Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Violence breeds violence (1966)

From the October 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

No single incident could capture the absurd tragedy of Capitalist society more than the recent killing of three London policemen in Braybrook Street, Shepherds Bush. In one moment was expressed all its frustration, waste, violence and inequalities. To an onlooker whose mind was not steeped in the attitudes of propertied society, the whole event would have been quite incomprehensible if not completely lunatic. First of all there was sudden death in the streets of the city, cruel and vindictive murder, the instant production of a litter of corpses. This was followed swiftly by the most intense police enquiries that produced the oddest of spectacles, for example, 75 tall uniformed men in a long line, on hands and knees fingering through the grass for little metal objects. Later there came the ugly aftermath of hundreds of grim-faced detectives, revolver in hand, staggering through the foliage of Epping Forest, hunting for a man. What was their mission? If need be to kill him, but at least to lock him for the rest of his life. Here undoubtedly was waste, frustration and violence; and the background of it all was formed by the inequalities of capitalist society.

It was a tragedy; killings always are, and so are the reprisals of the state taken in the name of so-called law and order. But the added tragedy of the whole affair will be the little that society will learn from it. The hang 'em and flog 'em brigade will have an outing, but in the meantime, important questions will probably remain unanswered.

Unless we are educated otherwise, it is an almost automatic response to entirely blame some individual for crimes. It is a response which follows from the prejudices of a fragmented individualistic society. It follows also from the religious idea that during their lives men make a conscious decision to become either good or evil. It also serves as a convenient scapegoat, which divests ourselves of personal involvement, to find some individual upon whom we can heap all guilt.

If our explanation of the incident stops at finding three men guilty and we satisfy ourselves that our duty has been done by applying a suitable punishment, then we shall be back where we were before the killings occurred, except, of course, that three policemen will be dead and other men will probably spend the rest of their lives in prison. We shall not only have done nothing to prevent this kind of violence occurring, but by failing to face up to all the factors involved, we ensure that it will happen again. When it comes to those acts of violence that meet with disapproval, where does the responsibility begin and where does it end? It is not just that capitalism has no consistent basis from which it can condemn violence; it is a society that constantly generates violence. Furthermore there can be no escaping the fact the code of honesty and the sanctity of private property expresses the material interests of men who have got everything—wealth, power and privilege. Thus the attempt to uphold morality under capitalism breaks up into cynicism.

It is not uncommon for an environment that is completely sterile of human warmth and love to produce psychopathic individuals with an acute tendency to violence. Some individuals whose abandonment dates from birth, never have the opportunity to learn by experience that all human relationships should exist at some level of mutual regard and affection. Hence their responses to other human beings are completely numbed. Such persons usually have suffered the worst ravages of an inhospitable background of ignorance, poverty and emotional insecurity.

It is not yet known if it is this kind of individual involved in the Braybrook Street killings. Whether it is or not, society does little to help such people. Apart from maintaining at its almost degenerate extreme the kind of conditions that produce such psychopaths, Capitalism presents them with a bewildering set of hypocritical and contradictory values. They are set a very fine dividing line between violence which is socially approved and violence which is penalised. It must be remembered that one of the suspects was trained in the jungle warfare and skilled as a sniper in the Malayan campaign against guerillas, a campaign where the torture of prisoners was common procedure.

A glance at the photograph in The Guardian of the Gorbals tenement where another of the suspects was arrested revealed instantly the vile and ugly surroundings which is presumably supposed to bring out the best in people. This in a society which glamourises wealth and comfort and gives people little opportunity to fight their way out of the prison of such poverty, short of crime.

We are not confronted then by a conflict of good men and bad men. We are not concerned with men who at one point in time, faced with the choice of either leading useful lives or becoming violent criminals, made a conscious decision to become anti-social. No individual exists in a social vacuum. His attitudes and actions must always be related to the whole social background, and the history of an individual's personal circumstances.

