Friday, May 1, 2020

May-Day and the Socialist Standard

One of those rare good ideas you get when it's too late in the day to fully implement them.

Today is International Workers' Day and, in years gone past on the blog, it has usually meant a random smattering of May Day articles or editorials from old Socialist Standards where, to be honest, there can be an overall tone of repetition and general gloom whatever the decade. However, it struck me this morning that the blog is so far ahead in breaking the back of fully digitizing the Standard, that it is now in position to start pooling together articles around a general theme for the attention of the random reader.

"Breaking the back" is, of course, a bit of an overstatement but a good place to start such an endeavour would be the various May Day messages that appeared in the Socialist Standard over the years. Though in 2020, it's hard at times to fully comprehend the significance of May Day for the organized working class, back in the day it has to be understood that May Day was a day when all unions and radical groups would make that extra push in both celebrating the day and seeking to communicate their message to a wider audience than usual. 

The SPGB was no different in that regard, and it was usually the case that the May Socialist Standard would be the issue in any particular year where the print run for the Standard that month was at its highest, and it was expected that the May issue would quickly sell out (no jokes at the back, please!).

I'd love to be able to provide a full list of Socialist Standard May Day articles from its exhaustive history but, as I stated at the beginning of this ramble, this idea sadly came too late for May 2020. However, it will be something I will be working on in the coming month(s) and, who knows?, short of the final breakdown of civil society à la Cormac McCarthy's The Road or *cough* a Socialist Revolution (are you still laughing at the back?) there should be a definitive list for May 2021.

In the meantime, linked to below is the Socialist Standard May Day messages for the period from 1904 to 1918. If you read them in sequence, you will note that the initial enthusiasm and hope for Socialist Revolution just over the horizon is gradually seeping away in May Day messages even in the SPGB's early years of its history. That's fine as far as I am concerned. Why pretend? Why kid your readers on with fake boosterism about how it's all about one final push, and we'll at last have possession of the bakery? The SPGB was quickly aware that the writing was on the wall for the Second International pre it's final capitulation in 1914, and it's to its credit that it didn't try to sweeten that pill.

As you will note from below, not all May Socialist Standards from this period carried a May Day message within its pages. I guess I'm especially surprised that one is absent from the very first May Socialist Standard (1905) but, in mitigation, I would point out that a big portion of that issue was given over to reporting the SPGB's first Annual Conference. It was initially surprising to discover that there were no explicit  May Day messages from the war years but it maybe reflected the mood of both the Party and the country at large. For Socialists, the wider Labour Movement had failed a major test of principle in 1914, and perhaps it was not felt that a May Day message would carry the same weight as it would in 'normal' times.

For this reader, the May Day message from the 1912 issue is especially powerful, and I would hazard a guess that its unnamed author was A. E. Jacomb. He just had a certain style and tone of authorial voice that set him apart from other Socialist Standard writers during this period.

It was not all doom and gloom for that period. May Day carried a double significance for Socialists; it was also considered the semi-official opening day for when Outdoor Speaking would kick in again at full throttle. The more clement weather meant that once again there were SPGB speakers all over London and its environs, putting forward the socialist message at speaking pitches on street corners' and in public parks. We sometimes forget that for the early decades of the SPGB the outdoor meeting carried so much more weight and significance for popularizing and propagandizing socialism. Sadly, that lost history is not always captured in the pages of the Socialist Standard or in the SPGB's pamphlets.

If I've missed any Socialist Standard May Day messages from this period, please let me know in the comments section.

Happy May Day! Happy International Workers' Day!

A May-Day Message. (1912)

Editorial from the May 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Labour Day" is here again. Shall we have a sermon on it? Shall we make a sort of All Fools Day of it, and wax a little bit sentimental? —we, the cold, unemotional, scientific exponents of materialism. Shall we look upon life and the world for a moment with the soft eye and the blurred vision, and appraise things according to the feelings, with Reason locked up the while in solitary confinement in the coldest, innermost cell of our frigid, philosophical editorial cranium? Shall we run riot with fancy for a spell ? We will.

