Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Obituary: George Deval (1983)

Obituary from the November 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

With the death on 30 July of George Deval at the age of 78, the SPGB lost a comrade who unstintingly gave of his time and energy working for the Party for more than fifty years. George was introduced to the socialist case during the twenties and became a member in the early thirties. His employment brought him to Birmingham and he helped to restart the Birmingham Branch during the latter part of the war. He subsequently filled all Branch positions, ending as Secretary. Branch members remember him with gratitude for his dedication and hard work in all the tasks he undertook. We extend our sympathy to his wife and family.

Aberfan: Disaster In The Hillsides (2016)

From the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
During the early winter of 1966 Hoover Limited sent a minor manager from their vacuum cleaner factory in West London to the massive plant in Merthyr Tydfil South Wales where they made washing machines. The manager took a train to Cardiff where he was picked up by one of the company cars and chauffer to take him to a hotel where he was to stay for a couple of nights. During the journey both men were silent, without the chatter which usually enlivened their journeys together. When they arrived at the hotel they got out of the car and looked across to some high land where floodlit earth machines were at work. Then the driver spoke. ‘Aberfan’ he said. It was November 1966 and they were looking at the site of the worst mining-related disaster in British history.   
Aberfan is a village in South Wales which was once heavily dependent on employment at the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. It now has a community centre, flourishing with its swimming pool, fitness rooms and cafĂ©. There are also two schools, which provoke unbearable memories of that tragedy fifty years ago. Coal mining began there in 1869, when a pit was sunk on the banks of the Afon Taff; in 1875 the first commercial coal was brought to the surface – the beginning of a history proud enough to accentuate the grief and misery which devastated the village in October 1966. On that occasion the deaths did not originate underground, in a coal mine; many of the people who died were buried and suffocated in lethal slurry from the open ground above. A total of 144 people were killed in minutes; 116 were children and no survivors were found after 11am. Many of those who did survive have since suffered from persistent psychological disorders – for example the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003 recorded that half have suffered from PTSD, which for about a third of them will persist as a lifetime disorder. A typical comment was by the author Laurie Lee who, after visiting Aberfan a year afterwards, described the school children there as ‘…the unhealed scar tissue of Aberfan’.  The colliery was closed in 1989.
The basic cause of the disaster was tipping – the deposit of spoil of varying content and consistency  which had been extracted from the colliery, onto the ground overlooking  Aberfan when more convenient lower sites had been filled to their limit. By 1966 there were, looming above the area so that they could be distantly viewed from that hotel, a number of mounds – or tips – which were known by numbers 1 to 7, the last of which was the most ominous. There was no proper regular inspection and maintenance of the tips to check on their stability although they were composed of loose rock and other extracted material within a massive layer of sandstone. This was a dangerously absorbent composition which through the addition of water from underground springs could develop into a slope steep enough to accelerate the descent of the heavier spoil and slurry which would wipe out whatever – and whoever – lay in its path. In fact some local councils had questioned, in 1963, whether it was safe to dispose of the colliery waste in that way, particularly when in the direct path of such a descending geological missile there were the village primary and senior schools as well as other inhabited buildings. But any such questions were effectively ignored by the local National Coal Board.
On that dreadful day – 21 October 1966 – South Wales had already suffered several spells of torrential rain, which in itself was enough of a problem for the pupils of the local Pantglas School as they scurried from home to the last school day before  breaking up for the half-term holiday. Soon after 9.15 am a mass of liquid containing material brought up from the mine broke free from the tips and began to smash down towards the village and the homes and the schools and the children below. A gang of workmen who were on Tip 7 to inspect a fault with the railway which carried the disposable material from the mine were resting with a cup of tea when they saw the rapidly approaching disaster but they were unable to warn the village about it because the cable of their telephone had been stolen (although the subsequent enquiry was clear that no warning could have improved the situation). The gang watched helplessly as a mass of over 150,000 cubic metres of saturated mining spoil broke free, moving down the slope in a series of surges. Some of it clung to the ground, leaving about 40,000 cubic metres to carry on into Aberfan.  ‘All I could see’ remembered one of them ‘… was waves of muck, slush and water… I couldn’t see - nobody could …’ The first victims were a farm and twenty houses which were swiftly obliterated with all the occupants. At Pantglas School the teachers were checking and recording attendance when the buildings were overwhelmed by a compound of muddy rubble up to ten metres deep. One eight-year-old recalled ‘… a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead … Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can’t remember any more’. The slurry eventually came to halt at about 9.15am; the damage had been done and by 11am the last living child had been brought out from the school; it was several more days before the last body could be found.
