Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Man and the Natural World (1987)

Book Review from the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Keith Thomas: Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Penguin, 1984)

In his book Keith Thomas surveys the changing view of nature in England between 1500 and 1800. He uses a wide variety of contemporary sources to show what people thought about the landscape and its flora and fauna. He makes the point that whereas:
Nowadays one cannot open a newspaper without encountering some impassioned debate about culling grey seals or cutting down trees in Hampton Court or saving an endangered species of wild animal.
Only a few hundred years ago the idea that human cultivation was something to be resisted rather than encouraged would have been unintelligible.

What was it that altered the way people view the natural world? The author's answer is that although the intellectual potential for concern for the natural world had always existed, the attitude only flourished with changes in the way society organised its production. Talking about the emergence of the animal rights movement, Thomas says:
the triumph of the new attitude was closely linked to the growth of towns and the emergence of an industrial order in which animals became increasingly marginal to the processes of production.
Similarly, the growth of towns led to a new longing for the countryside and the progress of cultivation fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. Even then, the concern did not extend to the point where actual human well-being was threatened (for example, butchers whose livelihood depended on slaughtering animals did not share the new compassion) which goes a long way towards explaining why even today when many people are concerned about animal welfare, river pollution and rainforest depletion and so, the problems still persist.

The world's resources are not owned by everybody. They are owned by a small minority who use nature to produce goods to be sold in order to make profits. Production for profit means that costs must be kept as low as possible. In this atmosphere the cheapest methods of production must be used and the cheapest methods are rarely those which have a minimal impact on nature. (Take battery farming for instance, which is a direct outcome of the search for higher profits).

As long as production is carried on for making profits and not for needs the same problems of pollution, resource depletion and species extinction will remain. But the message of Keith Thomas' book is that peoples' ideas and outlooks can and do change and the fact that more and more people are becoming concerned about the way the environment is abused is encouraging. But campaigning for new laws and more conservation areas is not the answer. We need to get rid of a society where a small minority can manipulate nature for their own ends and replace it with one where we all have a real say in how nature is used.
John Morgan

The beauty myth (1993)

From the July 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Stay young and beautiful/If you want to be loved" runs the old song. Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth is, among other things, a book about the way women and men are manipulated by a system based on property and profit. She covers in depth the various manifestations of an imposed and unpredictable beauty ideal for women—at work, in the media, in health and most importantly as a hugely inappropriate low self-esteem felt by, probably, a majority of women.

Women have traditionally been seen to be vain, that is, overly concerned with their appearance. What has not been recognized is the extent to which this "vanity" is in fact a manifestation of a feeling of personal inadequacy. Women feel inadequate to the task of matching the latest fashionable ideal of "beauty", the achievement of which, alone, can make them feel acceptable—to their lovers, the world at large and to themselves.

This ideal has varied from the voluptuous Rubenesque-type figure to the anorexic "Twiggy" of the '60s and '70s. Whatever it is at any one time it can never be achieved by most women, since all women vary in size, shape and appearance.

Naomi Wolf puts the problem down to two phenomena—one is the power relation between men and women and the other is the demand of commerce. Women's lack of self-esteem serves any desire men may have to control women's lives, since someone with low self-esteem is more manipulable than someone who is confident. It also serves the demands of commerce, since the sale of beauty products and plastic surgery is dependent upon women feeling they are nor beautiful enough as they are.

Property relationship
Any desire on the part of men to control women's lives needs to be regarded seriously as it is a threat to the possibility of democracy and equality between all people and hence represents a serious obstacle to the achievement of socialism. From a young age, males are taught that in order to be "masculine", that is, in order to feel adequate, they must dominate women, or at the very least, appear to.

Keeping someone's self-esteem low is the one way of maintaining dominance and the impossible demands of the beauty myth serve this purpose well. The wish to dominate women is very much tied up with property. It is likely that, with the emergence of property society, women came to be regarded as men's property alongside land, animals, slaves and so on. One of the main features of a piece of property is that it (she) is under the owner's (his) control.

The property basis of relations between men and women is constantly under threat, since women are on the whole strong and intelligent human beings whom men often feel inclined to genuinely love and respect. The lengths to which societies have gone to keep women under control, are quite extraordinary—clitoradectomy, foot-binding, malnutrition, enforced childbearing, institutionalized wife-beating, death by stoning . . . the list is endless. The demands of "beauty" represent just one, primarily psychological, means of control.

The other thread of the problem is peculiar to late 20th century capitalism; the requirement of business to make money has led to the development of highly advanced psychological manipulative techniques. The beauty ideal is being thoroughly exploited in this respect.

Naomi Wolf has this to say on the subject of ageing in women:
When grey and white reflect in her hair  . . . you could call it silver or moonlight  . . . she is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold.
The point of this passage is to show the extent to which we are usually manipulated into seeing the ageing process in a negative way. Men and women alike are conditioned to see "beauty" and hence "loveability" in a woman within the framework of an ideal which involves looking "young" and "slim". The extent to which women will go, and in some cases are expected to go, to try and fit this ideal, is frightening.

