Monday, March 31, 2014

Greasy Pole: A Tale Of Two Constituencies (2014)

The Greasy Pole Column from the March 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

At what may have been a bad time for him David Cameron made the most of it, perhaps in the hope that the term A Falkirk Experience would go down in history as epitomising the corruption of an election in order to gain power over a victorious puppet. Falkirk is a Scottish town which grew up in the Industrial Revolution, at the junction of two canals, into a major centre of the iron and steel industry. But it has not survived unchanged; where once they made carronades for the Royal Navy and pillar boxes for the post there are now what are called business parks and temples of retail such as Tesco, Asda and the Co-Op. Typical of such places in Scotland, Falkirk has been dominated by the Labour party, leaving any Tories like a threatened species. The MP between 2000 and 2012 was Eric Joyce but he was suspended from the Party after displaying a tendency to treat others with violence during a session in the Strangers' Bar at the Houses of Parliament. He has since then sat as an Independent while the local Labour Party has sorted out another, hopefully less impulsive, candidate.

But this was complicated by ruthless in-fighting driven by some over-active ambitions. The applicant favoured by the trade union Unite was Karie Murphy who, apart from a any other factor, is a friend of the union's General secretary Len McCluskey. It was quickly obvious that this was not to be a dispute among friends, settled by a hand shake. Ed Miliband described it as '...politics of the machine, politics of hatred'. The substance was that, as it was put by a Labour Party report, 'members were pressured into completing direct debit forms' for party membership; it was also alleged that some had been signed up into the party, through being in Unite, but without their knowledge. The matter was settled by the selection of Karen Whitfield to stand at the next election. In all it was a promising gift to Cameron, who made much of the influence of McCluskey on the Labour Party and what this said about the party's subservience nationally to the unions.

Leaving the warring Labour factions in Falkirk and travelling south will bring you to North Yorkshire, where another constituency is looking for a candidate to contest the next general election. Thirsk and Malton is firmly Conservative, with Anne McIntosh winning the seat in 2010 on a majority of 11,281. It was not an uneventful victory for her. She had been previously elected in 1997 for the Vale of York and held the seat until it was abolished in 2006. She then applied to the Conservatives in Thirsk and Malton but her approach was not unanimously welcomed; she was selected as the candidate only after there had been an attempt to deselect her in August 2009. And when she won the seat in 2010 it was quickly apparent that the opposition to her was still strong. At present the reasons for this are confused; she has a reputation as a notably industrious MP but also as one liable to be aggressively divisive. During a surgery when she was MP for the Vale of York she angered a constituent by her refusal to discuss local opposition to a proposed incinerator plant so that he tipped a pint of beer over her (the surgery was being held in a pub). More recently, an opponent in Thirsk has said that she is 'a silly little girl' and Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage would be preferable as a candidate. Another describes her as 'a few peas short of a casserole'…another as 'a menace'. In response she has referred to them as 'a small cabal... or 'a narrow clique'. The contest in which she won the candidature at Thirsk and Malton has been described as 'unpleasant, leading to 'deep divisions'.

Right Wing
All of this is rather surprising in view of McIntosh' steadfast right wing opinions. She is against same sex marriages and fertility rights. In a recent debate in the Commons she questioned the sense of appointing female doctors because they would place 'a huge burden on the health service' by marrying and having children. Among other angry responses to this came from the wife of Andrew Mitchell – he of 'Plebgate' fame – who scorned her comments as 'not just insulting but a display of sexism that is simply not acceptable in this day and age'. (Of course McIntosh may have found some comfort in the applause from Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail). On wider issues she supported the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, is in favour of the Trident nuclear submarine, the hated 'bedroom tax', a fully privatised Royal Mail. .

It says something about the turmoil in the Thirsk and Malton Tories that it took them three attempts to deselect her – and even then only after it was discussed at a four-hour meeting. In defiance McIntosh declares that she will stand again at the 2015 election, presumably in the hope that this will expose some of the party's malaise. In all these events a central figure has been Party chairman Peter Halkett Kinsman Steveney, known as 'the galloping major' because, apart from holding that exalted military rank, he is also a retired Jockey Club stewards' secretary. Steveney was heavily criticised in a report by Tory HQ over the 'fundamentally flawed' process of overthrowing McIntosh. While the battle was raging Steveney made no secret that his preference for the seat is one Edward Legard, Old-Etonian, St. Andrews University, Sandhurst ex-Light Cavalry officer, now a barrister and a judge and – in case these are not sufficient qualification, heir to an hereditary baronetcy. After making the usual noises about his immaculate intentions for the constituency and how innocent he is in the current infighting, Legard has avoided committing himself.

