the Corporate War on Us. In the two years since the attacks of 9/11, American businesses have been on a punch-drunk rampage that has left millions of average Americans with their savings gone, their pensions looted, their hopes for a comfortable future for their families diminished or extinguished”
So we are told about executives who pocket millions while their companies' share prices fall through the floor, of other companies that take out life insurance policies on their employees but name the company as the beneficiary, of cutbacks on pensions and other benefits. Also of the thirteen thousand families who make up the top 0.01% of the American population but control as much wealth as the poorest twenty million.
All this is not only instructive but presented in a heartfelt and amusing way. Moore's breathless style can grate after a while, but Dude is never dull or heavy-going. And yet, and yet, and yet: it is ultimately plain unsatisfactory, with little real understanding of what drives present-day society or what needs to be done to replace it. Part of the problem is that Dubya, with his mangling of the English language, his evident ignorance of the world, and his inability to present his thoughts coherently, is such a soft target. The last chapter proclaims that “There is probably no greater imperative facing the nation than the defeat of George W. Bush in the 2004 election”, notes how useless the Democrats are, and then settles on a suitable anti-Bush candidate – none other than Oprah Winfrey! And if she refuses (and she has said she won't stand), his next choice is General Wesley Clark, formerly Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. It's as if one were to read a devastating description of the predations of some criminal gang, and then be told that the crucial task was to give them a new name.
Sadly, Moore fails to see that Dubya's lies and corruption are not causes of the problem but symptoms, brought about by the same factors which result in wars and poverty and inequality. No matter who is in nominal charge of capitalism, whether in the US or anywhere else, it will remain the same rapacious animal, attacking ordinary people both at home and abroad. This will only finish when workers get rid, not just of Dubya, but of the whole gang of politicians, of capitalist parasites, and indeed of the capitalist system itself. We must hope that some of the many who will read this book will draw more radical conclusions than its author.
Paul Bennett

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE LITTLE WORLD OF DON CAMILLO (1953)

Film Review from the May 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those who enjoy a good story with plenty of action and first class acting should be sure to see this film which has now been generally released.

The film is made in Italy where Don Camillo (played by Fernandel) is a parish priest in a village with a Communist Party dominated local council. He is not averse from fisticuffs on occasions, in fact sometimes he is simply itching for a scrap when the communists become particularly trying to him. This character is loved by the local catholics and commands the respect of the communists. Although as a priest he is officially out of politics he really makes no secret of his antagonism to the local Communist politicians, even though both groups co-operated in the underground movement directed against the German occupation of Italy in the last war.

The Communist mayor (portrayed by Gino Cervi) controls his supporters with paternal despotism.

The really outstanding feature of the film apart from the first class acting, lies in its thread of humour arising from the underlying background of religious belief of many of the communists which sometimes comes to light at times embarrassing for the Mayor. These communists apparently want the best of both worlds—sometimes they are shown as enjoying material advantages gained as a result of their support of the Communist Party and in taking part in a communist organised strike for higher pay. Sometimes they are glad of the comforts of the Catholic Church—at times that they considered important, such as baptisms, marriage and death; as for instance when the Mayor insisted on the baptism of his son by Don Camillo and also when the communist agricultural strikers as surreptitiously as possible, followed the bidding of the priest and went back to work.

The popularity of the film in Italy and France indicates that the idea of Catholics and Communists having a similar mentality and a similar basically religious attitude towards life does not strike a jarring note in the minds of the viewers in those countries.

This is particularly interesting because Italy is the fountainhead of the world Catholic Church and at the same time the greatest stronghold of the Communist Party this side of the iron curtain.

Catholic Action, the lay body reorganised in its modern form by Pious XI in 1922 is forbidden by its statute to be constituted as a political party but its political influence is none the less exceedingly powerful and widespread. By means of clubs, associations, camps, youth movements, newspapers, general propaganda and broadcasting, Catholic Action comes nearest to being the counterpart and challenge to the Communist organisations. This is even more true of the Commtati Civici, an offshoot of Catholic Action, which provides the real shock troops of the campaign. Run on a system not unlike that of the Communist cells, this "committee of action" come into their own above all at election times when their propaganda and their house to house methods are extraordinarily thorough and well-conceived. The influence of some of the Catholic activities in villages was demonstrated in the film.

It is understandable that Catholics and Communists should be rivals because their ideologies are very similar and they both depend on the same type of uninformed and prejudiced electorate for support. Both are autocratic with a hierarchy of officials who interpret for the layman the policy ladled out by a ruler at the apex of the pyramid. The Catholic creed is based on belief in the Holy Trinity, whilst the Communist creed is based in what is called Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism. One relies on belief in God, obedience to the Church and hopes of Heaven; the other kow-tows to a dictator, obeys the Party and is spurred on by believing that the U.S.S.R. is a socialist heaven. The Catholic devil is found in a variety of unexpected places and disguises, in fact this is his outstanding characteristic, and he must be continually sought out, recognised and castigated. For the Communist, it is the "Social Fascist," which term is used to cover most enemies and even critics of Communists, who is the arch fiend and tempter of the comrades to stray from the straight and narrow path of orthodoxy.

It is no wonder then that the Communist Party have been able to recruit 2 million members from a population so steeped in catholicism as the Italians. Their members want what they consider the best of both worlds—the social reforms of the Communist Party and the comforts of the Church.
Frank Offord 

Our attitude to the capitalist (1950)

From the July 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is sometimes charged against us that we are just iconoclasts—destroyers of all that is; that we have an objection to the capitalist personally, as a human being. This is quite wrong. What we object to, and seek to destroy, is not the capitalist personally but his function, his method of existing. Perhaps a little story will illustrate our attitude even better than an explanation.

Once upon a time there was an old lady and a young one lying in bed. Suddenly the old lady sat up, reached her hand over her shoulder and began scrabbling under her nightgown. Presently she withdrew her hand triumphantly and crushed her finger and thumb together, using a most unwomanly expletive.

"Oh mother," cried the young lady, in a shocked voice, "would you destroy one of God's creatures?"

