Friday, November 27, 2015

Jack Dash (1989)

From the July 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

When I last saw Jack Dash he lay dying in an East End hospital; he said he knew that his time had come, but hoped that he had contributed his bit to the struggle of his class. The time before that we sat in a pub and argued with the ferocity that good friendship allows. Although we were separated in age by half of a century, and in ideas by an even greater gulf, Jack and I were real mates. He was a marvellous story-teller, and able poet who could recite with passion and sing old cockney songs in ways that brought their class origins to life. When, a few years ago, a discussion circle on Marxism was set up in Jack's flat it was a pleasure to see how willing he was to think afresh about the complexities of Marxist theory: in all his years of being praised and vilified as a "Marxist" he had found little time to delve into the complexities of the history of our class, and it was tremendous to share in the process of such discovery when giving talks to Jack and his friends at those informal classes held on the eighteenth floor of a tower block.

Three passions governed Jack's political life. He was a member of the Communist Party. A real loyalist: not a word would he hear against the Socialist Fatherland which dominated his political vision like Jesus on the Cross in the mind of a God Squad zealot. Secondly, he was a militant trade unionist. Never an official man, Jack. The T & G tried to offer him official posts, but Jack preferred to stick to the rank and file. "You win strikes with the men, not sitting in a union office making plans for them", he would say. He knew the docks as if they were his home and the dockers as if they were family: to sell them out would be like stabbing a relative in the back. He said of the TUC that "there are more knights around the table than there were at King Arthur's. If I'd had my way they wouldn't be knighted but neutered". Thirdly, he loved the arts: poetry (Shelley was his favourite, but he liked plenty of others, including the required "Soviet: writers) and paintings and songs and plays. When Unity Theatre (the first working-class theatre in London to put on radical plays) were being built he volunteered as a labourer. His partner on the site was Paul Robeson who stayed with Jack while he was in London; Jack would complain about Robeson hogging the bathroom in the morning and singing at the top of his voice. Imagine that: months of having one of the finest singers ever to live annoying  you with his unpaid entertaining as you prepare for a hard day's work in the docks.

Uncritical of Russia
Capitalism is a monstrous system which makes fools of worker's ideals. As a socialist, the present writer was hostile to Jack's Leninist politics. Without a doubt, he wanted a better world to love in. When the present writer described the socialism that we so urgently need to establish, Jack would be filled with enthusiasm. His hatred of the profit system and hunger for something new are not to be sneered at. But for all of that he was an unrepentant Stalinist. Not a word of criticism would he ever voice against the atrocities committed by the state-capitalist police state which exists in the Russian Empire. He would lose no time in apologising for it. When Stalin was purging millions of so-called enemies of "socialism in one country", Brother Dash was there to explain that most of Stalin's crimes were invented by the capitalist press, and the others were justified by the "counter-revolutionary" activities of Stalin's opponents. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Brother Dash pointed out that Stalin had gone too far, but now the socialist state was in safe hands. All of the obscene corruption of the Brezhnev years was defended without the merest hint of criticism. When the so-called Eurocommunists began to express complaints about all not being perfect in the Russian proletarian paradise, Brother Dash denounced them as anti-Marxists—or, to use the crazy terminology of the mixed-up "Communists", enemies of "Marxism-Leninism". When Gorbachev introduced the latest reforms, in an effort to integrate the Russian Empire more fully into the capitalist world market, Brother Dash agreed that this is what had to be done in order to modernise socialism. It was one long lifetime of having to pretend that black was white: that oppression was freedom and state capitalism was socialism. It was a life of having to close one's eyes to the Russian bureaucrats whose privileged lifestyles compare well with the fatcat profit-takers who are the capitalists in the West. The poverty of so many East European wage slaves was something to be denied, just as a Tory denies the same social features in Britain.

Why do men who are filled with a burning hatred of the inequities of the profit system allow themselves to be dragged down into this web of self-deceit—and then, inevitably, the deceit of others? Why do they blind themselves, these Stalinist dogmatists who refuse to admit that the whole Bolshevik project has been the most awful disaster for the workers who have been its victims? Here we enter the field of political psychology; it is a field which socialists may have to tread upon a few more times before we complete the road between here and human liberation. One factor in it is the sectarian need to stick to the Party line. The CP says that Russia is the Socialist Fatherland and it is the duty of every loyal comrade to prove that true. When loyalty to the organisation—any organisation—overcomes commitment to historical truth (to honesty), then all is lost in a terrible sectarian haze. Perhaps another motive was the desire on the part of some workers to be able to imagine that an alternative to capitalism was actually in existence. A sort of self-delusion to offer comfort to those who have to live under and suffer the miseries of capitalism. Bogus socialist countries might serve to soften the hardship of living in a world which is really dominated from top to bottom by the capitalist system.