The reaction of their employers, in whatever context, and their political defenders was tediously predictable. One of the more prominent of these was the late Claude Granville Lancaster who went to school at Eton then trained at the Royal Military College Sandhurst and who eventually inherited the excessively stately Palladian Kelmarsh Hall in Leicestershire from his father along with the family investments in coal mining and farming. Like his father he was a Conservative MP, in his case for Fylde. When the Attlee government nationalised the coal industry Lancaster recognised the inevitable and ‘… gave all his support to the National Coal Board … to do his best to bring what he felt was much-needed drive and decisiveness to its cumbersome and slow-moving organisation’. He had an early opportunity to live up to these standards when the slurry came down on Aberfan but he was abroad, in what were then known as the Trucial States (since 1971 the United Arab Emirates). Soon after he returned another MP asked him to comment on the possible cause of the tragedy. To which this meticulous expert in coal mining replied ‘I fancy that you will find that it was a trickle of water’.
Another, rather different, example was a man who was raised, not into the ancient land-owning nobility but by Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to be chairman of a key nationalised industry. This was Alfred Robens who was Labour MP for Wansbeck and then Blyth until he took over Britain’s coal mines which also entailed him being ennobled, so that he became Baron Robens of Woldingham. He took to all of this with a determination which was expressed in his car being numbered NCB1 and his  access to a private jet plane and a posh flat in a most expensive part of London. These privileges he defended behind a style of management later described most moderately as demanding.
This style came under focus as the people of Aberfan were grappling with their demanding emergencies. To be specific on that day of 21st October Robens did not, as was expected of him as the overlord of the mines, attend that scene of suffering – although his staff falsely assured the Ministry of Power that he was there soothing the distress of the people. In fact he chose to attend a ceremony at the University of Surrey to be installed as Chancellor. The anger which this aroused locally was aggravated by his opinion that the original cause of the avalanche was ‘some … natural unknown springs’ which was particularly provocative to the grieving local people who had long-standing acquaintance with that very water source since they had played there as children. When the official enquiry was seriously critical of Robens’ behaviour throughout he offered to resign from the NCB but this was dismissed as unnecessary. At the same time the NCB refused to pay the full cost of removing the tips- an attitude which persisted until the first Blair government agreed to meet the bill – although without the interest which would have considerably raised the total. This evasion was pointedly described by another Labour MP Leo Abse as ‘… the graceless pavane danced by Lord Robens and the Minister, as the chairman of the National Coal Board’ and more recently by the Geoscientist –The Fellowship Magazine of the Geological Society of London:   ‘What happened in Aberfan was a mass betrayal of intergenerational equity … not only ripped the heart out of one small Welsh village - it sucked life out of an entire industry’. When Robens took over there were 698 pits; when he left there were 292. Which left the Thatcher government to carry on so that in the Merthyr area nearly 30 percent of the able-bodied were unemployed, apart from the other adults whose industrial diseases had led to them being registered as disabled.
Coal mining was always a dangerous occupation, to be taken up only because there was nothing less threatening on offer. This was the case in Aberfan. At the same time the miners had to struggle against a poverty as concentrated as the risks they endured in and around the pits. And the harsh reality of all this is that the employing class have an enduring priority that production – of coal or whatever – should be as cheap as possible. As they did in Aberfan with the over-looming tips and the workers’ homes. This was untouched by the continuing requirements of nationalisation with the substitution of management by an ex-left wing Labour MP for a traditionally aristocratic Tory. In commemorating that disaster it must not be ignored that Aberfan was an episode entirely typical of the demands of class ownership for human suffering and denial.

