Monday, October 26, 2015

From market town . . . (1984)

The Place Where I Live Series from the March 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

As you approach Basingstoke from the direction of London, whether by train or motorway, the first thing to loom up through the trees is a giant office block. This is the AA building. Then, as you get nearer, other office blocks appear, together with factories, storage depots and extensive new housing estates, all aggressively modern and encircled by a complicated  system of roads that has given rise to the jibe of "roadites". The immediate impression is of a modern town, but Basingstoke is in fact ancient. Old Basing, now a picturesque village on the outskirts of the town, is of Saxon origin. An important battle was fought here in the ninth century when the Danes defeated a Saxon army and opened the way for a Danish invasion of Wessex. Basingstoke, originally called New Basing, was laid out somewhat later as a market town and communications centre, to take advantage of the growing economic importance of the area. It became known as Basingstoke in the eleventh century, and was dominated by Basing House. As so often happens, the child was to outgrow the parent, and Basingstoke was to develop into an important market town while Old Basing remained a village. Much of the old town still exists, and once can trace remnants of a medieval grid-iron plan with alleys that were once streets.

In the 1960s Basingstoke became a London overspill town and in just over a decade the town more than doubled in size, houses and factories covering what were green fields and woods as late as 1970. The whole place has been transformed; a huge modern shopping precinct was built, and what was the old traffic-choked High Street is now closed to all vehicles, with tubs of flowers dotted about while through traffic is diverted. Many thousands of Londoners have come into the area since the beginning of the scheme, thus reversing a trend that has existed for centuries in which people from the country flocked into London. Now they are moving out. So Basingstoke has grown, but to somebody who grew up in West London between the wars when thousands of acres were covered by urban sprawl and a whole county — Middlesex — disappeared under bricks and mortar, it still seems pretty small. You can still stand in the centre of the town and see the open country which surrounds it, or stand on the hills outside and look right across to the hills on the other side.

The town lies in a valley between chalk hills, a continuation of the North Downs, including the famous Watership Down. The area is officially designated as an "area of outstanding natural beauty", a hiker's paradise crisscrossed by ancient green lanes and footpaths. The beauty of the area has long since been recognised by the wealthy who can afford to choose where they will live, and who used the chalk streams and extensive woodlands for their expensive sports of shooting fishing. The famous trout stream, the River Test, rises within the boundaries of Basingstoke. These activities have been an important factor in controlling the effects of modern agriculture. The sale of fishing and shooting rights are highly lucrative; vast sums of money are involved. Fly fishing requires plenty of insects; these, in turn, require trees and undergrowth near the river. This acts as a check on excessive reclamation schemes by river boards. After all, if you are paying large sums of money to fish, you do not want to do so on a glorified drain. Likewise, game birds require woods, spinneys and hedges in which to to breed, so the grubbing up of woods and hedges is slowed down. Unfortunately natural beauty and wild life do not carry a price tag. This makes their preservation difficult, but a threat to profits is another matter and carries a lot more weight.

The change from market to London overspill has merely accelerated a process which has been taking place in market towns all over the country. When the heavy axes and  ploughs of the saxons began to cut land, a pattern began to emerge. That pattern, of a largely self-supporting rural economy with farms and hamlets centred around a market town was to remain largely unchanged into this century. From time to time other patterns have been superimposed on it — the monasteries backed by the wealth of the Church; manufacturing such as iron and cloth production; huge country houses in their extensive parks, financed by industry, commerce or the profits of the slave trade. However the underlying pattern remained unchanged. Each area had its mills and tanneries, forges and breweries and its skilled craftsmen — the wheelwrights, carpenters and masons. While the country produced food and timber, flax and leather for the towns, it supplied much of its own produce. The towns that formed the heart of these areas became not only market towns but centres of administration, communication and supply. Basingstoke was such a town. The Basingstoke canal was cut through to take local produce to London and Basingstoke later became an important rail junction. This pattern began to alter with the Industrial Revolution, which brought in mass produced goods while the railways brought in newspapers and coal as well as holidaymakers. The growth of population and the growing army of industrial workers first boosted the production of food and accelerated the enclosures, but later the opening of the vast wheatfields of North America and the cattle production of the Argentine undermined British agriculture and produced a slump. But the pattern was still recognisable until the 1939-45 war.

