Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Pages of S.L.P. History. (1919)

From the July 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the June issue of the 'Socialist" appears an amusing little skit, the must amusing part of which, however, is the sequel which lack of space compelled our contemporary to leave out. Fortunately, however, we have an odd corner in which to complete the tale.

Three "boozy-looking demobilised scroungers" were leaning against the bar bragging of what they had done in the war, when Mr. Dan Dusty, a well-known member of our contemporary's editorial staff, got the pip, and opened his mouth and spake thusly.
  "You're all three heroes, right enough; that's what you want to show, ain't it? You've all been out in France, dressed up by the capitalists . . . to fight for their interests and spoil yer own. Ain't that clever! . . . Equal to the glory of Julius Cæsar, I calls it. Got about as much sense as a blooming coolie what claps his pretty black hands for joy because his master ain't quite flogged him to death . . . You're demobilised with a quid or two or buried in your khaki, just as you was so gloriously shot by the other working man, labeled German, as big a fool as you . . . "
And this is what, but for us would have been lost to the world:

Beeriest-looking Scrounger: "Yus, matey, we're dam fools, and no mistake about it. But its like your dam cheek to say so, seeing that we only joined up because YOUR paper told us we ought to do so—here, don't go."
A. E. Jacomb

What was he fighting for? (2011)

From the May 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Phil Ochs as the Sound of the “New Left”

A new documentary film on the life and music of Phil Ochs, “There But For Fortune”, is being shown in several US cities now. It hasn’t come too soon, certainly, because Ochs today is largely unknown outside the circle of lefty baby-boomers.

Often Ochs is dismissed as a “topical” songwriter whose music, for that reason, hasn’t stood the test of time. “He’s no Bob Dylan,” his critics sometimes say. Dylan himself famously told Ochs he was “just a journalist” (as he threw him out of his limousine).

This image of Ochs owes much to his own statements, for he frankly admitted that the pages of newspapers and magazines were a source of songs ideas, saying “every headline is a potential song.” He underscored this by naming his first album “All The News That’s Fit To Sing” – punning on the masthead of The New York Times.

The origin of a song hardly determines its value, though; and in his best political songs, Ochs cultivated poetry out of such pulpy fertilizer, just like Hank Williams finding song ideas from his sister’s True Romance comic books.

Whatever one thinks of his music, though, it was clearly linked to the 1960s New Left movement. Ochs’s musical career rose with the movement, his songs championed its causes, and by the time of his suicide in 1976 the movement was dead as a social force. Listening to Ochs’s albums today is a way of tracing the rise and fall of this radical (but reformist) political movement.

Folk re-revival
The combative optimism of the New Left movement in the days when it was still new comes across on Ochs’s first two albums (1964–65). In particular, his song “What’s That I Hear” gives listeners an idea of the excitement young leftists felt as fifties conservatism gave way to sixties radicalism, with Ochs describing the sound, off in the distance, of “freedom calling” and the “old ways falling”.

Ochs in those early albums is not only looking forward with confidence, but also looking back to see what can be salvaged from the radical past. He had first encountered the history of the radical left in the late fifties through his university roommate Jim Glover, a folk musician who unlike Ochs had been raised in a leftwing family.

The early song “Links On The Chain” shows Ochs contrasting radical past with conservative present, as he compares complacent trade unionist with the militants who formed the unions – and with the civil-rights activists of the time “All that they [activists] are doing is all that you have showed / That you gotta strike, you gotta fight to get what you are owed.”

What Ochs and the New Left did not learn from the history of leftwing radicalism, unfortunately, was its limits: how it never truly sought to replace this social system in which workers continually have to fight just to “get what they are owed”. The sixties radicals were thus doomed to travel down the same dusty reformist road the “old left” (Communist Party) had trodden before. Ultimately, the line separating old left and new left was a generational difference in style and temperament, not a true distinction between reformist and revolutionary politics.

