Thursday, December 26, 2013

Greasy Pole: Labour wins in 1945 (2005)

The Greasy Pole Column from the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was the war what done it
In late September 1938 Neville Chamberlain came back from visiting Hitler in Munich and waved a piece of paper which, he assured us, showed that he had cleverly arranged for peace in our time. A year later we found it was in fact war in our time, with serious questions about the Chamberlain government – about its complacency, ineptitude and collusion with Nazi Germany.
It was quickly apparent that there was to be no repeat of official propaganda to justify the war, by the crude “Your Country Needs You” style so typical of 1914/18. More suitable to the times, there had to be a campaign which implicitly accepted criticism of the past while relying on publicity about the horrors of Nazi Germany and of the occupied countries to persuade the British people that their first priority should be the war effort. Out of all the fear and loss and grief of war there would be a happier world, with human welfare as its dominant motivation.
The day after France had surrendered to Germany the Director General of the Ministry of Information set up a debate on “whether opportunity should be taken of an all-party government to make some promise as to social reforms after the war”. A month or so later Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who looked and spoke like everyone’s version of a typical Tory, wrote to another Cabinet Minister about a meeting with trade union leader Ernie Bevin which had discussed:
“the contrast between the readiness of the Nation, and  particularly of the Treasury, to spend £9 million a day in war  to protect a certain way of life and the unwillingness of the administrative authorities in peace to put up, shall we say,  £10 million to assist in the reconditioning of Durham unless they could see the project earning a reasonable percentage”
Churchill speaks

The official propaganda strategy was to urge the working class to endure the miseries of war in the confident expectation that their reward would come with victory. In March 1943 Churchill broadcast the message, beginning by encouraging his listeners “to concentrate even more zealously upon the war effort” while assuring them that his government were “strong partisans of compulsory national insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave” – the kind of scheme designed by Beveridge, which was attracting popular support. There would, he said, be no unemployment after victory because the state would work with private industry to “enable the Government to exercise a balancing influence upon development which can be turned on or off as circumstances require. There is a broadening field for State ownership and enterprise, especially in relation to monopolies of all kinds”.
Under the kind of benevolent stewardship Churchill was hinting at there would be expansion in education, housing and the health services. This kind of prospectus, false though it was, was highly appealing to the people whose opinions were reported by the Home Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of Information:  “Three years ago, the term social security was almost unknown to the public as a whole. It now appears to be generally accepted as an urgent post-war need. It is commonly defined as ‘a decent minimum standard of living for all’”.
So with the end of the war, as Germany and much of the rest of Europe lay in ruins, as the full effects of the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities was being assessed, it was time for what was hoped would be a new beginning. The Conservatives were widely blamed for the cynical mess of the hapless years between one world war and another. The wartime experience of the state taking direct control of so many aspects of society encouraged the idea that this should be extended into key industries like the coal mines, the railways and the health service. In other words, the Labour Party’s big day had arrived.
Labour government

If there was one lesson I had absorbed during the war, as I grew into my teens, it was that society must look to a political solution for its problems. Taking everything into account, the Labour Party seemed to me to be worth supporting, and anyway the Tory candidate in my constituency was everything I reviled. He was  one of the MPs who had supported the Nazis, attending one of their big rallies and proudly shaking Hitler by the hand. An hereditary baronet, he oozed money along with his ineptitude and his ignorance of the lives of the people whose vote he assumed he could harvest by simply informing them that he supported Churchill for Prime Minister. I threw myself into working for the Labour candidate, who was in much better intellectual shape and was a dynamic campaigner. Excitedly, I stuffed envelopes and canvassed relentlessly, although I was once put out of my stride when a woman at her front door responded to my Labour Party rant by asking “ What about Ramsay MacDonald, then?” I am still embarrassed to remember that I had never even heard of the man, although learning about him  did nothing to lessen my devotion to Labour; MacDonald was, I argued, all in the past, we are a new party now and we will rebuild Britain as it should be. When the results were declared in July 1945 I was able to swallow my rage and disappointment at that Tory being elected again because we had a Labour government, the first one with a working majority, so now there could be no obstacles – and no excuses either.

Some of the new Labour MPs were surprised to find themselves in the Commons. As a symptom of their emotional fragility they outraged tradition by singing The Red Flag in the Chamber. Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton thought it was as if they were “walking with destiny” – except that the destiny which soon became obvious to the most star-struck MP was very different from all those exciting promises. British capitalism had emerged from the war in a severely damaged condition, having lost some two thirds of its export trade, with a consequent imbalance in its trade with America. The ambition – indeed, the priority – of the Labour government was to return British capitalism to its old pre-eminent position.
Worker exploitation

An important part of this was to intensify working class exploitation. A White Paper published in January 1947 laid it down that “What is necessary is increased production per annum. In attaining this everyone has a part to play”. Of course the government did not really mean “everyone” – the people who had to increase their production were those whose livelihood depended on working for wages. In other words, the working class had to postpone any idea about a better, more secure life and accept what was effectively a reduction in their living standards by working harder for less. “We Work Or We Want” was how the government campaign put it, in posters and press adverts all over the country. 