The last forty years have seen the end of that pattern. The isolation of the country is at an end. Modern agriculture is highly mechanised and its labour force is small, while better paid townspeople fill the cottages. Village shops stock the same packaged foods, cartons of milk and imported fruit — in many cases even mass produced sliced bread — that are stocked in the town supermarkets. The car has made transport easy, but the major changes have been brought about by electricity. The ugly pylons which stride across the country like a gigantic clothes line have brought electricity to the most isolated parts of the country. One can go into the most remote farmhouse and find television sets, hi-fi equipment, videos and washing machines. This has completely changed the character if towns like Basingstoke. Before the coming of electricity and piped water the needs of the country were different to those of the town. Oil lamps, stoves and cookers fired by solid fuel and battery powered radios were all stocked by shops in Basingstoke alongside agricultural tools. Today the shop windows look the same as anywhere else and carry the same names over the doors. Its Haymarket is now a theatre and its old town hall has been turned into offices.

Basingstoke is now the centre of a new giant authority called the Borough of Basingstoke and Deane. The top-heavy structure incorporates a large area of countryside with villages and small towns. Not that it is in any danger of going the way of the Greater London Council or South Yorkshire, because it has a large built-in Tory majority, so much so that one suspects they could put up Tony Benn and he would get elected. This does not apply to Basingstoke itself, where political feelings are pretty evenly divided among the main capitalist Parties.

The growth of Basingstoke over the centuries has been pretty low key, but it entered the history books during the civil war with the siege of Basing House. This was the largest private house in England and was converted into a fortress. It held out for the Royalists for years. Astride a main road from London to the West, it was a thorn in the side of Parliament until stormed and destroyed in 1645. Today a tourist attraction, its ruins covered with wild flowers in the spring, fitted with a museum and teashop, it is difficult to realise the savagery that took place there. Today the town is pretty peaceful, only the occasional Saturday night punch-up to disturb the peace, but in 1830 the south was gripped by a wave of unrest known as the Swing riots. Gangs of agricultural workers roamed the countryside smashing machinery and setting ricks afire. This alarmed the government into savage reprisals. Later, in 1880, the arrival of the newly formed Salvation Army alarmed the brewers who feared the pubs would be closed down, and therefore stirred up feelings against them. Riots broke out in which not only the Salvation Army but non-conformists in general were attacked and shops damaged. Rowdies from outside the town swelled the numbers of rioters to over 2,000 and swamped the small police force. Mounted troops were called out to clear the streets. After a couple of years the agitation died down when it became obvious that the pubs were not going to close down. The rioters justified their actions as defending liberty and personal freedom.

While many parts of the country are in decline because the industries on which they were based have become obsolete, the opposite has happened in the Southern counties. Economically important for centuries Wessex, to give it its ancient name, was largely missed by the Industrial Revolution and went into decline, its old industries superceded by the new mass production. But in the last 40 years new modern industries have flooded into the area. It is on the edge of the so-called Silicon valley which runs from Reading to Swindon, and contains many vast government establishments; well-known places like Burghfield, Aldermaston and Greenham Common are near Basingstoke. For years Basingstoke had one of the highest employment rates in the country and although, like everywhere else, it had been hit by the recession, the employment rate is still comparatively high.

Along with the new industries and large concerns moving their offices out of London has come the growth of tourism. New exploration for oil is taking place in three places near Basingstoke. One can only hope that the "uglification" will be confined to the comparatively inoffensive "nodding donkeys".

