Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Utopian Communities (1966)

Book Review from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

The History of American Socialisms by John Humphrey Noyes, with new introduction by Mark Holloway, Dover, New York

"Socialism has been tried before in various communal experiments. These failed because men cannot live together, co-operating freely in production and sharing the amenities and products of their community."

So runs one of the "human nature" type of objections to Socialism.

The answer is that Socialism cannot work in isolation. It must be world-wide, taking over from the present world-wide system of society—capitalism. The conditions for its achievement are, that there must be a potential abundance for all, and that a majority of workers must be equipped with the knowledge of Socialism and be organised to get it. Socialism is the emancipation of the working class and not an escape from capitalism to some backwoods hideaway. This is Scientific Socialism as opposed to the earlier ideas of reforming mankind by setting up communities free from the influence of private property known as Utopian Socialism.

This book is a contemporary account of Utopian communities set up in America mainly between 1825 and 1850. The author founded a religious community which lasted 30 years. The greater part of his material was drawn from the researches of A. J. Macdonald, an admirer of Robert Owen. The book is largely devoted to brief histories of communal experiments, the main groups dealt with being: the efforts of Owen and his followers, communities set up by admirers of Fourier and various religious colonies.

It is interesting that theories developed to deal with the effects of the industrial revolution in Europe should have been applied in pre-industrial America. There was plenty of land available in America and people who had escaped from conditions in Europe were keen to try new and more satisfying ways of living. Their role was of pioneers opening up virgin territory rather than social revolutionaries ending oppression.

The fallacy of trying to change the social environment in isolation is evident with each experiment. Private property dogged them from the start. Land, tools and supplies had to be bought. Funds had to be raised for these, which meant that the community was in debt to the lender. They had to direct their efforts to paying this off so that they had to try and sell their products at a profit. In practice these schemes worked out as private property, held and worked in common, with all the frustrations of small property owners and the added irritants of being confined by the bounds of their land and of their social circle, both work and play, being limited to the colony. No wonder their attempts to change society failed. This book only deals with the mechanics of failure (some, say Noyes, were, incompetent; others anti-religious; some had too many lazy members; others were struck by disasters like fire or sickness) but does not question the ideas of the Utopians.

The ideas, which seemed feasible in the 19th century, have been swept away by modern capitalism. The working class in its hundreds of millions is engaged in the social process of production on a world scale. Their position has changed from being mere beasts of burden to the people who run society from top to bottom. Yet for all these changes their social position is unchanged: they still face the problems associated with wage or salary earning; they still work for the minority who own the means of production. It is now clear that the environment of capitalism makes socialists who, when they are in a majority, will use their knowledge to make the world fit to live on.

The History of American Socialisms is an interesting historical document showing the efforts that men made to organise their affairs on what they thought was a sane and rational basis. The failure of the Utopians lay not in their intentions or courage but in the fact that the conditions of capitalism in their day made their ideas seem feasible.

Cooking the Books: Yes, We Have No Economic Policy (2015)

The Cooking the Books Column from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Or, put another way, we don’t have any policy for trying to manage the capitalist system.

This is for two reasons.

First, we don’t want to manage the capitalist economy. We want to end it.

Second, we don’t think that it can be managed.

The economic policies of all the other parties assume that it can whereas experience shows that it can’t. Rather than governments controlling capitalism, it’s been the other way round. Governments have to react to what capitalism throws at them. They are like people in a small boat on a choppy sea, powerless to control what is happening to them and only able to take puny counter-action.

A revealing recent example of how governments can’t control the way capitalism works was the claim by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, to have finally ended the boom/slump cycle (echoing, incidentally, a similar claim by Nigel Lawson twenty years earlier). Within a couple of years the biggest slump since the 1930s hit the world, including Britain.

All the Labour government and the subsequent Tory/Lib Dem coalition could do was to react to it. And react to it on capitalism’s terms – by cutting back on government spending so as to reduce the burden of taxation on profits, the lifeblood of the capitalist system, in the hope that sooner or later profitability would be restored and a profit-led recovery begin.

Ironically perhaps, this lets the Labour Party off the hook as far as one criticism is concerned – the Tories blaming the economic situation after 2008 on Labour’s economic policy. This is unfair as it was the internal workings of the capitalist system that brought about the slump. The history of capitalism shows that it goes through a repeating boom/slump/boom/slump cycle, with a big slump breaking out every 50-60 years. There’s nothing any government can do about this. So it was capitalism, not Labour, that has caused the ‘economic mess’ as the Tories called it.

