Thursday, December 1, 2016

Taking up William Morris (1994)

Book Review from the December 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal 1883-1890. by William Morris (Thoemmes £16.75).

When the Socialist Party was formed, in June 1904, William Morris, arguably the greatest of British socialists, had died only eight years earlier. It is little wonder, then, that the early issues of the Socialist Standard serialised Morris’s political writings; that in the 1940s quotations from Morris appeared on the Socialist Standard covers; and that the Socialist Party decided to publish Morris's Art Under Plutocracy (under the title Art, Labour and Socialism) with an appreciative introduction. Like Marx himself. Morris is not to be taken up as a political guru, and where he was at odds with our positions we have not failed to say so.

The British Left was slow to take much from Morris, and this was hardly to be surprised at. After all. left-reformism and its statist recipe for social change was entirely at odds with Morris's revolutionary outlook. Leftists and would-be intellectuals chided Morris with being a utopian poet, an idealistic dreamer and an eccentric marginal force, at best to be remembered for his utopian-socialist novel News From Nowhere, but no more.

When Morris was taken up, largely after the publication of the book about him by the Leninist Page Arnot. followed by the first, highly Leninist edition of the biography of Morris by E. P. Thompson (later to be admirably revised and de-Leninised). there was an attempt to claim him as an embryonic statist and reformist: a misreading of the historical record easy enough for those who have never read Morris’s political writings, but surely dishonest on the part of others.

For many years it was. indeed, difficult to read Morris’s political writings, but A. L. Morton’s edited selection of Morris’s Political Writings (mainly the transcripts of speeches, in fact) was a major step forward. The present writer still regards those writings, read and re-read with enthusiasm, as amongst the simplest prose written originally in English (and not for this journal) to state the case for socialism. Now we are fortunate to have Nicholas Salmon’s paperback collection which includes all of Morris’s main articles. The book is a treat to read (including its useful introduction) and is a landmark in the record of the real revolutionary movement in Britain.

In so many ways Morris could have been writing in this journal. For example, in May 1886 he explains that "in a few words our function is to educate the people by criticising all attempts at so-called reforms". Again, in June 1888, explaining the principles of the Socialist League. Morris writes:
"The Socialist League has declared over and over again its sense of the futility of Socialists wasting their time in getting . . . palliative measures passed, which, if desirable to be passed as temporarily useful, will be passed much more readily if they do not mix themselves up in the matter, and which are at least intended by our masters to hinder Socialism and not further it. Over and over again it has deprecated Socialists mixing themselves up in political intrigues; and it believes no useful purpose can be served by their running after the votes of those who do not understand the principles of Socialism."
Morris understood the global nature of capitalism and the folly of trying to establish socialism in one country: "capitalism is international", he explained in an article against the anti-socialist Bradlaugh in August 1887, and therefore "the foe that threatens it, the system which is put forward to take its place, must be international also". Most importantly. Morris refused to confuse socialism with state-run capitalism, declaring in May 1890:
"State Socialism? I don't agree with it; in fact. I think the two words contradict one another, and that it is the business of Socialism to destroy the State and put Free Society in its place.”
Shortly after that the League was taken over by anarchists who assumed foolishly that the state could be destroyed straightaway, rather than as a necessary and immediate consequence of social revolution and the abolition of class rule. Morris then left the League, but continued his efforts (not recorded in this collection) with a good deal of clarity and occasional confusion as to the way ahead.

The purpose of this review is not to claim the bones of William Morris for the Socialist Party. Who knows where Morris might have stood had he lived another decade and been forced to choose between the apparent short-cut to socialism offered by the Labour Party and the uncompromising revolutionism of the SPGB? (After all, Marx's closest collaborator, Engels, went the way of the reformist ILP rather than the smaller Marxist movement at the end of his life.)

No, Morris’s position must stand on what he might have said and done, but we who live now promoting unadulterated socialist principles have much to learn from Morris's writings (the style as well as the content) and could obtain few better books in 1994 than this one. 
Steve Coleman

Abolition of the Wages . . . for Housework Campaign (1994)

Book Review from the December 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx and Feminism. By Selma James. Centrepiece. £1.50.

Marx, according to Selma James in this reprint with an update of a talk originally given in 1983, has been useful to the Wages for Housework Campaign. It is difficult to see how though, since Marx campaigned for the abolition not the extension of the wages system.

Actually, what theWages for Housework Campaign is demanding is not that women should be paid a wage for housework, but that all women should be paid a specific Woman’s Benefit by the State. Turning into a single issue reformist group may not have been how James (who had previously been in various radical groups that regarded themselves as Marxist) saw the Campaign developing when she helped set it up in 1972. But this is what has happened, with her and the others rushing around lobbying the UN and governments to bring in this reform.

