Saturday, October 17, 2015

For Your Leisure Time (1950)

From the May 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

Howard Fast is an American novelist whose works are now published in London by the Bodley Head. He takes as his themes events in history, mainly American history, and introduces a few fictional characters amongst the real characters who were involved in the events. He sees the class struggle in the periods about which he writes.

The novels by this author already published in this country are as follows: "The Unvanquished," "The Last Frontier," "The American," "Citizen Tom Paine" and "Freedom Road." There is also available a book of selected works of Tom Paine.

"Freedom Road" is the most significant of these books. It deals with the period immediately following the American civil war when thousands of Negro slaves found themselves freed from their slavery on the cotton plantations in the southern states. It tells, through the story of a fictional negro character, Gideon Jackson, how these freed slaves, illiterate, cowed, ill-clothed and bewildered, clung desperately to their new found freedom against the brutality and terrorist measures of their class enemies, the ex-plantation owners. It shows how they strove to learn to read and write and understand the bewildering world into which they had been turned loose; how, in the brief period when they were allowed to do so, they carved out a democratic constitution for such states as South Carolina and Georgia. It proves that the interests of the negroes and the poor whites were identical,  a class interest against a system of slavery, both chattel and wage. The author tells how the slave owners and the northern industrialists soon realised that they had a common interest in keeping in subjugation all workers, black and white, even though they set about the task under the cry of anti-negroism. The book deals with the origin of the Ku Klux Klan and its bestial, foul and brutal terror carried out whilst a so-called anti-slave government shut a blind eye. The latter chapters of the book are not to be read by those who are at all squeamish. They show the mutilations and death agonies of black and white men, women and children in this class war.

"Citizen Tom Paine" is the story of the life of that revolutionary pamphleteer. Tom Paine wrote in popular form and expressed the aspirations of the rising industrialist class in America and France in its struggle against the dominant land owning class of its day. Paine, according to Howard Fast's portrayal of him, was a most unlovely character, he was ugly, deformed, drunken and dirty to the point of filthiness, but he had terrific courage. Starting life as a stay maker he went to America under the patronage of Benjamin Franklin, and obtained employment as editor of a newly founded magazine. His rebellious writings soon got him into trouble and he was swept up in the American War of Independence. This war was a struggle between the forerunners of the modern American capitalists against the British land owners supported by the British Government. The American land owning element lined up with their British colleagues, whilst the revolutionary tenant farmers and industrialists relied, as always, on the support of poor farmers and the workers. Tom Paine's role in this struggle was that of a "rabble rouser." When the struggle of the American revolutionaries was at a low ebb and fresh enthusiasm had to be whipped up, it was Paine to whom men like Washington turned for a pamphlet or a speech to re-arouse the enthusiasm of the workers and small farmers. After the American war, Paine left for England where he was immediately marked as a prospective menace to the Government and he had to flee the country to France. He arrived there when the French revolution was in process and was at once elected to the Convention. Lining up with the Girondins, Paine was finally marked for the guillotine and imprisoned. He appealed to his erstwhile compatriots  in America to save him, but they had achieved victory in their struggle and did not need the services of their "rabble rouser" any more.  They wanted their workers to be passive, docile and obedient now that they held the helm and a man like Paine was likely to be a menace. So they left him to his fate. He escaped the guillotine and returned to America where he spent his old age being sneered and jeered at by everyone as an atheist. Paine wrote fluently about democracy and the 'rights of man' but he had a horror of 'mob rule' as he considered the aspirations of the workers to be. He was the spokesman of the early capitalists, not of the workers whom he appealed to and exhorted to fight.

"The Last Frontier" is a splendid story of the struggle of a small tribe of Red Indians to return to the green pastures of their old hunting grounds from the Indian reservations on an arid, dusty desert in Oklahoma. Hunted and hounded by American troops they were nearly all exterminated, only a few eventually winning through. The one fictional character in this story is an American army officer who is troubled that the newly adopted constitution of his country lays down that all men are born free and equal whilst he sees suppression, exploitation inequality all around and must himself play a part in enforcing such conditions. Can a thing that is right in principle be wrong in practice, is the theme of this splendid story. 

"The Unvanquished" is a tale of the first few days of the American War of Independence telling of the sufferings of the farmers and workers who fought on the American side, their determination and endurance, but the story has less significance for Socialists than the others mentioned. "The American" is the life story of Judge Pete Altgeld, the Chicago judge who gravitated from a tame radical position to one of extreme working class sympathy. It deals mainly with the American political racket and the anti-working class attitude of the American governments of the latter end of the last century and beginning of this one.

