Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Socialism, Saints and Muffin the Mule (1996)

From the June 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
William Morris lived from 1834 to 1896. During his lifetime he involved himself in a bewildering array of activities. The last quarter of his life was spent in the cause of socialist revolution and he left a considerable body of socialist writings when he died.
Saint William Morris? It had to be a hoax. Actually, it wasn't. The Church of England, in its pathetically opportunist bid to recruit anyone with a credible image to its side, proposed canonising Morris, the nineteenth-century Marxist revolutionary who resolutely rejected all gods and religions. When he died in the late morning of 3 October 1896, Morris's last reported words were "I want to get mumbo-jumbo out of this world." Hardly the stuff of which saints are made. If it weren't for mumbo-jumbo every clergyman would be on the dole looking for real work.

In an age when, as the Stranglers reminded us, there are no more heroes (we're all cynics now), the present writer readily confesses to more than a passing admiration for William Morris. Here was a man born into affluence and opportunity: educated at Marlborough public school, where he famously stated that he learned nothing except by walking in the local countryside and observing nature and reading useful books in the local library, and then Exeter College, Oxford, where he was sent to train for the priesthood and left stating: "I won't sign the 39 Articles" (1855) because he had seen through the sham of the Church's authoritarian morality. Like many others of his age and class he could have become just another time-wasting ponce, living in thoughtless indolence upon the hard work of the majority. But Morris took a different course.

Talented Artistic Creation
Morris's belief was that art and society are inseparable. How often do we meet those dullards of the artistic establishment who, cocooned like monks in their galleries, pontificate about art as if it is something to be hidden behind bullet-proof screens: either a purchasable indulgence for the rich or a thing of beauty for school groups of working-class kids to be allowed to gawp at as a spectacle. Morris hated this idea of art. For him, art was about making things which were useful and accesible and beautiful to look at and to touch. He was, to be sure, a man of immensely varied talents: probably the most versatile and talented artistic creator of the last century. As an architect Morris revolutionised house design, with his building of the Red House near Bexleyheath. as a designer of textiles and wallpapers Morris revolutionised the skill, reviving approaches to colour and inventing methods of production. With Burne-Jones, his closest artistic friend, he did the same with the design of stained-glass windows in which their productions were unsurpassed in their splendour. As a poet of the second Victorian generation Morris was respected as being a superb writer, not only composing great long works such as 'The Dream of John Ball' (with its invigorating sense of how history changes in ways often unclear to those living through it), but also translating Greek classical poetry as well as the Icelandic sagas which so inspired him. When Tennyson was offered the poet laureatship in 1892 it had been planned to offer it to Morris who, needless to say, would have no part in being appointed to write flattering ditties for royal parasites. Not content to write poetry, Morris was a pioneer in the field of typography in which during the latter years of his life, he devoted himself to revolutionising printing methods and building up his own press which could produce words pleasurable not only to read but to look at.

What kind of man embodied these talents? Yeats, who came to know Morris in his London days (and was even tempted for a while by his revolutionary ideas until the folly of the fairies drew him to the mysticism of Irish nationalism which ended in a personal attraction to fascism), wrote of William Morris that "You saw him producing everywhere organisation and beauty, seeming in the same instant helpless and triumphant; and people loved him as children are loved." By all accounts, Morris seems to have been one of the most undisliked men of his century. When he died, only in his early sixties, a century ago, the doctor declared that he died of simply being William Morris. It is understandable that vicars, usually noted for adding little to the world and most in their element when burying the dead rather than energising the living, might look at the enormous vivacity of Morris's character and assume that he must have been superhuman, fit for sainthood. Morris would have hated such an idea of himself. For him, there was nothing that he could do which, given the opportunity, others could not learn to do also. Unlike the precious artists, so often second-rate, who surround themselves with a mystique of creative specialness, Morris's achievements were always intended as inspiration, not exclusivity.

