Sunday, November 16, 2014

Britain's "Red Guards" (1967)

From the June 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is not a miracle but it is a transformation. Not so long ago they were a rather dreary collection of youngsters with not much hope in the age of swinging Britain. Now their numbers are growing, they have a reputation for fiery iconoclasm, they dress their girls in orange mini skirts and their leaders have a national standing which rivals may envy.

One up, in other words to the Young Liberals—one up in the cynical, vote-grubbing game of capitalist politics.

There are now 533 Young Liberal branches; their headquarters admit to having only a vague idea of total membership but claim about twenty thousand now, compared with about fourteen thousand at the beginning of 1966. Their publicity has been remarkably successful; they are famous as the so-called Red Guards of English politics and, although very few people could name the chairman of the Labour Party Young Socialists or of the Young Conservatives, George Kiloh, chairman of the National League of Young Liberals, is something of a national youth figure as are Terry Lacey and Jon Steel.

The Liberals have achieved this by a skilful propaganda mixture. Although they avoid the tag of extremism, they claim to be "radical", which means that they can take almost any problem and loudly demand that it be solved immediately, crash bang. They can oppose the Incomes Policy, American action in Vietnam, they can stand for votes at eighteen—yet nobody calls them fellow-travelling Communists. They can scream for pop radio and for the abandonment of Britain's bomb, without being dubbed beatniks.

They say they want a revolution but this does not cause anyone to look under the bed for the lurking anarchist.

It is not difficult to imagine the attraction which this policy could have for the youngster who, while he accepts the existence of capitalism, wants to do something about its problems. He might look at the Young Socialists, but the Labour Party's connection with the badly mauled policies of nationalisation, wage freeze, racialist immigration control, would be enough to put him off. Then there are the Young Tories but they seem to be divided between boys and girls looking for someone to marry and young men in the obligatory dress of coloured shirt and stiff white collar, bearing a sickening resemblance to the young Quintin Hogg. Besides, the Tories are also connected with spectacular failure.

Apart from these there are the Liberals, whose failures as a government have been forgotten. The Young Liberals have a smart new symbol, jazzed up policies and a freedom for their members which is found in none of the other parties. Yes, a youngster looking for a political party might well choose the Liberals.

George Kiloh agrees that the freedom enjoyed by the Young Liberals may have contributed to their recent success; the senior party obviously does well not to try to clamp down on its youngsters. When the Red Guards came roaring into the last party conference at Brighton with their swearing and demands for workers' control, Jo Grimond — who was then Liberal leader — merely made sure that he was photographed having an amiable drink with them. It is perhaps a measure of the Young Liberals' mood that they were not overwhelmed by this; a few months later Jon Steel said at Notting Hill:
Jo has had his day. he is finished. he must change his ways or get out. After 13 years leader of the Party he is tired and worn out.
George Kiloh was reported as asking, at the same meeting, whether the Liberal Party should keep Grimond as leader and risk "stagnation"; he also attacked Eric Lubbock for "keeping M.P.s in the House debating futile motions when they should be out keeping in touch with their constituents."

When we asked Kiloh about this report. he denied that he demanded Grimond's resignation. But the important point is that, even after they had expressed strong criticism of their party leaders, the Young Liberals were neither rebuked nor restrained. It is impossible to imagine the same tolerance in the Labour Party of a Young Socialist who said that Wilson must go.

Kiloh claims that during the past year the Young Liberals have attracted many young people who would otherwise have joined the Labour Party. They are, he said, taking advantage of the fact that Labour is "stranded" — the Young Liberals are "mopping up the Left."

So it's a success story — but there have been many others before. Is there anything new about policies which insist on five million new homes within ten years, a stronger United Nations, the end of slum schools, a cut in "defence" expenditure? This is typical of the countless reformist programmes which have been used to deceive the working class into the belief that the ailments of capitalism can be cured without getting rid of the system itself.

Let us be clear on one point. The Young Liberals proclaim: "We Want a Revolution." But they accept capitalism; they want "Cheap group travel for young people . . . "  . . .  thorough training for all employees." In other words they want a social system where the necessities of life have to be bought, whether cheaply or not, and where there are employers and employees. Their demand for a revolution is empty; it is safe to say that they do not even understand the meaning of the word.