Amadeo Bordiga as Intransigent Socialist (2017)

Amadeo Bordiga
From the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
We begin a three part series on the pre-1917 political views of this Italian thinker who later became the first leader of the Italian Communist Party and then a Left Communist critic of the state capitalist regime in Russia.
Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) was probably the closest among Italian political thinkers and activists to the revolutionary ideas put forward by the World Socialist Movement. We would share his consistent opposition to reformism, militarism, and all forms of nationalism as well as some of his views on the use of parliament. We would, however be entirely opposed to his advocacy of insurrectionary violence, his aversion for democracy (which was determined by his identification of it with the freemasonry of his day), and his support for a centralist control model.
His early political activity began when he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in Naples in 1910 at the age of 21 while a student of engineering.  According to Bordiga’s own later account, his enrolment in the PSI was a reaction to pressure being put on him to join the freemasons, which he despised. The situation inside the PSI when Bordiga joined it was complicated. In theory, it was organized along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party, with the difference that the PSI did not have funds and so lacked organisers and professional politicians. There was a group headed by the leader and party secretary and as well as a parliamentary group elected by party members but there was often disagreement between the two, especially on political strategy. The parliamentary group was headed by Filippo Turati, who had been largely responsible for the creation of the party in 1882 and was a reformist despite the fact that he considered himself, and was often recognized as, an orthodox Marxist. 
The PSI had expelled the anarchists in its ranks at its second congress in 1892 and likewise the revolutionary syndicalists in 1907. Yet in 1910 it was still home to a variety of political  positions. There were ‘right-wing’ reformists such as Leonida Bissolati and Ivanoe Bonomi, the ‘left-wing’ reformists of Turati and Giuseppe Modigliani, and the ‘the revolutionary intransigent fraction’ led by Costantino Lazzari, who, according to Luigi Gerosa, influenced much of Bordiga’s early thinking with his 1911 pamphlet ‘The Principles and Methods of the Italian Socialist Party’. In his pamphlet Lazzari harked back to the Party’s 1892 programme and the various ‘degenerations’ of it that had taken place since then. As explained in a previous article (Antonio Labriola: A strict Marxist?, Socialist Standard, February 2016),  it is arguable that the 1892 programme put forward a vision of Marxist socialism substantially as conceived by the World Socialist Movement today. Bordiga wanted it to remain faithful to its maximum goal, which was the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism rather than the minimum goal of changing capitalism by means of reforms.  It was at this stage too that Bordiga started to develop the idea of a party that did not need leadership by individuals, but required, rather, a clear and unchangeable programme to be followed by its adherents.             
Bordiga began stating this position in the PSI’s youth magazine Avanguardia  and writing in particular in opposition to the Italian government’s colonial policy and to masonic anti-clericalism. In October 1911 when Italy invaded Libya, which was part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Bordiga attacked not just the government but alleged socialists in the PSI who supported the invasion. He also criticised revolutionary syndicalists such as Arturo (not to be confused with Antonio) Labriola who espoused the view of the economist Achille Loria that colonial expansion would present an opportunity for the socialist cause. Bordiga argued from the start that nationalism was a capitalist ideology which had nothing to do with socialism, since socialism was by its very nature anti-nationalist and anti-patriotic. This was an idea he would never depart from.
In the years 1911 to 1914 Bordiga and other like-thinking members of the PSI in Naples engaged in opposing those factions who favoured a policy of coalitions with capitalist parties, so-called blocchisti who they saw as revisionists. Bordiga wrote widely on the situation of the party in Naples, arguing strongly against the right of those factions to be in the Party, and also became the regional spokesperson for the Italian Federation of Socialist Youth. 