But this works both ways. Just as capitalism spontaneously caused the crash of 2008 and subsequent slump it has also spontaneously caused the present modest economic recovery. The Tories are claiming this as the result of the economic policies pursued over the past five years. But they are claiming credit for something that was going to happen anyway sooner or later (in the event, far later than they expected) because in a slump the devaluation of capital and the fall in real wages, by restoring profitability, create the conditions for a profit-led recovery. That’s the way capitalism works.

So, governments can’t control the way the capitalist economy works. They can only work with it, putting profits and conditions for profit-making before meeting people’s needs adequately and before other considerations such as safety at work and protecting the environment. Capitalism is a profit system that runs on profits and can only work by giving them priority. Governments have to accept this and in the end they all do.

This is the only way capitalism can work. It can’t be reformed to work in any other way. This is why it has to go and be replaced by a system based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources so that we can really control what is produced and distributed. On this basis we can gear production to meeting needs instead of for the market or to make a profit, with people having free access to what they need in accordance with the principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’. In a word, socialism (in its original sense).

Fantasy masquerading as reality (1997)

Theatre Review from the March 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, Lyttleton Theatre.

Harold Pinter is perhaps the most lauded English playwright of the past thirty years. The National Theatre has premiered three of his new plays and revived five others in the last 20 years, and now revives a sixth, The Homecoming. For its part The Homecoming has been seen widely both in the United Kingdom and across the world. The programme for the current revival at the National Theatre lists forty-four major productions, across five continents, since the play was first performed in 1965. Pinter is seen as a serious and successful dramatist. His plays both command respect and can usually be counted upon to fill a theatre. Several have been successfully filmed. Performances of his new work are seen as significant events, not least by those arbiters of taste, the critics of national newspapers.

Years ago Kenneth Tynan noted that Pinter's ability to hold an audience seemed to depend upon three qualities: "his bizarre use of dramatic technique"; "his skill in evoking atmosphere" (especially feat and apprehension); and "his command of contemporary idiom" (A View of the English Stage, K. Tynan).

These three qualities are vert evident in The Homecoming, the tale of the return of a prodigal son and his wife to some anonymous tenement in North London, the son now teaching philosophy in an American university. Who are the four males in residence? What are their positions as members of the family? Pinter reveals his secrets slowly, teasingly. And as he does so he preserves an atmosphere of uncertainty, not to say menace. As the four males circle each other violence never feels far away. It is spat out in the dialogue. It is apparent in the body language. And with the arrival of the returning son and his wife it becomes manifest.

But there is a problem. Pinter's use of language may be convincing—some people do, on some occasions, speak in the intensely aggressive and idiomatic way that is commonplace in his work—but it is nevertheless often very difficult to square what the characters say to one another, with that we know about them and what they do. So if the dialogue is convincing, its use by characters on stage is not. Thus it appears that brother Lenny is a pimp. In such circumstances would Lenny continue to live at home where he is the butt of aggressive behaviour from his almost psychotic father? And when locked in a row with his returning brother, a successful philosopher, would we expect Lenny rather than his brother to win the sophisticated discussion about the nature of philosophical discourse?

If Pinter's characterisation is unconvincing his storytelling is almost perverse. Why would the successful son want to bring his wife home to the alienating hell from which he had successfully flown? And what happens between the end of the first act and the beginning of the second, to transform a group of six adults who were previously locked in a violent, physical struggle, and who now emerge like some fawning members of a college sophomore group? Pinter offers no reasons for their inexplicable behaviour. And as for the apparently demure wife who is revealed as a potentially promiscuous woman—would she really exchange life in America with her husband and her three children for the charms of being a part-time prostitute. as well as a part-time housewife and comforter to four variously unattractive males? The proposition is at once as hugely unconvincing as it is significantly misogynistic.

Many/most of the characters (sic) in The Homecoming have neither substance nor validity. The actors are superb and they demand our attention. However, although the set convincingly captures the essence of a shabby tenement in the 1960s, its realism contrasts markedly with the frequent implausibility of Pinter's characterisation and narrative. Never mind that almost without exception Pinter's characters are significantly disadvantaged and/or unfailingly unpleasant—a view of the world which is at odds with most people's experience even in the barbaric world of the market—their behaviour seems to be based almost entirely on primitive physiological and psychological needs and drives; drives which barely acknowledge the social world beyond home and hearth. Pinter's writing may have many qualities, but he ultimately presents us with a preposterously uni-dimensional view of human behaviour; a kind of unreal, invalid fascist nightmare.
Michael Gill

Labour's bad memory (1981)

From the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
But this is terrible. They have elected a Labour government and the country will never stand for that. (Woman dining at Claridge's, 26 July 1945.)
Thirty years ago—on October 5 1951 to be exact—the British people voted to set themselves free, to expunge austerity from their lives, to replace snoek and dried eggs with good red meat. At least that was what Tory politicians (like Churchill, Eden, Butler, Woolton—how evocative the very names are now) had told them would happen if they got rid of the Labour government.

