Saturday, February 27, 2016

ON LIBERTY. (1922)

From the July 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

Your walk of life does not matter, neither your occupation, social standing, nor domestic circumstances. If your brains are sufficiently developed, your understanding sufficiently large to realise what a hard vigilant taskmaster Liberty is, how it must be won by bitter exertion, deep introspection, subtle selection of essentials, and the most ruthless determination to articulate and to live the essence one discovers to be oneself —then, and not till then, are you individually free.

No wonder so few people are personalities and truly human. It is so much easier to jog along simply on the lines of least resistance, to submit to the general trend without struggle, to allow habits, comfort, laziness or cowardice to hold one down, to be nothing but a reaction to other people’s lack of ideas, to say and do what is generally expected, what thousands have said and done before on similar occasions.

After all, only slaves tolerate fetters. Freedom is within the reach of those who will take the trouble to grasp it. But it cannot be bestowed from without, like a diploma or a patent; it must be won from within — and one must feel the power to win it.

Socialism points the way. Economic freedom alone makes individual freedom possible for mankind.
W. J. E.


From the July 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

The story is told of Ibn-As-Sammak, a professional tale teller of Bagdad, that he one day asked his slave girl her opinion of one of his discourses. She replied it would have been good but for its repetitions.

"But,” he said, "I use repetitions in order to make those understand who do not."

"Yes,” she commented, "and in making those understand who do not, you weary those who do.”

I wonder if there are many among our readers, who are weary of our repetitions; weary of seeing the same old tale tricked out in different words; of observing month after month the same old call monotonously sounded :—you know the phrase—"we therefore urge the working class to organise as a class, and capture the political machine, etc., etc.” Yes, it's a desperate business, this saying the same thing a hundred ways, a desperate business, only saved from becoming a weariness to the writers, or degenerating into a jargon, by their varying individualities; by each superimposing whatever he may have of wit, or style, or knowledge, upon the original truth. But after all, what would you! What else is there to do! One cannot tell the truth too often. The Capitalist press is never tired of telling the opposite. Purely as a mechanical task this spectacle filled Carlyle with amazement.

"The most unaccountable of all ready writers,” he said, "is the common editor of a daily newspaper. Consider his leading articles; what they treat of; how passably they are done. Straw that has been thrashed a hundred times without wheat—how a man, with merely human faculty, buckles himself nightly with new vigour and interest to this thrashed straw, nightly thrashes it anew, nightly gets up new thunder about it; and so goes on thrashing and thundering for a considerable series of years; this is a fact remaining still to be accounted for in human physiology.”

It is indeed a thing to marvel on, particularly when as Carlyle puts it, it is "straw that has been thrashed a hundred times without wheat.” Critical readers of our modern Capitalist press, must admit there has been little alteration in that respect since Carlyle's day. When one pauses at the end of a week's, or month's reading of daily newspapers, and endeavours to gather some definite mental picture of the period, it is then one appreciates the absence of "wheat.” What screaming posters, what heavy, lurid headlines, what "news,” what easily flowing, sweetly reasonable articles. But no wheat. All straw, friends: not a grain of wheat in a thousand tons. The one thing that matters is never mentioned. The fact that you are a slave class, ruled economically and politically by a small parasitic class, is never hinted at, other than in terms of ridicule. The overwhelming fact that you spend the bulk of your waking hours in the service of a master, in return for a pittance is again scarcely mentioned, unless it be to assure you that your poverty is essential to national prosperity. Why national prosperity should involve penury and hardship to those who produce it, is another fact that will elude the crowded columns of the master's press.

It is here the Socialist press enters the field. It endeavours to show that modern Capitalist society is broad, based upon one central fact—the dominance and enslavement of the many by the few. It says further that this enslavement is conserved and continued by the grip of the few upon the machinery of government. It follows with the inevitable conclusion, that if the mass of people want to end their slavery, they must gain control of the machine which holds them down.