In Kilmarnock and Thirsk and Malton we have two constituencies whose political parties assert that they represent vitally different methods of managing the capitalist system. The current disputes reveal that it is only the personalities which vary. Common to them all is the basic function of repressing and exploiting the people who vote for them.

Music Review: Agitprop Bop (1978)

From the June 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tom Robinson Band reviewed in concert and on record.

With lyrics asserting hat "When Left is Right and Right is wrong/You'd better decide which side you're on", Tom Robinson is being hailed as "our first red rock star." Time Out, however, described the Tom Robinson Band's music as "songs for swinging social workers" thus neatly acknowledging an affinity between the Socialist Workers' Party's elitism and TRB;s condescending tone as in Ain't Gonna Take It: "I'm a middle-class kiddie but I know where I stand / I've got brothers in Brixton . . . "

Essentially TRB put over the agitprop of minority pressure group politics, sharing the same false assumptions that they need only "stand up and fight for their rights" against the "puritanical backlash" portrayed in  Power in the Darkness. Despite this, they do make clear that the problems of various minorities should not be seen in isolation but that "we are all in it together."

It's too easy to knock TRB's songs as merely patronising platitudes when after all, what constitutes socialist music? Even if it were desirable, few would want to listen to a Marxist liturgy let alone a rock version of "sing along with ma(r)x". Music, to be successful as propaganda, must be emotive with lyrics of protestation.

TRB's music is successful because it fulfills both these conditions. The result is powerful and infectious though at times somewhat frightening for, as the Gay News review warned, "some of the lyrics are dangerously simplistic evoking a Pavlovian response in their listeners." This is illustrated by the unfortunate clenched fist gesture audiences copy from the band's insignia and use during the more aggressive numbers, which in other circumstances might be classified as a nazi salute. The emotive power of the music is shown by the oft-remarked enthusiastic response by straight audiences to—what has become the gay anthem—Glad To Be Gay.

But emotive responses aren't sufficient in themselves to make socialists, however well intentioned. Rational insight into the nature of capitalism must accompany the gut reaction. For in focusing attention on the oppression of minority groups (gays, blacks, women, etc.) by authoritarianism, police harassment, machismo and violence, these come to be seen as the cause and thus the target of protest rather than realising these to the inevitable effect of capitalism. Urging us to stop "Fighting each other/Instead of the Front" perpetuates the erroneous notion that eliminating the NF will eradicate racist ideas. The inverse is true; removing racist ideas by showing how the  inherent problems of capitalism, create them, will permanently eliminate the NF.

The necessity of simple lyrics in musical verse offers the possibility of only brief insights into the nature of oppression though the reactionary views of "Benyon and Whitehouse getting us stitched/'cos abortion and the gay scene are only for the rich" in Ain't Gonna Take It illustrates well the class nature of oppression and hypocrisy.

But it is in attacking the cherished assumptions of capitalist society that TRB succeeds best. Like, for instance, the satire on the adolescent youth in Grey Cortina, aspiring to emulate the aggressive "Cortina owner, no-one meaner" which is scathingly ironical in lampooning the mindless image of the macho driver. "Chewing gum at traffic light/Stop at red but leave on amber/Grey Cortina outta sight". Yet the paradox is that while debunking machismo in this number, elsewhere (e.g. Up Against The Wall) the necessary use of powerful music to express anger gives the impression of aggression found in "conventional" rock bands.

TRB's success in moving from the obscure pub performing circuit to EMI contracted recording stars has caused political pundits to debate the possibility of TRB having to compromise their political stance through commercial pressure. Yet with the recent release of their first album* containing their most 'political' songs it would seem that EMI have shrewdly realised their market potential among at least the 'left', if not the general public, (e.g. EMI advertise "Rock Against Racism" on the record sleeve and the giveaway gimmick is a TRB clenched fist stencil with the "caution", "This stencil is not meant for spraying on public property!") Tom Robinson himself, in an interview with Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show (ITV 13 May) quite candidly admitted that his ambition was to be a rock star and that "music is his first concern". And with those political impresarios the SWP exploiting the slogan type lyrics for their own propaganda 'Carnivals' (see accompanying article) it would seem that any 'commercial' pressure to influence TRB is likely to come from the listening expectations of their supporters.

In an interview in New Musical Express Tom Robinson reckoned he had no "illusions about the political left any more than the right: just a shrewd idea which of the two sides gonna stomp on us first". Unfortunately his "shrewd idea" is merely an "illusion", for 'left' and 'right' are only different sides of one record, variations on the same theme—capitalism.
Paul Moody

* "Power in the Darkness" by Tom Robinson Band (EMI Records)

Platoon (1987)

Film Review from the July 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone

It's very hard to make an anti-war film that successfully gets its message across. The temptation is to show all the horrors of war—the blood, brutality, boredom and battles. But films that glorify war do that as well.

Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone, was intended to demonstrate the brutalising effects of the Vietnam war by following the career of a young soldier, Taylor, who has volunteered to fight after dropping out of college. Initially filled with fanciful notions of "fighting for his country" and "defending the free world", he finally concludes that in reality "we are fighting ourselves". This comment was supposed to be profound. At the most obvious level it was true. Much of the film focuses on the battle between two members of the platoon, both grotesque caricatures: Elias, the embodiment of good, who only kills "the gooks" in battle and doesn't engage in any gratuitous extra-curricular brutality like his enemy, Barnes, embodiment of evil, who comes complete with grotesque facial scars. But at another level the remark was also true, although this was probably not what the director had in mind when he put the words into Taylor's mouth. Americans in Vietnam were "fighting against themselves" in the sense that they were fighting against members of their own class with whom they had no reason to be at war.

Taylor, who lets us into his inner conflict through the unlikely medium of letters to his grandmother, becomes more disillusioned as his ideas of heroism are replaced by the daily terror, discomfort and fatigue of army life in the steaming jungle on the Cambodian border. To cope with the constant fear of ambush, the raids on Vietnamese villages and the atrocities he, like many others, turns to smoking dope. In the end, inevitably perhaps, he is injured in a cataclysmic battle and is flown home, more or less physically intact but mentally scarred.

Whatever the director's intentions the anti-war message got lost under the special effects of the battle scenes. For those who watch war films for the blood and gore, the excitement of the crackle of machine guns and the flash of bomb blasts, Platoon was probably as watchable as films like Rambo which glorify war. It would have been easy to have seen it and to have learnt nothing new about the war in Vietnam and to have missed its essential message. Nevertheless there were a number of interesting "points" made in passing—like the number of blacks who were sent to fight as compared to the number of whites, like how it tended to be the poorest Americans who made up the bulk of the US Army — people who were dumbfounded that Taylor could be so stupid as to give up a comfortable life in college to volunteer to fight.

On the other hand the film had almost nothing to say about why America was fighting or indeed who they were at war with. The Vietnamese were referred to only as "gooks" or the "NVA" or "VC". The only time the film tries to make the point that the Vietnamese were human too is when Taylor prevents a young Vietnamese girl from being raped by his fellow Americans. Otherwise the Vietnamese are only shadowy and menacing forces setting traps and ambushes for the Americans.

All in all Platoon was a disappointing film. It is difficult to see why it has received so many plaudits from the critics, although not why it's been such a hit at the box office in America. War films are popular. This one uses the same technique as any other to appeal to its audience. Many people will watch it and not see it as a protest about the brutalisation that war causes. When I went to see it many people in the audience laughed in the "wrong" places, like when the Americans enter a Vietnamese village to look for Viet Cong and one American soldier brutally murders a young Vietnamese villager for no apparent reason. After he has bludgeoned him to death with a rifle butt he says something like "Did you ever see a head come apart like that?" And the audience laughed.
Janie Percy-Smith

Politicians galore (1987)

From the June 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Roll on 12 June! We won't see the politicians for another five years. The usual election issues of poverty, unemployment and crime won't disappear so easily though. For the moment we're going to hear a lot more from the politicians. They will be dumping their leaflets—with nice pictures of them and their families on the front and damn all else inside—on our doorsteps. They'll be stopping us in the street to shake our hand and blame the weather on their opponents. And they'll be on the TV ("And I think I can safely say that I speak for the whole of this great nation of ours when I say blah blah blah").

Some lucky voters are blessed with the attention of the politicians all year round. During the cold spell at the start of this year, Breakfast TV just happened to have a camera crew crammed into some OAP's kitchen when who should pop in for a friendly chat but Neil Kinnock and Michael Meacher, the Shadow Minister for Health! But they weren't there for some cheap publicity shot and some political point-scoring. No, they'd brought some draught excluders with them, which they proceeded to nail up for the benefit of the lucky OAP. As she was getting it done for free, the old lady was prepared to put up with all the guff for the cameras about Labour's plans for rate reform that the Labour leader just happened to have prepared. That's the sort of thing Neil Kinnock means when he, "speaks for the whole of the British people about the indignity of old age blah blah blah".

Obviously, the best place to live in Britain is right next to Shepherds Bush or TV-am, if you are prepared to open your door to any political conman with a nice smile and a camera crew, some new carpets for you and some old policies for the viewer.