The government—Labour's first ever with its own majority—was elected, in the final stages of the 1939/45 war, on the promise to build a fair, abundant, secure Britain. What happened, between 1945 and 1951. to swing the voters the other way?

The Labour Party was all but wiped out by the 1929 crash and the MacDonald defection. When the war started in 1939 they were inching their way back to a position where they could challenge the Conservatives' apparently eternal majority. There is little doubt that the war condensed and hastened the changes Labour need to carry that challenge to victory.

The popular mood in 1945 was very different from that after the First World War, when recovery meant getting back to the Good Old Days when the British monarchy, the Empire, the  pound sterling and the Royal Navy were to last for ever and ever amen. In 1945 the rampant desire was for progress; pre-war Britain was remembered as a place where incompetent and complacent politicians turned a blond eye to chronic unemployment and the rise of the European dictators, only worried that nothing should upset important events like Royal Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match at Lord's.

The post-war urge for social change had, ironically, been stimulated by the official war propaganda, which was based on the theory that the workers would more readily sacrifice themselves in their masters' interests if they could be persuaded that this would result in a better Britain than before the war. Churchill, in a speech to the boys at Harrow School (what more appropriate place?) declared:
When this war is won . . . it must be one of our aims to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which have hitherto been enjoyed only by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many . . .
This type of assurance was given by the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, with its proposals for a comprehensive welfare state and which millions of workers were silly enough to believe was a plan for a society free from poverty.

That this restlessness benefited the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives was partly due to another profound working class misconception. The success of the Russian forces against the German invaders was regarded as evidence of the efficiency and desirability of a system of state control. As a result Labour, as the party of natonalisation, picked up a lot of votes. Tory candidate Aubrey Jones (later a minister) said that during his 1945 election campaign he was persistently told by people in his audiences: "Look what nationalisation has done for Russia, and how great and strong she has become." There was also the idea—quickly dispersed by experience—that a Labour government would be able to deal more amicably with the Russians—"that left could talk to left."

So the Labour Party could enter their election campaign in 1945 in rollicking style. "The Labour Party," proclaimed their manifesto Let Us Face the Future "Is a Socialist Party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain . . . " They proposed to nationalise key industries and to set up the National Health Service. It was to be the dawn of a new era of equality and plenty: "Homes for the people must come before mansions, necessities for all before luxuries for the few" their programme said.

This heady stuff helped Labour to a crushing victory, laying low five Tory Cabinet ministers in the process. Clement Attlee, spurning a chauffeur driven limousine, climbed into the family Austin Ten for his wife to drive him to Buckingham Palace where the king, seemingly unafraid in the presence of so dangerous a revolutionary, asked him to form a government to keep capitalism running. Attlee went off to do as the king asked; seven ex-miners were in his first Cabinet but the king didn't seem to mind. Excited Labour MPs sang the Red Flag in the House; at least it was probably the Red Flag but quite a few of them were such shakily recent converts that they knew neither the words nor the tune of the Socialist Commonwealth's funereal anthem. There was excitement of a sort outside Parliament too; "Those who are well off are trembling with fear" confided Marie Belloc Lowndes to her diary.

Well of course they need not have worried. At the election, Attlee had made quite clear what he thought of all that nonsense about socialism: " . . . it is time that the Labour Party ceased to mouth Marxist shibboleths about the proletariat having nothing to lose but their chains. It is just not true." On this cue his government, ex-miners and all, quickly got down to an attack on the living standards of the working class. The country (by which they meant the British capitalist class) was in trouble; therefore everyone (by which they meant the British working class) must work harder and pull in their belts. Food rations were sometimes cut below those endured in wartime and some—for example bread and potatoes—were rationed for the first time. Up and down the country posters were slapped on hoardings bellowing "We're Up Against It! We Work Or Want." In February 1948 the government published a White Paper on Wages and Personal Incomes, which was the first of numerous post-war attempts at a wages "policy", more accurately called wage restraint. The White Paper touched off a long war between the government and trade unions in which the government could claim some success; over the next 2½ years prices increased by 8 per cent while wages went up by only 5 per cent.

On the whole the unions were sympathetic to the government, which caused their frustrated members to stage "unofficial" strikes—strikes without union backing—in which they sometimes had to fight their union almost as hard as their employer. The "unofficial striker" became as black a folk devil as the "flying picket" was to Callaghan's government in the seventies. The government reacted sharply, sending in servicemen to break strikes and in 1949 considering in Cabinet a plan to deport trade unionists who were organising strikes in the docks and in 1950 actually prosecuting some gas workers who went on strike outside the agreed procedure.

