Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Trial" and "Desperate Hours" (1956)

Film Reviews from the March 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

These two films are both thrillers, both are technically excellent, and in both the acting is first-class. They part company, however, in that Desperate Hours sets out merely to entertain, whereas Trial moralises about American law and justice, and about the corruptness of the Communist party. The moralising is rather tortuous, for apparently the film-makers have tried to demonstrate that although the American legal system is harmful and corrupt, the corruptness and ruthlessness of the Communist party is even worse, and that American democracy and freedom always triumph on the end, anyway.

The story is set in a small township in Idaho, where there is a Mexican minority. A young white girl dies of heart-failure while with a Mexican boy on a beach, and the boy is charged with murder on the legal principle that if someone causes a death while committing a felony, then he or she is guilty of murder (the alleged felony in this case being indecent assault).

The hero of the story is an idealistic law lecturer (Glenn Ford) who, threatened with expulsion from the University unless he obtains some first-hand legal experience, is taken under the wing of an unscrupulous Communist lawyer (Arthur Kennedy). The boy's trial becomes a matter of political capital for both the prosecutors and the Communist party, both of whom decide that the boy must die, the first because public opinion demands it, and the other because they need a martyr for their political ends. The tension of the film is admirably built up and the trial scenes are extremely effective, but unfortunately, the ideological inconsistencies of the film make it almost implausible. The film tries to lead one to the conclusion that there is always someone to protect American justice and democracy (although why it should be necessary to protect it is not made clear) and in this case it is left entirely to the young idealist to find a legal loophole after the boy has been found guilty. Apparently this vindicates the crooked politicians and lawyers and American justice generally and, to point the moral of the story, the Communist lawyer gets 30 days in jail for contempt. However, this isn't really good enough for it requires only a moment's thought to appreciate that this situation can rarely arise, of at all, so far as the Communist party is concerned, whereas the occasions when politicians and policemen need a conviction to safeguard their office, must be very common.

The picture that is given of American legal methods is both convincing and disturbing, and the account of how money is raised for "fighting funds" and the like is almost horrifying. In this kind of detail the film is extremely good, but when it ventures out into the realms of politics and morals, it becomes bogged down. The Communist party, of course, gets scathing treatment, and to a certain extent this is justified by their "tactics" but I do not think that this film does give an accurate picture of the way in which the American Communists behave. In particular, the speech of the girl (Dorothy McGuire) in which she recounts how she became caught up in the Communist party, and her subsequent disillusionment, is quite unconvincing and almost laughable.

It may well be that the makers of this film considered that their implied criticisms of American law and justice would be made more acceptable to the film-going public by the addition of the anti-Communist propaganda and the melodramatic ending, but if so, they have defeated their object, because the film gives the satisfying impression that justice has been done, and all is well with America, after all. What the film does not do, of course, is to show the cause of the corruption and the basis of the laws that are enforced, i.e. the protection of private property. But that is rather too much to expect from Hollywood.

Desperate Hours is also a thriller, but this time in the more conventional sense. It has no political axe to grind or moral in the way that Trial has, although it also gives a disturbing insight into American police methods. It is a straightforward story of three escaped convicts who find an ideal hideout by terrorising a household and holding the wife and young son hostage while the other members of the family are forced to carry on their normal lives. Here again the tension is well built up, and the principals (Humphrey Bogart as the leader of the three convicts and Fredric March as the father of the family) give splendid performances.

