Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Dictatorship of the Proletariat": what did Marx mean? (1973)

From the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat". 

This statement by Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, has been seized upon by followers of Lenin to justify the idea of the existence of a coercive State machine after the establishment of Socialism. The leaders of Russia claim that Marx advocated the establishment of a "proletarian state" and that this now exists in Russia. The various Bolshevik groups in the advanced capitalist countries believe that we must go through a lengthy transition of "socialism" before "real communism" can be brought about. 

Before these ideas are examined it must be clearly stated how we, along with Marx, envisage the establishment of Socialism. For Marx, there were two essential prerequisites. The first of these is a clear understanding of the principles of Socialism by the working class and an unambiguous desire to put them into practice. The second is an advanced industrial economy which has developed the forces of production to the point at which free access is technically possible. 

Marx however was over-optimistic on both these points, especially in his earlier writings. He assumed that developing a socialist consciousness in the working class was a relatively simple matter, that socialist ideas would arise more or less spontaneously out of a trade union consciousness. It was not for some time that he grasped the extent to which capitalist ideas influenced the workers and the enormous task which faced Socialists in winning over the workers. 

On the question of the level of capitalist development, Marx was again somewhat mistaken. He studied the capitalist system largely in relation to the Lancashire textile industry, which was at the heart of the English industrial revolution. Today there appears very little modern about the textile industry—it tends to flourish in relatively backward countries with a predominantly agrarian population. Capitalism, in other words, had certainly not reached its zenith in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed it had hardly even begun. 

Given, then, that Marx believed the means of production had been developed far enough to provide an abundance of goods, it therefore followed that the working class could not establish Socialism as soon as it captured political power. A transitionary period was necessary, in which the means of production would be developed as rapidly as possible. There would exist a coercive State. Consumption would be regulated by means of labour-time vouchers. This state of affairs would be replaced by completely free access as soon as possible. 

Marx's idea of the form of this transition period did not remain static throughout his life. In the 1840's, he saw it as a Jacobin-style political dictatorship in the manner of Robespierre and St. Just. He later came to envisage a system of elected delegates to local committees, as in the Paris Commune. Towards the end of his life he saw it as a democratic republic based on a majority of delegates from a socialist party elected democratically to parliament. 

It is perfectly plain, therefore, that Marx's views on the need for a transition between capitalism and communism was a product of the time in which he was living. From Marx's own point of view, it is only possible to see the world from a particular time and place in which one lives. Bearing in mind his over-optimistic view of the readiness of the working class to institute Socialism during his life-time, it is not surprising that he expected a lengthy transition would be necessary. Since Marx's death the forces of production have been developed immeasurably; the possibility of a world of abundance has long been technically feasible, held back only by the political ignorance of the working class. Although Socialism certainly cannot be established at the drop of a hat, there is no need any longer to visualise a lengthy transition. 

Marx, then, did believe that a period known as "the dictatorship of the proletariat" would separate capitalism and communism. However, this phrase was consciously and dishonestly distorted by Lenin. Firstly, it must be understood what Marx meant by the word dictatorship. He used the word in an explicit sense to mean the domination of society by one class through its control over the state machine. He often, for example, referred to Britain as a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", though he was freely allowed to write and work in the country. Lenin, however, made what can only be construed as a quite deliberate play on words, using the term dictatorship in its popularly understood sense, to mean the denial of. basic democratic freedoms, the maintenance of rule by force and the ruthless suppression of political opponents. A year before the revolution of 1917 he wrote: 
And in the twentieth century . . . violence means neither a fist nor a club, but troops. Dictatorship is state power based directly on violence. (Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 95.) 
Elsewhere, he wrote: 
Dictatorship is based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie." (Collected Works, Vol. 28, p.236). 
Lenin's conception of "the dictatorship of the proletariat" is not, therefore, based on Marx's, but is a gross perversion of it. The type of society which exists in Russia today is the logical outcome of Lenin's thinking. Though they may deny it, this is also the type of society advocated by leftists when they rant about "fighting for socialism", "socialism" being defined as the transition period before "communism", 