Socialists do not excuse all anti-social human actions on grounds of "the system", but we hope that we add to our condemnation a knowledge of all the existing social forces at work to produce given results. This is necessary because without it, condemnation is negative and without purpose. In a sense, there is a curious anti-ethical unity between the violent killer and those who condemn him out of hand. It is all very well to go round with the collection box for the widows' fund, but sympathy and a burning sense of outrage is made redundant when it is accompanied by a shallow hatred for the killer or demands for the return of hanging and flogging. All we are left with is continued violence at one moment disapproved and then inverted to become upheld. In the long run it feeds off itself.

The useful lesson is that capitalism basically through its inherent privilege and underprivilege and its inability to generate a sincere human relationships produces on the one hand crime and violence and on the other its repressive counterpart—Borstals, prisons, etc. The sufferings and misery of men in prisons year in and year out in defence of property interests is no less repugnant to Socialists than the actions of violent criminals.

The plain fact is that capitalism cannot work without prisons, and that some men will remain sufficiently undeterred by their horror to engage in crime, violent or otherwise.
Pieter Lawrence

The Question. (1911)

From the March 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is a Labour man? He who has sold
His class and their Cause in the shambles of Gold,
For pelf, and a place in the council of Greed,
Weaving snares for those dupes Want and Ignorance breed,
Where the offspring of Toil, from the cot to the grave,
Are consigned to the mart of the modern wage-slave. 
Here "organised Labour" support and applaud
The Thugs of all progress, Cant, Falsehood and Fraud;
And, like autumn leaves borne on the blast of the storm,
They are whirled in the vortex of futile reform.
Against the class currents they struggle in vain,
Till they sink, where no trace of their efforts remain. 
When Knowledge imparts to the people her power.
Slavish fear shall depart from their hearts in that hour;
And thrusting aside tyrant forms of the past,
Revolution shall crown them with glory at last.
The Labour pest, hurled from its seat of ill-fame,
Shall be hailed a political relic of shame.
Then time in its fulness will give Freedom birth,
When the Socialist era shall gladden the earth.
F. G. Thompson.

Remembering the Past (2004)

From the May 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Next month will be the centenary of the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. To mark this, the Socialist Standard will be expanded to 48 pages (the price will remain the same), with articles about the activities of the Socialist Party over the decades and how others have seen these as well as on our specific contributions to the development of socialist theory. In anticipation, we publish below some of the contributions we have received.
Glasgow Branch

To say times were hard when Glasgow branch was formed in 1924 would be a serious understatement. The branch consisted of working men, only some of whom had jobs, and money was so scarce that in the early days branch meetings were sometimes held in the open because members couldn’t afford to rent a hall.

If funds were lacking then energy and commitment were not, so members threw themselves into making the party known in the city. John Higgins, the first branch secretary, was particularly effective at this and his meetings Glasgow Green gave many Glaswegians their first introduction to the party’s case.

To branch members knowledge meant everything and they were determined to have as much of it as they could, so classes on Marxist theory, logic, etc, were an essential feature, but the main activity was always indoor and, especially, outdoor meetings. Glasgow branch always had a reputation for having first-class speakers and even our opponents, whatever else they thought of us, conceded that.

Two outstanding examples of this were Alex Shaw and Tony Mulheron. Shaw was an old-time street corner orator with an ability to have his audiences in stitches – his lampooning of some of Glasgow’s left-wing folk heroes, especially the “Red Clydesiders”, was hilarious. Mulheron, by contrast, was in his element on the indoor platform. Tony was extremely articulate and had a witty, flamboyant speaking style that could turn even the driest-sounding theoretical subject into an entertainment.

During the war activities were stepped up. Ever more meetings were held and new, younger speakers came forward. The wartime scene was brightened by visits from London speakers taking a break from the Blitz and, later on, doodlebugs and V2 rockets.

