Monday, December 29, 2014

Trapped in a Blind Alley (1973)

Book Review from the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism by John Palmer and Nigel Harris. Hutchinson. £2.25

This book is a collection of essays by prominent members of the group known as International Socialism. The basic argument of the book is summed up by Duncan Hallas in the final essay, "The Way Forward."
Basically the case rests on the analysis of the world crisis . . . and particularly on the thesis that, in the changing conditions of capitalism, reformist policies will be less and less able to provide these partial solutions to the problems confronting the working-class that they have been able to provide in the decades since the Second World War.
In other words, the road to reform is closed; the capitalist class can no longer afford to grant the improvement in working-class conditions which it had done in the past. Does this mean, then, that IS do not include reforms in their programme, and base their support on the sole issue of establishing Socialism? Of course that would be expecting too much. Duncam Hallas, in the same essay, states clearly that "the development of a programme (includes) a detailed statement of partial and transitional aims." And the book is scattered with phrases like "connecting the concrete issues that workers face with a generalised perspective." (Higgins and Palmer, Introduction).

Why, therefore, does IS put forward demands for reforms when they believe rightly or wrongly, that these demands cannot be met, instead of putting forward  a demand for Socialism? The answer is, of course, that they believe that it is only by being led up the garden path of reforms and smashed against the brick wall of capitalism that the workers will learn "through their own experience" that capitalism cannot give them what they want. Of course we would accept that socialist ideas arise from the struggles engaged in under capitalism by the working class, but the idea of making "impossible demands" shows a definite contempt for the working-class and their ability to understand socialism.

Predictably enough, another false idea expressed was that of violent insurrection. Paul Foot devoted his energies to an analysis of "Parliamentary Socialism," concluding that democracy is all a sham and that the French workers had shown the way in May, 1968. One of his main mistakes was in assuming Parliament and the vote are inherently reformist, and that revolution must mean a bloodbath on the streets. He states, for example, that the Independent Labour Party "lost its socialist impetus through the insistence on Parliamentary priorities," and that the Communist Party had degenerated since the 1930's when it had "sustained itself . . . by a revolutionary attitude towards Parliament."

This line of argument shows a great deal of confusion. The vote can be used to maintain capitalism, to achieve certain reforms, to destroy democracy (as in the case of Nazi Germany) or to achieve Socialism, depending on the consciousness of the working-class. There is therefore no such thing as a "revolutionary attitude towards Parliament." The ILP, of course, never had a "socialist impetus."

Given the rejection of Parliament, the only alternative IS seem able to offer is syndicalism. Paul Foot writes of the need of the workers "to seize the factories and offices". Tony Cliff says the shop stewards are "the pillars on which any real revolutionary socialist policy must be" (T. Cliff, "The Class Struggle in Britain"). Such beliefs are extremely dangerous—any attempt by IS or any other group to institute "seizure" of the means of production would be suppressed by the State, no doubt at the expense of a good deal of working-class blood; IS would discover, through their own experience, where the real power lies in society.

It would be mistaken to believe that there is nothing of value in this book. Though most of the contributors seem to be trapped in a blind alley, Nigel Harris in part of his essay "Imperialism Today," comes very close to the correct socialist position. In his analysis of armed struggle in backward countries he states:
Marxism is irrelevant to success in guerrilla warfare . . . Marxism dissolves into pre-Marxist populist socialism, the closest analogies to which occur in Narodnik  thought in Tsarist Russia.
He concedes that revolutions in such circumstances are made by small minorities relying on √©lan and slogans, and that Fidel Castro, for example, was a radical liberal rather than a socialist. Harris therefore comes very close to our position, that groups such as the Vietcong are the equivalent of nineteenth-century bourgeois revolutionaries, seeking only to establish capitalism. We give them no support, but for Nigel Harris the dilemma remains—why does his organization give them "unconditional support"? In his fifty-page essay, he gives no answer at all, except for the pious remark that "socialists instinctively feel a warm sympathy for those struggling for national independence."

Inevitably, there are constant references throughout the book to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Nowhere is it explained, however, why a revolution which took place fifty-five years ago in a backward, pre-industrial country in which a decaying feudal regime collapsed under the strain of war has any relevance to conditions in Britain or any advanced capitalist country to-day. All the other standard IS ideas crop up regularly—the false Lenin theory of imperialism, the equally false crypto-Keynesian theory of the "permanent economy," the peculiar obsession with productivity deals. When all is said and done, however, the IS gap still looks to the Labour Party for its philosophy. It was fitting, therefore, that Duncan Hallas, on the last page of the book, should state that "there are still genuine socialists active in the Labour Party". Needless to say, he did not name any.
Brendan Mee 

The People You Meet No. 3 — Just a Housewife (1950)

From the January 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

She came to the doorstep and eyed me with mixed suspicion and anger—anger because I had interrupted her housework and suspicion because she knew I had something to sell. Before the war five or six men called every day selling everything from toothbrushes to vacuum cleaners, cash down or on the never-never; now they are re-appearing.