In April 1912 Bordiga founded the ‘Carlo Marx Circle’ aiming at propaganda activity and the study of Marxist writings. Already in March that year he had denounced the action of some exponents of the parliamentary group such as Bissolati, Cabrini, and Bonomi for supporting the King of Italy after he had been wounded during an assassination attempt. Bordiga demanded their expulsion from the Party, something that actually took place at that year’s Congress, incidentally allowing one Benito Mussolini to take up a primary position in the PSI. The Neapolitan Portici section had sent Bordiga as spokesperson to the Congress with the following motions: 1. to extend the tactic of ‘intransigence’ to local elections; 2. to exclude from the PSI members of bourgeois political associations such as the freemasonry.    
In the same year, at the Congress of the Bologna Youth Federation, Bordiga was involved in discussions that took place on ‘the question of the culture of socialist youth’.  While some of the participants saw the youth movement as having the role of imparting basic political education to its members while not questioning the party’s rulings, Bordiga proposed that the Youth Federation should have its own autonomy and its own magazine and engage in its own struggles against the system. Bordiga won the day and, in the magazine Avanguardia, he wrote, in reply to Gaetano Salvemini, editor of the newspaper L’UnitĂ , that education should be based on action and that instead of saying to the people ‘you are exploited because you are ignorant, free yourself from the priest and you will be free’, socialists should say to workers ‘you are ignorant and cowardly because you are exploited, you are exploited because you submit to the yoke of slavery; revolt and you will be free and you will be able to become civilised.’ For Bordiga, therefore, socialism was based not on education or political culture but on proletarian sentiment and action.
In November 1912, in the Avanti newspaper, Bordiga wrote a piece on ‘Southern socialism and the moral questions’. Here he described the backwardness and inadequacy of the southern Italian capitalist class. He pointed out that the Italian State, which was managed by the capitalist oligarchy of Northern Italy, did not intend to develop the South, because the economic, agrarian and industrial development of the South could only ‘harm the present monopolistic groups of big industries, which are protected and have in the South their natural market of consumption’. The ineptitude of the Southern capitalist class and the corrupt administration of the South was, he argued, exploited by local political factions to further their own self-interest and this was often with the support and collaboration of the clergy. The main opponents of this he saw as the anti-clerical bourgeoisie, who put forward the ‘moral’ argument that what was needed was an honest bourgeois administration, an uncorrupted and ‘efficient’ bourgeois capitalism. Bordiga opposed this way of thinking too, stating that ‘thieving or honest bourgeoisies are the same thing’ and that the PSI should be ‘ultra-intransigent’ against these ‘moralists’, because socialism demanded something quite different.
Rewriting of the PSI’s pamphlet entitled Il soldo ai soldati (‘On Soldiers’ Pay’) was assigned to Bordiga and was then discussed at the 1912 Bologna Congress of Socialist Youth. In this pamphlet Bordiga railed against the ‘barracks’ as being an institution of bourgeois democracy, but took the position on elections that they should be contested but without any kind of agreement with the  bourgeois parties. At this time he saw electoral activity largely as a means of propagating socialist ideas and winning supporters, but his distrust of the electoral system grew as the PSI suffered recurring defeats in elections despite the considerable effort it put into them. Increasingly Bordiga was developing the view that the PSI had ‘degenerated’, that reformism had ‘drowned’ it and that what was important was a defence of its original revolutionary programme based on the formation of class consciousness and working class anti-militarism. In the article ‘Our Mission’, published in February 1913, Bordiga expressed the view that the PSI’s role was to be the vanguard of the proletariat in the class struggle. In it he quoted the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin on the principle of mutual aid and affirmed what he saw as the natural altruism of the proletariat. At the same time he argued that it would be wrong to believe that the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, dominated by means of workers’ ignorance; instead it dominated by means of culture, by being able to impose its own culture on workers, so the tenets of bourgeois education took on a ‘moral’ dimension in workers’ minds.
(Next month: Bordiga’s attitude to contesting elections)         

Election Report (1979)