No political party has yet solved the problem of transforming its promises, which are often so alluring to workers, into reality. Inevitably, there comes a time of reckoning — and this is something the Young Liberals may have to face. Many of their members (Kiloh claimed they would be "a minority") must have political ambitions. What will they do, if they see no prospect of realising their hopes in the Liberal Party?

Let us take a recent example. The Young Liberals, in true Red Guard style, insisted that the party contest the Brierley Hill by-election last April. This was all very exciting for them and proved what dare-devils they are. But when the votes were counted the Liberal candidate had lost his deposit. How much more of this can the Young Liberals take, before their ambitions persuade them to go seeking after safe seats and political plums with Labour or the Tories?

To the parties of capitalism, political principles are notoriously flexible. The Young Liberals are no exception to this. We are so accustomed to it, that it would not even be ironical if the Red Guards were beaten by the realities of the political struggle of which they are a part. They are full of fire, now. But perhaps one day they will be in the bigger battalions — Labour and Tory M.P,s who blushingly recall the days when they did their bit to make the mini skirt a political symbol.

Marxism and Democracy (1941)

Book Review from the February 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard
A useful addition to Socialist Literature

Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy (Gollancz, 1940, 7s. 6d.) was first published, in French, early in 1939 under the title "Marxism in Bankruptcy" (Marxisme en Faillite). It is a useful addition to Socialist literature and cannot fail to be of help to students of Marxism. While the author has decided views on the many controversies he deals with, he states a reasoned case and almost always gives the source of his many pointed quotations from the writings of Marx, Engels and others. He is not a doctrinaire, to whom Marx's writings are a text to be studied word by word and followed as a kind of Bible. As he says: "A Marxist cannot be orthodox unless he continually questions even the truths he has already acquired, including the words of Marx himself " (p. 48). But having considered the theories of the Bolsheviks, as well as the criticisms levelled at Marx from various hostile quarters, he shows once more how well the mature ideas of Marx and Engels accord with the developments and experiences of the years since their death.

The book will be of special interest to those who have read THE SOCIALIST STANDARD for a number of years. While on a few (but important) points his views differ from those of the S.P.G.B., it is remarkable to find him meeting one after another of the many misrepresentations of Marx with precisely the same arguments as those worked out in the ranks of the S.P.G.B. during its 36 years. Stating that one of his aims "is to disentangle the real ideas of Marx and Engels from the incredible confusion caused by their commentators," he summarises his conclusions as follows:—
"Firstly, that the ideas of Marx and Engels changed and developed as they learned from historical experience; secondly, that it is false to present them as apostles of violent methods at all costs; and thirdly, that whoever ascribes ideas of non-violence à la Gandhi to them would be equally wrong. In the light of the experience gained in the course of their lives as militant Socialists they decided that under a democratic regime the workers would be able to achieve their aims by peaceful means, providing that Capitalism did not itself destroy that democratic legality without which there could be no question of the successful adoption of peaceful means." (p.37)
Among the points he deals with on precisely the same lines as the S.P.G.B. are the Bolshevik claim that Marx and Engels advocated dictatorship on the Russian model (pp.38-43)—in passing he raps the knuckles of Mr. G. D. H. Cole for the same error; the Bolshevik claim that Marx favoured the smashing of the machinery of the capitalist state (p.44); the notion that Marx and Engels preached nationalisation (p. 45); and the claim that Bolshevik organisation and tactics were Marxian. Laurat shows, as did the S.P.G.B., that "the Bolshevist organisational theory . . . although labelled Marxist, in reality represents a lapse into Blanquism, and has its roots in the backward state of Russia in general and of the Russian working classes in particular " (p.122)

He points out interestingly how the Great War, 1914-1918, had as one of its consequences that it stirred into activity and drove into some of the workers' organisations great masses of workers whose political experience and understanding were not superior to the experience and understanding of workers who had been in such organisations before 1914, but greatly inferior. "Unacquainted with the ideas and methods of Socialism, except for a few ill-digested slogans," these inexperienced raw recruits were the material on which the Communists, with their theory of an intelligent minority leading the unenlightened masses, were able to work successfully. The backwardness inside Russia and the backwardness of these workers outside Russia combined to produce results which have been deplorable for the working class and Socialism.