"It's not God's creature I object to," replied the old lady viciously, "but it's the way it has of getting its living."

That is our attitude to the capitalist. We object to the way he has of getting his living. We want to transform him from a flea, living upon the backs of the workers into a useful member of society playing his part along with others in a world wide society in which each contributes what he can and takes what he needs.
Gilmac

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What housing shortage? (1978)

From the March 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Listeners to the LBC 'phone-in on Sunday 23rd January (afternoon programme) were doubtless delighted to hear "Bill of Balham".

A lady rang in to complain that her daughter could not buy a flat in West Kensington because she had been priced out by "Arabs". "This neighbourhood is fast becoming 'Saudi Arabia'" she moaned.

Then it was "Bill's" turn. In a quiet, flat expressionless tone and in a Cockney accent you could cut with a knife, he proceeded to demolish Madame West Kensington. 'Housing shortage! What housing shortage?' quoth he. It is estimated, says he, that there are between 40 and 50,000 hotel bedrooms empty in London to-night; and there are thousands sleeping rough.

'It's not shortage of houses, but shortage of money' claims Bill. 'Now' says Bill (and this is what made his contribution) 'the great majority will never have the money because they work for wages'. 'Nothing but the abolition of the wages system can solve it'.

Actually, when asked by the interviewing broadcaster Bryn Jones, he added 'I completely support the position of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. I'm not a member, I've never been to any of their meetings, but they're absolutely right'.

'But, says the interviewer, 'you mean the abolition of capitalism'.

'That's right' says Bill, 'capitalism and the wages system are the same thing'.

Then he added 'These SPGB people never have a chance to put their point of view, I believe they did have an hour once on your programme? L.B.C., which is probably where I heard them.

'Now', says Bryn Jones (the interviewer) 'would it surprise if I say I entirely agree with you?'

'Not at all' says Bill, 'because it's right!'

However that may be, it certainly surprises us. Mr. Jones is so far removed from some of the boozy, incoherent oafs who have the impudence to pose as authorities on things they know nothing about, on radio phone-ins, as to be quite exceptional.
Horatio

All in the mind (1977)

From the October 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

People travelling on the Hammersmith Line can read the slogan on this month's cover of the Socialist Standard, painted on the side of the overhead motorway, every time their train passes between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park stations. Very few of them even notice it as they worry about what the day at work will bring, try to relax from the tensions of that day on the way home, or try to "get away from it all" for a few minutes by turning to the sports pages of their papers.

To-day, although great advances have been made in eliminating or controlling illnesses like TB, one-third of all National Health Service beds are filled by people with mental illnesses. In addition, over 20,000 go to hospital for the whole day each day for treatment, plus nearly a quarter of a million who visit out-patient departments to see a psychiatrist. In fact, mental illness is the greatest single medical problem to-day. In publishing these figures, the National Association for Mental Health makes the point that they only represent identified (their italics) mental ill health which is being treated in some way.

The most usual reasons for mental illness are stated to be "the stress placed on us by an urban, competitive society. Stress is an integral part of our jobs, of growing up, of marriage, of being poor, of bereavement". The case-histories quoted vary as widely as the man who could not cope when he was "overpromoted", to the frustrated woman who became chronically "over houseproud"; from whose who resort to drink and drugs (in themselves an opting out of the "real" world) to the inadequate sexual partner.

The world of "Pop" has just mourned the death at the age of 42 of its idol, Elvis Presley. Before him, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland died in similar circumstances. Nearer home, Tony Hancock, whose sad-faced comedy always had relevance to the day-to-day life of the "ordinary" man, could not bear the pressures of his own life. Their names were famous; their untimely end mourned by many, Their deaths have been attributed to the same basic reason as that of the man next door who could not face his problems any longer. Although by the money standards set by to-day's society they were at opposite ends of the scale, they had this in common—they succumbed because they could not deal, or come to terms, with the pressures if the system under which we live—capitalism.

There is a pleasant Jewish greeting "I wish you well", but we say to you, fellow members of the working class: while you have capitalism, it will remain a wish. When we have got rid of the world-wide system responsible—directly or indirectly—for almost all the mental illness to-day, there will no longer be any need for "Mental Health Week" or, indeed, for the National Association for Mental Health. Then, and only then, will that greeting have real meaning.
Eva Goodman 

No shortage of water - only a shortage of greedy people! (1976)

From the October 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are three common myths advanced by opponents of our proposal for free access to all that is produced by society. These are:
  1. That there is a limited amount of wealth or 'cake' which can be divided up between society. As a result:
  2. Socialism means the division into equal shares of this cake, and
  3. since man is inherently greedy he will naturally want more than his "share."
These arguments can be shown to be fallacious by looking at them in the context of the current water "shortage". The word shortage is deliberately placed in inverted commas since, whilst there is a shortage of water compared to previous years, the present problem is merely one of collecting it. In a recent Guardian Special Report (30th July 1976) it was pointed out that an average six times the amount of water consumed, falls on the British Isles. And, as with everything under capitalism, the consideration is one of cost or profit. (A new reservoir scheme in Northumberland alone will cost £60 million.)

To return to myth number one. It is true that under capitalism the amount of wealth produced — be it water, houses or food — is restricted to what the market can afford. But in a Socialist society without money these things will be produced to meet the needs, not of a market, but of society. And since, contrary to myth number two, Socialism does not mean sharing the existing "cake" but taking according to one's needs, the needs of society will be determined by the needs of the people who make up society.

The third myth, that man is inherently greedy, can be exposed by looking at the results of the emergency water cuts in one of the worst affected areas, south Wales, where a daily 13 hour (7 p.m. to 8 a.m.) cut has been introduced. The Sunday Times (8th August 1976) reported that during the first two days of the cuts, " . . . consumption went up with a bang because people filled their baths and every tin they could put their hands on every night."

But: "On the third day demand dropped when people realised they were not using the stored water and began to syphon off a more realistic amount to see them through the night. After three weeks the saving has risen to 30 per cent." It would seem therefore that the only shortage is a shortage of greedy people!