Our case is clear and simple. Socialism (or Communism - we use the words interchangeably) is a society based on common ownership with free access, without money or wages. This can be established as soon as the working class see the need for it. Talk about "transition periods", based on Lenin's dangerous writings, does nothing to bring this end one minute nearer. 
B. K. McNeeney

Livestock liberation (1979)

From the June 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Were Socialists an endangered species, a society for our protection would soon emerge, for there is no shortage of people ready to deplore the exploitation of, and cruelty to, the four-legged and feathered in our midst. Recently, a group of animal welfare and protection societies combined into the General Election Co-ordinating Committee for Animal Protection (GECCAP). Now is the time, they claim, to "put animals into politics". They asked those interested in animal welfare to seek an assurance from all General Election candidates that they would support action on animal welfare, and to ensure that all MPs returned in the new Parliament were aware of the strength of the animal welfare lobby. 
The next government must accept its responsibility for animal welfare. We hope that MPs of all parties will press the next government to set up an independent Council for Animal Welfare—there is urgent need for legislative reform in all our areas of concern.
But successive legislation on maltreatment of animals has not contained the problem, which spreads and takes on new forms, is global in extent, and ranges from deliberate cruelty and exploitation to indifference and ignorance. Is it surprising that in a society whose basis is the exploitation of one section of humanity by another, that the same attitudes reveal themselves in the treatment of animals? Just as members of the working class are regarded primarily as mere productive and service units—"factory hands", "staff' , "labourers", "machinists", "assemblers", "typists", "domestics", so animals are primarily commodities produced for buying and selling, and the fact that they are able to suffer discomfort and pain becomes secondary to the realisation of profit.

CAGES FOR ANIMALS—BOXES FOR WORKERS
Modern farming has little in common with the cosy image derived from our nursery rhyme books. Capitalism draws all forms of production into its orbit, undermining and destroying traditional methods. Stock rearing has produced the factory farm. Battery hens are kept four or more in a cage 15in x 19in, where they spend day and night on steeply sloping wire floors, unable to stretch their wings and legs. Veal calves are kept in individual cubicles or multiple calf pens where movement is severely restricted. They are maintained on slatted floors and fed exclusively on milk substitute liquid (although their ruminant stomachs crave roughage) so that their flesh will not lose its pale colour. Pigs stand on concrete floors, in total or semi-darkness day and night, and pregnant sows are kept permanently in cubicles unable even to turn around. To prevent epidemics, animals incarcerated in such conditions require routine doses of drugs which can be transmitted to the consumer.

The same callous treatment occurs in the transport of animals for slaughter or further fattening. Cattle sent to mainland Europe or North Africa are crammed into open transporters, exposed to extremes of temperature, for long journeys by road and sea; sometimes left unwatered, unfed. Members of the working class who endure rush hour travel in buses, trains, and underground, will know the feeling. 

But bad living conditions are not suffered by animals only. Look around the world and see the shanty towns, tenements, back-to-back slums, tower blocks, and jerry built council and private housing estates. The majority of the working class live and die in. cramped, overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, lacking privacy or quiet, and often in an environment of depressing ugliness. There are some workers who can negotiate a level of wages that enables them to live in some degree of comfort, rather as the race-horse or pedigree breeding animal may be housed in special quarters. More than a century of agitation and legislation have not however eradicated cramped and inadequate living conditions for the majority of humans.

Yet it would seem a simple matter to provide comfortable living conditions for people—and for animals. The arguments against doing so are couched in accountant's jargon—alternative methods are dismissed as "uneconomic", "too labour intensive", "not viable", "unprofitable". Members of the working class hardly need reminding that resistance to higher wages is the first principle in the code of every employer. Economic self-interest and competition override all finer feelings.

WHOSE BEST FRIEND?
The single largest industry in the world today is the killing industry and enormous quantities of raw materials and human energy are poured into the manufacture of weapons of destruction. In a civilisation where people can be persuaded to don uniforms and fight and kill each other—and where such action is justified and glorified—is it any wonder that there are people who justify killing animals for fun?

