Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Chinese Advance (1954)

Film Review from the April 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Socialism is impossible—at any rate not for generations because of the mass of backward people in such places as Asia who are incapable of understanding class warfare and socialism and would therefore render the advent of such a society impossible." Such a viewpoint which is held by a number of those otherwise sympathetic to the socialist cause discourages them from working for the establishment of this new society which seems to them too far distant to be practical politics. We can readily agree that Socialism, being an international system of society, requires the support of the mass of the workers of the world for its success. But peoples who are brought within the orbit of the Western world absorb present day mental attitudes and techniques at a speed truly amazing. The largest national group in Asia is the Chinese, who according to the census taken last June number 525 millions. It might be illuminating if we take a peep through the bamboo curtain at, say, just one aspect of society there to see if development compares with that of the West.

A Chinese Film
Such an opportunity presented itself when the Chinese film “The White-haired Girl” was shown at The Scala, London, and at a limited number of other cities throughout the country.

Cinema-going can be a depressing experience owing to the average run of shows being so mediocre, even though there are films made which could be regarded as competent and therefore of fair entertainment value. Once in a while a film stands out as a masterpiece—such a one is “ The White-haired Girl!'

The film was adapted from the opera of the same name and is based on a legend from modern China during the course of the recent change of regime there. For a Chinese audience it epitomises a story occurring in real life only too frequently. The scene opens with the peasants harvesting in the sweltering heat of a Chinese summer. Despite the idyllic beauty of the countryside there is a threat hanging over their heads— if they are unable to repay the loans contracted during the year the lender, who is also the largest landowner as is usual in that country, is liable to distrain on their belongings including their winter clothing. How well the Chinese audiences realise the significance of all this! To try to brave the biting cold of a Chinese winter without suitable clothing is equivalent to‘a sentence of death. In vain one old man tries to stop his daughter from overworking, for she is engaged to be married and has the additional expense of getting a home together. After lunch the engaged couple wander off for a short while and a charming love scene takes place —charming because of its restraint and sincerity.

There is a scene on the threshing floor which graphically demonstrates the exploitation of the rural people. This is constantly demonstrated in similar scenes in real life in China. This is of especial interest because exploitation in our industrial society is camouflaged by the wages system. The landlord’s large proportion of the grain is measured out contrasting with the pitiful remainder as the farmer’s reward for a year’s toil. The rewards of arduous toil are insufficient to meet the landlord’s demands and he asks for the girl in lieu of repayment. The father’s misery provides a poignant moment of the film and is acted with transcendant skill. On New Year’s eve she falls asleep on his shoulder. He gently replaces her on the bed, kisses her, then restraining his bursting tears goes in the snow to the landlord’s house and poisons himself on the threshold. He had hoped by this gesture to shame the landlord out of his bargain but it was in vain. The landlord comes next day—in China it is customary to settle debts by the New Year—and takes the girl to his home. Much to his chagrin she is taken over by the autocratic mother—a commonplace character in many families in China despite the apparently lowly place that women appear to have—for service in the women’s quarters as a slave. However, the landlord manages to violate her in the end. With the aid of another servant, her fiancĂ© helps her to escape, is foiled in the attempt and fleeing the district, joins up with the Red Army. Eventually he becomes the leader of a detachment and later, when the Reds have conquered the area, is sent back to his own village to enforce the new land distribution laws. Meanwhile the girl becomes pregnant and, helped by another servant escapes to a nearby mountain cave. There in a scene marked by exquisite delicacy she gives birth to her baby. It dies. Her hair turns white.

Sleeping in the cave she lives off wild berries and plants eking this out by stealing the offerings from a lonely Buddhist temple and with her white hair becomes a legend in the neighbourhood. The landlord in order to distract the attention of the newly arrived Reds from his own short-comings, deliberately fires a house in the village and blames the white-haired apparition. The Red detachment goes off to probe this tale and the long-lost lovers are dramatically reunited.

The landlord is judged by The People’s Court, composed of villagers, who assemble and listen to the girl's charges against the landlord. Unable to control their passion the villagers try to lynch him but the Red Army officer insists on law and order. So the case proceeds according to the letter of the law. The accused is sentenced to death, and his land distributed to the peasants.

Here you see a fair replica of a scene that was enacted in many villages throughout China when captured by the Red Army.

Dramatic Art in Post-War China
A rapid expansion and development of dramatic art took place in the Mongol Dynasty of the 13th century although more rudimentary performances were known over the preceding 2,000 years.

The displacement of civil servants by Mongol and other foreigners during this period and the discontinuance of the classical examinations for the civil service relieved the educated from their preoccupation with classical literature, hitherto essential for the examinations, and thus freed them to write novels and plays.