Regardless of the gimmicks, or even the policies of the parties, there is one thing that all the party leaders are trying to get over, and that is unity. Unity within their party and, more importantly, unity under the leader. That, after all, is what a leader is there for—to rule, to dominate. We can laugh at them and their antics but support for a leader, means someone else taking decisions for you. Leaders and democracy do not mix. As the election looms and the ranks close, this becomes all the clearer. The Alliance when they disagree, have a split for a few weeks until it is glossed over; the Labour Party have a few expulsions behind closed doors; and the Tories? Well the Tories don't look like they need to worry too much on that count. The Scottish Tory Party Conference recently spent three days in what they call "debate". Of the 294 resolutions put to the conference only one was in any way critical of the government. The whole charade was stage-managed as the first unofficial party political broadcast of the election campaign.

It's just a taste of things to come. Every night we'll get the gimmicks—here's the party leader shaking hands, here's the party leader out shopping, here's the party leader driving a tank. And while wars and world hunger get relegated to the last item on the news, we'll see the party leader being cheerful, the party leader being caring, the party leader being defiant.

It's not just confined to the news programmes either—David Steel appeared on Game For A Laugh dressed as a policeman and Thatcher had a go at playing Prime Minister in a sketch from Yes Minister.

Even Saturday mornings aren't free from the vote-catchers—the children's programme Saturday Superstore recently had each of the party leaders on in turn. Each party's image makers had obviously done their market research—here's the party leader with no jacket, no tie, but a trendy cardigan. "I think I can safely say that I speak for the whole of this great nation of ours when I say my favourite disco record of the moment is blah blah blah". OK, they're not kissing babies, but molesting children's minds was what it amounted to.

Of course, we shouldn't be surprised at a quick change of clothes to suit a different audience (after all, policies are jettisoned just as quickly) but the victorious SDP candidate in the Greenwich bye-election, in February of this year, has turned it into a fine art. Part of her campaign strategy that helped the SDP win Greenwich and break the mould for the seventeenth time, involved wearing "cheerful jumpers and sensible dresses" while canvassing on council estates and "smart sludge-coloured two-piece suits" for Tory areas (Guardian, 12 February 1987).

In stark contrast to such patronising tactics that are part and parcel of the politics of leadership, the Socialist Party has no leaders, no secret committees and no advertising agency. We've also got damn few candidates—at this election anyway. We won't be jumping in and out of OAP's homes for the benefit of the viewer. Nor will we be jumping in and out of sensible dresses and sludge-coloured suits for the benefit of the voter. Let's not look to leaders to do our thinking for us, at this election or at any time.
Brian Gardner

Competition (1987)

