Thursday, June 28, 2018

Crooked in every direction (1996)

Book Review from the February 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Straight Left by Paddy Devlin (Blackstaff Press, £8.95)

The vanity that induces someone to think that the public wants to know about their life is well to the fore in this autobiography. The story of a ghetto kid who saw a future in ward healing politics — which, for some undisclosed reason he associates with socialism — is told in a tidal wave of personal pronouns.

There is usually a story in the life of every working class youngster who finds diversion in cheating the reality of poverty and privation. When that life is lived in a Belfast sectarian ghetto, an extra dimension of religious bigotry and strife is added to life’s miseries which, in turn, heightens the need for those forms of escapism which Devlin’s portrayal of his formative years illustrates so well.

But bigotry is no joke and, in Northern Ireland, it frequently carries a gun or a bomb. Here it is composed of the naked viciousness of a primitive Calvinism which, while most reflected in the crude politico-religious vapourings of Paisleyism, has to some extent infiltrated all the Protestant denominations, and that particularly virulent strain of Catholicism which is essentially Irish.

Both, after the fashion of mainstream religion elsewhere, are on the march to what is effectively their end. In Northern Ireland, however, legend, tradition and very deliberately inculcated ignorance artificially respirates these evils into an ugly tribalism that represents the politics of the province. The inadequacies of capitalism, especially in housing, employment and education, act as a convenient catalyst for these malignant forces in the hands of bigots like Paisley and Adams and their religious or political fundamentalist cohorts — who. if local politics demanded any degree of intellectual integrity, would have long since been marginalised.

It is the consequences, political and economic, of this politico-religious mishmash that has formed the background to the mayhem that has given Northern Ireland a central place among the world's trouble spots over the past twenty-five years. Devlin played a central part in the events that led to the present troubles and, while he relates faithfully the bigotry and intransigence that made the Unionists into destroyers of their own cause, he fails utterly to appreciate the part which the false analysis of the Civil Rights movement contributed to the Northern Ireland tragedy.

The leaders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NiCRA). rightly accused the Unionist government and party of maintaining a regime that discriminated against catholics in the distribution of jobs, housing and local government votes. The inevitable assumption among working class protestants was that they were privileged in these areas — which they were not — and that the demand for a fairer distribution of these needs with catholics represented a threat to their alleged protestant privileges.

Socialists see the imposition of poverty in any of its aspects (jobs, housing, education etc.) on any grounds whatsoever — even when it is given apparent legitimacy by being called ’selection’ — as a feature of capitalism. Within the ambit of that system’s production for profit ethos, scarcity is an inevitable feature. Capitalism cannot exist without poverty, without unemployment and without penalising those who, for whatever reason, do not offer the profit system the maximum surplus value.

However Devlin may protest his ’socialism’, he was at one with those in the NICRA who identified the problems in religious terms; the problems were, they argued, caused by Unionism. Certainly, corruption and maladministration resulted in the uneven distribution of capitalism’s miseries but the miseries themselves were the political and economic consequences of capitalism. Unfortunately, the NICRA analysis led to conflict on religious lines within the working class when an essential part of the solution lay in the unity of the working class.

Like many pseudo-socialists, Devlin has a recidivistic contempt for the lessons of history. The failure of good intentions, Keynesian 'magic' and reforming zeal to remove the social ugliness of capitalism should drive him to consideration of an alternative form of social organisation, such as socialism — defined as it was before its wilful perversion by earlier groups of ward healers who thought they could make a system based on exploitation of the working class function in the interests of that class. Such consideration would, of course, be an admission of failure and acknowledged failures do not write autobiographies.

If you can stand the dreadful political ignorance of someone who suggests that the SDLP is/was associated with socialism, that the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive of 1974 is a model for the (socialist?) future and that the Workers Party is a Marxist organisation, then the rest is interesting and factually instructive about events in Northern Ireland especially since 1968.
Richard Montague

Does inflation fall from heaven? (1979)

From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

People like Lord Soper tell us that the Christian Paradise will be achieved right here on earth when we get a socialist society. It seems rather a cheek that after all the thousands of years of suffering on the part of the human race, when eventually we do achieve a world fit for humans to live in, the Christian God will take the credit. If he wants any thanks from us, let him lend a hand now. If he is going to keep mum as he has done ever since humanity created him and leave it to us ordinary mortals to win our new world one day, then he can keep off the stage when the bouquets are being handed out. But there is something else. Bad news for Lord Soapbox. There ain't gonna be no paradise. Even when we have achieved socialism, people will not live forever with wings on their shoulders and little harps in their hands. 

