Thursday, March 10, 2016

One nation — an emaciated myth (1988)

From the January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few things are more consistently misrepresented than the past and now the Tory Wets are at it, with their talk of One Nation. There was, they tell us, something called One Nation Toryism when decency was the politician’s guiding principle. When those who held wealth and power and privilege regarded themselves as under an agonising obligation to the rest, who had little or none of those things. The poor and the sick had to be looked after — and of course kept poor — through a charitable concern for their welfare. Naturally there will be disputes occasionally to mar this blissful arrangement but these can be settled through a process of consensus, taking all interests into account so that the final decision is acceptable to everyone. Confrontation - the bitter, head-on fight to the death — is in very bad taste. Apparently One Nation Toryism operated in the past and as a result everyone kept their place and England was a green and pleasant land awash with milk and honey.

So far nobody has actually been able to tell us when that was and what it was like and why, if life then was so relaxed and serene, the principle of One Nation was ever allowed to decline into Divided Britain under Margaret Thatcher, who enjoys nothing so much as a good day’s searing confrontation with Neil Kinnock, the unions, the BBC or her own back benchers. Just how much some of those back benchers are in the grip of nostalgia for One Britain was made clear recently when Ted Heath attacked the government’s proposals on education reform on the grounds that they violated the sacred principles of real, caring Toryism. But it is less than 20 years ago when Heath was himself Prime Minister. Was there One Nation then? Have we forgotten something about life in Britain in the 1970s?

Heath, like Thatcher, was the offspring of a small-town grocer. He was brought up in Broadstairs on the Kent coast. Now there is much to recommend Broadstairs, a rambling town with white cliffs, sandy bays and rock pools which give it the air of a seaside town out of Enid Blyton. But it hardly seems a place likely to spawn a charismatic political leader and so it turned out to be with Heath — a dogged, stubborn man who lacked the art of showing himself as a person of real warmth or of clear principles. Of course this was not why he was sacked as Tory leader. In the eyes of his party, his real crime was to lose an election, in circumstances which seemed to make it almost entirely his fault.

And that is what makes his talk now about One Britain rather strange. Heath came to power in June 1970 after a campaign in which his party promised to do something to stop what seemed to be the unstoppable rise in prices. The Tory programme made it quite clear that they would apply a different economic strategy from that of previous Labour and Conservative governments. Harder-headed, more rigorous standards would be applied, the screw would be tightened on state subsidies to ailing companies and those which could not compete effectively enough would be abandoned — lame ducks as prey to the economic foxes and vultures. There would be an end to government intervention in wage disputes, which would be left to sort themselves out under the influence of market forces; Labour’s Prices and Incomes Board would be abolished.

The idea was partly to encourage employers to resist wage claims and the government led the way in this by enforcing the policy on its own employees who, apart from anything else, were among the weakest in their bargaining power. The postmen were a vital test case; they took their dispute to the lengths of a strike but theirs was an industry due for the sweeping changes which have since come about. Their defeat was predictable, as was the bitterness with which they faced it. It was no time to talk to a postman about One Nation Toryism.

The same can be said about the decision to abolish free school milk, which had once been held up as an example to the world of how a caring state ensured that no child should grow up with easily avoidable diseases of malnutrition. It can be said too about the rise in the price of school dinners, an early step towards their eventual virtual abolition. School dinners had been valued as a social service, an assurance that even the poorest kids would get at least one substantial meal each day (not to mention the poorly paid teachers). Thatcher was Minister of Education at the time; she later said that the attacks she received over these cuts would send her home weeping — a touching vision.

But Heath was perhaps a little before his time in these policies and it soon became apparent that if British capitalism was to compete in its established markets there was an urgent need for help from the state. In early 1972 Heath did his famous U-turn, when he reversed many of the policies on which his election victory had been based. Huge subsidies were made available to industry; Rolls Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were two of the more famous companies saved from collapse. Having abolished the Labour government’s Industrial Development Corporation, which organised these types of operation, Heath’s government now set up the Industrial Development Executive, whose function was almost exactly the same. In place of Labour’s Prices and Incomes Board we had a Price Commission and a Wages Board. Now committed to a policy of interference in wage disputes the government were faced with a series of them, in particular a strike by civil servants — the first in history.