:Good morning," I ventured, and received a hard get-to-the-point look. Quickly I gabbled that I represented the S.P.G.B., that I had called to acquaint her with the organisation and ultimately to sell her a copy of the STANDARD.

"Politics!" she snapped, "they're the old man's business, and he's out." He wasn't. He was in the garden chopping wood. Household tasks were far more important.

"But surely you are concerned with the problems of war, poverty and unemployment?"

That struck a chord. She wiped her hands on her pinafore and showed some interest. "Things are better to-day than they ever were," she claimed. "You're young. You don't remember." And then she told this story.

In short, she was brought up in one of those grim industrial areas that cluster around Manchester. The eldest of several kids she cared for the rest while her mother was at the mill. "It was cheaper for them to employ women," she explained. Her father just languished till he joined the Army and was killed in 1914. "I was lucky," she said. "My chap came back and we were married in 1919." For a few years luck was with them and they managed to keep a home together and produce four children. Eventually, early in 1931, he fell out of work. The dole, the Means Test, the bun house—and then they decided to try their luck in the south. It was just the same down here. They sold more and more of their furniture and wares. "I had a breakdown—the old man grew sullen and miserable and young Johnnie went into a sanatorium for nearly three years." But as time went on work grew more plentiful till in 1939 he started at K------s. "And he's been there ever since."

"I don't know much about politics," she reaffirmed "but it seems to me that Labour has done better after this war than the others did after the last one."

I pointed out that the favourable conditions of the labour market since the war was not due to the good work of a Labour Government but due to the existence of ready markets; that already it was becoming difficult for the capitalist, in face of American competition, to sell his goods: that unemployment figures were steadily rising; that a slump is almost inevitable.

It didn't sink in. Living from day to day had set her thinking the same way. Women! It is not enough to leave these matters to the old man. Politically, he is as ignorant as you are.

Your experiences are as vivid as his. When you see the shops full and your purses empty, when, in spite of your efforts, you see your kids suffer from undernourishment, when your sons are called off to war, ask yourself the reason why. Examine the world in which you live. Who knows, you may even set the old man on the right road.

The American Conventions (1964)

Editorial from the July 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The two big American parties are now about to hold the Conventions—the Republicans at San Francisco this month, the Democrats at Atlantic City in August—which will select their candidates for the Presidential election in November.

The Conventions' job is to pick the man who will pull in the most votes for his party; as such, they are themselves part of the election campaign. They usually wear a public face of enthusiastic confidence, expressed in fatuously massive banners, frenzied parades around the hall and similar ballyhoo. But behind this facade, in guarded rooms, the reality is grimly faced and tense bargaining often goes on, as the delegations trade their support in exchange for pledges of political patronage.

The Democratic Convention promises to be a triumphantly straightforward affair, a formal endorsement of President Johnson as their man. Johnson has so far demonstrated that he has most of the faculties which capitalism's leaders normally require — physical toughness, political skill, ruthlessness, a flair for publicity and what we can very loosely call a little bit of luck.

Since he took over in November last, Johnson has built himself onto one of the biggest vote winners his party has ever had: the public opinion polls consistently give him the support of about three-quarters of the American electorate. If there were any argument about his nomination, this fact would clinch it. There is no reason to suppose that at Atlantic City next month the banners will wave, the button badges will be worn, the cheer leaders will carol, for anyone other than Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Republicans are in different straits. Not for over twenty years have they selected a candidate who did not stand for what are called "liberal" policies—a measure of state insurance, medical aid and so on. This was why nobody took Senator Barry Goldwater seriously when he was announced, some months ago, that he was in the race for the nomination.

But Goldwater, like Kennedy in 1960, has demonstrated that an initially doubtful candidate can break down the forces against him by proving his ability to attract votes in primary elections. While his opponents in the Republican Party have been divided among themselves, the Senator has been systematically amassing delegates' votes.

He goes to San Francisco as the favourites. Of the men who are expected to stand against him, Rockefeller has shown that he has not got the requisite voting pull. The big opposition to Goldwater may therefore come from one of the men who, although they have yet to intervene in any force, would probably dearly like the nomination: Nixon, Scranton, Lodge.

