Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Obituary: Robert Barltrop (2009)

Obituary from the June 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Former member Robert Barltrop died on 26 April after a short illness. He joined the SPGB in 1946 as Robert Coster. A prolific speaker and writer for the Party, his work including the pamphlet Schools Today (1959). He resigned in 1959, before drifting into the fringes of the anarchist movement, and for a time even became an independent local councillor before rejoining the Party in 1970. He wrote prolifically for the Socialist Standard (and drew its first ever cartoon-strip feature), also serving for several years on the editorial committee. He left again in 1982.

Born in 1922, in his youth, he was, amongst other things, an enthusiastic boxer, and always retained an interest in the pugilistic arts. He worked as a school-teacher. He was an excellent artist, especially line drawing, and an expert in calligraphy. Very proud of his London heritage, he wrote several books on the cockney patois, a pride also reflected in three short autobiographical works published by Waltham Forest Library and in his regular weekly column in the Newham Recorder. He also notably wrote a book on the American author Jack London.

He was best known though for his work The Monument (1975), which remains a fascinating and entertaining introduction to the history of the SPGB. The book was largely written in the 1960s while he was out of contact with the Party, which explains the contentiousness of some of its many stories, anecdotes and perceptions.

Robert Barltrop was a controversial figure in the Party but he was always very civil to younger members who had not crossed swords with him politically. With him vanishes a great London character.

Billy and Ben (1978)

From the January 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
Ben believed in God, a superior spirit in the sky,
An all powerful being, a saviour on High.
God, he said, was in you, around you.
A part of your life
Whether you be rich or poor
In peace or in strife. 
Billy, Ben's neighbour, asked how he knew He was there
And Ben said: "Don't be impertinent! Besides, that's not fair.
God is God, the giver of Love; the Lord is always so near.
Everyone knows it's Faith you need, then you'd know for sure He was here".
The observers of this encounter cheered Ben's clear cut words
For if there was anything clearer than what Ben had explained
Then they were sure that they'd never heard. 
Billy slowly walked away, a frown flitted across his brow so sad
But no-one was concerned at this facial expression
Because everyone knew that Billy was mad.
You see, Billy believed in this little green man
Who wandered the streets of the land.
You couldn't see him, hear him or speak to him at will
But as sure as the sky above was blue
The little green man had everything planned. 
"I'll go to the green man when I'm dead!" Billy yelled.
"The green man's garden is the best place to stay."
He told everyone this from his box in the town
And they came and locked poor Billy away.
Paul Breeze

The pilgrim's tale (1983)

Book Review from the November 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Paul Hollander (Harper, 1983).

This book provides a comprehensive catalogue of the statements, of varying degrees of fatuity, of those who have visited Russia and other so-called communist countries and have mostly come back back with tales of how very much better things are over there. Two quotations show how ridiculous widely respected individuals can become when they put their critical faculties to one side. One of the earliest pilgrims, Bernard Shaw (Rationlisation of Russia) had this to say about the Russian prison system:
In England a delinquent enters (the jail, that is) as an ordinary man and comes out as "a criminal type", whereas in Russia he enters . . . as a criminal type and would come out an ordinary man but for the difficulty of inducing him to come out out at all. As far as I could make out they could stay as long as they liked (p.46 in Political Pilgrims).
Half a century later Susan Sontag (Trip to Hanoi) tells how love transforms the one-party state:
When love enters into the substance of social relations, the connection of people to a single party need not be dehumanizing (p.273, ibid).
The author is of Hungarian extraction and is currently a Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts. He makes quite clear his support of the American side in the main conflict between the rival national groupings of the capitalist world and in common with most present-day observers sees this rivalry as a struggle between capitalism (described as "Western societies") and the "socialism" allegedly practised by the enemy. Thus it is no surprise that when he comes to put his own interpretation on the facts he runs into difficulties. One of these is the definition of the term "intellectual:, which to him means "famous writers, well known academics, journalists, artists" and the like, who are "sensitive, insightful and critical". Clearly we are expected to regard their counsel as especially wise and well considered, and to accept that they know better than we do. Indeed, while Hollander rejects the opinions expressed by Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley, C. Wright Mills and many others of the so-called communist countries, he clearly continues to regard them as great men for their efforts in other directions.

