Saturday, October 12, 2013

Diminishing our view of the world (1995)

Theatre Review from the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey 

Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is a success. Starting life at the Bush Theatre it has subsequently played in Leeds (at the West Yorkshire playhouse), and in London (at the Donmar Warehouse), before finally making it into the West End.

Critics have been enthusiastic, using words like "honest" and "vivid" to describe plot and dialogue. When I attended recently an uncharacteristically young (for the West End) audience showed similar enthusiasm and delight. Yet as laughter rumbled round the elegant theatre I felt initial surprise, then disappointment and, finally, anger.

Beautiful Thing is packed with characters straight out of Eastenders. The action may take place in a scruffy block of high-rise flats in south London, but those familiar with the antics of the residents of Albert Square will quickly be reminded of the ugliness, the meanness of character and aspiration, the sordid pointlessness of it all. "This is how life is", the author seems to be saying; "this is what life must be like", he seems to be suggesting by implication. If people are selfish and unknowing, out of touch both with themselves and the larger world of which they are a part, this is to be expected; it is "natural". The possibility that people might have learned to be selfish, acquisitive and repressed -  that they might even have learnt how to remain ignorant - is not considered.

True, in the maelstrom of indifference, stupidity and no little malevolence which Harvey describes, there grows a loving relationship between two young men - presumably the Beautiful Thing referred to in the title. But this is no metaphor pointing to the possibility of larger transformations. The world continues as before: the other characters make no significant discoveries; and even for the loving couple the rest of life remains insufferably the same.

Although the play is described as a modern fairy story Harvey sells us short. The little love affair he describes could have offered a pointer to the redemption and liberation of others; of changes and transformations at many levels. By eschewing such possibilities the play, perhaps unwittingly, reinforces the perception that such things are impossible. Our vision of the world is thus diminished rather than expanded, and we are imprisoned rather than set free. Not so much a fairy story as a nightmare.
Michael Gill

Pies in the sky (1986)

Book Review from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marie Louise Berneri, Journey through Utopia (Freedom Press)

Journey through Utopia is Marie Louise Berneri's classic study of the most important utopian writings from Plato to Huxley. The book was first published in 1950, a year after the author's untimely death at the age of thirty-one, and recently re-issued. It is a scholarly work (Berneri used her fluent knowledge of four languages to make her own translations in the absence of English versions) but the author's journalistic experience ensures that the text remains very readable.

An examination of the utopias of antiquity shows Aristophanes satirical utopias to be more pleasant than Plutarch's "most perfect example of a totalitarian state" or the slavery, despotism and elitism in Plato's Republic. As Berneri points out: "It is rather puzzling that Plato's Republic should have aroused such admiration and, paradoxically, it has been chiefly admired by men whose principles were completely opposed to those of Plato".

The chapter dealing with the utopias of the Renaissance is the most interesting. Sir Thomas More's Utopia calls for the abolition of the death penalty for theft, and puts forward one of the earliest arguments for free access to wealth, pointing out that it is economic insecurity which makes people greedy. However, far from being a perfect society, crimes and adultery are punished by slavery and imperialist wars are waged against weaker states. Berneri points out: "In a society which admits of slavery even the 'free citizen' is not free; his chain is no longer than that of the slave".

Campanella's City of the Sun is the first utopia to abolish slavery: property is abolished for the whole community and a leading role is given to natural sciences. Campanella was tortured and imprisoned by the Inquisition and because of the risk of confiscation, several versions of his works exist. Torture and prisons are banned from Campanella's utopia - probably influenced by his own ordeal - but there is little individual freedom: women can be condemned to death for using make-up or wearing high heels.

Francis Bacon anticipated modern trends by placing faith in technological changes, departing from the idealistic utopias of his predecessors, while Andreae, although deploring the death penalty and the "wickedness of men who punish rather than reform", displays the intolerance of the religious reformer. By contrast, Rabelais did not propose a remedy for the evils of the time. His utopia is more of an individual rebellion with only one rule: "Do What Thou Wilt", and probably all the more readable because of it.

The first utopian to believe that society could only be changed by the people as a whole was Winstanley, who wrote The Law of Freedom in 1652. However, paradoxically, slavery is the punishment for lesser crimes while for more serious ones Winstanley's ideas are barbaric: "He who strikes his neighbour shall be struck himself by the executioner blow for blow, and shall lose eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb, life for life".