Howard Fast may not be a Socialist but he sees history through the eyes of the oppressed classes. His writing is good and his stories are exciting whilst being at the same time instructive. We commend him to readers of the Socialist Standard for their leisure time reading.
W. Waters


More about Trotsky (1964)

Book Review from the July 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Prophet Outcast, by Isaac Deutscher, Oxford University Press, 45s.

This is the last of the three volumes of Deutscher's magnum opus -  the biography of his hero Leon Trotsky.

It is not likely that many members of the working class of our affluent society will be able to afford to buy it. Nor, in truth, is a great deal of its bulk (nearly 500 pages) worth ploughing through. Much of its value is of a rather negative kind, demonstrating the type of thought and action we should avoid. And, willy nilly, the author tells us at least as much about his own mental processes as a "trotskyist" (the inverted commas are essential; one is no surer at the end than at the beginning what kind of an animal a trotskyist is) as about the career of his subject.

The book takes us from the banishment of Trotsky from Russia by Stalin in 1929 to his butchery (the phrase is literal enough; the end was achieved with an ice-axe) by a Stalinist thug in 1940. It consists of a record of his life in the various countries of his refuge (Turkey, Norway, France and Mexico) and of his personal and family hardships and tragedies, which were indeed many and moving. At the same time, it recounts the story of his political and action during those eventful years. It is, of course, with these that we are mainly concerned here.

Immediately, we are up against the negative aspect of the whole Trotsky saga. The first thing any student of politics would like to know is: what was the real difference that divided the hero of this book from the villain? What profound principle formed the basis of the murderous feud between these two men, both of whom called themselves communists? Well, here is one reviewer at least who is no wiser now that when he started.

On the contrary, time and again we find that on issues which appear to be really burning matters like the forced collectivisation of the peasants, for example, fierce invective against Stalin for doing the opposite of what Trotsky in exile advocated, is followed by bitter criticism of Stalin for in due course altering his tactics and doing the very thing that Trotsky advocated. As usual among politicians this leads not to gratification but to sour frustration and accusations of stealing clothing (or thunder, as the case may be).

How familiar all this is to us in England; and how excruciatingly boring. How often have we heard the Labour Party moan that all its best policies are pinched by the wicked Tories? It never seems to occur to them that either way the masses they are supposed to represent are going to get the "benefit" of the policies they claim will be so good for them. Nowhere in this book do we get the slightest hint that either Trotsky himself, or Deutscher, or any other of the characters that flit across the pages has the faintest realisation that there must be something odd about their policies if a monster like Stalin can adopt them, even tardily. And, above all, if the result of this adoption left all the evils of capitalist society as prevalent in Russia as they could be.

Trotsky was undoubtedly a man of considerable intellectual capacity. The author proudly tells us at the end that a postmortem on his hero's brain necessitated by the murderous smashing of his skull, revealed a brain weighing two pounds and thirteen ounces, which is apparently very much larger than normal. His ability is revealed all through the book in copious quotations from his writings. And it is impossible to dispute the fact that Deutscher, too, has a brain of some weight. But what does all this amount to? For practical purposes, it all adds up to nothing of any moment at all.

One searches in vain for some sort of focus to find out what all the fire and fury was about. In all the thousands of words not a word to tell us what is this "communism" that the two great protagonists were supposed to be fighting about. On the contrary, it is made abundantly clear that both sides agreed that State capitalism was Socialism. And Deutscher makes no secret of the fact that he, too, is satisfied to swallow and indeed to propagate this flagrant contradiction.

On page 55, for example, he makes it clear that he agrees with Trotsky that the working class in Russia cannot be exploited because there is no class which owns the means of production. He apparently does not even begin to see the truth of the matter which is that the Russian worker has to get up to the sound of a similar alarm clock as wakes his British counterpart, and do his stint by the day or the week for a wage which will enable him to keep himself and his family until the next wage comes along. That his only choice is to do that or starve. And that, as the fruits of his labour are removed from him in the same way as they are here, then someone must be enjoying the fruits of that exploitation.

Instead, Deutscher blinds himself with talk about power being in the hands of the proletariat—without, of course, a tittle of evidence to show that this is anything other than a grotesque fraud and that the proletariat in Russia is as powerless as in England; more so in fact, since it has not even the power of a free vote in a semblance of a democracy.