The abandonment of the principle of non-interference was finally signalled with the imposition of a statutory 90-day freeze on wage rises, to be relaxed gradually over a long period. This was accompanied by an erosion of trade union bargaining power in the Industrial Relations Bill. The Labour Party attacks on this Bill ignored the fact that many of its proposals were similar to those in the previous Labour government’s White Paper In Place of Strife. When the Bill became law it did nothing to reduce tension and its inoperable nature was made clear in June 1973 when some dockers were imprisoned for contempt of court after refusing to appear before the Industrial Relations Court. The judge concerned was interpreting the Act correctly; he was doing what the government and parliament had wanted. But an acutely embarrassed government could foresee an unending procession of eager trade union martyrs pressing through the prison gates. Something had to be done to wangle out of this impasse of their own making. The Official Solicitor was urged to think of a way out; this shadowy figure enjoyed a brief spell of fame, the dockers were released and the Act and the Court thereafter discredited.

This monumental muddle came to a head with the oil crisis of 1973, as the miners, the electrical power workers and the train drivers were taking action over pay claims. The miners had already won a spectacular victory in their strike of 1972, when the flying pickets came onto the scene, Arthur Scargill first made his name and the Wilberforce Enquiry came down emphatically on the miners’ side. There is no need here to recount the story of the Three Day Week, the State of Emergency, the power cuts, the unlit shop fronts, the blank television screens after 10.30pm. It was hardly an ideal vision of One Nation. After that, no Prime Minister should have hoped to win an election (although in fact Heath almost pulled it off).

Perhaps Heath made some terrible mistake. Perhaps he simply got his timing wrong — many of his policies are in operation now, more appropriate to the interests of British capitalism in recession in the 1980s than they were in the 1970s. But one policy he did not try through all those crises was that of One Nation Toryism. For example his bitter denunciation of the miners in 1973 allowed nothing about the dangers of their job. In March that year seven miners were killed by floodwater; in May another seven in a collapse; in July 18 in a pit cage crash. At that time pneumoconiosis held some 40,000 miners in its painful, incurable grip. These workers were part of the useful, productive people in society; Heath’s policies, like those of all governments, were designed to protect the interests of the unproductive, parasitic minority of the capitalist class.

This class, when Heath lost power in 1974, still owned most of the wealth of Britain. The richest one per cent of the population held 22.5 per cent of the wealth and the richest ten per cent held 57.5 per cent. (In fact they increased their share considerably under the subsequent Labour government, who asserted that they would squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked; Labour has always claimed to be the real proponent of the One Nation principle.) That is the real, fundamental condition of society which makes all the talk of One Nation so much deceit. This is a class divided society of riches and poverty, of opulence and malnutrition, of palaces and slums. It is a society of conflict, of coercion of the many by the few, of exploitation. To attempt to revive the emaciated concept of One Nation hints that the Tory Wets must be getting desperate. It should be laid to rest, with all the other false theories by which capitalism lives on.

Education questions (2016)

Book Review from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Slavoj Zizek. A Zizekian Gaze at Education'. By Tony Wall and David Perrin. Springer. 2015.
A recent review in the Socialist Standard of a book on the nature of democracy in advanced capitalist society pointed out the hollowness of the voting process, used as it is to confirm and consolidate the status quo, compared to the much more varied and meaningful use it could be put to in a society organised differently. The same can surely be said of the education system under capitalism whose main purpose is not to spread knowledge and understanding for its own sake but to impart to its ‘consumers’ the ‘skills’ necessary to carry out functions in the market system when their formal education is over and at the same time to habituate them to the ‘normality’ of that system, making it unlikely they will look beyond it for alternatives forms of social organisation.
This is something clearly articulated by Wall and Perrin in their book on the Slovenian left-wing social commentator and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. In the last 20-odd years Zizek has produced numerous works in which he seeks to analyse the workings of modern capitalism and in particular how it shapes the psyche of all those who live under it. As this book points out, some have seen Zizek as an intellectual charlatan, ‘an empty vessel making much philosophical noise’, but Wall and Perrin, while making it clear that Zizek ‘rarely speaks about education directly’, find his broader insights into capitalist society sufficiently stimulating to apply them to the education system they themselves work in. In doing so, they go on a discursive tour that takes in situationism, the autodidactic educational tradition, and attempts at alternative education like A S Neill’s Summerhill School.
They point out how the ‘familiarity breeds consent’ processes Zizek emphasises are, in the area of education as in others, both subtle and all-encompassing so that ‘we carry on regardless, even if we have been trained to question our own assumptions and engage in critical reflection – we are readily duped and tricked and “being critical” can even lead to the concepts we are seeking to dismantle taking an even tighter grip on us’. Here we have an excellent description of how acceptance of the increasingly rigid processes of capitalist education envelop both teachers and students. Some of course do see through it, but attempts to pursue a different path within that system are most likely to result in estrangement, in weary resignation or, as the authors put it, ‘acting as if’ (e.g. as if ‘dumbing-down were not taking place or Ofsted inspections in schools or research assessment exercises in universities really were crucially important), because of our need to fit in, or even because our job may depend on it. 
The final chapter of this book, the first attempt to apply Zizek’s ideas to education, is entitled ‘Now What Might We Do’. But the writers seem to recognise that the amount that can be done within the framework in which they operate as educators is extremely limited. They quote approvingly Zizek’s statements that ‘one should analyse the capitalist system as a totality of interdependent links’ and that ‘you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives’. They recognise that the subject they are dealing with ‘goes beyond education departments and their policies, and it even goes beyond nation states’. But just as it is difficult to find in Zizek’s writings a clearly articulated view of what we might replace the current social set-up with and how that can be done, so Wall and Perrin too, perhaps inevitably given the subject of their study, limit themselves to offering what they call ‘glimpses into navigating differently’ and conclude by stating that ‘while Zizek may have been asking the questions, it is up to us both to provide the answers and act on them’.
Howard Moss