From the January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some comedian once asked "If it's true that all the world loves a lover, why are there so many policemen in Hyde Park?" A good question but a better one for workers to ask themselves is "If competition is such a wonderful and desirable thing, why does every­body try so hard to avoid it?". For example, when solicitors lose their monopoly in house conveyancing, opticians lose theirs in selling spectacles, or shopkeepers hear that a super­market is to be built nearby, do they say "Good! Just what we need: the icy blast of competition"? They do not, instead they pro­test bitterly and do everything they can to preserve the status quo.
This dislike of competition is shared by all business, big and small. In 1980 the world's largest corporation, American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT and T) lost an anti-trust action brought against it by a much smaller rival, MCI, who were awarded 1,800 million dollars. AT and T have a near monopoly in the manufacture of vital equipment which MCI needed but they refused to sell them any. In Britain the giant British Oxy­gen Company, which had a turnover of £ 1,700 million in 1983, was exposed for try­ing to close down a small competitor whose turnover was only £150,000 - less than a third of the salary of BOC's chief executive. The competition of even such a minnow was more than BOC could tolerate.
The big three in the British drugs industry, ICI, Glaxo and Beecham's, are putting every obstacle in the way of small competitors who want to market half price, unbranded ver­sions of some of the big three's most profita­ble drugs. Although these drugs are patented the law provides for “licences of right” to be available to other companies but does not specify what royalties are to be paid. The big three use this loophole to ensure that would be competitors have to sell for little less than themselves.
The airline industry is notorious for ­eliminating competition. Remember how big Atlantic carriers, including British Airways, forced Freddie Laker out of business? Now they have a new target in their sights. Richard Branson's one-aircraft Virgin Atlantic airline. Branson's attempt to take over where Laker left off by providing cut-price fares between Britain and America was countered by BA, Pan-Am and TWA who all reduced their fares to equal Virgin's. Predictably Bran­son howled "unfair" but why should the game be played by his rules? If he really believes in free market competition then he cannot complain if the big airlines slash their fares too. Branson's problem is that his rivals have much greater resources than he has and can easily outlast him in a protracted fares battle.
Dislike of competition has also been shown by the cross channel ferry companies. They are trying to persuade the government and potential investors that the channel tunnel will be unsafe to use and unprofitable. If the tunnel scheme goes through then these champions of the free market want to remove competition between themselves by integrating their ser­vices in order to offset the expected loss of business. If this is not allowed then they will seek compensation from the government. Whatever happened to "standing on your own two feet"?
Although governments try to encourage competition within their own frontiers they assist their own industries to avoid it in inter­national trade by loading the dice in their favour. The governments of the EEC protect their own farmers from competition from abroad by erecting tariff barriers and sub­sidising their production. These subsidies produce such mountains of food that the EEC can sell it on world markets at rock-bottom prices­ – butter sales to Russia are an obvious case. The American government denounces these subsidies because they keep inefficient EEC farmers in business whereas American farming is extremely efficient and could easily undercut EEC farming if only it were given the chance. In 1983 the American government played the EEC at it’s own game by using subsidies to sell flour to Egypt which had been an EEC market. Did the EEC say “fair enough”? It did not, instead it threatened to retaliate by dumping farm produce in American markets in Latin America.
Does this mean that the United States is all for free trade? Only in those industries where it can win, such as farming. It is a different story when it comes to steel and textiles so they protect those industries with barriers against Imports. Most serious is the penetration by Japan of American home markets in cars, electronics and consumer goods. The United States’ trade deficit with Japan was over 50 billion dollars last year and members of Congress, business leaders and trade unions are demanding legislation aimed at reducing Japan’s exports to the United States.
Needless to say the Japanese are not in favour of this but they want to have it both ways - free trade for their exports but every obstacle placed in the way of imports from other countries. For example, Scotch whisky is subject to a level of taxation which makes it much more expensive than home produced spirits. Why don't these other coun­tries simply keep out Japan's exports? They are afraid that such a move would spark off worldwide tit-for-tat protectionism with the resulting collapse in world trade. The cure would be worse than the ailment and the Japanese government is taking advantage of this fear.
Groups of governments sometimes band together into a cartel or price-fixing ring to avoid competition among themselves. For years the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) shared out most of the world oil market. Each member-nation was allocated an agreed production quota of oil and no more. This year there has been a drastic fall in oil prices caused by the world slump, resulting in a sharp fall in demand, plus the entry of North Sea oil which is not controlled by OPEC. This fall in price has meant less income for OPEC members and some of them have been breading the agreement by increasing production to try make good the lost revenue.
This is what usually happens with governments or companies which organise themselves into a cartel. They are all for cartel when trade is booming and they can carve up the market but when trade is bad they will break ranks and look after themselves. OPEC has just reached a temporary agreement and the price of oil has started to rise again but no one knows what will happen in 1987.
Nevertheless, western governments do try to avoid monopolies within their own countries. As the executive committee of the national capitalist class a government must look after the interests of that class as a whole and not just one section of it. If a monopoly was allowed in an industry then the other capitalists will feel that they may be held to ransom when they purchase from the monopoly. But surely the soon-to-be­ privatised British Gas is a monopoly, the very thing the government wants to avoid? There are two reasons for this contradiction. The first is that the gas industry cannot really be split up into several competing companies for practical reasons, among them the cost of setting up alternative nationwide installa­tions. The second is the political factor which is that the government sees wide share ownership as a vote catcher at the next general election end the privatisation of British Gas gives it the opportunity to achieve this aim.
This episode has provided an example of the double standards used by politicians. Tory MP Michael Forsyth, a free market zealot. argued that privatised gas would not be a monopoly as it would have to compete with electricity, oil and nuclear power. This is like arguing that if some company owned the entire meat industry it wouldn't be a monopoly because it would have to compete with fish and chicken.
Both the American and British governments think they have a method of reversing what they see as the drift towards monopoly by stimulating competition. This is called de-regulation and is aimed at providing the incentive and opportunity for new companies to come into the market by removing whatever obstacles stand in their way. This has happened in the American airline indus­try since 1978 and the initial effect was an explosion of new, small companies and a drop in internal air fares. But the drift towards what is actually fewer and bigger economic units cannot be permanently reversed. Since 1978 sixty-three American airlines have gone bust and the big airlines are swallowing up the small fry in order to add the busy and profitable internal routes to their shakier international operations. The result is that air­fares in America are on the increase again. This is what happens with cut-throat com­petition. It cuts profits to the bone so that when business drops off companies get into trouble and the conditions are created for the very thing de-regulation is supposed to curb - mergers and the drive towards bigger and fewer companies.
Companies sometimes need to grow if they are to survive. How could a company meet its competitors if it merely stands still while they grow? This need partly explains the recent merger-mania which saw huge companies being taken over by others. Guin­ness, the British drinks giant, justified its plan to take over Distillers in order to meet the challenge of American and Japanese rivals like Seagram's and Suntory with full-page newspaper adverts which said "It will take our combined strength to defeat adversaries such as these."
This is also why Britain's biggest electronic engineering company, GEC, wants to take over its main British rival, Plessey. James Prior, GEC's chairman, explained that although GEC is Britain's biggest private employer with 180,000 workers, it is dwarfed by the likes of General Electric in America and Siemens in West Germany. Plessey rejected GEC's bid and instead offered to buy GEC's interest in the System X digital telephone exchange system. Their chairman pointed out that neither company had won any worthwhile export orders for the system and since 10 per cent of the world market is required to be profitable it would, he added, make sense to merge the two interests – under Plessey, naturally – to meet international competition.
How does this fact of life in capitalism square with the government's obsession with promoting small businesses and its frequent use of the Monopolies Commission to prevent the mega-mergers which are necessary to enable British capitalism to compete internationally? The simple truth is that many of those who are heavily into capitalism, like some of the free marketeers, don‘t under-­stand the basic laws of the system, one of which is that while small may be beautiful in business, big is infinitely more successful.
The supporters of competition claim that it is of benefit to society because it eliminates wastefulness. In fact it is the cause of massive waste of humanity's time and energy. For example, thanks to the elimination of their competitors, there are now only three makers of large jet aircraft engines in the world outside of the so-called communist bloc. They are Rolls-Royce and the two American companies, Pratt and Whitney and General Electric. All three employ numerous scientists and technicians in the competition to produce an engine for a particular type of aircraft. Of the three engines produced one may be a little cheaper in price, the second may use a little less fuel and the third may need a little less maintenance but really all three engines are practically identical. So true is this that the one which wins the orders is probably chosen more for political reasons than any other and this is why British Airways have recently chosen Rolls-Royce engines for its new aircraft.
And just look at the hordes of companies eagerly competing to supply us all with dou­ble glazing, fitted kitchens, and the like, with armies of salespeople chasing after the same order and all of them selling exactly the same product. This spectacle is repeated all over the world as millions of useful human beings engage in this wasteful duplication of effort. just how does this benefit society?
So competition isn't what it's cracked up to be. Even the capitalists and politicians only regard it as a necessary evil in the scramble for profit and avoid it whenever they can. Certainly it has nothing to offer the workers except the opportunity to become one another’ s enemies over their exploiters' quarrels and which have nothing to do with them. Socialists work for a society in which the watchword will be co-operation and where capitalism’s competition will seem as strange and awful as we regard cannibalism today.
Vic Vanni

