Tuesday, September 2, 2014

1945 Revisited (1997)

A Theatre Review from the June 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tom and Clem by Stephen Churchett. Aldwych Theatre.

Days after the confirmation of Tony Blair (anag: Tory in Lab) as Prime Minister, it was interesting to see a play about events in 1945, immediately after the Labour Party's landslide victory in the first post-war general election. Tom and Clem, a play by Stephen Churchett, is centred on a series  of imaginary conversations between Tom Driberg, journalist and darling of the Left, ex-Communist Party member and recently elected Labour MP for Maldon in Essex, and Clement Attlee, the first Prime Minister to lead a majority Labour government.

On 17 July 1945, the so-called "Big Three"—Churchill (British Prime Minister), Truman (President of the United States) and Stalin (Russian Generalissimo) began a meeting in Potsdam, outside Berlin. Meanwhile in Britain a general election had been held on 5 July, but the result was delayed to allow the inclusion of the votes of the million or so members of the British armed forces who were scattered around the globe. In Potsdam proceedings were adjourned to allow Churchill to journey to Britain for the result. He never returned. The Labour Party had won a famous victory (sic), and it was Attlee who was soon to be photographed with Truman and Stalin.

But it is not the world of macro-politics which forms the substance of this play. We never see Truman, Stalin and their acolytes, although we do hear their motor-cavalcades arriving. Rather Churchett has written a chamber play for four characters: Driberg and Attlee, and two members of the conference team of army officers — Kitty, an unshockable, "seen it all before", Briton, and Alexie, a romantic young man who is her Russian equivalent.

For the most part I enjoyed the evening. The author gives us four credible, well-rounded, warts-and-all characters, who are played quite splendidly, and dialogue which is revealing and instructive. And the play is unexpected and refreshingly funny. There are some wonderful one-liners ("So you're an agnostic then?" "I'm not sure. I haven't made up my mind yet."), and some hilarious exchanges prompted by Alexie's attempt to understand idiomatic English.

Michael Foot argues in a postscript to Driberg's posthumously published autobiography, Ruling Passions,  that Driberg's "homosexuality truly was his ruling passion", and Stephen Churchett clearly shares this opinion. Driberg emerges as a practised seducer, who makes a play for Alexie with potentially tragic consequences: a man driven by his erotic appetites and love of the English language; a humanist who is still emotionally shell-shocked following a visit to a concentration camp. In contrast Attlee is a controlled, pipe-smoking pragmatist, whose passions are not so much sensitised by his intellect as anaesthetised by it. Michael Gambon and Alec McCowen play Driberg and Attlee with such finesse and conviction as almost to make you believe that they miraculously become these two long-dead politicians. They are simply magnificent. To watch them at work is a privileged delight.

But finally Churchett cheats. We know, with the benefit of hindsight, just what Attlee's government did and, more importantly, did not achieve. And we know the effect of Driberg's romantic passions because of their unfortunate, if unintended, consequences for Alexie. And, yes, many of Driberg's beliefs were inconsistent, and foolish. Nationalisation has nothing to do with socialism, and capitalism cannot be changed so that it operates in the interest of the whole of society. But in the key last act exchange Driberg capitulates in the face of Attlee's passionless Sunday School rendition of "England arise, the long, long night is over . . . " Why? Not only does Churchett set up a false antithesis between Attlee's cold pragmatism and Driberg's supposed socialist position, he then rigs the result by gagging one of the combatants. It makes for unconvincing drama, and a disreputable attack on socialists and socialism. In fact socialists made mincemeat of Attlee's position, as readers of this journal in the 1940s know well. Attlee's successor, Tory, sorry, Tony Blair, will fare no better.
Michael Gill

Madness (1997)

A Short Story from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

I recently made an appointment to see my doctor. He sat at his desk and I sat on a chair to the side of him. He had my records in front of him with one eye on me and another on them.

He asked "now tell me what can I do for you?"

I told him "I think I'm going mad."

He turned a page of my notes to see, I think whether there was any record of my ever having gone mad before. "So," he said, sitting back in his seat and clasping his hands together. "What on earth makes you think that?" I told him that everything on earth made me think that. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Can you be a little more specific?"

"Yes," I said, "people are killing one another, if not in one way then in some other way, pollution, malnutrition . . . "

He frowned at me. "You can't do anything about that, it is the way of the world. That is how the world has always been."