It is as a result of such a basic misconception that we get episodes which are merely farcical, but to Deutscher are intensely puzzling—such as the difference between groups of Trotskyists as to whether they should support Russia or China over the possession of the Manchurian Railway. Or, still more breathtaking, the spectacle of Trotsky supporting the treacherous grabbing by Stalin (by arrangement with Hitler) of Eastern Poland and the Baltic States because the local capitalists were thereby expropriated. It never seems to occur to these intellects that whenever the workers of such countries get a chance to show what they think of their "improved" position as a result of such happenings, they vote with their feet by the hundred thousand so that the communists have to build walls and barbed wire fences to keep the faithless ones in their compulsory heaven.

Running through this book like a grisly thread is the story of the terrible purges which Stalin was perpetrating in this period, and which indeed went on long after Trotsky's death. Trotsky's friends and his children were, of course, among the prominent victims of this appalling holocaust and it is impossible not to feel profoundly moved by his sufferings, even though one is ever conscious of the fact that the basic philosophy of it all, the reign of terror and the slogan that "the end justifies the means," was born of the basic flaw which we exposed right back in 1917—namely, the theory that a small clique of elite communists can capture power for the purpose of giving Socialism to a non-socialist working class. Trotsky himself was one of the arch-perpetrators of the Bolshevik reign of terror and he himself must have been haunted by the ghosts of those who he had sent to their doom.

The purge trials, in which Stalin staged the judicial murder of all the famous old bolsheviks he could lay his hands on, may seem like a dim and distant history to most people, but some of the names in the book make one realise that it is all not so long ago and that there are still people very much with us in England today whose attitude while the murders were actually being committed was to justify them. Trotsky complains bitterly, for example, about the equivocal attitude of Kingsley Martin who was the editor of the New Statesman in those days and who defended the stand taken by the then Labour M.P. and barrister D. N. Pritt, Q.C., the man who appointed himself the apologist-in-chief in this country for Stalin's murders. The former would no doubt like to forget, but Pritt is still being trotted out by the communists here at their rallies and it really is quite eerie to see, as large as life and as brazen as ever, one who insisted that the confessions were genuine of people who are being resuscitated (though not revivified) by Stalin's former accomplice Khrushchev.

But one turns quickly from such people to Deutscher himself. And here we must find room to single out one case which throws a lurid light on the whole dreadful business and on the attitude of Trotskyists and Stalinists alike, the case of Krestinsky, a former Soviet Foreign Minister. This leading Trotskyist did something that apparently nobody else did in all those fearful years; he retracted in open court and in the presence of foreign journalists the confessions that he had made to the secret police. The sensation this made at the time can well be imagined and, of course, this very episode gives the lie to all those apologists who said that the unanimity of the confessions made them beyond reproach. What happened as a result of Krestinsky's avowal that his confessions had been extorted from him by the police? The judge, instead of ordering a full enquiry into all the facts, hurriedly adjourned the proceedings. And next day, after a night in the hands of his tormentors, Krestinsky came back into court and retracted his complaint about extortion.

This one instance threw the whole thing into the open and Krestinsky's heroism was plain for all to see—as well as its tragic futility. But although one does not expect anything from the apologists of the time, what of Deutscher, who would presumably have saluted this gallantry in the part of his fellow-Trotskyist? He refers to Krestinsky's gesture as "feeble." This is written now, long after the revelations of the Khrushchev "secret" speech in which he made it clear that Stalin extracted his confessions by barbaric torture. And to add to the dreadful irony of it all, one reads in a recent issue of the New Statesman an article, by this same Deutscher, in which he mentions that Khrushchev has just "rehabilitated" Krestinsky as innocent of the crimes for which he was hanged and whose confession was the basis of the charges for which Bukharin and Rykov and so many others were hanged with him. Incidentally, this is, we believe, the first case of a prominent Trotskyist leader being exculpated. If the masters of Moscow get round to rehabilitating the arch-enemy Trotsky himself, then our tame communists will really have some words to eat.
L. E. Weidberg

Socialist Meeting in London: Peter Watkins' Culloden (2015)

'Culloden' (Film)

Sunday, 18 October 2015 - 6:00pm

Venue: The Socialist Party's premises, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN

Directions: About four minutes walk from Clapham North tube on the Northern line and three minutes walk from Clapham High Street station on the circular overground line

'Culloden', a film by Peter Watkins - running time 69 minutes. 

Introduction by Robert Worden with discussion afterwards

Peter Watkins will be 80 years of age in October 2015

"Culloden is a 1964 docudrama for BBC TV.  It portrays the 1746 Battle of Culloden that resulted in the British Army's destruction of the Scottish Jacobite rising of 1745 and, in the words of the narrator, "tore apart forever the clan system of the Scottish Highlands". Described in its opening credits as "an account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain", Culloden was hailed as a breakthrough for its cinematography as well as its use of non-professional actors and its presentation of an historical event in the style of modern TV war reporting. The film was based on John Prebble's study of the battle."