Socialism and the Intellectuals: A Confession of Impotence (1957)

From the March 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Fabian Society have just issued Tract No. 304. It is by Kingsley Amis and is entitled Socialism and the Intellectuals. On the inside of the.cover we are told that he is “a poet, novelist, literary critic and lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea. Author of the widely-acclaimed and best-selling Lucky Jim” Having read this we rubbed our eyes and looked at the title again, but right enough it was Socialism and the Intellectuals.

That the Fabian Society should have thought that this statement of Mr. Amis' qualification was a reason for giving weight to his pronouncements in a field quite foreign to him is an example of how foreign the field is to the futile Fabian Society—futile as far as understanding and changing the present basis of society is concerned.

We asked ourselves why on earth was a man with the qualifications mentioned straying into a field that must be practically unknown territory to him? We read the opening sentences of the pamphlet and were still more bewildered, for this is how he begins: “As will soon become obvious from what I have to say, I am not a politician, nor am I specially well informed about politics." After reading the pamphlet we came to the conclusion that the last phrase was too modest; he obviously is not informed at all! As he puts it on page 10: “The intelligentsia—and once more I include myself—doesn’t understand economics." However, this does not prevent him from saying what should and should not be done! Nor does it prevent him from adopting the patronising attitude that is typical of his kind.

In spite of the title there is not a word of explanation of Socialism in the whole pamphlet, though the word is used a few times. The inference we gather from his remarks is that Socialism is what the Labour Party stands for, and Marxism is what the Russian State stands for.

Cartoon from the original article.
Before he comes to a definition of the Intelligentsia Mr. Amis has some illuminating remarks to make on himself. He tells us that his father was an "office worker" and “I grew up in a modest but comfortable lower middle-class house in the London suburbs." Here one can find the outlook of the man laid bare. He could not say “working class," it would have stuck in his priggish throat. He was a scholarship boy at a London day school “and, also on a scholarship, studied English at one of the less pretentious Oxford colleges." How beautifully indefinite and smug this is. In other words his father depended upon the sale of his labour power in an office, at what job we don't know, in order to obtain the means to live and keep his family. We gather that Mr. Amis also depends for his livelihood upon the sale of his labour power in order to live, in spite of the scholarships. But the thought of identifying himself with the working class, of which in fact he is a member is abhorrent to him, just as it is abhorrent to his fellow so-called intellectuals.

Here is how he defines the Intellectual:
“I want to make a few distinctions and definitions. I take as my general field of reference the middle-class intellectual, using the phrase in a pretty wide sense. One could reel off a fairly long list of the occupations pursued by the kind of people I am discussing, and this may be helpful in attaining some sort of precision. 1 mean occupations like those university, college and school teachers, perhaps the lower ranks of the civil service, journalists, industrial scientists, librarians, G.P.'s, some of the clergy (predominantly the non-conformist sects?) and the various brands of literary and artistic, or arty intellectual." (Page 2.)
 There you have it. It will be seen that the groups he mentions all depend for a livelihood upon selling their mental and physical energies, just as John Smith the mechanic does, or Bill Jones, the fish porter. In fact they are all members of the working class. But this prosaic fact would take the self-imposed gilt off the scholarship boy produced by the “lower middle class." A pity he didn’t go further in his precision. We would be interested to know what group he would designate as the “middle middle-class" and the “upper middle-class."

