Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Labour Party seeks a Programme (1954)

Editorial from the August 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

For political parties dependent on leaders it is much better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The leaders' promises to remove some present evils at a not too distant date keep members and voters united and enthusiastic. The led are willing to accept with a great deal of trust the belief that the reforms they are working for will produce the desired beneficial results. It is with achievement that the testing time comes and the party’s cohesion or even its existence is imperilled. A case in point is the long struggle waged early this century to give the American people the benefits of prohibition. When it came the beneficiaries decided that it was more of a curse than a blessing and there followed a much shorter struggle, to get rid of it This of course, shattered the prohibition organisations; but, if things had gone differently and prohibition had turned out to be even half-way up to expectations and had become permanent this too would have ended the organisations for their work would have been completed.

Problems like these are responsible for the present doubts, dissensions and struggles for leadership in the British Labour Party. In their six years of power after the war, they carried out much of the programme that had kept them going for half a century. They nationalised basic industries, elaborated the national Insurance schemes, introduced the Health Service continued war-time arbitration in industrial disputes gave independence to India and other countries in the Empire and put into operation their plans for bringing peace into international relationships through the United Nations and their "new approach” to foreign governments. Then they sat back waiting for the applause that did not come. According to the book a grateful electorate should then have rallied to Labour and spurned the Tories. Instead, disappointment with Nationalisation and the utter failure of Labour’s foreign policy had the result of dividing the electorate about evenly between the Labour and Tory parties. To the extent that they approved the insurance schemes and the Health Service they decided that these were as much Tory schemes as Labour ones, as indeed they were, for the Tories were astute enough to adopt them and not leave them to figure as a Labour Party monopoly. In the meantime Labour’s experience of running capitalism in a world beset with peril for the British Empire capitalist group had made them as safe for the preservation of the interests of that group as the Tories themselves. So now the hopes and the fire have departed from Labour ranks and they are trying to find how to regain what has been lost. They are seeking new leaders and new programmes that will carry them back to power.

The problem has been surveyed by Professor G. D. H. Cole and by Mr. Donald Chapman, formerly secretary of the Fabian Society; by Mr. Cole in a pamphlet Is this Socialism? and by Mr. Chapman in the Political Quarterly.

Mr. Cole is certain that if the Labour Party at the 1950 and 1951 elections had come out boldly for more of the old programme—as some Labour leaders thought they should—they would have lost votes not gained them. And Mr. Chapman finds that the workers, no longer spurred on by mass unemployment, have largely lost what desire they had for seemingly radical changes. And it is certainly true that the quite unprecedented nine year period of unemployment averaging less than two per cent has robbed the Labour Party of the asset it had when mass unemployment constantly stirred the workers to discontent with Tory governments between the wars.

Their analysis of the troubles of the Labour Party are convincing but it is when we look at their suggested remedies that we see how little they have to offer. Mr. Cole suggests that inheritance should be virtually abolished, that dividends should be limited, and that part of profits re-invested as capital should be taken by the State. This assumes, of course, that nationalisation by a back-door method could be foisted on electors who have become less enamoured of straight nationalisation, and that having got complete State capitalism they would like it

Mr. Chapman does examine another proposition, that goes by the misleading title of "workers control” in industry, but decides that by and large the workers are not much interested in it.

It would, however, be a mistake to conclude, because Messrs. Cole and Chapman cannot find issues likely to put new life into the Labour Party, that the problem is insoluble. We can be sure that capitalism itself will go on producing evils at home and abroad around which the Tory and Labour parties (or other capitalist-reformist parties in their place) can build up rival programmes to form the basis of electoral battles.

There is, too, the real alternative—the one propounded by the S.P.G.B. None of the disappointments that gnaw at the supporters of the Labour Party are unforeseen. Fifty years ago the S.P.G.B. foretold that nationalisation would solve no working-class problem—at present the capitalists think that it isn’t much use to them either—and that however much capitalism is reformed and bureaucratised the world would still find no solution for social problems except Socialism.

When, therefore, the Manchester Guardian (1 July. 1954) asks “How can we make British politics —and parties—live again?” the Socialist knows the only worth-while answer.

