Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Nottingham Branch Report. (1911)

From the June 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard


Since the formation of the Nottingham Branch last July we have been spreading that working-class enlightenment which must precede the workers' emancipation. We soon got to grips with the enemy, and a debate was fixed up with a follower of the "meek and lowly one." Comrade Anderson did the needful, and we disposed of a good deal of literature and increased our membership, besides showing the antagonism between Socialism and religion—a gratifying result.

Next the Anti-Socialist Union made an appearance and held at meeting on the Market Square. We promptly challenged the speaker. a Mr. Glover, to debate, and to our surprise and delight, he accepted the challenge, and said he would be prepared to meet our representative on the following Sunday. Evidently he was unaware that a branch of the S.P.G.B. existed in Nottingham, as I will shortly show.

We made the necessary arrangements for the debate, and them on the Saturday our opponent informed the branch that owing to the religious objections of his Conservative friends, he could not debate on the Sabbath. Yet on the same day he advertised the debate in the local Press, and was in the Market Place with his carriage on the Sunday night.

Mr. Glover's object was obvious. He asked from the carriage if there was an I.L.P. man who would take the platform. A member of the S.D.P. got up, and, as might be expected, Mr. Glover dealt with the reform position, the refusal of the Labour Party to support the Woolwich amendment, Right to Work Bill, etc.

The brave defender of capitalism, after this honest and clean and typical Anti-Socialist manoeuvre, wrote to the head office of his Union saying that the "Socialist Party" had funked the debate.

This proves our contention that the A.S.U. have nothing to fear from such conglomerations of freaks as the S.D.P. and the I.L.P.

Several lectures have been given at the Notts Cosmopolitan Debating Society by our comrades Anderson, Fitzgerald, Neumann, Kent and Watts, on subjects appertaining to that working class education which it is our mission to extend. Space will not permit me to give an account of all the good work done by these lectures. The last of them was on "Socialism and Religion" and our comrade the lecturer gave the "rainbow-chasers" something to chase.

One apathetic reformer wanted to know when we are going to stop pulling to pieces and begin to construct. The answer was when we have cleared the rubbish out of the way.

The Edwardians (1954)

From the June 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

We all sniggered, not long ago, over Uncle Fred's best suit in the family album; whatever could Aunt Alice have seen in him? Now, perhaps, we know, because what they wore before 1914 is a cult in 1954. Spiv clothes are out and Edwardians are in at the dance halls and on the monkey-parades—dull colours, baggy velvet-collared jackets, drainpipe trousers, straggly ties. Not quite the same as Uncle Fred, though: to-day's model stands in a crepe-soled plinth and is crowned with an elegant perm.

Something new in the world of fashion is often something old. In the last four or five years, reminiscent styles of one sort and another have recurred persistently, from spectacular waistcoats to the flat caps that were introduced to southern England by north-country football fans in the late nineteenth century. The full Edwardian rig first became news for the picture papers when popular dandies adopted it—a comedian, a politician and a film actor.

Then, in 1953, it jumped to the headlines: a fight among Edwardian-dressed adolescents on Clapham Common. One died of stab wounds and another was hanged for it. People became aware that the costume was no longer merely a sartorial idiosyncrasy. More drab and uneasy-looking as it passed into the too-cheap, too-smart gents' outfitters, it was multiplying as the dress of truculent youthful gangs. With increasing frequency it was mentioned in court cases of offensive rowdyism. In a few months its wearers were christened "Teddy Boys"; it has become, in fact, the hoodlums' uniform.

The same ideals and circumstances lead to the same attire often enough. You can usually tell the artists from the visitors at an exhibition; a shorthand-typist is not likely to be taken for a factory girl, nor a Conservative for an anarchist. The most famous example from recent years is the spiv, who established a cartoonists' golden age with his drape and his shoulder-padding and his fist-sized tie-knot. There is nothing unconventional or new in the assumption of a common, near-uniform dress by suburban larrikins. In the past, when an adolescent's income was shillings instead of pounds, the same tendency was exhibited from time to time but on a lesser scale; before 1939 there were "trilby-hat gangs" on the corners and round the coffee-stalls.