The nineteenth century utopias are considered boring, reflecting the conceit of the authors. A notable exception to the authoritarian, centralised control of Cabet or Bellamy and the curious attempt by Lord Lytton to reconcile certain socialist ideas with laissez-faire capitalism is News from Nowhere by William Morris, which appeared in serial form in Commonweal in 1890. Morris "realised that the manner of life of a community cannot be artificially arranged in the mind of an individual, but must be spontaneously created by all the members of the community". Berneri praises this charming vision of an ideal society and it is one of the few utopias with which socialists could sympathise.

The final chapter deals with modern utopias. Bureaucracy, coercion and moral compulsions are used by H. G. Wells in A Modern Utopia in 1905, although he altered his views in Men Like Gods in 1923. Berneri considers Wells to be the last utopian writer in the classical tradition; modern writers such as Zamyatin and Huxley have written dystopias in which the central characters rebel against the authoritarianism, regimentation and enforced happiness of their societies.

Journey through Utopia is a comprehensive guide to the utopias of the past and a warning of the dangers of permitting others, however well intentioned, to plan our future for us. The emancipation of the working class must be carried out by the workers themselves.
Carl Pinel

Letter From Europe: Bordiga and the Idea of Socialism (1982)

Amadeo Bordiga
From the February 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the socialist form production remains social and thus there is no ownership by anyone of the instruments of production, including the land and fixed installations. In this society there will be no individual appropriation even for consumption; distribution will be social and for social purposes. Social consumption differs from individual consumption in that the physical attribution of consumer goods does not take place by means of commodity purchase and with a currency. When society satisfies all the needs of its members which don't conflict with the best interests of its development independently of the greater or lesser contribution they have made to social labour, all personal property ceases and with it its measure, i.e., value and its symbol money (translated from Bordiga et la passion du communisme pp.79-80).
So stated Amadeo Bordiga in a lecture given in Italy in 1958, thus showing that the original idea of socialism as a moneyless, wageless society which we and our companion parties have kept alive in Britain and the English-speaking world has also survived on the Continent.

The rest of Bordiga's views however are quite unacceptable. After playing a prominent part before the First World War in the youth section of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and in the campaign (together with, of all people, Mussolini, then also a member of the PSI!) against the openly reformist elements in that party, he opposed the war, and Italy's entry into it, as an imperialist slaughter in which no working-class interests were at stake. He later emerged as the leader of the pro-Bolshevik elements within the PSI. By 1919 he had come round to a position which was to bring him into conflict with Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders: his experience of the failure of the PSI to control its MPs had made him an "abstentionist", or opponent of contesting elections and participating in parliament. Neverthless, he still became the leader of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) when it was founded at Leghorn in January 1921 as a breakaway from the PSI.

His "abstentionism" was in fact an attempt to resolve the problem of reform and revolution which those in the pre-war Social Democratic parties of Europe who genuinely wanted socialism had had to face. Bordiga believed that, because of their corruption and oppression by capitalism, a majority of workers could never come to want and understand socialism while capitalism lasted  (in this of course he agreed with Lenin). This led him to conclude that a policy of trying to obtain mass electoral support for socialism was not only pointless but dangerous in that it would lead a socialist party into reformism by lowering itself to the non-socialist consciousness of the mass of the workers.

He favoured instead an elite socialisy party, composed exclusively of those who understood socialism, whose policy should be not to advocate reforms or seek mass electoral support but to use working-class discontent to seize power and establish its dictatorship. On this point, Bordiga was quite open and frank: he advocated a dictatorship by the Party. He was in fact virtually a classical Blanquist. For Blanqui too, following in the tradition of Babeuf and Buonarotti, had held that the workers were too corrupted by capitalist rule to be able to liberate themselves and so would have to be liberated by the action of a determined minority seizing power, establishing a dictatorship and then educating the people in socialist ideas. Marx, although sympathising with Blanqui as a man of action, of course rejected such views, countering them with the declaration that the emancipation of the working class could only be the work of the working class itself.

As a solution to the problem of reform and revolution Bordiga's view was quite inadequate though he was correct to see the danger, indeed the inevitably, of a descent into reformism if a socialist party sought electoral support on a programme of reforms. The founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain also saw this danger but, because they did not accept that the working class was incapable of coming to want and understand socialism under capitalism, this led them to a different conclusion. The "education" of the working class to want socialism (the result of their own experiences and reflections as well as of the propaganda activities of a socialist party, thus "education" in the broadest sense) had to take place before capitalism could be abolished and indeed was a precondition for this. The danger of reformism could be avoided, not by renouncing the attempt to win an electoral majority, but by renouncing trying to win this on a programme of reforms. A socialist party, they said, should campaign among the working class only for socialism. This has remained our policy to this day and, as the solution to the problem of reform and revolution, represents our specific contribution to socialist theory.