The Labour government quickly made it clear that they would have no truck with any nonsense about socialism (or rather what they called socialism) or workers’ control; they would run this segment of capitalism as it had to be run – in the interests of the owning, ruling class. They resolutely opposed any efforts by workers to improve, or even defend, their conditions; on two occasions when dockers came out on strike they took emergency powers to order soldiers in to run the docks. They began the programme to make an atomic bomb and then a hydrogen bomb, at a cost of รบ100 million, without any proper discussion in Cabinet. They sent British troops to fight a colonial war in Malaysia and they joined America in the Korean war. To do this they increased the period of service under military conscription (which they had introduced, for the first time in peacetime, in March 1946) from 18 months to two years, while all those members of the government who had been conscientious objectors in the First World War kept their silence. At home, they abandoned the allegedly sacred alleged principle of the National Health Service by introducing charges for prescriptions (although this was not implemented until 1962, under a Tory government) and then for spectacles and dentures. The list of broken promises and abandoned principles grew longer almost by the day.
Unfamiliar case  

Nationally there was a lot of dismay and resentment among Labour Party members at the massive betrayal of their dream of a more equal, more caring society which they had worked so hard for. For example a motion at their 1946 Conference complained about the “apparent continuance of a traditionally Conservative Party policy of power politics abroad”.  But such doubts had absolutely no effect on the government.

By 1947 it was clear to me that I was wasting my time in the Labour Party. The war had politicised me, as it had so many other people (although too many of them used it for different ends, staying with Labour Party through thick and thin) and I wanted a classless society based on human interests and not on production for profit or on discredited notions about patriotism and international power and influence. That left the question of what I should do. For a while I swirled around on the political surface, bobbing up against one party after another but never feeling good about any of them. Until one Saturday evening in summer when on our local green, a kind of mini Speakers’ Corner, I heard this man speaking from an unfamiliar platform, putting an unfamiliar case about a moneyless world without leaders, with free access to wealth.

Middle Class Radicals (1968)

Book Review from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Middle Class Radicalism. By F. Parkin, Manchester University Press.

This book is a study of the social bases of support for a political mass movement —CND. It is not CND itself which is of primary interest to the author so much as certain sociological issues which his study might help to illuminate.

Parkin makes the usual assumption made by most sociologists and advertising men when he labels a certain section of society as 'middle class' rather than seeing that most members of this category although having certain common characteristics are also members of the working class.

Only if sociological techniques are set firmly within a historical frame—and a Marxist conception of the historical process at that—can they be used to full effect. Indeed the inadequate definition of class and of some of the problems posed derives from the a-historical approach of this type of enquiry. The author, in some measure is aware of this, and in an excellent chapter he provides a commentary on the battles that took place within the Labour movement and CND over unilateralism and the way in which this related to the leadership struggle going on in the Labour Party. The tactical shifts for personal and factional advantage, regardless of previous declamations are tersely documented. A veritable little museum of turncoat butterflies, neatly transfixed for Socialists to display as a warning to the inexperienced new voters who could be deceived by the Labour Party's more subtle election ploys now promised.

The book is based upon answers received from questionnaires circulated to CND supporters in 1965 and 1966. Even bearing in mind the specific purposes of the study, anyone remotely concerned knows that 'CND 1958' was definitely not 'CND 1965.' It is true that its social roots might not have changed drastically but the effect of this time-lag should always be kept in mind.

Part of the study assesses the activities of CND supporters in terms of the sociological concepts of 'expressive—instrumentalist' action. 'Expressive' action being that which obtains '. . . satisfactions derived from expressing personal values . . . unrelated to class or material interests . . .' 'Instrumentalist' actions are those '. . . geared to the attainment of specific and concrete goals.'

Although Parkin is careful not to ignore the instrumentalist aspect of CND activity he tends to overemphasise its expressive role generally and that which it played as the symbolic rallying point for a variety of 'anti-Establishment' positions. This derives, perhaps, from the fact that he is dealing with 1965 not 1958. It should be remembered that one of the techniques employed by ruling groups when policy is being subjected to radical criticism, is to convey the impression via comment in the mass media that their critics are 'honest well-intentioned, chaps, you know, but who are highly emotional and don't really have a grasp of the facts.' Thus while it is true that most CNDers had little grasp of the political or even military realities, an attempt was made to discount their generally accurate knowledge of weapons and radiation which was the factual basis from which the movement grew. Most commentators have fallen for this line of seeing the protesters as primarily highly emotional and —in the jargon, as 'expressive' in their actions. Is this not to mistake ruling class propaganda for fact? Most opponents of nuclear weapons in 1957-8 seem to have been people combining knowledge of atomic and nuclear weaponry and its past and present effects, a simple 'instrumentalist' anti-test, anti-bomb policy, intense moral indignation and an a-political, anti-political naivety which was swiftly and effectively manipulated by astute pro-Labour elements who saw their opportunity to organise and control the growing dissent as a powerful weapon in the coming election battle in 1959. This was 'instrumentalism' indeed!