After “peace” was declared the momentum was maintained and the branch’s biggest ever audiences attended meetings at the St. Andrew’s Halls and the Cosmo cinema. Membership increased and the branch even acquired its own premises. In 1949 a second branch was formed in the city and this lasted until 1961.

In the late 1950s an influx of younger members revitalised activities, and in the 1960s candidates were fielded in three parliamentary and five municipal elections. More outdoor speaking stances were opened and there were public debates aplenty with Labourites, Leninists and others.

Added to all this was a winter programme of Sunday evening indoor meetings which ran from October to April and continued for many years. This meant that members had to wrack their brains to come up with titles for around 30 meetings every winter!

Today the old propaganda methods, which were the branch’s strength, are all but finished. People will no longer come to indoor meetings or stop and listen to those held outdoors, and this means that the branch has had to adapt to the new situation. Now we organize day schools, discussion groups, hand out leaflets at demos, provide speakers and other assistance for party activities elsewhere in the country etc.

Glasgow branch has for eighty years played its part in the party’s activities. Its members have, in the past, given generously of their time, effort and abilities, and today’s members, despite very different and difficult conditions, strive to maintain this record.

Memories of Camberwell Branch

At the end of World War II and a landslide victory for the Labour Party, there was a greater public interest in politics. The Communist Party had a large number of members as a result of pro-Russia sentiment at the end of the war. During this period the Camberwell Branch was formed with about a dozen members. A decent room was hired from the Labour Party in Camberwell. The local MP Freda Corbett used to enter the room apologising for disturbing the meeting. She was unaware of the fact that we were not the Labour Party. When the SPGB contested Paddington North in 1945, realising we were not the Labour Party we were given notice to quit.

The branch held meetings on Sundays at East Street, Walworth market place. These took place at 12 o’clock midday. The local stall-holders regarded our arrival with suspicion and puzzlement. They could not figure out what was in it for us. However, when we sold Party literature and took collections they considered we were getting the proceeds.

The meetings were successful. Only one meeting could be held at a time because of Home Office regulations. The Communist Party who, locally, had many more members were competing with us for the pitch and on one or two occasions they succeeded. The Camberwell Branch forced a vote to get to the meeting site earlier in order to “book the pitch”. This resulted in us getting there at one o’clock in the morning, so the pitch could be occupied. The Communist Party stopped competing and disappeared from East Street for many months.

A handful of dedicated socialists saw off an organisation with several hundred local members. The Communist Party today is virtually non-existent . . . The Socialist Party is still alive.


Since the beginning of the 1970s there have been socialists in Sweden, sharing the ideas of the World Socialist Movement. For a number of years some of them produced a journal, Världssocialism (World Socialism). Many of the articles in it were translations from the Socialist Standard.

After several years of informal work with Världssocialism and other socialist activities a handful of socialists living in Uppsala and Stockholm decided to organise themselves formally as Världssocialistiska Gruppen (the World Socialist Group). At its first meeting in Uppsala on Saturday 20 January 1979 the group adopted a slightly modified version of the Object and Declaration of Principles of the Companion Parties of Socialism. The modifications had to do with the fact that the Group was not a political party, but had as its object to work for the formation of a Socialist Party in Sweden.

The work of the Group centred on the production of a series of pamphlets called Världssocialistiska häften. The first of these booklets was a translation of the SPGB-pamphlet Questions of the Day. Other issues of Världssocialistiska häften dealt with Soviet state capitalism, capitalism and war, Marxism 100 years after Marx´ death, and how life is in capitalism and can be in socialism.

Most of the members and a few sympathizers were in their twenties when the group was formed. After a few years, as some of them established families or got jobs in other places -- and one or two lost interest in socialism altogether - it became increasingly difficult to maintain organised activities. During the past ten years or so Världssocialistiska Gruppen, although not formally dissolved, has not carried out any organised activities. Individual members read the Socialist Standard and sometimes see each other.