For after all, the romance, and poetry, and sentiment of life are very real factors, and they may weigh and judge and value things that science never can. As, when coming suddenly out upon some high cliff overlooking the sea, and being overwhelmed by the ineffable sense of fiery space in the blazing elements above and below, one may get a deeper, truer impression of the power of the sun than all the language of science can convey.

So when science has tabulated life for us, and shown us in plain figures just how much the worker is being robbed of, there is more left unsaid than is spoken, for “ man does not live by bread alone."

True, without bread man perishes quickly, but even with bread in sufficiency, if it is eaten in a stable, with blinkers on our eyes to prevent us feasting them upon anything but our mess-tin, what lot or portion have we to take joy in ? 

This idea was covertly and by implication expressed by a London morning newspaper, which a few days ago remarked regarding two rich Americans who were drowned in the recent catastrophe: “They had much to live for.” And as in saying that our contemporary implied that others had and have not much to live for, we may concern ourselves with that this May Day morning. 

We are told that self preservation is the first law of nature, but those who tell us this affect greater surprise when a person who has “much to live for” neglects to act in accordance with this law, than when one who has little inducement to live is careless of self preservation.

So it is the joy of life that makes self-preservation worth while. It is a sound, common-sense deduction, not altogether new — old enough indeed to tie pretty generally forgotten.

The "bread and butter” question is paramount, as all materialists agree, but not for its own sake. If we have distinctly advanced in anything beyond the stage of our poorer brethren, the lower animals, it is in the development of other needs than those of the stomach. And if, as the patent medicine vendor says, all our ills arise from the stomach, and if, as the materialist more truly assures us, all our pleasures are ultimately based on our digestive apparatus, still man needs, even more urgently, comfort in other regions than that of the waistband.

Which is to say that, important as it is to gobble and be able to gobble, and to have place and peace wherein to gobble, that has long since ceased to be an end in itself, and baa become, at least in the case of those whose minds have developed up to the Socialist Standard, a means to an end, a means to the supreme happiness, a means to the joy of living.

And what is this joy in life ? Where is this supreme happiness to be found ? We should be entering upon very contentious ground if we were to attempt to say that it is the ecstasy to be found in the acme of East End delight, the “Cambridge,” or in the highest aspiration of West End enjoyment, a monkey dinner, or in the raptures of the simple life, or in the low dieting, for morality’s sake, of the Catholic priest. Each, of course, as be lists. But it is safe to say that the joy of living, or the joy in living, to put it in a better way, is inseparably bound up with the leisure to follow one's desires.

That was the difference between the two rich Americans who “had so much to live for,” and the stokers, who had so little to hold them to life. The former were men of leisure and opportunity—the latter were slaves.

If it is this leisure and opportunity which constitutes the joy in living, it is a fair May Day question to ask the reader, what share in the joy of living, what portion of life, falls to the working class.

Quite apart from the question of the material things of life, the workers are in an awful predicament. What is the weary round for the vast majority of us ? Up in the morning and off at an hour when it would be cruelty to disturb our children for a farewell smile ; slavery all the livelong day—perhaps in the treacherous mine, perhaps before the roasting furnaces, perhaps in the torrid atmosphere of the cabinet-makers’ workshop, where an open window, a breath of fresh slum air, will chill the glue seething on the hot plates. Dinner snatched in the unsavoury odours of the cook-shop—where all sorts of viands are cooking and smelling together,—or fried in the roadway on a shovel, and eaten al fresco, seated on an upturned pail. Then when we are pumped out, back home again. And for what? To live? To enjoy the fruits of our labour ? Oh, no! To recuperate! To steal a look at our sleeping children and then creep wearily to bed to get strength to toil through the morrow.

What do we know of home life ? What do we know of the beauty of the world about us ? The very significance of May Day is lost to us, for we have no interest in the awakening of Nature after her winter sleep. We are beasts of burden. Shame on us ! — we carry the yoke with the mild spirit of beasts of burden, and we deserve our fate.

Let us be men. Let us ask ourselves why we should be born into the world and be the beasts of burden of an idle class. Let us ask ourselves if there can be no other result flowing from the centuries of progress than this—that only those who do no useful work and produce none of the good things of life should have "much to live for,” while we who produce all desirable things waste our lives in unceasing toil and misery.

