Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Backwaters of History - 6 (1954)

From the March 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

English Naval Mutinies 1797

There are two old, historic and important roads leading out of London, known now-a-days as the A2 and A3 and leading to Dover and Portsmouth respectively. In the late 18th century these were loose surfaced highways, infested by highwaymen and toll gate keepers.

During April, May and June of the year 1797 there was much thundering of horses hooves, rumbling of carriage wheels and creaking of wide flung turnpike gates on these two roads. There was a dashing hither and thither between Whitehall and Portsmouth and Sheerness. Steaming horses were urged on by whip and spur to break speed records. Terrific consternation—the British navy was on strike—right bang in the middle of a war.

Napoleon was threatening to invade England. Part of the fleet were at anchor at Plymouth, at Spithead, at Yarmouth and at The Nore, all in readiness to attack the French fleet if it emerged from Brest.

In March and April the seamen of the Spithead fleet sent a number of petitions to the Admiralty, to Admiral Lord Howe, to Parliament, to Charles James Fox and to the king. The sailors had many grievances.

The main grievance was pay. Rates of pay that were set during the reign of Charles II still prevailed in the reign of George III, about 130 years after, despite great increases in prices. From a sailor's meagre pay there were many stoppages and most men's pay was months and months in arrears. Now they asked for a rise and regular pay. 

They also wanted an increase in the quantity and even more important, an improvement in the quality of their food. The food they received was maggotty, rotten and mostly inedible. Any little extra they requested was charged to them at extortionate rates and supplies of the sick was embezzled by officers. They wanted proper care for the sick and pay when wounded.

Seamen were kept to their ships for years without shore leave. Conditions were so vile that the Admiralty was afraid to grant shore leave knowing that the men would not return to the sea. Now the sailors petitioned for a modest measure of leave. 

The men did not protest about discipline but they did call for the removal of the disciplinary abuses that were rife. Flogging was the main disciplinary punishment and, although naval regulations laid down a maximum of twelve strokes for an offence, no officer was deterred from giving more, even to over a hundred lashes, often for the most trivial offence that was probably provoked by the officers themselves.
"To be flogged was to be tortured. The first stroke to be laid on by the brawny boatswain's mate, as hard as he could at the full length of his arm, would always jerk an involuntary 'Ugh!' out of even the most hardened unfortunate 'seized up to' the grating at the gangway; six blows tore the flesh horribly, while after a dozen the back looked like 'so much putrified liver.' After a time the bones showed through, the blood burst from the bitten tongue and lips of the victim, and expelled from his lungs, dribbled from his nostrils and ears. To make sure that the standard of hitting was maintained, the wielder of the cat would be changed every two or three dozen and the blood was wiped off the thongs between each stroke to prevent them sticking together . . . A severe flogging smashed a man, he was ill for weeks after it, and rarely recovered his self-respect if he originally had any good in him." -"Sea Life in Nelson's Time," by John Masefield.)
Ships were rotten, leaky and foul smelling; drinking water was foul; the food caused scurvy; ship doctors were drunkards and without skill; officers like the notorious Captain Bligh of the "Bounty" were brutes.

The war with France made it necessary to double and treble the size of the navy and the ships were manned by men released from debtors prisons, shanghaied from merchant ships in port and recruited by quotas from each county, a bounty being offered to volunteers. Quite a number of men, better educated than the regular seamen, were attracted into the navy by the offer of the bounty.

Secretly, carefully and with success an organisation had been built up in the separate fleets although with little contact between the fleets. A few sporadic, single ship mutinies against the vile conditions had occurred at times during the previous years. The organisation in the separate fleets in 1797 appears to have been spontaneous.

Very wordy petitions, expressing loyalty to king and country and willingness to fight the French if the invasion became imminent, but demanding redress for their grievances were despatched and replies patiently awaited. The organisation at Spithead was tightened up, each ship appointing two delegates and the battleship "Queen Charlotte" selected as unofficial headquarters. Plans for action were circulated, signals arranged and a time set for action. The delegates were mainly young men holding some non-commissioned rank.

Before the plans were complete events on the "Defence" precipitated action and the whole Spithead fleet went on strike. It was called a mutiny but it had none of the hall-marks of the usual mutiny. The men carried on with their normal duties, respected their officers but refused to put to sea. The delegates were afforded the privileges of officers, they maintained strict discipline amongst the men and issued many statements and orders for the control of the strike. Everything on the surface appeared normal but the officers had no power.