Hopefully there are people in Sweden who in the not too distant future will find that they agree with the object and principles of the World Socialist Movement and then take action in order to reawaken the group. To achieve its object, the establishment of a Socialist Party in Sweden, will be a tiny task compared with bringing about the object of such a party.
Åke Spross, Uppsala, Sweden

Socialist jailed in Sweden - "Times" uninterested (1973)

From the February 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

We publish below a copy of a letter sent to the Editor of The Times but not published.

Presumably it was the unexpectedness of the suggestion in the Freedom House study that civil rights are at risk in Sweden that led you to headline (2/1/73) this aspect of Peter Strafford's report from New York. It comes as no surprise to us. At this very moment our comrade Ake Spross, who shares our stand against all war whether classed as national defence or imperialist aggression, is in prison for refusing to join the army of a country much publicised as a haven for G.I.'s objections to their government's current war. His incarceration may be less harsh in other countries but the very efficiency of Swedish state-capitalism will ensure that upon release employment prospects in his chosen field will be considerably diminished.  Sweden as a refuge evidently does not extend to the Socialist objectors to service in her own forces.
Yours truly,
K. Knight,

2 January 1973                                                                                           General Secretary
Socialist Party of Great Britain

Someone else's fantasy (1987)

Film Review from the December 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rita, Sue and Bob Too! generated considerable local interest in Bradford where I saw the film. It was, after all, written by local dramatist Andrea Dunbar and set in and around Bradford's own Buttershaw estate. What I had expected was cinema vérité along the lines of Letter to Brezhnev - a witty, honest, warts-and-all look at working-class life in Kirkby. The two films do share some common features: both are concerned with two girls, loud-mouthed and looking for escape. In Letter to Brezhnev it was the kind of escape that comes when work ends and "life" begins; getting dressed up, night-clubbing and, ultimately, for one of them, "romance" with a Russian sailor and the irony of "escape" to a country that, according to western propaganda, most people want to escape from.

Rita and Sue (Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes), by contrast, are schoolgirls seeking to escape from the deprived conditions of a rundown estate where they are variously subjected to drunken fatehrs, family violence and dismantled motorcycles in the kitchen (the contemporary equivalent of the "coal in the bath: stereotype of working-class life?). Their escape, at first, consists in little more than baby-sitting in a posh house where they can not only enjoy the home comforts on offer but get paid for it as well.

However the baby-sitting quickly degenerates into an excuse for indulging someone else's fantasy (or so it seems) of the over-sexed older man and two insatiable under-aged girls. He is Bob (George Costigan) whose children Rita and Sue mind while he is out with his wife. While driving the girls home he makes a detour to take in a quick one (or, in this case, two) on the way. This sexual encounter is, we are supposed to believe, such an ecstatic experience for all concerned that the girls throw caution to the wind and take every opportunity to take turns at being first. If this sounds like the kind of sexual fantasy peddled by soft-porn newspapers, then Bob's wife is presented in equally hackneyed form as the reason for his peccadiloes—hysterical, uptight and disinterested in sex.

She discovers that hubby is screwing the babysitters, takes the kids and leaves him. Bob promptly installs Rita (or was it Sue)) who is by now pregnant, as his new housekeeper in the matrimonial home. At this point the story becomes as rapid as Bob's couplings. Sue, furious at what she sees as her best mate's betrayal, takes up with a romantically inclined Pakistani and quickly moves into an unromantic back-to-back with him and his sister's family. Rita has a miscarriage and Sue visits her in hospital. Bob gives her a lift home. They are seen by the Pakistani boyfriend who becomes jealous and violent. Sue kicks him in the balls and leaves him to return to the ménage à trois with Bob and Sue, in what we are supposed to see as a happy ending.

