Monday, January 9, 2017

The Abyss revisited (1950)

From the January 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the beginning of the century a young American writer came to the slums of London in search of experience. In the guise of a tramp he spent many months amidst the filth and squalor that thousands of people knew as home. The writer was Jack London, and his researches led to the publication of the “People of the Abyss.” If anybody doubts, or seeks more evidence of the vile foundations upon which present-day society is based he need go no farther than this small volume. It is not pleasant reading.

Many people would read it merely as history. The bad old days. They would tell you that poverty is a thing of the past. The “philanthropic” Tories, the “bluff generous Liberals, and the newly powerful Labour Party, with Beadle Bevan well to the fore, would all agree with them, and argue among themselves as to who was responsible for removing this evil. Maybe we would take sides in this squabble, but first of all we must be sure that the evil has actually been removed.

In spite of all its anomalies and contradictions the capitalist system does comply with certain economic laws. As the mass of wealth produced by the working-class increases, due to revisions and improvements in the means and methods of production, greater skill is required from the working-class. This means a rise in the cost of production of a worker. In order for him to reproduce his mental and physical energies he must consume increasing amounts of food, clothing, shelter, entertainment and education. Many examples of this can be gleaned from contemporary history. Hundreds of natives of Africa who a few years ago were eking a bare living from the soil are to-day employed in Strachey’s ground nut scheme, with the result that they now require those social conditions befitting a labourer, lorry driver or mechanic. Where to-day is the Indian factory worker who can exist upon a daily handful of rice? In other words, as the mountain of commodities increases, the molehill returned to the workers in the form of wages and salaries does grow also. Consequently the poverty of an electric, near atomic era is very different from an era of gas power wherein the internal combustion engine was no more than a daring experiment.

Yet such social derelicts as Jack London describes still doze upon the walls of Spitalfields Churchyard and they are not all old. Some carry young babies and openly feed them. You see them scrounging around the fruit and vegetable market in search of discarded “specks” and fag ends. Occasionally they come to blows over the division of their spoils and are carted off for 28 days in the comparative comfort of Wormwood Scrubs. The well-meaning self-satisfied social busybody points out that they could enter institutions and be well cared-for. It is easy to say but these people are suffering from more than material poverty. Years spent in such conditions have made their mark upon their minds. All self-respect has gone. Beer, cheap port or even methylated spirits are the peaks of their ambitions.

The streets are narrow and between the houses are tailoring sweat shops. The clatter of the machines, the hissing of the steam presses, the discordant singing of the girls pour from the windows. Now is the “season” and many of these places exhibit notices offering attractive conditions of work. After Christmas they will disappear and work will be scarce. At 12 or 1 o'clock the girls come out. They are young and dressed not in gay but gawdy clothes, their pallid faces over-decorated with paint and powder, their nails highly varnished (but notice the work-worn hands). The greyness of their surroundings gives them an uncontrolled desire for colour. Their one topic of conversation is men.

For marriage seems their only form of escape. And what an escape! See the places wherein they live and breed—the vast prison blocks of the Peabody Estate and other such organisations. See the women on their balconies with sagging breasts and distended stomachs, old before their time. See the market places—Wentworth Street, Brick Lane or Mile End Waste—where they haggle with the vendors. See the schools wherein their kids are trained to replace them in the factories and mills. Many of these places were destroyed by bombs. In their place rise the slums of 10 years time.

To-day employment conditions are fairly good and the majority of capable men and women are in work. The many public houses are doing well. “Why aren’t they saving for a rainy day?” screeches the social nosey-parker. Why? If these people had a little less self-righteousness and a little more commonsense the answer would be clear. The people of the abyss have forever lived in poverty, spending literally years plodding from factory to factory and then back to the labour exchanges for a few bob to tide them over. As children, youths and then as parents they have always had to scrimp and save to keep body and soul together. Is it then not natural that when a few extra shillings come their way they are going to enjoy those things which to their limited horizons appear as luxuries.

Such conditions must obviously affect the ideas of those who suffer them. As the previous paragraph demonstrates, their general attitude is one of “ here today and gone to-morrow.” Always must they live from hand to mouth. Their kids are not ill-treated, but left from an early age to fight the battle of life for themselves. They become precocious and unwilling to respect the “sanctity” of private property. They learn to steal, fiddle and avoid the law. Many find their way into the juvenile courts, to approved schools, Borstal institutions and thence to prisons as habitual offenders.

