Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Obituary: Ted Lake (1977)

Obituary from the February 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is always sad to record the death of older members who formed the backbone of the Party in its critical years. If we refer to the early days as our "vintage era" it is because we are grateful for the unremitting efforts of men like Ted Lake who against tremendous odds ensured the future of the Socialist Party.

Ted joined in 1910 and commenced speaking in 1912. His first meeting was at Buckhold Road, Wandsworth. At that time the Party was running 25 outdoor meetings per week in London, with a strength of thirty speakers. The list that month showed names like Fitzgerald, Anderson, Kohn, Fairbrother, Hoskyns and Fox. Ted was the last of the line and was 88 when he died in January of this year. He was a member of the old Battersea branch, and later SW London branch. He introduced his wife Min to the Party in 1926 and she died only a few days before Ted. Both transferred to Central Branch in 1958 when they retired to Banstead.

On the death of Jack Butler by a bomb in 1944, Ted was elected Party Treasurer and held the position until 1968. He was also a member of the Executive Committee for over forty years. The Party was always short of cash. The EC had to think twice before any venture. With Lake as our hard-headed Treasurer sitting at the EC table we had to think three times. Good husbandry was never better practised and never was an EC so cost-conscious as with Lake at the financial helm.

Ted will be remembered for his irreconcilable opposition to the Party's decision to contest Parliamentary elections. He felt that, bearing in mind the size of the Party, we ought to wait until we had greater support among the working class. Originally the 1944 Annual Conference decided to contest St. Pancras, Marylebone and Paddington. Lake referred to these as the "Railway termini". When we finally chose North Paddington in the 1945 General Election we booked the Metropolitan Music Hall for a mass meeting. Ted remarked wryly  that the electors would be treated to a "new turn". In the event the meeting proved successful beyond expectation; over 1,700 people attended, and several hundred more could not get in. The great enthusiasm and energy of the members caused him to thaw slightly in his anti-election tradition but he never abandoned it.

He lectured for many years, his favourite subject being the State. Forced by his wife's health and his failing eyesight to give up his activities at the age of 80, he managed to appear occasionally at Conferences. Some months before his death he was anxious that his books should find a place in the Party library. This was arranged before he died, and thus we are still able to benefit from a life spent in the splendid cause we have become heir to. To members of his family we offer our sympathy in this double bereavement.
J. D.

Mixed Media: Our Big Land (2015)

The Mixed Media Column from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our Big Land by Romani writer Dan Allum was directed by Amy Hodge last year at the Oval House Theatre in Kennington, London. It is a brutal, bloody and beautiful drama, a 'mystical, dark, epic poem' according to Allum (InSuffolk, 14 February 2014) which centres on the 'bauro diklo', a sacred storytelling/fortune-telling shawl passed from mothers to daughters which symbolises Romani spirit and culture.

The Romani matriarch Oceania is played by Robyn Moore who was memorable in 2003-04 in the working class TV soap opera EastEnders. Her son Roman is played by Samuel Edward-Cook, and Sophie, the Gadje (non-Romani) house dweller who is drawn into the world of the Romani as a child, is played by Scarlett Brookes. Allum puts women at the central place of the narrative as Oceania perceives in Sophie a 'gypsy heart', and we see Sophie grow from a girl to become a strong woman.

Allum was inspired by the memory of  'when I was a  kid we used a camp in Essex and in the wood was a traveller mother and – no father. They wouldn't mix with the travellers and non-travellers. It was quite mysterious, and I never forgot about them' (Oval House programme February 2014).

During the early part of the play we hear the cautionary petty-bourgeois nursery rhyme for children; 'My mother said never to play with the gypsies in the woods and if I did she would say, naughty girl to disobey.' The Romani live in the forest apart from bourgeois society. Oceania refers to 'keys for a cage' which symbolise the capitalist fetish for home ownership and private property.

Bourgeois society fears the Romani, and the woods or forests where they live come to have supernatural powers which frighten bourgeois sensibilities. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter set in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1640s, the woods for the Puritans become a symbol of darkness where the devil and his witches reside. The woods are the only place that Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne can meet away from the stern, repressive laws of Protestant society. Protestantism was a result of developing capitalism and was its ideological justification.