This is the Socialist position. Not all of it, but its essence. The reason we have to repeat it many times, is because the bulk of the working class have never heard it, and of those who have, but few are moved to action.. At the risk of wearying those who do understand, we have to iterate and reiterate the one central truth that matters. Our task would be easier if those who do understand, in all cases squared their actions with their belief, and did the logical thing— joined the Socialist Party. Socialism is essentially a creed of action. Action, and organised intelligent action at that, is vital to its achievement. And yet, there must be thousands of workers, perfectly convinced of the desirability, and of the inevitability of Socialism, who have never lifted a finger to bring it nearer. This is a greater physiological puzzle than that of Carlyle, and for us even more unfortunate; for though his editors’ thrash ever so madly, nothing but straw rewards their efforts, whilst we have a harvest that waits but the labourers. It is these who are weary of our repetitions, but they should reflect, it is they who help to make them necessary. Let them take the first step that renders repetition unnecessary so far as they are concerned. Let them cease to wait for the "other chap” to join, but be guided rather, by logic, and show the “other chap” that you at least are a logical person.

And there is so much one can do. Get your pal interested. Take him along to our meetings; they are all open to the public. Get him to ask questions. Suggest questions to him. To keep him interested, make him order the Socialist Standard regularly Then start on another pal. Do you know, we owe dozens of members and several branches to chance copies of this journal. That should tell you what to do with the extra copies you buy. But above all, and this is a repetition we insist on, if you are convinced of the truth of the Socialist position it is your duty to yourself and your class to join the Socialist Party and help to bring it about.
W. T. Hopley

What the class struggle is and is not (1977)

From the June 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Paradoxically, the militants and intellectuals who preach class struggle with the utmost vigour appear not to know what it is. Their position transferred to a military war would be careering round the battlefield, declaring strategies, uttering heroic cries and calling on all right-minded men to follow them — without knowing what the war is about, or who the sides are.

The impression given by the majority of “left-wing” writers is that there are many class struggles, some more important than others. If a major struggle underlies them, it breaks out sporadically and is confined to productive industry. Some examples are:
On this rising curve [1911-1914], working-class militancy swept into a series of titanic struggles.
   The first effect of the process . . . was a recession of the revolutionary tide in September, leaving militants still struggling forward on the water-mark. Gramsci called the proletariat to battle on 7 June 1919.
(G. Williams, Proletarian Order, 1975)
   During the 1920s there were mass struggles . . . though none with the revolutionary potential of the wartime shop stewards’ movement.
(Hinton and Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution, 1975)
   Money wages in fact fell 38 per cent between the winter of 1920-21 and the winter of 1923-4; and many of these cuts were not secured without the most fierce class struggle.
(Glyn and Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze, 1972)
In the musical play Wreckers by David Edgar, performed at the Half Moon Theatre in May 1977, a depiction of the “five dockers” episode of 1972 leads to a song with the refrain “This is class war”. What such statements convey is that some workers, chiefly in factories and docks and mines, find a war has broken out for them in particular circumstances from time to time.

The capitalist system is based on the ownership of all the means of production and distribution by a minority of the population. The majority therefore are non-owners, and their only way of living is to go to work for wages. There are no alternatives; these are the two classes of capitalism. The wage may be called a salary, and wages — the price of labour-power — vary as do the prices of other commodities. Nevertheless, all those who do not live by owning are in the same position: the working class.

Contrast this with the type of statement found in Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, a work which argues a theory of militancy. The writer says:
At the point of production, Automation has compelled two fundamentally different class attitudes, depending on which side of the machine you stand . . . the machine is always on top of you and keeps you isolated from your fellow-workers. In addition, you feel more isolated as more and more of your shopmates are displaced by the monster machine. If, on the other hand, you are the one who drives the men and counts the production for management, you praise the machine to the skies.
This is playing to the gallery as regards the machine operator’s sentiments; but it also implies that those who are not machine operators are not workers, have no such problems and belong in the capitalists’ camp. In reality the factory worker who accepts this has swallowed capitalist teaching which aims at dividing the working class.