Free admission and refreshments

See Also:
October 2015 Socialist Standard: Peter Watkins: A Revolutionary Film-Maker

Oil, Regime Change and Refugees (2015)

From the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
In his 1998 book The Common Good, Noam Chomsky makes an important observation: ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate’.
The notion expressed here has been confirmed as the refugees crisis has unfolded. The government and the media have indeed set the parameters of the debate and the majority of people have engaged. Discussion has tended to focus on how many refugees Britain should take, what the relief effort would cost and whether, as the BBC had us considering, these unfortunates are refugees or migrants.
The public have responded empathically, often heroically, with a spontaneous upsurge of heartfelt solidarity, signing petitions, collecting money, taking part in demos and marches, even organising aid convoys to help stranded refugees in Calais. Governments across Europe have reacted accordingly to the outpouring of popular support and, in many cases risibly, with David Cameron, the British PM, for instance, pledging to take 20,000 refugees over the next five years – a mere 10 refugees a day and a figure dwarfed by the number of Britons who will leave their native shores for a better life elsewhere in that period.
The military ‘solution’
There has been a ubiquitous outcry that something must be done to halt this global diaspora and Western governments – Britain's being no exception – have not been slow in interpreting this as a call for further military intervention in Syria where, currently, most refugees are fleeing from.
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, writing in theDaily Telegraph (30 August), said: ‘I perfectly accept that intervention has not often worked. It has been a disaster in Iraq; it has been a disaster in Libya. But can you honestly say that non-intervention in Syria has been a success? If we keep doing nothing about the nightmare in Syria, then frankly we must brace ourselves for an eternity of refugees, more people suffocating in airless cattle trucks at European motorway service stations, more people trying to climb the barbed wire that we are building around the European Union’.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, writing in the Daily Telegraph (5 September) could ‘not consider it enough to send aid to refugee camps in the Middle East.’ Instead, he called for a military effort to ‘crush’ ISIS in its Syrian heartlands, voicing support for British military intervention to help establish "safe enclaves" within the country where civilians would be shielded from attack by the warring factions in Syria's civil war.
Roger Cohen, an op-ed columnist, writing for the New York Times (10 September), expressed ideas that are becoming common in the US media: ‘American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated. But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it’.
And for its part, the Murdoch-controlled media is also supportive of Western military intervention in Syria, perhaps not least because Murdoch is a major shareholder in Genie Energy which has recently been granted rights to explore for oil and gas in the portion of Syria occupied by Israel and known as the Golan Heights.
David Cameron has played his hand close to his chest, wary of forcing another Commons vote on military action in the region after his humiliating defeat two years ago unless, that is, he can be sure of winning the parliamentary consensus needed for airstrikes. With Jeremy Corbyn now facing him on the opposition benches as Labour leader, that support is extremely remote.
Needless to say, it's the same old lie, the same thin veil that has cloaked many a conflict peddled by politicians and their lackeys who count on people suffering massive bouts of historical amnesia at times of crisis – the perennial case for humanitarian intervention and bombs with smiley faces that supposedly kill only bad guys.
The BBC news site reported on 5 September that ‘President Barack Obama has called on Congress to authorise US military action in Syria. The move has provoked sharp, multifaceted debate in the US Capitol as a resolution moves through the legislative process’.
And of that resolution, the Guardian reported (6 September): ‘... Barack Obama for the first time portrayed his plans for US military action [in Syria] as part of a broader strategy to topple [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, as the White House's campaign to win over sceptics in Congress gained momentum’.
Ostensibly, the resolution would allow a 90-day window for a US military attack in Syria, where both ISIS and the Syrian government would be targeted and with regime change in Syria the ultimate objective.
Western political pundits would have it that their respective governments are not doing enough to solve the crisis in Syria and the resulting and ongoing chaos. This helps to mask just what they have done to create the crisis. In recent years, for instance, the Obama administration has engaged in crippling Syria with sanctions, provided air support for those keen to overthrow Assad and in direct violation of international law, inadvertently, and perhaps purposely, armed ISIS, and all but merged the CIA-bankrolled Free Syrian Army with Al Qaeda.
Supporting the anti-Assad forces, every bit as reactionary as the regime they are keen to overthrow, has cost the CIA over $1 billion and US officials concede that they have trained 10,000 of these jihadist fighters. The maths speak for themselves – $100,000 to train each fighter.
Changing regimes
Syria and Iran have long been in Washington's crosshairs. Back in October of 2007, General Wesley Clark gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in which he revealed the gist of a memo from the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, weeks after 9/11, and US plans to ‘attack and destroy the governments in seven countries in five years,’ commencing with Iraq and moving on to ‘Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and finally Iran’. Clark argued that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region’s vast oil and gas resources (see also: Real Men Want to go to Iran, Socialist Standard, March 2006).
