Thursday, October 22, 2015

1984—Unthinkable? (1955)

TV Review from the January 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month an adaptation of George Orwell’s famous novel, “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” appeared as a television play. The impact on audiences was generally agreed to have been startling—too startling, according to newspaper complaints about unsuitability and lack of “entertainment value.” The intention of the author, however, was not to horrify people, but to make them think and reflect, and certainly the play must have succeeded to a large extent in doing just that.

The story is set in London of the future, which has become Airstrip One in Oceania, one of three States into which the world is divided. These states are permanently at war with each other, though the actual fighting takes place in remote parts, in the jungle or the desert. The social structure in Oceania is a  hierarchy consisting of the Proles, the Outer Party and the Inner Party. At the bottom are the Proles, people doing purely routine work, ignorant, stupefied by abysmal and degrading conditions. Not very different are the Outer Party members, without privileges, living and working like automata, named and numbered on their clothing, rationed—and ceaselessly spied on by the two-way tele-screen through which the Thought Police watch and rule.—By contrast, the Inner Party members are the privileged, the givers of orders, the only people with servants, with such luxuries as wine, and with freedom to switch off their tele-screens when they wish. Above all stands the figure of the leader, Big Brother. Whether he is a real person is immaterial—he is the “expression of the Party.” 

Against this background the story unfolds of one humble member of the Outer Party. Winston (why Winston?) Smith, perhaps the last of the rebels. He is a pitiable, harassed, uncertain and confused rebel, working in the Ministry of Truth, where information is "adjusted" as the State requires. He watches a propaganda film showing the enemy leader, Goldstein; and while the others shout hate at Goldstein, he hesitantly thinks "I hate Big Brother." He meets a member of the Inner Party who, he suspects, "works for" Goldstein, and offers his services as a conspirator. Questions are asked: Is he willing to lie to further the cause he believes in, to cheat, to murder—even to throw sulphuric acid in a baby's face if it will somehow help? He is willing.

A romantic interest is introduced when Winston meets a girl whose job is to operate a novel-writing machine that churns out stereotyped rubbish for the Proles to read. Since love is forbidden and marriage is by order of the Party, the couple meet in secret, at first in the country and later in a room above an antique shop in the Prole sector. Eventually, the shopkeeper betrays them to the Thought Police. There is a scene (perhaps unnecessarily long and detailed) showing the brutal methods used to break down the last vestiges of their resistance, so that they unquestioningly accept that 2 + 2 = 5 if the Party says it is right.

The elements in the story that most compel attention are the subtle touches of detail that illustrate the sort of world that the author suggests is possible three decades hence. The worker in the Ministry of Truth helping to compile a dictionary of Newspeak (the new distorted basic language) proudly claims that it will abolish shades of meaning and narrow the range of thought, that it will abolish ideas through the destruction of words to express them. This appalling outlook is seen in an Inner Party official's remark "We're not interested in the stupid crimes you've committed—only in the thought."

All the most detestable aspects of the world today are enlarged and caricatured; the slogans like  “Ignorance Is Strength,” “War Is Peace”; the Ministry of Plenty announcing ration reductions as increases, the Ministry of Peace proclaiming “another great victor over our enemies,” the Ministry of Truth adjusting the facts of past history and “amending all records accordingly.”

The newspaper critics of this television play generally assumed that it was to be taken as a warning against totalitarianism as exemplified by Hitler’s Germany and in Russia today. When he wrote the book in 1949, Orwell doubtless drew inspiration from the Nazi regime and “Big Brother” Stalin. Yet the warning is not really against the tendencies and conditions in one “bad” part of the world sullying the “good.” It is against the actual and potential denial of human qualities that is implicit in the world set-up today. The theme is a powerful condemnation of the whole system of privileged and subject classes, of governmental control to preserve the system by crushing out any opposing idea. More than anything, perhaps, it is a warning of the effect of the mass-production of ideas on those who lose the desire to think for themselves, and who leave everything to “Big Brother.”


What is Freedom? (1989)

From the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

In exchange for the Socialist Standard we receive from a library in East Berlin the GDR Review. This glossy, well produced journal covers a wide range of subjects, from politics, current affairs and economics to art, sport and various aspects of life in the German Democratic Republic—East Germany.

