Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rallying For Jobs (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

How many marchers were there? The police said seven thousand. The organisers said between fifteen and twenty thousand. At any rate there were a lot of them and the procession seemed never-ending as it wound down Cardiff's main street away from the centre and out towards a large field on the edge of the city. Sweet fresh-faced little girls from the Welsh valleys played drums, xylophones and kazoos for the march to proceed by. Badges and banners gave colour and spectacle. Rhythmic chants of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie-Out, Out, Out" broke out frequently as the march progressed. This was the latest in the series of anti-Tory unemployment rallies organised by the Labour Party.

The marchers, as their banners showed, came from many different places—not just Wales but Glasgow, Southampton, Manchester, London—and represented a wide range of occupations, manual and professional. But the one thing they all had in common was an ardent desire, expressed in the flags, placards and choruses, to "kick Maggie out".

All kind of left-wing newspapers could be bought, from the least to the best known and all kins of leaflets were given out. There were times when the majority of people there seemed to have papers to sell or leaflets to distribute.

It was a close, warm day and after the two-hour march to Pontcanna Fields everyone was tired and over-heated. Banners were laid down, sandwich packets were opened up and queues developed at the stalls selling food and drink. No queues developed at the stalls selling left-wing books, badges, posters and more newspapers.

Organisation was efficient. A brass band was on hand to entertain the arriving marchers, followed by a girls' choir. With powerful loudspeakers the whole thing was relayed across the two-acre field from the large platform at the far end. Clearly a lot of trouble and expense had been gone to.

As the girls sang, the important people mounted the platform and took their places. After the choir had finished, the master of ceremonies asked over the loudspeaker if all the "platform party" was present on stage. It seemed that they were, so the speeches began.

First, a trade union official or two talking almost identically about the need to "save jobs" and "get the Tories out". Then a local MP who said a few words in Welsh. Then a message of fraternal greetings from Tony Benn, too ill to attend but whose words brought cheers from some of the crowd, especially those wearing "Benn for Deputy" badges. Finally the first of the big-name politicians—Michael Foot himself. He talked in tired platitudes about "investing in public spending", "silly, wicked Tories", "the first essential attack on the present appalling unemployment total", and "how we can save ourselves and the whole world". He admitted that there was a slump in world trade and that this was partly to blame for unemployment but added that some governments, especially 'socialist' ones (he didn't name any), had been able to protect their people from the effects. He mentioned the "magnificent socialist victory" in France and said that in the coming months Mitterand would be pursuing the same socialist policies as a Labour government itself would put into effect when next elected. His speech bore little resemblance to the report carried the same evening by the local papers up and down the country and by the nationals the following day. The prepared press release on which the reports had been based dealt in detail with the precise reforms a future Labour government would bring in to "combat inflation" and "reflate the economy".

But no matter, for the next big name to speak, Eric Heffer, had a whole detailed programme of "socialist" reforms to offer, He started promisingly: "The reason we've got unemployment is that we've got capitalism and we can only get rid of unemployment when we have socialism". But the promise didn't last. We soon found out that what Heffer meant by socialism wasn't a moneyless, wageless society of common ownership, free access and production for use, but "a 35-hour working week", "earlier retirement", "a wealth tax", "the baks and insurance companies in public ownership", "abolition of the House of Lords", "unilateral nuclear disarmament", and so on  . . . 

The crowd responded warmly to Heffer's old style oratory. They responded less warmly to the next major speaker, the bĂȘte noire of the Labour Left, Denis Healey. "Healey out", "Tony Benn", "Traitor", "Join the SDP" were some of the cries. Foot intervened and angrily told the hecklers that they were playing into the hands of the Tories and that they must allow Healey the right of free speech. Some did, some didn't. But by this time many of the crowd were drifting off. It had been a wearying day for everyone, especially for those who had travelled long distances. Even the most ardent anti-Tories were looking jaded. They weren't relishing the walk balk to the city centre and perhaps an evening's travel to follow.