One of the questions on which Laurat holds a different view from that of the S.P.G.B. is that of Socialists collaborating with capitalist parties. His argument is that in the period of ferment after the last war "the strength of the Socialist parties had very considerably increased. Socialism judged, with very good reason . . . that it was now strong enough to exercise a considerable, if not decisive influence on the Government. However, it was nowhere strong enough to take power alone " (p.152)

There were three alternatives: (1) To share power with bourgeois parties whilst waiting until they had won over a majority of the electorate ; (2) to entrench themselves in intransigent opposition and decline the responsibilities of power until the situation was ripe; and (3) to try to seize power by force.

The last solution was the Bolshevik solution. It failed to produce Socialism and necessarily failed to do so:—
"Even in power alone, ruling by terror, and no longer hampered by the resistance of their bourgeois colleagues, the Socialist ministers, or commissars of the people, would still find themselves face to face with hard economic reality, peremptorily forbidding the immediate establishment of Socialism." (p.153)
The second solution he likewise rejects, because "when a Socialist party has between 40 and 45 per cent, of the seats in Parliament it is impossible for it to abstain from participation except at the price of feebly handing over power to a bourgeois coalition in which the extreme Right would have every chance of seizing the principal levers of government and weakening democracy " (pp.153-4)
“Nothing remains in practice but the first solution: Socialist participation in the Government, in spite of all the risks attached to it " (p.154)
Laurat here fails to face up to the fact that his first "solution'' led to the discrediting of the parties that adopted it and in doing so it helped to weaken parliamentary democracy and to turn the workers to Fascist or Communist doctrines of dictatorship. The weakness of his argument should have been obvious to him. He concedes (p.153) that refusing the responsibility of office (which means in all these instances refusing the responsibility of administering capitalism) is conceivable "in countries where the parliamentary representation of Socialism was still relatively feeble." He also concedes (p.152) that much of the support on which the "Socialist" parties relied was that of "immature" masses who had declared for "Socialism" "often by instinct rather than by knowledge and reflection." All of which boils down to the simple fact that the "Socialist" parties (by which he means such parties as the Labour Party) had made the fundamental error of building up their membership and fighting elections on a programme which attracted instead of repelling the "immature masses" who did not understand Socialism. In other words, the parties with 40 to 45 per cent. representation in Parliament had it under false pretences.

It is surprising that Laurat is blind to this, because elsewhere he stresses the importance of real Socialist understanding. As he puts it on page 119, these workers are "in need above all things of a strong dose of Socialist education."

Readers of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD will appreciate Laurat's final plea that the working class "must reject the ' leader ' cult more and more categorically. Unfortunately, far too many workers are still addicted to this cult, though it reeks of both Fascism and Bolshevism, and has nothing whatever to do with Marxism (pp.253-4)

As there are other important points in the book it is hoped to return to them in a further article.

It is a pity that the book costs 7s. 6d., and has no index. The translator, Mr. Edward Fitzgerald, is to be congratulated on his work.

Edgar Hardcastle

Beside the seaside (2014)

