Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The armchair (1987)

A Short Story from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was a very beautiful chair. People did not believe that he had made it himself. They asked how much it cost. Only their children understood. They always asked to sit in it and he always let them. Parents stood aside and smiled wryly, as if apologising. But the children knew what Karel's chair was for.

His hands were old. He could not make things any more. People knew that he was poor, and that he could not afford to eat well or keep his house warm. They offered to buy the armchair at a low price. Karel smiled and shook his head. They did not ask again. They knew it was Karel's chair. But they let their children visit him.

He had a strange accent. The children asked if he was a Russian spy. He nodded gravely and they shrieked. He showed them his woodworking tools and told them the names. Some of them tried to make things. On his mantelpiece was a collection of animals with the children's names cut on them. Terry said: "It's s'posed to be a horse. It's for if I ever go away". He put it into Karel's hands. It was the first thing he had ever made.

One day Rosie cut her hand badly, and had to go to hospital. After that the children did not come any more. Karel sat in his armchair and smoked his pipe and waited. They did not come. Only the ticking of the carriage clock disturbed the silence.

He stroked the arm of his chair. It was old and darkened walnut. His fingers ran idly along the engravings, feeling the wood twist and writhe under his skin. It could be a blind man's chair. The leather upholstery was scented and soft as vintage port, the back smooth and caressing. But for the sighted there was the inlay. The swirling flows and florets of mother-of-pearl had a luminous rainbow sheen which danced and flickered in the firelight and gave life and power to the grain. Slowly the fire died. The room grew darker. In the gloom Karel dozed.

He had come to England in 1926, the year of the General Strike. He was young and excited, anxious to start work, eager to use his hands to carve and chisel and polish, ready to pass on his dead father's skills. First he found work on the docks, later on a building site. For three years he did only heavy labouring, and made enough to live. Then he was made apprentice to a cabinet-maker. It was what he had waited for. He soon earned respect for his craftsmanship and his pay was raised. He began to receive commissions to make furniture for the wealthy families of the area. Although there was a slump and very little work, these families had more money to spend than ever, and he often praised his good fortune in having a skill he could sell at such a time. With time he became well-known. His furniture appeared at auctions and fetched high prices among the rich. But he never became wealthy himself. The market was very small. Most people could not afford such luxury, and he made only small profits on what he could sell. The wealthy knew his situation and often wrangled with him over his price. Sometimes he even had to sell at a loss.

In 1953 he gave up and went back into paid employment as a joiner. He was obliged to use pine and cedar, and thin veneer, and to work to deadlines. The furniture he made was mediocre. He did not bother to initial it. The owners of the firm came round for inspections. They knew nothing about wood. They asked instead how long he was taking, how much material he wasted, how many he could produce in a week. Karel worked on. disheartened.

He calculated that he earned approximately fifteen per cent of the final price of each table, and twelve per cent of each chair that he made. He did not have the energy or the heart to make things at home, and so when it became necessary to have a table of his own, to replace one which was worm-rotted, he was obliged to save for five weeks in order to buy one of those which he made at work in four hours. The humour of this did not escape him. One day, after work, he passed in front of an antiques shop and saw one of his own chairs for sale. It was one he had made at the request of a writer in 1938. He remembered it. The writer had asked grandly for a work of art. Karel had taken six weeks over it, and then the writer had been furious at the expense, demanding a lower price or no sale. In the end Karel had sold it for cost. Yet it was a magnificent piece for all that. It was priced at seventy pounds. Karel stared at it for a long time. Then he went into the shop and gave the owner a deposit of thirty shillings. Every month he returned with another thirty shillings. It took him four years to pay. In those four years something went out of him. He never made anything of his own again.

When he came to retire the firm were very nice to him and the manager made a little speech. All the employees had an extended tea-break and he was presented with a carriage clock and a solid silver wine goblet. They shook his hand and wished him luck and hoped he would not forget them and would come back for visits. He said he would like that. Then he was on the street and alone. He clutched the goblet and the clock tightly all the way home, and then he locked the front door and drew the curtains and sat in his armchair and wept quietly.

The chair creaked a little under him. He woke up. The fire was nearly out. The children had not come. He stared into the darkness. He sighed and stood up wearily, his hand went up to stroke the wooden figures on the mantelpiece. Pain seized him momentarily, in the silence he could almost hear their shouts and laughter. The children understood. They knew what things were made for. He breathed hard. There was life in the crude cut of their figures, life and vitality and perhaps even joy. And there was a kind of beauty and truth in the creation of things for their own sake, to be used and loved and perhaps abused but still loved. Karel's chair had been sold for the last time. It should not have been made for sale, but for love. And it was. His heart jumped. He went to the light and switched it on. He was dazzled. He caught at his breath. The first thing he saw was the table he had made and bought from work.