For most of his life Morris was just a critical complainer against the effects of capitalism, but, like so many others, one who never knew what capitalism was or even that it existed. At first he bemoaned the loss of true arts in the nineteenth century, pursuing the criticisms of his teacher, Ruskin, against the regimentation, waste and tackiness of urban, industrial squalor. But he knew not what caused this to be. As a supporter of the radical wing of the Liberals (the equivalent of Labour today, as the anti-Conservative but pro-capitalist party of his time) he joined the Eastern Question Association in protest against the atrocities being committed in the Balkans to which the rest of the world turned a cynical blind eye. (What changes?) As Treasurer of the EQA Morris was forced to look in the face the hypocritical posturing and limited vision of the capitalist politicians. Meanwhile, as a founder of SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), Morris and his friends were fighting a losing battle to preserve some of the beauties of the pre-industrial world from the ravages of vandalism for profit.

Socialist Activist
William Morris was over fifty when something important developed within his thinking. He came to realise that all of these hideous acts of destruction against art, beauty and human life were not accidents of history or the consequences of wrong government. They were the inevitable effects of the capitalist system which can no more put beauty and life before rent, interest and profit than the church could put science before superstition. What was wrong with the times in which he lived was the system. Morris was no less energetic about this revelation than he had been about any of his other occupations. He set himself to read Marx (in French, for Capital was yet to be translated into English) and became an active member of the newly-formed Social Democratic Federation, the first revolutionary socialist body in Britain.

Within a year of joining the SDF (and giving it time, money and enthusiasm hitherto reserved for artistic creation) Morris found himself in a majority on its Executive Council refusing to endorse some of the policies being pursued. Firstly, there was the arrogance of the Eton-educated self-appointed leader, Hyndman, whose belief that the SDF was almost his own personal property, and whose contemptible imperialism and anti-Jewish racism, was too much for those like Morris, Eleanor Marx and Belfort Bax to stomach. Then there was the question of reform. Hyndman and his supporters took the view that a socialist body should advocate reforms of capitalism under the illusion that these would be "Stepping Stones to Socialism". Morris had read Marx too well to believe that the inherent class robbery of capitalism could be reformed in the interest of the robbed. He took the view that only by educating those who are robbed by capitalism of the cause of their miseries and the hope of a real alternative could socialism ever be achieved. Like Marx, Morris maintained that there could be no socialism without conscious socialists to bring it about. So, in December 1883 Morris and the others, though a majority on the EC of the SDF, resigned from it and established the Socialist league. Soon they had their own journal, Commonweal: the political contributions made to it by Morris have now been collected in two volumes in the William Morris Library (edited and introduced by Nicholas Salmon) and these, together with A.L. Morton's excellent little edition of the Political Writings of William Morris are amongst the finest socialist writings ever produced. (Every socialist owes it to themselves to read these.)

In 1890 Morris took upon himself the task, tried by others but never with anything close to the same force of clarity and imagination, to depict what a socialist society might look like. More than that, what it would feel like to live in. Morris's News From Nowhere is more than just a pretty picture of utopia. Readers may like bits and discard others, and Morris the libertarian would respect them more for doing so: he was no prophetic author of blueprints for the future. What Morris attempted to do - and succeeded with brilliance - was to show that a society based upo common ownership and democratic control could exist; that free access to wealth without the existence of the market or money as social fetters upon human freedom could work effectively; that a society could exist co-operatively and humanely without the need for the state, with its governments, police and prisons; that human nature is not opposed to human decency in the world. What had happened to the world to allow this great transformation to happen? It did not require the coming to earth of some miracle-making messiah who, in line with infantile religious belief, would purify the earth so that Saint Morris could write about it. No such claptrap for Morris: his depiction of the new age of humanity depended upon the assumption that workers had united to get rid of capitalism. There was no other way to bring about the socialist alternative.