What is there to be said about rallies of this kind? Firstly they undoubtedly show a remarkable degree of solidarity among a cross-section of those who, in order to live, have to sell their energies to an employer (if they can find one) for a wage or salary—the working class. Secondly, however, they show that many workers have short memories for, as I heard one disgruntled participant say after Michael Foot had spoken about fighting unemployment, under the last Labour government with Foot as Employment Minister unemployment doubled to 1½ million. Thirdly, and this is the truly sad thing, a host of people are exhibiting an enormous amount of social concern, but unfortunately it is pointing in the wrong direction. Unemployment, one of the worst evils of capitalism, cannot be eliminated by a change of government.

One lone brave marcher carried a crude home-made placard that said it all. One side read "Kicking Maggie out won't make any difference", and the other "Production for need not for profit". He was not a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain but his scrawled slogans neatly summed up the essence of the socialist case. He knew, as the vast majority of the demonstrators seemed not to know, that as long as the buying and selling system remains, "Maggie" can only be replaced by another leader committed to administering that system. And that leader, however labelled and whether they like it or not, will be obliged to adopt all the anti-working class measures imposed by the system.

Enthusiasm and good intentions were what the demonstrators had.  Understanding was what they did not have. Hasten the day when as many will make mature socialist demands for a world of free access, common ownership of the world's wealth, and the abolition of the wages system.
Howard Moss

A Question of Class Identity (1999)

Theatre Review from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Summerfolk, by Maxim Gorki. National Theatre.

Summerfolk is a compelling, exciting, entertaining, hugely relevant play, that was written in 1904; that is, in the same year that the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed. Like Philistines and Barbarians, two of Gorki's other plays written at about the same time, it is about the emergence, in significant numbers, of the "professional people"—lawyers, doctors, engineers, administrative civil servants, etc—who were needed to service the emerging capitalist state. Today's chattering classes jet round the world for their extended holidays, but in turn-of-the-century Russia the practice was to rent summer villas in the country. Summerfolk follows the lives of one group of such people and their dependants, over a period of several weeks.

Anyone familiar with the plays of Chekov and Turgenev (see, for example, the review of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, Socialist Standard, April 1999) will recognise the terrain. Indeed Chekov's The Cherry Orchard describes the sale of land which is to be divided into building lots for summer villas. Most of the new breed of professionals and their partners, are the sons and daughters of serfs. Most of them, as once of the characters puts it "knew poverty in our youth", but now it is many of their lives which seem impoverished, listless, and apparently lacking in point and purpose.

Whilst Chekov and Turgenev frequently seem content to describe the behaviour of their characters and to acknowledge their collective ennui, Gorki is concerned to understand the roots of that behaviour and to speculate about its consequences. One critic argues that Chekov has more "symphonic mastery", by which he presumably means that Chekov handles his plots with greater panache and subtlety. But then Chekov seems intent on accounting for human behaviour in terms of individual traits and characteristics which make no reference to people's social experience. For Chekov it seems, the psychological domain is not only prime, it is often, in practice, all that there is.

Gorki takes a contrary view. His characters behave differently, firstly, because they are attached to different views of the world; and secondly, because these opinions are socially constructed. At the heart of the play is a dilemma. Are newly-rich professionals entitled to "a good meal and a drink", content with the justification of "My right to live any way I want"? Or should they, as a matter of loyalty to the class from which they come, strive "to improve and regenerate and illuminate the lives of our own people—people who toil and toil, till the day they die, trapped in dirt and darkness"? This is the question that Gorki would have us face and interestingly, the more enlightened, humanistic perspective is voiced predominantly by the female characters. The gossip, the drinking, the conflicting points of view—the talk of evolution or revolution, despotism or democracy, pessimism or optimism—are all finally tied to this central question.

Whether Gorki has "symphonic mastery" of his material may be a moot point. I can only report that three minutes listening to a reformist politician has often felt infinitely longer than the spell-binding three-and-a-half hours during which the drama unfolds across the vast expanses of the Olivier stage.

I frequently meet people who accept both the legitimacy of the socialist case and its implications for their status as workers. But, like some of the characters in Summerfolk, they argue that given their professional salaries, health benefits, share options and alike, they feel little sense of identity with the more deprived members of the working class in this country, let alone the wider world. For them, and for people like me who would have them think otherwise, Summerfolk is as relevant today as it has ever been. I hope to find an early excuse to see the play again, and to marvel at the skill of the actors and the wonder of its staging. Thoroughly recommended.
Michael Gill