Party News from the June 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although there has only been a branch in the area for a year, the Islington South and Finsbury election campaign was a successful one. Successful, even though the Socialist candidate, Ralph Critchfield, polled only 78 votes. Unlike the parties of capitalism, in our campaign we only asked convinced socialists to vote for us and actually asked people not to vote for us unless they were fully in agreement. It came as no surprise to us that the number of convinced socialists in the constituency was few. Ten thousand manifestos, three thousand bulletins, 20,000 election specials and a number of Socialist Standards were distributed during the election. Our manifesto was published in full in the Islington Gazette. Two well attended public meetings were held. Extensive canvassing was carried out. We thank those of you who contributed to the election campaign, either by activity or by responding to the request for donations to the election fund. The Socialist Party is not just an election-time organisation. Socialism is as imperative now as it was before May 4.

Successful Rally (1974)

Party News from the November 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

General Elections at three weeks' notice are generally disadvantageous to small organizations, but the Socialist Party had one piece of good luck. We had arranged for a major public meeting in Trafalgar Square on 22nd September, so it turned out that we had the stage in the centre of London immediately after the Election was announced. There was Nelson’s plinth displaying our banners, and the sale of Socialist literature in full swing. BBC Television cameras were there for part of the meeting.

Several hundred people — a large number staying from start to finish — listened to our speakers. Comrades Barltrop, Critchfield, Baldwin and Young gave vigorous expositions of the capitalist system and the reasons for the present economic crisis; the failure of reform programmes; the vote-catching humbug of the parties who are unable to control capitalism; and the Socialist alternative to it all.

Between the speeches we had a roving microphone taken into the audience for questions. It can’t be said that all the questions were of the highest quality, but they gave the speakers opportunities to bring out other aspects of our case. The audience’s interest and appreciation were shown by the fact that a record collection was taken, and sales of the Socialist Standard and other literature were first-class. On a chilly grey day, it was a great success.

Rewarding Election Campaign (1974)

Party News from the November 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

It took a long time to set up: In forty minutes on October 11th it was bare. 307 Finchley Road, our Committee Rooms. 307 is a large corner shop. Its windows ideal for our various posters and propaganda material, read not only by passers by, but seen by hundreds in cars and coaches as day after day they edged along in the almost constant traffic jams. The centre windows had a blown-up copy measuring 8ft. by 4ft. of our Manifesto and Declaration of Principles. The shop was large enough for informal meetings and to display three of the stands from our recent 70th Anniversary Exhibition.

307 became a Socialist centre for just over two weeks. A hive of activity, with some 60/65 members and sympathisers taking part. Our Manifesto (unfortunately not prematurely leaked to the Press — they largely ignored it) came early from the printer. We did not bother with the free post and within seven days had dealt with 18,000 on a house- to-house basis.

All the tube stations in the area were covered night after night by literature sellers. Sales sometimes excellent — sometimes indifferent — but thousands of people in Hampstead now know of the existence of the socialist standard. This activity at some of the stations had been carried on by Westminster Branch throughout the summer and will afford a regular sales outlet in the future.

Never a day went by without a number of people coming into 307 to hear about the SPGB and discuss with us. From mid-morning — often to midnight they came, many hearing of us for the first time. And not just residents of Hampstead. From many parts of the world, Japan, USA, Denmark, Germany, France, Chile etc., they heard the Socialist case. The odd discussion carried on in German and Spanish. Our introductory leaflets in foreign languages were most helpful.

And we held our meetings outdoors, rather grim owing to the weather. Indoors not sparkling, but plenty of informal discussion. We used two sets of public address equipment, one set mounted on a very large mobile caravan, decked from top to bottom with suitable posters.

Literature sales and donations just over £70 (this included about 1,000 copies of the Socialist Standard). We only got a handful of votes (118 in all) but we accomplished our task of making the Socialist case more widely known. Those who took part in the campaign had a most enjoyable and rewarding time; those who were unable to join in missed a treat.

The local press printed a 600-word statement from our candidate (Ralph Critchfield), and we had mention in other local journals and two of the national press. London Broadcasting gave us a couple of minutes and like the other candidates in the area, four minutes on BBC Radio London. This came over very well.
Cyril May