He stared at it, a sense of distaste growing inside him. It did not belong here, in the same room with the armchair and the animals. His chest felt constricted. Pain stabbed at him. It did not belong here! He went over to it, grasped the edge in both hands, and began to lift it up. The table weighed very little. He dragged it to the doorway and manoeuvred it through. His breath came in short gasps. He wanted to sit down. The table stuck fast in the doorway. His strength seemed to ebb away. He realised that something was happening to him. He became frightened. His chest tightened as if in a vice. He could not move the table. He walked unsteadily through the other door into the workroom and found a small hatchet. His legs shook. There was a ringing sound in his ears. He stumbled over to the table, swung the hatchet down. The shock ran up his arm and made him gasp as the wood splintered and flew. He struck again, and then again. His eyes clouded over. He could not breathe. He dropped the hatchet and staggered over to the armchair. He fell sprawling into it. The blood pounded in his temple and behind his eyes. He did not have the breath to cry out. His hands went down to the arms of the chair, gripped them hard. His back arched in pain and then his body doubled over, fingers searching in the carvings and grooves of the chair-arms, groping in panic for help. Hideous laughter seemed to burst all around him. Toneless music deafened him. The room turned grey and dull. He tried to look round at his animals, at his chair. They had become empty and lifeless. All the colour had fled. He could scarcely see them. There was nothing left. His mind began to race. He knew what he had done, what they had all done. There was no escaping it. Only the children understood. But money would teach them not to understand. It would make them forget. It would stop them listening. It would stop them looking. It would stop them loving anything for its own sake because it had the power to beat them and trample them and starve them until they they learned to care more for cost than for life itself. And he had not understood that. He was like the children. Only the grown-ups understand the world they have made. He did not fit. His chair did not fit. That was the real truth.

The room seemed to tilt away from him. His hands froze on the edges of the chair. His head rushed as though in a strong wind. He knew that his heart had stopped. His face was a white mask, but somewhere in his whirling brain a smile flashed momentarily. He did not belong. His animals and his armchair and his love, they did not belong. It was all alright now.
Paddy Shannon

Obituary: Bill Kerr (1994)

Obituary from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have to report the death of Bill Kerr at the age of 85. Bill joined the West Ham Branch in January 1941, and immediately busied himself attending lectures and after a few weeks joined a Speakers class. Opportunities for speaking outdoors at that time were somewhat limited owing to war-time conditions, although he did manage to get the opportunity to open up on a few occasions at Hyde Park.

However he and his brother George felt the need for propaganda in their own area. The Branch members agreed to give it a try and they opened up at an old venue, the ’Cock Hotel" which was just off High Street North. East Ham. The meetings at the “Cock" were an immediate success and this inspired us to extend further and we settled finally for Station Road. Ilford.

These venues were run very successfully in both attendances and literature sales. However all this came to an end towards the end of the 1950s. Outdoor meetings became impossible except in places like Hyde Park owing to the tremendous growth of motor traffic.

In that period of time from early 1940s to 1955/6 the branch membership had increased front about 30 members to about 70. Bill was elected onto the EC about this time and sat for three years or so.

In the 1950 General Election, the Party fought the East Ham South constituency. It was an excellent effort by the Party with much help from outside. Bill gave all he had in speaking and canvassing most evenings during the preceding weeks.

Bill had the misfortune to severely injure himself when he was blown off the platform at Hyde Park in a gale-force wind and fractured his skull. However he recovered in about a month although his hearing was permanently impaired.

After undergoing major surgery for lung cancer in 1958. Bill transferred his membership to Central Branch. He gave an occasional lecture around the London Branches. From the mid-1970s, apart front an occasional visit to a branch, he was not in evidence, although he kept a keen interest in the Party to the end.

Obituary: William Isherwood (1994)

Obituary from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

We arc saddened to have to report the death of our Comrade William Isherwood at the age of 90 in the Isle of Man.

Bill Isherwood first came into contact with the Party in Manchester in 1928, joining the local branch there in 1933. He worked as a commercial traveller and the poverty he saw made a great impression on him and turned him into a lifelong socialist. On retirement he went to live on the Isle of Man, where he continued to put the Socialist case, particularly in the local press.

Leading up the wrong path (1995)

Book Review from the April 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Radical Theories: Paths Beyond Marxism and Social Democracy by Darrow Schecter. (Manchester University Press, 1994.)

Exactly why we should want to follow a path “beyond Marxism” is not altogether clear from this book, and it is to be suspected that the title is the publisher’s and not the author’s. In it, Marxism is often equated with the "state socialism" of the former USSR and its satellites, but here and there are intriguing signs that Schecter thinks there is more to it than this. Unfortunately, he doesn't proceed too far beyond the signposts.

Schecter writes at one point that the “verdict on Social Democracy is still open”, following up this remark with the comment that “it remains to be seen whether Keynesian techniques will continue to be effective in terms of minimising unemployment and ensuring economic growth". We would have thought that by now the inefficacy of Keynesian techniques had been demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt.