From the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
'I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled'
was how J. Alfred Prufrock intended to manage senility. But it was to be properly unchallenging:
'Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach'.
Paddling at the tide's edge, dressed in a style as might once have been admired, enjoying some rare luxury of tropical fruit. It was a day free from the stresses of the workplace, some slight easing of glum fears about the butt end of the days. Then dozing in a beach chair briefly unworried about the call to catch the coach back to the yellow fog rubbing its back on window panes and the pools which stand in drains. Late in 1949 as the nights drew in a married couple stared out from a bench on the sea front at Folkestone in Kent, where they had bought a small hotel called The Rhodesia. Sitting there that day they worried together about how they would survive as the hotel bookings fell off during the winter. Until the woman gave voice to what was obvious – at that moment they were among people who were too old for employment and who therefore did not have to go back home as the blinds were drawn on the summer season. Their hotel could survive in profit by offering pensioners the choice of a cheaper package holiday when the resort was quiet. It was in 1951 that Saga Holidays, based in that same sea front town, came to life.
That man was Sidney De Haan who had long nursed an ambition to buy a seaside hotel – perhaps from his earliest employment as a chef in London and then when he was a prisoner of war in Poland under orders to escort some sick prisoners who were being repatriated. In truth this period was not unblemished as preparation for his future; during his time as a prisoner he was repeatedly in punishment for 'insubordination' – although which side he was insubordinate to is not known. In 1951 he faced different demands and priorities which encouraged him to reveal a keen talent for the manipulative art of what came to be known as market research. Perhaps drawing on what he had learned from getting those prisoners back he travelled the country looking for a place where he could rely on filling a regular coach service to Folkestone. When he found what he was looking for in Yorkshire he opened a service of regular trips from there to The Rhodesia hotel for bargain, all inclusive holidays. The result was an explosive growth in business, which spread across the country and then to hotels and resorts abroad. And now Saga is big time, selling holidays and tours around the world. It owns cruise ships and hotels and sells insurance for a wide range of what are called risks, financial advice, healthcare, direct mail trade. There is also their biggest-selling Saga Magazine which claims a readership of over a million.
Sidney De Haan retired in 1984, passing control of Saga to his eldest son Roger who left the company in 2004 after selling off its hotels and then himself moving into financial services and insurance. A management take-over of Saga backed by the private equity company Charterhouse yielded the De Haans a profit of £1.35 billion. This at a time when Folkestone was suffering from the decline of the Kentish coal mines, from losing the ferry trade to the Channel Tunnel and the competition of cheaper air fares and package holidays. In the eastern part of the town – described by De Haan as ‘the slum area around the harbour’ – there was one of the country’s lowest rated secondary schools under the dreaded ‘special measures’ performing the third worst in the country. Two wards in Folkestone are among the ten highest occurrences of pregnancy among the age group 15 to 17.
The 2011 Census revealed that respondents in the town considered their health to be significantly lower than the national average. It was symptomatic that Folkestone was part of a constituency where UKIP could benefit from any rampant dissatisfaction with the big parties and became of interest to Nigel Farage until he inflicted himself on Thanet South. The town was apparently in terminal decline until De Haan bought up the harbour for £11 million with the intention to revive it with new shops and premises to be known as a Creative Foundation. There has been a response to this. In August the beach was swarming with people hopefully wielding buckets and spades as they dug in the sand for gold bars which had been buried there by a visiting artist. This year’s Triennial art festival included the re-opening of the previously dilapidated Payers Park. It was all part of the intention to create another Barcelona presumably to be unaffected by the devastating Spanish recession as well as free super pricey footballers and the feather-fingered pickpockets along Las Ramblas.
Meanwhile in 2013 Saga became a public limited company – Saga PLC – with its share price quoted, with a varying response, on the Stock Exchange. This aroused some arch comments from media financial and investment specialists but the overall result, typically in the present recession, was rather less successful than previously. Saga holidaymakers, anxious not to jeopardise their pensions, were intrigued but not wildly tempted. To judge from the prevailing popular subjects and style of discussion in hotel lounges and on the terraces they are now enjoying some unexpected consolations from being old. These spring from the assumption that vital components in working class life such as employment, health, a stable home, were more accessible to them when they were younger and employed than they are now for the generation who have replaced them in the workforce but do not yet qualify by age for a Saga holiday. This is not because the pensioners had any special skills or fortitude; all in all it expresses the particular passage in the economy which capitalism is going through. As a result, young workers who have a range of experience, educational qualifications and expectations which would once have given them some confidence about their immediate future on the labour market, and all the stress that goes with it, are now cruelly thrust onto an unimpressed and unwelcoming labour market to moulder in bewildered distress.
But those hotel discussions too often take comfort that all of this is a kind of revenge for those infamous drunken evenings in places like Magaluf. This can often override the pensioners' memories of their own very real, hard struggle which, although different in detail from what is being experienced by younger people now, was nevertheless demanding and terrifying. The elements of working class oppression change with time but the basic realities remain. Meanwhile it is hard, in those terraces and lounges, to listen to opinions which allow no acknowledgement of those realities. Even when it is soothed by an 'entertainment' which can be as outworn and tiresome as music from Victor Sylvester.
So what of those who work for Saga? The holiday reps? Overall they perform as mature, patient and hard-working. Amid the customary stress of expectant – very often demanding – holidaymakers they manage to stay placid and confident. Ask them about their job and if they enjoy it?
Most definitely. Yes.
What was their work before they joined Saga?, office admin ...felt like getting something different to do...
Were these responses spontaneous or rehearsed? The replies of Saga employees to a questionnaire on The 10 best things about working at Saga provides some clues, not always comforting:
"the fact you receive Quarterly business presentations from the CEO himself as he updates staff on how Saga is growing..."
"the fact that there are constant goals and I'm always working hard to achieve my targets set ..."
"If you can't get to grips with selling a product they will provide you with 1-on-1 training to get you back on track ..."
When the De Haans were huddling on the sea front at Folkestone that day did they ever experience any awareness that holidays are commodities, designed and produced to be bought and sold and with all that follows by way of being contributive to capitalist society where all wealth has that character? We can have access only by buying them, which is subject to influence by the current situation in capitalism at large. It is all part of the system's repression and manipulation of our lives. Paddling at the tide-line or gazing out at the sea can be recommended as relaxing and can induce a reflective frame of mind, to reveal something vital even to the extent of our holidays. Well worth rolling our trousers for.