All through the pamphlet Mr. Amis sets his group apart from the rest of society as a group that has no interest to defend. This is how he puts it on page 6:
“Anyway, by his station in society the member of the intelligentsia really has no political interests to defend, except the very general one (the one he most often forgets) of not finding himself bossed around by a totalitarian government. But compared with, say, a steelworker or a banker, he is politically in a void. Furthermore, he belongs to no social group which might lend him stability.”
This is the sort of rubbish that comes from the attitude of superiority; an attitude that has belonged to the Fabian Society from its inception. How does Mr. Amis think the teachers have reached their present status except by the struggles of the past? And how do they get their jobs except by setting forth their qualifications to their employers and hoping they will be the applicants chosen? In other words they act in a similar way to that of other members of the working class, and if they don’t come up to the required standard they get the sack—pardon us Mr. Amis—are asked to resign! Teachers, civil servants, etc., have “no interests to defend” and yet, like other members of the working class, they strike, or threaten to strike, for higher pay or better conditions, or to resist a worsening of conditions, even the G.P.’s are in that position at the moment.

Here are some specimens of the political outlook of Mr. Amis:
"Marxism, however, has a second attraction not offered by the Church: It involves violence." (Page 6.)
There is no evidence offered for this nonsensical view. In his ignorance Mr. Amis apparently blindly accepts Russian Communism as Marxist without investigation.
“One feels that a progressive party should have this reform [reform of the laws relating to homosexuality] on its programme." (Page 10.)
This gives an idea of the kind of question that looms large in Mr. Amis’s intellectual mind.
“Until very recently there has been only one political issue of anything like the same proportions and of the same kind as the Abyssinias and the Spains of the Thirties: I mean, of course, Cyprus. There, at any rate, is something which potentially unites the romantic with the practical man. But what gets done about it? Compare what does get done about it with what would have got done about it in the Thirties." (Page 11.)
We have compared, and, in both cases found the answer to be—nothing that fundamentally matters! Of course there has been an issue of political importance, both then and now, that reduces the ones he mentions to insignificance, but Mr. Amis hasn’t seen it. That issue is the ownership of the means of production by a privileged section of society which compels the mass of society to occupy a subject position beset by insecurity and want of the means to live a comfortable care-free life.

Here is a specimen of his idea of what moves some of his fellow intellectuals to action:
“Violence has a good deal of charm for some sections of the intelligentsia (as the cult of bullfighting shows) or, at any rate, the thought of violence is attractive. It provides a way of getting one’s own back by proxy on one’s parents and one’s old headmaster; one can work off the guilt of having been to a public school, and so on, by chatting about blowing up the class one was born into; one can compensate with some dash for one’s thwarted desire for power, which is often obversive in these circles. Quite soon it becomes natural to write airily about political murders and read about them with appreciation." (Page 6.)
We presume that Mr. Amis knows what he is talking about as he is referring to members of a group to which he keeps insisting he belongs. However, if the idea were not so absurd, and if we were not convinced he was romancing, we would be inclined to ask: “What kind of lunatics are these who masquerade as intellectuals?”

Now let us give a final quotation:
"I may have shown a certain animus towards Orwell, and I have not had occasion to do more than mention some of his many fine qualities. But animus remains, and the reason for it is this. He was the man above all others who was qualified to become the candid friend the Labour Party needed so much in the years after I945. But what he did was to become a right wing propagandist by negation, or, at any rate, a supremely powerful—though unconscious—advocate of political quietism." (Page 8.)
This seems to sum up the real reason for writing the pamphlet—to express his spleen against those of his fellow “intellectuals,” like Orwell, Auden, Koestler, Spender, and Day Lewis, whom he felt had let him down. On the other hand, of course, it may have been to “work off the guilt of having been to a public school!”

For the rest Mr. Amis's pamphlet has no value as a contribution to clearing the vision on the cause of social subjection and its removal. He evidently has no glimmering of the answers. What he has done is taken the opportunity to jibe at those of his fellow “intellectuals” who have deserted the Labour Party, make the usual clever remarks of this kind, and, with his tongue in his cheek, lump himself in with his impotent fellows. He displays the usual impudence of his fellows in straying into a field of which he is ignorant and giving his patronising opinions. If he had looked at facts instead of stratifying groups he might have got somewhere.

There is something about Left and Right wings in the pamphlet. Mr. Amis should take to his wings, fly out of discussions that are out of his depth, and get back to “best sellers.”

