Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Members in the Great War (1964)

From the September 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

When conscription came into operation during the 1914-1918 war, members knew that they stood no chance of being exempted from military service on conscientious grounds. Nevertheless, some went before the tribunals whilst others went on their travels.

Adolph Kohn went to America and landed into trouble there when America came into the war. He took part in the formation of our companion party over there and continued to send articles to the Socialist Standard. One of his articles was opened by the American authorities and they tried to trace him. As soon as he discovered they were looking for him; though he did not know why, he adopted various expedients to keep under cover. One of these was taking a job as a civilian auditor in a military camp. However, he succeeded in remaining free until the end of the war. At the behest of the American authorities the police over here made enquiries. In the course of their enquiries they interviewed Fitzgerald, whom they kept in prison for a night. On him they found an address book containing the name of Kohn's sister, Hilda. They also interviewed her without success. They did not even find out that she was a member of the Party, although she was the General Secretary at that time, and also at the time when Head Office was raided by the police.

Harry Russ had decided to sleep out in the open and keep away from towns. He moved about the country, wet and dry, and after some months reached the neighbourhood of Sheffield. He saw some placards advertising a meeting to be addressed by Ramsay MacDonald. Craving for company he resolved to risk attending just this one meeting. He did so. The meeting was raided and he was arrested, along with others, as an absentee from military service. He refused to be conscripted on the ground that, as a Socialist, he was opposed to the war. He was stripped of his clothes and presented with a uniform but refused to put it on. Various manoeuvres were tried to get him to sign his name, but he refused to sign anything. He was then transferred to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. Whilst he was there, one of the buildings was occupied by soldiers who were going back to the front after their leave. One evening a warder who was taking him across the compound pushed him in with the remark, "here you are boys, here's a bloody conchie." He was knocked about and was so furious when he got out that he determined to complain to the warden. He crossed to the gate, which was open, went into the road and, finding it deserted, suddenly decided to walk off. He had the name of a sympathiser on the island who hid him and then provided him with money to get across to Portsmouth and then to London. On the platform at Portsmouth late that night he heard someone calling him. He turned around and found it was an army officer. He thought "this is it," but all the officer wanted to know was if the train in the station was bound for London! When Russ arrived in London he lodged with some members, also "on the run," who pretended to be employed on jobs essential to the war. He succeeded in remaining free until the war ended.

E. Hardy ("H" of the Socialist Standard) was working as a farm pupil when he was called up. He was offered exemption on the ground that he was engaged in the essential service of farming. He refused to accept this on the ground that it would have meant some other worker being called up. He went before the tribunal and was turned down, as he expected. After some months in an army guardroom and a court martial he was put in Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he remained for six months. Whilst in there he learnt from the "old lags" the mystery of dealing with the burden of the bugs that came out and attacked him when he lay down on his plank bed. The method was to use his soap to fill in as many cracks in the planks as he could find. Incidentally he was glad that he had learnt poetry as he was able to while away solitary hours by repeating poetry to himself. In the Scrubs there were other S.P.G.B.'ers. and lively discussion went on under the tolerant eye of a sympathetic warder.

At one time in an army guardroom there were two other S.P.G.B.'ers., and one of them named Brooks, organised a class on Marxian economics among the military prisoners, more than a dozen who listened attentively. It went on for many nights until it came to the notice of the authorities and they separated Brooks, Hardy and the other member from the rest of the prisoners. Eventually Hardy was transferred to a Conscientious Objectors party working on construction in Wales. The first night in camp he climbed into the top hammock. There was an argument going on between two of the inmates. He intervened. Immediately a head popped out below him and a voice exploded "Well, gorblimey, we got rid of old Banks this morning and now we have another S.P.G.B.'er." It appeared that Jimmy Banks had also been transferred there before Hardy and used to hold forth on the Party's position.

One morning, while Hardy was there, the foreman on the job complained about the appearance of one of the C.O.'s who used to turn up for work in a pair of dirty old trousers, supported by a string, a pair of old boots, a ragged shirt with no collar, and a dilapidated coat. The foreman appealed to the chap to dress a bit better. The next morning this man turned up in a clean shirt, collar and tie, a nice coat, hat and walking stick, but he still wore the trousers tied up with string and the dilapidated boots.