It has become a trite saying that we can only die once. Let us remember that we can also only live once, and determine, this May Day, that we will fight for life as we have to fight for our living. For O, we are so near our emancipation if only we would believe it and want it and work for it

May-Day. (1909)

Editorial from the May 1909 issue of the Socialist Standard

The First of May is round once again, but, unfortunately, the wage-workers are not yet ready for that great demonstration which shall demonstrate, not the workers’ disunion and lack of class consciousness, as do those of to-day, but their irresistible might and determination to strike, once and for all, the shackles from off their limbs, and to annihilate the oppressor. However, with May come some sunny days, the tender freshness of young leaves and—the outdoor propaganda season in full swing. Verily, Spring is a mighty ally of Hope, and your true Socialist, while rarely forgetting the ever-present horrors of capitalism, appreciates no less than his as yet non-Socialist fellow, the brightening ray and thrill of nature newly waken’d. To us its chief meaning is renewed opportunity for work in order that next May-day may see us measurably nearer our goal; well on the way toward our demonstration—the only one worthy of working-class attention, the Social Revolution.

May 1st, 1906. (1906)

Editorial from the May 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

Os this day, the world over, the advance guard of the army of the revolution which is to break the power of the private possessors of the means of life to dominate and keep in subjection the workers who alone manipulate those means in the process of production, will meet in demonstration of their solidarity of purpose. On this day, in every country where capitalism has entered in to wring from the sweat and the sorrow of Labour, those profits which provide for capital's ministers luxurious comfort and all the pleasures that wealth can command, in earth and sky and sea, the harbingers of the co-operative Commonwealth destined to arise upon the debris of the present capitalist system which must give it birth, will gather rejoicing in the knowledge that everywhere their comrades have special thought for the international character of their mighty movement; that even where their comrades have turned aside from the work immediately before them to survey the vast field over which the operations of their many organisations extend, and to observe with glad satisfaction the measure of success which has attended the efforts of each section of their party. North, South, East and West, separated by vast seas and great mountains, yet animated by the same desire, inspired by the same ideal, fired by the same enthusiasm, the working-class armies press forward, steadily recruiting their strength as they go. Rank upon rank in ever increasing numbers they march confident in the final issue of the struggle in which they are engaged.

It is well that we should take a short breathing space occasionally and renew our strength for our fight at home in the observation of the success of our comrades overseas. To-day, whatever suggestion of insularity there may be in our work as a national section of an international movement, is dispelled as we stretch out the hand of fellowship to the organised, class-conscious workers of other countries, and echo back the shout of fraternal greeting with which they salute us.

Party News – Discord in the Ranks (2020)

Party News from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s not like socialists to curl up our tootsies and give up at the first sign of trouble, so we’re not likely to let a once-in-a-century global pandemic cramp our style.

Instead, like many others during the current lockdown, we are responding to physical restrictions on meeting by going online. We’re using the audio-only Discord system to save bandwidth, and because most of us are not sufficiently photogenic to want to look at each other every day.

The system works pretty well and we’ve already held a couple of online talks, as well as several branch and Executive Committee meetings. It’s not been entirely plain sailing of course, with some members having to drag headphones or microphones out of attics or cellars only to discover that they last worked efficiently when Sony Walkmans were still a new fad.

Others have had computer problems as Discord doesn’t work with very old operating systems, or with the super-restrictive Windows S. Actually Discord was originally designed for gamers, who tend to a) be digital natives and b) have state-of-the-art gear.

Many socialists, it is fair to say, do not belong to this social demographic, so online conferencing software can be something of an uphill struggle. That’s why, for the next few weeks, there will always be someone on the server, ready to talk or answer user questions, at 12 noon and again at 7.30pm, UK BST, unless there’s an evening talk on.

Still, we’re making progress, with around 50 members online at the time of writing. Companion parties have got involved too, with members from the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and India.

And of course visitors are very welcome too, and are free to join any online Discord meeting just as they would be free to attend any physical meeting by the Socialist Party or its companion parties. This is a great opportunity to chat to socialists from around the world without leaving your house!

And if anyone is thinking of joining, having a live chat about it with members is much more fun and informative than simply filling in a form on the website.

If you’d like to drop in and chat to us online, or come to one of our talks or other events, just drop us a line to spgb@worldsocialism.org and ask for an invite.