Whatever the motives for the irrational faith in the phoney socialism of the Leninist states, socialists must expose the dangers of such beliefs. Fortunately, history is doing our job for us: these days it is mainly the old-timers who still entertain the crass fantasies about socialist countries existing (although there are plenty of younger leftists who are gullible enough to accept variations on the same old Leninist theme). Sadly for Jack, after years of loyalty to the CP, he was forced to leave it shortly before he died. There has been a very recent split between the Communist Party of Great Britain (which is the Marxism Today official CP) and the Communist Party of Britain which remains loyal to The Morning Star and its uncritical stance towards Russia. (There is yet another CP—the New Communist Party—which argues that even The Morning Star is not Stalinist enough and only they are the true inheritors of the truly fascistic outlook of the heyday of the 1930s.) Jack could  not bring himself to talk about the split which was accompanying the collapse of the CP; he just went on as of nothing has changed, pretending that his little faction was the party.

The Dockers' Way Out
As for his loyalty to the dockers, how ironic it was that Jack died a month after the government announced its intention to abolish the Dock Labour scheme. On the day he died hundreds of dockers went out on unofficial strike after the courts had refused to accept the legality of a three-to-one vote (by secret ballot) in favour of striking. What bloody audacity this this: a government passing laws telling the unions that strikes must be preceded by ballots and then sending in the unelected Judges to declare such a ballot illegal because a dockers' strike could damage the national interest! The fact is that the dockers are up against a system which cannot make profits out of them like it used to and so they are being prepared for the economic slaughter. Jack had fought with admirable militancy back in the 1960s when containerisation threatened the wages and conditions of the dockers. But King Capital is mightier than the mightiest defender of the working-class interest. There comes a point at which defence will not do the trick. Only tackling the wages system itself, with its right to exploit for profit, will prevent the dock employers winning. The dock workers, some of whom marched for Enoch Powell in the late 1960s and voted Labour like sheep to the slaughter are not yet in a position to take on the system. That is what they must do. Only by organising to abolish the wages system, with its employment and jobs, and not by the pathetic demands of "Jobs for Life", will the dockers really win.
Steve Coleman

Greasy Pole: Kumar's Story (2001)

The Greasy Pole column from the March 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are about 28 million cars imposing a thrombotic, pollutant tyranny on this country and until recently one of them was driven by Kumar. Not now though; not after he had come up before the magistrates for driving when he had drunk too much. In the dock, shy and nervous, he looked too gentle to have done anything at all likely to put other people at risk. But that is what the law, supported by some impressive evidence, insisted he had done. So they fined him and banned him from driving for a year and if he disobeys that he is very likely to end up in prison.

The court clerk, who is not shy or nervous, demanded that Kumar identify himself through an interpreter standing beside him. Kumar is a Tamil speaker from Sri Lanka,. which has a reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the world as well as one of the most terrifying. Kumar's family had suffered from the official policy of discrimination against Tamils and in the armed clashes between the government forces and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. In fear that it would not be long before some, or even all, of them would be killed, they scraped up the money to get Kumar, his two brothers and a sister to England; their mother is dead and their father, who is in his eighties, was too frail to travel so they left him in the care of another, brave, sister.

That was four years ago and there has been no contact with them since then. Kumar has no idea where his father and sister are, or whether they are alive or dead. He knows they must keep on the move, never staying in one place for long, for fear of what the government forces will do to persuade them to reveal the whereabouts of the rest of the family. Kumar weeps when he talks about this and he is scared because the Home Office have refused his first application for refugee status; he knows what will be waiting for him if he is sent back to Sri Lanka.

