Friday, June 6, 2014

Carrying the platform ten thousand miles (1977)

From the March 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

When two members made known that they were visiting the USA as speakers as well as fraternal delegates to the conference of our Companion party of the WSP, the Socialist Party of Canada wanted them too. The result was that by the time our pair arrived in Boston on 9th October an itinerary right from Canada, down the West Coast to California and back to Montreal, had taken shape.

Things started moving in Boston, Pennsylvania, New York City, New Jersey, and New York State. A flood of striking publicity material went out to radio stations and universities; lectures, seminars and interviews were lined up.

The tour started with a one-hour talk on the history of the SPGB at the Boston Conference. Monday being Labour Day made an ideal occasion for an outdoor meeting—out we went, quickly gathering a crowd before whom we had a running debate with a divinity student on Socialism versus religion, Next morning we were up and away for our first college date a Stroudsberg University, Pennsylvania. 50 students of the political science faculty were the audience; "Marx or Lenin" was the subject. Then to New York for the Barrie Faber radio show (biggest commercial station in New York) with seven speakers, who started arguing about Carter and Ford but ended discussing Socialism.

And so it went on day after day. College lectures, radio programmes, newspaper interviews across the continent, finishing with a great meeting of students at Bishops College, Lennoxville, Quebec, on 15th November. In 44 days we gave talks at some of the biggest colleges in North America including Winnipeg, Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Francisco. We had to refuse others because of the itinerary. We had invitations to Columbia, New York, and New York Polytechnic (whose dean of political science interviewed our man on WBAI radio). Berkeley, California, and Edmonton, Alberta, wanted notice which we could not give to organize lectures for the whole faculty.

There were twelve radio interviews, in most cases phone-ins—sometimes two hours answering questions about the SPGB and Socialism, the Labour Party, Marxism, the Communist Party, etc. In Winnipeg an irate lady shouted "Get the old goat off the air and out of Canada at once"; whereupon another rang in to apologise profusely. The response to the interviews was terrific, and the interviewers were delighted. Jack Webster, whose programme is heard by millions on the West Coast, said: "You are listening to a real Socialist now—not a British Labour Party phoney." He added: "I'm going to announce your meeting at the Langara College"—which he did, with the result that the hall was packed.

On television in Vancouver City we had five minutes to answer questions like "What is your opinion of Russia today?" The studio audience applauded the answers spontaneously, and the producer said "We could have done with half an hour of you!" At Bucknell University they gave out a leaflet describing our speaker as "a modern Robin Hood who stands up for the poor against the rich, every Sunday in Hyde Park, London".

Then three days' trek in the Greyhound bus across Ontario. Anyone who thinks the world overpopulated should make the trip: in two days we saw one man and two moose. Arrived in Winnipeg, radio all the morning, university in the afternoon, having broken our journey to speak at Sullivan County College, Monticello, NY State. A debate with a City Councillor on aspects of Marx. In Edmonton listeners rang in and offered to drive us to the university. Whole afternoon discussing with political science tutors. Another 1500 miles through the Rockies, arriving in Vancouver at 12.45 a.m. They greeted us with bad news: we had to be up again at 5 to catch the ferry to the Island, to be on TV at 10. More colleges, more radio shows. In Vancouver we met Chris Luff (94) and Harry Brownrigg (91) and photographed Lestor's Corner (could not speak there—it's a car park now).

5th November, the long drive to 'Frisco. In Los Angeles we gate-crashed a meeting of the "Marxist Group" at the university; after speaking, we were pressed to stay for more—sorry, we have to go! All aboard the New York bus! Change at St. Louis and Chicago! (How we groaned that, of all the cities of the USA, in this one—home of the IWW and the Kerr Publishing Co., famous for its Socialist lectures in the 'twenties, we had no meetings.)   

3,500 miles later we were greeted in Montreal and spent the day discussing plans and books, arranging articles for Socialisme Mondiale. From there a hundred-mile for another smashing meeting! and next day, straight through to Boston to report to the NAC of the WSP on Sunday morning. After that, we boarded the London place to arrive back at Heathrow on 22nd November.

The hospitality of the American and Canadian comrades is fabulous. Our grateful thanks to Larry, George, Jim and Doré in Victoria, Carrie in Boston, Jean in New York, Jack in Stroudsberg, John and Anne in Winnipeg, Phil and Ben in Monticello, Bill in Vancouver, Brian and Bill in LA, Harry and Renée in San Francisco, Serge and Michelle in Montreal—their hospitality made it all possible. Sam Leight gave tremendous help, and George Gloss generously underwrote the trip.

Some college lecturers, like Dr. Bill Coope, gave great help and went out of their way to arrange things for us. Why colleges in Britain are so slow in taking opportunities is perplexing. When Jack Webster asked "Why do you do it?" we replied: "There is no greater satisfaction in this life than spreading knowledge to the benefit of humanity."

We don't even know if we made one member. We do know we revelled in every second of it!
Horatio and Steve

Another wall in the brick (1982)

Film Review from the October 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Pink Floyd's The Wall touches on nearly as many of capitalism's social evils as any issue of the Socialist Standard; except, of course, for an analysis of the cause of the problems. The film depicts with powerful imagery some of the contradictions of capitalist society. Capitalism is represented as the Wall — bureaucratic, alienating and destructive and made up of homogeneous bricks (we workers, no less) plastered together in hideous uniformity. From childhood it moulds workers into blind, submissive bricks in a structure which then exploits their ignorance and apathy for its own purposes.

