Thursday, September 15, 2016

Letters to the Editors: Socialist theatre criticism (1997)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

Michael Gill is too kind by half to David Hare's latest commodity, Amy's View (August Socialist Standard). Far from moving any audience to the contemplation of important question as he claims, this piece of West End sentimentality, like much or most of the commercial literature we are subjected to. is very careful to keep any real questions out of the way—to restrict the kind of questions that might be asked. The question Michael Gill finds so powerful— why does the current generation of pop culture producers go for so much violence—is nowhere exposed to anything like a candid answer—for example, that violence is eminently marketable and that commercial culture is driven by the market. The play nowhere suggest that the penchant for violence is anything but a puzzling personal oddity. Like all his kind, Hare wants to place social conflicts purely in the realm of personal relations or the conflict of personal types. This is bourgeois culture's prime strategy for keeping publication discussion within safe limits.

Michael Gill’s approach here seems to be to give a bit of summary of the story, then a little bit of evaluation, followed by some musing on the socialist ideas the work seems to bring to mind for him. What’s needed in the case of the Hare play is some attention to how the work defines the arena of discourse, what it is designed to imply about social reality. I am not calling for either propaganda art or propaganda criticism: but we need commentary, and art. that gets behind or beneath the evasive "fundamental" propositions of facile commercial art like Hare’s, criticism that can break open the misleading framework too often accepted by the bourgeois artist, and allow audiences to propose, or to witness, genuinely meaningful questions—and answers that are not misleading. Work like Ronald Berry's, or, better. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy are [works] superior to and more honest than market items like Amy’s View. I am asserting that a work of art can lie by the intellectual framework it situates itself in, and I am claiming that the socialist critic's job should include at least a glance at the conception of reality any given work seems to posit, and by example, promote. The artist need not be bound by socialist ideals, but neither should he or she be allowed to get away with bamboozling audiences with shallow “moral" dilemmas that are not even dilemmas.
Tom Jackson, 
Merion Station, 

The end of the State

Dear Editors,

Thank you for your reply (Socialist Standard, September) to my letter about the SPGB’s 1984 Conference resolution on the abolition of the State.

Since writing it. I’ve come across the following passage from the Socialist Standard of October 1937: "The SPGB agrees with Marx and Engels that, ‘with the disappearance of classes, there also disappears the necessity of armed repression or state power’ (Letter to Von Patten, on April l883).The state will, therefore, in due course ‘wither away”.’

Also, the following paragraph appeared in a 1978 SPGB statement on violence: "In the period of changeover, control of the armed forces would be continued for as long as necessary, in the light of conditions then existing. It has never been the Party’s case that simultaneously with gaining control, the armed forces would at once be wholly dismantled. (In Engels’s words, ‘The State is not ‘abolished’. It dies out’)". These statements are at odds with your reply that the traditional socialist view is that "The state will not ‘gradually decline’ after socialism is established, but the end of the state and the beginning of socialism will be simultaneous".

David Rolfe, 
London SWI5

We don't disagree with either of the two statements you quote.

It is a pity, though, that you didn’t make it clear that the first was given to refute a claim that the SPGB held that "the political state" would continue to exist in socialism.

When classes disappear so also disappears the need for the state as a public power of coercion resting ultimately on the ability to use armed force to impose the will of those who control it. As we put it in our reply, “socialism will be a stateless society, which follows from the fact that the state is an instrument of class rule while socialism will be a classless society and so have no place for such an instrument".There is no place in socialism for a state even a declining one.

We never said that "simultaneously with gaining control, the armed forces would at once be wholly dismantled". That would be an imprudent move on the part of a socialist majority which had just won control of the state through democratic means. It might not be evident straightaway that some pro-capitalist recalcitrant minority or some isolated groups of individuals might not to decide to take up arms to resist the democratically-expressed will of the majority to convert the means of production into common ownership under democratic control.

Hopefully this won’t occur, but how can we possibly know at this stage? Only when it was clear that this danger didn’t exist (or had been dealt with) would it be safe for the socialist majority to completely dismantle the state machine. In any event, once socialism had been established (once the means of production had been brought into common ownership) then the state, or what was left of public repressive powers, would be immediately abolished. This is what we meant by saying that "the end of the state and the beginning of socialism are simultaneous"; on the establishment of socialism the state is immediately abolished and does not continue into socialism and then "gradually decline". In fact, it can be said that as long as the state exists then socialism has not yet been established.

It is true that we would not now be so inclined to use the words "wither away" which is one translation of what Engels wrote in German. This suggests some quasi-natural and not necessarily rapid process. It does lend itself to interpretation as meaning “gradual decline”. This was probably Engels's own view but it is a decline he envisaged as taking place in the period between the winning of political power by a socialist majority and the establishment of socialism and not in socialism after it had been established. Engels, just as much as us. repudiated the idea that the state should continue into socialism and only then decline.

Engels and Marx did envisage a more or less lengthy period of transition between capitalism and socialism.This was understandable in the 1870s when the means of production were much less developed than they are now. Our view is that the "period of changeover” between capitalism and socialism can now be very short. All that is required today to bring the means of production into common ownership under democratic control is, on the one hand, a declaration that all property titles over means of production (stocks and shares, etc) are no longer valid and will no longer be enforced by the state and, on the other, the implementation of the precise arrangements for them to be democratically controlled. Such arrangements will have been worked out before the actual winning of political power by a socialist majority and would be able to be put into practice fairly rapidly after it.

This is why we prefer to use. in connection with the end of the state and its repressive organs, terms such as "dismantle”, “abolish” or "dissolve" which suggest an active intervention rather than "wither away”, “die out" and "decline” which can suggest a passive, gradual process.

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