Practices involving the needless slaughter of animals include the hunting of threatened species for the luxury fur trade so that Madam can parade in rare pelts. Experiments on animals to assess testing cosmetics and other non-medical products. Some of the experiments in the realms of Behavioural Research are so bizarre one must question whether the scientists concerned require behavioural investigation. Many psychological experiments involve subjecting the animal to severe deprivation, abject terror, or inescapable pain. A "will to live" experiment forced animals to swim non-stop until they gave up and allowed themselves to drown. How relevant is this work to humans?

Most humans feel an affinity to creatures that live and breathe as ourselves, and many humans take a delight in animal companionship. But even in the treatment of pets, where the motive is not profit and exploitation, we find many aspects of the neurosis and sickness of capitalist society. The novelty of a pet wears off and unwanted cats and dogs are callously abandoned. Some pets are used as a status symbol with the docking of tails, the clipping and dyeing of coats, to suit the owner's vanity or whim. Selective breeding takes place, especially of dogs, in order to emphasise some feature which appeals to the eye of the breeder but is biologically damaging to the animal. Guy the gorilla—a social animal—died in 1978 after thirty years in a cage in London Zoo. Was his confinement consistent with a regard for animals?

PUT SOCIALISM INTO POLITICS
Can there be an explanation, a solution? Capitalism is a society where the ownership of wealth production is concentrated in the hands of a minority, and where the ethos of competition and self interest permeates all social relations. Change that foundation to one where production is determined by the needs of society, where economic competition ceases to exist, where the means of production are commonly owned and democratically controlled and people will live in harmony and co-operation—with each other as well as with other species.

There the analogy between the treatment of the working class and animals ends, for while the latter must rely on the goodwill of human society, members of the working class can and must look to themselves to solve their problems by organising politically.

The human race and society are not superior to, or apart from, nature but a product of the universal process of evolution. As the only living creatures on this planet capable of consciously changing the environment and with an insight in to the laws of nature we have a special interest in protecting and conserving the earth which is our means of life. Such an outlook will permeate socialist society—a true respect for our environment and fellow living creatures.
Alice Kerr

After apartheid, what? (1990)

Editorial from the March 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

So. after the nomenklatura in Eastern Europe, it is now the white minority in South Africa that has been forced to agree to negotiate on giving up its "leading role" and "guaranteed monopoly" of political power. For this is what the release of Mandela means. 

It means that those in charge of the South African state have at last publicly admitted what they have long realised in private: that they cannot maintain the law and order necessary for the proper functioning of the capitalist system they preside over without including the majority of the population in the system of political representation. Their hope is that Nelson Mandela will be able to command sufficient support among the black population to be the person with whom they can negotiate an orderly transition from apartheid to the new "non-racial democracy" that capitalism demands, indeed has been demanding for decades. 

The failure of apartheid, as an attempt to impose on a capitalist economy a caste system based on skin colour, is underlined by the fact that the party in charge of the South African state—the Afrikaner nationalist National Partei—is the same party that, under such hateful figures as Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster, introduced apartheid after 1948 as a rigid codification, and intensification, of the existing discriminatory practices against "non-whites". 

Already in 1948 apartheid was an anachronism, even from a capitalist point of view but. with the franchise restricted to "whites" most of whom were Boers in all senses of the word, the succession of parties directly representing the capitalist interest—the United Party, the Progressive Federal Party and, today, the Democratic Party—were unable to win a majority in the white parliament. Political power was exercised—and has been without a break since 1948—by the representatives of Afrikaner nationalism whose original policy was to try to reconstruct the master and servant relationship between whites and" blacks their forefathers—the people who organised the Great Trek from the Cape Province in 1836 to avoid the abolition of slavery in the British Empire—had known in the pioneer days of white colonisation. 