We will still get ill and die. Children may still be born with cancer (as many are now). There will still be earthquakes and typhoons which will kill and maim people. True, socialist society will do everything possible to alleviate suffering, but we will never be immune to it.

I indulge in all this preamble because a lot of people cannot imagine a world without inflation. They seem to think it is like an act of god, some sort of primal curse which the human race must learn to live with. It is not the purpose of this article to deal with the subject from a strictly academic or economic point of view. The columns of the Socialist Standard have often featured articles showing that inflation is simply a matter of a government printing an excess of paper currency. Indeed, this seems to be so blindingly obvious as really to brook no argument. Like saying that if you walk out in the rain you’re liable to get wet. Who’s going to argue? The fact is that politicians and economists do argue and quite fiercely. One can only assume they are either dishonest or daft. (They could of course be both and often are). There was a time, and not all that long ago, when the very word inflation was more or less unknown — or restricted to such things as car tyres.

This train of thought occurred to me when reading the remarks of a Ford worker at the beginning of their strike as quoted in the Guardian on Sept. 27. Here are his words of wisdom: “I’m proud of Ford’s in Dagenham, but we’re working like peasants down there. 'Thirty years ago, I earned £6 a week and 1 was a millionaire. 1 could buy a new suit every other month. Now, I’m a peasant’’. Let us ignore the unfortunate attitude of a member of the working class in 1978 who is a self-confessed peasant and yet is proud of his Baron Ford. That could well be the subject of another article—or maybe a book. The thing that struck me was his claim that thirty years ago this ordinary worker could buy a suit every other month.

How can this possibly be true, you may well ask? Surely workers are not worse off now than thirty years ago? But with suits running at nearly £100 a time (£200 in places like Harrods), one suit a year is probably nearer the mark than six. But the funny thing is that our worker is probably not far out and his memory is not playing him tricks. Thirty years ago, do you know what the name was of a huge men’s tailoring chain (second only to Burtons)? Fifty Shilling Tailors. Two and a half quid in modern language. But here I am more concerned with the actual name of the firm than the fact that suits were so cheap in those days. Because there is something very striking about that name. And it is this. No firm could dream of giving themselves a name like that today. How could it tie itself to a price when its price goes up every year? It would be an absurd thing to do. Like the slogan of Woolworths in those days. “Nothing over sixpence in the store”. Two and a half pence in modern parlance.

Now the firm from which our worker had bought his suit thirty years ago had been in existence with the same name for thirty years before that. And the mental process of the capitalist who ran the business (ironically his name was Price and he became a Lord just like Wilson’s raincoat manufacturer today) was clear enough. “I am going to sell suits at fifty shillings. So it must be a fine advertising gimmick to put the fact in the name over the door”. It never even occurred to this smart and very successful capitalist that the time would come when the name would be a source of acute embarrassment and would have to be changed. You arc obviously going to make a fool of your business if it is called Fifty Shilling Tailors when the price is actually fifty pounds — or a hundred pounds. So just about the time our worker is referring to, when inflation first began to be really noticed (inflation has been with us ever since World War II — though it only broke into a gallop in the last decade), they changed their name to John Collier.

So it is clear that neither capitalists nor workers gave a thought to the prospect of price rises in those days. God might send earthquakes. He never sent inflation. And oddly enough, neither did man for many generations. From the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the start of World War I in 1914, prices remained more or less stable. This was the first industrial country in the world. So there was nothing which said that inflation was an essential fact of capitalist life. It just didn't happen. Until governments decided to make it happen. And the very governments that do so are those with the nerve to blame it on the workers for being too greedy. They conveniently overlook that if it's greedy to want to maintain, and if possible even improve, their standard of living within the confines of capitalism then workers were always greedy. But inflation never happened. Workers in England were struggling and striking during the thirties but prices, if anything, went down.