The early sixties “folk revival” owed much to the old left and its earlier revival of folk music in the 1930s. The best way to understand the politics of the earlier folk musicians is to listen to the songs of Woody Guthrie as well as the Almanac Singers – a band that included Guthrie, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and others. These musicians stuck to the CP line through thick and thin – and they started sounding pretty thick after 1941, when they ditched their (good) antiwar songs for crass warmongering songs like Pete Seeger’s horrifyingly awful “Dear Mr. President”. But even at their political and artistic best, the old-left songs glorify the futile effort to fundamentally reform capitalism.

“Sis” Cunningham, one of the Almanac Singers, and her husband Gordon Friesen took Ochs under their wing when he arrived in Greenwich Village in 1962. That was the year the couple started their soon-to-be influential magazine Broadside, which brought Ochs to wider attention by publishing the lyrics and music to his songs.

Ochs was influenced by Woody Guthrie, as Bob Dylan and so many others were, but he never tried to imitate Guthrie’s folksy ways (as Dylan does at times on his debut album). Rather, Ochs was drawn to Guthrie’s approach of using contemporary struggles as songwriting material and expressing a clear political opinion. This approach comes through on Ochs’s tribute to Guthrie, “Bound for Glory”, which culminates with the lines: “Why sing the songs and forget about the aim / He wrote them for a reason why not sing them for the same.”

Radical reformist
Ochs was a reformist, as is clear from his songs, but of the radical persuasion. He bandied about the word “revolution” at times and had little patience for timid leftists. Ochs put down such types for all time in his brilliant song “Love Me I’m A Liberal”, where his stereotypical (but true to life!) liberal pleads with radicals like Ochs: “Don’t talk about revolution / That’s going a little bit too far.”

It was the revolutionary act of tearing down a rotten system – more than the question of what might replace it – that seemed to fascinate New Left radicals at times. In the song “Ringing of Revolution,” Ochs brilliantly depicts members of a once arrogant ruling class cowering before the irresistible power of a revolutionary uprising. What the revolution aims to accomplish, however, is anyone’s guess.

"The movement is everything, the final aim is nothing” (Bernstein) – this was the basic attitude of sixties activists. And “the movement” then mainly comprised the struggle for civil rights and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. These two political issues inspired Ochs to write numerous songs.

On his early albums, Ochs often relied on satire to skewer racists and warmongers. “Whenever there is a deep tragedy, there is always something of the ridiculous,” is how Ochs once introduced to an audience his song “Talking Birmingham Jam”. For that song and other topical ones like it, Ochs borrowed the “talking blues” format that Guthrie had used. In some of his best satirical songs, Ochs has the target of the satire do the talking, like the pro-war hypocrite in “Draft Dodger Rag” who knows that “someone’s gotta go over there [Vietnam], and that someone isn’t me”.

The absurdity of war and racism also inspired some of Ochs’s most mournful songs (“Too Many Martyrs” and “Song of a Soldier”), as well as his angriest and most rousing songs (“Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and “One More Parade”). Listening to the variety of songs that the two burning political issues in the 1960s inspired him to write pokes holes in the assumption that topical or political music is a limited art form.

The sheer amount of energy that Phil Ochs derived from, and poured into, the two political movements, however, could only be sustained as long as the movements were still gathering strength.

New Left grows old
I don’t know / But it seems that every single dream’s / Painted pretty pictures in the air / Then it tumbles in despair / And it starts to bend /Until by the end it’s a nightmare (“Cross My Heart”).
Songs on his later albums, like this one from the 1967 album “Pleasures of the Harbor”, document how Ochs’s radical élan gave way to despair in the late sixties. At times, Ochs tries to buck himself up, as in the refrain to “Cross My Heart” where he pledges: “But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give / Cross my heart and I hope to live.” These half-hearted lines, among the clumsiest he ever wrote, could hardly have raised his morale. Now they seem poignant, though, knowing as we do the suicidal end of his story. 