Commercial pressures
Cosmetic surgery in the USA is commonplace and is being commercially pushed in Europe. Cosmetic surgery involves a good deal of pain and actual damage to the human body. It has occasionally been fatal. It affects the physical health of the person undergoing it adversely. "If your ad revenue or your seven figure salary or your privileged sexual status depend on it, it [ageing in women] is an operable condition".

One of women's main enemies in this respect is ironically also one of women's best friends—the women's magazine. These days filled with articles and comment on interesting contemporary topics, the women's magazine unfortunately also reinforces that impossible, undermining expectation of beauty so thoroughly described by Naomi Wolf.

The main reason for this is 20th century capitalist commercial practice.

The magazines are dependent for revenue upon advertizing and the editorial content of the magazines must reflect this. A magazine which does not push "beauty" is threatened with loss of revenue from advertizing. Cosmetic surgery is the latest ghastly trend in this scenario.

This exemplifies capitalism's ultimate double bind—that, in order to meet people's needs, it must first be ruthless to them, since a business, or "going concern", must put money-making before all else in order to ensure its continued existence. And without its continued existence it cannot meet any human needs at all.

Naomi Wolf's proposed solution is another wave of feminism. Like the trades union movement, the feminist movements of this century have been useful in fighting for improved conditions within the framework of capitalism. However, as with trade unionism, feminism's successes are always under threat of sabotage or outright reversal. The real solution to women's oppression lies within a framework of a completely different economic system, one not based on property and the pursuit of profit.
Nicky Snell

The Passing of Mao (1976)

From the October 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Mao Tse-Tung has been anticipated for many years in speculations over who would be his successor. Now it has happened and drawn world-wide attention to China. Ostensibly the interest is in the passing of a celebrated national leader; practically, it is in whether there will be changes of policy and how they will affect China's relationship with the rest of the world.

The history of China since 1949 closely resembles that of Russia thirty years before. The Communist revolutions in both countries were the taking of political power so that capitalism could develop and the entry to the modern world be made. Like Lenin, Mao provided a figurehead, and as with Lenin a version of Marxism was put out in his name to create a social vision to gain mass support for modernization. The projection of Mao's personality has been carried much further than Lenin's; but behind this cultivated charisma has stood a ruling class strongly conscious of its economic aims.

The phrase for China in these conditions is "Mao's China", implying that his personal and political qualities have been the chief factor. The effect of this "great man" view of history is to make it dependent on the emergence of outstanding individuals; but the opposite is true. Individuals are given opportunities by crises and the pressure of new developments, and these make them "great". But for the 1939-45 war Churchill would have remained any unpopular minor statesman. Napoleon was the product of post-revolution conditions in France. The rise of Mussolini and Hitler was primarily the result of the failure of social-democracy in Europe and the effects of the 1929 depression on Germany. In some circumstances history appears almost to go looking for some nonentity or a lunatic to elevate into a "great man".

Of course the day-to-day behaviour of individuals, once they have political power, produces effects of its own. But what makes them "great" is precisely that their ambitions and whims are not incompatible with the wider requirements of the time. The shifts and innovations in Chinese policy under Mao have had a plain coherence in aiming at the achievement of world power status as quickly as possible. Like Russia in the nineteen-twenties, China in the 'sixties had to put every effort into increasing agricultural production and speeding-up capital accumulation. The slogans and mystical dicta of Mao provided a sanctified image of the methods necessary to reach these goals.

The "power struggle" expected after Mao's death is a feature of one-party states. In nations with the traditional structure of parliamentary democracy the struggles for political power are among parties with electoral programmes. Where this does not exist, the conflicts are among small groups and the individuals they nominate. This reinforces the idea of personalities triumphing through strength, though in practice they may be only puppets. In both cases, what are they struggling for? Political power means control of the state machinery which administers capitalism.

We know that whoever wins the American election is charged with doing his best for capitalism in the United States. The same is true of whatever political change takes place in China. The new figureheads, and whoever may depose them, will inevitably claim that they are the true heirs and interpreters of Mao. However, if Mao's doctrines do not suit the future development of China they can be revised and even rejected. The Chinese leadership twenty-five years ago were wholehearted Stalinists. The split was not simply a political one, but a realization that Stalin;s own bending of Marx's theories and Lenin's viewpoints were not applicable to the situation in China.

As was the case with Russia, the leaders of other countries have realized what they are dealing with in China—a capitalist state differing from their own only in scale. In a China Quarterly essay reproduced in  China Under Mao (1966) Benjamin Schwartz remarked: "Among many Americans there is in fact the latent assumption that a fully modernised society will look exactly like the United States with all its social and cultural specificities." The reactions to Mao's death were particularly interesting since in the last five years the Chinese government has become amiable to the west. Thus, on television in Britain Edward Heath spoke about his meeting with Mao: a Conservative leader singing the praises of a Communist one. The American President said Mao "had the vision and imagination to open the doors to the United States". The obvious interest of the western nations is in whether Mao's successors will carry on this policy with its economic and military potentialities; while the Russian leaders hope for a change advantageous in the same way to them.