There was of course one country where inflation hit hard and has remained a folk nightmare to this day and that was Weimar Germany in the Twenties. The awful days when workers had to take home their millions of marks on Friday in a wheelbarrow. But, of course, the workers did not print all those millions of notes. The German government did. And when it stopped printing, inflation stopped too. Which brings up another thought. When economists and politicians (and socialists too) discuss inflation, one always hears that in Germany today, inflation is not so serious. It is currently running at around 4 per cent and has never hit double figures, even at times when inflation in this country was over 20 per cent. And the reason is always given: Ah you see, the Germans have such dreadful memories of inflation between the wars. They couldn’t let such a thing happen again. And, for a change, the reason is more or less the right one. Any German government which printed notes on a scale like the British or the Italian governments have done over the last few years would be kicked out of office in quick time. The voters wouldn't stand for it. Even as things were, when Brandt was Chancellor and inflation was showing signs of going over 5 per cent, there was a joke in Germany which said that if he was Chancellor over a desert island you would soon notice the sand getting dearer. So, unlike the British government, the Germans decided to keep their inflation within strict limits. It was entirely up to them. The fact that the German workers are just as “greedy” as the British made no difference. It could not cause inflation unless the government wanted it. And, oddly enough, in another very successful capitalist country, even in these days, there is at present no inflation at all. Despite the high wages that the workers earn in Switzerland, their inflation rate is currently nil. So not only did heaven not send down inflation in the last century, it does not send it down in this century either in countries where the governments decide to solve their problems (or try to) without recourse to the printing presses.

The government in Britain (Tory and Labour alike) decided that the workers could learn to live with inflation. And of course, they are right. Capitalism goes on by and large in the same way whether there is inflation or not. It is true that it is worrying to find that every time you go shopping your wages have to stretch further. And a council flat that cost £2 a week quite recently costs £12 today. All this sort of thing is part of the hassle of capitalism which makes life full of stress and strain. Roll
on the day when there won’t be high prices. Or low prices. A moneyless and — within limits — worryless society, too.
L. E. Weidberg

Labour's role in Northern Ireland (1979)

From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Immigrant Irish workers played no small part in the formation of the British Labour Party in 1906. Labour was hope; hope for the future in the land of their adoption; hope, too, for their loved ones, back on the 'oul sod'. Was not Labour a party of principle? Did not its spokesmen, especially when canvassing the ‘Irish vote’, speak emotionally of the ‘ancient wrongs’ and promise ‘freedom and friendship’ to Ireland?

In the years since 1906, the Labour Party has become a political obscenity that has jettisoned all the lofty principles that attended its birth. Those ‘principles’, begotten of ignorance of the nature of capitalism and the crassest political opportunism, have failed to fight even a rear guard action against the forces Labour claimed it could overwhelm and vanquish. Ironically, the excuses for Labour’s failures, for its total abandonment of principle, are logical only in terms of its continued existence; given its basic premise—that capitalism can operate in the interests of its exploited class—adherence to principle would have cost it its life.

To use the parlance of capitalism, there is no crime against the workers that Labour has not committed; indeed, because of its unholy alliance with the unions, it has often proved a more successful instrument against working class interests than have the Tories. Strike-breaking, racism, assaults on working-class living standards, propping up foreign dictatorships, military murder of defenceless peoples, nuclear weapon proliferation, presiding over poverty, homelessness and unemployment and taking active steps in the interests of the propertied class to extend these miseries. These are some of the crimes of the British Labour Party.

This is the other face of Callaghan, the plump, stooping ‘father figure', the disgusting paragon of capitalist respectability who pokes gentle jibes at his stage-managed counterpart on the ‘opposition’ benches to the accompaniment of the moronic caterwauling of ‘the House’.

That the Tories are even worse that Labour appears to be the prevailing attitude among the ‘Irish Vote’ in Britain and of the majority of workers in Ireland. No intelligent defence of Labour is offered but, ‘on the Irish Question . . .’ a more sympathetic understanding from the Labour Party than from the Tories is expected. After all, did not the Tories, callously exploit the ‘Irish Question’ and the ‘Orange Card’ to suit their political fortunes? Are they not the true architects of the situation now being paid for with working class lives in Ireland? Might they not, if they came to power, give the governorship role to the dreaded Airey Neave whose ignorant vapourings and sanguine aspirations threaten the Province with lakes of blood? On the other hand, didn’t Harold and Jim and many of their political ilk make speeches and write books acknowledging Britain’s part in the Irish tragedy and holding out the promise of unity and reconciliation?

Contrary to its alleged principles, however, Labour has over the last ten years used the full measure of its governmental authority to enact viciously repressive legislation. aimed at the most impoverished section of the working class in Northern Ireland. It has filled the jails with people who have ‘confessed’ to State torturers, allowed sporting military gentlemen to bludgeon or kill without fear of legal constraint and, finally, set in train the armament of the majority side in the conflict.