Despite being a throwback to the 19th century, Bordiga's views were supported by a majority of the members of the PCI during the first two or three years of its existence. This inevitably brought Bordiga into conflict with the Bolshevik leaders, particularly Zinoviev, head of the Comintern, and Lenin himself who devoted an appendix to his pamphlet Leftwing Comminsm, An Infantile Disorder to attacking Bordiga's abstentionism.

In 1921 the Comintern decided on one of its many changes of tactic, this time to adopt the so-called "united front" which involved the new Communist Parties co-operating with the Social Democrats and even forming "Workers Governments" in coalition with them. This new line was  not popular with the non-Russian CPs since they were now being asked to co-operate with the very people they had just broken away from and in many cases had opposed as reformists since even before the war. This was the case of Bordiga himself and he went to Moscow to oppose the new line, though he left accepting out of a sense of discipline the majority decision. The PCI, even under Bordiga's leadership, thus did participate in elections even though he personally was opposed to this.

The Bolshevik leaders soon decided that Bordiga was quite unsuitable to be leader of one of their parties and attempted to remove him; but they had to proceed carefully in view of his reputation and support in the Italian party. He was eventually removed and replaced by Gramsci (now the rage in leftwing circles despite the fact that he was little more than a Stalinist hack) in 1924. From then on Bordiga was on the way out as Stalin's orders to suppress all opposition in the non-Russian parties were implemented. Bordiga, who was then in a fascist prison, was expelled in 1930, officially for having sided with Trotsky.

Bordiga, however, was no Trotskyist. He eventually came round to the view that Russia was state capitalist, or rather that the state capitalism under the control of the "proletarian state" which he held had existed under Lenin had given way, with the dictatorship of Stalin, to a simple state capitalism. Bordigist groups, with one of which he himself was associated from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1970, have existed in Italy, France and Belgium as rivals to the Trotskyists, propagating Bordiga's Blanquist idea of the incapacity of the workers to become socialists under capitalism and of the need for them to be liberated by the dictatorship of a vanguard party.

Although Bordiga knew what socialism was (in the sense of using the word only in the way we do) he did not stand for the immediate establishment of socialism. This followed from his basic position that the workers were incapable of coming to want to socialism after capitalism and would have to be educated to it after capitalist rule had been overthrown. Thus he had to posit a transitional period between the overthrow of capitalist rule and the final establishment of socialism, during which tis process of education would go on. When this had been completed then socialism, a moneyless, wageless, Stateless society, could be established. It was because he believed that this was what Lenin had been trying to do that he had supported the Bolshevik regime even though he was well aware that Bolshevik Russia wasn't socialist.

Not only did Bordiga insist that socialism would be a society without money, wages or the state but he also emphasised that it was the common ownership of the means of production by society as a whole and was a vigorous critic of syndicalists and others (like Gramsci, for instance, at one period) who advanced slogans like "the factories to the workers" and "the land to the peasants". He correctly pointed out that, if these slogans were implemented, the result would not be socialism since they envisaged the continuation of private (non-social) property in the form of the ownership of the various means of production by sections only of society (those working in a particular factory, mine or farm). A point we have often made ourselves.

Bordiga and the Bordigist movement have influenced people and given rise to splits which have retained his correct description of socialism while abandoning some of his other views. The so-called "International Communist Current", for instance, through its parent group in France revolution internationale has a Bordigist ancestry. Jean Barrot, author of a number of books including Le mouvement communiste, reviewed in the Socialist Standard in October 1973 and which contains a correct definition of socialism, has also been influenced by Bordiga. And in France a whole series of Marx's writings on subjects like trade unions, Malthus, education and utopianism has been collected together and introduced by a more or less orthodox Bordigist, Roger Dangeville who (while often distorting Marx's views on other subjects such as violence and democracy) correctly points out that Marx's conception of socialism involved the disappearance of money and wages.

Others have advanced further, coming to criticise the labour-time voucher system and to favour free access, as in the publication La Guerre Sociale. This group distributes the pamphlet entitled Le communisme: Un monde sans argent (Communism: A World without Money), extracts of which were published in the July Socialist Standard and which gives a description of future society which is identical to ours.

All these groups and individuals, however, are still mistaken on how to get socialism either because they still accept the idea of a vanguard party (the orthodox Bordigists of "Programme Communiste", Roger Dangeville, the ICC) or because they deny that the establishment of socialism is a question of majority consciousness (Barrot, "La Guerre Sociale"). All of them favour violent insurrection rather than democratic political action (elections and Parliament) to try to establish socialism.
Adam Buick

Further Reading: