Sunday, December 1, 2013

Absolute end (1986)

Film Review from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The release of Absolute Beginners—a film based on the novel of the same name by Colin MacInnes—has coincided with some of the most intensive advertising ever launched for a British made film. In recent months all available publicity outlets—television and radio shows, magazine features, newspaper articles, billboard advertisements and pop video promos—have been mobilised in a desperate effort to sell the film to the British public.

The main financial backers, Goldcrest Films, are still smarting after the costly flop of their last major film, Revolution. Unless Absolute Beginners is a box-office success, Goldcrest Films threatens to go bust and the so-called renaissance of the British film industry which began with international triumphs like Chariots of Fire and Ghandi will come to an abrupt halt. The message then is loud and clear, buy British and help to save the British film industry.

But why should this be? In capitalist society films—like everything else—are produced as commodities to be sold on the market with the aim of making a profit. A successful film is one that makes a profit; an unsuccessful film is one that makes a loss. Films are no different from any other commodity in this respect: those who invest in a particular film do so in the belief that at the end of the day they will get more money out of it than they put in. Why should anyone pay to see a film just to line the pockets of those who have invested in it?

The British capitalist class has no doubt learned by now that appeals to patriotic feelings alone are not enough to sell commodities. The commodity itself must be carefully packaged to ensure success and in this respect Absolute Beginners is equipped with a wide variety of selling points. Its shrewd blend of music, glamour, fashion, nostalgia for the 1950s, and the presence of chart-topping pop stars such as David Bowie, Style Council and Sade should guarantee its profitability. As the film trade magazine Screen International puts it, Absolute Beginners is "a must for fans of the various star singers and musicians, and the mass audience of under-25s already hooked on pop videos".

In terms of content, Absolute Beginners is predictably superficial. Although it attempts to portray certain aspects of modern capitalism—the commodity fetishism of the advertising jungle and the Notting Hill race riots of the late 1950s—it does so only in a half-hearted manner and somehow succeeds in only glamourising them. Working class racism is vividly portrayed but no attempt is made to understand its underlying causes. However, accurate descriptions of reality are the last thing we should expect from a film like Absolute Beginners. If you desire escapism, fantasy and a glamourising of the past, then this is the film for you.
Paola Doyle

The religious mentality (1989)

From the March 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law)

These are embarrassing times for the religious opium addicts who want to uphold their ideas in the company of rational people. Last year saw thousands of religious Americans ranting and raving because cinemas showed The Last Temptation of Christ. Christ on the cross is shown fantasising about having sex with Mary. The Christians screamed blasphemy: our Lord would descend to no such vulgar antics in the course of crucifixion: he was human, but he wasn't that human. The Bishop of Durham shuffled around hoping that his nutcase followers would get off the TV screens and back on their knees where they belonged. Leave the intellectualising to Bishops who know how to square circles. But the self-appointed censors were the real Christians; they knew that in the New Testament Christ says that anyone who doubts him will face eternal damnation. Still, at least the crazy Christians did not want to kill the film's director—just making him mute would have suited their Christian consciences.

Crazy Muslim consciences are not so easily satisfied. The Ayatollah Khomeini has called upon all good Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, a novel with a dream sequence in which the prophet Mohammed indulges in a few last temptations of his own. Copies of the work have been publically burned by Muslims in Bradford.

Let us not beat about any religious bushes on these book  burnings: they are the acts of modern Nazis who think that ideas can be destroyed by fire, Max Madden, the Labour MP for Bradford, motivated both by a cynical quest for the local Asian vote as well as some sincere but half-baked anti-racist sentiments, has called for an extension of the blasphemy law to include Islam. In short, it would be illegal (punishable by fines and imprisonment) to speak or write in ways which give offence to Muslim irrationalists, just as it currently is in relation to Christian irrationalists. In this wholly undemocratic enterprise Madden has been supported by other Labour MPs, including Bernie Grant. Madden even went so far as to state on BBC Radio Two that any book likely to cause offence to Muslims should be published only if they were granted by the publishers a right of reply. One can only speculate as to which particular guardians of the absolute Truth of Islam would be granted this right for, as Madden must surely know, there are several factions of the religion, each bitterly opposed to the others.

The Rushdie matter has highlighted the basic issue in relation to religion. It is not, as secularists have rather tiresomely contended for decades, about whether god exists. Scientific thinkers are hardly likely to waste time arguing about an invisible entity which demands faith as the proof of its existence. Does god exist? Do fairies live at the bottom of my garden? Is Elvis Presley alive? Let those who can define these supernatural phenomena offer proof. Religious thinkers have not tended to be bothered with scientific investigations to establish proof; faith will do nicely. The issue is not what they believe, but that they believe. Believing is what you do when you don't know, and religious belief is certainly based on ignorance of what there is to be known. The religious mentality is one which substitutes what is believable for what is scientifically knowable.

With his or her pack of beliefs, the religious individual looks at the world, embracing that which reinforces the beliefs, retreating from experience which conflicts with them. New knowledge, untried feelings, novel perspectives must be first mistrusted, then banned. Nothing must interfere with the dogma. If Christians really believe that Christ lived and was a pure and wonderful person, then they would have the confidence to withstand a film which says otherwise. But dogmatism is fragile. It is upheld by denying all other images than those which reinforce it. The Ayatollah's assassination call, as well as being a cynical political tactic to distract his war-weary subjects (some of whom might just be thinking about assassinating him and others in the theocratic mullah elite), is also a sign of a lack of confidence. It is the uncertainty which all dogmatists always feel and always will feel: it was lack of assurance which led Christ to state that all doubters would go to Hell and Lenin, at the Tenth Bolshevik Congress in 1921, to say that those who did not follow the leadership were state enemies.

When Muslims in Britain petitioned the Ayatollah about Rushdie they were testifying that their beliefs were under threat by truths they could not handle. Polite and embarrassed liberal Muslims have said that the Ayatollah does not represent real Islam. Maybe he does not (on the basis of Sura 42 verse 35 of the Koran, governments established by coups are said to be sinful), but whether one old Iranian tyrant is a good Muslim is not the point. To be a good Muslim is to possess a religious outlook; to be religious is to offend against the most elementary requirements of reasonable thought. And a society inhabited by unreasonable workers is one which is safe for the minority who prey on ignorance.

Marx, as well as referring to religion as "the opium of the people", called it "The self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again". The religious mentality exists in those workers who have not yet discovered the essential, exhilarating fact that we are the gods. We must make the future out of the material conditions which surround us: gods, prophets, bishops and mullahs are the illusory masters who people invent to tower over them. The socialist transformation of society will banish the capitalists from the earth and the gods from the skies—or to be accurate from the minds of men and women, where they have exercised their pernicious fantasies for too long. Those who choose to believe in powers beyond will be free to do so in a socialist society. Indeed, without the state to adopt this or that religious dogma as the official one, religious believers will be freer than they are now. Freer, but never free to tell others what to do. It will take more than a divine injunction from a white-beared guru to tell socialists what we can think, say or write.

Revolution (2013)

Editorial from the December 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The word revolution means different things to different people. There’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. It is even used by advertisers to give an impression of something new and different. This is a clue to its use in society, history and politics – to describe the complete replacement of the previously existing system. There is also the implication that this occurs fairly rapidly; otherwise it’s evolution.

Some people, influenced by the perception of the French Revolution cultivated by those who didn’t and don’t like it, associate the word with violence. A social or political revolution can involve violence and many have. A revolution certainly involves force – this has to be the lever bringing about the change – as the beneficiaries of the old system have to be forced to give up their power and privileges, but this can take other forms than outright violence. It can take the form of mass popular pressure or of the use of the ‘legitimate’ force of the state machine.

When Russell Brand called, in his interview with Jeremy Paxman, for a revolution he clearly meant it in the sense of getting completely rid of the present system of elite rule and neglect of people’s needs. Some interpreted him as calling for a repeat of the riots and looting of the summer of 2011 on a wider scale, but he himself later insisted that the revolution he envisaged should be non-violent.

The socialist of the Victorian era, William Morris, opens his pamphlet  How We Live and How We Might Live with these words:
‘The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people's ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.’

Socialists, he went on, mean by it ‘a change in the basis of society’.

This is the sense in which we too have always used the word. The revolution we envisage is a change in the basis of society from the present minority class ownership of the means of production to their common ownership and democratic control by all the people in their own interest.

We wholeheartedly endorse Morris’s view that this change cannot be ‘made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize the executive power for the moment’, as some 19th and 20th century self-styled revolutionaries have maintained.

For us, the social revolution from capitalism to socialism has to be carried out democratically, both in the sense of having majority support and in the sense of employing democratic means. This latter means organising without leaders. In the developed capitalist parts of the world this democratic self-organisation can – and we say should – also involve organising to win control of political power via the ballot box and parliament. In other words, forming a political party to challenge those Brand said he has (rightly) never voted for and never would. We shouldn’t let them have a clear run or allow them to claim to be the’ legitimately elected representatives of the people’.