So the wastefulness of capitalism goes on. Factories stand idle and derelict in one area while in another fertile land goes down under concrete. Fifty years ago it was the market gardens of Middlesex or the farmlands of Kent, today it is Hampshire and the Thames Valley; tomorrow it can be anywhere else. As for the people, if you are in a declining area, that it just too bad — your misfortune in fact. This will continue; that is one thing at least of which you may be sure, until those same people begin to understand what is going on and take steps to change it.
Les Dale

A BETTER RED, BUT DEAD (1975)

Book Review from the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nikolai Bukharin, by Prof. Stephen Cohen. (Wildwood House, £4.50.)

Yet another American biography has appeared of Bukharin, meticulously documented and annotated in the way in which the American universities have made their own. But having waded through 400 pages of the most minute recapitulation of Bukharin's speeches and articles over twenty years, one is forced to ask: Was it worth it?

What we have here is the painful record of one leading Bolshevik's repeated somersaults and turnabouts in striving to adjust to the cold hard facts of life: from the famous ABC of Communism, the Russian CP's in the early years, to the call to the Russian peasants to "enrich themselves" in 1932*.

Already, in 1920, Bukharin was at odds with Lenin over the definition of State capitalism, and especially Lenin's frequently expressed view that a proletarian state could run State capitalism. "State capitalism under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat — this is an absurdity — soft-boiled boots. State capitalism without capitalism is exactly the same sort of nonsense. 'Non-capitalist capitalism' — this is the height of confusion", he wrote in the 'twenties (page 7). History has shown that Bukharin was right and Lenin wrong.

One may also agree with the statement in The Economics of the Transition Period, showing that Marx's economic laws relate purely to capitalist society:
As soon as we take an organised social economy, all the basic "problems" of political economy disappear: problems of value, price, profit and the like.
Here "relations between people" are not expressed as "relations between things", and social economy is regulated not by the blind forces of the market, buy consciously—by a plan.
There can be no place for a science studying "the blind laws of the market" since there will be no market. The end of capitalist commodity society will be the end of political economy. (page 93)
It was above all by his writings that Bukharin established himself as the leading Bolshevik theoretician. In his Economic Theory of the Leisure Class and Historical Materialism he had endeavoured to answer the criticisms of Durkheim, Pareto, Croce, Weber and other anti-Marxists.

From 1934 on, after the death of Lenin and Zinovieff's defeat at the hands of Stalin, the luckless was lumbered with the direction of Comintern; with all its growing insurmountable difficulties. Not merely was he committed to its "general crisis of capitalism" rubbish but, above all, the Leninist "theory" of the subjected nations under imperialism. Both he and Lenin produced works on this subject. Lenin's was largely cribbed from J. A. Hobson, whereas Bukharin (due to his stay in Vienna) was influenced more by Hilferding.

By this fairy-story about "the colonial nations", the Comintern was induced to instigate uprisings and revolts in almost every quarter of the globe. In our time we have seen the "liberators" Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Amin swindle their "liberating" governments of millions. The "exploited" Arab oil-sheiks invest millions in property, ICI, Krupps and Mercedes. The process has reversed, and Lenin's thesis of the domination of colonies by Bankers' Finance Capitalism is about as valid as his nonsense about the State, the workers running State capitalism, and minority dictatorships.

Bukharin now found himself forced into alliance with Stalin, first against Trotsky and then against Zinovieff. From that day on he, like every member of the Politbureau — Kamenev, Zinovieff, Trotsky, Tomsky, Rykov — was doomed, earmarked for destruction by the megalomaniac Stalin who, as Bukharin said:
By political terrorism and by acts of torture on a scale hitherto unheard of, you have forced old party members to make 'depositions' . . . You have a crowd of paid informers at your disposal.
On 2nd March 1938 the final trial of Bukharin, with 19 others, began. They were accused of everything except the spots on the sun. As Bukharin himself wrote. "accusing him of being an enemy of the revolution and a capitalist agent was like discovering that the last Czar devoted his whole life to struggle against Capitalist and Monarchy; to the struggle for a proletarian revolution" (page 371).