The December 1988 editorial was headed "What we mean by Freedom". We quote:
Everyone would like to be able to say they are free. Without freedom, life itself loses its value and meaning . . . Freedom cannot be won by an individual living in a vacuum . . . Being free does not mean doing only what you want to do, but rather wanting to do what has to be done. As Friedrich Engels put it: "Freedom is also the ability to make a knowledgeable decision." This requires that people be active, that they make use of the educational opportunities presented to them and that they work conscientiously for the wellbeing of society as a whole.
So far we could agree, but we soon come to a parting the ways:
Of course, freedom is always connected with what I can afford, both in intellectual and material terms. Some people tend to compare the "material" aspects with developed capitalist countries, and then use this as the sole measure of individual freedom. But when there are 16 million unemployed people in the leading EEC countries alone, we just have to ask: freedom for whom? What sort of freedom is it when you are not even guaranteed the right to provide for yourself and your family? The conclusion is obvious, namely that it is freedom at the expense of others. This however, is not the freedom we mean.
The kernel of our disagreement is in the statement "freedom . . . and material terms". It is an admission that, even if they call it socialism, East Germany operates state capitalism and there can be no freedom for workers under capitalism. The "freedom" enjoyed in East Germany is to go to work for wages, rather than the 16 million in the EEC who are "free" to apply to their governing bodies for "free" payments, often not sufficient to satisfy even the most basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. On the other hand, in Western Europe that worker (with or without work) is, more often than not, free to complain about his lot and criticise capitalists, politicians and the system, a freedom denied to his opposite number of the GDR.

When Engels wrote, he referred to freedom in co-operative socialist society where the wage labour/capital relationship between employee and employer has disappeared, and not attempted equation between (relative) freedom from want versus (relative) freedom of expression under state or private enterprise capitalism.
Eva Goodman

"Too many" bricks (1992)

From the November 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

The notion that the price mechanism is the most efficient allocator of resources took a further blow recently with the confirmation that Britain has a massive "oversupply" of bricks, concrete blocks and other building materials and a deepening housing crisis.

Despite increased homelessness, record levels of house repossession and rising council house waiting lists throughout the country, figures released by the Department of the Environment and leading construction companies show the house-building industry to be still in severe slump.

The output of the construction industry is now five percent lower that it was in the second quarter of last year, itself a period of sharp downturn. Redundancies have escalated and the industry's workforce has fallen by a further 13 percent over the last year.

The brick-making sector of the construction industry has been particularly badly hit. According to the Daily Telegraph (12 September), the major construction firm Tarmac is to close four plants producing a total of 100 million bricks a year, while concrete block factories in Nuneaton, Dumfries, Fleet and Bracknell also face shutdown.

With the decline in paying demand total UK brick sales have fallen from a peak of 4,270 million in 1988 to an estimated 3,100 million for 1992. Meanwhile, as homelessness continued to rise 1,473 million of brick stocks built up last year, the price mechanism once again demonstrating its inability to marry production with real human demand—in hosing as in other sectors of the economy.

The gulf between the total productive capacity capable of meeting human needs and the actual utilization of productive forces to meet paying demand in capitalism has been highlighted by, ironically enough, stockbroking firm BZW. They have estimated that despite rising real needs for housing, paying market demand in the building sector for materials is back to the level of 1986, when construction was just emerging from the previous slump of the early 1980s.

Furthermore, BZW estimate there to be excess productive capacity of 20 percent in the brick industry, 42 percent in ready-mixed concrete, 38 percent in crushed rock, 35 percent in plasterboard, 26 percent in both concrete blocks and roof tiles, and 25 percent in cement.

Bizarre though it may seem to rational individuals, some supporters of capitalism consider their system to be highly efficient, incorporating the best system of distribution known to humankind. But what sort of efficiency piles up stocks of useful materials and imposes market penalties, i.e. loss of profitability, as a disincentive to utilize an artificially "excess" capacity?

Though it is a good example, the construction industry is not, of course, alone in demonstrating the absurdity of the capitalist system of production. Most spheres of manufacturing are now faced with declining or static market demand, with wholesalers and retailers cutting back on orders as stocks of unsold goods pile up. According to a recent CBI survey, 63 percent of wholesalers are cutting back on their orders from manufacturing, while 45 percent of retailers are reducing orders from their suppliers (Guardian, 11 September).

This crazy situation of overcapacity and falling paying demand for commodities amidst increasing need, poverty, homelessness, and—in the "Third World"—mass starvation, has to be ended. And the sooner the better. The madness of the market will have to give way to a co-ordinated system of production for use, with free access to the goods, materials and services available to society.

It's time to put capitalism out of its misery and thereby help put us—the world working class—out of ours.
Dave Perrin

Our Attitude to Elections (1954)

From the January 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Vote for a Case not a Face

In our recent by-election campaign in North Paddington we laid stress on the fact that we attached no special significance to our choice of a candidate. We made it quite clear that we approached the electorate with an object in view—that of Socialism, which implies the complete dispossession of the entire capitalist class and the reorganisation of society on the basis of production solely for use.