What the Afrikaner nationalist government sought to keep "apart" capitalism brought together. More and more Africans were drawn into capitalist industry, and not just as labourers in the mines but as workers of all kinds—clerks, accountants, bank employees as well as foremen and skilled and semi-skilled production workers—until today they form the majority of the urban working class of South Africa. 

From the 1970s onwards the development of capitalism forced the government to abandon apartheid bit by bit. First to go was the industrial colour bar under which certain skilled manual jobs were reserved for whites. Then Africans were allowed to form trade unions. Then the Pass Laws were abolished and Africans allowed to own property in the townships. Then the so-called "petty apartheid" of separate park benches, beaches and the like was relaxed. Then "coloureds" and Asians were granted some political rights. Then the Mixed Marriage Act—which criminalised sexual relations between the different "races"—was abolished. Then mixed residential areas emerged in some cities. 

All that remains—and of course it's a big all—are the laws which classify every South African into one or other "racial" group and which reserve areas for the exclusive habitation of these groups, but the De Klerk government has declared, as it had no choice but to, that these too are negotiable. 

Like all decent-minded people, Socialists are pleased at the coming demise of the obscene system of institutionalised race discrimination of apartheid. Although the coming of a non-racial regime in South Africa will allow the "non-whites" there a dignity and respect as equal human beings which they have been denied up to now, the ending of apartheid will not amount to "liberation" for the working class in South Africa. Capitalism without apartheid—which is all even the ANC wants, despite its talk of "socialism" (in reality, nationalisation, or state capitalism)—will remain capitalism and so exploitation for profit, bad housing, inadequate health care, cheap schooling, unemployment, poor transport, police brutality, pollution and all the other problems workers have to endure under capitalism will continue as well. 

The end of apartheid will not mean the end of working class problems. At most it will result in the creation of the best conditions under which the working class can struggle to protect its interests within capitalism and, more importantly, can struggle alongside the workers of the rest of the world for the non-class as well as non-racial society that socialism will be.

The Philanthropists (1965)

Book Review from the April 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (Panther Books, 7s. 6d.)

Robert Noonan spent the latter part of his life at Hastings working, when work was available, as a house painter and decorator and sign writer. He was a member of the local branch of the Social Democratic Federation. During the first decade of this century he devoted his leisure time to writing a novel which, in his own words, was to be " . . .  a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally." 

Noonan completed his task in 1910 and soon afterwards entered hospital, where he died of tuberculosis early in 1911. He left his manuscript to his daughter who, like many girls of her time, went into service, taking the manuscript with her. Three years later, following a chance conversation with a member of the staff of Punch, the work was brought out of her tin trunk and published under the author's title, The Ragged trousered Philanthropists and in his pen name, Robert Tressell. 

The earliest editions were abridged or, more correctly, emasculated.. Chapters were left out and the remainder rearranged, phrases were altered and deleted, characters omitted and a tragic ending imposed to meet the commercial demands of the publishers and pander to current literary and political conventions. 

Years later a group of enthusiasts recollected the missing chapters, reconstructed and rearranged them in the form the author originally intended. A more complete edition, with only one chapter missing, was published in 1955 and it is this fuller edition that is now published in paperback form. The original manuscript was presented to the TUC in 1959 and is now held at Congress House, London. 

A book that can command continuous editions and reprints for over fifty years must surely qualify for the title, of a Classic. Thousands of workers have claimed that their political ideas were first stimulated by reading it. 

In the story the author casts himself in the role of Owen, a house painter who devotes every opportunity to explaining to a group of workmates how they are exploited in all directions. Despite their abject poverty and insecurity of livelihood they defend capitalism with heat, using arguments that have long since disappeared from the vocabulary of all but the most stupid of anti-socialists. . 

Those who remember working class conditions during Edwardian days will know that Noonan writes fact into his fiction. He weaves into his story chapters on charitable organisations, religious bodies, unemployment, a parliamentary election, a workers' social outing, the Clarion cyclists, Public houses, public meetings and the seduction of a worker's wife, much of which was omitted from the earlier editions. 