Oceania is dismissive when Sophie appears in her school uniform; 'uniforms are for prisons' and later says  'How can you understand freedom, when you've never had it?' Sociologists  have described the Romani as usually engaging in self-employment rather than the more common  wage-labour of capitalist society,  sometimes claiming ‘the Gypsies history is also the history of their refusal to be proletarianised’ (Judith Okely The Traveller-Gypsies), but  Gypsies could also be classified as ‘petty-bourgeois’ under the Marxist definition as they work independently yet are ‘dependent on a wider economy within which they circulate supplying goods, services and occasional labour’ (Okely). It is also important to point out that 'Gypsies enter the market without the protections afforded non-Gypsies, often working in the alternative economy in casual employment' (Brian Belton, Questioning Gypsy Identity: Ethnic Narratives in Britain).

Oceania, Roman, and Sophie later face eviction from their land with bulldozers at the gate which evokes the tribulations of the Irish Traveller community at Dale Farm in Essex who had lived there from the 1980s to the 2011 eviction by bailiffs and riot police. The Dale Farm eviction took place at the same time as capitalist media stereotyping and misrepresentation of the Romani and the Irish Traveller community in 'reality' programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. This prompted  Billy Welch, spokesman for the Romani to say 'While Channel 4 should be praised for at least differentiating between Irish Travellers and Romani Gypsies, the first three episodes have in fact focused exclusively on Irish Travellers and their traditions: They called the show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and you've yet to see a Romani Gypsy in it' (Guardian, 7 February 2011).

Allum's play is defiant and proud with Oceania declaring 'the Romani Nation won't bend or break.' The Romani people need their strength to combat the hostility of capitalist society; at the 2012 Tory Party conference, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles demonised Romani and Traveller communities when he vowed to 'stop caravans in their tracks' (Guardian, 12 October 2012). In August 2013 Pickles declared 'I want all councils to be ready to take action straightaway to stop illegal camps and unauthorised sites' (Inside Housing, 9 August 2013). This follows the scrapping of diversity and equality guidance so that Romani and Travellers can be persecuted. It has been identified that 'there is a recognised national shortage of legal pitches for Gypsies and Travellers' (Inside Housing, 9 August 2013).

Our Big Land is clearly opportune, what with Pickles declaring war on the Romani, and also the Tory government and UKIP opposition to eastern European (aka Romani) immigration. And, in essence, the persecution of the Romani is 'camouflaging the failures of capitalism, particularly in times of economic slump, by seeking out scapegoats' (Socialist Standard, January 2014).
Steve Clayton

The Same Story (1971)

Book Review from the September 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

The English and Immigration. By John A. Garrard. Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations. £3.25

It is well within living memory that the Fascists were ranting on street corners about the threat to our culture, our prosperity, our health, posed not by coloured immigrants but by Jews. They told lurid stories about creeping Jewish control of the country; about their dirty habits; about their sexual prowess. Workers who were beaten, confused and angry at what capitalism was doing to them were easy game for this type of malicious propaganda. They were looking for a scapegoat; they found it in the Jew, as their children find it now in the coloured immigrant.

The influx of Jews fleeing from persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe between 1870 and 1914 was one of the two major movements into this country during the past 75 years. The other, of course, was the coming of the Commonwealth immigrants after 1948. Inevitably there are similarities between the two, between the reasons for them, the reactions they aroused and the official way of dealing with the situation.

In the case of the Jews, the great majority went into trades which were experiencing a belated conversion from domestic to factory production—bootmaking, tailoring, cabinet making. The immigrants provided a handy pool of labour to carry over the transition and were subjected to the infamous sweating system.

One trade union leader complained in 1894 that the Jews worked for fifteen hours a day " . . . on cold coffee and bread and cheese . . . " By a process of "reasoning" which we are by now familiar with, popular prejudice quickly arrived at the conclusion that, as the Jews tended to work in sweated trades, they must have originated them. The truth—that sweating was practised in many trades which had scarcely heard of immigration—went almost unnoticed in the hysteria of prejudice.

