Monday, February 2, 2015

Mutineers (2015)

Book Review from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Mutinous Swine'. Past Tense, 2014

This adapted reprint from John Taylor Caldwell’s biography of Guy Aldred Come Dungeons Dark records the story of the resistance of the conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison towards the end of the First World War. Thankfully, it is largely devoid of Caldwell’s obsessive hero worship of the disputatious and divisive Aldred, focusing instead on the industrial unionist and ex-SPGBer RM Fox. It is, however, still marred in places by Caldwell’s Strange Misuse of Capital Letters. If the point of the pamphlet is to demonstrate the efficacy of direct action, the prisoners seeking by means such as hunger strikes and refusal to obey prison regulations to obtain concessions, it fails signally. Although direct action can be of use in achieving limited objectives, the results here were minor to say the least, redress being only obtained by the post-war amnesty. Nonetheless, the pamphlet is a good read, as indeed are most publications of the group, and provides a valuable antidote to the 1914-18 blood-and-mud remix currently peddled elsewhere.

A conceited Fabian (1990)

Book Review from the June 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialism of Bernard Shaw by Harry Morrison, McFarland, Box 611, Jefferson, NC, USA, 1989.

Some readers may be surprised by the title, particularly if they realise that at no time in his long life did Shaw seem to have grasped the concept of socialism as a classless, moneyless society which has been the object of the Socialist Party throughout its existence. In this work the author, although a lifelong socialist himself, has used the word socialism in a wider sense to include individuals and ideas popularly believed to be socialist.

Recalling that Shaw's involvement in politics began over a hundred years ago, to talk of his "socialism" has a justification which would be absent in the case of those putting forward similar views today. Despite his lack of consistency, and what the author calls "extreme volubility to the point of literary diarrhoea", Shaw was often, through his plays and other works, an effective propagandist against the cruelties and absurdities of the capitalist system. Also, at least in Shaw's earlier years, the panaceas of the left, such as nationalisation, could not be answered convincingly by contrary example, unlike today. Thus most of those who advocated short cuts to socialism were perfectly sincere, had a good understanding of the nature of capitalism, and were often effective propagandists against it. Even Engels, though realising that state capitalism remained capitalism, wrote in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific of the state becoming "the national capitalist", following which the capitalist relationship would "topple over." 

What comes out clearly from this book is Shaw's own conceit, his total inability to accept that the so-called "common working man" could play a constructive part in the establishment and operation of the future society. This inevitably led him to take up a similar position to Lenin who, as is well known to our regular readers, believed that the working class could not rise above a trade union level of consciousness. This trait was shared by many of Shaw's associates in the early days of the Fabian Society, including Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Shaw's elitism led him in due course to support, with some enthusiasm, dictatorships in Russia (after initial doubts, he and the Webbs were "converted" on a visit in 1931), Italy and Germany. This concurrent admiration for both Fascist and "Communist" tyranny in fact showed perfect consistency. This point is emphasised by the details given of Mussolini's years in the so-called Socialist Party of Italy. Shaw's own elitism led him to admire the operation of dictatorships in which the chosen few organise the many and heaven help those foolish enough to kick against the pricks. Shaw did not go so far as to support the Holocaust, but he did support the practice by dictatorships of liquidating active political opponents, as for instance in the preface to his play On the Rocks.

The author tries to determine how much Shaw absorbed of Marx's writings from his personal reading of them. Clearly something stuck, but Shaw was always a hedger of bets. He also appears to have lacked the degree of application required to master Marxist theory. However the main obstacle was again Shaw's conceit, which made it impossible for him to accept the democratic concept that all able-bodied citizens can and must take hold of society and shape it in their own interests.

The last chapters of this readable book deal with Shaw's views on religion, Darwinism and patriotism, followed by the relationship between Marxism, Fabianism and Shaw's views. The question is posed as to whether Shaw was an echo or caricature of Marx. We won't spoil the game by giving the answer, but can offer no prizes for a successful guess.

In an Appendix two articles are reprinted from the pen of Socialist Party member Clifford Allen, these having appeared in the Western Socialist in 1943. The first replies to a review by Shaw of a new edition of Marx's selected works, this review having been published in the Daily Herald that year. The second answers a letter written by Shaw to the Western Socialist in reply to Allen. In this letter, reprinted on pp. 70-71 of this book, Shaw unwittingly summed up the political futility of his long life.
E. C. Edge

World Socialism (2003)

From the December 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are two main reasons why socialism has now to be thought of, and in the future will be organised, on a world scale. First, capitalism is a world system, so the system that will replace it will have to be on a similar scale. Second, any attempt to set up socialism in one country only is doomed to failure.

To elaborate a bit on those reasons, it is clear that capitalism is increasingly a world society. Although it began some five or six centuries ago in a few west European countries, it had already spread in Marx's time around a large part of the globe. Today there is hardly anywhere in the world that is untouched by the profit system. There are vestiges of feudalism, slavery and even tribal society in some places – these may survive (at least in their touristic aspects) for a while. But they are insignificant in terms of power relationships and dominant ideas.

The idea of socialism in one country has been put forward as a more achievable aim than the admittedly more ambitious project of socialism on a world scale. With such a small number of socialists up against the dominant structures and ideas of capitalism, why not concentrate them in one area and give them a better chance of success in at least that area? If capitalism were not such a well-integrated world system, with its ruling-class beneficiaries determined to defend it and its working-class supporters as yet unwilling to consider any alternative, then something could be said for “socialism in one country”. But that slogan is really no more than a call for reform – attack the tiger one claw at a time and perhaps it will succumb.

Given this, socialists around the world need to communicate with each other and exchange information and ideas about how best to develop the socialist project.
Since the first Socialist Party was established in Britain a hundred years ago, the development of communications technology has proceeded apace. This development has been primarily in the interests of capital – for war and business purposes. But it also enables socialists around the world to be in better touch with each other. A century ago airmail was unknown and international telephones a primitive and expensive luxury. Today socialists are starting to use new communications technology for exchanging ideas.

But the kind of world socialist movement that is needed in the short term is very different from what will be evolved in the longer term. In the longer term it will no longer be just a question of communicating ideas but of an international political organisation linking large-scale socialist parties from all parts of the world, a revival, on a socialist basis (and with a more suitable title), of the International Working Men's Association of Marx's day.
Stan Parker