Saturday, June 18, 2016

A socialist life (2010)

Book Review from the December 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Role-modeling Socialist Behavior: The Life and Letters of Isaac Rab, Karla Doris 490 pages.

This book is a worthy account of the life and works of one of America’s unsung working class heroes, Isaac Rabinowich, commonly known as Rab. Through the medium of his granddaughter’s personal account of Rab’s family life, it is particularly valuable to be able to view a Socialist such as Rab as a real person, tolerant and enlightened, not just a faceless propagandist. Well illustrated, this is a useful and thought-provoking book, carried out in a charmingly eccentric style.

The story of Rab is, in a sense, the story of real Socialism in America. Rab was born on 22 December 1893 in Boston, the old home of American ‘freedom’. His parents, Sheppie and Sarah, had recently arrived from the shetetls of eastern Europe but were literate and engaging, attributes which Rab inherited in spades. Rab also inherited his father’s socialist background, joining the Socialist Party of America at the age of sixteen. Despite his humble origins, Rab excelled academically and was accepted for Harvard. However, wanting to be a real worker rather than an academic drone, he headed instead to an agricultural college in Ohio. A chance flood destroyed his practical project and exhausted his financial resources, so, in the summer of 1915, he headed to Detroit, where a well-placed class mate acquired him a job at the Ford’s factory. Via the Detroit local of the SPA, he soon came into contact with Adolph Kohn and Moses Baritz, two SPGBers fleeing the effects of the First World War. The encounter was to change his life. Kohn and Baritz won Rab over to Marxism, to which he would dedicate the rest of his life.

On 7 July 1916, Rab and 42 other attendees of Kohn-Baritz classes established the Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States, along the lines of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Faced with political repression, the group was to be short-lived and in 1919 was reconstituted as a social club known as the Detroit Socialist Education Society. Shortly after Rab was sacked by Ford for his political activities and moved with his wife and young family back to Boston.

The 1920s were difficult both politically and personally for Rab and it was not until the end of the decade that things began to move again. On a national level, comrades in New York began to issue a journal, The Socialist, Rab being one of the foremost contributors. Shortly thereafter, on 12 September 1930, the Workers’ Socialist Party was re-formed, with Rab a member of first Executive Committee. In Boston, Rab helped form a Socialist Education Society which in 1931 became the Boston local. It was around this time that Rab became friends with Anton Pannekoek, astronomer and Marxist theoretician, who stayed with Rab during trips to America. Rab was also on good personal terms with the council communist Paul Mattick.

In 1939, editorship of The Western Socialist, previously a journal of the Socialist Party of Canada, was moved to Boston because of fears that the paper might be suppressed due to the outbreak of the Second World War, it becoming a joint publication with the WSPUS. The following year, national headquarters was moved to Boston too. Boston remained the centre of WSPUS activity in North America for the next forty years.

Boston local continued its extensive social and political programme into the ‘40s, which were, perhaps, the golden age of the WSPUS. In 1947, confusion with the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist organisation, caused the WSPUS to be renamed the World Socialist Party, a significant development which has spread throughout what is now known as the World Socialist Movement.

The 1950s, as in this country, were a period of rapid and steep decline for real Socialism. The WSPUS was dogged at this time by controversies over the ballot and violence. Rab and the Socialist stalwarts, however, carried on with same enthusiasm.

Better times came in the 1960s, with the revival of radical politics with the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and the opening up of new media for propaganda activities. The US Party was particularly enthusiastic in its use of radio programmes.

Rab remained throughout his life an active trade unionist, latterly as a member of the International Typographical Workers Union. He died in 1986.

Details on how to obtain a copy, write: WSPUS, P.O. Box  440247, Boston, MA  02144, USA or email

The Office (1996)

A Short Story from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Soon after leaving school I worked for a short time in an office. One climbed a rickety staircase, opened a door and entered a world where very strange people dwelt. Mrs Badcombe the wages clerk, Mr Willis the accountant and Pamela the typist.

All day Pamela bashed away at her typewriter, clackety-clack, brown wage envelopes and Mr Willis had his own fountain pen and studied lists and ticked them and sometimes went to the other department upstairs and then came back and started to study lists and tick them again.

And me? I sat at a desk in Reception and filed mysterious items away under the wrong headings and worked the switchboard and got too friendly with the customers who often rang with their enquiries. Truth to tell I was only too pleased to find someone to talk to in that odd little place where SILENCE boomed out alongside the clackety-clack of Pamela’s machine, and if the people I chose to exchange words with were the firm's clients then it had never occurred to me that they were anything more than people, so that a little chat about some topic of the day seemed innocent enough.