Global Warning Fatigue (2017)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Professor Stephen Hawking, darling of the physics community, seems of late determined to tell us that we’re heading to hell in a handcart: ‘(Space travel) may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth’ ( In recent years the professor has repeatedly offered Cassandra-like prophecies of impending global destruction, as if he’s auditioning for the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: ‘We’re doomed, I tell ye, DOOMED’.

No doubt Prof Hawking assumes, as does every reasonable teacher, parent and political activist, that dire warnings are what make us act to change things. But what is the evidence for this assumption? If the people who elected Donald Trump are anything to go by, dire warnings may have precisely the opposite effect.

It is already known that confronting a world view with contradictory facts can perversely help reinforce it, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect [LINK]. It is possible that a diet of relentlessly negative news has a similar effect, so that instead of motivating change it is more likely to disable, depress and demotivate us into apathy and torpor.

There’s no question that bad news sells. Humans have a well-documented negativity bias which makes us take notice of bad news more than good, in the same way that we fear loss more than we covet gain. Explanations vary, though the simple logic of evolutionary survival may suffice. We devote less attention to earning dinner than we do to avoiding becoming dinner.

But our bad news bias is arguably being overloaded by a news media diet composed almost entirely of the stuff. It’s not just that there is a lot of bad news out there. News media, in hot competition for attention, preferentially select it. For example, one study looking at how news media treated various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that the report detailing the threats received around three times the coverage of the report dealing with practical solutions. If this is supposed to encourage us, indications are that it doesn’t. A small study of news-reading habits across the US, UK and India identified ‘news fatigue’ among participants leading to a ‘hope gap’ which created a desire to ‘tune out’. As the study authors put it: ‘Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism’ (LINK).

Journalists themselves are not immune either, and those exposed in the newsroom to extreme images or footage of violence have been known to develop PTSD symptoms including anxiety, depression, physical distress and alcoholism (LINK).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some commentators advise us to stop following the news altogether, on the grounds that it doesn’t explain anything, its fragmentary nature inhibits concentration, it doesn’t help you make practical decisions, it grinds you down into a state of desensitised cynicism and passivity, and then it helps lock you into this worldview through your own confirmation bias. Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli is an exponent of this view, arguing that news is not information for the mind, it’s a toxic diet of sugary titbits that corrodes your ability to think straight (LINK).

But what about bad news leavened with good? The order of presentation might be important. One interesting 2014 workplace study looked at how people react to receiving good news before bad, and vice versa. The researchers reported that participants who elected to hear bad news first, followed by good, tended to display less anxiety and better moods as a result, but proved to be less interested in doing anything about the bad news. Conversely, those who chose to get the good news first tended to be more motivated to take positive action to address the issues that had been identified (LINK).

And there are different types of motivation at work. Research into workplace motivation since the 1950s has shown that while demotivating factors tend to be external and environmental – bad pay, stupid boss etc - correcting for these factors – even offering more money - does not by itself increase motivation. Instead, successful motivators tend to be intrinsic and to do with a need for interesting and challenging work with increased responsibility. Yet despite this managers continue to rely on the external ‘carrot and stick’ motivators (LINK). This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who understands that employment is essentially an exploitative practice devoted to making a profit for the boss, in which such intrinsic motivators can rarely if ever be accommodated.

Today it’s possible, through techniques such as blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) imaging, to study the processes of memory formation and its motivational drivers directly in the brain. This is useful because self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. One conclusion is unequivocal: ‘you can’t be afraid, you can’t be anxious—because anxiety systems really clamp down on curiosity and produce stereotyped, rapid, simple responses that short circuit [...] curiosity’. The research has also turned up some surprises. Not only do people react very differently to the same reward stimuli – ‘some people responded like we were threatening them with an electric shock when we promised them money’ – there is also a wide variation in why and what people remember – ‘if we alter the motivational state of the brain, we see that emotion and motivation are not just filtering memory to say what’s remembered and what’s not. They also shape the structure, the form of the memories, to enhance behavioral responses (LINK).

It's not that a bad or negative message never engenders positive change, indeed evidence that it can work was behind the move to place graphic and disturbing images on cigarette-packets (LINK). But while a promotional strategy aimed at a specific behaviour is one thing, an unrelenting barrage of negativity may be something else entirely.