50 Years Ago: Canada to grow no wheat in 1970 (2020)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Canada is planning to follow America in its notorious policy of paying farmers not to grow wheat.

Last year the world produced more of this essential foodstuff than could be sold profitably. There was what is often misleadingly called a wheat “glut” or “surplus”.

There had been a bumper harvest in 1968 too so that the already huge stocks of wheat were piled up even higher. In Australia there was talk of leaving some of the wheat to rot unharvested on the farms. The International Grains Agreement, under which the five major wheat-exporting countries fix prices and carve up the world market, was threatened as its members tried to sell their wheat below the agreed prices.

Representatives of these five countries — America, Canada, France, Australia and Argentina — met in London last August and agreed that in 1970 there should be a cut-back in world wheat production. The new Canadian policy is part of this bargain, a restrictive practice forced on its government by the economics of production for sale.

The Canadian prairies are particularly suited to growing wheat and in a rationally-organised world (one based on common ownership and production solely for use) could make a major contribution towards abolishing hunger. Even now the 1,300m. bushels of wheat lying unused, some of it going to rot, in warehouses and on farms throughout Canada amounts to nearly three years’ consumption.

Under capitalism such potential abundance presents a problem, since if profits are to be made output must be restricted. The man in charge of Canada’s wheat sales. Minister without Portfolio Otto Lang, has suggested that no wheat should be grown in Canada for at least one year. He told the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa on 27 February how the government planned to tackle this “problem” of potential plenty.

They would spend $100m. on paying farmers to take up to 22m. acres out of wheat production in 1970 (…)

So Canada is to pay its farmers $100m. not to grow 500m. bushels of wheat in 1970. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that world poverty is caused by over-population. Tell him it’s caused by the underproduction that goes with capitalism’s profit motive.

(Socialist Standard, May 1970)

Locked down under capitalism (2020)

Editorial from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

What would have been unthinkable a few months ago has now become reality. Most countries have been placed under lockdown, where the state has closed down large areas of the economy – shops, cinemas, pubs and restaurants in an effort to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Only food stores, supermarkets and pharmacies are allowed to remain open. Schools have been closed. The police have been given powers to enforce social distancing laws, whereby people are only allowed out for restricted activities, such as food shopping, exercise or attending medical appointments, and they can instruct people to go home and issue on-the-spot fines. For most workers, particularly those in the more developed capitalist states, this is unprecedented.

As the lockdown applies to everyone, then surely we are all in this together? Well, not quite. It is true that it can lead to mental health issues like loneliness and depression. There has been a recorded rise in domestic violence cases. Children being cooped up in the house and unable to play with their friends is not good for their emotional development.

However, like everything else in capitalism, having money can help you ride this crisis more comfortably. Wealthy capitalists can hop on to their yachts and head for luxury havens such as Palm Beach (Chuck Collins, ‘Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic’, Guardian, 24 April). They don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, about being furloughed or how they will pay the rent or mortgage. Even better-off workers can get by more easily by working from home and having more savings to draw on. Poorer workers, on the other hand, are more likely to have to travel to work and tend to live in higher-density housing which puts them more at risk. It is certainly more pleasant to self-isolate in a mansion with large grounds than in a high-rise council flat. Moreover, it is workers who are losing their jobs by the millions and seeing their incomes fall.

Although the lockdown has made it more difficult for workers to come together physically, there is evidence of the emergence of groups offering community and social services. George Monbiot has outlined many instances of these happening globally; students in Prague babysitting the children of health workers; volunteers in Belgrade organising online crisis counselling; in the UK and elsewhere, groups are picking up shopping and prescriptions for the elderly. As these groups are independent of the state and the private market sector, Monbiot refers to them as the ‘commons’ (‘Covid-19 has turned millions of us into good neighbours’, Guardian, 1 April).

What this reveals is what is most important in society. It is certainly not the wheeling and dealing of the venture capitalists, bankers and other ‘movers and shakers’ that we are supposed to look up to, but the useful jobs that doctors, nurses, delivery workers, public transport workers and postal workers do.

Perhaps this insight along with the emergence of the ‘commons’ may provide the seeds of an emerging socialist class consciousness?