The mental turmoil of Phil Ochs in the late sixties seems to have resulted from a number of different but interrelated crises. His musical career was foundering, he sensed that his youth had become a memory, and he had always been in tune with the melancholic side of life (as even his earliest songs attest).

On top of this, or perhaps at the bottom of things, was the fact that the radical political movement was no longer in its optimistic early stage. The Vietnam War was widening despite the growth of protests against it, and every year brought new assassinations of civil rights leaders. The frustrations of radicals crystallized with the 1968 demonstrations at the Democratic national convention. Chicago police beating down the protesters came as a shock of disillusionment, leading the more impatient and imbecilic radicals to begin toying with terrorism.

Phil Ochs was in Chicago that summer for the convention and witnessed the “police riot” during the Yippie’s Festival of Youth in Lincoln Park. The 1968 event seemed to dissolve the remaining political optimism of Ochs, who was supporting the presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.

The following year he released an album pessimistically titled “Rehearsals for Retirement,” featuring a cover photo of his own gravestone, with the inscription: Phil Ochs (American) Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940, Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968. The events in Chicago marked his own “spiritual death,” Ochs felt.

It is rather simplistic to imagine that the police brutality in Chicago suddenly dissolved Ochs’s optimism. More likely, it occurred at point when he already felt that he was reaching a dead end as a musician and an activist, and was looking for a new way forward. (Sadly, the music industry and his own fans at the time did not embrace his later songs, which are among his best.)

Ochs did not abandon leftwing politics after 1968, but the thrill of activism was gone. And how could his radical enthusiasm have persisted without any real belief in the possibility of a post-capitalist society? The movement was everything for Ochs in the early sixties; and he had thought it could broadly reform American society. Even in those years, though, Ochs sensed the fragility of the reform movement and recognized the power of the “establishment”, as is reflected in the many early songs he wrote about martyrs. Perhaps Ochs imagined a glorious defeat for himself, which is the ultimate goal when the final aim is nothing.

He did not die in Chicago, though, and the New Left kept going too. A few years later they discovered that it was not glorious defeat but a pyrrhic victory that awaited them. The end of the Vietnam War may have been the victory of the antiwar movement, in a sense, but it was the end of the New Left. Opposing the war was everything to the movement, so its end left activists without a sense of purpose.

But capitalism continued. Later the US government would pluck up enough courage to wage new wars, and the problems of racism and poverty never went away. So a new “new left” could rise to fight the same struggles again. Some point to these familiar problems to demonstrate the “relevance” of Phil Ochs’s music today. “Just change a few names and places,” they say, “and the songs become contemporary.” Yes, quite true. But the same old capitalist problems popping up, again and again, despite the best efforts of activists like Ochs, really speaks to the utter irrelevance of reformism.

Ochs’s reformism is clear from his songs, but even those songs most clearly inspired by New Left ideas have lines that can sound revolutionary to socialist ears, straining to hear the sound of freedom calling and the old ways falling.
Michael Schauerte

The end of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat! (1980)

From the May 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

As everyone knows, there has been a Shakespeare industry for centuries. Thousands of academics—some wise, some foolish, some honest, some crooked—have made a nice living out of it. But it took a long time for a similar industry to develop about Marx; for most of the century since he died, the groves of academe in the main held a conspiracy of silence. He wasn't worth mentioning to students—who in turn became professors who were able to pass on their own ignorance to succeeding generations. Suddenly, in the last decade or two, all that has changed. The reasons need not bother us, but it's enough to make an SPGB cat laugh to find that there is now a flourishing Marx industry among circles which not so long ago "professed": "Marx? Never heard of 'im!"