How should socialists respond? The case for socialism is really two cases, one negative and one positive. The negative case, which we tend to focus more attention on, is the case against capitalism and in particular why the system can never work in the majority interest no matter what anyone does. The positive case is for the post-capitalist society, where common ownership, universal democracy, voluntary participation, free access and production for use can create a steady-state and technologically advanced society which is capable of benefiting all its citizens. The negative case, or some bowdlerised version of it, is what people hear ad nauseam from every two-bit leftist demagogue and career politician. The positive case meanwhile is spat upon as ‘utopian’ by those who are too befuddled to think straight or too embittered to care. Socialists are free to choose either case. But there are grounds for thinking that it’s hope that really drives change, and not despair.
Paddy Shannon

Our Principles Stand (1954)

From the September 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just over a hundred years ago, Marx and Engels, commenting on the drastic changes brought about by the Capitalist system of production, stated in the Communist Manifesto:—
   “The bourgeoise during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceeding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man. machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”
Since then this process has been continued at an ever increasing pace, with progressive acceleration during the past fifty years which staggers the imagination.

Even faster and more complex machinery, together with changes in technique, have brought the belt system and mass production, making the day’s toil a nightmare.

Running parallel, but well to the fore, are the powers of destruction. One horror overshadows another. The high explosive and incendiary bombs of ’39 are dwarfed by the Atom bomb of’45. Terrible as was the destructive power of this weapon, it has become insignificant compared with the Hydrogen bomb, making possible mass slaughter on an unpredictable scale.

Keeping pace with these abominations of destruction, and an accessory to them, is the speed of travel. Nothing is spared in human life and wealth in the mad scramble to outpace rivals in speed, an effort directed today primarily to the purpose of slaughter.

This mad world of ever more rapid changes has had its effect, among other things on the fortunes of political parties. Many that flourished fifty or less years ago are gone and almost forgotten. Others, while retaining their original names, have completely changed their character, while a few survivors are but shadows of their former selves.

The stable character of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its consistent adherence to the principles of Socialism, stands out as an exceptional incident in the political life of this country. This fact is a fitting tribute to the ability of that small body of working men who founded the organisation and drew up its object and declaration of principles.

The clear understanding and unity of purpose which guided their action stands out in every clause of that statement. It draws a clear line of demarcation between the Socialist Party and all other political parties. It stamps the organisation as Marxist, and gives it its scientific basis. The fact that membership of the party has been conditional upon an understanding and agreement with that declaration, explains to a extent its survival through conditions which have and destroyed so many others.

The declaration has proved invaluable as an instrument against opponents, and a sure guide in the settlement of many internal disputes. Time and time again, trained and skilled men in the art of debate have attempted, but failed, to find a weak spot or unsound idea in it. In the conduct of Party affairs it has many times come under severe scrutiny. Often have members set out to improve that declaration, but never have they been able to propose any worth while alteration.

In internal disputes, it has proved its worth. Proposals that have run counter to it have invariably been rejected by a majority of the members, and subsequent experience has always justified their action.

In spite of the many and drastic changes which have taken place during the past fifty years, our D. of P. still stands as a clear, concise and accurate summary of the case for Socialism. This stability is to be explained by a corresponding stable feature in capitalist society, a feature which is present in all capitalist countries, no matter the form of government or degree of development. The condition is the exploitation of the wealth producers under wage slavery.

While capitalism lasts, that exploitation will continue, and until it is ended the Object and Declaration of Principles of the Party, which stem from that exploitation and are directed to its abolition, will remain valid. The problem is the same today as fifty years ago, and will remain the same until Socialism is established. The struggle between the two classes is the natural consequence of that exploitation. In its early stages it takes the form of a struggle over wages and conditions, followed with the growth of understanding, by the struggle to end exploitation.

The way this can be accomplished is dictated by the conditions of Capitalist Society. The private ownership of c die means of life is the condition which enables one class to live by the exploitation of the other. The character of the means of production makes common ownership the only practical method of ending class ownership. As control is an essential part of ownership, and the only way society as a whole can control is by democratic means, we see, therefore, that the Object of the Party is dictated by the conditions of capitalism. That Object is:—
   “The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.”
That is a brief definition of Socialism. It is not a scheme or an invention, but a discovery brought to light by the work of Marx and Engels in their critical examination of capitalism.