What runs the Labour Government? (1965)

Editorial from the September 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard

If anyone argues that this is impractical, we do not doubt that Mr. Wilson could tell them much about the alleged practicalities of Capitalism!

It is almost a year now since the Labour party formed a government. They felt that thirteen wasted years of Tory rule would give way to an administration that could solve social problems. It has been a year of renewed failure, in which their optimism has been humiliated by their inability to control Capitalism.

We do not doubt that the Labour Government really believed they could "get the economy moving". There was to be steady expansion. Out of a four per cent increase in productivity there were going to be more schools, hospitals, roads, pensions. There were going to be more wages. A "planned" incomes policy. A "planned" growth rate. None of these schemes have begun to get off the ground, nor do they show any prospect of doing so.

We do not doubt that the Labour Government is serious when it implores the country to "pull its weight in the national interest". The inane weakness of appeals to community spirit in a money grabbing, competitive society escapes them.

Mr. Wilson no doubt thinks of himself as an architect of social progress but in practice he imposes credit squeezes. In the reality of Capitalism his burdening problem is "to devalue the pound or not to devalue the pound?" This is the pathetic plight of a politician who claimed to have practical solutions. 

No doubt members of the Labour Government are free from race prejudice yet they have legislated against the immigration of West Indian and Pakistani workers. Under Labour Government management, economic frustrations may well be creating more acute racial tensions.

In his role of peacemaker, no doubt Mr. Wilson is sincere. As head of the Commonwealth mission he felt that his wise counsels might prevail in Vietnam. Some months later we have almost forgotten about the peace mission, but the fighting continues.

The debate between Socialists and reformers goes on. They claim that as a Government they can control Capitalism. They argue that through a process of reform they can direct its affairs in the interests of the whole community. The sorry spectacle of the Labour Government today underlines how tragically wrong they have been.

Regardless of the party in power, capitalism asserts its demand for profit. Whatever principles governments claim to have, their policies will be mainly prescribed by the economic situation they find themselves in. Capitalism humbles the most aspiring idealist into subservience to private property interests. Mr. Wilson confesses this subservience when he insists that above all "we" must be economically viable.

The Labour Government is concerned with credit squeezes, inflation, the trade gap, low gold reserves, high prices, wage demands, "restrictive" practices, productivity. All this does nothing for the real needs of the community.