We hold that when a majority understand the nature of Capitalism, understand the futility of electing leaders to reform it, and that a complete change of the basis of society is both necessary and possible, then they will democratically elect their representatives for this sole object.

If we take a look at elections today, we find that the candidates of other political parties pander to a variety of tastes and requirements, and play off one group of people against another. “Something for everybody” might well be their motto. It is an encouraging sign that our political opponents are recognising the fundamental difference between us and other parties, though their statement of the position is usually not quite as we would put it. Thus The Glasgow Herald (19.11.53) wrote that:
“ . . . they need not undertake all the degrading business of making him (the candidate) known to North Paddingtonians, cataloguing his virtues, giving him opportunities to kiss babies. Individuals count for nothing with the S.P.G.B., who acknowledge no leaders, have never swerved from the principles laid down in 1904, and proudly remain the only political party who implore the electors not to vote for them unless in full understanding and agreement with what they stand for.”
Since the majority of workers think along capitalist lines, it is quite simple for the Tory, Liberal, Labour, Communist and other candidates to come along with plenty of promises – promises that they can in no way fulfil. Knowing how workers identify themselves with “our country”, “our exports (or imports)”, these parties can always hold out the threat of “our interests” being at stake – when all that is meant is that capitalist interests are at stake.

“Working men have no country” is as true a statement today as when Marx first said it. When the worker realises that he possesses nothing but his ability to work, which he sells to the capitalist to enable him to live, then he will have different ideas about voting for someone to represent him. He will only elect a delegate to carry out his wishes and who would be powerless to do otherwise. Be that candidate painter or plumber, clerk or bus driver, typist or cook—it will not matter. That he undertakes to carry out what he will be democratically elected for will be the only concern; not as now, when candidates parade their “good looks”, “war records”, “homely backgrounds” and all the other dope that is used as what the Americans call “sucker bait”. 

We can understand how the press in general, seeking "news" in preference to stating facts, registers surprise at our reluctance to give a life-story of the candidate. How gladly its reporters mop up any little tit-bit to make news; how they pester  us all day long for photographs, age, profession or job, hobby and what not. As they and their employers all support the retention of a capitalist system of society, it is too much to expect that they will give much prominence to stating the case of a party that seeks its complete abolition. Nevertheless, they do make small mentions, usually by means of "selective suppression"—that is, the selection from what we well them of what they think they ought to print.

In such a way is the wider spread of our propaganda made difficult. Not having the vast resources of other parties for propaganda—giant press organisations, the B.B.C. with radio and television (both barred to us)—we have to depend on our monthly journal, occasional pamphlets, outdoor propaganda, and the voluntary help so tirelessly given by our members. Our funds are always inadequate for the amount of activity we would like to indulge in.

Sympathisers might take note of this and assist us financially and otherwise. There is always plenty to do for those anxious to help. You will be able to assist in a comradely atmosphere, and will find pleasure in doing something worthwhile, instead of just giving a blank cheque at election times to the supporters of Capitalism.

You will find no “Great Men” in the S.P.G.B. The parts that its members play are varied, but no attempt is made to measure one against the other—the keynote is co-operative effort, as it will be in socialist society. One of our objections to the existence of “Very Important Persons” is that it presupposes that some persons are accounted of little importance. We are a band of ordinary folk, but each is as unimportant (and therefore each is as important) as the other, whether chosen for speaker, secretary, organiser or by-election candidate.
G. Hilbinger

The Passing Show: Labour rebels (1960)

The Passing Show Column from the September 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour Rebels

A letter in the Guardian (24/6/60) read in part as follows:
What I should like to know, however, is whether those members of Parliament who are now calling for the resignation of Hugh Gaitskell have ever themselves thought of resigning. If they are dissatisfied with the policies and leadership of the Labour Party, let them join say "The Socialist Party of Great Britain," and see how they get on there.
The letter is signed by Silvan Jones, the chairman of the Conway constituency Labour Party.

We are grateful to Mr. Jones for his interest in the Socialist Party, but it seems that he is under a misapprehension. While we are always glad to receive applications for membership, in order to keep the party as a Socialist party, we only allow Socialists to join. In this we are unlike Mr Jones' party, which the most convinced upholder of the capitalist system could join merely by signing an application form. The results may be seen in the political history of the twentieth century: the Labour Party's erratic pursuit of one reform after another, contrasted with the Socialist Party's consistent advocacy of Socialism.