The Admiralty and the officers made threats, but the men remained unconcerned. The Admiralty made promises to redress some of the grievances, but the men rejected them. A bill to increase sailors' pay was introduced into Parliament but there was delay and procrastination and the men became impatient. The most detested officer were put ashore and a fracas broke out on the "London" resulting in the death of one man. Further bloodshed was averted by the delegates and Admiral Colpoys. The delegates court martialled the officers concerned, found them guilty but reprieved them.

When the government realised that the seamen were not to be trifled with it granted their demands. But the delegates were still suspicious. They demanded a Royal Pardon in writing and that the officers they had set ashore should not be returned to their respective ships. Lord Howe was sent to Spithead with the Royal Pardon and authority to grant the men's demands.

Having achieved their demands the sailors organised a grand gala and there was much carousal and fraternisation between Lord Howe, Portsmouth civil authorities and the seamen. The two most prominent of the delegates, 25 year old Valentine Joyce, Quarter Master's Mate of the "Royal George" and John Fleming, 25 year old A.B., were especially feted.

As the Spithead fleet celebrated its success The Nore fleet went into action to achieve similar improvements in conditions and pay. The organisation here was less complete. John parker, a 30 year old ex-schoolmaster, rated as a supernumerary A.B. on the Depot ship "Sandwich," was quickly elevated to the position of President of the delegates.

The "Sandwich" was a 40 year old decaying corpse ship, smaller than Nelson's "Victory" with a full war complement of 750 men. When it laid at Sheerness in 1797 it had on board about 1,600 men.
"One has a vision of writhing humanity, like worms crawling over one another in the foetid pot of a boy fisherman . . . "("The Floating Republic," by Dobree and Mainwaring.)
This hotbed of fever and disease became the headquarters of The Nore fleet mutiny.

The Naval authorities took advantage of the weaker organisation of The Nore seamen and refused to talk with the delegates, making stronger threats backed with a show of military force. All the ships of the Nore fleet were not unanimous in their support of the mutiny and before long the struggle began to weaken. The "Clyde" and the "San Fiorenzo" pulled out from the mutinous fleet.

Food supplies became short and the delegates decided to hold up merchant shipping en route to and from London. This raised the ire of the London merchants and an emergency naval force were recruited to be sent against the mutineers, civilians from all walks enlisting for the job.

By June it was becoming more and more difficult for the delegates to hold The Nore fleet together. The "Repulse" and the "Leopard" attempted to escape and were fired on by the other mutineers, only the "Leopard" getting away. During the following days other ships drew out. As arguments went on in the ships the people of Sheerness saw the Red flags replaced by the blue and white, them, perhaps the red ones going up again, to be replaced yet again.

Men tried to escape. The authorities were jubilant and took steps to prevent escape. A pardon was offered to men who would give themselves up. On June 13th John Parker handed over the command of the "Sandwich" to the officers after a meeting of the men of that ship. So the Nore mutiny dissolved.

The naval authorities took revenge. Parker, with 28 others, was executed, a few others received from 40 to 380 lashes with the cat, whilst others were imprisoned.

The Plymouth fleet gave slight support to the Spithead seamen whilst the Yarmouth fleet adhered to their comrades at The Nore.

The Spithead affair achieved immediate results whilst the Nore mutiny appeared to have failed. But the fierceness of the Nore outbreak to which the Yarmouth fleet had been attached, the length of time it lasted and the threat to London was probably a greater contributory cause of the naval reforms that were introduced during the early years of the 19th century.

Books to read:
"The Naval Mutinies of 1797," by C. Gill
"The Floating Republic," by G. E. Mainwaring and B. Dobree.
W. Waters

Between the Lines: Their crisis; our lives and Our history (1986)

The Between the Lines column from the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Their crisis; our lives

