Monday, June 13, 2016

But Flies Are Not Human (1993)

Illustration by  George Meddemmen.
From the August 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is an American university of some academic esteem where it is the regular practice for the Professor of Political Ideas to begin his first class of the semester by showing his students a film of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. After eyewitnessing the portrayed depravity of the public school boys who are Golding’s model of human nature, the students sit silently to await the oracular words of their teacher: “Okay, now we know what human beings are like. If we propose to talk about politics let us never forget that these humans are our human material”. There commenceth the lecture and, all too often, locketh the impressionable minds.

Few novels have so eloquently served the cause of capitalist ideology which contends that humans are inherently aggressive, gullible, self-serving, easily led and un-cooperative than Golding’s Lord of the Flies which was first published in 1954. What is the novel about? Its plot is the conventional stuff of schoolboy adventure yarns. An aeroplane crashes and the survivors find themselves on a coral island, there to survive until they are rescued. It soon becomes clear that the personalities of the boys will determine their functions: the leaders, the followers, the outcasts. Soon they are organized hierarchically and, soon after, divided tribally. The adventure is provided by the boys’ growing fear of The Beast, an apparently natural danger which threatens to destroy them. Life adapts to a chain of ordered survivalism in defence against the Beast. There are those who think The Beast an invention and others who seek to hunt and kill it. But the reader, guided by Golding, comes soon to see The Beast is neither an infantile invention of self-torment nor a conquerable enemy from without.

The Beast is the metaphor of the natural darkness which is within all of the children – all humans – our inborn nature, no less. And in fighting the dark enemy, as the children proceed to do, it is the evil within themselves which becomes manifest. Encountered by Simon, one of the boys, this symbolic role of The Beast is articulated: “Fancy thinking The Beast was something you could hunt and kill!”, it says, “I’m part of you. Close, close, close . . . Why things are what they are”. In the final struggle against The Beast the full brutality of the children is exposed in an orgy of betrayal, mass hysteria, leader-worship and death. Golding has taken his little specimens of human nature and left them on an island exposed for all to see; how quickly the veneer of civilized behaviour turns into barbarism and boys become flies.

Original sin
So what are we to make of this parable? If we were the students of the above-mentioned professor, how should we be expected to think? That when left to ourselves we humans will survive as beasts of the jungle. For beasts constrained by Bibles is all we can aspire to be. Indeed, Leighton Hodson, in his students’ handbook on Golding, states explicitly, lest any be in doubt, that The Beast “is only an external device for referring to the evil that is within people” (Golding, p.26).

No writer comes to a novel with only a story in mind. The trite romances of Barbara Cartland are never divorced from the aristocratic respect for parasitism which is her obsessive faith, just as Noonan’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is intimately linked to his experience as a skilled painter and a socialist (and, moreover, a socialist building worker amongst the crass conservatism of Tory wage-slaves in stultifying Hastings). So it was with Golding. He did not write the most powerful and popular literary defence of innate human depravity by accident. And we can prove this.

Despite having at one time paid some sort of lip-service to some sort of socialism, Golding was essentially an ardent anti-socialist. He referred to Marx, Darwin and Freud as “the three most crushing bores of the Western world”. Having dispensed summarily with the thought of those who might have saved him from his blinkered outlook, where did he turn? On that point there is no need for doubt: Golding scraped the very bottom of the barrel of ideas in defence of property relationships and therein discovered an abundant supply of long-fermented Original Sin, a doctrine upon which he remained intoxicated throughout his life. Here is how he put it in an interview with Biles published in 1970:
“Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous.”
Fifteen years later, in conversation with Professor Carey, the Merton Professor of English at Oxford, Golding was peddling the same old tripe:

“Original sin – I’ve been really rather lumbered with original sin . . . I suppose that . . . both by intellect and emotion – intellectually after emotionally – I’m convinced of original sin. I’m convinced of it in the Augustinian way . . . the root of our sin is there, in the child. As soon as it has any capacity of acting on the world outside it will be selfish; and, of course, original sin and selfishness – the words could be interchangeable . . . You can only learn unselfishness by liking and by loving” (William Golding, the Man and his Books - A Tribute on His 75th Birthday, p. 174)
So, Golding’s little boys on their island are not just any kids: they are sinners, born selfish and bound to fight their inner evil. Augustine was made a saint for advancing this kind of ideological child abuse and Golding was given a Nobel price (worth more than a sainthood in the current market).

