Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dictatorship or Democracy (1930)

Book Review from the January 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

Shaw's apple-cart upset

Most of our readers no doubt have heard or read of George Bernard Shaw. It is not Shaw's fault if they haven't. He has done his best to make himself known and has, on the whole, succeeded fairly well.

His combination of a shrewd wit with an equally shrewd ambition has enabled him to rise in a society wherein the superficial brilliance of diamonds is of greater esteem than the solid utility of the humbler foundation stone.

A master of paradox, he poses as the supreme contradiction, the wealthy Socialist. In the 'eighties he claimed to have superseded Marx by means of a kind of Irish stew of David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and Stanley Jevons. (See "The Economic Basis of Socialism." Fabian Essays.) This was somewhat sadly burnt in the frying pan by his fellow-Capitalist, H. M. Hyndman, in "Economics of Socialism" (see chapter on the Final Futility of Final Utility), but such ambitious chefs as Shaw are undeterred by little accidents like that.

So, more recently, he has made a further hash of things entitled "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism," in which juicy bits of real information are all but totally submerged in a sticky mess of rubbish. Shaw appears to have learned little about Socialism during the last forty years and that little he admittedly owes to Marx. He can give us an effective description of the effects of Capitalism and even indicate their underlying basis, but his attitude towards that basis is as unsound as ever. The blunders of the Third International give him something more to talk about and a chance to show off, by contrast, his supposed practical political sagacity. Upon examination, however, his sneers at the "Marxist fanatics" only turn out to be another case of the pot calling the kettle black. So far from Shaw's Socialism being a science he boldly avows it is as a religion, a curious blend of sentiment with childish fantasy and prophetic cocksureness.

Confronted with concrete issues Shaw asks not "how does it arise?" nor "what is the solution?" but "who is right?" Thus in an article in the Labour Monthly of October 15th 1921, he condemned the miners in Britain for striking, and praised the Soviet Government for shooting men for slacking and shirking at their work. Compulsory work, he held, was dictated by "the irresistible logic of facts and of real responsibility." (p. 312). His article was dated August 10th. The very next day the Soviet Government published their New Economic Policy. The attempt to introduce "Communism" from above by compulsion failed and the seer had written a day too soon; but he did not learn his lesson nor cease to worship with all the fervour of his vegetarian heart the brutal "directness" of Lenin, Mussolini and Pilsudski.

In his attempt to impress his wisdom upon the intelligent ladies of his class Shaw makes no secret of his "despair of democracy" and his faith in the "intellectuals" and in those capitalists who are in danger of immediate precipitation into the ranks of the workers through the development of Capitalism.

This group provides the finance and "brains" of the Labour Party; but Shaw is by no means optimistic concerning the ability of this party to hold together once it has acquired office. Recent events confirm his fears of the danger of splits fostered by the rival ambitions of different leaders and discontent among their working-class followers. For Shaw, "Socialism" is something to be imposed upon us with or without our consent by the Civil Service. It is, in other words, expert Capitalist government tending towards equality of income by means of taxation, nationalisation and an increase in insurance and pension schemes. Hence the support of the workers is desirable inasmuch as it may smooth the pathway of the administrators; but Shaw is uncomfortably conscious of an awkward fact—the class struggle.

While his Fabian politicians and permanent officials are trying to hold society together in order to keep their cushy jobs, the irreconcilables may refuse to be reconciled. The capitalists may lock-out or, worse still, the workers may strike; to which emergency Shaw's timid Fabianism answers in one word—"Dictatorship!" (pp. 379-380).

This magic phrase expresses in inverted form the hopeless confusion in which Shaw lands himself and his readers in his frantic endeavour to appear wise. Here are one or two examples.

Discussing the subsidy to the mine-owners in 1925 he says "The people who say subsidies are Socialistic  . . . are talking nonsense. They are frank exploitations of the taxpayer by bankrupt Capitalism" (p. 305).

Reverting to the same subject (on pp. 387,388) he tells us that "the capitalists themselves have established the Socialistic practice of subsidising private business."

In sections 57-62 (pp. 268-284) he tries to show that compensation (to be provided by taxation) is necessary to avoid "revolution." On page 372, however, we are told "It may quite possibly happen that even if the most perfect Fabian Acts of Parliament be passed . . . the capitalists may . . . try to prevent by force the execution of the Fabian acts. We should then have a state of civil war"; while on p. 376, he admits that "a political revolution may be necessary to break the power of the opponents of Socialism."

In the face of this it is difficult to avoid  drawing the obvious conclusion, namely. that Fabianism is an attempt to prolong "the power of the opponents of Socialism."

Further items of interest to members of the working-class who make no claim to Shaw's level of intelligence, are statements to the effect that the army and navy and the police force, as well as the Church of England, are "communistic institutions" (see pp. 13-15) because, forsooth, their services are available to rich and poor alike. Workers on strike will no doubt appreciate this.

On page 18 we are informed that "money is the most convenient thing in the world; we could not possibly do without it." Under Shaw's special brand of "Socialism" the whole paraphernalia of commodity-production, buying and selling, etc., would this continue to exist, thus implying the private property which he professes to get rid of.

Again, "Thoughtless people think a brickmaker more of a producer than a clergyman," is another sample of Shavian wit. What does a brickmaker produce? Under Capitalist society he produces profit for his kind exploiter and the function of the clergyman is to persuade him that he should love his exploiter as himself. Shaw's easy-going facetiousness as shown in the above instance is only typical of his incurably conceited notion that the so-called intelligentsia are as necessary as the workers to social life in the future.