Certainly many wage- and salary-earners believe they belong to “the middle class”. It is a legacy of the period when the capitalist class had not become dominant and were a section between the feudal ruling class and the lower orders. In capitalism the idea is an anachronism which helps conceal the basis of the class struggle. The question is not simply knowing which class is which and leaving it there. Classes must willy-nilly pursue their interests. The capitalist class has to try to secure its profits; the working class likewise does what it can for its living standards. This is the workaday trade-union aspect of the struggle, and by itself makes nonsense of the idea that machine operators and white-collars are different classes. “Professional” workers have to organize and threaten strikes over pay and redundancies just as if they were dockers — because their position is the same.

It is not a sporadic but a continuous struggle; it is also, in that aspect, a restricted one. Obviously it will go on as long as the wages system lasts and will not stop the system. The more important side of the struggle is working-class interests pressing for a change in society. Throughout history, the classes identified with the forces of production have found themselves shackled by social systems which have gone on too long. When they are aware of their position they move to put themselves in possession of the means of production and distribution. This is the vital struggle for the working class in the twentieth century.

The most pernicious word in politics is a plural: “struggles”. Under its influence, any clamour is supposed to be a bit of the class struggle. Thus, the Solidarity pamphlet As We Don’t See It (undated but recent), after pointing out that under “the mindless slogan ‘Support for people in struggle’ ” several left-wing groups support the ira and reactionary National Liberation Fronts, says of other groups: “For instance, when they (correctly) support struggles for limited objectives, such as those of squatters or Claimants’ Unions, they often fail to stress the revolutionary implications of such collective direct action.” What revolutionary implications?

The Nuclear Disarmament movement of the early nineteen-sixties was the first of a series of band-waggons on which the militants claimed to be for “struggles”. It was followed by demonstrations against the Vietnam war, support for civil rights, squatting and tenants’ campaigns, Women’s Liberation, protests against the Industrial Relations Act (curiously, not the “social contract”), demands to fight racism and for the right to work; and there are the “struggles” against hospital closures, education cuts and town-planning schemes. The motive for the political egging-on is said to be “people are changed by struggle”. At the time of the last and biggest anti-Vietnam demonstration in October 1968, the leaders asserted this publicly: that, thrust into conflict with the police, ordinary people would learn first-hand the violence of the state. Less dramatically, it is argued that participation in small struggles “raises consciousness” and gives an appetite for greater ones — even, that it is a preliminary to Socialist consciousness.

All this is quite untrue. If struggle per se does change people, what direction does the change take? The most likely outcome of a whack on the head from a policeman, for a person who does not understand the situation anyway, is a decision not to risk it happening again in future. Beyond these absurdities, incitement to “struggles for limited objectives” does not contribute to consciousness of class interests. It does the opposite. To the extent that people regard (and are encouraged to regard) their grievances as tenants, women, blacks etc. as “special”, they are drawn away from realization of their standing as members of the propertyless wage-working class. What the “struggles” provide is a mirror-image of the idealism of capitalism: that “human problems” precede class relationships. Yet the difficulties of groups and sections all stem from the basic class division. Consciousness of it can illuminate all the other problems — but not the other way round.

Political parties stand for class interests. The major parties all claim — the Tory Party has made it a slogan — that they represent “all the people”. Obviously in a class-divided society that is not possible, and it would be better put that the Tories are wedded to capitalism but have to try for the favour of the electorate. The Labour Party is also wedded to capitalism, but it is seen by a large number of people as somehow embodying working-class interests: it is supported by the big trade unions, and the most poverty-stricken industrial areas have always provided its safe seats. The left-wing parties and militants unanimously become advocates for Labour at election times, on those grounds.