Again in 2007, in a New Yorker article entitled ‘The Redirection: Is the Administration’s new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?’, Seymour Hersh wrote: ‘To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East ... The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.’
In 2008, the US Army-funded RAND report, Unfolding the Future of the Long War, noted that ‘the economies of the industrialised states will continue to rely heavily on oil, thus making it a strategically important resource.’ Thus, with most oil being produced by the Middle East, Washington has ‘motive for maintaining stability in and good relations with Middle Eastern states’.
The report goes on:
‘The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network. This creates a linkage between oil supplies and the long war that is not easily broken or simply characterised... For the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources... The region will therefore remain a strategic priority, and this priority will interact strongly with that of prosecuting the long war’.
In August 2009 – and notably the year in which Britain covertly began to make plans to train anti-Assad rebels – it was announced that US-friendly Qatar was intent on running a pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, and with a view to supply the European market and in blatant competition with Russia. Assad was having none of it and refused to sign any agreement – his allegiance was with Russia. Conversely, Assad had other plans that could only enrage Washington – proposals for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with neighbouring Iran, crossing Iraq and into Syria that would also, it was hoped, allow Iran to supply gas to Europe direct. Assad was overstepping the mark, not playing by Washington's rules and his removal had become a necessity.
It is not just coincidence that those countries with major oil and gas deposits, or strategically placed so the same can be easily accessed, suffer the greatest instability and are producing the greatest number of refugees. Cameron's 'moral responsibility' to refugees pales into insignificance when one considers the real agenda – Britain's part in Washington's plan for regime change in Syria. And this is where Cameron’s personal 'responsibility' really lies – not with ordinary people, in their hundreds and thousands, compelled to flee war zones that his government had a hand in creating but with removing Assad, in order for instance to run a pipeline through Syrian territory and to prevent Iran and Russia gaining strategic momentum in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia – its overtures to seek peace talks with all factions in Syria rebuffed by Washington – has moved to strengthen the Assad government against ISIS and al-Qaeda backed rebels. In response, the White House issued a stern warning to Russia and pressured neighbouring governments, like Bulgaria, to deny Russia access to their air space in an attempt to block Russia's transportation of weapons to aid the Syrian government forces.
Critics warn that in moving to prevent Russian weapons reaching the Syrian government, Obama is strengthening those forces fighting to overthrow Assad and that if Obama wins a mandate for his new war and topples the Syrian president, these rebel groups are the ones who will fill the power vacuum. The logic suggests that overthrowing President Assad would in all probability create a radical jihadist state in Damascus, every bit as repressive as the current regime, and lead to massacres and floods of people fleeing reprisals – Syrian Christians, Alawites and Druze – ensuring the further destabilisation of the region. Thus, millions more refugees will sweep into neighbouring countries and Europe, that is if they survive the vengeance of the new Syrian rulers.
The price paid
US intervention under the guise of humanitarian objectives is not about stabilising the world's trouble spots and alleviating human misery. The most cursory reading of US foreign policy since 1945 suggests the exact opposite. It destabilises one country after another on behalf of its corporate elite and its military-industrial complex and in furtherance of what has often been referred to as full spectrum dominance, and to hell with the loss of life. Consider, for instance, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when confronted in an interview with the heinous fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US sanctions. Her reply: ‘It was a price worth paying’.
For the US and its lackeys in Downing Street, the refugee crisis is perhaps a price worth paying, especially if the spin-off is consolidating their power in a region of the world rich in mineral resources and controlling who does and does not get access to them. The British government's real commitment can further be witnessed at the DSEI Arms Fair in London last month where some 1500 stall holders aimed to sell their wares to some of the most authoritarian, brutal and repressive regimes on Earth.
Solidarity
In the meantime, the real clamour to help refugees is not coming from Western governments, but ordinary people from all walks of life, organising as best they can, in their groups, communities, and often as individuals. For socialists, it is reassuring that so many workers across Europe refuse to see those they are rallying to support as anything other than human beings, homeless, frightened, displaced, and have refused to see them as migrants, illegal immigrants, refugees, Syrian, Libyan, Moslem, black or any of the other categories into which our species is labelled and pigeonholed. We can only hope this solidarity grows into a revolutionary class consciousness – when these same workers demand the eradication of borders and frontiers and every other artificial boundary that divides us, realising that same solidarity can help us fashion a world in our own interests if taken a step further.
John Bissett