After Belsen, Dresden. Hiroshima, Vietnam and all the other horrors of capitalism it is a contemptuous hypocrisy on the part of those who accept this system to condemn the Provisional IRA for using violence. Indeed, were it not so disgusting, the sight of Roy Mason, Labour’s Gauleiter in Northern Ireland, condemning the viciousness of the IRA, would be comic. Mason’s last job was associated with preparations for the destruction of life and property with weapons that make those of the IRA look like toys.

Mason and his fraternity respond to criticism of military murder, torture and violence against the person by the forces of State thuggery, with the argument that those concerned or appalled by such practices are giving aid and comfort to terrorists. It was an argument used by some of those who were charged at Nuremberg in 1946 with ‘crimes against humanity’.

Throughout all its periods of office, the Labour Party countenanced, assisted and, in 1949, reinforced the despotic authority of Ulster Unionism. Only in 1968, when British capitalism’s investment in Northern Ireland was placed in jeopardy and the stench of events here was getting a bit much for the sensitive political nostrils of the ‘free world’, did British Labour act.

It sent in the British Army, literally to hold the fort against the downtrodden who, in a backlash of anger, threatened the future of the politicians with whom Labour had always had ‘amicable’ relations. After the Army, Callaghan, the ‘Irish expert’ arrived and offered the populace his wisdom and expertise: everybody should stop fighting because we were really such a marvellous people and, besides, we knew it made sense!

Subsequently, through Labour pressure to create the illusion of change, the guns were temporarily removed from the largely politically-Protestant police force and the exclusively Protestant ‘B‘ Specials were disbanded. But Ulster Unionism was going to be defended by a fitter and more efficient groups of gunslingers; Callaghan announced the establishment of a new, locally based and recruited. regiment to be known as the Ulster Defence Regiment and, also, established a reserve for the infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary. Both—one by association and the other in its choice of name and intention—were immediately anathema to the non-unionist population and, predictably, became almost exclusively Protestant in their membership. It did not require the ‘expertise’ of a Callaghan to appreciate that this would happen, nor to realise that, in the political climate of the times, both organisations would attract the type of recruits that would distinguish themselves in the practice of bigotry—and worse.

Labour was, of course, only doing what is required of those who offer their services to capitalism. But even with their considerable experience of slopping up capitalism’s messes, the task of backing up the oldest of Europe’s repressive regimes could hardly have been conducive to untroubled sleep. True, Labour only laid the foundations of the new phase of Irish troubles before they were kicked out of office in 1970. The Tories, who replaced them, allowed murder and torture and. finally, took over the management of the whole show. In many respects the thuggery of the Tories was carried on with a little less hypocrisy than Labour had shown, and certainly Whitelaw seemed to enjoy the function of Gauleiter less than the present Labour incumbent.

The Labour Party’s ‘conscience’ must be a very sick joke, to those members of the working class in Northern Ireland who find themselves interned, beaten senseless or made to ‘confess’ to murder or other terrorist offences. Or to those who have their homes broken up and their relatives arrested for hours or days, TWO OR THREE TIMES EVERY WEEK, and even summarily executed by ‘‘security forces” whose assertion that their victims were ‘gunmen’ often proves so untenable that the State eventually pays ‘conscience’ money to the next-of-kin— even if it never manages to identify and punish the murderers.
Richard Montague (Belfast)

Party Notes. (1907)

Party News from the July 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Delegate Meeting will be held at the Communist Club on Saturday, 13th July at 3 p.m. Important business will be brought before it, and a full attendance of delegates is requested. 

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Full particulars were promised last month of the correspondence that has passed between the Tottenham Branches of the S.P.G.B. and the I.L.P. The Tottenham Herald has since published the correspondence. Our branch challenged the I.L.P. to debate the proposition: “Does the I.LP. deserve the support of the working class?" Two of their local champions had expressed their willingness to meet a representative of this Party on the question, but the branch replied : “Your challenge to debate the claims of the I.L.P. to the support of the working classes duly came before the branch for consideration at our business meeting. I am instructed to inform you that our platform is open to you, or to anyone else who disagrees with us, and that you will be treated with consideration and courtesy at any of our meetings. In view, however, of the extravagant and slanderous statements made by your Tottenham speakers, we cannot see our way to meet you further. Furthermore, we suggest that it would be more honest and straightforward if, instead of allowing irresponsible spokesmen to bring the whole Socialist movement into disrepute by a policy of abuse and misrepresentation, you were to publish in your Journal the charges you bring against us, so that we should know definitely what your Party was prepared to support, and what we were expected to reply to.”