Of course the militants do not consciously set out to give capitalism a hand by recommending Labour to run it. They would say they are against capitalism and want some substantial change. On the surface they are misleading members of the working class by calling on them to struggle against the régime and at the same time to support it via the Labour Party. However, the matter goes deeper than that to non-comprehension of the class struggle. In some cases the doctrine of “day-to-day struggles” leads inevitably to embracing Labour reformism. For example, opposition to the Industrial Relations Act was bound to become vested in getting a change of government; groups demanding this and that have to look for promises of legislation. If it is believed that any and every “struggle” counts, that some workers are more working-class than others, that “class war” is periodic local outbreaks against Tory legislation or the perfidy of trade-union leaders — the outcome will be not only confusion but action which, whatever the intention, cuts across the interests of the working class.

There is only one struggle. The industrial part of it has to and does go on all the time. It is to the political part that working men and women must attend to solve their overriding problems. The solution must be to end the wage-labour relationship: the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a classless social system, Socialism. Since it must be based on common ownership of the means of living, the movement for it can only be a political one. The state is the key to class rule, and hence to its overthrow. This is the vital struggle. “Struggles” get in its way.
Robert Barltrop

Death of Two Comrades (1933)

Obituaries from the September 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Australian comrades report the death in June of a valuable worker for Socialism, Comrade Cholet. In accordance with the wish expressed by him, the only ceremony at the funeral was an address delivered on behalf of the Socialist Party of Australia by the Secretary, Comrade Clarke. Comrade Cholet, through years of suffering from the sickness which finally carried him off, had shown the greatest courage and steadfastness in his work for Socialism. Comrades who worked with him knew his worth and feel his loss deeply.

His many friends here and in New Zealand will regret to learn of the death at Manchester, on July 19th, of Comrade Benjamin Woan, at the early age of 47. Death was due to cerebral tumour.

Cremation took place on July 24th, at the Manchester Crematorium, where Comrade Lea, of Eccles Branch, and Comrade McCarthy, of Manchester Branch, spoke about the life of our Comrade and of his work for Socialism. Selections from his favourite opera, "Il Trovatore,” were played on the organ.

He was born at Knuzden Brook, Blackburn, Lancashire, and in due course earned his living as a miner. In 1910 he left this country for New Zealand, where he soon made many friends through his activities in the Socialist movement. He took an active part in efforts to encourage the study of Marxism, including the Marxian Students' Conference, held in Christchurch, in December, 1918, at which it was decided to found the New Zealand Marxian Association, the Declaration of Principles of which was modelled on that of the S.P.G.B.

After a short stay in England, in 1920 and 1921, he returned to New Zealand in October of the latter year and remained there for many years. Although not a platform speaker, our Comrade carried on ceaseless propaganda for Socialism and was well known, not only to New Zealand Socialists, but also to many London comrades, although they knew of him only through the medium of correspondence.

Mrs. Woan has given her late husband’s books to the Party.

We wish to convey our sympathy to Mrs. Woan in her loss.

Seeing beyond the particular (1999)

Theatre Review from the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev. Royal Shakespeare Company, touring.

Standing in the queue for interval refreshment I couldn't but overhear the conversation. "Isn't she awful?" said the woman to her friend. "Terrible," came the reply, "simply terrible. She's so selfish."

At one level this seemed an appropriate reaction. Natalya Petrovna, wife of wealthy Arkady, is self-centred, scheming and manipulative; a woman only too aware of her power and influence, and with a ruthless inclination to use both for her own ends. And predictably, because this is a nineteenth century Russian drama constrained by the conventions of the time, having decided that she is in love with her son's tutor, she sets in train a series of actions which are to have calamitous consequences for most of the household.

Put like this Brian Friel's adaptation of Turgenev's play sounds much like a trite Mills & Boon paperback: a view which is encouraged by the synopsis given in the programme. "Both Natalya and her ward Vera fall in love with the young man: Natalya entranced by his youth and energy but deeply confused by her own reaction, Vera awakening to her first adult emotion."