Woody Guthrie. Resonant Voice for the Downtrodden: Woolly-Eyed Lefty (2006)

From the July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
Curious things were afoot in Greenwich Village, New York City around the year 1960. Droves of earnest denim-clad youths could be observed traversing the streets, all affecting the same hunched posture and shuffling gait. From every clenched jaw a king-size sprouted and (curiouser and curiouser) each throat emitted the same sporadic dry cough. One such poseur, a Minnesotan balladeer, Robert Zimmerman, would presently win universal acclaim as Bob Dylan.
Curiously too, the template for all those cardboard cut-outs also happened to be in the vicinity. Just across the Hudson River, those five years past, he had languished in New Jersey’s Greystone State Institute. His name was Woody Guthrie.
As writer, broadcaster, political activist and composer of some one thousand songs, Guthrie had been famous long before the birth of any of his young impersonators although this had since faded and, anyway, was always heavily laced with both controversy and notoriety. Why then was an ailing, ageing figure suddenly the focus of such adulation that the very hackings of his tobacco-addled bronchial tubings were deemed worthy of reproduction?
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 into a tragedy-prone family in Omaha, Oklahoma, being named in honour of the Democratic contender and President-to-be. Guthrie senior was an opportunistic businessman and Ku Klux Klan member whose racist views his son ingested and held well into adulthood. Mother, an unstable woman, was destined to die in the “insane asylum” from the hereditary condition then known as Huntington’s Chorea. In her more lucid moments however, she bequeathed Woody her rich musical heritage. She sang to him ballads of farmers, of sailors, of the humble triumphs and sorrows of ordinary people; an art-form that decades later, would find itself neatly sanitised, packaged, and marketed as “folk” music. At conception, unknowingly, she had also bequeathed him the Huntington’s genes.
Inevitably, this upbringing left its mark and young Guthrie developed into a decidedly maverick adult; as erratic in his business affairs as he was neglectful of his several wives, his numerous children, his personal presentation and hygiene. He developed also an enduring, and endearing, aversion to money, observing that “getting it turned people into animals and losing it drove them crazy”. Money to him was only ever a means of satisfying immediate requirements; any surplus being promptly squandered. At the height of his fame he would spurn lucrative contracts with the same panache that had seen his younger self regularly bestow entire evenings’ busking tips upon any convenient vagrant whose needs he perceived to exceed his own.
The final disintegration of the family unit saw a teenage Guthrie embark on an itinerant life, hitching rides and hopping freight trains across America, using his musical skills to access life’s basic necessities. He dossed in railway boxcars, under bridges, in hobo encampments, all the while adding to his repertoire. This would later constitute much of the romantic “Hard Travellin’” Guthrie legend but in reality it was a precarious existence, with regular harassment from the authorities; the next meal or bed a constant preoccupation.
There were an estimated 200,000 drifters and migratory workers during the 1920s, a figure which increased drastically in the 1930s as first the effects of the Great Depression then the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, bit deeper. This latter calamity, so graphically portrayed in Steinbeck’s magnificent novel, The Grapes of Wrath, saw entire communities forced off the barren land and on to the highways.  Guthrie was both moved by their plight and angered by the hostility shown towards them; the taunt “Okie” so widely used that it swiftly became the generic term for all “poor-white” destitutes.
Round the hobo campfires, Guthrie encountered grizzled, broken men; erstwhile members of the Industrial Workers of the World, muttering about there being a class struggle within society between the “rich” capitalists and the “poor” workers. In the finest of  leftist traditions, the IWW had been a chaotic outfit with little idea of what actually constituted socialism, nor indeed how it might be established; violent strike action and sabotage being foremost amongst its strategies. Its nickname, “Wobblies” was indeed apt.
The propaganda potential of both music and humour was however, recognised and its Little Red Songbook, largely parodies of Salvationist hymns, contained such gems as “The Pious Itinerant (Hallelujah I’m a Bum)” and “In the Sweet By-and-By” with its irreverent promise of “pie in the sky when you die”.
If nothing else, the IWW provided Guthrie with a simplistic political consciousness beyond which he never materially developed. More significantly, it lent a focus to his growing anger and taking his cue from the songbook, began creating his own material. In an anthology, “Dust Bowl Ballads”, he berated the “Vigilante Man” who would “shoot his brothers and sisters down”, lampooned the bungling incompetence of “these here politicians” in “Dust Bowl Blues” and mocked the preacher who, having first pocketed the collection, abandoned his flock with a “So Long it’s Been Good to Know Ya”.
Settling down briefly around 1937, Guthrie worked with the radical Los Angeles radio station KFVD. Here his racism underwent transformation; a Negro listener labelling him “unintelligent” for performing his “Nigger Blues” over the airwaves. Guthrie had used the term casually since childhood and was mortified. He apologised unreservedly, expunging the disgusting word forthwith from his vocabulary - although the “Japs” and “Wops” did continue to catch it in the neck for some time to come.
