Monday, September 28, 2015

Social Evolution (1969)

Book Review from the September 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Man's Rise to Civilisation as Shown by the Indians of North America, from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State by Peter Farb. Secker & Warburg, 55s.

Those whose ideas about North American Indians have been moulded by Western films and novels will find Peter Farb's book a revelation. The author takes his readers on a three-dimensional trip, north to south, east to west, and past to present, calling on all the familiar names like Cheyenne, Apache, Pawnee, Seminole, Iroquois, Eskimo, and Aztec, as well as lots of lesser-known ones. He sheds a lot of light on their customs and behaviour.

When 'white' men invaded America they met a confusing babel of languages and a multiplicity of different social organisations. They experienced varying reactions from the different groups of Indian natives. Some were warlike, others peaceful; some honoured agreements, others broke them; some were passively resistant, others fled; some were regarded as noble red men and others as ignorant savages. Some were organised under powerful chiefdoms with strong military institutions. Some were groups of families which looked to a senior member for advice which they did not necessarily have to take, and in consequence did not consider themselves bound by agreements supposedly made on their behalf. Some had well-defined social classes with a state machine to protect the interests of the the privileged class. Farb classifies these under four main headings: 1. The Band, 2. The Tribe, 3. The Chiefdom and 4. The State—the first two with sub-headings.

Farb shows that the stage of social organisation to which each Indian group had evolved determined its attitude to the white explorers and invaders, from Columbus and Cortes to the Puritan pilgrims and the westward-thrusting farmers and traders. He also explains the effects of the white man's institutions on the native organisation: how fur trading affected the communal organisation of the Indians in the Hudson Bay and Labrador areas and how the introduction of the horse and the gun affected the Plains Indians.

The book attempts to explain social evolution by cultural development and Farb understands culture to be "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Those 'other capabilities' must include technology; in fact, Farb says so later in his book when he refers to cultural reasons as "social, political, economic, and technological" ones.

To explain social organisation by cultural development is like explaining that the reason a man crosses a road is to get to the other side—it leaves us wondering why he wanted to get to the other side. For a more complete understanding of social organisation we must isolate one part of the culture, and without ignoring the other parts see how its influence is decisive in determining social development.

If we isolate the technological aspect we can see how a social group has been able to extend its control over nature by the discovery and invention of tools and processes and we shall see how this aspect is the foundation of all human activities, determining their condition and defining their limits.

Peter does not miss the technological aspect, far from it, but by failing to emphasise its fundamental importance he lessens the weight of his words. By lumping it in with what we would call 'the social superstructure' he blurs what would otherwise be an excellent definition. 

With the advantage of an additional hundred years of archaeological research behind him, Farb shrugs aside the classifications of men like Lewis Morgan and Frederick Engels as being too general to be useful. We appreciate that when people at different levels of social organisation come into contact they absorb aspects of one another's culture and this makes the pieces of the historical jig-saw more difficult to piece together.

Man's rise to civilisation has not been determined by his laws, arts, customs, religions, etc. but by his increasing inventiveness and adoption of more efficient tools, machinery and techniques of production. Although much of what Morgan, Engels, and others of their day wrote is outdated, the historical milestones they uncovered are still there to point the way. If history is to have a meaning it must reveal the motivating factor of social development so that we may gauge progress into the future.

Just as the digging stick and the rabbit snare were fundamental to the social organisation of the Shoshonean Indians, so modern methods of production are fundamental to capitalism and are the driving force towards Socialism.

Farb may be able to prove that man has not travelled the road to civilisation by a strict rotation of steps, there may have been leaps forward or steps backward, but he cannot prove that the type of social organisation of any people has not been limited by the technology of the time and place.

The latter chapters of the book deal with the recent aspirations of the Indians and the attempts at a cultural revival. These read like the story of the Maccabees and other people who have been swamped by a society at a higher level of social development. They looked for a messiah to lead them back to the good old times. But Farb's portrayal of Karl Marx as a messiah, Lenin as a prophet, and Stalin and Trotsky as disciples is amusing.
W. Waters

Obituary: Comrade Bill Waters (1970)

Obituary from the March 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to report the death of our comrade W. Waters after a short illness. 