And so Nikolai Bukharin, whom this writer remembers well as easily the most genial and lovable of the Russian Bolsheviks; Bukharin with his puckish good humour and unfailing quizzical wit, the least like a "steel-hardened" Bolshevik of them all — was dragged forcibly from the dock, howling imprecations on Stalin's festering head, and died standing up.

In his last letter "To a future generation of party leaders" he wrote:
Know, comrades, that the banner which you will be carrying in the victorious march to Communism is also a drop of my blood.
Such has been the fate of those who have taken part in the minority upheavals of the twentieth century.
Horatio.


* Bloggers Note: Bukharin's "call to the Russian peasants to "enrich themselves"" actually dates from 1925, rather than the above mentioned 1932 in the review.

Radical London (2006)

Book Review from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Reds on the Green: A Short Tour of Clerkenwell Radicalism. by "Fagin" Past Tense Publications, £2.00.

It was water that named Clerkenwell; a village with several wells, one of which, the Clerk’s Well, that gave its name to the area. The River Fleet ran through, from its sources on Hampstead Heath to where it enters the River Thames near Blackfriars Bridge.

First mentioned in this brief account of Clerkenwell, is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where Wat Tyler and the rebel peasants ransacked the Savoy Palace in the Strand, home of John of Gaunt, then the Fleet Prison, crossed into Clerkenwell and set fire to the Priory of the Order of Saint John. In 1665 refugees from the Plague, and in 1666, from the Great Fire of London, moved northwards from the City to Clerkenwell. By the late 17th century, there had been an influx of craftsmen into the area, including many watchmakers and locksmiths. Clerkenwell soon became a slum in which thousands of poverty-stricken workers scraped an existence. Parts of the area were notorious for beggars, casual labourers and prostitutes. In the 1800s, the police rarely went into the part of Clerkenwell known as the Rookeries.

Clerkenwell Green became famous, or maybe infamous, for meetings and demonstrations. In 1838, when the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned from their transportation to Australia after being pardoned, some of them were welcomed by a large demonstration on the Green. Indeed, it was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London, and was the central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force. In November 1867, there were two demonstrations to protest against the death sentence on three Irish Fenians in Manchester, who were later hanged at Strangeways Prison. In 1882, a large cache of Fenian arms were discovered at St John Street, nearby.

The pamphlet Reds on the Green notes that in 1871, there were meetings supporting the Paris Commune, and for the Commune’s duration, a red flag hung from the lamp-post on the Green. In 1884, the Social Democratic Federation held meetings there. By the end of the Victorian era, it was a major centre for regular soap-box speakers, as well as a venue for open-air radical meetings and demonstrations.

The author gives a brief account of a number of radical mavericks, such as Dan Chatterton and the anarchist-communist Guy Aldred, who were born and grew up in Clerkenwell. Mention is made of The House (no. 37 Clerkenwell Green), built in 1738, where William Morris and Eleanor Marx addressed crowds from the balconies of the building, and which, since 1933, has housed the Marx Memorial Library. Mention is also made of. a certain V Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya, who used the offices of SDF’s Twentieth Century Press to edit the paper Iskra in 1902. (It is noted that Lenin established a state-capitalist dictatorship.)

The pamphlet concludes with an Appendix of recommended pubs to visit in Clerkenwell. It is well illustrated and is obtainable from: Past Tense Publications, c/o 56A Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17.
Peter E. Newell

Gissa job (1988)

A Short Story from the October 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

I went for a job interview recently. beforehand I experienced the trepidation that usually accompanies a visit to the dentist. Suitably softened up I was ushered into the Managing Director's office. My razor sharp brain assessed the situation. All my carefully planned stratagems were of no use, designed as they were to suit a one to one confrontation. I was faced not by the interviewer I had been expecting, but with an inquisitorial panel of four.

For a nano-second I imaged the scene as a nineteenth century woodcut. The present: Capital confronts Labour. The worker stands with his head bowed, his hand extended in supplication. Behind him his hungry family huddle together for comfort. Looming before him are four wolves all dressed in frock coats, their fangs bared. The image changes. The future: Socialism confronts Capital. The four capitalists are cowering in a corner surrounded by a multitude of stern workers who have just effected the transformation from production for profit to production for need.