In a world where enough wealth can and will be produced to satisfy everyone's needs people will take what they require as easily, freely and unconsciously as they (normally) take a glass of water.
Paul Moody

DISAPPEARING MAN (1975)

Book Review from the November 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Strange Case of Victor Grayson, by Reg Groves. Pluto Press, £2.

The tale of Victor Grayson's disappearance used to appear regularly in such series as "The World's Strangest Stories", flavoured by the possibility that somewhere he might still be alive. The idea can now be dismissed — it is ninety-four years since Grayson was born; this book assembles the facts of his life and political career.

Grayson was one of the figures thrown up by the pre-1914 Labour movement. Beginning in chapels and street-corner meetings in Manchester, he emerged as an outstanding young orator. The Colne Valley Labour League chose him as their candidate in the by-election of 1907; to everyone's astonishment Grayson was elected to Parliament, at twenty-five. The ILP and the Labour Party had refused to endorse his candidature, because it crossed their arrangements with the Liberals. Preaching a fiery radicalism which centred on demands for measures to deal with mass unemployment, he was continually at odds with the parliamentary Labour leaders.

After losing his seat, he joined with H. M. Hyndman and Robert Blatchford in forming the British Socialist Party — it was only a change of name by the Social Democratic Federation. However, personal failings had already taken hold of Grayson: in particular, drink. He still attracted large audiences, but it was never certain he would turn up. In 1915 he went to New Zealand, where eventually he joined the army and thus returned to England. His disappearance followed some dabbling in Irish politics and in the question of the sale of titles by Lloyd George; Reg Groves links it with a political agent named Maundy Gregory, who was in the latter affair.

One interesting aspect of the book is its account of the wheeling and dealing by Keir Hardie, Snowden and others to preserve their alliances or their ambitions, or both. It is a pity that Reg Groves has let his own political romanticism run away with the story in respects which are not essential to it, such as claiming that Grayson was "the first and last man ever to be elected to Parliament as a socialist". He was nothing of the kind: he was a brilliant and passionate demagogue, but a reformist who ended by supporting the 1914-18 war as did the men he condemned.

Likewise, Grayson's criticisms of the House of Commons are extended into a theory that he was destroyed by the "fraud" of parliamentary action and would have been saved by syndicalism. This is absurd, and the writer should think again about the implications of facts he himself gives. Nevertheless, the book is worth anyone's reading for its picture of a curious and tragic political figure, his contemporaries and times.
Robert Barltrop 

SHORT CUT TO NOWHERE (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I do not expect to be still alive at Christmas!" This dramatic message was delivered to a crowd of Saturday afternoon shoppers. The speaker then urged her audience to write to their MPs, to Khrushchev and to Kennedy, imploring them to ban nuclear weapons. For this was Autumn 1961 and The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was flourishing.

Eagerly I approached a CND supporter and introduced myself as a Socialist. Warmly greeted, I was handed a leaflet, with the assurance that CND drew its support from all shades of political — and non political — opinion. I quickly expressed my opposition to all war and was introduced to a Pacifist. Then I pointed out that to campaign against particular weapons whilst supporting the social system that gave rise to wars  . . . But the Pacifist had turned away and my erstwhile friend of the leaflets had moved on!

They had no time to listen to Socialist ideas. The fear of nuclear war, the dangers involved even in testing the horrific weapons, made it imperative to "get something done now." However the road from Aldermaston proved not to be a short cut, even to arms limitation, but a blistering dead end.

More than a dozen years have passed since I stood rejected at the edge of that High Street meeting. The recent British underground Nuclear test underlines the fact that these weapons, and the threat of war (plus actual conflict) are still around. Still in fact a cause for urgent concern. But where is CND?

It is a familiar story. The Socialist case was turned down because of an overwhelming concern with a specific issue. Getting rid of the nuclear threat could not, as members of CND put it, wait for Socialism.

Is it too much to hope that the tragic irony of it all has not been lost on those energetic campaigners?

As Socialists we too are horrified and sickened by the countless problems which are inseparable from capitalism. It is in fact this understanding, that a social system based on the profit motive cannot also be geared to human interests, which gives the obvious answer. The only way to resolve the multiplicity of problems, including war, is through the achievement of Socialism; it necessarily follows that this is the quickest solution. Which is, of course, the reason why we have no time to engage in reformist struggles.

The need for Socialism is too urgent.
Pat Deutz


Violence and Everyday Life (1973)

From the November 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did you know that "journal", a weekly or monthly publication, actually means a day-book? However, there is a sense in which its customary misuse can be justified. Journalism, even the weighty theoretical stuff, comes from what is seen and heard in day-to-day living. The prosaic experience and the passing remark present social questions which require analysis or should be more widely seen. Capitalism is not an abstract category but our daily existence.

So there was this lady at a dinner-party. We were talking about the world in the way you do at dinner-parties, i.e. keeping on the surface and remembering the expression of strong opinions is in bad taste. And she said she and her husband would not like to come back to England to live because of all the violence there is today, the mugging and the football hooliganism. Nice lady, how mistaken you are. Where were you all my life?

*     *     *

One morning in 1936 that shopkeeper never served me. There was a crowd down the road, and he dashed out to join it saying: "That's old Lil, she can't half fight"—watching the two aproned women flailing and clawing all over the pavement. You could see men fighting practically any day, but fights between women were less frequent. However, the Whatsaname brothers who were all boxers paid homage to their aunt Alice as the best fighter in the family. One Saturday night she knocked her husband through the front-room window. In the morning she hung a gaudy curtain over the hole, and that afternoon the priest heading the Corpus Christi procession blessed this apparent decoration whereupon Alice flew out and threatened him for taking the mickey.

Violence was endemic. There were streets in every town that respectable people dared not walk along at night. One evening a man sent me to fetch the local copper because of a fierce male fight outside the pub, I found him and told him. He said: "If I were you, son, I'd go and get a policeman" — and turned and went the other way. But apart from the continual street-corner violence, its use in the home was taken for granted. Men kept their wives in order that way. In a divorce case for cruelty just before the war, a judge refused the wife's plea on the ground that knocking-about was the marital norm in East London.