Not that it will ever be enacted. The State is not going to pay out money to people who, by its criteria, don’t need it even if it did have the enormous sum that would be involved, which it doesn’t and couldn’t get without over-taxing profits. Capitalism doesn’t work like that. It can’t be reformed so as to work in people's interests. Profits always come first and people second.

This being so, the energies of those who are, quite rightly, concerned about the economic dependence of women on men would be much better directed to campaigning for Socialism, where the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" will apply. This will end once and for all women’s economic dependence on men since everyone would have free access, as a matter of individual right and without needing to pay money, to what they required to satisfy their needs.

As Marx might have put it, instead of raising the conservative slogan "Wages for Housework” they should raise the revolutionary one of "Abolition of the Wages Systen".
Adam Buick

Squaring the Circle (1971)

Book Review from the October 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Society of the Future, by August Bebel. Progress Publishers. Moscow.

To mark their government’s false claim to be in the process of establishing “Communism” in Russia by the 1980s a Russian State publishing house has brought out under this title an edited version of Bebel’s Woman under Socialism.

Bebel speculates on the possibilities of Socialism (which he sees as an international, Stateless, moneyless society based on the common ownership of the means of production) and produces evidence to show that the productive forces were sufficiently developed, even in 1910, to go over to Socialism.

Bebel was a Social Democrat and the Russian editor is forced to disown precisely those of his views which we in the Socialist Party of Great Britain endorse, namely, his refusal to distinguish between "Socialism” and “Communism”; his conclusion that the abolition of capitalism necessarily involves the immediate disappearance of the State and of money; and his belief in the “more or less simultaneous triumph of the socialist revolution in all or most capitalist countries”. The Preface where the editor tries to explain away the undeniable fact that Bebel, unlike Lenin but like Marx, understood Socialism to be a moneyless, Stateless world society rather than the kind of national state capitalism that exists in Russia has to be read to be believed.

Our criticisms of Bebel, apart from his role as one of the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party who tried to disguise its reformist practice with revolutionary phrases, would be somewhat different. He here follows Marx and speaks of labour-time vouchers as the substitute for money and some of his ideas on education and sex now seem dated. All the same, this work is a useful addition to the range of old pamphlets now available.
Adam Buick

Spectacle out of focus (1975)

Book Review from the April 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Leaving the 20th Century : The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International. Translated and edited by Christopher Gray. Free Fall Publications, 80p.

Of the 167 pages in this book, 148 are extracts from Situationist pamphlets and articles. Christopher Gray adds only short linkages: the Situationists’ history and antecedents, their breaking-up, and some brief final comments. Was there more, or is that all?

From inside an exclusive, fanatical group the view is inevitably distorted. Gray was himself a Situationist, and attributes a far greater resonance to the members and activities than they actually had. He uses the word “famous” repeatedly, and in no instance is it applicable. There are unsupported presumptions of a wide influence, and a claim that: “The censorship of the Situationist International has probably been the most blatant case of cultural repression since before the war.” Really?

The aim of the Situationists is said to have been “a new revolutionary critique of society”. More accurately, they tried to make artistic-cum-political doctrines from a collection of phenomena—new technology, the spread of dropping-out, the vogue for condemning “consumer-orientated society”. They added one phrase to the vocabulary of social criticism: “the society of the spectacle” for the mass culture of alienation.

In art and politics, Situationist practice was simply the making of rude or violent gestures against the rest of society. Their centre remained in Paris, and according to Gray they faded out after the student revolts of 1968. One version is that they went underground. However, their name remains as a synonym for intellectualized subversion, and small groups of people in that frame of mind have tried—and no doubt will try again—to revive it. It has been considered, and Gray hints, that Situationists either assisted or egged-on the Angry Brigade; certainly the Angry Brigade communiques incorporated the Situationist language.

Christopher Gray thinks the Situationists “made the same mistake as all left-wing intellectuals: they thought that everyone else was plain thick.” The book has, despite its perfunctoriness, a good deal of interest. The message which comes through clearly is that to try to stand outside society, and try to justify it from a rag-bag of political and sociological half-ideas, means being pernicious or futile or both.

The ending tells it all: the author feels in a mess, divided between the needs for social analysis and for self-analysis. So it was not society at all that the Situationists viewed, but a model made of matchboxes on somebody’s shelf.
Robert Barltrop

A Land Within (2016)

Book Review from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Negroland: A Memoir'. By Margo Jefferson. Granta £12.99.