But Noonan did not expound Socialism. When he does propose an alternative to capitalism it turns out to be the woolly reformism of the Social Democratic Party, now in part inherited by the modem Labour Party. The characters that Noonan portrays as Socialists are advocates of nationalisation as the solution to the workers' problems. They visualise a benevolent State operating industry in the interests of the whole of the people, reducing working hours, removing undesirable institutions and increasing wages so as to provide an equitable distribution of wealth. Noonan ridicules religious organisations but accepts the idea of a Great Spirit as creator of natural raw material.

It is astonishing that a man who so obviously realised that it is the private ownership of the means of wealth production from which stem the social evils about which he wrote so satirically, should halt his thinking on the threshold of the socialist alternative. 

We have read this novel a number of times and with this recent reading we find that age has not staled it. We still smiled at the antics of the workers on their beano, we were still sad at the death of Philpot and we were still angry at the stupidity of Crass and the schemes of Sweater and Sir Graball D'Encloseland. With all its faults and limitations we shall probably read it again someday.
W. Waters

At all costs (1986)

From the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

A favourite expression among the High Command on both sides of the conflict in 1916 was, "at all costs". Falkenhayn, the German commander-in-chief, ordered that Verdun must be taken, and Joffre ordered that it must be defended, "at all costs". Haig was to use the expression later, in the Battle of the Somme, and it was to come up again and again. A position must be held, or a wood must be captured, again at all costs. It was a change from the usual "regardless of losses", but it meant the same thing. The cost was certainly paid, but not by the people who issued the orders. 

This month brings the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in British history, the first day of the Somme. On Saturday 1 July 1916, some twenty thousand men died, This would represent the entire male population of a sizeable town. Thirty thousand more were wounded, many of them maimed for life. This was just the first day — the Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July until 18 November when, bogged down in mud and exhaustion, it was finally called off. By that time one million, two hundred thousand men — British, French and German — were dead or maimed; the British total was over half a million. 

The use of the word battle to describe what was in fact a long campaign illustrates just how out of date the ideas of military strategists were. Until the middle of the last century battles, on however large a scale, lasted only a day, sometimes only a few hours. Even in the mid 19th century, as at Gettysburg, they lasted only two or three days. The Somme lasted over four months and during that time at least twelve massive engagements, that in any other age would have been called battles, took place. It was the same attitude that sent masses of men in waves against machine guns and modern artillery, as though against muzzle loading muskets. Nowhere was this more obvious than on the first day of the Somme. No doubt the anniversary will be marked by TV programmes, some of which will be critical of the whole ghastly mess up and there will be ceremonies. But not many of the survivors remain, time having taken most of those the German machine guns missed, 

Germany opened the war on the Western Front with a massive attack on France and Belgium. In an attempt to repeat their victory of 1870, they poured a million and a half men into a great sweep to encircle Paris and knock France out of the war. They failed, and the war settled down into a static affair, with trenches extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border. But Germany had achieved great advantages. Their front line, apart from a small quiet section near the Swiss border, ran entirely through conquered territory. Thus all the destruction was away from their own borders and the coal mines and factories of Belgium and Northern France were at their disposal. Because the line was in foreign territory they were prepared to make strategic withdrawals to more favourable ground and there construct strong defences. But for the French army fighting on their own territory, public opinion would not allow any further losses, This was the theory that Falkenhayn was working on, when in early 1916 he decided on a mass attack on Verdun. He calculated that the French would never give the place up and he could "bleed the French army white". 

So in February 1916 a massive attack was launched on Verdun, a small town surrounded by forts. These the French, by a massive miscalculation, had stripped of their guns to use elsewhere. The logical thing for the French to do was to abandon the place and withdraw to a more easily defended line. But as with the British at Ypres in Belgium, Verdun had become more than a town. It had been built up by mass propaganda as a symbol of French resistance, which must be held at all costs. The battle raged right through until 18 December. The French army was indeed bled white but German losses were as great. Falkenhayn was sacked as a result, but this was no consolation for the seven hundred thousand dead. It was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun that the Somme offensive was launched. 