Odds and Ends: Totalitarian Hungary (1957)

From the February 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

Totalitarian Hungary

Under the heading “Hungary to Have Only One Party,” the Sunday Observer reports from Vienna a statement of a Mr. Marosan, Minister of State in the Kadar Government, that:—
   “The Government will try to broaden itself by including non-Communist Party representatives of other former parties”
      “This does not mean that other parties will be admitted in Hungary” (6:1:57.)
There is to be only one legal party—the so-called Hungarian Communist Party. And this the Communists call a “ People’s Democracy!” After one of the bloodiest national revolts in recent years, and the greatest anti-communist rebellion in a Soviet controlled country, the Communists still carry on as though nothing had ever happened.

Shake, Rattle and Rock

Following the tremendous success (both from the entertainment and financial point of view) of the film “Rock Around the Clock,” another Rock 'n Roll film has been widely shown on the circuits. It is called “Shake, Rattle and Rock." It is fairly light-hearted and includes numerous Rock 'n Roll hits. But it also gives some background to the craze, its influence on teenagers and the attitude of the T.V. and Radio tycoons.

The “hero” of “Shake, Rattle and Rock" is a young disc jockey and youth club organiser in a slum area. His boss at the T.V. studio looks upon Rock n' Roll solely as a money-making gimmick, something to push and push ... and then drop when the public is no longer interested; when it is no longer a money-maker. To the young disc jockey Rock n' Roll is an art-form; a form of teenage expression like the “Charleston" and the “Blackbottom” of a couple of decades or so ago. But more important Rock n' Roll is a means of keeping the kids off the streets; of preventing them from becoming hoodlums in the pay of local gangsters.

The film comes to an end with a mock trial, at which a local “anti-Rock” vigilante committee claims that Rock n' Roll is decadent, savage and causes crime. But Rock n’ Roll emerges triumphant.... It is a harmless outlet for youthful energy—and, more important, a good money-maker.

Eating Out?

How pleasant it is to eat out. No need to cook an evening meal.

On Monday evening one can visit the Latin Quarter—Dinner, Cabaret and Dance—featuring Mimi Pearse and 20 beautiful girls, all for 21/- plus “booze.” And on Tuesday evening there is always the Pigalle with Dinner-de-Luxe at 27/6 (Saturdays à la carte, only 35/-!) And Wednesday evening finds one at the Green Street Club—“ The Club in Mayfair for the Connoisseur.” . .

And so on through the week.

Life can be so interesting and easy ... so long as you are “well loaded" with money. Of course, if you are just a clerk, ’bus driver, a school teacher, or a shop keeper; if, in fact, you are a worker like the majority of people, then you will have to go to Lyons Corner House, the A.B.C., or the Caff round the corner—or go home and cook the spaghetti yourself!!

Fact or Fiction

A book that this writer read just over ten years ago makes quite interesting re-reading. It is The Great Conspiracy Against Russia by Sayers and Kahn, two pro-Russian American writers.

On re-reading this book one can understand how so many young Communists were taken-in by it ten years ago. Much of Book I (section I that is) dealing with Western interference in Russian affairs, the activities of White Russian émigré organisation, etc., after the Revolution in Russia in 1917, is no doubt correct But much of the “Treason Trials” propaganda, the anti-Trotskyist tirades and the like in this book have now been exploded for ever. One example will suffice:—
“At the time of the Axis-supported Franco uprising in Spain, 1936-1938, Andreas Nin headed an ultra-leftist, pro-Trotsky Spanish organization called the Portido Obrero de Unificiacion Marxista, or P.O.U.M. . . .  when the P.O.UM. staged an abortive revolt in Barcelona behind the loyalist lines in the crucial summer of 1937 and called for 'resolute action to overthrow the Government,' it was discovered that Nin and the other P.O.U.M. leaders were actually fascist agents working with France and that they had been carrying on a systematic campaign of sabotage, espionage and terrorism against the Spanish Government. . . . Secret documents seized by the Barcelona Police established that P.O.U.M. members had been carrying on extensive espionage for the fascists; .. . ” (p. 296.)
That the P.O.U.M. wanted a different government no one will deny but to say, as do Sayers and Kahn, that the P.O.U.M.ists were a pro-Fascist organisation is typical of the pro-Stalinist fiction in this book. George Orwell in his book Homage To Catalonia, and Hugo Dewar in Assassins at Large, have both shown conclusively that the Communist allegations against not only the P.O.U.M., but also the Anarchists, in Spain, are pure fabrication's, having no basis in fact.

The Great Conspiracy is interesting reading . . . as fiction!
Peter E. Newell