Mr. Chubb the manager also dwelt there . . .  in another little office where Manager was writ large on his door. He invited me in one day to discuss my “behaviour”. I wasn’t ladylike, he told me. I had a very unpleasant habit of clattering up and down the stairs. My jocular way of dealing with clients on the phone was not to be borne, he told me. My mode of filing was unacceptable. But my worst sin by far was that I encouraged Mrs Wilson, the office cleaner, to talk about her ailments and in particular her recent hysterectomy; not befitting a place of business, he told me.

I struggled to be ladylike, ever uncertain of what exactly that entailed. I avoided asking Mrs Wilson about her operation and so, normally a cheerful soul, she went about her business sulking and I no longer got a mug of cocoa at tea-break. But my filing improved and I was given letters to type. (I had begun attending a Commercial College in the evenings at my own expense.) I even answered the phone in a more business-like way and put calls through to the other department immediately instead of detaining the clients to gossip. In fact I was becoming just like the others and was worried about it.

One day I did a thing deemed to be more unforgivable than anything I had done to date. I referred to the boss Mr Len Carter as "Len”. “One thing you will have to learn,” said Mr Chubb,” . . . is that your superiors are never called by their first names.” Niggled at the distinction I retorted that I thought people were only "superior” by sheer virtue of the fact they possessed more money, more power or both. This remark brought on a silence that disturbed me by its intensity as Mr Chubb regarded me with contempt. “I wonder,” he said softly. “1 wonder if Mr Leonard Carter realises he is employing a communist.”

I did not settle easily into my new role as a communist, indeed I felt that it had been thrust upon me. Office colleagues eyed me suspiciously and as time went by I grew withdrawn. I made typing errors and everybody complained about the tea I made on Mrs Wilson’s days off.

Then one Friday I opened my wage packet, emptied it out onto my desk and found an extra threepenny piece amidst the cash. I must tell you that it never for one second occurred to return it to the wages clerk. My wage was paltry as it was and because I was a naive sixteen-year- old I really believed I had been awarded a pay-rise. I was foolish enough to entertain the notion that my new-found industrious ness had been noted and rewarded. That was until Mr Chubb emerged from his office.

“Miss Tweedie,” he asked. “Did you find a threepenny piece in your wage packet?” When I nodded his lip curled. "Then may I ask why it has not been returned to the Company?”

I tried to explain. I quickly realised that there was no indication of a pay-rise on my payslip. I felt confused but in no way guilty. Mr Chubb extended his hand, palm upwards, “Come on, give it back, it’s not your property.” He returned to his office and I knew I had been tested and found wanting. Now not only was I a communist but a thief too.

I found myself another job and left L.E. Carter. Mr Chubb said he hoped my future employer would find me satisfactory but he very much doubted it.

For the last time I went down the rickety staircase making as much clatter as I could. But a year in that strange place had done something to my perception of the world. I no longer believed it was wise to speak honestly or to be friendly and outgoing. As a commodity in the workplace I had failed miserably. I was too young then to realise that the workplace had failed me!
Heather Ball

Whitlow & Boyle (Engineers) (1998)

A Short Story from the May 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr Whitlow kept me waiting while he made a couple of phone calls and wrote something down in a ledger. I was used to this, it was deliberate, it happened every time I went for a job interview. I was beginning to understand the psychology behind it.

"So you want to work here do you?" he asked at last. Of course I didn't want to work there, but I had to work somewhere, so I nodded. He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and handed it to me. "You've worked a capstan lathe before, you say, draw me one." Astonished I told him I wasn't very good at drawing, but he insisted. "Draw me a capstan lathe."

About ten minutes later I handed the piece of paper back to him, and he studied it for what seemed like ages, turning it one way and then another, even upside-down. "This doesn't look anything like a capstan lathe."

"Well, as I said I'm not very good at drawing."

Mr Whitlow glared at me across his desk making me feel more than usually conscious of my appearance, of my black skirt and white blouse and the new handbag I'd bought for the occasion. I wondered if Mr Whitlow found it hard to imagine me clad in a greasy overall and a turban to protect my hair.

"How are your legs?" he asked. Thankfully he didn't seem to require an answer so I waited. "Any varicose veins?"

"I'm only twenty three," I replied with a nervous smile.

He waved a hand in the direction of a glass-panelled door in a corner of his office. "That lot out there, that's Doris on the back machine. Came in to see me only this morning." He mimicked, "'Could I have a sitting-down job today, Mr Whitlow, me varicose veins are playing me up?' Do they think this is a bloody holiday camp? There's Ethel with her bunions and corns and Vera with her aching leg joints, all of them wanting sitting-down jobs. So if you're wanting a sitting-down job, forget it. And this drawing is nothing like a capstan lathe."