It will be a tough fight, for the Senator's bandwagon is now rolling briskly along. His policies may strike some people as inane and irresponsible but a great many others approve them. Goldwater's victory in California came after his famous indiscreet advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons in Indo-China - and even after he made things worse by appearing to be confused over exactly what he had said.

The industrial areas may dislike his opposition to unemployment and sickness insurance but millions of other Americans support him on this, because they think that such schemes undermine what they are pleased to call their self-reliance. Goldwater gives the impression that he would like to see the United States lose interest in Europe: this is an idea not unfavourably received by the American electorate. The Economist of 6th June last speculated: " . . . even President Johnson might be pressed to cover his right flank by saying things that created the same impression."

All this could mean that Goldwater is not such a vote-loser as some of his party think. At the moment, so certain does their defeat seem to be, that they have little to lose, and Goldwater has been the only man up to now who has shown that he knows how to get down to the grass roots of ignorance.

If he does get the nomination he will probably be supported, by the customary cynical balancing act, with a "liberal" candidate for the Vice-Presidency. This would be designed to take the edge of Goldwater's more wild views so that he could gather votes from a wider circle, in the same way that Johnson's Southern origins were supposed to compensate for Kennedy's New England brashness.

On this score again, the Democrats do not have the same problem as their opponents. Johnson is so much all things to all men, he fits in so well in the business of universal vote-gathering, that he has no electoral edge to take off. He needs nobody to balance him; the post of Vice-President is, therefore, probably at his disposal exclusively.

Whoever fights it out in November, the election will be the usual depressing affair. The American voters will give their verdict on all the familiar issues of reform and futility, ignoring the real issue—Capitalism or Socialism—which faces them all the time.

When the banners have been put away, when the ticker tape has been swept up, when the drum majorettes are resting their aching legs, and when the next President is settled in the White House, Capitalism will grind on, spreading confusion and despair on all sides.

Backwaters of History (1953)

From the September 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

The five men were silhouetted against the bright, grey, morning sky as they walked steadily, in single file, with spades and shovels on their shoulders, up the gentle slope of the hillside. They halted and gathered in the group, talking, gesticulating, looking around and pointing. Then they walked away in a different direction and were lost to sight behind the hill.

It was the first day of April in the year 1649. The five men were quite ordinary humble artisans or labourers, living in the village of Cobham, in Surrey. Only one of them had any reputation outside the locality in which they lived; William Everard had been cashiered from the army—from Oliver Cromwell's army—and was known for his religious zeal. Stewer and Colten were well known locally but the other two had so little fame that their names have not been handed down to us. 

On the lower slopes of St. George's Hill, on the side by Camp Close, the men spent the day digging, breaking the soil into a fine tilth and sowing parsnips, carrots and beans, When their work was finished they gathered  up their tools and made their way back to their homes. That simple day's work had far-reaching results and qualified the five men for honourable mention in every worth-while history of the working class.

The following Monday they were back at their digging in the same place, accompanied by nine or ten new recruits. By Friday the group was over thirty strong. On Saturday they went to Kingston-on-Thames to furnish themselves with seed corn and they arranged to have ploughs for their future work.

On the 16th of April, Henry Sanders of Walton-on-Thames, a local landowner, reported these doings to the Council of State. The Council of State instructed the commander-in-chief of the army, General Fairfax, to send a force of horse troops to Cobham to dispel this "Disorderly and tumultuous" assembly whilst it was still a beginning and before more dangerous consequences grew.

The men of Cobham, together with others who had followed their example at near-by Walton-on-Thames, offered no resistance to the soldiers. They were pacifists. They were arrested and the leaders, Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, were taken before Cromwell and Fairfax at Whitehall. They stood before the Lord General with their hats on, claiming that he was but their fellow man.

They stated that for many years the people had lived under oppression and tyranny. The remedy was to cultivate the wastelands, the common land and the parks, everyone working and living communally. They did not intend to touch any private land or to break any fence or enclosure, only to till the common and untilled land.

Another local landowner, a Mr. Drake, summonsed them and they were tried by a jury of local wealthy freeholders at Kingston Court in August, 1649. They were not allowed to defend themselves and were all fined £10 each. Their cattle were injured by hired ruffians. A Puritan preacher was sent to Cobham to stir the local population against them. The few huts that they had erected were pulled down, their spades and hoes were cut to pieces, the land they had dug and sown was torn and trampled so that no corn could grow, the men themselves were maltreated.

For over a year the settlement at Cobham persisted. Propagandists were sent out to other parts of the country and another settlement was commenced at Wellingborough and some support was found in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. But the support was slight and after a year of digging and a year of persecution the movement died out in early 1651.