Back on his travels, it seemed to his open, if blinkered eyes that those striving hardest to assist the Okie refugees were “communists”. The American Communist Party had been founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution by an enclave of native radicals, Wobblies and immigrant Europeans, all mistakenly identifying it as somehow connected with the establishment of socialism - the reality being that it was simply one more chapter in the global triumph of capitalism over feudalism, taking in this instance, the form of state capitalism.
Routinely persecuted by a nervous government, it endured as a zealous, paranoid sect, but as the “Roaring Twenties” gave way to the “Hungry Thirties” following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, it effected some popular headway by depicting the apparent success of Stalin’s “planned” Soviet economy, with unemployment (officially at least) non-existent.
Then, following the Nazi triumph in Germany and the growth of Fascism elsewhere, the 1935 World Congress of the Communist International urged member parties to forgo their “ideological purity” and unite with other leftists in a Popular Front against this menace. Accordingly, the Party began to “Americanize”, becoming active, indeed dominant, in the labour union movement and supporting the 1936 election of “progressive” Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This then was the organisation that Guthrie embraced. Whilst never adopting actual membership, he sang at party rallies and contributed a rather folksy column, “Woody Sez”, to its journal, Peoples’ World. “I ain’t a communist necessarily,” he quipped, “but I’ve been in the red all my life.”
The Hitler/Stalin non-aggression treaty of August 1939 which caused such heartache for the Party faithful (and headache for its leadership), troubled Guthrie not the slightest. With the Popular Front now summarily dispatched, he blithely swallowed the spluttered explanation that Russia was simply pro-peace; not pro-Fascist. It was Roosevelt, instantly transmogrified from hero to villain, who was trying to drag America into conflict on behalf of British imperialism. “Pact sets peace example”, proclaimed the Peoples’ World. 
And when the “peace-loving” Red Army invaded Eastern Poland shortly afterwards, why, they were merely liberating the place. “Stalin,” sang Guthrie, “stepped in and gave the land back to the farmers.”
The German attack on Russia in June 1941 meant about-turn yet again and with America’s entry into the war six months later following Pearl Harbour, the Party became in a trice the most fervently patriotic of institutions; union organisation and strike action now subordinated to the overriding imperative for military success. “Sure,” reasoned our Woody, “the Communists change policy, but so do the Democrats and Republicans.”
Victory secured, the western alliance quickly foundered. Stalin denounced his former bedfellows as worse than Hitler, Churchill responded with his “Iron Curtain” speech and the Cold War was underway.
In an era of low unemployment and rising wages, the American left found itself in decline. Labour unions were now established in society, requiring pension fund managers rather than militants and among the newly-consumerist working class, a fear prevailed that its relative prosperity might be in jeopardy from leftism. Guthrie too was in decline, succumbing by degrees to the lingering horrors of Huntington’s Disease, dying eventually in 1967.
By the late 1950s, further societal change was underway. Following Eisenhower’s 1954 election, the “Great Red Scare” was evaporating and in the emerging teenage generation, an intellectual curiosity and idealism could be discerned, transcending the parochialism and acquisitiveness of its War-era parents. Political activism, particularly in the Civil Rights Movement reawakened and nonconformity of sorts, became acceptable.
Guthrie had somehow filtered into the “radical psyche” as a free-wandering spirit representing all things open, honest and unmaterialistic. His songs began to be listened to.
Tin Pan Alley too, had its role to play and profits to consolidate. Rock ’ n’ Roll had arrived some years earlier and had proved anathema to “White Middle America”, a subversive presence inciting youthful rebelliousness and promiscuity; the term itself Negro slang for sexual intercourse. For the first time, black musicians, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and others were accessing mass white audiences. Could the unthinkable happen and integration ensue?
Clean-cut Caucasians - the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary etc, - churning out “folk” songs seemed a much safer option and from record stores everywhere wafted bowdlerised versions of “Oklahoma Hills” and “This Land is Your Land” - to the joyful ringing accompaniment of the cash register.
Woody Guthrie was never a socialist in any scientific sense of the word. He was however, manifestly “socialistic” in his whole outlook on life. “This land,” he sang “was made for you and me” and the fruits of his “Pastures of Plenty”, rightfully everyone’s.
He once wrote, “The worst thing that can happen is to cut loose from people and the best thing is to vaccinate yourself right into their blood….We have to get together and work and fight for everybody.” Hardly apocalyptic, but nonetheless sentiments with which socialists will heartily agree.
Andrew Armitrage