The important part the class struggle plays in the Socialist movement is self-evident. Exploitation prompts and generates the effort to secure emancipation, and emancipation to the working class can be nothing but Socialism. Socialism is, therefore, the outcome of the class struggle.

Action in conformity with this struggle, as outlined in our declaration of principles, will bring the working class to the dawn of a new social system, the potentialities of which are unbounded. Not only will it free society from the toils of class and national conflict, but will give the human race a larger measure of choice in the conduct of social affairs than it has ever experienced before.

We must not, however, allow the wonderful prospect of a classless society to blind us to the hard realities of the struggle we must face and conquer before the promised land is ours.
Ted Lake

Lethal Young Ladies: The New Zealand Murder Trial (1954)

From the October 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few topics excite more interest and become stale more quickly than a spicy, spectacular murder. Everyone knows the facts, makes his summing-up and pronounces his verdict; justice is done, and everyone talks of something else. There is rarely much reason for recalling it, except the sorts of reason that prompt “True Crime Stories,” waxwork shows and retired detectives’ memoirs. The case of the two New Zealand schoolgirls is no longer news, but it raised questions which need considering from points of view other than the self-righteous tribalism of the Sunday papers.

Briefly to recapitulate, one girl was 15 and the other was 16, and they killed the older girl’s mother. They had well-to-do homes and were described as highly intelligent; the murder was the culmination of a daydream-world, sex-heated friendship which the mother had threatened to end. The trial revolved round a diary, which recounted their extravagant fantasies and their amorous experiments; they were “insane, incurable and certifiable,” said the defence, “dirty-minded and incurably bad,” said the prosecution. After six days’ trial, the girls were found guilty and, too young for the gallows, sentenced to be detained indefinitely.

It is horrifying enough that two adolescents, through belief in a manufactured world of ideas, should kill another human being in cold blood. But a good deal of the revulsion aroused by murders is in the nature of a conditioned response; for those who are unsure of the amount of horror required, the Press provides helpful guides in the form of denunciatory comments. There is not much indignation over adolescent boys being trained to kill; a particularly lethal air-gunner of 18 is more likely to be decorated than declared either mad or bad, until his own turn comes and they wash him out of the turret with a hose. The writer recalls, too, seeing a war-time booklet on unarmed combat for 15-year-old Boy Scouts and reading what can be done with the rim of a steel helmet. On balance, it seems almost to the diarist’s credit that she felt “very keyed up ” the night before the murder.

Paranoia is the clinical name for the alleged condition of mind of the two girls; it is a form of insanity characterized by delusions of grandeur, persecution and so on. Many of the things tut-tutted over in the reports were not paranoiac at all, of course; plenty of schoolgirls—and schoolboys—keep lurid diaries, create fantasy-worlds and make sexual explorations. The most interesting thing about paranoia is that it can lead to glory as well as the condemned cell. All that was said about these girls can equally be said of some of the most illustrious. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who according to a magazine article was " . . . libidinous as a goat and meaner than a spider . . .  he believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, magic, spells, the whole bag of tricks, and more than once employed 'necromancers’ to make wax images of his Wall Street enemies."

There is the case, too, of Salvador Dali (“avida dollars,** a Spanish anagrammist called him—“avida" meaning “ he's hungry for them.**) His autobiography is a lot more surprising than the reports of the Christchurch trial. As well as art, it brings in putrefaction, cruelty and coprophilia and accounts of his solitary sexual acts, his morbid fetishes and his desire to kill.

Journalists are free with the word “paranoiac” when writing up Dali; George Orwell in “Benefit of Clergy," commented shrewdly enough on the peculiarities which have made him a lion and a wealthy one, too.

Mental conditions like the one in question can and do lead to inhuman and anti-social acts. It is all too easy, however, to about: “Paranoiacs! Lock 'em away!" and overlook the honour which society accords to other paranoiacs. Easier still, to forget—or not to know at all—that even anti-social actions have social causes, and to believe that some people are simply "incurably bad." Let us dispose of that last piece of nonsense before going any farther. Leave out “bad"—it can be “good, according to the time and the place and the morality; apart from some who have diseased or disordered brains, there are no incorrigibly anti-social people.

