Friday, March 7, 2014

A tale to encourage Socialists (1996)

Theatre Review from the July 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, Comedy Theatre, London

When we go to the theatre or the cinema—or watch TV for that matter—our reactions to what we see and hear are complicated. Two matters seem of particular importance. First, we have a series of expectations about the play or the film. We expect that we will see some kind of story unfold before our eyes. But is it to be a comedy or a tragedy? Is it set in the past, present or future? What is the story about?

Second, what we hear and see, and its significance, validity and impact, depend on how we interpret the events taking place in front of us. Can we identify with the characters being played by the actors? Do they seem real and credible? Do some or all of them enlist our sympathy? Does the history and how it unfolds encourage our interest and involvement? Does it seem plausible? Does it square with our beliefs about how and why people react as they do? How do we interpret the play for the film? What is its meaning for us?

Socialists have particular beliefs and insights; they are part of our world view, and they largely determine our responses to both events in the real world (sic) of employment, politics, family and friends, etc., and the supposed fictions of the stage and screen.

I don't know the intentions of Reginald Rose who wrote Twelve Angry Men—initially as a TV drama, then as a famous film (Academy Award nominations galore), and now as a play—but I think he would be surprised by the inspiring messages which socialists draw from the tale.

Simply stated Twelve Angry Men is the story of a murder case jury which is about to vote guilty, but decides otherwise in the face of the arguments of one doubting member. It is a paean to the virtues of non-conformity in defence of "the truth"; of one man standing alone and courageously demanding that his fellows confront the facts of the case; the triumph of common sense and reason over guesswork and prejudice.

Socialists will identify with juror number eight who fights his corner with such tenacity, and who demands that his fellow jurors confront the evidence rather than speculations founded on hearsay and prejudice. And they will applaud his respect for his fellow jurors. He argues his case persuasively, but requires that his colleagues take responsibility for their own actions. They must decide they are free mean living in a notional democracy; they must take charge of their own lives and determine the fate of the prisoner for themselves. He presents his case but respects their autonomy. He wants their knowing, full-hearted agreement not just their votes. He is an educator rather than a propagandist. His actions are those of a socialist revolutionary committed to equality and truth seeking, rather than a reformist politician wanting to win at any price. And his respect for his fellow jurors bears fruit. They emerge as reasonable men, capable of changing their minds and behaving responsibly.

Twelve Angry Men makes for a stirring evening for imaginative socialists. The present production is uniformly excellent and thoroughly recommended.
Michael Gill

Education and socialism (1980)

Editorial from the September 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Conditioned assumptions and prejudices instilled during the earliest, most formative years of childhood induce, in later life, a profound hostility to socialist ideas. Adult attitudes and social behaviour are unwittingly based, in every minute detail, upon those contrived conceptions, painstakingly taught in the first years of life.

A young child's anguished cry on being prevented from taking home and playing with some toy it has been conditioned to enjoy but which its parents cannot afford, marks natural hostility to a scheme of organisation not designed to cater for the needs of the majority of its participants. But this cry of discontent is soon transformed, by thorough social conditioning, into a whimper of begrudging but tolerant humility.

In their years of almost total dependence, of weak reliance and therefore great susceptibility, young children are forcefully and persistently taught that there is a superior, external, mystic force governing our every move. It is proclaimed that the way in which society is presently organised is the only way it has ever been, or could be, organised. Such damaging and unfounded myths would be seriously questioned by young, fertile minds; but they are also discouraged from the start to use any kind of logical or objective reasoning when it comes to matters of such immense human import. Consideration of cause and effect is reserved for use in the science laboratories.

The current failure of humanity to organise for its own survival without recurrent periods of organised mass destruction of life during wars is presented as a failure which must continue in the future. The education system turns out individuals with a profound comprehension of atomic particles or astrophysics but who suffer a blind spot when it comes to matters like the social satisfaction of human needs.

Neo-Malthusian myths of scarcity are swallowed, gullibly by scientists conditioned in the schools and universities. Poverty amid plenty, and all the contradictions of capitalism, are written off glibly as due to "human nature" or "man's basic evil". If any schoolchild points a finger at the system itself and rejects the obscure moral conundrums of religious mythology, then they are swiftly silenced and told to get on with their work. At school, children are taught to chant nursery rhymes, keep in line, follow leaders. Individuality, originality or dissent is often punished as "disobedience" or "disruption".

When socialists propose the establishment of a system of society without national frontiers or governments, buying or selling, wages or profits, the negative responses this often elicits result from a fastidious process of indoctrination undergone from the very moment of birth. Apart from the crude exhortations of the media to pledge support for the profit system, there is also a much more insidious and subtle persuasion which begins long before its victim can read. This based upon emotion and psychological obsession rather than on any rational argument. It has to be, for the prolonging of capitalism cannot be defended by rational argument.

In a hideous regeneration of misery, children are taught by the adults whom they most trust, the parents who have produced and protected them, that the set of social relations into which they were born must remain as they are for the whole of their lives. This harsh rule of acceptance is sometimes expressed in a modified form, when socialists meet with the objection: "It could never happen in my life time."

The means have long been at hand to provide a material abundance sufficient to supply all the needs of the world's population. In 1976 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that enough grain is now produced to provide everyone on earth with as much as 3,000 calories a day, taking no account of any other available foodstuffs. At the same time, more than a quarter of the earth's population is on the brink of starvation. The implications of such facts are not taught in schools. It is the profit system, in which food is actually destroyed to maintain prices and profits, and in which vast human resources are consumed in the unnecessary domains of war, coercion, finance and commerce, which is responsible for the untold suffering of those not born of properties parents.

Socialism, production for need, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution, is not just immediately possible and practicable, it is also an urgent necessity, long overdue. All that is lacking for the institution of a system in which all will enjoy free access to the wealth we produce, is conscious, working-class political action. It can and must happen "in our life times". Any other attitude is a concession to the bleak and impotent outlook the capitalist class hopes will confront its employees. 

A socialist is generally one who has experienced a process of complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome. But as workers develop awareness of where their interests lie, the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel; in the schools as much as in the offices and factories. With a rational alternative to contrast with the system they have been taught to accept as the sole possibility, schoolchildren will consciously discard the body of misconceptions and myths they are offered.

Currently, self-styled "rebels" throw off school uniforms only promptly to don their own uniforms, as dictated to them by the fashion industry. These angry young people are accommodated by capitalism; the fundamental myth of the inevitability of a system of wage-labour is left intact. But as consciousness develops, the young, fertile mind will readily rebut the anarchic structure of the capitalist mode of production. The cry of a discontented child must become not a snivel of acceptance, but a defiant declaration for socialism.