Every facet of the sage's life and works is explored and there is no end to the discoveries about the subsequent career of his third cousin twice removed; or about the bastard whom he fathered on the domestic servant and who was looked after by the undoubtedly kindly Engels. It is true that all these scribblers seem to know everything except the one thing that Marx really spent his life on: socialism. Ask ten professors of politics to tell you what socialism is and you will get ten different answers, each one as stupid as the rest. A few months ago, for example, there was an attack on Marxism in the Observer by no less a personage than the editor-in-chief. Predictably, this brought an article the following week by E. P. Thompson (who is too big for the paper to ignore) who had no difficulty in showing that Conor Cruise O'Brien is an ignoramus. Sadly he also showed that he too has his faults. The author of The Making of the English Working Class, which received the high praise that was its due when reviewed in this journal some years ago, can still think that a Marxist can possibly associate with the reformists in the Labour Party or the SWP.

As is the nature of an industry, those who engage in it are always looking for products that the competition has not dealt with. So we find that the literati take their magnifying glasses to pore over every odd phrase that Marx wrote from his youth (and like ordinary mortals, Marx too had to grow up—and learn). So we get learned tomes discussing what exactly the great man meant in Chapter XYZ, line 123 of the Critique of the Gotha Programme or some such.

The matter of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is even more ridiculous. The phrase was not intended for, and not used in, one of his books or major pamphlets, but was merely a remark used en passant in the course of correspondence. This however has not prevented the phrase being analysed and dissected ad nauseam. Can there be a dictatorship of the great majority? Whom would they dictate over in the classless society of socialism? Did Marx really mean "dictatorship" in the sense in which we understand the term or was he using it in the manner in which it was understood in ancient Rome? One can only assume that in his grave in Highgate, Marx is saddened to think that a careless phrase, one that indeed seems rather less than meaningful to us, should occasion so much bother to generations then unborn.

Unfortunately, it is not only foolish academics who seize on such phrases. People like Lenin (who had at any rate studied Marx) and Stalin (who had no time to read, being too busy butchering the Russian proletariat) needed these obscure phrases to lend authority to their tyrannical capitalist regimes. Lenin and his so-called Communist Party made it quite clear that they thought it perfectly correct to run a dictatorship and call it democracy. This, they said, was what Marx meant by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. And this in turn meant that Lenin and his grislier successors could claim to be Marxists when by every reasonable understanding of what Marx spent his life writing about, and fighting for, they were anti-Marxists who were running a dictatorship over the proletariat—like Hitler. (In a sense, even worse, Hitler could at any rate say that millions of proletarians had voted him into power in an election in 1933; something that has never happened in the entire history of the Union of Capitalist Soviet Republics.)

However, the mask has now been taken off, very quietly. Russia, which always claimed to be the supreme example of whatever Marx is supposed to have meant by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, has now abandoned that claim. At last, the official news from Moscow, from no less authoritative a source than the Sovietskaya Vooruzhennye Sily (p. 409). Most readers will no doubt be fully familiar with this journal but, for those who are not, it is the official publication of the Institute of Military History of the Soviet Ministry of Defence—and you can't get more official than that. Here is the passage in question: "Great changes have occurred in the Soviet political system. Our socialist state, which emerged as a dictatorship of the proletariat, has become an all-embracing national state expressing the interests and the will of the entire nation. As a result of this, the Soviet Armed Forces have become the weapon of our all-embracing state, a reliable defender of all classes and strata of Soviet society. Their social and class base has been widened. The union of the armed forces and the nation has been cemented further".

There we have it, After 60 inglorious years, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is now pronounced dead. Out of the ashes we now have a socialist, classless society? On the contrary, our glorious armed forces are there to protect "all classes and strata of society". Russia even has strata as well as classes, unlike our own capitalist state. It will not be necessary to point out all the significance of the remarkable passage quoted but it is worth mentioning that the dateline of the issue is Moscow 1978. Did the glorious Soviet people have some sort of referendum in which they joyously voted out of existence the glorious Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which they had joyously upheld in all those free elections ever since Lenin smashed up the Constituent Assembly in 1918? If so, this great event went unreported. The Morning Star still knows nothing about it, which is remarkable ignorance even by their standards. It is probable that about 250 million Russian members of the working class who are unlikely to read Sovietskaya Vooruzhennye Sily, haven't noticed the change either.
L. E. Weidberg