Fortunately Friel's dialogue is much more weighty and substantial than this kind of hushed tone would suggest. Full of irony and no little cynicism it paints, for those inclined to look beyond the immediate, a mordant picture of a society hastening towards instability: of landed gentry who live shallow, empty lives; local dignitaries trying to ingratiate themselves with their lords and masters; and of apparently feckless servants. As Natalya and her household pursue their dull, impoverished lives, a crippling sense of listlessness is evident. It's a picture of bourgeois life that Chekov was later to paint even more vividly in such plays as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.  

It is often observed, I think validly, that people's reaction to experience—whether the shock of being declared redundant, a newspaper photograph of some member of the royal family skiing in Switzerland, or—in this instance—a play about a family of Russian landowners in the 1840s—will depend upon what they bring to the experience. Thus a trade union negotiator going to see the redundancy of some union members in the context of local and national demands for labour, the state of the economy etc; a particular employee is going to view his or her redundancy as a personal calamity; and a member of the Socialist Party is likely to place both points of view in the context of an over-arching understanding of how capitalism works.

So, too, Turgenev's play. It is suspect that some of the audience saw the play almost exclusively in terms of a "human interest story"; the particular tale of a wife of a wealthy Russian landowner, her ward, and her son's tutor. Others in the audience, familiar with other plays by Turgenev and Chekov, perhaps saw in the lives of Arkady and Natalya much that reinforced a more general picture of life in Russia in the nineteenth century. Whilst those disposed to analyse events on stage in the light of other perspectives might have reflected further. About the way that nineteenth bourgeois life imprisoned not only the working class, but also—at the level of being usefully involved in life, and of using their skills and talents to achieve personal satisfaction—many of the bourgeoisie, men and women alike. About the similarities between Natalya and some of Chekov's and Ibsen's heroines, and the way that women's abilities were demeaned by bourgeois life. (Natalya's only task is, seemingly, to choose the menu for dinner.) And about the way that capitalism breeds selfishness, as surely as a tropical swamp breeds mosquitoes.

This is the second time that Brian Friel has adapted Turgenev for the stage. I remember seeing Friel's play of Fathers and Sons, "after the novel by Ivan Turgenev", when it was produced at the National Theatre in 1987. On that occasion Friel, so it seemed to me, managed to place his characters in a much more multi-dimensional context, so that the audience couldn't but be aware that in some significant sense the various protagonists were not only speaking for themselves, but also as representatives of particular classes and groups. I judge Friel to be less successful on this occasion. In spite of a quite magnificent cast and an admirable production, the audience—encouraged by the programme note—was apparently being invited to see the play in uni-dimensional terms. As a result I concluded that whatever the two friends I heard talking at the interval paid for their admission and refreshments, they were finally being short-changed.
Michael Gill

Poverty in Australia (1944)

Book Review from the December 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The Poverty of the People in Australia," by F. Oswald Harnett and A. G. Pearson, M.A. Published by The Good Companions Christian Social Order Group, 422, Collins Street, Melbourne.

There was a time, well within the lifetime of those of middle age, when Australia gained a reputation abroad as a world leader in the field of Social Reform, And some so-called Socialist Parties proclaimed the achievement of Socialism in Australia.

About the same time Australian Capitalist Governments and astute shipping companies cooperated to advertise Australia throughout the old world as “The Land of Gold and Sunshine," and to spread the lie that poverty was non-existent in Australia. Prospective immigrants were supplied gratis with pamphlets showing glowing pictures of model homesteads, herds of cattle standing knee deep in water by the river's edge, with the vista of a prosperous countryside behind them.

The unfortunate immigrant, befooled by the stupidities of the so-called Socialists or the clever propaganda of the Governments and their commission-chasing allies, soon received a hard lesson in the difference between the ideal and the real, between propaganda and fact. Once arrived on the shores of the Great South Land, he discovered that, while there was land and gold in plenty, most of what was worth having had been grabbed long before by Johnny-on-tbe-spot—the Australian capitalist, and that sunshine as a staple article of diet is quite unsatisfactory. He also discovered the harsh reality that lay behind all this specious propaganda—that the towns and cities of Australia were just as full of poverty, misery and unemployment as the land he had left, and that Australian capitalism desired cheap labour for the already established farmers, and he found himself compelled to work under conditions and for wages which the native white Australian regarded as the last refuge of the otherwise incompetent.