The Somme battle marked a watershed in the general attitude to the war. Until then the wild hysteria with which the outbreak of war had been greeted still persisted. It was from 1 July 1916 that war weariness began and to this period belong the bitter war poems and the cynical war songs of the front line soldier. During early 1916 attempts were made to end the war with a compromise peace. Germany, realising that its gamble had failed, made several attempts to call it off. It was becoming obvious that the cost to the participants was outstripping the gains. But modem war is such that it can be fought only if the whole population is involved and this requires massive propaganda. Once having got the masses into a belligerent frame of mind it is difficult to get them out of it. After all, if the enemy are monsters who must be stopped at all costs, committing every type of barbarity, it is difficult to suddenly suggest a compromise peace instead of totally defeating them, 

Before the outbreak of the 1914/18 war, many people believed that it could be prevented by a general strike across the frontiers. This was however a pipe dream, for having no knowledge of the system under which they lived, or how it worked, the workers could not accept such action. Instead they cheered in the streets. In 1914 Britain was the only European power not to have conscription. Its army, although highly efficient, was small, even when reinforced by reservists and territorials. A call went out, spearheaded by the famous poster showing Kitchener's pointing finger. A hundred thousand volunteers were asked for, and over a million responded. In some cases private individuals or organisations raised unofficial companies that were later absorbed into the army. One practice was to form regiments of "Pals", in which men from a factory or mine or sometimes a street or club joined together in one company. This was to have a devastating effect when a battalion was almost wiped out and whole areas were flooded with the dreaded telegrams. It took two years to weld this mass of volunteers into an army and they were ready just in time for the Somme. 

The battle took place in Picardy in Northern France — an area of chalk hills, resembling parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire and crossed by the River Somme. It was an area of beechwoods and sunken roads but also of wide open downland, the hardest possible type of country to storm across, devoid of cover of any kind. This area had been a quiet part of the line, where battle weary troops had been sent for recuperation. The main reason it was chosen for the attack was that, as the British and French lines joined at this point, it could be a joint effort. This was as much for propaganda reasons as any other. The overall plan was to punch a hole in the German lines and then pour cavalry through to roll up the German lines. Large forces of cavalry were kept in the rear for this purpose but it was an impractical dream, which died on the Somme. The new cavalry, the tank. was only in its infancy and was slow and lumbering. 

The main obsession of the high command was that artillery alone would do the trick. And by this time modern artillery had become devastating. The amount of high explosive used during the war was enormous, but the hopes that were placed on it were exaggerated. It was believed that the effect of a prolonged bombardment would so shatter the defenders that they would be unable to resist and the infantry would have a walk-over. But the Germans had constructed strong dugouts and defences that were able to withstand the bombardment. For days the German lines were pounded and a large number of massive mines were exploded under the enemy lines. The Allied commanders believed that this had destroyed the defenders but when the barrage stopped, the German soldiers emerged from their dugouts and set up their machine guns. It was against this that the British troops were sent, each soldier carrying a heavy pack that slowed movement, told to advance at a walk. They were mowed down in lines. 

After the battle was over the Germans withdrew to a new prepared position, the Hindenburg line. It took a long time for the truth about July 1 to reach the British public but when it did it was to have long-lasting effects. 

The Battle of the Somme has now passed into capitalism's bloody history and the area where it was fought is restored, apart from the cemeteries and, in a few places, the shell holes which are covered in grass. But capitalism is still with us and wars still rage across the world. And so many workers, across the world still do not understand the system that kills them. 
Les Dale

DAY OF REMEMBRANCE FOR WHAT? (1973)

From the November 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Early on the morning of July l 1916 the barrage which had been crashing down upon the German lines on the Somme lifted and, in a short eerie silence, waves of British soldiers left their trenches and began to. walk across No Man's Land. They had been told to do that — to walk across because the guns would have cut all the wire, wiped out all the defences, killed all the Germans. They had only to walk across and wait for hot food from the field kitchens which would be rapidly following them. 