The Dispute (1999)

Theatre Review from the June 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Dispute by Marivaux. Royal Shakespeare Company at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

Marivaux was born in 1688 and his work as a playwright—like the work of artists generally— very much reflects of the spirit of the times. Already, by the turn of the century, comedy writing had become firmly anchored in economic realities. Soon Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot were to make their marks as key figures of the French Enlightenment.

In The Dispute, a prince who disagrees with his lover about whether men and women are naturally adulterous, reveals an experiment which has been set up by his father to test the point. Four white teenagers have each been brought up on their own by two black servants. On the command of the prince they are released into a dark 18th century palace, where they meet and mix, and we (the audience) watch what happens.

Several of us watched the play together, and our reactions were very different. One of my companions found the occasion arch and unconvincing; the pace slow not to say boring. Another was struck by the powerful resonances with our own time, especially the idea of experimenting with human beings, and found the impact more persuasive because the players wore modern dress. A third found the occasion sufficiently gripping to surrender to the experience, and to demand time afterwards in which to reflect. I sympathised. Perhaps more familiar with the period in which Marivaux was writing than my companions, I was fascinated by the way in which he had fashioned a story which allowed him to play with many of the ideas which underpinned the Enlightenment: empiricism and scepticism as the basis of belief; life in the "state of nature"; freedom and equality, and so on. But I found that unpacking the play, comprehensively, was difficult.

An hour or so later, however, I was struck by a number of things. First, the grisly experiment which forms the basis of the action, and the way that this presumes the power of one group (represented by the prince) to manipulate the lives of another group (represented by the four children), seemingly without restriction. Second, the idea that experimentation is an appropriate way of settling some disputes; associated with the corollary that such experiments must nevertheless be validly formulated if they are to be useful. (Whatever we might think about the nature of Marivaux's experiment, and especially its use of human beings as "guinea pigs", its design is such that it could never be used to confirm whether or not men and/or women are "naturally adulterous".) Third, I was conscious of the sexual stereotyping: and fourth of the overt racism; with two black people fulfilling the roles of servants. And finally there was the problem of language. We are told by the prince that the four young people "have been taught the language we use", as though language can be taught in a way which is free of social meanings; as though, for example, the meaning of "woman" is constant.

And I wondered, in the light of the thoughts of myself and my companions, how much better a group of professional critics might have unpacked the play a couple of hours after seeing it. So I examined the columns of the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Times, Time Out and the London Evening Standard, to see what their worthy critics had to say about my five key issues.

Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard found the play difficult to watch "partly because of human experimentation", but he failed to consider the class basis of the experiment, or the problem of language. He did, however, mention the sexual stereotyping and the racism. WE in Time Out was concerned about the cruelty of the experiment, but again failed to see its class basis. None of the other key issues was even mentioned. Michael Billington in the Guardian described the experiment in terms of "autocratic manipulation", and spotted both the sexism and racism. But he said nothing about the problem of language. Kate Bassett in the Daily Telegraph made no comment about either the legitimacy of the experiment, or its cruelty. She also had nothing to say about both the racism of the language, but in predictable Telegraph fashion she did tell readers that in Neil Bartlett's production the first meeting of the two young men is seen in terms of "some latent homosexuality". Finally, Jeremy Kingston in the Times had nothing at all to say about any of the issues.

From which I conclude that, in the light of the available evidence, most newspaper critics are about as insightful as their colleagues who daily dribble their half-truths and distortions onto the news and comment pages of the press. My complaint is not that the critics disagree with my judgments, but rather that they choose to ignore the significant in favour of the trivial. Theatre criticism seems much like other aspects of contemporary life in western capitalist, so-called democracies—more about style than substance.
Michael Gill