The pamphlet under review shows clearly that the conditions which then existed, still exist, and that 30 years after the outbreak of the First World War the victory over poverty has still to be achieved in Australia, as elsewhere. The work consists of two articles, one by each of the authors named above, and they prove conclusively, on the basis of the statistics gathered and tabulated by the Commonwealth Statistician and by other equally competent authorities, that poverty is widespread even in times of so-called prosperity. So easy is their task that Mr. Barnett says, “One is almost embarrassed at the wealth of the material available."

As members, of the working class, Socialists need no reassurance, either from the Commonwealth Statistician or the Good Companions, as to the existence of poverty, misery and unemployment; they have been part of our everyday experience. However, the pamphlet will be valuable to those whose limited experience renders such proof necessary. After considering the statistics of the Commonwealth Census completed for June 30th, 1933. and the report of the Slum Abolition and Rehousing Board (Melbourne, 1936), Mr. Barnett says:—
It is thus established that—
   (1) In 1933 more than three-fifths of the male breadwinners in the Commonwealth (20 years of age or over) were receiving less than the basic wage.
  (2) At the same time more than one-half of the married men of the Commonwealth received less than the basic wage.
  (3) In 1936 the survey of the industrial areas of Melbourne revealed that at least 6,000 families in Melbourne were living in houses unfit for human habitation, and the total income of these families averaged £2 10s. 4d. per family.
  Quoting his conclusions as a result of a personal survey of thr working-class suburb of Fitzroy (Melbourne), he says on page 6:—   More than two-thirds of its poorest inhabitants are classed as ordinary decent citizens, whose only crime is their abject poverty. . . . The attempt to blame the poor for their poverty is either the result of ignorance or the desire to avoid the real issues that are involved. 
Speaking of unemployment, Mr. Barnett says (page 7):
"The present economic system demands a vast pool of idle labour. Into the pool men are thrust when times are slack, out of the pool they are drawn when times are good. . . . A little thought will show that unemployment and casual labour are the inevitable product of the present so-called system, the main characteristic of which, as Mr. H. G. Wells points out, is the entire absence of system."
Here, again, Socialists have the advantage of Mr. Barnett and Mr. Wells, for this discovery of the inevitability of unemployment under capitalism is an old story to us; not only from bitter personal experience hut also because Karl Marx demonstrated the necessity of an industrial reserve army (the unemployed) and the inevitability of its progressive growth under capitalism about 80 years ago. (See "Capital,” Vol. 1. Chapter XXV., Sect, 3, pp. 642 et seq. W. Glaisher, Ed.)

The second article in the pamphlet under review, written by Mr. Pearson, reinforces and brings up to date Mr. Barnett's demonstration of the failure of Australian capitalism to provide an adequate standard of living for the great mass of the population. As a concise and adequate proof of the Socialist's contention that capitalism and poverty are inseparable, we can heartily recommend the pamphlet. It is when we come to consider the solution offered for the lamentable conditions so vividly described therein, that we part company with the authors.

Divested of its religious trimmings and put into plain language, it is just another variant of State or State-controlled capitalism, and while a development in this direction seems inevitable in the immediate future, it will result in no more than the reorganisation of poverty.

The solution of the poverty problem lies in the hands of those who suffer most from it—the working class, and can only be achieved when that class realises its historic mission, when, freed from tho illusions bred by capitalism and fostered by religion, it goes forward to solve for ever the problem of poverty by establishing Socialism.
F. F. W. 
(Reproduced from “Socialist Comment,” April-May, 1944, published by Socialist Party of Australia.)