We say that man can democratically control his social affairs, but first he must establish Socialism. The means and techniques of wealth production must first be held in common by the whole community instead of privately by a minority class. Production must be geared to meet human needs instead of the pursuit of profit. The working class must emancipate itself from economic exploitation. As free members of a community based on social equality, their skills and talents must be released from the undignified limitations that arise from wage employment.

William Morris and the Hammersmith Socialist Society (2003)

From the October 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Hammersmith Socialist Society was created out of the old Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League after the latter's demise in 1890. The Hammersmith Branch chose to form a new body, in which William Morris was undoubtedly the greatest influence. One of the largest branches of first the Social Democratic Federation and then the League, Hammersmith Socialists were enthused by the socialist vision and sheer effort of Morris. Clearly the HSS felt that it had something distinct to offer the socialist movement. This something was simple revolutionary clarity.

Morris has been cited as ending or declining his interest in socialist activity from 1890; the evidence suggests otherwise. It was Morris's socialism that was largely enshrined in the Statement of Principles (1890) of HSS which he wrote. By the early 1890s it was the parliamentary and increasingly reformist route that was emerging as the dominant strategy; electoral requirements meaning reformist minimum programmes. It was against this trend that Morris fought a rearguard for revolutionary clarity and it was this fight that Morris bequeathed to the later “impossibilists”.

From the late 1880s, by which time legislation allowed working people to stand for election to municipal authorities, school boards, boards of guardians, and so on, the socialist and labour movement turned increasingly away from the necessity of revolution and began to appeal to the working class on electoral terms. Thus direct appeals to workers and efforts to bring about a socialist majority went by the wayside as efforts shifted from direct presentation of the socialist case and towards elections and the immediate improvement of social and material conditions by legislative action. Morris and the HSS sought to redress the balance, to restore the movement to definite socialist aims. For the HSS, the use of the state as a central means was misguided. While representatives of a united and strong socialist party might, in future, be sent to parliament, the situation in the early 1890s simply demanded that more socialists be made.

While resurgent trades unionism and radicalism had created a generation of workers who were demanding improvements to working and social conditions, their demands stopped a good deal short of anything like definite socialist aims. Many in the movement saw the growth in trades unionism and a declining hostility to socialism from working people as an indication that a socialist society was evolving or that new attitudes would allow representation in the legislature. Political opportunism, it was thought, based on these developments would gradually increase the demands made by the working class. It was these strategies that Morris and the HSS feared would lead to an electoral emphasis and piecemeal social and material improvements becoming the ends rather than the means of socialists. While use of the state may be the route chosen by some social-reformers, it should not be used as a veil of expediency by genuine socialists.

In its Statement of Principles the HSS states that without definite socialist aims the working class radicalism which had revived in the late 1880s would come to no greater end than the partial improvements that were being sought:
“as Socialists, we would remind our brethren generally that, though we cannot but sympathise with all the struggles of the workers against their masters, however partial they may be, however much they fall short of complete and effective combination, yet we cannot fail to see that of themselves these partial struggles will lead nowhere; and that this must always be the case as long as the workers are the wage slaves of the employers.”
Thus, by pursuing electoral success and partial reforms the wider movement was at best deferring socialism by abandoning socialist propaganda for the new radical reformism of the working class. In fact, rather than encouraging the working class movement to increase its demands, it was socialists who were reducing their demands in the face of working class radicalism. Faced with this, for the HSS, the strategy of socialists needed to be firmly set on the society of the future and definite aims to this end. The Statement of Principles outlines clearly how the HSS saw its role in the socialist movement:
“. . . it should be our special aim to make Socialists, by putting before people, and especially the working classes, the elementary truths of Socialism; since we feel sure, in the first place, that in spite of the stir in the ranks of labour there are comparatively few who understand what Socialism is, or have had opportunities of arguing on the subject with those who have at least begun to understand it; and, in the second place, we are no less sure that before any definite Socialist action can be attempted, it must be backed up by a great body of intelligent opinion – the opinion of a great mass of people who are already Socialists, people who know what they want, and are prepared to accept the responsibilities of self-government, which must form a part of their claims.”

Definition of socialism was therefore important. In the opening paragraph of the Statement of Principles the HSS defines its socialism in clear and cogent terms:
“By Socialism, the Hammersmith Socialist Society understands the realisation of a condition of society all embracing and all sufficing.
It believes that this great change must be effected by the conscious exertions of those who have learned to know what Socialism is.
This change, it believes, must be an essential change in the basis of society: the present basis is privilege for the few, and consequent servitude for the many; the future basis will be equality of condition for all, which we firmly believe to be the essence of true society.”
Given the aim of the HSS and its definition of socialism that were both uncompromising, how did the Society propose to achieve the formidable task it had set itself? The Rules of the Hammersmith Socialist Society give the answer. Essentially the Rules state that only definite socialists who could demonstrate their understanding could join, that it would rely on direct contact with the working class to propagate socialist understanding, and would be democratic with elected officials and committees but no leader.