Obituary: John Higgins (1980)

Obituary from the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

With the death of Johnny Higgins on the 4 December 1979 there passed into history an important contributor to the socialist movement in Scotland. Johnny founded the Glasgow Branch in 1924 and for many years was an indefatigable lecturer, debater and tutor on Marxism. That apart, he worked hard for the formation of branches and groups in Edinburgh, Hamilton and Bo'ness, and in his job as a commercial traveller—he continued working into his late 70s—made contacts for the party from Dumfries to Wick. He was 81 when he died.

In the summer of 1929, when I had just reached 18 years of age, full of juvenile naivete with a smattering of Tressell, Jack London, Wells, Shaw and Russell, I went to Jail Square in Glasgow Green to listen to all the so-called intellectuals. There was a man with a bowler hat and umbrella who was knocking hell out of all and sundry. His language, logic and erudition entranced and overwhelmed me. That was my first encounter with Johnny Higgins. I bought my first Socialist Standard a week later and, thinking that all members had to be of the calibre of Johnny, delayed my joining the party for six years. In all my early years in the party he was my tutor, guide and exemplar.

Johnny was absolutely fearless. In late 1935 Moses Baritz, in his usual overpowering manner, addressed Collet's Club (exclusively members and sympathisers of the Communist Party) on Opera and the Materialist Conception of History. A month later John Strachey was speaking at the same venue, peddling the nonsense of a "socialist" Russia. Johnny challenged him to debate, to the manifest fury of the audience. Johnny his back on the platform and informed the hecklers that he was addressing the organ grinder, not his monkeys! 

Johnny, like me and many other members was born in one of the worst quarters of Glasgow, Plantation, and he and I went to the same Catholic school, full of statues and vermin. For 25 years until my illness and his age prevented it, he traversed from North Glasgow to the south side to see me.

He was cremated in Maryhill. The Internationale and The Red Flag were played by an obliging organist and I gave a valedictory address on behalf of the party. His departure has left a gap in all our lives. Our condolences to his daughter, Mamie, and his son, Jack, who is overseas. For my part I can hardly envisage my few remaining years without him.
T A Mulheron


Waste, War & Want (1994)

Book Review from the October 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Preconditions of Socialism by Eduard Bernstein (Cambridge University Press.)

This is the first complete edition in English of Bernstein's Preconditions of Socialism, part of which has long been in print under the title Evolutionary Socialism. Written in 1899 one of the leading figures of German social democracy during the period of the Second International, this work is an elaboration of Bernstein's criticism of the precepts of orthodox Marxism as interpreted by Kautsky, Bebel, Luxemburg and others.

Though much of it is ponderously written, Bernstein managed well enough to demonstrate some of the deficiencies of orthodox Second International "Marxism". Over-mechanistic interpretations of the materialist conception of history and Marx's economic writings led many leading social democrats of this period into making serious errors of judgement, such as in adopting the view that capitalism would collapse. In this work, Bernstein refutes such misconceptions with alacrity.

However, Bernstein's text is now remembered principally as a justification of reformism and the use of co-operatives. Indeed, Bernstein sneered at real socialists and their objective, declaring "I frankly admit that I have extraordinary little feeling for, or interest in, what is usually termed 'the final goal of socialism'. This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything." Bernstein argued that the German Social Democratic Party should abandon its formal commitment to socialist revolution and instead build up a movement able to form a government and enact reforms. Both these things, of course, eventually happened.

Underpinning Bernstein's reformism - partly influenced by the British Fabians - was his belief that Marx had been wrong about capitalism's inability to resolve its inner contradictions. Bernstein claimed, mainly on the evidence of income tax returns during a few years of boom at the end of the nineteenth century, that the long-term concentration and centralisation of capital had been reversed. He also argued that the development of the credit system means that periodic economic stagnation was avoidable. As later events were to demonstrate, Bernstein was wrong on both counts.

Nearly a hundred years after Bernstein first made his claims we have a world where the rich continue to get richer, where the gaps between the richest and the poorest are wider than ever, and where social disintegration eats at the fabric of the capitalist system. Far from being the land of reformed capitalist opportunity that Bernstein imagined, we are now in the era of truly world crises and devastating world wars. The reformist followers of Bernstein have come and gone, and despite their efforts capitalism is more than ever a system of waste, war and want.
Dave Perrin