The public concern about the "Teddy Boys" is concern over the behaviour-patterns that are the grounds for their association. Ideals in uniforms have a more organised, impressive look about them; and by and large it is delinquency that wears the Edwardian uniform. Delinquency, not crime—and there is a considerable difference. A black marketeer or a street bookmaker is not a delinquent; on the other hand, a bunch of young men who make a street intolerable to passer-by may not be criminals but are obviously delinquents—that is, they have a consciously anti-social pattern of behaviour.

What causes delinquency? Everybody knows: the bishops, the leader-writers, the psychologists, the headmasters—they all know. Unhappy homes, insufficient religious teaching, low moral standards, American comics, amusement arcades — the whole modern "anatomie of abuses." And, as is often the case, the more remedies are proposed the worse the thing becomes. While the Edwardians flourish, the serious, train-their-character youth movements wane; the Boy Scouts, which in the 'twenties and 'thirties sent thousands of hairy-kneed sixteen years-olds hiking through the countryside at summer week-ends, now is a little-boys' affair. The "Teddy Boys" have their own character and their own culture.

Mostly, they are youths between leaving school and being conscripted. That in itself is an obvious important factor: the sense of aimlessness, of having time to kill, must be tremendous. Here are you: kept at school up to fifteen, and at eighteen they want you again. In the meantime, for three years only is your life your own—except that whatever you propose, the State inexorably disposes at the end of the three years. And when you are in "the bleedin' Kate," there sis generally one of two things: either fighting or twenty months of organised time-killing. The Edwardians lack purpose in life—and it isn't surprising.

There is, too, the desire for manliness, which is seen largely in terms of loudness, roughness and "seeking the bubble reputation." The desire is probably more potent to-day than at any previous time. One reason is that a soldier, even an eighteen-year old one, must be a man, and perhaps a stronger reason is that there is no longer any segregation or much reticence between the sexes. A girl of seventeen has achieved womanhood in appearance and, as often as not, in experience, too; her male counterpart, lacking her natural and circumstantial aids, can only make valiant efforts towards corresponding ends.

Several supposed causes of delinquency have already been mentioned. The most commonly cited—probably because it is the favourite with the clergy and at school prizegivings—is lack of religious teaching. Strangely enough, the Edwardians have had more of that than most people. The 1944 Education Act gave religion a stronger footing in the schools than at any time since compulsory education began—and not every generation is subjected within a decade to pietistic profusions for a victory, a monarch's death and a coronation. It may be argued that religion teaching is only effective in the home; but no religion is more family-based, and more exacting, than Catholicism, and no cities have more crime and delinquency that those with large Catholic populations, like Liverpool and Glasgow.

Certainly no-one would deny that broken or unhappy homes contribute to delinquency; overcrowded homes, too. The absence of stability and affection can and does give rise to emotional conflicts, frustrations and resentments against society. Plenty of delinquents come from apparently good homes, however. There is a good deal of glib talk about adjustment and maladjustment, psychiatric terms that have passed into popular currency. Adjustment means a condition of harmony with the social environment; what of the person, then, who us adjusted to European civilisation in this present age? A. S. Neill, the high priest of "progressive" education, has written much about his achievements in adjusting recalcitrant or delinquent children from well-to-do homes. What is achieved? They are in harmony with predatoriness, violence, suspicion and power; in harmony—with a diseased society.

Delinquency is a way in which people react to personal or group situations. More important still, the reaction is something learned from society. The whole behaviour-pattern of the "Teddy Boys"—the shiftlessness, the truculence, the irresponsibility—is their reaction to what society has given them and their display of what it has taught them. Behind them is the entire structure of western urban civilisation which, Frankenstein-like, creates its monsters and lives in fear of them.

There is no quick, easy answer to the problem. It is not enough to think of this or that, of broken homes or a sense of frustration, as the cause. You must ask why the family is disintegrating; why so many people in our world are frustrated and unhappy. Social misconduct is no more the result of deliberate personal choice that it is the product of heredity or constitution (and that myth, thank goodness, has long been exploded). Society, through the law and the majority of public opinion, assumes that the delinquent is merely malicious, and deals accordingly with him. "You want a damn good thrashing," five East London Edwardians were told last week before the magistrate fined them. And even where there is better understanding, the social circumstances to which delinquency is a reaction remain.