It was not like that at all; before the day was out something like twenty thousand of the men who had climbed out of their trenches in such optimism in the morning had been killed. The battle dragged on for same weeks more, eventually to be disguised in history as a general's blunder, as if the "correct" decisions had any more to recommend them, as if it were better to kill twenty thousand German workers than the same number of British. 

The First World War was a succession of such horrors, marking out like grisly milestones the long road of murder among the deadlocked trenches. To the people on both sides who, drunk with patriotism, had cheered the start of the war, the slaughter was a shock they could barely absorb. They had gone to fight in such heroic style; now there was only the mud and the guns and the rats and lice —and finally, all too often, a line in the casualty lists. The war reached out beyond new frontiers of terror, with the aerial bombardment of civilians, There had been nothing before to prepare the workers for this sudden experience of total war. 

For decades afterwards Europe lived in a state of shock, a massive grief and bewilderment that the frantic response to the war propaganda — the songs, the posters, the white feathers — could have contributed to this. At the same time as the war had spawned more powerful weapons to smash human bodies it had also developed better medical services to patch up and send them back onto the streets in wheelchairs, on crutches, or to keep them only part alive in perpetual hospital. There were political dangers in this situation and to avert it something had to seem to be done to redeem the many promises to make the land fit for such heroes to live in. 

This was all happening in an atmosphere of deep disillusionment, Post war Britain, unexceptionally, was a country of unemployment, bitter poverty and cynicism. Disabled ex-servicemen who were naive enough to expect same recompense for what they had suffered found instead that their claims for pensions were met with delay, muddle, niggardliness and sometimes blank refusal. Those who had come through the war in one piece tacked themselves onto the end of their local dole queue. This is the story of one man, whose unit was badly cut up in machine gun fire on July l 1916: 
When I was out of work, I had to go before a Means Test Panel. There was a very fat lady on the Panel, cuddling a Pekinese on her lap. She said, "We've all got to pull our belts in a hole or two these days." I was fed up and told her, "Your words belie your appearance. That bloody dog's had more to eat today than I've had." There was a lot of argument and it ended in a row. My chair went over; papers and inkwells went flying and the dog was yapping and squealing. I was charged with common assault and got three months in Wormwood Scrubs. (The First Day on the Somme — Martin Middlebrook.) 
Such men often found their way into one or other of the organizations which were springing up with the aim of fighting the case of the ex-servicemen. At first these split on political lines, with one linking with the TUC and another - the grandly titled Comrades of the War - attracting ex-officers and therefore considered fit for a good Tory patriot to join. There was some rivalry between the organizations, which did not inspire any confidence in their ability to improve matters, as Europe slid into the first slump of the post-war years. 

It was to stem this despair, to sell the ex-servicemen the idea that there was more to the life of a returned hero than the dole queue and the Means Test, that a movement began to unite the opposing organizations. Leader of this movement was none other than Douglas Haig, the general who had organised that slaughter in July 1916, a man famous for his trust in God and who was ready to blame his soldiers for not being able to survive a simple walk across No Man's Land. Haig was still, then, wallowing in the glamour of the super returned warrior; for organizing the killing of all those men he had received a title and £100,000. He supported the move for unity among the ex-servicemen because he hoped this would be a stabilizing influence which would avert what he saw as the threat of social revolution. In May 1921 the British Legion was formed. 

The Legion declared — as it had to — that it was non-political, politics being associated with nasty squabbling over sectional interests at the cost of humane rescue work. It is not surprising, though, that they saw no inconsistency in adopting distinctly political attitudes — their patriotism, their servile royalism (they have always been unable to refer to any aristocrat without stringing out the full title and when mentioning royalty they never miss a Royal Highness or a Majesty), their assumption that capitalism is basically a decent society with just one or two problems which any well-intentioned person can sort out. 