Jefferson was born in Chicago in 1947, and her father was a doctor. Negroland is her term for ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The name includes ‘Negro’ because of this word’s historical importance (in posters relating to runaway slaves, for instance), though she usually refers to herself as black, with ‘African American’ being for official contexts only. This volume is not exactly an autobiography but a series of anecdotes and reflections on life as a (relatively well-off) black woman in the US; Jefferson herself became a writer and journalist.

There is some brief history, such as on black slave-owners, and the segregation of the US Army in the Second World War. There are examples of discrimination from the 1950s, affecting even the inhabitants of ‘Negroland’: Jefferson’s family were given inferior rooms in a hotel, and in their fairly select Chicago neighbourhood her father was stopped by police who asked if he had drugs in his bag (it contained medical equipment).       

One point which emerges more than once is the extent to which ‘race’ is in the eye of the beholder. The author describes herself as being of African, Irish, English and Indian (Native American) descent. Her own skin is ‘cream-brown’, and a shop worker with black-brown skin asks her what her ethnic ancestry is. Many of her relatives could pass as white, and she refers to an uncle who worked as a travelling salesman and then ‘stopped being white’ when he retired.

In the US the fight for ‘black rights’ was dominated by men, and that for ‘women’s rights’ by white women. She quotes one black feminist who argued that black women had spent years copying bad ideas from white women but then decided they wanted nothing to do with the one good idea of feminism. Jefferson will not say which of race, gender and class matters more, since all are ‘basic elements of one’s living’. Note, though, that this is not the Socialist analysis of class but one which sees the inhabitants of ‘Negroland’ as middle or even upper class.

But an insightful and often moving account.
Paul Bennett

Greasy Pole: Rough Ride On Runway Three (2016)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Head and shoulders above the rest is how Chris Grayling emerges in many group photographic images of our mistresses and masters in government. He is outstanding  in ways other than a physical presence because, since he first got into Parliament in 2011 as the Honourable Member for Epsom and Ewell, he has held a generosity of ministerial offices including a spell when the Tories were in opposition as a Front Bench Shadow Minister. His record has given him valuable experience of normalising some controversial matters, to the extent that it seemed natural that he should be Secretary of State for Transport when at the end of October it was confirmed that the dispute over the third runway at Heathrow Airport had been settled. Settled, that is, to the extent that it will be laid down together with all the associated horrors of chaotic terminals and jam-packed roads and atmospheric pollution – and engine noise.

It was a matter of going along with a recommendation by the Airports Commission to develop Heathrow rather than Gatwick Airport, which was hoping to be allowed to have a second runway. Grayling stated the case for Heathrow: ‘The step that government is taking today is truly momentous. I am proud that after years of discussion and delay this government is taking decisive action to secure the UK’s place in the global aviation market – securing jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond’. This news was the worst possible for thousands of people – for example those in Harmondsworth, where  some 700 homes, an ancient church and eight Grade Two listed buildings and a graveyard would disappear under the bulldozers, as would the nearby ancient village of Sipson. And to another, crucial objection Grayling had an answer – if that is the correct term – ready: ‘No airport is able to be silent’, he assured the objectors and others and then, before the gasps of outrage had died away,  'but we have studied new supplementary evidence that shows it won’t be quite as noisy as some people seem to think it will be’.

These assurances might have been more effective if they had been voiced by someone with a less turbulent and discouraging past than Grayling. He was appointed to his present job last July; in the past he has held nine others of varying responsibility and the most he has survived in any of them was two years. His first experience of office was as Minister for Employment, from 2010 until 2012, when he was responsible for the supposedly constructive work of the Job Centres. He quickly gained a reputation for his combative style including a reduction in costs by making some 100,000 staff at the Job Centres redundant, with a predictable effect on the benefits of out-of-work people who were condemned by him for ‘being habitually unemployed, generation after generation, living in sink council estates’. He carried this assessment style over into his later job as Lord Chancellor and Minister for Justice  when he laid down that prisoners should be encouraged to remodel themselves away from their ‘something for nothing culture’ and he took steps to stop them receiving books from their families and friends. He also encouraged private companies such as Securicor and G4S to play a greater – and more profitable – part in the supervision of prisoners released early on licence. These achievements were responsible for him being dubbed ‘Failing Grayling’ and made it difficult to understand why he had been appointed to some of the more sensitive posts in government.