The driving force of our society is profit. All its institutions and ideals are shaped by that motive. So, in consequence, are its problems, and while the basis remains they will remain; or, if one apparent problem disappears it does so only to be replaced by another. A few years ago it was the spivs; now it is the Edwardians. The real answer to delinquency can only be found by establishing a social situation which will not set some in conflict and teach them lessons of power and fear. And that means not punitive legislation, not religious teaching, but the abolition of profit-based society.
Robert Barltrop

Complicity (2015)

From the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whilst discussing the Atlantic slave trade of the past and the part played in it by the British a friend said that he felt some guilt about it. This, no doubt, was due to the part that his ‘nationality’ plays in his sense of identity. The ‘sins of the fathers’ were, for him, visited upon all who are ‘British’. In contrast to this I felt that the guilt was to be focused on the ruling class of the time and that he was blameless for their crimes.

However a case could be made that if we do not oppose the criminal actions of the ruling class of our own time then we are, indeed, complicit. This is compounded by the fact that much of the wealth that gives the capitalist elite their power in this country was derived originally from the slave trade. While underlining the continuity and importance of history this fact also illustrates the difficulty in allocating collective responsibility for the actions of some members of a community. That there must be some level of collective culpability is surely indisputable since we would all take some moral responsibility for our actions (or inactions) and this must include our political activities.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration/death camps and the complicity of the German population in their existence is still hotly debated by historians. Nobody would dispute that the members of the Nazi Party were complicit in these terrible crimes but what of those who voted for them originally and can those who did nothing to oppose the Nazis gaining power be exonerated from some culpability? Merely pointing at Hitler and Himmler and claiming to be ‘just obeying their orders’ provides no moral or political justification for committing inhuman acts. After they came to power there’s no doubting the level of fear that forced many into actions they would never otherwise countenance but there were many who were, to some degree, ideologically sympathetic -- and not just in Germany. Some would shrug or throw their arms in the air saying something like: ‘That’s an extreme example which could never happen again’ or ‘Any attempt to explain the Holocaust would be merely a rationalisation since the magnitude of the crime is incomprehensible’.

In contrast to merely despairing about ’the human condition’ socialists seek to explain Nazi rule in its historical and political context because of its importance in warning us of what can happen during one of capitalism’s inevitable episodes of extreme economic and political instability. This period also has important lessons for us in respect of keeping a close eye on the actions of those who would take advantage of such instability, both of the left and right wing. Above all it teaches us that any level of moral and political complacency towards the activities of our ‘leaders’ can and does lead to disaster - we must accept responsibility for the actions of those who do so in our name unless we oppose them politically.

It has long been recognised that people acting in a group can behave differently than they would as individuals. Lynch mobs and football hooligans are classic examples of this type of tribal behaviour. Nation states rely on this psychology in times of war as the individuals who compose their armies would never ‘cold-bloodedly’ murder another human being in their everyday lives. Of course all kinds of political conditioning are needed for this to happen but perhaps we can pick out one that might help explain the seemingly complacent attitude that many exhibit when nations murder in their name. Because of the numbers involved - sometimes millions when nations are at war – there is a kind of dilution of moral responsibility. Someone who would suffer great guilt if their actions or inactions were to cause a family member, friend or neighbour an injury (let alone their death) does not feel the same level of responsibility for the deaths and injuries that occur in a war that they supported (or did not oppose).

After the conflict dies down (wars rarely end neatly) the subsequent analysis might reveal that the causes were not quite what was claimed (as with the recent Iraq war) and so a debate ensues where blame is apportioned. The leaders and their advisers are questioned but rarely condemned or punished for their mistakes or crimes. But what of the people who let it all happen in their name? This is when the ‘dilution’ of moral and political responsibility comes into focus. Bush and Blair take the lion’s share of any guilt (which, of course, they strongly refute) then the ’intelligence’ community (for ‘sexing up’ the WMD dossiers), then perhaps the military leaders or even the oil companies etc., so that any culpability that is left is felt to be so negligible that it’s not worthy of consideration. Such a contrast to individual moral responsibility - nobody would defend their immoral activities by claiming that the murder they committed was somehow diminished by the volume of the other murders carried out that year or that the person they beat up suffered less injury than the victim of another thug. We socialists are appalled by the level of complacency shown by the mainstream political parties, voters and the politically cynical in this regard. How and why did we get to such a position where seemingly nobody takes responsibility for their political actions? 