Politically they are easy meat for the opportunists. Many of them, especially among the Jewish community are attracted by the subtle propaganda and glib promises of the Communist Party. Since the war the familiar “flash and circle” has reappeared upon the walls as the Fascist Movement with its vicious anti-Semitic nonsense, has crept back on to the scene. To support such organisations as these is an outlet for their emotions, a means of hitting out at something. Consequently we have seen the battles at Ridley Road.

Yet in spite of all these obstacles there are oases in this desert where man’s natural love of beauty can rise to the surface. On the windowsills of the tenements’ window boxes filled to capacity bloom and are tended with loving care. Queues of work-worn men and women wait outside the Whitechapel Gallery or the People’s Palace to experience works of art. See them in the evenings, still in their working clothes, hurrying to and from the public libraries.

A contradiction? Not at all. Here again capitalism shows itself as its own gravedigger. As the system becomes more involved we have seen how necessary it is for the workers to receive more “education." In itself this is nothing, but in widening the worker's horizon its effect is colossal. He becomes ever more aware of the world in which he lives and how it operates. The fallacies become more apparent, and slowly, the solution more clear.

For these are the producers. I have spoken of London because it is within my own experience, but with very little modification these conditions prevail in every industrial area throughout the capitalist world. Those who are the most useful suffer the worst conditions. But it is a temporary state. All over the world a wind is rising, a wind that will eventually destroy capitalism and its festering sores forever. Hasten the day!

Fact from Fiction (1950)

Book Review from the April 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

Novelists and story writers create fictional characters, but, unless these characters are to appear ludicrous, they must be portrayed against a background of the social conditions of the period and part of the world that is the scene of the story. The characters must eat, dress, play and behave in the manner of their time, their country and their class. They must live in buildings and travel by the transport facilities available in their day and to those of their social status. Thus, the writer of fiction can present us with a picture of living conditions in different parts of the world at varying periods of history. The more correctly he describes the living conditions, the more real will his characters appear and the better will be his work. He that sets the story in the conditions in which he himself lives has a simplified task.

Vera Fiodorovna Panova is a Russian authoress who writes of her own times. She has received official Russian awards and prizes and for her first novel she received the Stalin Prize of 10,000 roubles. In 1948 there was published in Russia her second novel entitled “Kruzhilika.” This has now been translated into English and is published by Putnam & Co. under the title “The Factory." The blurb on the jacket of the book says, “Obviously it has to be reckoned with in any portrayal of Soviet life."

The story has no plot to be cunningly unfolded. It is simply a series of interlinking scenes of everyday life in Russia, centred around a factory. Naturally, in such a setting, the majority of the characters are workers and it is mighty interesting to learn how they live.

In the early pages of the book we are treated to a view of a meeting of the “town party executive,” where most of the time is taken by a trade union official who complains that the factory directors do not allow the Trade Union to play a sufficiently important part in the affairs of the factory. The main function of the Trade Union appears to be to assist in improving production, suggesting technical improvements, and complaining because ”. . .  the director does not pay enough attention to the voice of the masses.”

The factory director lives a vastly different life from that lived by the factory workers. The following extract from pages 257-258 illustrates. The director, Listopad, is driving around the town in his car because he wants to think about his new girl friend. The car is driven by Mirzoev (Akhmet), his chauffeur.
“The car glided softly up the steep street, swam up to the turning into the high road and dashed away from the settlement. A tram was climbing up the street very slowly, it seemed to be standing still; a small tram with people clinging to it—those who lived in the settlement and worked in the town—returning home. If a man worked in the town, thought Listopad, he ought to live in the town. Only those who worked in the factory ought to live in the settlement. Otherwise they had to go through this misery twice a day—waiting a long time in the frost, crowding on the steps, hands freezing as they hung on the rail."
Listopad then goes on to soliloquise about the housing shortage and ” . . . these hideous brick cubes with two hundred flats in each and five stories without a lift.” Then his thoughts come back to his girl friend and the prospects of having her in the car with him. He speaks to his driver;
Mirzoev turned to the director.
“ Tell Averkiev to get me another car rug. A good one—wolfskin."
All the characters in this book are interesting. There is the demobbed soldier who returns home, gets married. spends his gratuity and then has to sell some of his old clothes in the market to raise enough money to get a meal. In the market we meet the usual marketplace patter, sales talk and trickery.