It is now almost a cliché to state that capitalism is in a crisis. Less easily grasped is the effect of that abstract notion, "an economic crisis", on the lives of workers. Panorama (BBC1, 9 June, 9.30pm) attempted to show just how far the current economic mess is affecting the lives of workers in Cleveland in north-east England, described as being not so much of a black spot of unemployment as a black hole. In Cleveland, where ten years ago the council was making films about the industrial growth of the area, one in four workers are on the dole. Seven homes each week are repossessed because the inhabitants cannot afford to pay for them. Six thousand workers in Cleveland each year have their electricity cut off - that is one in every two hundred of the population. In the youth club, lads of twenty spoke of how they would never expect to get "decent" work - several admitted that stealing was the only course open to them. Some were prepared to take any job going, such as back-breaking potato-picking for £8 a day: even here they were often being undercut and put out of work by children who were prepared to stay off school and do the job for £4 a day. Suicides in Cleveland have increased sharply - a doctor told of a forty year-old man who had sat in his surgery and told him that he would kill himself rather than exist in dire poverty: what could the doctor do for him? The system is the disease. With all of its sickening moralising about "The Family", the capitalist system breaks up family life. The programme showed a family where the man had to travel for months to Surrey where he could earn a wage building luxury houses for the rich. His wife and children had to live without him. Another man's family lost him as he was sent to economic exile in Nigeria, to earn enough to stay out of extreme poverty. The illusion of capitalism is that, bad as the crisis is, it will be soon be over and better times are ahead. This crisis will end, but capitalism only offers more misery and new crises for the working class. The workers of Cleveland have no future to look forward to except the new social system of socialism, where human beings will give according to their abilities and take according to their needs. How urgent that social revolution is was, unintentionally, well-demonstrated by this documentary.

Our history

It is a rare treat for TV to offer viewers a documentary about the history of our class -  the workers who produce the wealth but do not possess it. Union Maids (C4, 5 June, 11.25pm) was a fine programme about the much-neglected topic of American labour history. The women interviewed were pioneer trade unionists in the USA in the 1930s who took on themselves the task—begun by the Wobblies some years earlier—of organising black, women and unskilled wage slaves into trade unions. Their descriptions of the struggles reminded us of the tremendous resistance which workers are capable of once they have started to perceive their class interest. At least one of these women possessed an understanding of socialist ideas, pointing out that nothing which currently exists in the name of socialism is socialism. The documentary was made even better by the inclusion of some excellent Joe Hill songs (some of the greatest music to come out of the workers' struggle) and so we could sing along to such favourites as The Union Maid and Solidarity Forever, the latter containing the verse:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded goal;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold;
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old;
For the Union makes us strong.
Steve Coleman

Supermarkets and Their Slogans (2013)