Children could be, and were, knocked about by practically any adult: that was part of childhood. At school, from the infants' upwards, you were thrashed and clouted automatically. At home it was the foundation of parents' rule — father's belt, or a strap kept behind the door, or one of the canes sold for a penny in oil-shops. For petty larcenies and pilferings, the policeman did not charge you but thrashed you. Friends, neighbours, strangers, if there of mature years were licensed to hit children for any reason at all.

But there was more than just fighting and beating. It was by no means unknown for a murder to be successfully concealed. I remember the hated foreman in an industrial yard of whom it was said that a crane-load would one day fall on him; and one day it did. We knew a house where thirty-two people lived upstairs, and when a new baby arrived they buried it in the backyard. The activities of gangs like the Krays and Richardsons are horrifying, but less so than those of the race-track and protection gangs of between the wars. "The Sabini boys" represented a reign of terror; and the Glasgow razor-gangs were the subject of a book called No Mean City.  

We have heard of "political violence" at demonstrations in recent years. Compared with the nineteen-thirties, it is urchins' stuff. Fascists and Communists carried home-made weapons to demonstrations, and you could be slashed by a razor without much difficulty. What is now called "police brutality" raised no protests at all; it was what working people expected. As an instance, in the 1933 novel Love on the Dole the hero, Larry Meath, dies after being beaten by policemen at an unemployed men's march. Published today, it would bring controversy and indignation that such a thing could be envisaged. Then, its validity was taken for granted.


                                                                           *     *     *

There is not the violence in everyday life that existed in the past. Why, then, do some people think there is? To an extent, it is because the poor as individuals did not exist then: only as a mass, in the eyes of the State and the well-to-do. Individually, many had no recorded existence — it was only the second world war with identity cards, and the transition from them to to the processed data of the Welfare State, that made their presence or absence and what happened to them official.

But, more than that, the essence of capitalist democracy is for rulers to tell people they are to blame. Every economic problem is, inevitably, the population's fault: too greedy, too lazy, irresponsible, perversely wrong in its choice of governments. Indeed, there is nothing else rulers can tell people — the only alternative would be the truth, that they and their system are incapable of running the world decently. And people are aggressive, full of desire to oust and hurt. The point was bitterly made by the cartoonist Low before the war, in a drawing of crocodile-headed rulers on the steps of their Peace Palace saying to blank-faced masses: "Friends, we have failed. We couldn't control your war-like instincts."

The violence of the past is not proof that aggression is always ready to burst out when it gets a chance. What it proves is the degrading effect of extreme poverty and squalor: two starving men will fight for a crust, or kill another who comes along. That is not their pleasure but their necessity — given enough to eat, they will all live in amity. The over-riding fact is that despite the necessities history has imposed, if man had not a fundamental tendency to co-operation and order we should not be here today.

The class division in society opposes that tendency, and by forcing appalling lives on huge numbers of people promotes ferocity. As soon as people's circumstances improve only a little, this is something they want to be without. (The decay of boxing as a sport is an interesting pointer. Its star performers have always come from specially victimized sections of society: in the past Jews and Irishmen, now black men.)  But while social violence declines, rulers will have none of that. Like hellfire preachers whose bread-and-butter is sin, they denounce our innate aggression and frame laws to check it.


*     *     *

Curiously enough, those who believe violence is rife never see the outstanding things about it. One is that while the classic cure for misbehaviour is Christian "love", the areas in Britain where violence remains strongest are those with large Catholic populations — simply because those are also the areas of poverty at its old-fashioned worst.

The other is that war preparation and the development of incredibly horrifying weapons are carried on all the time by awfully respectable people. This is violence which makes a mugger or fist-fighter look puny. Why do they never notice that?
Robert Barltrop




Who’s Afraid of Charlie Hebdo?

The Halo Halo! Column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
As this is being typed out the dust is just beginning to settle on the events following the slaughter of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staff, the killing of the Jewish supermarket hostages and their attackers. The newspaper and TV reporters covering the atrocity - carried out apparently to avenge a long dead ‘prophet’ who has become prone to the gags of mickey-takers and critics due to the absurdities of his followers - all emphasise the point that the right to free speech is not negotiable, and is the very essence of democracy.
And they are right of course. Ridiculous people and ridiculous ideas inevitably attract ridicule. And the most absurd idea still being bandied about in the 21st century as an answer to modern day capitalism and its problems is religion. Despite the claims from its various apologists of their moral superiority, and the insistence that they should be accepted, unchallenged and unquestioned, as examples of how we are to live our lives, they are, in fact, the socially useless remnants of a long-gone world, a world of ancient social conditions and ideas, mass ignorance and superstition. And far from providing answers to today’s problems they have nothing say, other than to tell us to put our faith in the imaginary gods and their magical powers, of an ancient era.
The fact that believers in such gods obviously consider their deities to be so weak and helpless, however, as to need their critics to be silenced by Kalashnikovs says as much about the god’s impotence as does any Charlie Hebdo cartoon.
And, while it seems clear that the intention of the attackers was to silence the critics, this has backfired. Already gatherings of outraged people protesting at the barbarity are taking place all over Europe. More moderate Muslims too, this time more than ever before, are expressing their outrage.   
‘Everyone should be offended three times a week’ someone once said, ‘and twice on Sundays’. And that seems about right. There’s nothing like a bit straight talking, and a bit of offence to remind us that not everyone shares the same views. And while believers in ancient myths have every right to feel offended that their ideas are sometimes ridiculed, the rest of us reserve the right to be equally offended at religious stupidity and barbarity.
Socialists, too, feel quite offended at the way in which the working class are recruited, hoodwinked and persuaded to fight the wars of others in which they have no personal interests. ‘We’ve been sent from al-Qaida in Yemen’ claimed the Charlie Hebdo killers (who were born and raised in a poor neighbourhood of Paris).
But while the killer’s intention to stifle criticism and free speech will come to nothing, there is a different threat to our freedom. On the day after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s office, despite the fact that the killers were already known to the French intelligence agencies, and the Woolwich killers were already known to MI5, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5 wasted no time in asking for more surveillance powers for the intelligence agencies. Because terrorists used the internet, email and social messaging, he said, so intelligence agencies ‘have to have the power to intercept, particularly, international communications’. George Osborne readily agreed saying MI5, MI6 and GCHQ would receive the resources they need. (Guardian 10 January 2015).
Let’s hope that makes you feel more secure.
NW

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Materialism vindicated (1972)

From the April 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Looked at from two points of view—how mankind acquires knowledge and how life has evolved—there is no room for religion or the existence of a supernatural power in the development of mankind. Religion has simply been the expression of man's ignorance of, and his blind defence against, the operation of natural forces which he did not yet understand.