Surprisingly enough, it is the very fact that there is no social moral to the story that gives this film its biggest advantage over Trial. There is no sermonising and the film sets out merely to entertain, and it certainly fulfils this object as well as any thriller can. The finale of the story is both inevitable and expected, but nevertheless one's interest is held until the end. This film is an adequate demonstration of the way in which thrillers can be made without either the story being trite or the characters unconvincing, and is certainly well worth your shilling or two.
Albert Ivimey 

Material World: Xenophobia in South Africa (2015)

The Material World Column from the March 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has attracted Africans from as far afield as Nigeria and Ethiopia. They come as political refugees or economic migrants, with one goal: a better life. Following the end of apartheid, thousands of Chinese and South Asian foreign nationals have also been living and conducting business across the country. As spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Joel Millman has explained it this way:
‘It has been a big haven for gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex migrants who do not feel safe in their own communities. They are often much more open in South Africa than in other places and that also sometimes triggers a backlash. There are quite a lot of migrants who use South Africa as a conduit to get to South America and then on to North America. So –it is quite a mix. There are also a lot of people who just choose to start businesses there because it is a much more vibrant economy than in a place like Ethiopia or Uganda let us say’ (
Migrants offer an invitation to rethink the concepts, foundations and boundaries of nation states and national identity. Instead of South Africans thriving on its much-vaunted multicultural identity, foreigners are being depicted as criminals, job snatchers, and parasites. The public perception of being swamped by foreigners is easily mobilised and fuels ‘fears’ that migrants increase employment competition, challenge religious, cultural or ethnic homogeneity and increase crime.  In 2008, more than 60 people were killed in a series of attacks on foreign nationals. In 2011, around 120 were killed. In 2012, 140 foreigners were killed. In the latter half of January 2015 IOM reported nine people have been killed with hundreds of cases of looting from shops mostly owned by Somalis and Bangladeshi.
The IOM has condemned this growing violence against migrants which has now spread beyond Soweto. Violence has erupted in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Kwazulu Natal. Cape Town is said to be one of the most unequal in the country with foreigners facing increasing discrimination. Xenophobia is firmly embedded across all strata of South African society but incidents of violence are more likely in impoverished areas where a riot can sometimes be the only way to draw government attention to their deprivation. A tinder-box combination of cramped living conditions and competition for jobs in poverty-stricken districts can create a conflagration of ethnic violence.
Asylum seekers are now being asked to supply pay slips, details of property owned and to reveal how much money they have. It is still not known what this information will be used for, since governments are only supposed to assess applications for asylum based on the level of persecution faced in the home country – not the amount of money in the applicants' bank accounts. In 2013, only two out of 12,000 applicants were granted asylum and the new process for applying for political asylum is very likely part of government's quest to rid South Africa completely of genuine asylum seekers and allow in only those with money.
The biggest problem facing the South African black working class is not foreign-owned ‘spaza’ shops but the fact that profits from industry flow to a tiny elite. Migrant workers are not to blame for the high levels of unemployment. Deporting ‘illegal’ African migrants and asylum seekers and encouraging xenophobia against Asian migrants will not uplift the black working class whose lives seem set to continue to deteriorate unless there is a fundamental change.
The capitalist system is the real enemy in South Africa – so said COSATU trade union general secretary Vavi – and problems such as xenophobia, corruption, gender-based violence, and substance abuse were rooted in economic misery. ‘All of these are rooted in another set of three even bigger demons: unemployment, poverty, and inequality, which provide a fertile breeding ground for all the others,’ he said. So it is even more tragic when he tweeted ‘We condemn xenophobia but the current displacement of Africans even in spaza shops mainly by guys from the East is not politically sustainable’. Vavi knows only too well the solution is not to blame other victims but to understand the cause of poverty and change the system which permits it.

Obituary: Albert Grant (1955)

Obituary from the June 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Friday morning of April 15th a small number of Party members met at the Marylebone Crematorium to witness the passing of the late Comrade Albert Grant, who died at the age of 55.

Many comrades who knew him for years will be shocked at the sad news.

By coincidence it just happens that I knew him many years ago. We were boys together in Lansbury's old Herald League at the Manor House, Finsbury Park, in the days of the first world war.

Several young people flocked to Lansbury's pacifist banner during 1915-17, and a vigorous and growing propaganda was carried on. With the end of the war the Herald League virtually broke up. The discordant elements, which had sunk differences, gravitated towards the Labour Party, Communist Party, and branches of the I.L.P.