Bill Waters was 66 and had been a member of the Party for forty years. He was a very active propagandist for Socialism. A good indoor and outdoor speaker as well as a good writer, he contributed numerous excellent articles and book reviews to the Socialist Standard, especially during the forties and fifties. He served for a short time on the editorial committee, was the secretary of the pre-war Dagenham branch and, at one time, our overseas secretary. He represented the Party in the North Paddington by-election in 1953. He was active to the end, ever ready to do a lecture or write an article (the last of which appeared in September 1969).

Our comrade Waters was a bus driver and a very active member of the Transport and General Workers Union, playing a prominent role in the big busmen's strikes of 1936 and 1955.

Bill had many interests other than politics. In his hot house he raised a variety of exotic flowers; he was a keen and skilful photographer and he had a great knowledge of London and its history, which he used in talks on the radio.

We extend our sincere sympathies to his family; we are conscious that their loss is also ours.

Plus Ca Change . . . Aristocracy, old and new (1969)

From the August 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The French have a saying which, roughly translated, reads: "The more it changes, the more it remains the same thing". This is a very apt description of one aspect of capitalist society. It is constantly changing. Lots of things are very different from what they were even a decade ago, while if a worker of a century ago could come back to life (we're not saying he would want to, of course!) he would, at first at any rate, hardly recognise the dear old system. However, it would not be long before he realised that it really had remained the same thing: society was still divided into two classes and the minority that owned still lived on the proceeds of the exploitation of the majority that did not own. And although he would marvel at the fantastic progress over the last century (after all, when he died only that comparatively short while ago, he knew nothing of cars of planes or nuclear energy or even old-fashioned electricity), he might utter a sardonic comment or two before returning to the peace of the cemetery when he realised that the average worker still left behind him, when he kicked off, more or less the same as he did. Just his bones.

Nevertheless it is sometimes interesting to notice some of the changes which do take place within the system, while not affecting in the slightest its fundamental nature as a system of exploitation. One such change is in the relative positions of different groups of workers in the social scale. Before the war, the upper crust of the working class was generally thought to consist of such people as policemen, teachers, bank clerks and so on. (So much so, that if you met a bank clerk at the tennis club, the odds were that he would indignantly deny he was a member of the working class at all. His white collar qualified him for membership of some vague entity he would call 'middle class'. Nowadays, he would probably not quarrel with the term 'white-collared workers'. Some progress, anyway.)

Today, however, when one reads glib phrases in the papers about the 'aristocracy of labour', they seldom mean this type of worker at all. In fact, it is a complaint among policemen etc. that whereas before the war they were looked up to as the lucky ones because they had fairly secure jobs while the spectre of unemployment was always hovering around most groups of workers, nowadays they have fallen a rung or two on the ladder of jostling wage-slaves. Unemployment 'only' affects a couple of million people (including families) at present so that there is no longer a premium on security. Only the actual size of the pay packet counts now and in that sense these groups are not among the aristocrats. Who are the new aristocrats then? Well, it seems dockers are (among others of course). It seems they get the vast sum of about 30 quid a week and while there are still groups of workers, such as agricultural workers, who average less than half that princely figure, the dockers really are rich beyond the dreams of avarice. (It's true that even 30 quid is only about five or six in pre-war money but let's not quibble over details.

'Love on the Dole'
Now, I am a trusting sort of chap and would never think of doubting government figures about that 30 quid. Indeed, not all government figures are automatically false (only most of them), One recalls, for example, that Marx went out of his way to praise certain government factory inspectors whose reports he used in connection with his researches. And it happens that, having lived most of my life in an inland part of the country, I doubt if I have stumbled across many dockers. I have merely read about them as being those difficult chaps who are not satisfied with their good fortune but who on the contrary persist in holding the country to ransom and going on strike. And it seems they they don't even give a damn about 'our' balance of payment problem (which worries the rest of the working class so much) when they refuse to load the ships with those precious exports.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself early one morning in the heart of London's dockland and went into a dockers' 'caff' for breakfast. The little place was crowded with about 20 dockers and they looked anything but aristocratic. In fact, the whole scene looked very much like one from Love on the Dole, the famous pre-war play about the depression years in Lancashire. I have no wish to wring anyone's withers and I am not  saying the dockers looked quite like the pictures from Biafra, but it was impossible to resist the thought that if these were the aristocrats the word has certainly changed its meaning. Or, to put it another way, if these were aristocrats, it was Gold help the peasants.