Man is a social being, fending always towards co-operation and order. Each man is dependent on other men for existence, for fee satisfaction of his physical needs, and his emotional and mental ones, too (it has been suggested that even his fear of death is the fear of isolation); he has an interest in good relationships wife his fellow-men. The human concord that is churned as the heart of almost every religion and philosophy in the world is no more, and no less, than what human beings have tried to attain from the beginnings of social life. It is true that the property structures man has erected in his social development have continually frustrated his striving; the fact of the striving remains. All men are social by nature—that is, by the fact of being men.

There is a good deal to be said about the disordered brains, too. The incidence and causes of mental deficiency were investigated by the Wood Committee in 1929 and the Departmental Committee on Sterilization in 1933. Their strongest conclusion was that environment—poverty, ignorance, bad conditions—had more than anything else to do with producing minds “incapable of independent social adaptation." It seems obvious that a feeble-minded person cannot be called anti-social, even though he lacks responsibility; it is truer that society has not much use for the feeble-minded, because they are “inefficient."

Mental disorder is a different thing from mental deficiency—it happens much more frequently, too. Modern living creates a host of anxieties, tensions and frustrations (including, in fact, the frustration of man's social instinct). That is why mental and nervous disorders have spread so rapidly in recent years; it is also why the chief task of psychologists is to alter (if they can) the immediate circumstances which have led to strain. Mental disorders are curable, in the sense of treating and relieving individual cases; in the wider social sense they are not being cured at all because their causes are intensifying.

Anti-social behavior, when it is not the product of a disordered brain, is the reaction of a person to a situation. Not everybody has the same reaction because the circumstances that shape behaviour are not exactly the same in all of us; whatever the reaction, however, it is something learned from society. Jealousy and its resultant crimes can only happen in an environment where possession is important; malice, only where society engenders conflict. The social body, indignant over somebody's wickedness, is too often Caliban enraged with his own face in fee glass. The two girls in New Zealand were said to be morbidly obsessed with sex: has anybody enquired the state of mind of the people who packed the court to hear, or crowded the street for a glimpse of their faces?

There is no more virtue in whitewashing crimes than in condemning them. The important thing is to see them in the right perspective, understanding why such things happen to people. Some crimes are directly economic, because anything is done for money—and has to be—in our world; men and women steal, cheat and kill because they need it or think they do. The matter is not always so simple; more often crime involves emotions which are the responses of people, as society has made them, to situations, in which society has put them. Even the hard-boiled criminals—where are they boiled so hard but in the rancid social stewpan? The logical answer is to establish a social situation which does not promote anti-social reactions. Marx put it best by speaking of “human society" instead of “civil society."

The environmental nature of crime is recognized to quite a large extent by those who deal with it (leaving out Justices of fee Peace, who are required to have no knowledge at all of what they are dealing with). The reports of counsels' speeches in the News of the World show that plenty of them are aware that a prisoner’s life history— his education, housing, wages, health—stands with him in the dock. The fact remains that fee treatment of criminals is based mainly on retribution. The only example of an organized attempt at rehabilitation is the Borstal training of young offenders, which has a certain amount of success —because youth is easily moulded—in disciplining them to society’s requirements.

More humane and rational attitudes to many things have become established since the days of public hangings. Nevertheless, most people still accept that it is right or necessary to inflict retributive punishment on those who break the laws. The popular Press, which butters up public opinion so as to guide it all the more firmly, supports the view that retribution is the only socially practicable answer. Probably under this system it is—even though it doesn't really work; the main effect of prolonged or repeated imprisonment is to make its victim unfit for any life except one of crime. It is worth remarking also that punishment degrades those who inflict it, as well as those at the receiving end.

It is true that there has been talk at various times about reforming fee criminal law to “humanize" it and provide that unfortunates like the two schoolgirls should be rehabilitated instead of punished. The sentiment is admirable, but most of those who want to rehabilitate criminals never question the sort of world into which they would be rehabilitated. And many of them—presumably, at any rate—object to retribution for crime but agree to it when it is the motive for war.

Why are there crime and delinquency, and the states of mind which lead to them? Crimes against property and its coercive morality are inevitable while private property exists; crimes against people, too, are part of an unhealthy condition of society. There can be little solution of these problems in the social order which breeds them: "human society" is the only real answer. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme may have been mad or just malicious. Either way, the diagnosis is of the world of which they are part, and underlines the need for speedy, efficient cure.
Robert Barltrop