Mick Cullen was a member of Birmingham Branch. When he was turned down by the tribunal he got half a column write-up in the Daily Mail headed "A class fighter, not a conscientious objector." Cullen was handed over to the military who put him in a house with other prisoners for the night. He climbed through the window, caught a train to Holyhead and then the night boat to Dublin. At that time Irishmen who were prepared to work in England during the war, to make up for the shortage of manpower, were provided with a green ticket exempting them from military service. The morning Cullen arrived in Dublin he applied for a green ticket, received it and took the boat back to England the same night. As he did not care to risk going back near Birmingham he took a train up the North East Coast. After he had travelled some way up the coast a man who was sitting opposite him in the compartment suddenly leaned forward and demanded to see his exemption papers. Cullen asked him what the hell he was talking about and who the hell he was, anyway. Then the man produced his warrant card showing that he was a police inspector. Cullen then went into action. "Oho," said he, exploding with wrath, "You're just the man I want to meet. I was told in Dublin that there were plenty of jobs over here but I have been traipsing around unable to get one." And so he went on, going for the inspector in a fury. At last the exasperated inspector assured Cullen that he had been just unlucky: that there were plenty of jobs. He gave Cullen his card with the address of a factory in Newcastle and told him to present the card and he would be assured of a job. At the next station the inspector hurriedly got out, obviously glad to escape the ravings of Cullen. However, finally the authorities caught up with Cullen again and he had to make his way back to Ireland and remain there for the rest of the war.

There was a group of members imprisoned in Dartmoor and others in Scotland in C.O. camps where they distributed Party literature.

The present writer also went to Ireland. I packed a kit-bag with so many books that I had no room for my clothes. On that account I had to cycle from Cork around the South and East coast to Belfast wearing two suits, a heavy overcoat, and a heavy kit-bag fastened to my back. I crossed over with a member who was a music hall juggler and was appearing for a week in Cork. I was supposed to be his assistant and he got me through.

In Belfast, being somewhat unsophisticated, I tried to sell art postcards in the streets. I had to give up deciding, by results, that the Irish were not an art-loving nation. I then got a job with a dentist as a canvasser but later the dentist took me in to teach me dentistry. Finally he arranged for me to "walk the hospitals" so that I could qualify. Fearing this would reveal the fact that I was technically a deserter from the army, I told him I was not fitted for the profession and gave up the job. This was not much of a financial loss because, in order to get the job, I had pretended I had private means and the doctor had ordered me to take an open air job on account of my health. In fact I was half starved.

I then followed a number of occupations, including selling cattle, horse and sheep medicine, dock labouring, working in a saw mill and driving a Foden steam wagon. Part of the time a friendly tailor let me sleep in his shop on the sewing board. Finally I got a job cutting timber in the mountains for a lumber company. This lasted me until the war ended, when I returned to London.

These are just a few rambling notes about what happened to a few members of the Party during the 1914-1918 war. Many other members could tell similar stories. Some went to different parts of the world and either remained there or only returned after the passage of a long time. As a result it was a sadly battered and reduced Party that gathered together after the war to continue the struggle.

Greasy Pole: Mission Implausible (2014)

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

It was enough to recall the reaction of Bumble the Beadle confronted by Oliver Twist asking for another spoonful of workhouse gruel when David Cameron described his government's drive to reduce the number of welfare benefit claimants as a 'Moral Mission... giving them new hope and responsibility' when in fact what they have to look forward to is a closer and more frequent acquaintance with the charity of the Food Banks. The truth of Cameron's phrase was exposed by the author of a recent report from the 'right wing' Policy Exchange think tank '... there are a significant number of people who have had their benefit taken away from them unfairly. Four weeks without any money is driving people to desperate measures'. Even worse – among the regular users of the Food Banks are people suffering from various health problems, including disablement, such that they are unable to work and rely on welfare benefits. Which often requires them to submit to a compulsory programme of tests of their capability and if they fail in this they are likely to be condemned to 'sanctions' – a reduction, or even a stop, of their benefit payments.