After I had risked my life by making some corny joke about how honoured I was to breakfast with the new aristocracy, one of the blokes pulled out a crumpled wage slip showing £12 and assured me that he had not averaged more than that in take-home pay for months. It seemed, too, that his mates were in more or less the same case. They were enjoying the benefits of 'decasualisation'. One of the great reforms of recent years has meant that dockers (in return for certain concessions on their part, of course), were guaranteed a 'fallback' wage of around £12 a week in cases where they could not get work owing to the spasmodic nature of the industry. These aristocrats assured me that many of them had to live on that sort of money for many months. And how would I like to do that with the present cost of living in London? It seemed they could not even afford to throw bottles at their favourite Millwall football players because they couldn't afford the beer. But while it is good to see that workers cab still keep their sense of humour in such circumstances, it was difficult to see anything funny in the situation. Even less so a little later when I gave one of the men a lift to his dock a mile away. (When I ventured to remark en route that the general impression was that every docker had at least one car outside the door as a basic right under our 'socialist' government he merely gave me a withering 'do me a favour'.) And there I saw how the dignity of man has been rescued under the new enlightened régime since decasualisation.

A group of dockers stood waiting patiently to see if any of them were going to be privileged to be exploited that day. If they were selected, then presumably they would be able to earn the rate of £30 a week we hear so much about. If not, then not. My friend explained to me that, except where there was a sudden spate of urgent work, there would always be a number who were not wanted each day. And, as one would expect, it was usually the same ones who would be chosen. Presumably the ones with the strongest arms. And the weakest tongues. Under any exploitative system, the exploiters will be bound to want workers who are docile and not those who kick against the pricks. It may well be that the old system was even worse. Which only proves that capitalism remains capitalism and the very act of one class buying the other's labour power for the purpose of exploitation is degrading in itself, no matter whether the exploitation takes place under a (more or less) privately owned economy as in America, a so-called mixed economy like Britain's, or a wholly state-owned one like that in Russia. Reforms are merely surface tinkering. It is the thing itself that must be abolished. The act of employment is in itself a degradation.

And just to complete the picture, by one of those little ironies with which life abounds, on the same morning I read in the papers that a real aristocrat, not a peasant or a docker, called Lord Melchett, was dissatisfied with his wage as chairman of the 'socialised' (ye gods!) steel industry which the Wilson government has bestowed on a grateful working class. It seems he was only getting around £20,000 a year and he needed another £5,000 to make it pay (figures very approximate; workers shouldn't quibble about a few thousand here or there for their masters). And a little more irony here. How did his lordship become an aristocrat and a millionaire? Answer: he inherited both from his grandfather, Alfred Mond, the founder of ICI and in his day as fierce a fighter against trade unions as any capitalist could wish for. And now the successors of the union leaders of those days are happily rewarding Mond's successor with the overlordship of their own ark of the covenant, the nationalised steel industry. It is as though they are trying to make it clear to the workers that the more it changes the more it remains the same. But when will the workers see?

One last item. My docker friend averred that the dockers' position would be a lot worse were it not for their unofficial leader "good old Jackie Dash". And of course it may well be true. The official union leaders have to try to play ball with the government, especially 'our'Labour government. So a 'communist' like dash can easily fish in troubled waters and gain credit for the Communist Party while so doing. I confess I did not even try to point out that if the Dashes had their way, then the rights of trade unions would go the same way as all democratic rights have gone in the CP's fatherland, the Soviet Union. My friend was clearly in no mood for thinking about such things. He had enough problems on hand in trying to make ends meet that day. But until the dockers, along with the rest of the working class, aristocrats and the rest alike, start thinking about Socialism, they must be resigned to accepting all the miseries that capitalism has to offer.
L. E. Weidberg

Russia and the US Face Up Once Again (1998)

Editorial from the March 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the crisis in the Gulf escalates, it is noticeable that the Russian ruling class is busy lining up behind Saddam Hussein`s Iraq. This is not because of any love affair with Saddam, but due to Russia`s transparent need to counter United States influence in the region while simultaneously exploiting divisions between the "old alliance" of the western states.