Born human
Socialists are historical materialists and contend that humans are born neither good nor evil. We are born human and therefore possess the unique capacity to adapt culturally in accordance with the environmental conditions which surround us. In opposing this, Golding’s plot includes some highly convenient ideological weights which serve to tilt the story’s conclusion his way. Firstly, the boys we meet are not any boys, but public school boys: members of that privileged minority who are bred for tribalistic division. Would children who were the products of a caring community, not abandoned to the threatening rituals of the incarcerating dorm, have behaved differently, we may ask. And in Golding’s story here are children as abandoned survivalists in a hostile environment. In short, Golding takes unrepresentative children in a highly untypical situation and then, with the dogmatic wisdom of one who can with one breath dismiss Marx, Darwin and Freud, throws up his arms and says “Look, this is what children are like. And because children are humans, this is what humans are like. Case proven”. It convinces the American professor.

Anthony Storr, the psychiatrist, wrote of how Golding’s literary theme is confirmed by experiments in which children are taken to holiday camps, put into hostile gangs and only parted on the point when they are about to murder one another. It is quite remarkable how men with degrees in pure ignorance can express themselves freely upon matters which are routinely contradicted by experimental results. No, children do not rush with enthusiasm towards violent situations, but enter into them only under enormous pressure: extreme frustration, upbringing in a culture of routinized violence or, as in Storr’s evidence, monetary payment by psychological experimenters whose aim is to encourage children to behave anti-socially. As the more serious social psychologist, Herman Kelman, has written, “we can learn more by looking not at the motives for violence, but at the conditions under which the usual moral inhibitions against violence become weakened” (Journal of Social Issues, 1973, p. 38). Given that wise advice, would it not make more sense to ask why a group of isolated, frightened and strangely bred children should behave like beasts than to assume that their beastliness is within them – and within us?

Golding died recently and, unsurprisingly, the sort of people who praise great rogues praised him. By all accounts he was a decent enough fellow. The issue is not the virtue of the man – or even the skill of his pen or the power of his plots. The novel, in a time of war, can no more be neutral than can the military band or the cook in the arms factory canteen. And when there is a war of ideas between those of us who refuse to submit to the self-hating conception of human sin and inherent selfishness, and those who blast out such ideology with the weight of a mighty publishing and cinema industry behind them, novels are weapons. Read as it is intended, Lord of the Flies is a literary shot against the reader’s consciousness of human power; it is disarming and enervating and, for the present writer, one of the most anti-human novels of our age.
Steve Coleman

What to do about the H-Bomb (1954)

From the May 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

The probable consequences of using the hydrogen bomb as an act of war must now be familiar to everyone. The newspapers, screens and radio have given enough facts and pictures of the latest tests to leave us in no doubt about the “progress” that has been made in the development of atomic weapons since the days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Almost as often as we hear descriptions of the tremendous destructive power of these weapons, we hear a demand to “ban” them. That revulsion at the prospects is widespread cannot be doubted—only the form and direction of this revulsion is questionable. Often the grave issues involved are reduced to a question that seems to ask no more than “Are you for or against the Bomb?" Yet the question and the answer are made meaningless by the fact that no one wants the hydrogen bomb to be used, not even those who are in favour of carrying on war with the "conventional” weapons.

Everyone wants peace, and most would like to believe the prediction of the physicist Hans Thirring that settling international disputes by killing as many enemies as possible is about to become outdated. But the work of making and developing the destructive power of these weapons continues. In order to study this whole question seriously we must look beyond the banner headlines and the more emotional than reasoned appeals to “Stop the Bomb!”

We live in a world in which the possession of property and the protection of property institutions is the dominating feature. Inseparable from Capitalism is the capitalist state, the machinery which governs the countless individual acts of exploitation and which can, as in Russia, actually constitute the exploiting agent. The state is power and, whether democratic or dictatorial, holds sway by virtue of having force at its command—armed force, the purpose of which is safeguarding capitalist property and the prosecution of war against economic rivals when other methods of settling disputes over markets, trade routes and sources of raw materials fail.

The hydrogen bomb is merely the most efficient way known at present of carrying out this purpose. It is often said that the tremendous destructive power of such weapons will act as a deterrent to their use. There is no reason to believe that it need be any such thing. It could reasonably have been predicted that the last war would cost millions of lives, yet no such prediction was allowed to interfere with the prosecution of the war,

The childlike faith in the argument that atomic weapons must continue to be made and developed so that the certainty of retaliation would stop an "aggressor" using them is foolish and dangerous. It amounts to saying that we must have the hydrogen bomb in order that hydrogen bombs won't be used. It is difficult to think of any other sphere in which such fallacious reasoning would be seriously entertained. If a scientist were, to announce that he was breeding rabbits in order that rabbits would be abolished, he would be looked upon askance. And if he were to produce a breed of super-rabbit which could multiply much faster than the ordinary kind, and then claimed that the danger of rabbits was lessened, he would probably be certified.