It was once said of Morris that whereas the reformers had told people what to want, Morris had told them how to want. He had attended to the education of desire, teaching people that their dreams of a better world could only be realised as visions to be enacted if they would organise on the basis of knowledge and co-operation. He was right. How much more refreshingly right than those sad relics of the museum of political postures on the British Left, marching not to the socialist Nowhere but the capitalist nowhere being planned for by that emblematic nobody, Tony Blair.

There is something of an irony that in this year of the centenary of his death, vast numbers of people will file past the great Morris exhibition at the Victorian and Albert Museum and many more will remember him with self-deceiving selectivity: every Sunday supplement is running something about Morris, but they will neglect to mention that he dedicated his later life to the creation of a moneyless, wageless, stateless society. Not only did he write about it, but he gave endless lectures and speeches, from Secular Halls to open-air platforms across the country. He talked to striking Northumbrian miners and small gatherings of drunks and autodidacts in damp rooms and windy street corners. He was a fighter and an inspiration to many of us who were born long after he died.

Better than any saint, it could be argued with some force that Morris's contribution to the sum of human history was rather greater than that of Muffin the Mule. Not so according to the Post Office which has rejected a proposal to produce a commemorative stamp to mark his death on the grounds that "William Morris was not of sufficient stature". (Instead, stamps with pictures of Muffin the Mule and the glove puppet, Sooty, will be produced.) There has been a minor outcry from a few Labour MPs (currently led by a human glove-puppet, operated with much dexterity by the Stock Exchange) which is the usual respect paid by Labour leaders to long-dead socialists. Had Morris been alive today, advocating the revolutionary abolition of the market and production for profit, his condemnation as "irrelevant", "utopian" and "not in line with practical politics" would be churned out by the very Labour MPs who like looking at Marxists as long as it's only on a stamp.
Steve Coleman

One World Administration (1996)

From the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
In a socialist society, for the first time ever, the globe-spanning communications networks - which capitalism itself has built up and which socialism will develop even further - will be used to ensure that everyone can have an input into the decisions which affect their lives on a global, regional and local basis.
A united humanity, sharing a world of common interests, would also share world administration. This is the socialist alternative to the way that capitalism divides the planet into rival states and sets people against each other. Driven by class interests and profit and spurred by the attitudes of nationalism, racism and religion, war and civil strife continue to cause death and misery. During this century more people have been killed than in any previous century. Yet, during this time there has been developed a world framework of communications and administration that in socialism could be swiftly adapted for the needs of all people. Just as capitalism has developed powers of production that could provide every person with a comfortable and secure life so it has also developed means of organising a world of co-operation.

It is sometimes said that world administration would mean power of central control over local democracy. A lot of argument is wasted over opposing options about where control should be placed. But a system of world democratic administration in socialism need not be based in either world, regional or local spheres. We can envisage an integrated system that would be adaptable and could be used for decision-making and action on any scale between the local and the world. Practical necessity would require such adaptability and we can suggest some principles which determine this.

Local democracy
In socialism, for the first time, local communities will be free to make decisions about the development of their areas. With the release of productive resources solely for needs, for the first time they will enjoy real powers to act on those decisions. These would be decisions about local services such as health, education and transport, public facilities such as parks, libraries, leisure centres and sports grounds; local housing, the siting of production units, management of farming, care of the local environment, cultural events, and so on.

We anticipate that with people being able to co-operate much more in their own interests there would be a stronger and more active sense of local community than exists now and this would be expressed through bodies adapted from present parish and district councils. The principle determining the practice of local democracy would be that decisions affecting just local populations would be made by them and not for them by any larger or outside body.

World production
The importance of local democracy has to be seen in the context of modern production which is world-wide. There may be some scope for local production for local needs but in the mean, even simple articles of use are made with additions of labour which extend across the globe. For example, a ball-point pen needs world mining, the oil industry, chemicals and world transport, etc. We eat fruit, vegetables and spices from every climate. Our lives would be much more limited if we were restricted to what could be produced or grown in our local areas.