It is by way of justifying this process, with all its tensions and misery, that Cameron called for that Moral Mission with its assumption that imposed employment is a guarantee of a freer, happier, more fulfilling life. It was clear that bringing this callous fantasy into operation would require one of the specialist organisations of which the better known are SERCO, G4S, Capita Group – and ATOS – none which have been clear of controversy. The government contract was awarded to ATOS, which was formed in 1997 through a series of mergers, take-overs and sell-offs, now presenting itself as supplying hi-tech IT services and network connecting. In the United Kingdom it holds a £500 million government contract to organise and operate the Work Capability Assessment system which forms a judgement of benefit claimants' fitness to work and passes this to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). ATOS claims to do this '... using criteria set out by government, and provides the DWP with independent advice which is used by a DWP Decision Maker, along with any other information they have received, to decide on your entitlement to benefit'. As to their style in carrying out this delicate and sensitive work, their CEO Joe Hemming recently informed the House of Commons Public Administration Committee that it '... is proud of the work it does ...' with '... a real passion for delivering services to the citizen in a way that continues to satisfy the way the citizen wants to be served'.

But the world outside Joe Hemming's fantasies has rather different experiences. In dealing with claimants who have been referred to them ATOS uses the Logical Integrated Medical Assessment (LIMA) method which works with a spreadsheet listing questions which have to be answered by the infamous Box Ticking method. Sitting there with a computer and a mouse the assessor (described by ATOS as a 'healthcare professional') does not rely on any special knowledge or qualifications or previous contact with the trembling applicant before them. Among the results of these 'assessments' there was the 47-year old woman who was pestered to attend to have her Fitness for Work rated when she was in a coma after a heart attack. A 39-year old woman with three children was suffering from a brain tumour. She informed her assessor of this but was told to start looking for a job. Just weeks afterwards she died. In the year up to September 2013 there were 897,690 'sanctions' (would 'punishment' not be a more suitable word?) by the DWP carrying the threat of a stoppage of benefits. Predictably there was a flood of protest and appeals. During the final three months of that same period there were some 600,000 appeals with a success rate of 87 percent.

It hardly needs to be said that the work of ATOS, in conjunction with that of the DWP, should always be done so that it is, at the very least, sensitive to the desperate existence of the people they are judging. But that does not happen. In 2013 a doctor who had been an ATOS assessor told the BBC that he had been 'instructed to change my reports, to reduce the number of points that might be awarded to the claimants. I felt that was wrong professionally and ethically'. It was the same for a nurse who said she had been instructed to mark down claimants she knew were unfit for work. It was predictable that claimants heavily dependent on charities and food banks should react aggressively to this treatment. The Financial Times reported that in 2013 there were almost 163 cases of ATOS staff being insulted and abused: 'Murdering scum... won't be smiling when we come to hang you bastards' was one sample from Facebook. The response of ATOS staff was also as expected: one said on his Facebook that the claimants were 'parasitic wankers'; another referred to her workplace as '... that Godforsaken place with the down-and-outs'. In Edinburgh the ATOS staff retaliated to a protest outside their office by giving the V sign out of an open window. A likely result of all this is that ATOS will give up on their contract before it is due to expire in August next year.

There should be more celebration on this score as so profitable is the mission of cajoling people from the stresses of charity back to those of employment that there are plenty of other companies prepared to take over. There will be no change if Labour win the next election. The Work Capacity Assessment was introduced by the previous Labour government in 2008 and in their 2010 election manifesto they proclaimed their intention to widen its scope – ‘people with disabilities will be helped to move into work’ – and pledged that they would extend their 'tough but fair work capacity test' to get more people off Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance.

The morality of capitalism is founded on intrinsic human misery and operates through legalised theft and exploitation and the consequent hostilities within the class which needs above all to be united. There is no need for ATOS – or for Cameron and his Mission in hypocrisy – to remind us so elaborately of this.