At the heart of this we have the contradiction inherent within capitalist culture where, on the one hand, we are told that everyone is a competitor and there’s ‘no such thing as society’ and on the other hand we are told that we’re part of a ‘nation‘. The latter designation is usually only called upon in times of war or when some group are to be demonised as ‘immigrants’. Liberals tend to think of the world purely in terms of individuals as their ideology forbids any group or class consciousness and this is partly why they find the concept of collective complicity so difficult. Another reason for absence of any feelings of political responsibility for the actions of the state is because of the ‘professionalisation’ of politics. Westminster seems to many to be another world where ex public school boys play some kind of exotic role playing game that somehow decides national policy. The majority are completely alienated by this anachronistic theatrical nonsense and feel no relationship with (or responsibility for) the strange decisions that are made there.

In an integrated global economic and political structure like capitalism nobody can escape the consequences of its existence. We are all responsible for what happens in the world because capitalism has truly made it ‘one world’ –  in this respect, there’s no ‘third world’ or ‘developed world’. As long as we allow the political elite to do the bidding of the parasite class we are all complicit in their crimes. Only working for socialism can provide you with an ‘alibi’ should one ever be needed. When the majority feel morally and politically responsible for the world, as most do about their actions in their ‘private lives’, then we are all finally motivated to change things.

  ‘What did you do during the war daddy?’

  ‘I opposed the war and what caused it before it began, my son’.

Obituary: Lisa Bryan (1961)

Obituary from the May 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lisa Bryan tragically died on March 29th at the age of 32. The previous evening she had been working at the Party Head Office finalising arrangements for the Conference Rally. This was typical of Lisa. Joining in 1947, her life in the Party had been one of ceaseless activity, serving on occasions as Central Organiser, Party Auditor, Executive Committee member, and finally (a job she held for over 10 years) on the Propaganda Committee.

She excelled in this work but regarded it as no more than a necessary duty. Her element was that of socialist propaganda, and as a speaker and occasional writer for the SOCIALIST STANDARD, she found the most satisfaction.

She had a fine, resonant voice, and it was a pleasure to listen to her. At street corner meetings the slim, attractive girl on the SPGB platform, clearly enunciated the socialist case, commanded respect. In the lecture hall, her material was thoroughly prepared and delivered with economy. Her learning was wide and deep, yet she was severely critical of her own ability.

Perhaps this provides a clue to Lisa Bryan's rare quality. Many women, unfortunately, still accept and delight in playing the role of the "second" sex. Not Lisa! She expected to be treated as an equal and the standard she set for herself was the highest. Hence the exacting demands she often made on herself.

In her Branch (Paddington), at Conferences and in internal Party discussions, her counsel was calm and constructive. Her tongue could also be sharp. The speaker who failed to attend a scheduled meeting, the literature secretary who let his accounts get into a muddle, the member who took Party work flippantly, all discovered this. But her reproof was administered with humour and understanding.

And yet, when all this has been said, one has hardly begun to describe Lisa Bryan. Socialism for her became inseparable from her whole person, affecting all her feelings and attitudes. To know Lisa was to make a friend, and her friends were many and diverse. Her loss will be felt far beyond her comrades in the Socialist Party.

Staunchly independent, asking little for herself, her humanity consumed her. She was consistently loyal to her friends; unstinting with help when they were in trouble; cheering when their spirits were low. We all depended on her for so much. Lisa Bryan was young and vital, her death leaves an awful gap. But her life enriched ours and we are the better for knowing her.
Paddington Branch.

In her Branch (Paddington), at Conferences and in internal Party discussions, her counsel was calm and constructive.