Saturday, December 19, 2015

History from below (1978)

Theatre Review from the December 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The World Turned Upside Down, National Theatre, London. (Available in Penguin Books.)

Christopher Hill's book The World Turned Upside Down tells of the other English Revolution—the one that did not succeed; that was not led by Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax; the revolution that wanted to turn the world upside down. This is not the revolution that most histories revolve around. It is probably far more interesting. As Hill puts it, some of the figures in this story "speak more directly to us than Charles I or Pym or General Monck, who appear as history makers in the text books". At the time of the Civil Wars (1640s) and in particular in the period immediately after the execution of Charles I, England was rife with subversive ideas. A melting pot of dissenters, levellers, diggers, ranters, and early Quakers; every level of English society, including the church and the army, was touched by the passion of revolution. 

The common link was religion. From Cromwell downwards, those who were interested in changing the world sought authority and respectability from the bible. Those who opposed revolution used the bible to justify repression. For some, revolution meant a new way of approaching God; for others, the ranters in particular, revolution meant the end of the doctrine of sin and the idea that God inhabited everyone and everything; in effect the dissolution of religion.

The most interesting character was the digger Gerard Winstanley, whose ideas were briefly outlined in the Socialist Standard in June this year. Winstanley wanted a community without money, buying and selling, wage working, without army and law. Although the disasters of the digger experiments (strife within and brutal repression from without) caused Winstanley to recant somewhat on aspects of his more extreme views, he stood for common ownership of the earth by locally self supporting communities. Nor were his views utopian. Winstanley had practical views on the organisation of production; which may not have resulted in the abundance that is now possible, but which might have led to the majority being immeasurably better fed, housed, and clothed.

Hill's book is history from below, the story of the common, though extraordinary, people of the time. Keith Dewhurst has made a valiant attempt to turn this huge canopy of religious and revolutionary fervour into a play. The stage is crammed with incident; the execution of Charles I, Winstanley's insolence, (he refuses to doff his hat to Fairfax, a mere "fellow creature"), his anti-property and law views, the disputes between capitalist and landlord, the confrontations between army and people, the extreme sexual liberation of the ranters, disputes between property based, and real concepts of freedom; and the ultimate failure and disillusion of all except Winstanley. All this and more is crammed into the two hours traffic of the stage.

Why does the play fail? Ultimately, what it does not bring out is Hill's main thesis — that this was a period of real potential for an alternative society. Looking back now, one can say that it was bound to fail. But, argues Hill, looking at it then it was different; for the people involved an alternate society seemed viable. Perhaps in attempting to present a grand sweep of mid-seventeenth century history, Dewhurst was too ambitious. He might have succeeded better had he concentrated more on one digger community, and allowed the turbulent and exciting background to emerge through it. However, the play is yet another reminder of the long history of communist ideas, and as such is another blow at the absurdity of private ownership.
Ronnie Warrington

Festival of Commerce (1991)

Editorial from the December 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the jamboree of commercialism known as Christmas approaches, we take the opportunity of expressing our attitude to it and wishing you a tolerable and enlightening New Year.

Christmas developed from an ancient pagan festival: both the date and superstitions like the mistletoe are of pre-Christian origin. It is supposed to celebrate the birth of "Jesus Christ", a possibly legendary figure claimed as the Messiah and as a demigod. He is the focal point of one the most powerful and widespread, oppressive and stultifying religious movements that have tortured humanity.

Religion cannot be reconciled with a rational view of the universe and society. Inverting Genesis, we say "humans made God in their own image". The rule of God in the universe reflects and serves to justify rule by human masters in society. Why else is he called "King"? Indeed. why else is he "he" rather than "she"? Like our real rulers, he is portrayed as powerful yet merciful, presiding sadly over the labyrinth of human misery. If God exists, he is our enemy.

Nowadays Christmas is primarily a secular festival. The rat-race is suspended for a few days to give the morale of the wage and salary slaves a midwinter boost. During the festivities, those that can afford it try to enjoy themselves. The limited extent to which they succeed is evidenced by their frantic efforts to drown out the consciousness of their alienation by loud music, over-eating and—above all—getting pissed.And then back to the grindstone.

Expensive and unwanted gifts are purchased and exchanged, to the great profit of all the business interests involved. This custom is scarcely a spontaneous expression of affection. On the whole it is more like a ritual duty. A significant point is the way people are embarrassed to receive a present and to have none to give in return. The exchange economy not only fragments society into a myriad of isolated competitors; it also produces the poisonous ethos of "you don't get or give something for nothing", which penetrates personal life.

It is customary at Christmas to speak of Peace on Earth and Good Will To All Men. But the tragedy of an outmoded and insane social organisation continues as usual. Think of its delights. Poverty and destruction in the midst of actual or potential plenty. Slums, famines, pollution, commercial destruction of wildlife, waste, more waste, social divisions and strife of all kinds. Built-in obsolescence, advertising, the domination of money. Uniforms, tanks, bombs, prisons, muggings, alcoholism, prayers, prostitution, national anthems, bigotry, fear, ignorance, loneliness, AIDS, Neil Major and John Kinnock. Feeling better now?

Humanity has the means—technical, material, organisational—to build a new world of freedom, harmony and enough for all. A world in which the enormous potential of modern knowledge and technology, released from the service of commerce and war, can be realised. A world in which the human species owns its means of life in common, and controls them democratically in the interests of all. A world in which the direct satisfaction of human needs of all kinds had replaced profit and the "national interest" as the moving force of social life. A world which will know nothing of money or coercive government or national frontiers. A world fit to live in.

We think humanity is fully capable of constructing such a socialist society once it has the understanding necessary. We must establish the new society soon of the species is to survive. Helping people grasp this is the purpose of the Socialist Party. Don't just wish us luck if you sympathise (we don't believe in luck, either). Contact us for more information; and you might feel inclined to join and help us in the new year.