The subject matter of the book is largely confined to those who went on political pilgrimages because they believed that the "socialism" they would find there was radically different from the open capitalism they experienced at home. There are however a few examples of workers who, in contrast to the intellectuals, decided on the basis of what they saw to emigrate. Their reported experiences as members of the working class under "socialism" is interestingly compared to their reception on the original visit. Intellectuals opted to remain at home and not put at risk their positions of relative comfort, many rationalising their decision as "fighting for socialism at home".

Not surprisingly, Hollander classes himself as an intellectual, and his elitist attitude becomes too obvious when he deals with the cases of Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine. These two well known actresses have undertaken the same pilgrimages and responded in the same manner as the great majority of the club, yet the author cannot bring himself to class them as genuine intellectuals. He described them as "quasi-intellectuals" and arrogantly states: "I would have purified my sources by removing all such questionable or marginal material without any damage to the substance of the book". Fully accepted as having impeccable credentials are a long list of clowns of the looney left, plus Billy Graham and Malcolm Muggeridge. (The latter is considered exceptional by the professor because his experiences as a newspaper reporter converted him into an open supporter of capitalism.)

The professor is also in difficulties when he tries to account for the continued antagonism shown after World War Two by the intellectual pilgrims towards their domestic capitalism. One chapter is entitled "The rejection of Western society in the 1960's and 70's", but even though the second preface is dated July 1982, the remarkable feat is performed of not mentioning the current world slump anywhere in the book. Hollander thinks that the so-called affluence of this period should have quietened the dissenting voices. Combined with his inability to see a better way of living, he becomes more disturbed than puzzled by the continuing waves of protest. The following quote betrays his anxiety:
It seems to me that what has been consequential is not the perception or praise of particular countries and their political systems at any given time. What makes a difference in the long run is the cumulative impact of the denigration intellectuals direct at their own society . . . The cumulative effect of this steady debunking and preoccupation with the ills of society intensifies the sense of malaise and alienation arising out of the problems and frustrations, many of which are unlikely to be resolved. (p. 434 ibid).
The quotes from the 1960s and 70s make no mention of any recession, and the author draws attention to the difference between their critique and that of the pre-war pilgrims, who made frequent allusions to the slump of the 1930s. It is of course perfectly correct to take on board new criticism as further unpleasant features develop. However, the quotations given do show considerable confusion as these "intellectuals" appear to have largely accepted the current ruling class propaganda that capitalism has changed fundamentally for the better. To some extent this arose because they were divorced from, and felt themselves several cuts above, the mass of the workers; in the modern plants of Silicon Valley members of the working class are exploited in the same way as in the inner city factories of Karl Marx's day. The industrial disputes which periodically arise over wages and conditions of work are basically the same now as then.

Hollander recognises that "social criticism must rest on a vision of alternatives". Recognising some of the social evils of capitalism, and refusing to believe that there is no alternative, the pilgrims take so-called communist propaganda at its face value. This leads them in the quest of one Shangri-La after another. First Russia then, when the repressive nature of that regime became too obvious to ignore, Cuba, China, Vietnam . . .

A factor Hollander leaves out of account in considering the "affluent" period which preceded the current slump is the increase in expectations engendered during that epoch, helped by the tremendous advance in technology compared with pre-war. That this advance continues, the recession notwithstanding, increasing still further the gap between what is and what could be, makes even more apt Murray Bookchin's admirable summing up (Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 1971):
In attempting to uphold scarcity, toil, poverty and subjugation against the growing potential for post-scarcity, leisure, abundance and freedom, capitalism increasingly emerges as the most irrational, indeed the most artificial society in history . . . On an even greater-scale, potentiality begins to determine and shape one's everyday view of actuality, until a point is reached where everything about the society — including its most "attractive" amenities — seems totally insane, the result of a massive social lunacy.
In his exasperation at the way social criticism lives on, the Professor quotes approvingly the complaint by Bernard Henri Levi (Barbarism with a Human Face):
Levy writes: "We have a Marxist urbanism, a Marxist psychoanalysis, a Marxist aesthetic, a Marxist numismatics. There is no longer any realm of knowledge that Marxism fails to have a look at, no area off limits, no taboo territory . . . no cultural fronts to which it fails to send cohorts of researchers (p. 419 ibid).
And so there should be. There are in fact no off limits — areas which exist in limbo. unaffected by the prevailing social relationships of production.