From the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Adulterating food for profit isn’t a new story. 'The Old Testament' first alerted its readers to it with the shrill warning that there is, ‘death in the pot!’ (II Kings chap.4, verse 40). At the turn of the twentieth century The New York Evening Post even penned an ode to it:
Mary had a little lamb,  
And when she saw it sicken, 
She shipped it off to Packingtown, 
And now it's labelled chicken.
David Cameron revealed his thoughts on the subject when he stated that it was a 'very shocking story, it's completely unacceptable. . . people will be very angry to find out they have been eating horse when they thought they were eating beef.’ So will those that sold it to them—the supermarkets. They’ve been caught out at their own game by their suppliers: horsemeat costs £300 per ton and beef £700 per ton.
Every little helps’ chirps the Tesco slogan, and your helpful cash brings in around £3+ billion in pre-tax profits per year for Tesco from a market share of 30 per cent. About £1 in every £10 spent in British shops ends up in Tescos’ tills. Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons share a further 47 per cent of the total market. With the UK grocery market worth more than £163 billion, the big four are engaged in a constant battle to out manoeuvre each other for a juicier helping of the profit pie.
Sainsbury’s ask you to ‘try something new today’. That’s not too difficult giventhat almost 80 per cent of the food sold in supermarkets today didn’t exist 15 years ago. The majority of these new items are packaged junk food distinguished by their significant lack of nutrients thanks to the pioneering work of the food processors. Like many modern technologies, food processing was developed over the past two centuries to serve military needs: junk food is the lucrative spin-off. People didn’t suddenly demand spicy burgers or chicken nibbles. The market was created because cheap raw materials could be converted into much more expensive, and thus extremely profitable, items to be sold through supermarkets and other retail outlets. Fresh food has its pecuniary advantages too. Researcher Tania Hurt-Newton revealed that the income derived from pineappleswas shared out in these ratios: 4 per cent was earned by the workers; the plantation owners pocketed 17 per cent; 38 per cent went to the multi-national traders; and the supermarkets scalped 41 per cent. A survey conducted by the NFU in 2002 discovered that abasket of food (eggs, milk, bread, tomatoes, beef, and apples) costing £37 in the supermarket returned just £11 to the farmers. Today it is less.
Morrison’s slogan, ‘More of what matters’, will obviously include what in America is called ‘pink slime’, and in the UK the food industry calls ‘filler’. Pink slime is the scraps left after butchering that has been cleaned with ammonia. In 2012, ABC News claimed that of the ground beef sold in American supermarkets around 70 per cent was composed of pink slime. Filler is fat and collagen; derived from the ligaments and tendons of butchered carcasses. This is what bulks out mince meat. New EU rules want to limit this to 19 per cent fat and collagen. But The Telegraph (3 February) revealed that, ‘Supermarkets will be able to sell minced meat containing more than 50 per cent “filler” under Government plans to avoid EU limits’. Similarly, the pressure by supermarkets to force down suppliers’ prices has driven manufacturers to concoct ever cheaper ingredients. Thus the BBC (28 February) can report that European meat suppliers are: ‘using a loophole in the law to sell a banned low quality material to UK sausage makers. Called desinewed meat . . . it’s retrieved from animal bones using low pressure water. Visually it is said to be similar to a fine mince, and closer to meat than the more liquid ‘mechanically separated meat’ (MSM) ‘slurry.’
US poultry meat and cattle exports reached almost $10 billion in 2011, and a total of 33.5 million head of cattle were slaughtered. A few novel ingredients were added to boost profits: around 80 per cent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are gobbled up by factory farming. Cows, poultry, fish and pigs are routinely dosed up by U.S producers. In 1946 the food industry discovered that using antibiotics in livestock feed increased their growth by as much as 3 per cent. It also allowed livestock to be incarcerated in overcrowded and filthy conditions that under other circumstances would have spawned rates of disease and death that would have made it entirely unprofitable. The US Food and Drug Administration has finally acknowledged it as a, ‘mounting public health problem of global significance’ (inthesetimes.com). And a New England Journal of Medicine study found that ‘20 per cent of ground meat obtained in supermarkets contained salmonella. Of that 20 per cent contaminated with salmonella, 84 per cent was resistant to at least one form of antibiotic’ (pbs.org/).
Asda’s slogan asks: ‘Why pay more?’ And why should they?The National Beef Association recently accused supermarkets of ‘short-sighted, price-led, purchasing tactics and a bullying culture.’ When you control around 86 per cent of the market you can use that buying power to put tremendous pressures on suppliers to deliver goods to you at extremely low prices under terms and agreements dictated by your monopoly of the market. Unsurprisingly, those pressures are then exerted downwards on those that actually grow, pick, pack and deliver the food through low wages, long hours, and piss-poor conditions of work.
The Telegraph(27 April 2008) disclosed one of the many tactics used by supermarkets, coined The Flaming Lamborghini. ‘Supermarkets ship in young, hungry graduates in their mid-20s. They send them to be trained to learn a particular buying strategy and then send them out to do battle with the suppliers. Pay is linked to performance. Squeeze another half penny out of the supplier and the buyer's pay will rise. . . Buyers' lives are often short-lived and they are shuttled from pet food to beer to toiletries. The goal is to ensure they never build up close relationships which might tempt them to treat suppliers more kindly.
The Co-operative Group stands at number five in food retailing controlling 9 per cent of the UK market. Its slogan is: ‘Good with food’. The question is: good for whom? Beginning with inputs like seeds, to fertilisers and agricultural machinery, to the processing, transportation, and finally the retailing of food, each area is now dominated by a handful of extremely powerful multinational corporations. Over the past 20 years, through a series of deals and corporate takeovers, names like Monsanto, Syngenta, Unilever, Diageo, Nestle, Kellogg’s, through to Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco have gained control of their respective market sectors, thereby escalating their profits to once unthought-of levels. This process is the embodiment of capitalism. Dynamic—fully tuned and optimised—generating a brimming pot for division amongst a faceless class of parasites.
David Cameron considered that the horsemeat saga was a 'very shocking story’. A so-called ‘fraud’ in a global system built and maintained on fraud. Here’s another story: UNESCO acknowledges that there is ‘Abundant supplies of food for 100 per cent of humanity’. But over 16 million people are dying from starvation and 800 million are seriously malnourished, whilst billions live a hand to mouth existence - and all too often very little making it to the mouth. This ‘other’ story will continue to run until a majority of us adopt the slogan: One World—One People. Only then will we gain control of what we produce.
Andy Matthews

Worse is better? (2015)

Book Review from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Things are Going to Get Worse and Why We Should be Glad.  By Michael Roscoe. New Internationalist. £9.99.