The cynical Labourites who captured and corrupted the idealism of 1958 are responsible in no small measure for setting in motion the growing anti-parliamentary feeling which exists today. Despair and disillusion arising from the unprincipled actions of nominally 'anti-nuclear' Labourites helped to strengthen the call for direct action and the attack on the democratic process. At the time we warned of the dangerous path to which direct action could lead a radical movement, and now, when the call for violent direct action has grown, the danger to democracy from the 'right' and the 'left' has become clearer for all to see.

The author in a chapter on education, occupation and radicalism brings out a connection between high formal education and radical views which in a period of student unrest (notwithstanding the many other factors operating) is of general interest. He refines the term 'middle class' and locates the main support for CND as coming from the 'educated middle class' offering an explanation for this.

One final thought for Parkin: what are the implications for social theory if it turns out that the 'educated middle class' is primarily a section of the working class? It is about time that the un-Marxist identification of the 'working class' with the manual and industrial workers made by Trotskyists and nearly everyone else was abandoned.

They say, we say (1996)

The 'A Word In Your Ear' column from the January 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Advertised on some carriages of the London Underground is a new spoof book called More Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. The assumption behind the joke, intended to arouse howls of tittering derision from dopey dupes of the tabloid press, is that the world has gone totally mad because these days people are generally a little more careful than they used to be about using language which is insensitively offensive. The term "political correctness" was not invented by blacks who objected to being called niggers and wogs, women who found rape jokes unfunny or disabled people who were uneasy at the use of the term spastic as a slogan of playground abuse. It was invented by sour and miserable types, angered by the fact that they are losing the battle for the control of popular language. So, who are these bores who persist in this tedious campaign of whining against what they, and nobody else, call "political correctness"?

Firstly, there are those within the political elite who for decades have assumed that language, like everything else on the earth, belongs to them. They have traditionally believed that they effectively owned words; do they not even call it the Queen's English? (Who wants their children growing up speaking with the stilted, pompous aloofness of that parasitic relic?) These arrogant monopolists of speech have been quite happy for many years to twist language into their own politically poisonous notion of "correctness". So, for the indiscriminate murder of war read "defence" and for kicking workers out of their homes read "repossession" and for throwing workers out of jobs read "rationalisation" and for beating up strikers read "public order" and for pauperism read "negative equity". These are the liars and frauds of language who propagandise endlessly to us about "the markets wanting lower wages" and "the markets being unhappy unless welfare expenditure is cut", when the "markets" is in fact simply the politically correct code word for them and their class interests. As they have twisted language, so they have done their best to liquidate those words which are a threat to them. So, in early 1991 Andrew Neil, the Murdoch messenger boy, announced on the radio that nobody but a lunatic would ever use the word socialism again. They do their best to discredit terms like class, and try to suggest that concepts like racism and sexism are mere figments of the fevered imaginations of people who think they are being oppressed.

Then there are the dead and the dying, largely readers of the Express or Mail, whose resentment against all change takes the form of a more-to-be-pitied-than-condemned conservative neurosis. "We always used to call poofters queers when I was a boy — why should we lose a perfectly good word like gay so that they can have it?" This is a linguistic siege mentality, the reaction of the frightened, mean-minded and disorientated who had no sooner got used to the awful idea of women having the vote than now they must psychologically adjust to traditionally disrespected workers being treated, at least on the cheapest level of language, without offence if not with respect.

Then there are the committed bigots. These are to be distinguished from the first group: the political elite whose possession of language was not a product of intended malice, but of ideological delusion. The bigots are people who take the view that there is something harmless about hate-speech. They think that jokes about smelly Asians and mean Scots and thick Irishmen and all women wanting to be raped by pot-bellied lager-louts are either good harmless fun or, if not, the kind of harmful fun which is perfectly harmless to them because the objects of their verbal hatred have difficulty in defending themselves. What has happened — not everywhere, not fast enough, and not always in the most appropriate way — is that defenders of hate-speak are being discomforted by a society made up increasingly of younger people who, confused as they are about lots of things (including the system which exploits them), are no longer happy for hatred against whole groups to be part of their daily vocabulary. Where Baden-Powell taught boys to speak of "nig-nogs" and to fear girls, there is now a movement the other way. This is not to say that there are not still plenty of young dummies who prefer to subscribe to the legacy of verbal insensitivity of their stupid parents or of Bernard Manning videos, but these are a declining and increasingly conspicuous, embarrassing number.

The decline of verbal division within the working class is clearly an irritant to certain people. Smug little public schoolboys who believe that language is what you learn at Eton and that wage slaves who are afraid to say "fuck" but happy to say "nuke" are the best kind, are simply bad losers. The unsuccessful campaign against what they call political correctness is no more than the sulk of the oppressors (so much more pleasing to observe than the sigh of the oppressed).

But we socialists won't mince our words: we don't say that these captains of industry will in the course of the constitutional process meet with a hearty challenge — we say: Watch out you thieving parasites because it won't only be the language you've arrogantly stolen, but the world you've thieved, which is going to be taken away from you, leaving you somewhat revolutionary-challenged. 
Steve Coleman