One of the more hopeful aspects of this ghastly business is that many of the ideas that used to be advanced to make it seem “not so bad after all" are becoming more and more untenable. As Earl Nelson wrote in the News of the World (28.3.54):
“The inhabitants of large cities are being prepared for civil defence against bomb attack, but since a single hydrogen bomb could blast a city such as London, New York, Paris, Berlin or Moscow off the face of the earth the only benefit of civil defence would appear to be keeping up the morale of the population prior to their annihilation.”
It is clear from what has been said and written on this subject by people who otherwise hold widely differing opinions that all stand aghast at the prospects opened up by the development of the hydrogen bomb. Every "authoritative” article, every school-room meeting, all the pub and club talk is avowedly in opposition to atomic warfare. Yet it cannot be disputed that the two vast camps into which the world is at present divided are arming against each other. Each side is afraid lest the might of the other is bigger, and neither is likely to abandon any strategic advantage it may have or see the chance of having.

What does the ordinary working man think about all this, he who is content to give power to politicians and to bemoan the consequences? He doesn’t want to drop a hydrogen bomb on anyone. In past wars he was persuaded to take up arms to protect his hearth and home, his poor old mum, or his violable sister. Such arguments cannot be used today (not that they were valid when they were used) because it is quite obvious that bombs capable of destroying cities don’t protect civilians. He has to be given another line—another phoney reason for killing his fellow-men. He feels his powerlessness as an individual lost in a group. He is therefore persuaded to recognise himself as an instrument of that group, to make its "cause” his cause.

The groups which stand out today as most likely to be adversaries in a future war (it is never safe to predict the actual line-up) are the " Communist World ” versus the " Free World.” To make it easy for you to follow this deadly game, they mark, the shirts "East” and “West.” All that is needed now is the patriot and his propaganda. He doesn’t have to be a politician—there is always the lurking suspicion that politicians have an axe to grind. Let a famous author and dramatist such as Charles Morgan explain "our” dilemma as nicely as possible:
  “Because everything that we value in Western civilisation, including Christianity, is threatened from the East, we cannot abandon the use of the atomic bomb for the purpose of defence ...
  “This is the great paradox to which we have been driven. A man of good will who loathes war and, above all, the use of the H-bomb . . .  to destroy his fellow-creatures cannot reject them as defence and deterrent.”
And there we have the justifying lie in all its subtlety. Robert Briffault once said that if a lie has power it will be bloody and murderous. This latest and most heinous offender against humanity is the assertion that atomic weapons can be used to defend—that is, to ward off, resist, protect or maintain against an attack. They cannot. They can only destroy.

There is nothing paradoxical in what Morgan writes, unless it is his claim to be of good will. The man who cannot reject the use of bombs as deterrent cannot reject the burning, maiming and blasting of his fellow-men. He cannot reject the property relationships which set men at each other’s throats and which are always seeking to perfect the means of mutual — but "defensive" destruction.

The socialist argues that it is senseless to imagine that the problem of war will be solved by advocating the banning of this or that weapon, or even of all weapons. Sir Hartley Shawcross was near the mark when he said that it was no use pretending that a treaty made in advance would make countries obey the rules of war as if it were a game of cricket. The only solution to the problem of war is the removal of its cause—the property basis of society.

Let us make our position quite clear. We have no objection to the banning of hydrogen bombs. But we do have an objection to people getting killed by other methods also. Our cry is not, therefore, "Ban the H-Bomb!” Carry this a stage farther. There is no objection to banning all war. But, even assuming that this aspect of present society could be changed without changing its whole basis (and there is no reason to suppose that this is possible), it would still leave unsolved the other problems of poverty and insecurity which also take toll of human life and happiness.

All of the separate cries to end this or that social evil in the world today add up to the cry to end Capitalism. The singling out of objects “for immediate attention" may claim the merit of moderation, but it is tragically inefficient in obtaining results. To treat each symptom separately—"Ban this Boil!”," Abolish that Pimple!”—is to let the patient go on suffering from a disease which only a revolutionary change can cure.
Stan Parker