Professional parsons and playwrights appear in his eyes as among the eternal necessities; but these brainy people recognise that in order to bluff the common herd and safeguard their own position they require the assistance of another special body of intellectuals tools, namely, the professional politicians, male and female. The more "advanced" of these tricksters will, no doubt, find in Shaw's writings most valuable aid in specious "arguments" and verbal jugglery. But members of the working-class requiring an understanding of their position will find them worse than useless. Nothing prevents intelligent political action by the workers more effectively than confusion, and, so far as this country is concerned, we have no hesitation in handing George Bernard Shaw the palm—as the master-confusionist.
Eric Boden

Running fast to stay still (1968)

From the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard
On the occasion of the Centenary of the Trades Union Congress we publish this special survey of the trade union movement in Britain.
A Socialist member of the executive of one of the unions in the printing and paper industry comments on the trade union scene: 

The attitude of the unions today seems to mystify most people. In fact even Socialists find it difficult to keep up with the contradictory poses taken up by different trade union leaders. Some seem to be in favour of a form of wage freeze. Many fight even the suggestion of voluntary wage-vetting by the TUC. It is less of a mystery when you realise that some unions would be quite satisfied if they could get even a small rise like 3 per cent every year, while other unions reckon they can get a little more because of their extra bargaining strength. Only a few are concerned with refusing to surrender the principle of free and unrestricted bargaining over the price of the labour-power of the workers they represent.

What has changed over the past hundred years? Certainly not the class struggle between worker and owner. The TUC in its Economic Review for 1968 points out that it is a myth that some kind of wealth levelling has been going on: they have discovered what we have been saying all along, that ten per cent of society still own 90 per cent of property and receive each year over 25 per cent of personal income after tax.

There is one change, however, that has taken place since the war, and that is a change in attitudes resulting from a period of relatively full employment. Most employers have been forced by their economic need for labour power to take up a more liberal attitude to the workers and the institutions that represent their interests. The state has been influenced, too, to give more prestige to union "leaders", and these gentlemen are consulted before the government takes any decision that might affect the economy. We all know that the government does not take much notice of what they say, but the process of consultation goes on, and the unions do have their representatives on many government bodies. But this prestige may only be temporary and may vanish should the economic winds blow any chillier. At the moment however Woodcock can still gain the ear of the Prime Minister and trade union leaders can be found taking lunch with the representatives of big business.

This has affected unions at all levels. The leaders themselves are flattered. The rank and file's reaction is very mixed. Union members are not Socialists. In fact many are not even politically interested. Most of them think that their economic interests are tied up with those of their employers. For when the firm they work for is doing well their employer is more willing to pay out; and of course when trade is poor the reverse is true. This attitude reflects itself nationally; most union members are patriotic. Then, most do not go to union meetings or use their votes so that it is anybody's guess who is going to end up as the professional representative of the workers.

There are three distinct levels in union life: the professional, the active rank and file member and the card holder. All three levels seem to be in a different world. The professional is the "realist", doing a job of work for which he is reasonably well-paid. The active rank and file members do union work for poor pay (if any at all) and so need some other stimulus like ambition, or political ideology. Amongst this group will be found the "communist", the trotskyist and all the other mixed-up leftwingers. All of these latter for one reason or another seem to think that capitalism can be made to work against its own economic laws; that capitalists can be made to pay out wages beyond the profitability of the company and still not withdraw their capital; that the commodity labour-power can be separated from the economic laws governing commodities generally. All of them dig their own graves for it is difficult enough to get workers to fight for moderate demands. After a while most workers will find local leaders whose leadership is a little less demanding. Sometimes gains are made locally but this happens just as often in industries where the union representatives are less eager to sing their own praises. In fact in most cases it is circumstances rather than people that dictate the course of events. But, when all is said and done, capitalism still remains in the saddle.

This perhaps gives some logic to such things as a Royal Garden party to celebrate a hundred years of economic struggle against the capitalist class during which the forces of the state were always ranged against the workers. When the TUC leaders sit down to dine with the Queen at the Guildhall we may well wonder if they will be celebrating one hundred years of trade union struggle or just indulging their own ego (anybody who has been at one of these trade union celebration dinners will suspect the latter).

What of the future? This is the real issue for we could spend pages listing the faults of the unions today. This would not serve much purpose as these faults are those of the working class generally - lack of interest, economic ignorance, call it what you will. A union is not a Socialist organisation but has to struggle within the society of which it is an institution - capitalism. As soon as union membership starts to take a class attitude to social problems then the days of capitalism will numbered. Meanwhile Socialists, who reject capitalism, follow the same pattern as the others, struggling for a small improvement in conditions they know can be lost overnight. But to stop struggling would only make the worker worse off than he now is.

Socialists work for an improvement in working class understanding, and a consequent improvement in the quality of trade union membership. If this happens and the unions become less nationalistic, then they have many useful international contacts that could be used for the further spread of Socialist knowledge. Working against the Socialist today are those with a vested interest who prefer the workers to want leaders, those in fact who make a damn good living out of the fact that workers depend on leaders.

So, what will the working class be celebrating this year? The passing of a hundred years? If, so, a hundred years of what? We can read of the aspirations for a better world of the early union members. The Brotherhood of Man was a term many used. Compare this with the nationalistic attitude of most unions and you are left wondering just what the working class has learned in a hundred years of organised class struggle. Or you see the great institutions the workers have built up by trial and error, and realise that people who can organise like this will have no difficulty in organising Socialism.