We read the troubles of the Trade Union collector who has the week’s subscriptions stolen from his pocket in a tram. He borrows from friends and relatives to make up the money, and.
" . . . from then on, three-quarters of hit earnings went to pay off what he owed. The remaining quarter was not sufficient even for the barest necessities and be got heavier and heavier behind."
We are given a picture of the workers spending their Sundays digging their small allotments in order to grow potatoes to help eke out their wages. They make the day a family outing, taking sandwiches for dinner. We also read of the young factory worker who was awarded a bonus of 19,000 roubles for special work one month. With that money he left the job, to the great annoyance of the factory chiefs who regretted the loss of so useful a worker, so good a pace setter. This incident suggests to us that the Russian State chiefs found it more beneficial to give medals and diplomas for exceptional work.

Whilst reading this book one is struck by the idea that, except for the climate, the vodka and the queer sounding names, this is a story of workers in any part of the world. Despite the claims of the Communist Party and their supporters, it appears that the lot of the Russian worker during the years 1945 to 1948 differed but little from that of workers in other countries. They were poor, overworked and ill-housed, just as the victims of capitalism the world over. Like good patriots they sacrificed for the war effort and they hated German workers like hell. The voice of Joe Stalin over the radio is received like the voice of the Pope by a devout Catholic. The State is their religion. They work till they drop for their church and their Pope—and their wages.
W. Waters

Editorial: Out of the nightmare (1981)

Illustration accompanying the original editorial.
Editorial from the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

What’s been happening in the world this year? Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or injured in wars; some of these we’ve read about in newspapers or seen on television screens; others, in Eritrea, Timor or Cambodia have been ignored or forgotten about. Many more hundreds of thousands of people, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, have been fleeing from these wars and filling the world’s refugee camps. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, tortured or murdered. Millions of people (about 30 million) have died of starvation and many millions more have been left so weak from undernourishment that irreversible damage has been caused to their mental and physical faculties. Millions of children, from Thailand and South Korea to Africa and South America have worked in semi-slavery and under conditions that defy description.

It has to be admitted that none of this is new. Equally horrific things have taken place at other times in human history. But the difference today is that, for the first time, these scourges could be eliminated. Famine, torture, disease and war need no longer plague the human race. There could be enough food, shelter, clothing and other things to satisfy everyone’s needs the world over. Much infectious illness could be a thing of the past everywhere. Wars are popular with virtually no one and most people would like nothing better than to see all the inhabitants of the earth live in peace together.

Yet nearly all of us, without knowing it, give our support to and help perpetuate the very things we find unacceptable. We endorse the poverty, hunger, cruelty and warfare that blight humanity. We do it every time we express support for the big political parties, every time we vote for them. Because all of these parties stand for the continuation of a world system of which poverty, hunger, cruelty and warfare are an integral part. They stand for a system that will only produce goods when there is a profit to be made and which can never therefore hope to put food in the belly or clothes on the back of people who have no cash to pay for it. And when profits can’t be made, even goods that have already been produced aren’t given to needy people. They’re stored, burned, dumped or buried - anything else would “upset the market”. So large ‘gluts’ of food and other goods are produced in some parts of the world while millions go starving or undernourished elsewhere. All the big parties say they are opposed to this, but they are all committed to administering the system that makes it happen.

The big parties also say they are opposed to war. But when it comes to it, they all accept war and prepare for it. They give encouragement or help to one side or the other in bloody conflicts taking place in other parts of the globe. They insist that they themselves must have ready the best and most sophisticated weapons in order to “protect the country”. But when we consider that, in all countries, the vast majority of the wealth is owned by a tiny minority of the population, we can see who is getting the best deal from “protection”. Wars break out - as a nuclear war could break out — when the economic interests of this wealth-owning minority (their markets, trade routes and sources of raw materials) are threatened and their profits are endangered. And then the only protection ordinary people get is to be told to fight and die for the country. The protection that even civilian populations get is derisory. As many modern examples have shown, they suffer death, misery and destruction on a large scale.

How then do we go about not supporting poverty, famine, disease and war? The answer is to take a long hard look at the world around us, to see that all attempts to improve the nightmare system of production for profit are futile, and to join a vigorous democratic movement determined to replace it by the society of abundance, equality and security which is there for the taking. But it can only be taken when a majority of men and women use their votes not to elect leaders who promise to run things for them but send to the seats of political power democratically elected delegates from a mass socialist party who are committed to one thing and one thing only the abolition of the outdated system of money, wages, profit and buying and selling and the bringing in of a new, truly humane society which will produce only for people’s needs and will make full rational democratic use of the abundant resources of planet earth.