With the abolition of capitalist corporations many of which duplicate their operations on a world scale it is likely that socialism would want to use the most economical and structure of production. This could operate from world scale extractive industries like mining to regional centres of industrial processing and manufacture and final distribution to local populations. This could correspond to a similar network of administrative levels on world, regional and local scales.

An obvious example of production that has to begin from a world perspective is energy. The use of the earth's finite resources such as fossil fuels, the prediction of world energy needs, concern for the increase of radio-activity and carbon gases in the environment, the risk of accidents, the development of benign technologies, etc, all combine to make energy policy a world issue. This is a case where in socialism a single world energy authority would have the advantage of a complete overview of the problems and would be able to draw on information from every community.

This is not to suggest that such a single agency based in New York or Geneva or whatever would be making policy decisions for everyone on the planet. Its function could be to provide information and propose various development strategies so that alternatives could be decided democratically. From where we stand now a lot of people would say that priority should be given to ecologically benign methods such as wind, wave, solar power, etc. With the freedom to make such a decision without the economic constraints of capitalism, socialism could do it. The sole motive would be the needs of people and this would be in sharp contrast to the way in which governments decide matters now from the point of view of national economic and military interests.

The example of energy policy means that people in socialism won't just be concerned about whether a piece of local land should be sued for housing, growing food, a cricket pitch or left as it is. People will also be engaged with issues affecting them which extend far beyond their local areas. So, as well as being citizens of their parish or district they would also be citizens of the world with all the opportunities for, and responsibilities of decision making and action in every sphere of life.

One of the great technical developments under capitalism has been electronic communications with satellites linking radio, television, telephones, etc., and the rapid processing and distribution of information. These media alter our awareness of being in the world and the boundaries between what is local and distant are shifted or become blurred. From one moment to another we are able to take in local news, issues and events and those on the regional or world scene.

The importance of these media is not only for their potential as means of organising administration and production, they are just as important for enjoyment and leisure. In socialism we could enjoy great sporting festivals such as the Olympic games and the World and European Football Cups without them being tainted by nationalism or commercialism. Similarly such concerts as those performed by the 3 tenors, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras would be events shared by many millions across the globe.

Communications also bring home to us with force and immediacy the often tragic results of disasters such as earthquakes and floods. Even in the cynical, alienated world of capitalism people do what they can to help and with the resources available in socialism world organisation would move swiftly to minimise the damage and the suffering. In a quite different way which can equally show the common identity of all people expeditions into space demonstrate that every person on earth shares a tiny planet in a vast cosmos. No doubt these exciting projects will continue in socialism organised by a World Space Agency.

So, as well as the face-to-face contacts of our daily lives at work, home, at the shops, in the library, at the football pitch or leisure centre with friends, neighbours and relatives, and as well as our part in local affairs, at the same time we would be involved with all other people in world issues and events of every kind.

The abolition of class ownership and production for profit together with the establishment of common ownership and production for needs will begin a period of great re-organisation. In production the principle will be that work related to marketing and he profit system will become redundant - it will cease. Examples are banking, selling and accounting. Work that is socially useful related to the real needs of people like farming, building, energy supply, transport, etc. , will be continued and further developed. Practicality will require that socialism will begin with the structures it takes over, these to be fully democratised.

The same principle will apply to decision-making bodies and administration. Socialism will begin with its delegates being in control of national and local governments and from this point the role of these bodies as part of a state machine will be replaced by democratic organisation operating solely for the needs of communities. It follows that all the socially-useful parts of the previous state machine will be continued. At the local level these include planning, education, health and transport developments, etc.

At the national level there are useful ministries such as housing and agriculture and those which administer health and education on the broader scale. The United Nations also includes useful world bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation. This is the world-wide structure already developed by capitalism which would be taken over and developed for the needs of the world's population. For example, one problem that socialism would have to solve as quickly as possible will be the supply of enough good quality food for every person. This will require co-operation at every social level and the existing FAO, national ministries of agriculture and local departments could be swiftly adapted for the task.