Nettled, I told him I'd thought the vacancy was for a machine operator not for someone skilled in the art of drawing, but to my relief he ignored this feeble attempt to defend myself.

"What about family?"

"Yes, mother, father, four brothers."

Mr Whitlow picked up a pencil and stabbed it at the surface of his desk to emphasise his next words. "Don't get funny with me girl. Any children, babies, buns in the oven?"

"Oh no."

"Not in a union, are you?"

"The AEU," I told him proudly.

"Well, forget that, we're non-union here."

Employers always said that, I'd noticed, as though some power from on high had decreed a state of non-trade unionism for their particular company. Another much-used argument was that conditions in their factory were so good as to discount any justification for a union.

"There's a slump coming," continued Mr Whitlow, "and when it gets here me and my kind are going to have the pick of the workforce. Not only will there not be any sitting-down jobs there won't be any jobs at all and people like you will be begging for work."

I froze in my chair. I resented Mr Whitlow's class attitude to someone he believed was hardly in a position to retaliate. I thought about the boredom and misery of standing at a capstan lathe for nine hours a day and the pittance I would be likely to receive for this each week. I even began to feel that Mr Whitlow detected something in my manner (a kind of contempt perhaps) that made him speak to me in this way.

"Well if you want the job be here at a quarter to eight sharp on Monday morning."

"But I thought it was an eight o'clock start."

"It is, but there's queue at the clocking-in machine and anyone clocking in after eight loses an hour's pay. And then there's the time taken up in the cloakroom with all the titivating that goes on with you women. Christ knows why; you're all covered in machine oil by the end of the day. And you'll need an overall, we don't supply them and you're responsible for laundering too."

Suddenly my career as a capstan lathe operator seemed less attractive than ever before.

"There it is," said Mr Whitlow, "take it or leave it."

I rose to my feet, checked to see that my nylons' seams were straight and then headed for the door. There I turned to face him which as much dignity as I could muster.

"I'll leave it," I said.
Heather Ball

Democratic Capitalism or Colonialism (1960)

From the March 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

A great obstacle to capitalism in Africa is Dr. Verwoerd and his Nationalist Party of South Africa. Others are Sir Roy Welensky and the white Rhodesian settlers.

The conflict in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland mirrors that in South Africa. In both the white land-owners have the power in their hands: they regard the Africans as a subordinate race, to be denied land-ownership except in the most barren areas, to be kept voteless and illiterate, and to be barred as far as possible from the towns—all these so that they may continue to provide a reservoir of cheap farm-labour for the landowners. But the capitalists in the Federation (as in the Union) have very different views. They want an educated mass proletariat, living in the towns, to work their factories: and only the natives can provide it. The Ford Motor Company, which is to build a £2 million motor assembly plant in Salisbury, and the British Motor Corporation, whose £1 million factory at Umtali starts production in September cannot risk wasting their capital because their workers cannot understand modern machinery. And the mineowners of the Northern Rhodesian copper belt cannot put in new machinery to increase their profits if the mineworkers are unable to read the books of instructions. Here is the root of the struggle in the Federation, between the landowners on the one side and the factory—and mine-owners on the other.

Just as South Africa lays claim to Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Basutoland, so the Southern Rhodesian settlers wanted to extend their reservoir of farm-labourers. This they did by federating with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, against the wishes of the vast majority of the inhabitants of those countries, where there are very few white settlers. Of course, the settlers do not support Federation unconditionally: they only want it if they are to be the governing aristocracy. So this leads to the contradiction—against the claims of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland to secede, they say secession is impossible; and against the plans of the capitalist class to set up a capitalist democracy within the Federation, they threaten they will secede themselves. Within two days recently, Sir Roy Welensky, one settlers’ leader, said, “there could be no question of the (Monckton) commission recommending that any part of the Federation be allowed to secede” (The Guardian, 28/1/60); and Sir Edgar Whitehead, another settlers’ leader, said that “if the Governments of both Northern territories were operated on a nationalist basis by African nationalists,” then Southern Rhodesia itself would withdraw from the Federation (The Times, 30/1/60).