Schecter argues that, with the collapse of what he misleadingly insists on calling "state socialism", the task of socialists today is "to define the contours of a non-authoritarian socialist alternative to capitalism”. In approaching this task, Schecter examines six different strands of anti-authoritarian thinking: anarchism, such as that propounded by Proudhon and Kropotkin; syndicalism, especially that associated with Georges Sorel (who paradoxically also did much to influence Italian fascism); council communism, principally the ideas of Pannekoek; G.D.H. Cole's guild socialism; market socialism together with the co-operative and self-management movements; and finally green socialism. Schecter concludes that all these strands of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses, though it is clear that his preference is for a form of "Communitarian Anarchism" as the others suffer from problems as to how to regulate and organise production in a non-authoritarian manner.

Given his preference for non-market and decentralised systems of democracy and planning, it is curious that Schecter should have restricted himself to analysis of these six particular theories. Conspicuous by their absence are socialist industrial unionism and another branch of what is sometimes called "impossibilism” - the type of politics advanced by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Schecter's book cries out for an analysis of the non-market socialism promoted by so-called “impossibilist” groups together with the rigorous approach to definition and argumentation which this political sector brings.

That his book ignores the contributions to the development of political thought on democratic organisation and socialist production by the Socialist Party's political sector, with its conceptions of non-authoritarian socialist democracy and planning, is not just our loss - Schecter's book is all the poorer without it.
Dave Perrin

Er . . . come again Jessica (1996)

Book Review from the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Soundings: A journal of politics and culture. Issue I. Autumn 1995, Lawrence & Wishart.

One can imagine the discussion in the editorial office of Lawrence and Wishart, the old Communist Party publishing house. "What we need is a brand new journal that will really put the old left-wing ideas back on the map." says Jessica to Justin. "That’s right." he enthuses, "a real journal of ideas—like Marxism Today used to be, only this time we won’t turn out so respectable that we become Tories and end up writing for the Sunday Times." Jessica dribbles with delight. "So, we'll get Stuart Hall to write a thirteen-page editorial about nothing in particular, which will show that we’re not Leninists like we used to be. but we’re still full of the old reformist tripe.’’ Stuart Hall’s editorial is undoubtedly a masterpiece in saying nothing eloquently, a must for all English as a Foreign Language students. "Then we'll get Barbara Castle to write a twelve-page article on the lessons which the Blair government must learn. Of course, she’ll support Blair, but she'll offer some penetrating warnings about moving too far to the right." Yawn! "Then Beatrix Campbell, the leading theorist of femino-Leninist-Channel-Fourism, will write an eighteen-page critique of communitarianism." They speak of little else in Hackney. “And that much-loved leftist interpreter of international affairs will write a twelve-page article on .. ." Pass the smelling salts; by now anyone with the slightest interest in original thought will be passing out. “Oh, and just to keep the kids happy, we'll have this utterly incomprehensible eighteen-page whopper on "Music in Post-modern East End"— just to show the yoof and the sociology lecturers that we’re still in touch with the cutting edge of ideas." And then—wait for it—they have the bloody nerve to charge £10.99 for the launch issue. They’ll be queuing up to buy this one at the local dole offices—we think not. What will be a safer bet Prescott for a future seat in the House of Lords or Soundings to go out of existence before the year 2000? If there’s any justice in the publishing world issue two of this dull, confused, confusing and pretentious journal should never see the light of day. It is sad proof that old CPers refuse to publish a short, dignified classified ad in the Guardian saying "We were wrong", but insist on their right to continue inventing new and more long-winded ways of offering the world their wrong ideas. Like the rather more accessible, but almost equally boring magazine, Red Pepper, this reviewer’s advice is that rather than buy a copy you might as well give the money to a beggar in the street— you’ll certainly be doing as much to change the world.
Steve Coleman

Contemporary European Paradox (1996)

Book Review from the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Yugoslavia Dismembered by Catherine Samary, translated from French by Peter Drucker (Monthly Review Press, New York. I99S. £11.95.)

If you are one of the countless people who are baffled by the events in what used to be called Yugoslavia this book is the simplest and most readable account published so far. It is packed with very useful chronological tables and easy to comprehend statistical information. It is analytically rooted in a Marxist approach, although this must be distinguished from dogmatic economic determinism which is not present.

Samary successfully connects this war with the contemporary European paradox of an economic supra-nationalism combined with re-emerging ideological nationalisms. The case for the extreme fragility of what is over-optimistically called European unity, and the possibility of regarding the Yugoslav war as a precursor of national rivalries yet to break out in Europe is well argued. The author could be accused of having too rosy a retrospective view of the successes of Titoist federalism, but she makes well the point that national cultures cannot be created in test tubes, even though many of the allegedly deep roots of distinct Serbian and Croatian national cultures were largely the monstrous inventions of dangerous Frankenstein-like intellectuals. As a study of the problem this book is good; as for the root of the problem and the solution to it, readers will be better looking at this journal’s coverage of the subject.
Steve Coleman