Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Eugène Ionesco and the Defeatist Dilemma (1958)

Eugène Ionesco
From the October 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard
"The whole history of the world has been governed by . . . nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death; it is the human condition that directs the social condition not vice versa.”
This in essence is the subjective theory of history; it is also the philosophy of the French playwright Eugène Ionesco.

Eugène Ionesco, who is of Rumanian origin, has in the last ten years become one of the leading dramatists of the French avant-garde. Like all such writers his plays were first acted in the tiny left-bank theatres in Paris. He has now acquired a world-wide reputation and his plays are being performed in many languages.

The constant theme of his plays (for example: Armedée. Victims of Duty, etc.) is the personal predicament of the individual in the modem world, expressed in a highly original and unusual style of dramatic writing. In an article on “ The Playwrights Roll ” (Observer, June 29th, 1958), from which the opening quotation is taken, he says: "What is called the 'social' plane (of reality) . . .  seems to me to be the most external, in other words, the most superficial."

It is a characteristic of our times for many people to deny the efficacy of political action and to turn to the sad futility of attempting to solve the inner, personal problem; simply because heretofore, all political action has left us still with each his own personal predicament in an impersonal and anti-social world.

Ionesco says elsewhere in his article: "I believe that what separates us all from one another is simply society itself . . . This is what raises barriers between men, this is what creates misunderstanding.” And again: “To discover the fundamental problem common to all mankind, I must ask myself what my fundamental problem is, what my most ineradicable fear is. I am certain, then, to find the problems and fears of literally everyone.” 

True, society does separate us one from another, but the question, why? is not asked. True, my problems are those of literally everyone, in other words, they are common problems, therefore may they not be social in origin? Society and human beings cannot be considered in abstraction, as separate entities, we have no existence apart from one another and the whole which constitutes society. Our individual condition is determined on all counts by our common (social) condition. Neither is there an eternal paradox whereby the nature of our existence should, or must be, the barrier to perfect communication and harmonious living. If this were true, it would mean that at no time and in no place have men lived without the problems Ionesco poses, and this we cannot countenance. Personal problems are only the manifestations on the individual plane of the social malaise; for all problems can be seen on analysis no matter what their nature, to stem from the wider circle of causality—society. To describe social reality as therefore merely “external” and “superficial,” is to assume à priori that we have an existence which is “extra-social” and in some way superior to the social. Obviously, Ionesco has something in mind as to what this might be and he describes it as “a wider, deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias.” It is not that these things are not real enough, or for that matter of vital importance, but the emphasis is misplaced; that in some way they are more real, more potent, than the social existence. (There are no realities which can be conceived as being more, or less, real than others; there are only factors of varying powers of determinancy within reality.) This is not to question that our emotions, or rather, say our subjective impulses, do not have their influence on the course of human history, or on life in general (that would be silly), men make their own history and emotions are part of our human composition, but to say that (see opening quotation) what Ionesco calls the human condition, the psychological totality, directs the social condition, is an untenable assumption. Who could possibly give a cogent, convincing explanation of human history by way of such an hypothesis? I cavil at the thought of even putting rhetorical questions on the subject; the result would be so ludicrous, that I can only assume Ionesco does not mean precisely what he says. Perhaps I am wrong in my interpretation of what he means by the human condition, perhaps it is our unique human consciousness; our ability to experience the subjective, to be aware of ourselves, to have powers of abstraction, to be able to plan ahead; but these things are in fact historically the result of the very social reality that to Ionesco is mere external superficiality, as well as being a necessary factor for the existence of society anyway and can only exist itself and have meaning, within the social context. It is important to realise also that each human emotion only becomes overt as a response, and thus never without a reason, and that reason can only emanate from the environment, which is to all intents and purposes—society. Therefore, if our subjective impulses give rise to any problems on the psychological plane, they must be ascribed in origin to the social one. Ionesco rightly says of the “saviours of the world ”; “the founders of religions”; “the moralists” and “the politicians,” that “they make a pretty poor job of it” Yet at the same time he wrongly lays the responsibility for the business of directing human affairs, upon the very people whom he denigrates; contentedly leaving the destiny of the human race in the hands of professional bunglers, thus absolving himself from any responsibility, either as an artist or (one must presume) as a human being for the whole lamentable situation; which being social in origin—the completely insane, inherently unstable organisation of human life—must be tackled on that level, for to put it bluntly: there is no other.

As stated earlier, the question why? as Ionesco rightly contends (though for the wrong reason), that society raises barriers between men was not asked. I do not intend to state at length an answer which should be patently obvious to any one who reads this journal, except to say that in this case, as in many others, if we try to understand human beings in isolation, we find that we have to invent causes to replace those we choose in our ignorance to ignore. In this case the nature of society.

The flagrant contradictions, the class structure, the thoroughly warped relationships and hollow values that characterise the very mode of our human existence, it is well understood can easily lead to Ionesco’s position.