A questioning voice jerks me back to reality. The persons interrogating me are the owning directors of this private medium sized engineering company. Isn't it odd that those who describe themselves as manufacturers are the ones who don't actually make things with their own hands? Family companies like to project an image of caring paternalism. This type of firm works hard at earning itself a reputation for job security rather than high pay.

"We may not pay the highest wages in the area," they say, "but when you work for us you're a name, not just a number." But woe betide you if even a paperclip goes missing from your desk.

The questions emanating from the quartet are designed to ascertain my suitability to contribute to, and increase, the company profits. These buggers may know nothing of Marx's Labour Theory of Value, but they know what they want. With a working life in front of them they question every action and decision of the past twenty years. If the end result is a feeling of humiliation, rejection and failure as a human being because some other wage-slave was preferred, it's because that's the way the system designed us to feel. Capitalism isn't some abstraction that is best left to the politicians and the bosses to run. Those who own the means of production and distribution have power over your life.

What is unusual, as Sherlock Holmes might have remarked, is that the vast majority of the working class, those forced to sell their labour power in order to live, see nothing unusual in the labour/capitalist relationship. However these self-same workers would agree with Marx that,
The exercise of labour power, labour, is the worker's own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person on order to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live.
He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity which he has made over to another  . . .  what he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws from the mine, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages, and silk, gold, palace; resolve themselves for him into a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. And the worker who labours for eight hours — does he consider this eight hour labour as a manifestation of his life, as life? On the contrary, life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the public house, in bed. (Wage Labour and Capital).
Apologists of capitalism might argue that the market system offers me as much freedom of choice as it does the employer. After all, selling your labour power is a two way contract, freely entered into between buyer, the employer, and seller, the worker. And if your abilities and skills are market orientated, then you will have no problem in finding a capitalist eager to purchase the commodity on offer — your working abilities.

Members of the working class who think that a company car and the opportunity to work themselves into an early grave constitute happiness are deluding themselves. No matter how attractive the wrapping, BUPA, Luncheon Vouchers and a gold watch after twenty-five years of producing surplus value; the result remains wage-slavery. As was clear when I went for that interview  . . . 
Dave Coggan


Dance of the Dialectic (2004)

Book Review from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dance of the Dialectic. By Bertell Ollman. University of Illinois Press, 2003

For Socrates it was teasing out the threads of an argument by asking questions. In Hegel's philosophy it was the development of the idea through history. With Marx and Engels, however, there is some dispute as to what their version of the dialectic means, or even if they were both talking about the same thing. This apparent confusion is compounded by Plekhanov's term “dialectical materialism”, a phrase not used by Marx or Engels, yet this was designated the official philosophy of state capitalist Russia in the years after the Bolshevik revolution.

Ollman is in no doubt that Marx and Engels were talking about different aspects of the same thing. For Ollman, their dialectic has two main features. Firstly, it is a philosophy of internal relations. Capitalism is a system constituted by its social relations of production, and a change to one relationship will have consequences for the whole system. This philosophical viewpoint tries to understand that process. Secondly, it is a method of abstraction. The key social relationships of capitalism (e.g. value, commodity, class) depend upon, but are not reducible to, material objects. They can only be comprehended as abstractions but they are nonetheless real and can affect our lives profoundly when they mean that profit-making takes priority over human needs. To some it may seem that this explanation is very different from how the dialectic is often understood. According to Ollman:
“Dialectics is not a rock-ribbed triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that serves as an all-purpose explanation; nor does it provide a formula that enables us to prove or predict anything; nor is it the motor force of history. The dialectic, as such, explains nothing, proves nothing, predicts nothing, and causes nothing to happen. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world”.
Ollman goes into considerable detail in what is likely to be the standard work on this subject for many years to come.
Lew Higgins