The members of this movement called themselves the "True Levellers" but because of their experiment at Cobham and elsewhere they became better known as "The Diggers." The prime motivator of the movement, Gerrard Winstanley, was a cloth manufacturer. He continued his activities after the Digger movement had faded out and during the last years of his life he was a member of 'The Society of Friends," better known as "The Quakers," which had been founded by George Fox in 1652. A number of other members of the Digger movement likewise joined the Quakers, and continued to suffer for their beliefs.

During the 16th century and the early part of the 17th the early merchant capitalists in England had been gaining in numbers, wealth and political power. Their struggle against their feudal class enemies culminated in open hostilities between themselves, entrenched in the Parliament, and the Feudal Aristocracy lined up behind the Monarchy. Both sides resorted to armed force, and the Parliamentary troops under Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and Henry Ireton finally triumphed over the Royal forces under King Charles I and Prince Rupert. The king was beheaded without having abdicated, as evidence that it was the monarchy and all it stood for that was defeated and not merely the king.

The wealthy capitalists raised their troops from amongst the small merchants and artisans of the towns and from the ranks of the small working class of those days. To ensure support from these social elements they were fed on propaganda for religious and political freedom. In the Parliamentary army, amongst the small merchant and artisan element, there grew up a movement known as "The Levellers" which demanded a political freedom in excess of what the wealthier capitalists were prepared to admit. An extreme section of the Leveller movement, supported mainly by agricultural workers and calling itself the "True Levellers" demanded a form of utopian communism. The digging experiment was an attempt at propaganda-by-deed by this extreme element.

In an age of pamphleteering, Winstanley and other diggers supplied many pamphlets. Their writings are cloaked in religious phrases for it was a time of religious fervour. Yet they saw clearly that there could be no real freedom whilst there was private property.
"True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth  . . . A man had better to have no body than to have no food for it . . . True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth."
(Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)
They recognised the real function of religion as propounded by the church.
"While men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they see not what is their birthrights, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living . . . And indeed the subtle clergy do know that if they can but charm the people . . . to look after riches, heaven and glory when they are dead, that then they shall easily be the inheritors of the earth and have the deceived people to be their servants. This . . . was not the doctrine of Christ."
(Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.) 
They saw the real cause of war and, vaguely, of class struggles.
"property and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere."
(Winstanley. The True Levellers' Standard Advanced).
". . . Rich men receive all they have from the labourer's hand and what they give, they give away other men's labours, not their own"
(Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)
There are many writings to show the kind of society the Diggers aimed to establish. Just one quotation will suffice.
"Shall we have lawyers?
"There is no need for them, for there is to be no buying and selling; neither any need to expound laws; for the bare letter of the law shall be both judge and lawyer, trying every man's actions. And seeing we shall have successive Parliaments every year, there will be rules made for every action a man can do."
(Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.) 
Four of the Diggers' foremost persecutors were Members of Parliament who had been expelled by Cromwell for their Royalist sympathies. But they were still secure in their land ownership and were back in Parliament. Cromwell and those he represented were showing that, as far as they were concerned, the revolution had gone far enough. They held political power and they were prepared to use it to suppress their erstwhile supporters more ruthlessly than they had suppressed their former class enemies. In fact, they were prepared to compromise and ally with their former enemies to subdue the aspirations of their extremist followers.

Winstanley expresses the situation well:
"While this kingly power reigned in one man called Charles, all sorts of people complained of oppression . . . Thereupon you that were the gentry, when you were assembled in Parliament, you called upon the poor common people to come and help you . . . That top bough is lopped off the tree of Tyranny, and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still, and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor commons still."
(Winstanley. A New Year's Gift for the Parliament and Army.)
Winstanley, in his writings, as in the few writings of other Diggers, realises the need to propagate his ideas and to gain support for them from a majority of the people. But none of them challenged the political supremacy of the wealthy capitalists. Instead they appealed for a change of heart. The more wily of the capitalists recognised at the outset the need to capture and hold political power to ensure the domination of their class over society. With the political machine in their hands their opponents on all sides were powerless.

The capitalist class still recognises that, and clings to political power tenaciously. It will continue to impose its will on society until the working class deprives it of that power and proceeds to remodel society in keeping with working class interests.
W. Waters.

Recommended books for students: -
M. Beer. A History of British Socialism. Part I Section 5.
C. Hill and E. Dell. The Good Old Cause. Part 12.
M. James. Materialist Interpretations. Essay in "The English Revolution," Edited by C. Hill.
H. Holorenshaw. The Levellers and the English Revolution.
E. Dell. Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. Essay in "The Modern Quarterly," Spring 1949.
E. Bernstein. Cromwell and Communism.
Berens. The Digger Movement in the Days of Commonwealth.