A further literary renaissance coinciding with the founding of the Republic in 1911 also included dramatic art.

The standard of acting on the Chinese stage is very high—it has to be—for the production has not the assistance from stage scenery or effects. In this respect it resembles the Elizabethan stage. Their plays would be called operas in this country for the words are sung to music provided by an orchestra. This development from the opera was demonstrated in the film where the words were sung to an orchestral background. Percussion instruments which underline and emphasize the important lines in the traditional Chinese opera were absent in the music for this film while the haunting Chinese melodies composed in the western idiom revealed the influence of Western capitalism.

The White-haired Girl" is more directly derived from the Yang-ko, a traditional village fertility folk dance. During the war against Japan this popular entertainment was developed and changed to meet the needs of Communist Party propaganda designed for a population who, not being able to read, were unable to be doctrinated with the written word. Various specific characters were introduced. After the villagers had joined in, the dance troupe would present a play. 

The film demonstrates these diverse influences and also shows clearly the impact of capitalist ideology, as represented by the Land Reform Laws imposed on the old traditional social set-up of the landlord's village.

The action in the drama and the spoken passages are realistic and probably owe more to Western theatre than to Chinese opera. But as China has adopted capitalism and successfully assimilated it until now it appears to be somewhat of a Chinese variety of capitalism, so it seems that Chinese dramatic and musical artistes have been able to absorb the technique of western capitalism yet still produce a film which is essentially and completely Chinese.

The White-haired Girl” demonstrates what is possible when the high level of culture and dramatic sensibilities and revolutionary fervour of the Chinese are harnessed to the technical knowledge of the West.

The Chinese film industry have equalled if not beaten Hollywood at what is usually considered to be its own game and in so doing perhaps indicate that the dismal Jeremiahs may be holding a mistaken view of the alleged slow pace of development of the fresh arrivals in our modern society.
Frank Offord

Anarchist Reformism (1956)

From the April 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

An article in Freedom (31.12.55) shows the bankruptcy and reformist tendencies of the Anarchist movement. The article, entitled "The Vicious Circle of Gas Rings" deals rather briefly with the monastic (set-up) of modern bed-sitters; how the landladies are after as high a price as they can squeeze for their commodity (as if other sellers aren't!); that conditions are unhygienic, and the distressing fact that a cooker is conspicuous by its absence. "If amenities were made available, such as a small cooker . . . then at least half the trouble could be melted away."

The author of the article seems to think that this business is encouraged by the State, which is actively interested in getting people to many, as a married person with Hire Purchase commitments is "less inclined to be a radical or a revolutionary . . . "The writer of the article goes on:—"No council would consider letting one of their flats to a single person. And that is one of the things we need to change."

At least one council (Chelsea Borough Council) lets flats to single people and we can be sure there are others. But apart from this, let us examine the logic of our anarchist's argument. If it is true that the authorities encourage the above state of affairs, so that people tend to get married and therefore not become revolutionaries, etc., and are less inclined to want the “FREE SOCIETY" which the anarchists would have us believe they are after, then their position should be one of supporting the landladies and lodgers set-up; opposing the introduction of cookers in bed-sitters, on the principle that more misery makes more revolutionaries! For, if our “bed-sitters" get their “amenities" it is surely only a matter of time before they too have their H.P. commitments and are lost in the day-dream world of trying to keep up with the Jones’s!

The fact is that neither by increasing misery nor by tinkering around with the effects of Capitalism (a gas stove here or there) can we get rid of the class problems of this society. It is property—the ownership by a few, to the exclusion of the many, which causes social problems. Whether it is war—the squabble over property in the form of markets, realisation of profits, sources of raw materials, trade routes, etc., by National groups, or poverty —the position that all workers are in—lacking enough of the things of life to lead a comfortable existence, harassed by insecurity, fear of unemployment, etc., the fact that workers, generally speaking, never get more of the wealth produced by them, than is necessary for them to reproduce themselves as wage-workers. Or even the more superficial problems like refusing to work with coloured people; and “bed-sitters.” These are all the problems of a society which produces wealth socially, but doesn't distribute it according to need, a society in which the wealth produced by the working-class (who run society from top to bottom) is in the possession of a parasitical minority who own and control either privately or through the State.