The Way Forward
The practice of a fully democratic system requires more than communications technique. The potential of the various media to bring people together over great distances cannot be realised in the divided world of capitalism where power remains in the hands of governments and those who own and control production and the earth's resources.

Federalists aim at world administration but they are talking about world government - a world capitalist state. People would still be class divided and subject to all the tyrannies and insecurities of the profit system. In any case, governments are not going to give up the economic interests of the class they represent in favour of world administration.

Only the workers of all countries share a real interest in working to establish a world based on common ownership where all means of production and all resources will be held in common by all people. Production would then operate through voluntary co-operation and part of that co-operation will be the work of deciding what should be done in the interest of the whole community and then acting on those decisions. This is the basis on which the world communications and administrative bodies which have been developed for the objectives of capitalism can be used for the whole population. That we have no country but still have a world to win is still our best slogan and the best hope for all people.
Pieter Lawrence

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An inevitable result of vanguardism (1996)

Book Review from the January 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Canongate Press) 

The novel Grey Granite, the third volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's trilogy A Scots Quair, is a text that fits rather snugly within the canon of twentieth-century literary modernism, even though it is rarely to be found on a university syllabus, at least outside Scotland. 

 The plot primarily involves Chris Colquohoun and her son Ewan Tavendale, making a "new life" for themselves after moving to the industrial city of Duncairn from the country. While Chris works in a boarding house, Ewan goes to work at Gowans, the local steel works. The general relationships between these and other characters are obviously one of the main elements of the plot, but these relationships and the other events presented in the text are heavily coloured, if not determined, by Ewan's movement from an apparently self-reliant and individualist conception of his "self" to a more collective and class-conscious position. From an encounter (and argument) with an English socialist school teacher (who is largely, it seems, inspired by William Morris), Ewan comes first to an objective and rational recognition of a collective working-class interest which then develops through sympathy and empathy into a deeper subjective and emotional recognition of his shared experience with, and inclusion in, the working class. It is important to recognise that this movement from an exclusive individualist conception of his self to an inclusive class-conscious conception of self does not entail any loss of individuality. Rather it is in some sense a dialectical process in which the individual ego is lifted up, surpassed and preserved in the intersubjective collectively. 

Later, though, Ewan's individuality, preserved in the initial movement into class-consciousness, suffers some loss on his entry into and identification with the Communist Party, after which everything else is subordinated to their interests and aims. Part of the reason for this is the Communist Party's own identification of itself as "the working class" - that is, they substitute themselves for the class they see themselves as representing. This is, of course, an inevitable result of their vanguardism. Placing themselves in a position of leadership over the workers they then come to substitute themselves for the workers. As such, while ostensibly working for the overthrow of a hierarchical capitalist system, they come to institute a new hierarchy (quite apart from the fact that they would only bring about state capitalism rather than socialism if they succeeded in their aims); instead of serving the interests of the workers, they use the workers to serve the interest of the Party. This means that the workers remain in a subservient, subaltern position in relation to the Communists even while apparently struggling to free themselves from all hierarchical domination. 

Structurally, any vanguardist party, whatever its explicit intentions, is doomed to repeat this process, so betraying the revolutionary project it espouses. All this is made abundantly clear within the novel, in episodes in which the Communists lie to the workers in order to try and manipulate them for the Party's own ends as well as in the clearly-stated attitude of Jim Trease, a Communist leader: "For it's you and me are the working class, not the poor Bulgars gone back to Gowans." 

This is a novel with plenty to interest socialists, as should be clear from the above. It provides ample illustration of the hopelessness of the ideologies and strategies of both Labourist and Leninist parties and, by implication at least, of the necessity for the working class to organise and educate themselves for socialism, without leaders or hierarchies and against the constant capitulations and and political myopia that are the necessary results of reformism. I must finally state, though, that this is not simply a historical document or a political treatise. It is a wonderful example of literary modernism offering as much aesthetic pleasure as it does anything else, with great believable characters, full of human ambiguity, and a use of language that is simultaneously down to earth and poetic. 
Jonathan Clay