The official answer to this was the Aliens Act of 1905, which was guillotined through Parliament and celebrated by the Bethnal Green Tories with a great firework display. A year later the Liberals were in power and they tended to emasculate the Act—unlike the Labour government of 1964 which, while paying lip service to international brotherhood, outdid its Tory predecessor in racist legislation.

John Garrard's is a well researched, very readable, book which makes our case — that the prejudices of capitalism do not change and are not to be changed by the lawmakers. Here, for example, is a judge speaking in 1903, in sentiments which might come from a Powellite today:
 . . . we have the riff raff of the whole world pitchforked into this country, and we spend days and days at the Court every session trying these disreputable foreigners.
Not that those who claimed to be socialists were exempt from the charge of prejudice. Garrard has a passage on alien immigration and the new left which illuminates the confusion and racism among the unions and the "labour" movement. The TUCs of 1893, 1894 and 1895 passed resolutions against the landing of "pauper aliens", which was as nice a way of avoiding saying what they meant as the currently fashionable support for immigration control on the grounds that England is overcrowded.

If the prejudice of capitalism remain unchanged this is because the system does not alter basically. Nor do its problems, nor the confused and ignorant attempts at dealing with them.

Love of Money under attack (1995)

Theatre Review from the October 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Volpone, Olivier Theatre

Playwrights of yesteryear who were anxious to pillory social attitudes and beliefs had to handle their criticisms carefully.

In 1597 Ben Jonson was imprisoned for three months for taking part in the "lewd and seditious" comedy The Isle of Dogs. Jonson clearly learnt his lesson. In his comic masterpieces, Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Volpone—written at the turn of the century—his barbs and brickbats were more subtle if nonetheless devastating for all that.

Jonson believed that it was "the office of the comic poet to imitate justice and instruct in life", and in Volpone, currently in repertoire in an exhilarating production at the National Theatre, his target is described in the programme as "the immorality if nascent (emergent) capitalism". Jonson gives animal names to many of his characters—most of whom are prepared to lie, cheat and manipulate in order to further their interests—and their brutish behaviour starkly illustrates the depths to which humanity can plummet when self-interest and competition reign supreme.

Although it might seem superficially that love of money is under attack, it is very clear that Jonson is concerned with a more substantial target: beliefs and behaviours which are characteristic of capitalism and which, if their nature, make money the supreme goal. J. M. Keynes offers the revealing opinion that:
"The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease."
Keynes seems unaware that the love of money, as a token for capital, is the engine which drives society. To criticise people in a capitalist society for wanting money seems akin to complaining that carnivores like, and at the extreme will kill for, meat. Jonson understood this even if Keynes didn't, but he is too discrete to say so directly. When a dramatist has been imprisoned for giving voice to his opinions it is perhaps understandable if, subsequently, he leaves it to the audience to read between the lines.

Socialists with an evening to spare will enjoy Jonson's trenchant observations, the marvellous playing of a wonderful cast, and a production which drives the action forward at a helter-skelter pace across the wide expanses of the Olivier stage.
Michael Gill 

Especially the male of the species (1996)

Book Review from the November 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas (AK Press £3.50)

Valerie Solanas, the rebellious radical feminist who attempted to shoot Andy Warhol dead in 1968, wrote the SCUM Manifesto as a declaration of war on the male sex and all she claimed it stands for. According to Solanas, war, authority, government, the market economy, sexual abuse of children and mental illness were all created by - and perpetuated by - the male of the human species. Solanas contended that:
"Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civi-minded, responsible thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex".
It is, of course, gratifying that someone else should have independently come to some of the same conclusions as us about the necessity of destroying capitalism and its poisonous relationships, but Solanas other ideas - indeed her central contentions - about the male sex only serve to discredit her opposition to the market economy and money.

Her grotesque anti-male sexism - she called men a "walking abortion" who would "wade nostril-deep through a pile of vomit at a chance of achieving sexual gratification" was almost certainly more a product of her own abusive childhood and early sexual relationships than a rounded and considered comment on the intricate nature of bourgeois society and the human attitudes it engenders.

The SCUM Manifesto, in fact, is a nicely strung-together sequence of provocative phrases and slogans, containing wild assertions which are at no time backed up by augmentation or evidence. As such, it has probably brought little but derision to advocates of the moneyless society, and for that reason it's republication cannot be entirely welcomed.