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The Tottenham S.P.G.B. said: “I am instructed to acknowledge receipt of your letter in which you decline our challenge to debate. Your reference to the "working classes” is typical of that looseness of expression, or ignorance, or both, which characterises the utterances of so many of the members of the I.LP. May I remind you ; that there are but two classes—the working class and the master class. This branch is unaware of any "extravagant and slanderous" statements having been made by our speakers. We ask you to name the occasions, the speakers, and the essence of the alleged statements. The charge that we bring against the I.LP. is that it is not worthy the support of the working class. We have given the evidence in the manifesto of the S.P.G.B., and month by month, in the columns of The Socialist Standard. . . . If we are pursuing a "policy of abuse and misrepresentation” why not meet us in debate and expose us? Your failure to do so will be accepted by the public as evidence that you cannot justify your position, and that you know our charge is true.”

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A reply to this communication is already somewhat overdue!

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Up to the date of going to press the first instalment of the discussion on Trade Unionism had not been received from the advocates of Industrial Unionism.
Adolph Kohn

Mr. Barnes and the A.S.E. (1907)

From the July 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard
The letter given below is a copy of one sent to the secretary of Ipswich Branch of the Operative Bricklayers' Society in reply to an invitation to speak at an engineers’ meeting to be held in that town on May 25th, with Mr. G. N. Barnes as chief speaker.
While thanking both Bro. Batchelor for suggesting and yourself for asking me to attend the Meeting of Engineers, there are certain important reasons why I could not appear on a platform with Mr. Barnes, to support him or his views and position in any way. As a Socialist I hold that the working-class can only get out of the slough of misery and degradation in which they exist to day by their consciously organising for the overthrow of the system that produces these conditions—namely, the capitalist system of Society. Until this is done the bad effects which our class suffers under, equally here in London as it does in Ipswich, and, in fact, everywhere that capitalism reigns, will, apart from some temporary fluctuations, tend to become worse. When the working class recognises this fact then it will organise itself into the political and economic organisations, having for their object the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism.

Meanwhile, until the workers arrive at that stage in the development of their knowledge of their own position in Society, which we Socialists term “class-consciousness,” the Socialists must carry on the work of education and agitation, to help in producing that knowledge or consciousness of the fact that their misery and poverty is due to one class in Society owning all the means of life—as the land, machinery, factories, railways, etc., and the wealth when it is produced—while the working class owns only the energy, ability or power to work—inseparable from the workers themselves—which they have to sell day by day or week by week, in order to obtain the necessaries of life.

With every improvement in machinery, with every fresh application of chemistry and science to industry,—as for example the introduction of concrete-steel construction with relation to our own trade the number of workers required to produce a given amount of wealth, or number of articles, continually decreases. We thus get the apparent paradox that while the amount of wealth produced increases the amount of unemployment increases also.

This antagonism of material interests causes a struggle to arise over the share which each is endeavouring to obtain of the wealth produced. And the only way out of this vicious circle is for the working-class to recognise this opposition of interest between themselves the producers—and the capitalist class the appropriators and to end this intolerable system by taking bold of the means of life to be owned and controlled by the workers in their social capacity.

There can be no crying of peace where only the conditions of war exist, and any assistance given to the capitalist class, either politically or economically, is a direct injury to the working class.

When Mr. Barnes assisted the employers on the Clyde in driving the men back to work by refusing strike pay and threatening expulsion from the A.S.E. although the men had twice voted for a strike to enforce their demands—then he showed that either from ignorance or intention he was helping to perpetuate capitalism, and therefore the evil effects, to our class, that it produces.

When Mr. Barnes and his Executive accepted the proposition of the employers on the East Coast that piece-work should be introduced—merely another name for intensified sweating—another direct injury was inflicted upon the workers for the benefit of the employers.

When running for the Blackfriars division of Glasgow, Mr. Barnes played for and obtained Liberal capitalist support at the last General Election, although the constitution of the L.R.C. forbids these alliances and bargains, thus deceiving the working class by joining hands with their enemy. Although he is quite aware that the average age at which the workers die is 29 to 30 years, yet he proposed in the House of Commons to give the workers Old Age Pensions of 5/- per week at 65 years of age—that is, sufficient to buy bread and butter, but not clothing and shelter, 35 years after most of them are dead!

To appear upon any platform with this person —except to denounce him for the misleader he is—would be nauseating to any man acquainted with the facts and understanding the Socialist position, unless he were out playing the same game.

These are my reasons for refusing to speak at the Engineers’ Meeting at Ipswich, which, except as stated above, could have only acted to the injury of our members and the working class in general.—Yours fraternally,
Jack Fitzgerald