" . . . Exploitation," I went on, "the stockpiling of more and yet more weapons of torture and destruction . . . and  . . . " My doctor shook his head.

"But this is nothing for you to get depressed about surely."

"And this lottery, millions are given away to one person and yet in this city, as in others, people are begging on the streets and . . . "

He picked up his pen and wrote something down.

"And there are rich people with several homes and other who have no homes and no paid work . . . "

He looked at me sternly over the tops of his spectacles. It is a waste of time to concern yourself with these matters and what is more it is detrimental to your health. You really must not upset yourself about things you cannot change."

"But they could be changed —if goods were produced for use instead of for profit and more profit."

My doctor gave me a long, hard stare. "There are fine minds out there whose job it is to make sure these things are taken care of. You must realise that there are people who cannot fit into society who prefer to  . . . "

I finished it for him. "Who prefer to remain on the streets, cold, depressed and hungry. Do you believe they prefer that?"

A look of irritation flitted across his face. "I did not say that they 'preferred' it but if there is no work they can do . . . " He looked at his watch. "Now I do have other patients to see so I will tell you what I am going to do. I am going to prescribe some tablets, and they should help you to stop worrying about these things. If we all of us dwelt in such matters then would we all end up?"

I suggested perhaps with a more just society. But ignoring this he wrote out a prescription. "I want you to take two of these three times a day with water. I should warn you that there could be side-effects; you could suffer from a blurring of vision, some auditory impairment and possible some sensations of numbness and loss of feeling. But I think if you take them regularly you may find that poverty, starvation, injustice, pollution and war no longer worry you quite so much." Then, cheerfully, "We'll soon get you back to sanity

"Thank you doctor," I said, "but I would far rather be mad."
Heather Ball

News on Sunday (1987)

From the June 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The News on Sunday was hyped as "the paper that bites back", "the paper that has got balls but no tits", and "the paper that gives you the naked truth not naked women". It is financed by trade unions and left wing local authorities. It has an Editorial Charter which espouses a series of "ideologically sound' causes: it is anti-sexist, anti-racist, in favour of a united Ireland, concerned about the environment, the poor, the Third World, it will support workers taking industrial action, and so on. It has an impressive list of journalists, mostly collected from other left wing magazines and "radical" publications. But even before the first issue was printed it had lost a few including John Pilger. The News on Sunday has a recruitment policy that aims at achieving a target of 52 per cent women and 10 per cent blacks and is castigating itself for not yet having achieved this target.

It also had an initial target circulation of around 800,000 and its failure to achieve that target led to some rather more serious soul-searching —like whether the paper can afford to continue. Because although the paper might have the right "leftist" credentials and an "ideologically correct" editorial policy, this does not alter the fact that the paper itself has so far been profoundly disappointing. The newspaper that promised us the "naked truth" in fact contains very little in the way of news. Their advertising hype had suggested that we might expect "in-depth" investigation of issues that concern ordinary people without the right-wing or conservative filter that operates on most newspapers. Instead, issues like the Third World, ecology, health and welfare are used as convenient pegs on which to hang romanticised guff about "heroic struggles" of working people. The causes that produce the heroes may be different from the other tabloids — Nicaraguan peasants, not the Falkland Islanders — but the journalistic style and sentiments are similar. Short sentences. Tear-jerking emotional stories. Little analysis. Over-simplistic assertions.

The News on Sunday is explicitly aimed at manual workers, blacks and women and is courting the readership of the Sunday Mirror — supporters of the Labour Party, trade unionists — workers who, it is argued, want more than tits and bums and naughty vicars from their Sunday newspaper. However, the News on Sunday quite clearly also thinks that anyone who fits into this marketing category is unable to cope with news presented straight, without appeals to emotion or ideological rectitude — a truly alternative newspaper.