That may well be why he drinks so much, except that there is a Road Traffic Act which lays it down that drinking to excess must not be mixed with driving. This particular law came into being in late 1967, giving the police powers to stop any driver suspected of having drunk too much to take the breathalyser test—blow into a tube attached to a bag. If the crystals in the tube changed colour the person was arrested and then had to give a sample of either blood or urine which was sent for analysis. A reading of at least 80 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of the sample ensured that, whatever else the court might do, there had to be a driving disqualification of at least 12 months. In May 1983 this process was speeded up by the introduction of the Lion Intoximeter, which gives an instant analysis of a breath sample.

From the beginning—a White Paper published in December 1965—we were assured that the breathalyser law was inspired solely by a desire to save human lives. There was compelling evidence from the BMA (The Drinking Driver, 1965) that an alcohol content of 100 microgrammes would make a driver six times more likely to have an accident; a content of 150 to make them 25 times more likely. But statistics are only part of the story; in a society of commodity production it is profit, not human safety, which is the overriding factor. In Great Britain in 1996 the estimated cost of all road accidents, in which there were just over 392,000 casualties, was £267 million. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents expected a new law to prevent 18,000 casualties and 360 deaths on the roads—which was estimated to save something like £10 million a year in the cost of hospital treatment, welfare and repairs. There have been many examples of capitalism's priorities, long before the recent scandal of Railtrack and the broken rails and the "safety" mechanisms which are so inadequate that they allow a train full of passengers to pass a signal at danger.

Whatever the doctors, or anyone else, said, the breathalyser stirred volcanic passions as an unreasonable attack on the car, which was rapidly being elevated into one of capitalism's great icons of delusion. The Minister of Transport responsible for the Act was Barbara Castle, a tough left-winger who robustly rode out the flood of abuse and ridicule which was aimed at her from almost every saloon bar and nineteenth hole in the country. Cherished cars were disfigured by alcoholist, sexist stickers denouncing the breathalyser: "Down With Barbara's Bags" was among the less inflammatory. Some time later, when her battle had been won, Castle was able to refer to the "almost hysterical and irrational opposition" to the measure. In any case she eventually went some way to placate the people who had so raucously denounced her when, as Minister of Labour and Productivity she did her feisty best, using her reputation as a left-winger, to persuade the unions to accept a reduction in their bargaining power.

There were some magistrates among those with reservations about a law which laid down a mandatory sentence of disqualification. Courts are resistant to prescribed penalties, which they regard as undermining the "common sense" which pride themselves on—but which is often not so apparent to defendants. Some magistrates exposed their opposition rather more explicitly, at times virtually apologising to the person in the dock for having to strip them of their cherished power to drive their car whenever they liked no matter what their ability to drive. One chairman went so far as to tell a defendant, as he informed him that he was about to be banned, that he sympathised with him because he often saw people getting legless in the bar at his golf club then driving home in their Bentley or Jaguar. He probably thought he was only being humane, comforting . . .

The contribution made by the car to the delusions which sustain capitalism, and the political implications of this, were made explicit when in the 1997 general election Tony Blair warned New Labour of their need to attract the votes of Mondeo Man. Cars can be an extension of the privacy which in some respects capitalism encourages—in our homes, our money, our neurotic responses to the system's pressures. Drivers assert this privacy when, on their way to work, they swish past a huddle of fellow workers waiting in the rain for a bus. They assert it when their response to having their car stolen is almost as if they had been raped. The car symbolises an illusionary affluence; the first thing workers dream of buying if they achieve the astronomically unlikely win of the Lottery is a car a lot more expensive than the Mondeo parked outside. Travelling in a car, we are told by the manufacturers and the motoring organisations, is sexy partly because it gives us freedom, when in reality it often means being imprisoned in the stress of a traffic jam on the way to work—to a day of wage slavery. Driving a car deceives workers that they are in control; they can move this lethally powerful machine, making it go faster or slower, steering it round corners, bringing it to a stop. Yet the basic reality of our lives—that we need to sell our labour power to an employer in order to live—means that we are not in control. When the recent announcement was made of the impending closure of the Corus steel mills and the thousands of sackings, one of the workers' expressed anxieties was that this meant they could no longer afford to have a car to control.

None of this concerned Kumar as the interpreter explained that he was now banned from driving and would have to pay a fine and some of the prosecution costs and asked him how he could do this out of his wage from the warehouse. He looked surprised and relieved—after all he had been through a lot in his short life and he had given up expecting the future to promise that things would get better. Nobody told him about the stoicism capitalism demands of us as the price of survival and the punishment that awaits anyone who can only try to blank out reality.