But Grayling’s store of Arguments for Survival is unusually deep, enabling him to survive when his rivals have given up. When he was dumped with the responsibility for seeing the Third Runway through to establishment it had been in process, from one side to the other, for a very long time. It was another example of politicians who habitually encourage us to trust them for their talent for crisp clear-headed attitudes but are liable to change their collective minds, often diametrically from one embattled side to the other – at times developing nothing better than a state of chaos. Heathrow was opened as ‘London Airport Heathrow’ in 1946, coming out of the purchase in 1930 of 150 acres of land by an aircraft engineer from the vicar of Harmondsworth. Over the years it repeatedly expanded, with a succession of Terminals until in 2001 the then Labour government was persuaded by a campaign to manage the aerospace congestion by building a further runway. In 2003 Alistair Darling, when he was Minister of Transport, produced a White Paper which effectively set the debate going, confirmed by another White Paper in 2005. This set off a widespread, organised protest movement which objected to the proposal on the grounds of aircraft noise, atmospheric pollution and road traffic congestion – on one occasion making its points with a band of intrepid demonstrators on the roof of Parliament. This did not persuade the Labour government with its Prime Minister Gordon Brown to change its policy.

No Ifs No Buts
That had to wait for 2009 and the future Prime Minister of the coalition government David Cameron who made many people feel a lot better with his famous declaration including the phrase that ‘…the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead no ifs, no buts’ and after the 2010 election the Lib Dem Nick Clegg was encouraged to try to seduce a few votes, along with all those others who had believed him in the matter of student loans, by agreeing that the whole idea of a Third Runway was dead in the airways. And there was the next Tory Prime Minister Theresa May who in January 2009 intervened  like a seasoned objector on the matter of the Labour government plan to approve the terminal: ‘A third runway will result in thousands of additional flights, increased noise and more pollution for thousands of people. The government’s promises on the environmental impact of this are not worth the paper they are written on’.

We are accustomed to the exposure of politicians in a confusion of their impotence. In the case of the third runway the reasons are readily available. Heathrow is effectively owned by a number of investment funds in countries such as Qatar, Singapore, China while the British Chamber of Commerce expects it to bring £30 billion of ‘economic benefits’ to the UK economy between 2020 and 2080. Aircraft fly, people travel, goods are flown back and forward across the world, influenced by profits or loss – by those ‘economic benefits’. The third runway is not judged on its effects on human welfare but on which side of that equation it operates.

Editorial: Life After Trump (2016)

Editorial from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most political pundits predicted that Donald Trump would face defeat in the Presidential Elections. Likewise with the European Referendum in June, they were confident that the Remain side would win. On both counts, they were wrong.

In next year's French Presidential elections the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, is expected to make major gains. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland, a far right populist group, may be in a position to challenge the ruling Christian Democrats. The Freedom Party of Austria gained most votes in the first round of the Austrian Presidential elections in April 2016.

Clearly, there is a surge in support for populist parties and politicians across Europe and in the USA who peddle nationalism, xenophobia and racism and pose as champions of the people against the establishment. Widespread disaffection with and mistrust of the mainstream political parties have emerged. It is not too difficult to see why this discontent has come about.

Over the years, due to the deregulation by governments of financial markets, capital has been able to flow more freely around the globe. Thus many relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing and in industry have moved from richer to poorer countries where the labour costs are lower. At the same time, we have witnessed the erosion of trade union power. There has been increased impoverishment in former industrial areas, such as the 'rustbelts' in the USA. Impersonal market forces have penetrated into the everyday lives of working class people resulting in a feeling of powerlessness. Governments of whatever persuasion appear at best set against these forces or at worst conniving with them. Supranational institutions, that embody these impersonal market forces, like the European Union, have become increasingly unpopular.

Concomitant with this process of 'globalisation' has been the rise of immigration of workers to the richer countries. This has fostered unease among workers in the host countries who fear increased competition for jobs and scarce resources. Populists, like Donald Trump, UKIP and the Front National, exploit these anxieties for their electoral gain.

Over this period, there has been a rise in Islamophobia resulting from terrorist attacks such as the September 11 attacks, the London bombings and more recently the attacks in France and Belgium. Populists have not been slow in latching onto this fear of Islamic terrorism. Banning Muslims from entering the US was a central plank of Trump's electoral platform.

There is no doubt that the social and economic effects of the 2008 financial crash have increased the discontent of the working class. While workers have had to endure austerity imposed on them, the rich minority continue to become richer. Governments are seen to be complicit in this increasing inequality.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites and the failure of social democratic parties like the Labour Party to reform capitalism, socialism and communism have been seen by many workers to have failed. Therefore, when workers become angry with the effects of capitalism, many of them turn to right-wing populist parties. Ironically these parties usually champion the same free market capitalism which ultimately lies behind working class discontent. They offer no solution to working class problems, and like the Social Democratic Parties before them, they will inevitably fail in their efforts to transform capitalism should they come to power. Socialism is the only solution to working class problems.