In the General Strike the Legion advised its members " ... to come forward once more and offer their services in any way that may be needed by the authorities." This caused something of a row, since many of the strikers were ex-servicemen who had been driven into it by desperation at the conditions they had faced when they came back from the war. "Non-political" attitudes were also evident when the Legion sent a delegation to Germany in 1935. They saw the concentration camp at Dachau, where the Nazis were holding their political prisoners, and then they had a "quiet family supper" with Gestapo chief Himmler who was, they thought, "...an unassuming man anxious to do his best for his country." 

The first Poppy Day was in 1921, with the Legion hesitant about its chances of success, However it pulled in so much money that a year later the Legion were making the flowers themselves. They now have a factory in Richmond, Surrey, where disabled ex-servicemen turn out something like forty million of the flowers each year. Selling the poppies is the Legion's main source of income. 

Between the wars the effect of Poppy Day was immense. To begin with, it was always on the anniversary of Armistice Day — November 11, which often meant that the working day was interrupted by the two minutes' silence. Schools, factories, transport, offices — they all marked the occasion in this way and the sombre ritual became established. It was very powerful and it was no unusual sight, to see people in tears as the maroons sent out their melancholy booms into the cold mists of a November morning. 

But since the Second World War the occasion has been moved to the first Sunday in November, which has deprived it of much of its effect but which means that there is the minimum interruption of the steady exploitation of workers, ex-servicemen and all. As Poppy Day has declined, the British Legion has felt itself losing some of its relevance, its style of patriotism as much of a joke as Colonel Blimp, (There is, alas, no evidence that current attitudes are any less patriotic than those they have modified, that there is no longer a well of patriotism waiting to be tapped by the appropriate war propaganda, at the appropriate time.) But the Legion was slow to grasp this; it continued to live in its heyday of the Thirties. When eventually realization dawned, they made frantic efforts to catch up, with a campaign bearing all the signs of having been designed by a slick advertising agency. 

The collecting boxes were revamped into the plastic age, a dolly bird showed her legs beneath a tray of poppies and the slogan Wear Your Poppy With Pride was coined, aimed at the doubters who were wondering whether a CND march was a better use of their time. Last November the Cambridge University Rag Day decided to cut the Legion out of their list, on the grounds that it was an "unpopular charity with the students". At the time the Daily Telegraph, in a check on British universities, found this attitude to be widespread; the British Legion, with its image of old soldiers, has been replaced by more trendy appeals for community action trust funds. 

There was some anger in the Legion at this slight, which probably confirmed many members in their prejudices against the alleged laziness and ingratitude of students and there must have been many a call, over the glasses of bitter at local British Legion clubs, for the re-introduction of conscription to shorten these students' hair and teach them to act like men. They need not have worried for, in whatever shape, the ethos of rehabilitation lives on, with its implicit support for capitalism. This ethos interprets the casualties of capitalism as unfortunate, unavoidable accidents who, after the event, need to be patched up and helped to cope with their disabilities. It is difficult to imagine a more insidious bolster to capitalism than this avoidance of reality. For capitalism is not a succession of accidents; wars are not mistakes and poverty is only one segment of the many in capitalism's mosaic of social malaise. There are numerous organizations wearily trying to deal with separate problems in isolation from their common basis. They make appeals, they sell their paper flags and flowers and they claim their successes. They are convinced that they appeal to something they call our better nature when in reality they are a persuasion to avoid the issue. 

There were poppies growing in the fields of Flanders when the war started in 1914 and they clung on as the devastation became complete; they were in the ground and poking out of the soil of the trenches when the men went over the top that day in July 1916. But there is more to it than the popular symbolism, for the poppy is the colour of blood and it has its association with opiates. Those who buy a poppy are helping the workers to deaden their senses to the facts. War is not to be remembered with pride; it is to be feared and hated. Capitalism kills workers in their millions, then lays them out in regimented cemeteries, raises huge monuments to tell us they are dead. And all this to protect the position of the ruling class, to keep in being the very society which ensures the next bloodbath.
Ivan