The new information technology which made the News on Sunday possible is not being used to produce a new radical, alternative newspaper. Even if that promise had been fulfilled there would still have been enormous problems. Newspapers, unless there is someone willing to subsidise them, must run at a profit. Most newspapers rely heavily on advertising revenue to make money and advertisers are in a strong position to influence the editorial stance taken. But the News on Sunday is unlikely to lose advertising of its "left-wing" stance. It will lose advertising because its circulation is too low to make it worthwhile for companies to advertise in it. The only people that the News on Sunday is likely to upset are the people who spent 35p on it thinking they would get a different kind of newspaper only to find that it was a paper without news but with a lot of patronising moralism instead.
Janie Percy-Smith

Fizzling out (1979)

Book Review from the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Slow Burning Fuse by John Quail. Paladin, £1.95

Quail's aim to present "the lost history of the British anarchists" between 1880 and 1930. His account is primarily a narrative one, with little emphasis on theoretical matters — which is just as well, since the theoretical discussions are the weakest part of the book. Quail's researches have led him to uncover a number of near-forgotten incidents and personalities, some of which are recounted interestingly here. Particularly noteworthy is the tale of the Walsall Anarchists arrested in 1892 and sentenced to terms of imprisonment (ten years in three cases) for a bomb-making conspiracy that was largely the inspiration of a police agent provocateur.

Most of the book is devoted to events and groups around such journals as Freedom and Commonweal, and to anarchist influence on organisations such as the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation. It is in the context of the latter that a passing reference is made to the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. Quite apart from Quail's jibe that we "never escaped from the status of completely uninfluential sect", his account is inaccurate in implying that the founders of the SPGB were motivated merely by dissatisfaction with the group round H. M. Hyndman that ran the SDF. In fact two matters of principle were at stake: that a socialist organisation be thoroughly democratic and have no leaders and that a revolutionary party should not advocate reforms. If Quail had mentioned the SPGB's anti-reformism, allied with our insistence on gaining control of the machinery of government through the ballot box, we might have been spared his simplistic equation of reformism with electoral activity and revolution with anti-parliamentarism.

A little clarity on this score would have improved what is in any case the interesting part of the book, the account of earlier events in the SDF and the Socialist League. The League was founded early in 1885 by a number of people (including William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling) who had shortly before left the SDF. This revolt was largely a matter of personal opposition to Hyndman, and the new organisation was by no means agreed on political strategy. The Avelings drafted a constitution committing the League to electoral activity, and this was adopted by the Council but then rejected by the League's first annual conference in July 1885. Unlike the SDF, though, the League was genuinely opposed to reformism. Its circular To Socialists stated:
We believe to hold out as baits hopes of the amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous.
Dissension between pro- and anti-parliamentarists plagued the League, but by 1888 it was completely committed to an anti-parliamentary policy. William Morris left in 1890, signalling his opposition to both reformism and violent revolt, and with his departure the League ceased to exist as a national body. Morris, with his emphasis on education and "making socialists", held views far removed from those of the direct-actionist members of the League. It took the latter "impossibilist" revolt to establish an organisation uncompromisingly opposed to the policy of seeking reforms and committed to making socialists as the condition for the establishment of socialism.

One of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the SDF was that the party's journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control. It is interesting to see from Quail's account that anarchist practice led to exactly the same situation with regard to Freedom. This journal was founded in 1886 by the Freedom Group, which had strictly "limited and confidential" membership. By 1897, when it was the only anarchist journal still being published, anarchists in the wider movement suggested that it become more popular in character. But the Freedom Group would not respond to such criticisms; according to one critic of Freedom:
It was edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers.
In spite of a number of shortcomings, the book is informative and well worth reading. 
Paul Bennett

Pathfinders: Tomorrow’s People (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