Harry Pollitt

What a tragedy was the life of Harry Pollitt! Here was a man who, horrified by the conditions of the working class as he had known them in his youth, set out in a genuine attempt to improve those conditions. He conceived a personal dislike of "the bosses," and was determined to "make them pay" for what the workers had had to suffer. Yet Harry Pollitt never gained a thorough understanding of the forces that mould modern society, in Russia as well as in Britain. As a result, his deeply-felt hostility to the ruling class in Britain simply resulted in his becoming, indirectly, an overseas ally of the Russian ruling class. It is not enough merely to oppose capitalism, as one has known it: one must be for its alternative, Socialism. Had Harry Pollitt succeeded in his efforts, he would merely have been instrumental in establishing state capitalism in Britain, in place of the variety we have at present. And that would have left the workers exactly where they  are  now.

Curiously enough, many of the obituary notices which have appeared in the papers after Harry Pollitt's death expressed some regard for him—curiously, because the British newspapers are the propaganda organs of the British ruling class. The obituaries recalled with approval that Pollitt, after supporting the 1939 war against Germany at its outbreak, showed more reluctance than the other members of the Communist Party to come out against the war when Stalin and Hitler concluded their pact.

The Times obituary (30/6/60) was an example. It was written by a clergyman, a former member of Scotland Yard's Special Branch who once had the job of shadowing Pollitt. This writer could claim to understand the interests of the British ruling class: he recounts that when, after the Russo-German Pact, he asked Pollitt. "Are you going to let Hitler smash Britain?" Pollitt replied "No, we shall not do that." The fact that Pollitt was able to talk about the war (which was a struggle between German capitalist class and the British capitalist class) in those terms shows how little he understood the world in which he lived.
Alwyn Edgar

Cooking the Books: Labour and labour-power (2010)

The Cooking the Books Column from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

In part two of his article “Is Marx’s analysis of capitalism still valid today?” (Freedom 31 July) Jonny Ball tackles Marx’s theory of surplus value which he correctly says is central to this analysis. This is how he presents it:
“Its basic premise is that in order to make a profit, the capitalist must pay the worker a sum lower than the amount the worker actually produces. The owners of the means of production, of Capital, will always try to keep costs, such as wages, to a minimum in order to extract the maximum amount of surplus value from their workforce, while those who do not own capital are obliged to sell their labour in order to live at a price that is determined not so much by the value they produce, but by the whims of an employer, who will receive the bulk of their workers' produce in the form of profit.”
No doubt Ball was trying to be sympathetic to Marx but, unfortunately, this is not a satisfactory depiction of Marx’s theory. Marx did see the source of surplus value as the unpaid labour of workers, but he never held the view that what workers were paid was determined “by the whims of an employer”.

Even when, in the 1840s, Marx spoke in terms of workers selling their “labour”, he argued the value of the commodity they sold was determined, as in the case of all other commodities, by the amount of labour-time required to produce and reproduce it and that its price fluctuated with supply and demand.

Later, in exile in Britain in the 1850s, when he had more time to study the workings of capitalism, Marx came to draw a distinction between “labour” and “labour-power”. Labour-power was the ability to work, the skill to produce something, while “labour” was the result of the exercise of these skills, the expenditure of labour-power. What workers sold to their employers was their “labour-power” not labour. Labour in fact couldn’t be bought and sold, only the commodities in which it was embodied could be.

So crucial was this distinction to Marx’s considered analysis of capitalism that when in 1891 Engels republished Marx’s 1849 article Wage Labour and Capital (still a basic introductory text to Marxian economics) he corrected the text on this point, explaining in his Introduction, “According to the original, the worker sells his labour to the capitalist for wages; according to the present text he sells his labour power” (Engels’s emphasis).

This distinction solved the problem of exactly how profit arose from the exploitation of workers. Workers were paid (generally and more or less) the full value of what they sold – their labour-power – yet were still exploited because the exercise of their labour-power produced a greater value than that of their labour-power. This “surplus value” was the source of their employer’s profit and of all capitalist property incomes.

Up until then pro-working-class thinkers and activists had tended to see profits as arising either from employers paying workers less than the value of what they sold (i.e. by cheating or swindling them) or from them selling what workers produced above its value (i.e. through profiteering or ripping off their customers).

Both these do go on under capitalism but Marx held that, as explanations of working class exploitation, they were unsatisfactory as they suggest that this has its origin in exchange not production and that it could be ended by “fair wages” or “fair trade” rather than by making the means of production the common property of all.