Thinking is a function of the brain, just as grasping is a function of the hand and walking a function of the feet; each function acquiring competence by training and experience. In order to think the brain must have something to think about; the material the brain thinks about is drawn from the world around through the medium of the senses—seeing; hearing; tasting; feeling and smelling. The thought material thus acquired, compared and generalised upon, determines the outlook of the individual, and the nature of this thought material is itself limited by the individual's contact with the world; his own experience and the passed on experience of others through reading and talking. The most important contact a person has with the world is that concerned with the satisfaction of his fundamental needs—food, clothing, shelter and the reproduction of his kind—and, therefore, these are the contacts that dominate his life, bring him into social relations with his kind, and, in general, shape his outlook.

We can only think of things that actually exist, but, we can put pieces of actual existence into fantastic forms. We can, in imagination, take a female form, attach a fish tail to it and produce and imaginary mermaid. We can also, in imagination, put wings on elephants and picture them flying through the air. But we cannot produce anything in imagination that does not already exist in some form in the world. Thus the religious imagine God as some kind of man. The brain has the faculty of working up the material drawn from the environment, just as the digestive apparatus has the faculty of digesting food that comes to it—and both can suffer from indigestion! The brain is that part of the world which pictures and thinks about the rest of the world. There is no mystery, no unknowable, only that which is not yet known but will be in the course of time. However, as things are always evolving there will always be something not yet known.

The study of evolution has shown that all living things have evolved from relatively simple inorganic molecules to complex organisms as the result of small changes over countless ages. Carbon is a basis of life on earth because it can build exceedingly complicated molecules. Scientists have now shown very reasonably that there has been a transition without a break between non-life and life in the chain that runs; hydrogen—elements—chemical compounds—nuclear acids—proteins—viruses—bacteria—higher organisms. From which it appears that there is no boundary between life and non-life in the evolutionary chain. Thus there is no room for religious explorations in the chemical evolution up to modern man. Man, including the brain, is simply a particular undesigned arrangement of chemicals—mainly hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulphur.

The nucleic acids in the above chain have a unique property. Once made they can go on indefinitely initiating copies of themselves. They alone of all molecules posses this ability, which made them the foundation of all life on earth and the raw material of its evolution. They are the stuff the genes are made of, and genes are the carriers of heriditary characteristics. In this sense also the chemical variations of past generations weigh heavily on the body and brain of the living.
Gilmac

Report on Clydeside (1971)

From the December 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the time of writing the UCS situation is still unresolved. It would appear that the government's plans for Govan and Linthouse may be extended to include Scotstoun with the remaining division, Clydebank, possibly being sold to a private buyer encouraged by favourable government terms. This would give the workers concerned a respite, however temporary, and leave them still hoping—and we shall return to this—that a future Labour government will nationalise the whole Upper Clyde shipbuilding complex. Whatever happens it seems unlikely that the original proposals which meant a reduction of another 6,000 jobs and the closure of the Scotstoun and Clydebank yards will go through. It looks, then, as if the resistance put up by the men has been at least partially successful. Of course their actions have nothing to do with Socialism and fall within the confines of trade union activity, an activity which is and only can be defensive in nature.

Much ink has been spilled over these events and many opinions have been expressed on the "work-in" tactics employed in the struggle. Several alternative courses of action have been suggested, the most popular one being that a "sit-in" would be more productive. This would entail occupation of the yards with no work being done on the ships already under construction in the hope that the delay would force the government to capitulate. However, this would mean finding money to pay the entire workforce instead of, as at present, only the several hundred made redundant. As the weekly wage-bill for UCS amounts to £¼ million then it can be seen that the task of providing even half this sum each week would be a monumental one. Also, it is unlikely that such a tactic would have secured as much popular support as the work-in and doubtless the shop stewards' committee took these and other considerations into account. Then there is the possibility that a non-working sit-in would present the government with an excuse to clear the yards on the grounds that the men had no legitimate reason for being there.

It is heartening to see a group of workers refusing to passively accept the sack, but we deplore the repeated promises to work harder and give the fullest cooperation to their employers in future. Of course these promises may only be so many words and were, after all, the product of having had the unemployment gun held to their heads. At least they didn't meekly accept their fate or rely solely on appeals to Labourite and trade union leaders to save them. They took positive action on their own account.

It could be argued that since shipbuilding is, at least at present, unprofitable and is bound to be run-down anyway, then the redundant workers should bow to the inevitable, take their redundancy payments, if any, and get out. This view could be supported by pointing out that even if the UCS workforce could be maintained at its present level then this would probably be at the expense of shipyard workers elsewhere: more orders coming to the Clyde means less orders for Tyneside or Belfast. This, of course, is true but because the industry is declining there is already a high level of unemployment in shipbuilding on Clydeside, so the chances of finding work locally are poor.

For many it would mean uprooting their families to seek work in England or overseas. And it is unreasonable to expect workers who generally think production for sale at a profit (capitalism) is the only way to run society, to put first the interests of the whole working class—that will come when they are socialist minded and not before. They joined a trade union for the limited purpose of combining with their fellow members on a craft basis to protect their own interests. We recognise this and accordingly don't expect revolutionary policies from non-socialist trade unionists.