This is not to say that the capitalists do not want Federation: they do, for it has great economic advantages. But they are very dubious about a Federation run by Welensky and his settlers, who are indifferent or hostile to the development of capitalism. If they wish to establish a capitalist government, they will have to do it with the help of the votes of their black workers; for although in Southern Rhodesia “75 per cent. of the whites now live in towns, these towns have really grown out of the countryside and the new cities are only just acquiring a spirit of their own. It has been the white Southern Rhodesian farmer who has dictated the character of his country—and of the country’s politics”; the “white Rhodesians who live in the towns . . . still take their attitude from the farmer” (The Listener, 17/9/59). So the establishment of a democracy is essential if the capitalists are to take political power, to match their growing economic power. Hence what The Guardian (16/12/59) calls the “liberalism” of the large Rhodesian companies. The article goes on to say:
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance to Central Africa of the Big Four companies—Rhodesian Selection Trust, Rhodesian Anglo-American, Imperial Tobacco Company, and the British South Africa Company. They control the copper, coal, lead and zinc mining and tobacco processing industries; they own forests, ranches, citrus estates, merchant banks, and newspapers; they have made generous gifts to the new university college; they have provided large loans for the renovation of the railways, the building of Kariba hydro-electric dam, for large-scale agricultural research, and rural development.
Political development
“Of these four companies,” says the article, “Imperial Tobacco and the British South Africa Company are the less influential, and follow the lead of the other two." Of these other two, Rhodesian Anglo-American has as its chairman Harry Oppenheimer, who is one of the industrialists behind the new Progressive Party in South Africa; and the Rhodesian Selection Trust’s chairman is Sir Ronald Prain, who has just issued his annual statement, including his comments on the Federation:
I do not believe that the solution of Nyasaland’s problems,will depend entirely on economic aid . . . It is essential in the current environment of Africa that political development in all three territories should not lag too much behind economic development.
In other words—we capitalists have the economic power, so now we want the political power as well. This the capitalists can best get by giving the vote to the African workers, who (they trust) will vote for capitalism, just as workers do in democracies elsewhere. Sir Ronald significantly continues:
The Legislature is entirely European, a situation which appears inconsistent with Southern Rhodesia’s position as the leading territory of what is a multi-racial Federation. Some of the laws, too, such as the Land Apportionment Act. would appear to require urgent and drastic alteration.
This last sentence is a direct attack on the settlers. The Land Apportionment Act, which gives half the farmland to the Europeans, was called “the cornerstone of our society” by Dominion Party settler-M.P.s earlier last year. A blow aimed at this settlers' Magna Carta gives an unmistakable warning that the capitalists are not going to tolerate a settlers’ government for very much longer. This, indeed, has been increasingly obvious recently. In July the Rhodesian Selection Trust and Rhodesian Anglo-American “jointly announced that they would discontinue their annual contributions to Sir Roy Welensky’s Federal party funds”; last year, together with the British South Africa company, they contributed £5.000. And in November the Rhodesian Selection Trust decided to stop subsidising The Central African Examiner, a political fortnightly which started in 1957 “with the aim of giving ‘thoughtful support to liberal causes’ but which turned to comparing Sir Edgar Whitehead (another settlers' leader) with Abraham Lincoln at a time when Sir Edgar was promoting a harsh Preventive Detention Bill.”

Sir Ronald Prain went on to say:
The Europeans deceive themselves if they close their eyes to what is happening in the rest of Africa . . . (While) some African leaders are still held in custody, no country can feel it can he said to have yet solved the problems of a multiracial community.
Democratic Capitalism
As could be expected, the Rhodesian capitalists have plenty of friends in capitalist Britain. Like the great Rhodesian companies, the Labour Party (that old capitalists’ friend) wants the "political development” of the Federation, advocates the release of the African leaders, and attacks the settlers’ government. The Conservative Bow Group wants Dr. Banda (the African Nationalist leader) released, and the vote given to many more Africans (The Times, 4/1/60). An "Africa 1960” Committee has been formed, including two Conservative M.P.s, to support “a rapid and orderly advance towards self-government” in African territories (The Guardian, 12/1/60). The Conservative Mr. Justice Devlin and his Commission rejected the settler’s arguments on the necessity of jailing the Africans’ leaders in their report of July last year. The Nuffield Foundation has come down on the side of the big companies racial theories, and against the racial discrimination of the settlers, by offering £250,000 to the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland towards setting up a medical school at Salisbury providing there is no colour bar (The Observer, 31/1/60). Mr. Macleod (the Colonial Secretary) and Mr. Macmillan have both made it clear that the peoples of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland would not be handed over finally to the Southern Rhodesian settlers until they themselves decided that they wanted to remain within the Federation (The Guardian, 8/1/60).

These examples could be multiplied indefinitely. But enough has been said to show that the great industrialists of the Rhodesias can look forward with confidence to the establishment of a capitalist democracy in Central Africa, in line with parallel developments in nearly every other African country. Then the way will be open for the workers, both of this country and of Central Africa, to devote themselves to the only struggle which concerns them, the struggle for Socialism.