In a revealing lecture of 1895, Morris argues that the labour movement was, as the HSS had feared in 1890, now concerned simply with limited material and social improvements. Socialists, according to Morris, should go beyond these aims – to socialism itself. While he now accepted that a socialist party should send delegates to parliament, he qualified this by saying that they would be delegates under the instructions of a socialist party and would be there not to run capitalism but to abolish it. Morris had clearly revised his earlier strongly anti-state position but retained socialist principles at the heart of any policy of sending socialist representatives to parliament. Morris now claimed that what was, above all, important was socialist unity and the building of a strong, genuinely socialist, party. There was room for differences of opinion amongst socialists but these had to be subservient to the central socialist aim, “to the old teaching and preaching of Socialism pure and simple”. It was the desire to bring this about which inspired the range of lectures and established Kelmscott House as a centre of socialist activity. It also resulted in an attempt at practical unity between the HSS, the SDF and the Fabian Society.

In December 1892 discussion between the organisations took place with the result of the formation of a Joint Committee consisting of five members from each body. Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Hyndman were given the task of drawing up a manifesto that could be the basis of united socialist action. The resulting Manifesto of English Socialists was issued on May 1st 1893. On the face of it the text could have provided the basis for some sort of unity. It suggested a programme of palliatives to satisfy the “stepping stones” of the SDF and the gradualism of the Fabian Society whilst, for the HSS, making clear that these were merely temporary measures not detracting from the ultimate need to abolish capitalism and establish socialism. It is probable that the SDF and HSS might have coped with the document but the revolutionary tone was probably too harsh for the Fabian Society to work with. The attempt at unity by the Joint Committee was at any rate a resounding failure with very little in the way of practical unity coming from their efforts.

Despite it emphasis on “socialism-and-nothing-but” the HSS was confused on the issue of political action and was prepared to compromise for the sake of socialist unity by advocating reforms provided they were firmly shackled to the socialist aim:
“The first step towards transformation and re-organisation must necessarily be in the direction of the limitation of class robbery, and the consequent raising of the standard of life for the individual. In this direction certain measures have been brought within the scope of practical politics . . . as tending to lessen the evils of the existing regime; so that individuals of the useful classes, having more leisure and less anxiety, may be able to turn their attention to the only real remedy for their position of inferiority – to wit . . .”
This position was clearly at variance with the general position of the Society with regard to support for political action that, according to the HSS, was futile for the ends sought. Clearly tension existed on the point at which socialist revolution was compromised by political expediency. In 1891 a member was lost through resignation after the Society agreed that individual members of the Society could help an SDF candidate standing for election to a school board. Also the Society did not discourage electoral voting as the League had done. Whilst allowing individual members to assist at elections for other socialist bodies and encouraging workers to use their votes at elections, the HSS still maintained a hostile attitude to involvement of the HSS itself in electoral activity. And there was still a strong opposition to the support of “futile” reforms. This is evident particularly in John Carruther's pamphlet Socialism and Radicalism (1893) which stressed, as Morris did, that political action was useless unless a strong socialist party existed, that is, one that could achieve a majority in parliament.

On Morris's death in October 1896 the Society, dependant as it had been on Morris's ideas, efforts and, not least, premises, decided to continue. But the activities of the Society had been declining from its early years. Minutes and reports indicate a declining enthusiasm from members, increasingly brief minutes through 1896, and, most importantly, declining audiences at outdoor pitches. Even publishing activity was stopped by the end of 1896 and the last meeting, a social gathering, was held in January 1897, the business of the Society having been wound up the previous month.

In the face of a socialist and labour movement continuing to move away from the course advocated by Morris and the HSS, the Society's impact was as small as its aim had been demanding of its members and resources. Throughout its course the Society attracted only a small number of new members besides those who had already been in the old Hammersmith League Branch. There were a small number of little known stalwarts of the Society but the Society also contained a high proportion of notable members such as Walter Crane, Philip Webb, Gustav Holst and others, all no doubt attracted to some extent by the association of the Society with Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Despite the intellectual vitality of the HSS it remained both a geographically and politically isolated group and its activity, although impressively prolific from few members, was hopelessly small for the task it had set itself. It is unfortunate, from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century, that Morris's socialism and the activity of the HSS did not succeed in its revolutionary object with other contemporary radical organisations and the working class. It did, however, influence the 1904 “impossibilist” revolt in the SDF, forming a tradition of socialism-and-nothing-but that extends to the present-day Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Colin Skelly