We also recognise that before men can have any views at all, political or otherwise, they must have access to the necessities of life. They must have sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and all the other things which have come to be regarded as making life tolerable. For most workers nowadays "necessities", or their current standard of living, aren't acquired by dole money. Living standards should rightly be measured in relation to the wealth of society. Despite all the talk about how well-off to-day's workers are, their wages only enable them to live in a state of relative poverty. Nevertheless, these wages at least prevent them sliding into destitution which for many is what dole money means. Besides, there is either the personal experience or the handed-down knowledge of what large scale unemployment can do to men, so they feel that their backs are to the wall and that they must unite to save their jobs.

In their fight to change the government's mind the men have an unrecognised ally—the fact that governments cannot simply ignore political, economic and social pressures. For example, the Tories must have been dismayed at the general response to the proposed sackings and closures; they cannot afford to lose too many votes between now and the next general election. Also, the consequences of such severe unemployment might well result in increased social problems like the break-up of families or a steep increase in the crime rate, and there have been local warnings to this effect. So factors like these could account in part for the softening of the government's attitude.

The whole UCS episode has once more thrown into relief the utter hopelessness of the "left-wing". They have offered every solution under the sun but the real one; they will talk about absolutely anything except production for use and the abolition of exchange relationships. Some of their utterances have been simply ridiculous. The Communist Party actually called for an "end to redundancies and the nationalisation of shipbuilding". As if nationalisation ever meant anything less than the rationalisation of the labour force involving, as with British Rail and the Coal Board, large scale redundancies. Hugh Scanlon of the Engineers claimed that success for the UCS could mean the abolition of unemployment in Britain. Small wonder if workers remain convinced that their problems can be solved within capitalism. Scanlon should know that while production for profit remains, then so must unemployment in one degree or another. The "Militant" Trotskyists were outraged that the government should grant Yarrow's, which is outside the UCS, £4½ million of "taxpayer's money". Apparently the taxes which are a burden on the capitalist class alone should be spent in a way Trotskyists approve of. We also bad the usual "appeals" for "soviets" plus howls that the imagined revolutionary situation was being betrayed by traitors, etc., etc.

Whatever the outcome on Clydeside the unpleasant fact remains that the production for profit system will still be with us. Even if the UCS workers realised their dearest wish to see the four yards remain as an integrated whole, production there as elsewhere must be subject to capitalism's economic laws—it must be profitable or, if under nationalisation, at least make the minimum of loss. This means that the process of removing as much unnecessary labour as possible must continue. Indeed, J. Reid, the men's spokesman, recognises this when he argues that by remaining together the yards would be "more viable" through a "lack of duplication in terms of marketing, design, research and many other factors" (Glasgow News 11 October). The avoidance of duplication is only achieved by sacking some of the workers concerned. So in order to be "more viable" the realities of capitalism—the need to produce cheaper ships to meet competition—must result in future sackings whether by the hand of the government or even by a shop steward's committee.

There is no way out of this. The fact is that in shipbuilding, just as in every other industry, the productive forces have outstripped the demand. True, there will be a continuing growth in the amount of tonnage required to meet the increasing volume of world trade, but even a considerable increase in the demand for ships could not satisfy the present world capacity to produce them, so the contenders will still have to fight for a share in the market.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain will continue to urge workers everywhere to resist attacks made on their living standards by their employers. This is a basic necessity so long as capitalism lasts. At the same time we recognise such action to be purely defensive, besides never-ending, and which still leaves the factories, mines, shipyards, land, transportation systems, and the other places where wealth is produced, in the hands of the owning class. We therefore have organised politically to work to bring nearer the day when capitalism's inhumanity, waste and chaos will be swept away by the democratic action of the majority of the world's working class—the useful people.
Vic Vanni

Obituaries: Joyce Millen and Frank Offord (1984)

Obituaries from the March 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to report the death of these two comrades who served us over many years. Both were originally members of the Bloomsbury Branch before and during the War years of 1939-45.

Joyce was the secretary of the branch, in addition to her work at Head Office which was situated at that time at Rugby Chambers, Holborn. She served on the Propaganda Committee for some considerable time, and was jointly responsible for the organisation of the 1945 General Election meetings in North Paddington, the main feature of which were two large meetings at the Metropolitan Music Hall, Edgware Road, which were the largest ever held by the Party. There was an attendance of 1,700 at each meeting, and a number of people were unable to get in. She spoke both indoors and outdoors. Her lecture on "Anti-Semitism", given in 1943 at the Trade Union Club, was a classic which in the opinion of the writer has never been bettered. She was a woman of caustic wit and a very sharp tongue but beneath this facade was a very generous person, and absolutely dedicated to the socialist cause. Latterly, her domestic life, and the bringing up of a family, caused her to drop out of the mainstream of activity but she retained her membership which covered a period of nearly 45 years. Her sudden death at the early age of 67 came as a shock — we had the best of her.

Frank Offord was Party auditor for a number of years, and was one of the back room boys of the Party. Some of his early life had been spent in China, and he wrote and spoke on various aspects of the conditions there. Together with the late Ted Kersley, he was the mainspring of the New Premises Committee, and it was he who discovered our present Head Office at 52 Clapham High Street. When the lease at Rugby Chambers expired it was this Committee that organised the move, much of the expense of which was paid by Frank out of his own pocket. It was he who introduced films to be used in conjunction with socialist lectures. Ill-health prevented him in the last few years from carrying on any Party activity.
Jim D'Arcy

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When Labour ruled (1) (1991)

From the November 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 3 September, the Rt Hon Baroness Castle of Blackburn appeared on the Channel Four "Opinions" programme to urge us not to let that marvellous achievement, The Welfare State, be taken away from us. She reminisced for half-an-hour upon the setting up of the National Health Service and how the post-war Labour governments engaged experts to explain to them what poverty was, so that they could devise schemes like Family Allowances in an attempt to combat it.

While fondly remembering her own part as plain Barbara Castle in all the this, she seemed to forget her part in Labour's other record on poverty: its consistent and often vicious efforts to hold down wages—at the same time as inflating the currency to make them worth less.

The Welfare State was only ever a collection of schemes for regulating poverty. Full-scale war had brought out clearly again, as in 1914, what a sorry state the British working class was in. Armed forces medical staff found that a large proportion of the conscripts were undernourished and unhealthy—not the stuff of which efficient, ruthless fighting machines are made. The Liberal, Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge was commissioned by the wartime coalition government to produce a report suggesting practical means by which British capitalism could ensure that it had a healthy and efficient workforce for the economic war that would follow the bombing war.