Hollander's essential reasoning seems to be that the only alternative to "our" capitalism is the regime of "communist" countries. As this alternative is worse than what we already have, we are stuck with capitalism and can only try to make it work as well as may be. There is no doubt the rave reviews which the first edition enjoyed came mainly because of the book' support for this line of reasoning, which has spawned the belief, widespread in America and apparently gaining ground in Britain, that socialism is now an outdated concept. In assisting these confusing this book, although helpful in disillusioning workers still over-respectful of so-called intellectuals, does the socialist movement no service.
E. C. Edge

The Long and Short and the Tall (1959)

Theatre Review from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

As might be guessed, "The Long and the Short and the Tall" is a play about men at war, written by Willis Hall and presented by the Royal Court Theatre. It is not a great play; it is not great drama or even great entertainment but as the characters come to life' as the action of the play unfolds itself, it highlights some interesting and important points.

A British Army patrol takes a Japanese prisoner in an area forward of the main fighting line in the Malayan jungle. At the end of the play, the patrol itself is encircled and trapped by the Japanese troops.

The play reminds us of the vicious anti-Jap propaganda of the war years when soldiers were taught to expect in their enemies a kind of sub-human order of life. Japs were alleged to be little yellow people with slanted eyes that denoted the worst kind of calculated slyness. Their protruding teeth eventually became animal-like fangs, and they were all obsessed with the plan to exert a malignant perverse cruelty on humanity at large. The Japs, it was said, just because a hatred of democracy was inherent in their national character, had decided to enslave and torture the peoples of the earth. Unless they were thwarted, a future was postulated where the entire earth would be in the grip of "things" beside whom Dracula and Frankenstein would pale into friendly, amenable good chaps. Thereby war and retaliation became not only justified but crucial to the survival of Western society and its democratic institutions. This was a bitter lie.

The soldiers had been sent to Burma and had begun fighting in an atmosphere of deliberately contrived hate, How strange, then, how completely taken by surprise were they when the first prisoner they took appeared to be "almost human." He was actually frightened: he seemed to expect his death because no doubt he had heard and believed the Japanese propaganda about "British monsters."

But the prisoner was not immediately killed and the few hours that followed allowed a pathetic fragment of a personal friendship to develop between him and his captors, and as it developed, the greater became the lie of war propaganda as compared with their personal experience. "He's human," his captors reiterate, as the Japanese soldier smokes a cigarette and produces photographs of his wife and children. "He's a family man. He's one of us."

The contradictions pile up. The biggest collection of loot is held by the blue-eyed boy from the Church Army who doesn't like to swear and curse. "We're fighting for the democratic British way of life," says one cynical squaddie, "but there's no democracy in the Army."

For a moment they lapse into confused disillusion.
"It's bloody murder."
"Of course it is—that's my job."
"I just take orders."
"We're all mugs."
"We don't know why we're here or what its all made of."
"You think too much."
The tragedy was that they didn't think enough.

The complete ignorance and lack of any coherent idea about the cause of war adds further tragedy to their desperate position. On stage the characters mill about violently involved in a situation they don;t understand.

The play makes ridiculous the bogey's placed in people's minds by the mass propaganda agencies about the enemy during war and times of preparation for war, and though it's 1959 when the play is presented and not 1939 when it had a more critical social relevance, one can welcome the way its central theme cuts through the nationalist fervour that usually surrounds war and spotlights war as a human tragedy.

Though the play is an expression of indignation that war should ever happen, its contribution to the understanding of war as a social problem is deficient and superficial.

For a real analysis, we must move beyond the narrow language of this play and begin to use the higher abstractions of political discussion.

The views about war expressed in the play are crude and shallow and yet in real life are often repeated in seriousness.

"Bints!" "Men will always fight," etc.

So we must ever fear that whilst such ignorance prevails violence and military strength will remain the arbiter in the settlement of international disputes and the world's workers will yet make fodder for the atomic cannon.
Pieter Lawrence