To those unfortunate enough to be waiting for exam results, their whole future turning on a single envelope, this summer’s heat-wave can’t have brought much pleasure. In the event, A level grades were slightly down on previous years as the government has striven to make exams harder (to combat the so-called Flynn effect of rising grades with no accompanying rising ability), but university admissions have gone up, as governments have continued to push more students into higher education despite the crucifying burden of costs now expected to be borne by those same students.
Those still at school can hardly fail to be aware of ongoing changes to education policy with the introduction of holiday fines for parents taking ‘French leave’ from term-time attendance. And there has been ominous talk of extending the school day until, horrors, 6pm.
So for anyone reading this who finds themselves wondering why the government just can’t seem to leave education policy the f*** alone, and why they keep interfering with child and parental rights in such a petty, condescending and high-handed manner, we present the business guide to the capitalist school.
It all starts with evolution. There’s not much doubt that genes play a part in innate ability or ‘predispositions’, but nobody knows which and by how much genes are involved, say, in making someone good at maths or music. No single gene ever does one single thing, but performs multiple operations which themselves have cascading effects on other genes, in a process known as pleiotropy. Lucky for us it’s so complicated, in a way. If science were ever able to untangle the byzantine complexity of gene expression it would certainly lead to a Brave New World, akin to genetic feudalism, where you were feted to be a space scientist or fated to be a street cleaner and there wouldn’t be a damned thing you could do about it.
In the absence of this marvellous state of affairs, the captains of industry who are interested in mining future generations of talent have a bit of a problem. Capitalist cultural institutions are organised hierarchically, with rich kids getting into all the best schools and universities, their lives set fair for comfort and privilege, while poor kids are  generally directed towards the Gates of the McJob Underworld with the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ over the portal.
The problem for the captains is that evolution doesn’t follow social hierarchies, and ‘good genes’ tend to be distributed randomly, and horizontally, through the population. Nobody knows where they are or what they look like, and only careful development and processing will bring them to the fore. In consigning poor kids to poor education, capitalist social hierarchies are effectively throwing away more than half the potential talent. Any mining company knows that you don’t make money by chucking most of your gold on the slag pile.
But there’s another problem, which is that old workers are refusing to die off in the obliging manner they used to, and the costs of keeping these generally unexploitable people alive are spiralling, costs which are ultimately borne by the same captains of industry who are trying to reduce wastage. Future generations of workers are going to have to work harder, faster, smarter and longer to make up for these increasing costs, as well as pay back their student loans. After six years of recession, with no guarantee of a decent job, the educational incentives are shrinking. Among those with student loans (ie students without rich parents) the current loan write-off estimate stands at 45 percent, barely above the state’s break-even level (Guardian, 21 March). The kids are not alright, and the captains are not happy about it either.
The captains’ union – the Confederation of British Industry – regularly updates the government (it doesn’t matter which one) with their requirements. Tomorrow’s worker is expected to have a skill set that would have looked like science fiction a generation ago. But above all, the state must do something about wastage. Hence all the tinkering, for example the following:
Poor kids tend to leave school earlier in order to bring money into deprived households, and they have lately been doing so in increasing numbers. Now the law has changed so that they will have to remain in education until 18. They’ll probably end up working nights, the poor sods.
Everybody knows about the law of supply and demand. Holiday companies tend to make a loss in the off-peak season and recoup their losses in high season, tripling or quadrupling prices. Naturally this doesn’t affect rich kids, but poor families, if they want any kind of decent quality of life including an annual holiday, have been in the habit of playing truant from school to get the low-season prices. A day here or there may not matter too much, but across a generation of kids the weeks and months add up. Poor kids miss school more than rich ones. More disadvantage, more wastage.
In secondary schools, kids get around 2 hours of homework per night. This is not a problem for rich kids, who have supportive and motivated parents to help. But poor kids frequently have home environments which are not conducive to homework, and the social attitudes of poor families are often hostile to academic achievement (after all, what did school ever do for them?). So rich kids do their homework and poor kids don’t. But if the 2 hours homework was done in school time instead, the advantage enjoyed by rich kids would in theory evaporate. Hence the desperate talk of extending the school day, in the teeth of union opposition (‘Michael Gove’s plans for longer school day dealt 'huge blow’, Telegraph, 13 February).
The capitalist school system is essentially an extractive and refinery business, confronted in the world market by brutal competition on all sides. The traditional institutions of class privilege in individual countries tend to blunt their competitive edge, which is why capitalism, from the individual standpoint of a poor worker, can sometimes look progressive and even egalitarian. Money talks, not birth or background. Capitalism wants to plunder the workforce for everything it’s got, and it expects tomorrow’s people to be the smartest that have ever lived.
If you don’t like the idea of being mined and extracted, processed, refined, developed, graded and squeezed dry your entire life, join the club. And there is a club. You should join the people who want to abolish the commodity system. To get off the conveyor belt, you have to help shut down the conveyor belt.
Socialist education won’t be like this, because socialist society won’t be an endless competitive war of all against all, but a supportive and human-centred environment where a child’s development could proceed naturally, at its own pace and in the direction of the child’s own inclinations. Children learn best what they want to learn most, and socialism is defined by the philosophy that individuals blossom when able to determine their own needs, and shrivel when they are not. The people of tomorrow’s socialism won’t be commodities to be bought and sold, used and discarded, like so much pig iron and slag. They will be people whose desires, motivations, hopes and genetic predispositions are allowed to shape an individual path towards fulfilment and self-realisation, producing a flowering of art and science we can only guess at. These people, not their enslaved forebears, will be the smartest who ever lived, and quite probably the happiest.
Paddy Shannon