The war was a crisis for British capitalism. No-one knew how it would end. Like the economist Keynes, some years before, many of the British capitalist class feared that a social system which could produce a slump like that of the 1930s and then a war like that of the 1940s might well be overthrown, particularly as Russia (which they thought of as socialist) was one of the main allies against Germany, Italy and Japan. Many politicians, particularly Labour and Liberal, felt that the state must intervene to ameliorate the worst effects of unemployment, dire poverty and the poor health that resulted from them. Keynes had assured them that it was possible for governments to prevent slumps and unemployment through applying appropriate fiscal controls.

Discussion about post-war society and what it should be like began quite early on in the war. Propaganda films and radio broadcasts for civilians as well as the armed forces placed considerable emphasis upon "what we were fighting for" as well as what the war was supposed to be against.

The wartime conditions in which this discussion took place was those of extensive state control. Political parties had been been largely submerged in the coalition government and almost every aspect of civilian life was controlled, as it was for soldiers, sailors and airmen. By the time the war ended, state control of the economy and of a great part of people's lives had come to seem normal and inevitable to the British working class.

Labour takes charge
The Second World War gave the Labour Party its greatest opportunity. But it also exposed its fundamental impotence as a party to represent the British working class. The editorial in the March 1943 Socialist Standard put it like this:
The latest tragi-comedy is the complete outmanoeuvring of the Labour Party on the Beveridge Report. They have demanded for years (as a stepping stone to something or other) a much improved system of unemployment and sickness benefits and old-age pensions. One familiar demand put forward at Labour Party (e.g., in 1923) was that unemployment pay should be at trade union rates. Along comes the capitalist politician Beveridge with a much less favourable scheme, and the Labour Party, fearful lest this second-best scheme should be endangered, gives it their qualified approval. Now the Government announces that it too approves of the scheme, but with modifications and postponements. The Labour Party, now fearful of "diehard" opposition, finds itself hesitant about endangering the modified scheme, which is, in itself, two steps backward from its own. But how can it deny its own doctrine that "anything is better than nothing"?
The Family Allowances  Act, as a first stage in a comprehensive social security scheme, was introduced by the coalition government in 1945. The Labour government, elected with an overwhelming majority in July of that year, seized upon the whole Beveridge scheme as its own and introduced the National Insurance Act in 1946.  

Austerity
A great deal of rationing and many wartime controls were continued under the post-war Labour government. Like a good, capitalist government, they were concerned in case workers should force up wages under conditions of expanding production and full employment, so reducing profits, and they imposed a wage freeze.

The level of optimism in the country was high and the Labour Party was able to plead for tolerance from the workers towards the austerity regime the government was maintaining, on the grounds that it would only be a temporary state of affairs until expanding industrial output brought full prosperity. The absolutely vital thing, they insisted, was for workers to work harder and produce more for export. However, in spite of assurances by the Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, to a meeting of cotton workers in Manchester in April 1948, the British textile industry was already meeting intense competition and protectionism from the USA and Japan. The confident assurances of full employment  upon which the whole plan rested were already beginning to look unrealistic in the competitive post-war world.

In 1949, the Labour government suffered its first financial crisis and the pound fell sharply in value. The government devalued it by 30 percent, after denying that it would do so. In October, the government passed the National Health Service (Amendment) Act, taking the power to impose a charge on prescriptions, although they did not impose one. In 1951, a further Act did impose charges for false teeth and glasses. After two elections in that year a sufficient number of the British working class voted Conservative to throw Labour out.

It was not simply the long succession of increases in health charges that followed which eroded British workers' faith in the Welfare State: the state itself had repeatedly even under Labour revealed its true colours as the agent of the employing class. It used laws and the courts to hold down wages, and it used troops to break strikes. Above all, however, the lie that governments could control the economy was exposed so often that hardly anyone could go on believing it.

For socialists, the trouble has been that this hotch-potch of poor relief and incomes control, together with the nationalisation of major industries, was called "socialism" by the Labour Party themselves as well by other politicians such as Margaret Thatcher. The result has been that, as well as becoming rightly sceptical about politicians' promises, many of our fellow workers gave become completely cynical about all political action. We have a lot of work to do.
Ron Cook

Next month we look at the anti-working-class record of the Wilson government which managed the affairs of British capitalism between 1964 and 1970.

ALL IN PICTURES (1977)

Book Review from the April 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx For Beginners by Rius. Writers & Readers Publishing Co-operative (London), £1.

It had to come! Marx in comic-strip form! Friend Rius's amusing booklet has already achieved a high circulation in many countries. As a way of popularising Marx's teachings it has much to commend it, and is not to be despised.

Despite a certain number of flaws (one-third of the world is not Communist) in keeping with common misconceptions, some of it is quite impressive. The potted review of the History of Philosophic Thought is heroic; and, despite the author's protestations to the contrary, shows considerably more than a nodding acquaintance with the subject.

The idea of sprinkling his cartoons and text with the actual writings of Marx (and Engels) is inspired, and the exposition of surplus-value novel. Marx's himself expressed the view that unlettered working men frequently understood his stuff much better than erudite Prussian professors; so that our author's modest claim not to have yet unravelled all of Marx need not detain us.

The flaws? First, there is not Communism in Russia. The conclusion of the book, which attributes a synthesis of Marx's ideas to Lenin, is throughly misleading. Second, Marx did not say anywhere that "Capitalism was on the road to final collapse". In fact Rius himself refutes this in another place by exploding the notion that Socialism comes about automatically. The so-called "immediate measures" in The Communist Manifesto were not Socialist measures—and, lastly, Marx was not "a tough guy who knew how to command". In his personal life he relied entirely in reasoned discussion, as every Socialist is bound to do.