This attack on the working class was largely the work of Stafford Cripps, once a turbulent rebel who was expelled from the Labour Party but had become an austere devotee to the economic progress of the British capitalist class. Through a long painful illness Cripps stoically urged the working class, in the name of honour, duty and honesty, to work harder and longer for less. One of his notable methods of cutting wages was the massive devaluation of sterling in 1949 from an exchange rate of $4.03 to $2.80. Cripps did this after emphatically denying that he had any such intention, which did not seem to disturb his sense of honour or honesty.

A similar zeal was evident in the Attlee government's participation in the military conflicts of world capitalism. One of its earliest decisions was to develop an independent British nuclear arsenal—an historic fact which has never lessened the fervour of those thousands of Labour supporters who have subsequently demonstrated against those weapons. When the Americans—calling themselves the United Nations—went to war against North Korea in 1950 the Labour government gave immediate and unqualified support. British workers were sent off to fight there—nearby 700 of them were killed—and the period of national service (Labour had already made history by keeping conscription going for the first time ever in "Peace") was increased from 1½ to 2 years. They spent what were then record peacetime amounts on armaments; Gaitskell's first proposals, when took over as Chancellor from Cripps, were for an annual expenditure on something he called "defence" of £1,500 million. At the same time he imposed charges for prescriptions, dental treatment and spectacles—a bitter blow for those who had struggled for so long to realise the article of faith of a "free" National Health Service.

Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that, apart from some last minute havering over steel, the Attlee government kept their pledge to nationalise basic industries. In the case of coal it was common for the oldest ex-miner in the district capable of tugging on a rope to be taken to the pithead to run up the National Coal Board flag and declare that the people had at last taken over the mines.

Well as we all know, people who are under emotional stress tend to overlook important but inconvenient facts. The truth was that nationalisation was very far from ownership by the people; why else did Tories like Churchill and Quintin Hogg (now Lord Hailsham) say that in most cases they had no objection to the state takeover? In his book The Road to 1945 Paul Addison says:
In each case the argument for state control was as much accepted by businessmen as by Labour politicians . . .
When the Bank of England was nationalised there was not even an outward sign of change; the Governor, his Deputy and the Court were left in office, to carry on as before. Nobody suggested bringing some ancient retired clerk, grown dim-eyed from years of poring over ledgers, to raise the Red Flag over Threadneedle Street.

Many members of that government paid a high personal cost in their efforts to hold British capitalism together in crisis. Two of them—Cripps and Bevin—died. And when, thirty years ago, they lost the election, they were written down—inaccurately—as a party of rigid political theory, of experiment, the party which bungled its way into crises, shortages and finally into its own defeat.

They were a long time recovering. But among the Labour ranks as they went down that October day was one whose canny grasp of political reality looked forward to the day when the workers would be dissatisfied with the Tories too. Harold Wilson's great contribution to the politics of capitalism was to win recognition for Labour as a "pragmatic" party. He practised deceit in a new dimension. Theory and experiment, a desire for a different social order however misinformed, were for those who watched white haired, wheezing ex-miners raise flags. Wilson might stand watching too but at the same time he knew that it was his role to bring the Labour Party to its destiny as the alternative administration for British capitalism.

The Palace-Builders (1975)

From the March 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
We cut sandstone pyramids out of desert strata,
They said it would preserve them for our God;
And piled on pile for the Tower of Babylon,
For they promised us good in a score of tongues;
We gave them tribute at the gates of the Labyrinth,
To pacify the Bull which was shaking the earth;
Upon the Rock of Athens, we built to perfection,
Were not all now equal under rule of the many?
We vaulted a dome for the Pantheon, needing no centre,
Had not Caesar promised to restore the Republic?
At Santa Sophia we gave the heavens a new roof,
Blessed by one Pope, cursed by another, and used in the name of Allah.
We watered their moats, raised up castle keeps,
Ploughed the land which owned us, safe in its fief;
Pointed their arches, filled them with painted glass,
Reaching for heaven with our tallest spire.
We gave them our tools, beggared our serfdom,
They put a price on our hands and some were unsold;
Then cut off our ears and in our foreheads branded
The mark of a slave and none paid us wages;
The fields were trenched and with fences enclosed,
Our cottage homes sank under palace improvements,
Our infants were gathered — the care of the Poor was Law —
Cotton, wool and linen their small hands wove them all.
We build no more now that art needs no muscle,
The hammer wears out its shaft, the stone eats the chisel;
Because we held the levers we thought we were in control,
Pharaoh, King Caesar, Pope, Baron, Merchant — Capital!
Their machines have sucked upon our labour,
Our skills and their products quarter the globe;
But coming is the time when the world will favour
We! — And masons will carve their own abode.
B. K. McNeeney