The Between the Lines column from the July 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
IS RUSSIA SOCIALIST?
Take a Russian journalist, a British one. a couple of Russian dissidents (one of whom spent fifteen years in a psychiatric hospital for wanting to be free of the state dictatorship), a Labour MP (who used to be a Stalinist) and a Stalinist who still is a Stalinist, and put them in a studio for three hours. Let them talk. Now, whoever put the vodka there to make the setting complete was not amongst the most far-thinking persons to be found working for Channel Four. After two and a half hours of After Dark (midnight. 3 June. C4) Denis Healey and Vladimir Bukovsky were like two empty bottles of undiluted alcohol waiting to get completely smashed.
Intoxication aside (and who is to say that it did not benefit the forthrightness of the discussion?). this was a TV debate which should have taken place fifty years ago and saved everybody a lot of wasted time since. The Russian state-capitalist dictatorship was put on trial and found guilty. Its crime is that an arrogant, centralised bureaucratic elite has dominated a population of unfree and exploited wage slaves, and done so in the fraudulent name of socialism. While Stalinists have had the audacity to sit in the West talking about the liberated citizens of Eastern Europe, "the liberated citizens" have been living as wage slaves, too frightened to complain or combine in case they are arrested for crimes against the state. Will glasnost change anything? To expect tyrants to democratise themselves is a fantasy. Despite the great optimism exhibited by the British contributors towards Gorbachev's reforms, the Russian guests were less impressed. Political dictatorships don't die, less still do they commit suicide: they must be destroyed. The fate of the brave young workers of China was showing that as the programme was being broadcast.
After three hours of fascinating and often penetrating live talk about the nature of life under the Russian Empire and the possibilities of change, not one contributor adequately addressed the question of whether all of this misery was actually socialism. Healey, the ex-Stalinist. said that it wasn't and Doyle, the current Stalinist, said that it was. but neither explained why. If only there had been a socialist present to expose the state capitalist nature of the Russian regime and to point out how Leninist statism inevitably creates such dictatorships over the working class. Instead, we had to be content with the satisfying sight of seeing Bukovsky telling Healey to shut his mouth. Pour that man another vodka—with my compliments.
LAUGHING AT PEOPLE
Ruby Wax did a documentary about Russia a few months ago. It was around the same time that she did the programme about the ridiculously empty people to be found lounging their lives away on the beaches of Miami In fact, most of what Ruby Wax has ever had to say has been about the stupidity of rather pathetic characters who are trotted before the camera to make us laugh.
Her new series, Wax On Wheels (10.30 pm. C4). is of this sort: Ruby tours round Britain looking for weirdo workers to tell their life stories in three and a quarter minutes while Wax makes faces at them. She has talked to a football hooligan and a whore and a man who lives in a hovel in Scotland so that he can find spiritual meaning—or something. The show works on the basis of the assumption that everyone wants to be on the telly, even if it's only to be set up for public ridicule. It is a horrible reflection of the alienated lives which so many workers lead that the assumption is probably true: to be seen clapping in the audience of Wogan is probably the ambition of more than a few workers—to be allowed to speak is a luxury to be bought at any human cost. So. rather tasteless TV producers have no shortage of willing victims to choose from when they are going for easy laughs.
In fairness, Ruby Wax is a witty executioner of personalities. But the fashion for this kind of insult-TV is growing, and in general the insulters are neither witty nor decent. On ITV there is a show in which workers are invited on to reveal their secret desires. One man wanted to drive a Rolls Royce. His dream came true, with a chauffeur's hat to wear, just in case he ran away with himself. A woman came on who wanted to have a bath in champagne with a rugby team. After her there came a woman whose secret desire was to be chained to a railway track. I switched off at that point.
No doubt there are long waiting lists of human targets pleading for the chance to be allowed on the box to be ridiculed. The ones who don't make it on to this show might stand a chance on Cilia Black's Blind Date where the proles are invited to line up to be abused by a TV-engineered "partner'' of the opposite sex. At 1 a.m. on Saturday mornings ITV has reached the nadir of humiliation-TV with an uncouth lout called James Whale whose principal talent seems to be the kind of abuse which would make the average fifth former seem like Oscar Wilde by comparison. Three weeks ago he had on a man from the Lord's Day Observance Society. As one watched the man undergoing his three minute ridicule session (three minutes is about the full life span of the average TV abuse slot) it became clear that, however outdated and absurd the ideas of this man are—and they are—, that is no excuse to insult him in public for having the honesty to stand up for them.
The notion that TV has a right to make fools out of people with something serious to say. or to expose as fools those people who have little or no control over their lives, is yet another part of the capitalist culture which regards workers are affable and exploitable dummies, to be milked for money and then mocked for fun. A few hundred years ago they had public hangings where you could laugh at the misfortunes of the luckless wage slave. But with Japanese game shows and Jeremy Beadle, who needs to go out of the house for a good old laugh?