Just like the French, Russia also wants to bring Iraq back into the world economy (not least of all because Russia wants to recover its Iraqi debts). The current stand-off between the Russians and the Americans--including the recent diplomatic contact--has only served to promote the anti-Yeltsin extremes in Russian politics such as the neo-Fascist leader Zhirinovsky, currently making much noise about "solidarity with Saddam". And these are precisely the type of forces which have the largest influence on the Russian Duma.

But this is not all. The current plan to expand NATO into eastern Europe is highly antagonistic to Russian interests as it considers this to be an incursion into its traditional "sphere of influence". If this situation progresses and NATO eventually grows to include the Baltic states, a latter-day cold war scenario is again on the cards. The recent rapprochement between the Russian and Chinese ruling classes has demonstrated that Russia`s possible membership of the World Trade Organisation (with millions of dollars of aid) and Yeltsin`s observer status at the G7 meetings will not placate a wary Russian ruling class.

Given all this it is no wonder that Boris Yeltsin has indicated that a further demonstration of US firepower in the Gulf could be the precursor to a "third world war". Russia may not be the superpower it once was, but in this apparent phase of each nation state against all, the outlook of its ruling class faced with threats from another imperialist force demands attention from the working class. For the working class have been led sleep-walking into wars before--they should not, and cannot, let it happen again.

Branch News (1963)

From the February 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Despite the extreme wintry weather, Glasgow Branch have held five successful indoor lectures, this really reflects on the consistent work done by all the members. Fourteen members attended these meetings regularly, average audience 27, collections and literature over £8. After much correspondence with the Bellshill Constituency Labour Party, the Branch is optimistic that agreeable terms can be arranged for a debate sometime in February. The "advance guard" has already started the literature sales drive in North Kelvin in anticipation of the election (local) in May. It is hoped that the Cosmo cinema can be booked for the May Day Rally. There is no doubt that over the Border our Comrades are really consistently working hard for the Party in its work to spread Socialist propaganda.

We are happy to report that on the occasion of our comrade Lawrence's visit to his father in Vienna he met many friends and comrades of the Party and in order to mark the occasion they sent a contribution of £6 to the Party in London. We should like to thank our comrades in Vienna—R. Pechinger, Franz Klas, E. Schuster, Fran Draschinsky and R. Frank for the generous thought and we assure them that their contribution will be used in the best possible manner. We should also like to congratulate them on the work they are doing under quite difficult conditions.

It is with regret that we learn of the death of Fred Clarke of Burton-on-Trent, brother of Charley Clarke who died recently. We extend our sincere sympathy to his brother, J. Clarke who will, we know, continue his good work for the cause of Socialism.

Branches have planned well ahead for propaganda meetings, and 1963 should prove even more successful than last year, when provincial and London branches held regular series of indoor and outdoor propaganda meetings.

Ealing Branch continued its winter programme of films and lectures with two film shows during January. Attendance was good considering the weather. There was also a good response from branch members to Paddington branch's invitation to their lecture on the Common Market at which Comrade Hardy was the speaker. This was the first of the inter-Branch meetings, arranged jointly between Paddington, Bloomsbury and Ealing, and it was very successful.

Members are asked to make special note of the two lectures being held this month—on the 8th and 22nd—at 8 p.m. prompt.

Note. The Socialist Standard is regularly on sale at A. Rowe's newsagents shop at 30 High Street, Woolwich, S.E.18.

Will the following members please contact the Central Branch Secretary as soon as possible as correspondence sent to them has been returned by the post office—S. Killingbeck (Leamington), A. Thomas (Botley, Oxford), A. W. Kent (Aylesbury).
Phyllis Howard