The film portrays schoolchildren unquestioningly falling into sausage-machines, where they are turned into uniform shapes for the easy digestion of society. The purpose of education in our Buying and Selling Of People System (in suitable sausage form after the authoritarian schooling) couldn't have been more basically, and starkly, portrayed.

The eternally-flying white dove of peace soon explodes into the monstrous eagle of war, revealing both war and peace as products of the Wall society. Soldiers are shown as people at home see them (and as they most commonly are) —as prey of their murderous devices. The war brings them, however, only suffering and destruction. When it ended the soldiers waving from trains are received to the song of Bring The Boys Back Home, while a little boy helplessly searching for his missing father is testimony that not all the boys are brought home. The next theme of continuing war in the minds of the living is embodied in the fatherless boy, who is haunted in his sausage-forming years by war images so overwhelming and incomprehensible. The child becomes a rock-star (played by Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats), and yet another controlled brick of the establishment.

This rock-star is but a puppet commodity, not unlike the school headmaster whom we witness in one scene being controlled by strings from above. His mind and life have been drained by his success, and he finds himself alienated from the luxurious commodities that are his walls. This estrangement is further sharpened by his excessive viewing of television, particularly its extolling of the virtues of war and hierarchy, which so blatantly contradict his youth experiences of both war and school. But so absorbed is he by his lifestyle that his personal relationship and career are destroyed. He eventually has a nervous breakdown, culminating in a nihilistic act against his many possessions.

The politics of the film are very shallow and naive. Romantic visions of young people breaking through gates (there are many scenes of chained doors being broken into) only lead to opposition by the brute force of the state. The film also suggests a neo-Nazi  regime as the possible, almost logical outcome of the political exploitation of the present disillusionment.

One line of a song in the film, sung by children in the chorus goes: "We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. No dark sarcasms in the classroom. Teacher leave them kids alone. All in all you're just another brick in the wall". So what's wrong with a demolition job and the building of a free, democratic society in its place?

Soapbox to Soundbite (1997)

Book Review from the July 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Stilled Tongues—from Soapbox to Soundbite. by Stephen Coleman, Porcupine Press £8.95

First impression leave us with the idea that this book is about street oratory in the major cities of this and other countries during the past two centuries and nothing more. But there is a great deal more. To be sure, there is a very good account of that astonishing phenomenon, the outdoor political meeting, which developed in Britain between the end of the nineteenth century and the years immediately following World War II. There is also an account of the development of these street parliaments in the teeth of ruling class opposition from the end of the eighteenth century.

Today the theatre of outdoor meetings, where the person on the platform had to defend his thesis in a free-exchange with the crowd or lose the audience, has been replaced by the spectacle of politicians and entertainers (frequently the same persons) who cannot be questioned—Kilroy and Matthew Parris, Brian Walden, David Mellor and Alan Clark.

The world of working-class auto-didacts who flocked to the public meetings places—"Speakers' Corner at Marble Arch (frequently confused with Hyde Park Corner), Tower Hill, Finsbury Pavement, etc. in London and in all of the other cities of the country also attracted many who had benefited from a more formal education. Around the turn of the century dramatists and literary figures, Bernard Shaw, William Morris and many others did not shrink from sharing the platform with the great unwashed. And at election times even politicians emerged with the object of manufacturing another five years of consent.

Coleman's selection of Methodist figurehead Lord Soper and raconteur Bonar Thompson as representative is arbitrary but he could not do otherwise. The scene he describes was so crowded with larger-than-life figures that his theme could easily have got lost in the welter. This outdoor university with its hundreds of academias-complete-with-dialectics in cities of this and other countries echoed the Greece of the Ancients. The students went away determined to read the recommended texts: Mutual Aid, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, Das Kapital, and mouthing the cabalistic names of the authors, Prince Kropotkin, Friederick Engels, Joseph Dietzgen, Karl Marx.

There was no such tedium for the second of Coleman's orators. Bonar Thompson, with his soft Irish accent, spoke with the hope of collecting a few coins outside the Park after his stint, and relied on wit and paradox to entertain his listeners. The Rev. Donald Soper was, on the other hand, like most speakers, in earnest. He was a militant pacifist as part of his Christian belief and held the Socialist Party in great esteem for its anti-war stance, even to borrowing some of the socialist rationale to reinforce his moral repugnance for militarism.

The second half of Coleman's book, titled: Oratory to Oprah, The Twilight of Public Discussion, deals with the subject as it was affected by developments from the late 1950s on. Sophistication of the media grew—the BBC of Lord Reith's era had dropped the announcers with the cut-glass accents during the War. They could be too easily imitated by foreign propagandists who had been educated in English public schools. Reproducing the accents of Lancashire Wilfred Pickles or Hampshire John Arlott was another matter. But populism did not mean losing control. And television reemerged from its primitive and privileged pre-war form ready-shielded from popular intervention. The coming of commercial TV should have duplicated the situation in the press where millionaires had long indulged their prejudices. But the drive to get viewers and raise advertising rates tempered this tendency. Nevertheless "Britain has seen an appropriation of mass discussion by remote and unaccountable media agencies, and co-extensive with this has been an etiolation of autonomous discussion which has been unmistakably disempowering."

From the radio programme The Brains Trust of the 1940s to the end-to-end quizzing of experts in politics and economics on today's TV programmes, there have always been no end of people offering to do our thinking for us. This book was published just before the election. The result will not call for any re-consideration of the conclusions drawn here—they are too profound. But the devastating scale of the rejection of contemporary politics without any compensating endorsement of anything else on offer cannot be of comfort to our minders.
Ken Smith