The film purports to be "progressive" although it's difficult to see why. It uses a number of pernicious stereotypes of working-class people—drunken, amoral, depraved—while at the same time the only too real squalor, deprivation and poverty of life at the bottom of the heap is portrayed as something that can be escaped from through sex. Now, it may well be the case that for some people some of the time, sex is a refuge from the harsh reality of capitalism. It is certainly "sold" to us in that way. But the depiction of sex in this film, while depressingly realistic, no doubt (we were treated to an extended lecture on condoms which would probably qualify as an AIDS commercial), was not an answer but very much part of the problem.
Janie Percy-Smith 

Letter From Europe: Communists in Government (1981)

The Letter From Europe Column from the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

After the zig . . . the zag. After denouncing for the past three years or so years Francois Mitterrand and his PS as reformists, who simply wanted to "manage the crisis" and run capitalism, the French Communist Party (PC) now has four Ministers in the government formed by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, following the sweeping PS victory in the June General Elections.

The PC will now itself be participating in the government of capitalism. Not for the first time though, since it also had Ministers from 1944 to 1947. At the time PC leaders toured the country urging workers to work harder and denouncing strikes as a "weapon of the trusts". It was probably partly in the hope that they will again do this that Mitterrand decided to admit them to his government (he didn't have to, since his party has an absolute majority in the National Assembly.)

In this respect there was a significant phrase in the agreement signed in the night of 22/3 June between the PS and the PC and which paved the way for the appointment of the PC Ministers. After stating that the two parties pledged themselves to apply Mitterrand's election programme with "flawless solidarity" at government level, it went on to state they would do the same at regional and local level and "in the enterprises". In other words, the PC cells in the factories are also committed to applying and defending the policies of the PS-PC government. Since its cells in the factories are the means by which the PC controls the main trade union federation, the CGT, in effect this organisation too will tend to become, in Lenin's contemptuous phrase describing his idea of the role of trade unions under the Bolsheviks, a "transmission belt" for the PS-PC government. Of course this won't be easy to implement and in the long run the workers will spontaneously kick against it, but once again it shows how being linked to a political party weakens the effectiveness of trade unions in the defence of their members' wages and conditions.

This pledge is also contrary to what the PC was saying right up to the first round of the presidential elections on 26 April, that "change" could only be imposed by the struggle of the workers and not left to a PS President. We could quote many passages to this effect from Charles Fiterman, the No. 2 in the PC hierarchy and now Minister of Transport. For instance, in Avancees No 5, March 1981), after warning against giving a blank cheque to Mitterrand and as a miracle man ("homme providentiel"), he wrote that the PC "calls on the workers not to delegate their responsibilities, but to struggle to impose change". It was certainly because the PC had employed such language that the PS used its immensely superior bargaining position after the General Election to impose the insertion of this reference to solidarity "in the enterprises" on the PC. Has the PC sincerely accepted this? We doubt it (people who change their line so often and so rapidly just can't be sincere), but then that's not our problem.

Reformist Euphoria
At the moment it is all euphoria in trade union circles and a number of measure have improved, for the time being at least, the situation of many workers. The minimum wage, family allowances, pensions, rent allowances have all been increased. The big question, however, is: will it last? Will this increase in workers' purchasing power be sustained or will it be eaten up by rising prices or taken away by austerity?

Unlike the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in Germany, the PS in France has never really had any experience of governing capitalism, at least not on its own. This is why reformist illusions about the ability of the government to make the economy work in the interests of ordinary people are so strongly entrenched in the PS, at all levels including Ministers.

Take their economic thinking. It is simple and apparently logical: the way out of the crisis is to give workers more money to spend; their purchases will then stimulate production so starting off the process of recovery. This underconsumptionist view of the cause and way out of the crisis is shared by the PC, but is quite mistaken and a policy based upon it can only lead to one result: increased inflation while the crisis, which is a world crisis, continues.