Apart from these things—very readable; most amusing; to be read with the critical appraisal characteristic of the modern Socialist.
Horatio


Turning the screw (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Three years ago the company I worked for announced it was closing. It was part of an ailing industrial giant which was itself finally sunk soon after when the banks withdrew their support. During the three month run-down period rumours that a "consortium" of managerial staff was trying to buy the place kept our hopes alive. Those of us who had been kept on to finish outstanding work knew that if the consortium didn't employ us then we would have little chance of a job anywhere else so we worked like we've never worked before. That deal fell through but an American multi-national moved in and bought the company. We soon learned that not everyone still working there would be employed by the new owners so each of us redoubled his efforts in the hope of being offered one of the available jobs.

A week after the old company finally closed some of us, the lucky ones, started work for the new company. A few days earlier we had been interviewed and the terms of employment had been spelled out to us. The wages would be increased by a few pounds but there would have to be "flexibility" which meant doing work previously done by other workers, and although there was to be no anti-trade union policy there would be no closed shop either. This last part didn't bother me, for workers who have to be forced to join a union are no asset to it and may actually be a source of weakness.

None of us will ever forget the first few months of working for the new owners. If we had been going like the hammers of hell before then it was nothing compared to what we now had to go through. The management, obviously wishing to impress their bosses, hounded us from clocking on till clocking off. No longer did we dare linger over our newspapers for another minute after starting time, take an unofficial cup of tea in the afternoon or wash up five minutes early. Some of us, even though we had a job, were applying for every job we saw advertised in the press, even if it meant working away from home. Nothing, we felt , could be worse than this.

Around this time government ministers were crowing about how the growth of unemployment had produced a different climate in industrial relations. "There is a new sense of realism among workers today" they said, and added that because of this productivity in Britain was rising. If what was happening to us was typical of the rest of the country then no wonder!

Frequent reminders of what job prospects were like outside were provided by former workmates whenever we met them. "It's hopeless" they told us. "I've been everywhere and there's nothing doing". On top of this we were hearing of other places in our line of work having redundancies or even closing and so increasing the supply of labour on an already glutted market. In the circumstances the management could walk all over us and we just had to take it, even when the heating was left off as an "economy measure" during the bitter cold at the end of 1981.

As time passed the pace became less frantic and gradually conditions changed to something approaching sanity, although we still had to work harder than any of us had been used to. At the end of the first year we had a 10 per cent rise without any haggling and the order book, we were told, was full enough. More men were being taken on and extra machinery installed, so the future was looking more secure. We should have known better.

Then last month came the visit from "the Yanks". The place was spruced up for these representatives of the parent company and they duly paraded through the factory wearing safety helmets, protective ear-muffs and big smiles. It was noticeable that the works management who accompanied them weren't smiling. All week we heard stories that the visitors were less than impressed with how things were going and that harsh words were being spoken.

On the following Monday afternoon the shop stewards were sent for. When they returned they called a meeting of all the hourly-paid employees and broke the news that there would be ten redundancies. The men were stunned. How could this be?, they asked. There was plenty of work now and for some time in the future. No matter, the visitors had decreed that the work must be done with less employees. The factory, they had said, was still only breaking even and would have to become profitable by mid-1984 when the situation would be reviewed. The ten men to go (plus one from the office) would be told next day and everyone at the meeting began to look around and calculate how much better or worse his chances were compared to the others.

Inevitably, the usual divisions between the workers emerged. The factory personnel raged because only one office staff was to go. "Bloody ridiculous" they said, "we're producers, not them". National prejudices also had an airing. It was the greed of those "Yankee bastards" that was to blame, as if British employers would have acted any differently in the same situation. My workmates, like most other workers, haven't begun to understand that their jobs are only provided on the basis that they will produce a surplus over and above their wages. Some of them even claimed that they have "a right to a job" which also must mean that employers have a duty to employ them whether they need them or not. Investors put their cash in order to make a profit, not to keep workers in jobs. There is no other way in which capitalism can operate. Next day at two o'clock the foremen broke the news to the chosen ten and told them to collect their money and go. Within twenty minutes they had gone with two weeks plus two days pay. The rest of us were shocked at this treatment but there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

Next day our foreman gave us a little talk. What it boiled down to was that the arm and leg we had given the new owners still wasn't enough and we would have to do even better in future. Apparently, the company have a factory in America which makes the same product as ourselves and the visitors claimed that the American workers are making it faster than we do. The implication was obvious enough but it doesn't stretch the imagination too much to picture those American workers being told that it is we who are the danger to their jobs because we get paid a lot less.

What about my workmates, what are their ideas and how have they been affected by all these experiences? Like most other workers they aren't in the least interested in politics. In fact some of them don't even have a reasonable trade union consciousness and blame nearly all their problems not on the capitalist system, but on other workers. A few weeks before the redundancy I overheard one of them saying "What I'd like to see is a wee bit more money for us and a wee bit less for them". Curious, I asked him who "them" was. "The unemployed" he said. When I asked him why, he replied "because there's not a big enough differential between what I get and what they get". He shared the widely-heard belief that people on the dole receive huge payments, although this didn't prevent him being terrified later on when he thought he was to be one of the ten. Luckily for him he wasn't.

Almost all of my workmates buy tabloid newspapers like the Sun which reflect, rather than mould their generally reactionary ideas. The talk at tea and lunch breaks, besides being about the usual subjects like football and gambling, often resolves around pet hates like the English, "poofs" and blacks. Our shop steward even refers to the latter as "jungle bunnies". They have experienced living under Labour governments and they know what life is like in the "communist" countries, so none of them sees any hope that things could ever be different. They imagine that the present social order has always been and always must be. I do my best, but where else do they ever hear anyone arguing the case for a world of production for use, without wages, prices, pensions, privileges and bosses? Because I am on my own I can be dismissed as a political flat-earther.

And yet, I know that they, like me, felt anger and humiliation at having to scramble for a job. Nor do they enjoy the feat of the sack whenever we hit a "quiet patch" or having to jump if the foreman or one of the "big shots" appears. And they worry, not only about their own futures, but of those of their children. The only thing wrong with the socialist case is that is has too few adherents and because is this socialists are unable to take advantage of the massive working-class discontent which exists.
Vic Vanni