To get rid of the above problems it is no good (as the anarchists do) advocating petty reforms, or the smashing of the State machine. What must be done is the organisation of the working class throughout the world into a cohesive, class-conscious whole, until Socialists are a majority. Then by taking control of the existing political apparatus, they will take over the means of living and make the earth and all that is on it and in it, the common-possession of all people, without distinction of race or sex. For only in a world where all have freedom of access to the wealth of society, can we be rid of war, poverty, bed-sitters, and so on. Such a society, of course, can only be brought about on a world-wide scale by people who understand, desire, and are prepared to work for it in an organised fashion; undermining the basis of Capitalist society and organising for a new one. rather than tinkering around with the effects of this one. like our Anarchist opponents.
Jon Keys

Peering At The Peers (2017)

The Proper Gander column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The House of Lords isn’t just a holding bay for octogenarian Caucasian aristocrats before they pop their clogs. As BBC2’s documentary series Meet The Lords shows us, it’s a weirder and more interesting institution than its fuddy-duddy reputation suggests. Despite the House of Lords’ important role in the state, and therefore capitalism, we don’t usually see all that much of it on the telly. There’s an occasional glimpse on the news, when we get someone like Paddy Ashdown (now The Right Honourable The Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon) or Melvyn Bragg (aka Baron Bragg of Wigton in the County of Cumbria) standing next to those tightly upholstered red benches talking cobblers and looking older than we remember. The producers of Meet The Lords have been allowed to film the wider goings-on in the House, including the debates, corridor chats, rituals and mealtimes. However, the price of this unprecedented access is that the series isn’t going to show us anything the state doesn’t want us to see. An undercover expose with hidden cameras and smuggled-out documents would be much more revealing, but there’s as much chance of that being made as there is a new series of Eldorado.
The image that the programme wants to present is that the House of Lords is home to wily mavericks keen to hold the House of Commons in check and who are crazy enough to go out for a curry to celebrate winning a vote. The show focuses less on the doddery old traditionalists we tend to assume make up most of the Upper House and more on livelier Lords and Ladies. Baron Bird, having gone from working in the House of Lords kitchen when he was much younger to sitting in the House itself, via setting up The Big Issue magazine, is certainly more grounded and relatable than many of his peers in the Peerage. He, at least, seems sincere in wanting to use his position to help out plebs like us. Baroness King wants to give the same impression, and says that the House of Lords is vital in tidying up the ‘chaos’ which comes from the House of Commons. This includes a proposed benefits cap for adopted children, which she fights against because she has three adopted children herself. Another peer acting on self-interest is Lord Borwick, a big-shot property developer involved with amendments to planning laws which will make it easier for him to build houses. Even if they succeed with making reforms which have some small benefit to workers, it’s still part of a system structured to defend the interests of the elite. The reforms have to fit in with what’s economically viable, meaning whatever measures keep as much wealth as possible in the hands of the capitalist class. So, both the Houses of Commons and Lords share a goal, however much the programme emphasises a ‘war of wills’ between them.
The two Houses certainly differ in culture, though. The House of Lords seems much more laid-back, albeit in a starchy sort of way. Rivalries between peers of different political parties aren’t expressed with the shouty point-scoring common in the House of Commons. Instead, they’re politely discussed over dinner, with the seating arrangements deliberately random to encourage different people to meet at each sitting. The odd procedures carried on in parliament underline how it’s an archaic, bizarre institution. Clerks wearing gowns unchanged since the 18th Century pass messages wrapped in ribbon between the Houses of Lords and Commons, while phrases in Norman French are still used in official declarations when laws are passed. ‘The most ludicrous part of our constitutional set-up’, according to The Electoral Reform Society’s chief executive Katie Ghose (quoted in Morning Star, 4th – 5th March 2017) is the hereditary peer ‘by-election’. The House of Lords Act 1999 led to most hereditary peers losing an automatic right to sit in the Upper House. When one of the remaining 92 dies or retires, the others elect a replacement from a tiny pool of aristocrats with an inherited title. Ironically, these hereditary peers are the only people elected into the House of Lords, not that this represents democracy in any meaningful sense to anyone outside the bubble.
The vast majority of the 800 members of the Upper House are life peers, appointed by the Queen and named as such because they’re there for the rest of their life. So, if you’ve ever wondered where David Blunkett, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, Betty Boothroyd, Nigel Lawson, Tessa Jowell and Floella Benjamin ended up, then it’s in ‘the best day care centre for the elderly in London’, as one member calls it. Also skulking about in there is Neil Kinnock (now Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty in the County of Gwent), who at his inauguration speech presumably didn’t repeat his quote from Tribune (19th November 1976): ‘The House of Lords must go - not be reformed, not be replaced, not be reborn in some nominated life-after-death patronage paradise, just closed down, abolished, finished’. Now, he’s acquired a taste for ermine and collects his £300 expenses each day.
All the above are ‘Lords Temporal’, which sounds like something from Doctor Who. The remaining 26 are Church of England Bishops, collectively ‘Lords Spiritual’, which sounds like something from Game Of Thrones.
Meet The Lords is an interesting insight into those who, literally, lord it over us. The colourful characters and the strange rituals it focuses on, though, are really just window-dressing on a stodgy, elitist institution which props up our divided society.
Mike Foster