The Minister of Finance, Jacques Delors (who had some experience of governing capitalism when he was adviser to a Gaullist Prime Minster between 1969 and 1972) understands a little more how capitalism works than most of his colleagues (relatively speaking that is, since although not a crude underconsumptionist he is still a Keynsian). He defends the new government's policy of increasing popular consumption, not as a way out of the crisis but as an anticipation of the recovery he sees coming in the world economy: "we are wanting to anticipate, but in a reasonable way, the recovery of the economy at world level" (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1 June).
The reflation measures already taken by the Government . . .  are a limited anticipation of the recovery of the world economy which the experts foresee for the end of this year or the beginning og the next. (The Times 24 June).
In other words, he at least recognises that the crisis in France is not caused by internal underconsumption (and so cannot be solved by increasing purchasing power) but that it is part of the general world capitalist crisis. This was in fact what ex-President Giscard and his Prime Minister Barre tried to explain during the presidential election campaign, but they weren't able to convince people. PS (and PC) propaganda to the effect that Barre deliberately chose to keep the crisis and unemployment going because they were heartless men was more successful. Now—poetic justice perhaps—they in turn have been given a chance to run capitalism in a crisis. They will discover that the policy a government pursues is not a question of the feelings or motives of its members—of being concerned—but of what the economic situation permits, and dictates.

Riding for a Fall
If Delors is proved wrong in his prediction/hope that the recovery in the world economy will begin within a year, where will the government be then?  Unemployment will not have been reduced (except by converting some of the into civil servants) but inflation will have increased. The government has proclaimed that its social reform measures will not be financed by the printing press, but partly by taxing the rich and partly from the extra tax and social security contributions that would result from the increased employment it hopes its policies will bring.

If unemployment remains at a high level, as it inevitably will of the world economy doesn't recover, they will be faced with a gaping budgetary deficit. They will then have a choice: cut back on the social reform measures or have recourse to the printing press. If other reformist governments who want to appear friendly to the trade unions are anything to go by, they will choose the latter. The resulting inflation will not only cut the value of the social benefits but also put up French export prices and make French goods less competitive on the world market, so aggravating the crisis and undermining the Franc.

This is the most likely result of the new PS-PC government's current policy. It will fail completely and within a year or so they will be faced with growing working class discontent over persisting unemployment and rising prices which they will not be able to satisfy, since the continuing crisis will force them to recognise that under capitalism priority must be given to profits and profit-making rather than to social reforms and popular consumption.

The crunch will then come and they will be forced, like all governments of capitalism sooner or later, to take openly anti-working class measures. The question will then be to see how the PC acts—will it swallow the austerity measures in the name of "flawless solidarity" or will Fitterman and his colleagues resign? This will be a problem not only for the PC Ministers but also for those from CRES wing of the PS, including its leader Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Minister for Research, whose economic analysis is very close to that of the PC and who declared in a policy statement submitted to the 1977 PS Congress:
The Left must not allow itself to be caught in the cog-wheels of a supposed good management of capitalism, precisely when this problem has become insoluble. It must at the same time avoid letting itself become dragged into the spiral of inflation and external deficit which leads to subservience to international money-lenders and inevitably to the application of a policy of austerity, in short to a return in strength of the Right (Ceres par luimeme, p. 159. Our translation).
Since in fact there is no chance of the CERES/PC policy of a native French state capitalism behind tariff walls being adopted (which of course is no solution either), this is precisely what will happen. Will Chevenement and the others then resign or will they, like Tony Benn under Wilson and Callaghan, find some excuse for staying on?

If, on the other hand, by a stroke of luck, Delors' gamble comes off and the world economy does not recover within the next year this would not disprove the socialist case against reformism, even if Delors himself went down in French history as an economic wizard! In fact, it would not have been the policy of the PS-PC government that caused the recovery, but capitalism at world level as it naturally moved on from the crisis and slump stage, a process over which neither the French nor any other government has any control and which would have come about quite independently of their actions.
Adam Buick (Luxemburg)