The basic assumption of this book is one we can share: ‘Real wealth creation requires real work, and real work must involve the transformation of nature’s raw materials into something of value to us humans. There is no other way to create wealth.’ This is, of course, the basis of all labour theories of value including Marx’s, even though wealth and value are not the same.

Roscoe argues that, as wealth can only be material, the service sector does not create any, but just consumes it, even if the service is useful and/or contributes indirectly to future material wealth production. Education, healthcare and various personal services do contribute to this by maintaining and improving the workforce that produces the actual wealth. Finance, on the other hand, says Roscoe, does not. It can play a useful role in channelling funds to the productive sector but most of its activities since the 1980s have just been shuffling money between speculators which doesn’t help wealth production at all.

The growth of the service sector reflects  the rise in productivity in the productive sector (agriculture, fishing, mining, manufacture and construction) over the years. The extra wealth produced has gone to maintain and expand the service sector, absorbing the workers displaced from the productive sector by rising productivity.  Why, according to Roscoe, ‘things are going to get worse’ is that this can no longer continue because the service sector is being automated  too (and oil is going to run out and the financial bubble is going to burst). As a result unemployment is going to grow until the system collapses. As ‘it is only in times of crises that real change can be brought about’, this is ‘why we should be glad’.  In other words, worse is better.

This may (or may not) be true, but Roscoe’s ‘real change’ turns out not to be one. He wants to retain capitalism but modify it by government action, a return to the ‘mixed economy’ of before Thatcher which he oxymoronically calls ‘market socialism.’ Actually, it’s not quite a return to those days as one of the things he wants governments to do is to slow down growth (as it’s using up the Earth’s resources) by slowing down the rise in productivity. Given capitalism, that’s like King Canute ordering the tide not to come in. It won’t work and can’t work because capitalism is a system of capital accumulation driven by competition between profit-seeking enterprises,  both private and state, which imposes rising productivity and growth on them as the price of staying in business.

A disappointing book, then, which starts off making a good point but which ends up advocating an impossible reform of capitalism.
Adam Buick

Obituary: Ron Melia (1990)

Obituary from the June 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are sad to report the death on 11 March of Ron Melia. He was very well known as a professional entertainer, and his death was met with media coverage on television, radio and in the press. Throughout his years of entertaining people, he always linked this concern for bringing happiness into people's lives to the struggle to end the organised misery of the profit system. He was an active member of the Socialist Party for many years, and his death was a loss to the movement.

As a dancer, comedian and all-round entertainer under his stage name of Ronnie Ross, he performed in most of the better known music-halls in the post-war years. With the closing down of such venues by the 60s and 70s, however, Ron took his act out to people as a street entertainer. He had a regular and, eventually, famous spot in London's Leicester Square, where thousands of cinema-goers over the years had their wait in the queues filled with Ron's sparky visual humour. The police made life difficult for the buskers and Ron found it easier in later years to continue his act in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. Even in his seventies he was a familiar sight, bringing smiles to the faces of people sitting outside the "Deux Magots" at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He was engaged as a choreographer by the National Theatre in recent years and also appeared in Dennis Potter's TV series Pennies from Heaven, which was repeated just before his death. Throughout his years of busking his wife Peg, also a Socialist Party member, was always with Ron as his assistant and "bottler" collecting the donations.

Ron became a socialist during the war years and joined the Socialist Party in the 40s. At different times since then he and Peg had been members of Bloomsbury, Westminster and Islington branches. In recent years Ron often spoke at meetings at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, in London in a gusty fashion which was straight to the point and uncompromising in style as well as content. Likewise, many of the debates which have taken place at Islington branch in recent years were helped along by Ron's inimitable contributions often acerbic in their wit (and fortunately captured on tape). Ron's passion for advocating socialism at every opportunity continued to the very end.

When travelling across Europe he and Peg made contacts, generating interest in socialist ideas, as they worked from country to country. In Denmark, for example, one group they met developed a keen interest in socialist ideas, and in Paris in 1981 they were present at the first Socialist Party public meeting conducted in French there.

There is no doubt about the epitaph Ron would have wanted—that the struggle for socialism must go on with increased vigour until we achieve our objective. Our best wishes go to Peg and also to their sons, Chris and Phil, both also Socialist Party members.