I think I am correct in saying that, out of over 600 members on the books of the North London Herald League in 1918, two joined the S.P.G.B. One was Albert Grant who remained, until the day he died, a staunch, loyal, unwavering revolutionary Socialist.

Well do I remember how much moral courage it required to stand out alone amongst the horde of supporters of reformism of various kinds, whether the romantic variety of the C.P., or the pale pink I.L.P. Comrade Grant, though still a boy, philosophically accepted all the good-natured banter, and a great deal of ill-humoured gibing and epithets ("Impossibilist!" "Small Party of Good Boys") and "jokes" which still pass for wit in similar circles to-day.

Calm, genial, and urbane, he invariably gave as good as he got from those disagreeing with him, without ever losing composure. He was always sure of respect, if not support.

Shortly after the first war, he went to South Africa and was a first-hand witness of the bitter struggles occurring on the Rand before returning home. During the Second World War he was frequently to be found, when circumstances permitted, supporting the Party platform in Hyde Park.

In the Second World War, as the First, he had no doubts whatever about the strength and validity of the Party's attitude.

A clear logical thinker, he could be relied on for sound advice in changing situations. Members of Hampstead were accustomed to seeing him regularly at the Whitestone Road on Sunday mornings in recent years, where his acid comments on the absurdities from opponent's platforms frequently enlivened the scene.

The Party has lost a loyal and dependable member; many members a dear and respected friend.

To his wife and children we extend the hand of sympathy in time of trouble.

Though many may step forward to fill the gap he leaves vacant, to those who knew and loved him, it will never be filled.
Harry Young

Editorial: A Free Lunch, Anyone? (2015)

Editorial from the March 2015 Socialist Standard

‘It’s a free country, isn’t it?’ So we sometimes say, and sometimes believe.  And it is true that the British state permits a relatively high degree of freedom of action and of thought.  To some, such relative freedoms are a source of patriotic pride; to socialists, they are a cynical reminder of the freedoms we do not have.  It depends on what we think freedom is, what we believe we are entitled to as human beings, and how we want to live.

One particular freedom is denied us everywhere within our capitalist world, and that is the freedom to obtain the things we need if we do not have the money to pay for them. ‘Things don’t grow on trees’ we are told as children, unschooled as yet in the rules of our society.  Very quickly we come to understand that ‘free offers’ are not really free, that someone is paying for them, and it is probably us.  And by the time we are worldly-wise we know that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’, and when someone offers us something for nothing, we turn suspicious, and wonder what they want in return.

Exchange is so ubiquitous within our world of capitalism that it has come to seem an inevitable and indispensable thing, a part of human nature. Adam Smith thought so in 1776 when he wrote of man’s natural propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’.  Yet even within capitalism, exchange is not universal.  We share within our families, giving without expectation of return.  Online communities increasingly share software and information, while sites like ‘Freecycle’ facilitate the free circulation of goods.  We give freely to charities.  We give because we like giving.   And our giving, though it is constrained by capitalism, is perfectly normal for us. In communities of homeless people, such as ‘cardboard city’ that grew up in London’s Southbank in the 1980s, it has been noted that goods obtained by individuals are often freely shared - not bartered or exchanged as we might suppose. When natural disasters strike and we are liberated from the social rules that bind us, people invariably and spontaneously resort to sharing, giving and receiving freely, making sure that goods go to those most in need of them.  Sharing is not only a workable system of relating to one another, but a far more efficient and liberating way to meet the needs of the community.

Giving and getting for free may seem strange or unusual to us with our ingrained habits of thought, and may provoke all kind of anxieties about our ability to meet our needs.  It shouldn’t.  Our systems of property, ownership and exchange are of very recent origin.  Our earliest societies were all sharing communities, not only giving and receiving for free, but ensuring everyone had what they needed.

The huge inequalities of wealth in our capitalist societies, the curtailment of our freedoms and the vast conflicts of competing interests all have their origins in those uniquely human inventions: private property and exchange.  We do not need them.  It’s time to offer ourselves a free lunch.