It is, of course, a tragedy that these developments of capitalism have taken place in the name of Marxism. Marx's vision of "human society" has provided an attractive wrapping for power-seekers, and his unique analysis of the capitalist system has been used in the so-called Communist countries as a guide to exploitation. However, workers all over the world have the opportunity to find out for themselves what Marx wrote and meant—most of all, that capitalism in whatever guise cannot be run in their interests.
Robert Barltrop

Edward Upward and the British Communist Party (1988)

From the February 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Edward Upward is the pseudonym of Allan Chalmers. He was born in Romford in 1903, educated at Repton School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge where he obtained a degree in history and English. After a life-time of public school teaching Upward retired to the Isle of Wight, where he still lives.

Upward occupies a minor, but interesting, place in British literature; although his literary career has spanned almost fifty years his output is small, consisting of just six novels. His early writing, however, augmented by contributions to New Country, New Writing and Left Review.

Upward belonged to the group of literary intellectuals who were attracted to the British Communist Party in the 1930s. The group included the poets W. H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and the novelist Christopher Isherwood, a close friend of Upward's at Cambridge. Upward influenced Auden, Spender and Isherwood, in their early years as writers, particularly during their flirtation with Communism. He wrote the trilogy The Spiral Ascent which, for all its faults, provides a remarkable document of Communist Party membership in the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike the "fellow-travellers" Auden and Isherwood, who defected to America, and Spender who accepted a knighthood, Upward has clung, almost tenaciously, to the Leninist dogma of his youth. And in 1986, at the age of 83 he produced a book of short stories, The Night Walk with the same heavy-handed dogmatism which marred his early works.

The Spiral Ascent consists of In the Thirties (1962), The Rotten Elements (1969) and No Home But the Struggle (1977) which traces the career of Alan Sebrill, a publci schoolmaster, who joins the Communist Party in the 1930s and remains a member for sixteen years, finally resigning because of the revisionist policy of the British Communist Party. Sebrill retires to the Isle of Wight and involvement with CND movement in the final book.

Sebrill's arguments with Aldershaw, another schoolmaster, provides an interesting insight into Communist Party members' ideas. Aldershaw asserts that Marx's conviction that advanced capitalism would provide the conditions for socialism to replace it was mistaken because the Russian revolution took place in an economically backward country. In reply Sebrill makes the same mistake in failing to appreciate that the Russian revolution was a coup d'etat which replaced serfdom with state capitalism and states that capitalism had to be broken at its weakest point. When Aldershaw says: "Tyranny has often been violently overthrown, but it has never yet developed gradually into liberty. Dictatorship of whatever kind is an absolute evil." Sebrill replies: " . . . I don't agree that all dictatorships are equally bad. It depends upon what or whom they are directed against."

When Sebrill applies for membership of the Communist Party he is asked why he wants to join. He wants to say that "the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists". However, he feels that this sounds too abstract and talks about the dishonesty which he, as a teacher, is compelled to practice to keep his job.

Thus, Upward portrays his misconception of class. Sebrill's "middle class" ideas are considered too abstract for the workers in the branch yet the fact that he has to be dishonest to hold on to a job that he cannot afford to lose demonstrates his working class status.

In the second volume we find Sebrill married to Elsie, another Party member. A considerable portion of the book is devoted to their struggle to accommodate the frequently changing policies of the Communist Party in the late 1940s. Clearly, they are dismayed by the Party's support for conscription and its enthusiasm for nationalisation. After agonising over the theoretical correctness of Party policy and trying to justify the somersaults of the Party line they conclude: "Perhaps there's nothing wrong with the Party's policy at all." Eventually, after being accused of "international factionalism" by the Party hierarchy and further disenchantment with the Party's revisionist line they resign.

Upward's confusion over class interest; his complete misunderstanding of the way that Lenin's state capitalist views opposed Marx's ideas of a democratic, moneyless society makes it doubtful if he has any understanding of socialism at all. Like Upward, socialists wish to end capitalism but this will not be achieved by a dictatorial vanguard suppressing political opponents, undercover workers or leaders, but by workers understanding, wanting and working for socialism.

Old age has not dimmed Upward's vision as The Night Walk clearly shows. At times his attempts at self-vindication are uncomfortably strained, but occasionally a story provides a glimpse of his ability. In The Procession a painter watches his own funeral: the death of the painter he could have been, and The Poet Who Died expresses grief for an old friend who abandoned poetry for politics. In both of these stories Upward could, perhaps unwittingly, have been writing about himself.
Carl Pinel

Further Reading:
Socialist Standard May 1980: Literary lefties in the 1930s