The utter boredom, futility and terror of our world which is fast becoming more and more “the air-conditioned nightmare” (to use Henry Miller’s phrase) of Huxleyan prophecy; which throws people back on themselves. to seek inwardly for peace and security, to escape from the vast, infinite, impersonal, oppressive world beyond, over which they feel they have no power to control. Our social nature pines and withers, for it has nowhere to flourish, for which the penalty has to be paid in full. The case-books of the psychologists attest to this.

In “The Starting Point” an essay which has been prefaced to the first volume of his plays in English (published by John Calder), Ionesco says: “. . . the world oppresses, the universe is crushing me. A curtain, an impassable wall stands between me and the world, . . . the horizon closes in and the world becomes a stifling dungeon . . . I feel I am invaded by heavy forces, against which I can only fight a losing battle.”

It is this highly personal expression of the predicament of the individual, from which he has evolved his theory of Dramatic art. It is from this point of view that he has written his creed as a playwright.

As the “human condition” is to him more important than the “social” condition,” it follows that in Ionesco’s opinion those who write on the wider social aspect of life, commit a host of artistic fallacies, since: “such writers . . . offer nothing that one does not know already through books and political speeches.” On this account he cites Sartre, Osborne, Miller and Brecht.

It is in no way to condone the conclusions of the aforementioned writers (though we may find much to agree with) to defend their dramatic approach, for in their works we are always aware of the world outside the immediate action, so that what the characters say, do and experience, has meaning for us. They are engaged in living; and acting on their environment, not merely thumb-sucking their complexes in a vacuum.

If and when the development of a Socialist theatre is possible, giving voice to Socialist ideas, aspirations and criticism, it can only be through the medium of “social” theatre that this can be accomplished. Apart from this, the pernicious fallacies of Ionesco’s theatre concerning the nature of man and society are opposed to the whole Socialist philosophy, and it is on this score that I draw issue with him and make my criticism.

If, as Ionesco says: “. . .  every work of art is outside ideology,” we are reduced to a conception of art that takes no account of the artist, who as a creative individual, is himself created in turn by the living, vital forces of society which he transforms into artistic terms. 

Ionesco is himself, no more and no less than his particular anathema Bertholt Brecht, a product of some aspect of Capitalism.

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality," wrote T. S. Eliot, but when that reality is inimical to use, we tend, like Ionesco, to hope that by refusing to look at it, it will somehow cease to be; or perhaps—simply go away.

Man’s greatest need is man, that is why we are Socialists and go the Socialist way. "Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death—but we may choose.
Ian Jones

The Passing of the Communist Party (1942)

From the January 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

My membership of the Communist Party was in the days when it claimed loyalty to the teachings of Lenin and a Marxian attitude to all social questions. In those days the C.P. attracted many an honest and energetic member of the working class to its ranks. In the main they were studious people who believed that the road to Socialism could only be made, by insurrection, led and fostered by an intelligent minority.

They rejected the position that the workers must understand, and that Socialism could only be achieved by a majority capturing the powers of government legally. They argued that the capitalist class would never permit itself to be voted out of power, that Parliament would be closed down if it were threatened by a determined working class bent on its capture. They taught that the workers should build up extra legal organisations to effect the taking of power. Such in brief was the basic attitude of many of us in those days, when cynicism had not bitten into the membership by glaring changes of policy.

Time has had its revenge on the C.P. Contrast the beliefs and hopes of twenty years ago and the position to-day.

How we then propagated the Lenin injunction: turn an imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war. We would, out of the conflict of boss-class, lead the war-weary workers to revolution and Socialism. Moreover, many of us quietly hoped that war would come soon to deliver us from the fetters of capitalism.

To-day, instead of exploiting the violent quarrels of the master-class, the communists are committed to the preservation of capitalism in one form or another, using every device to prove their loyalty to the concept of patriotism.

Civil war or revolution is farthest from their mind.

The membership of the C.P. has changed often in the course of its history; a change of policy has meant generally a change in personnel. Over the past few years the nationalistic and patriotic line of the party has found reflection in the membership.

Revolutionaries of yesterday are now found outside, forming groups such as the Trotskyists.

Others just drifted out of the political scene completely.

Minor changes of policy could be explained by the usual method—i.e., that changing conditions required changing tactics.

But complete abandonment of the class struggle, that day-to-day struggle so beloved by the C.P.? Read Mr. Arthur Homer, at a conference of mine-owners, managers and workers at Cardiff:
The common danger facing owners, managers and workers is the magnet that draws all together.
—“World News and Views," October 11th, 1941.
In international affairs the Communists stand for British capitalism. To quote Mr. Maisky, it will be “based on close collaboration during and after the war" (Daily Chronicle, November 22nd). Now not one communist living twenty or even five years ago would have dared to prophesy what has come to pass.

It would be easy to gloat, to sneer over the dismal end of the much bruited Third International and its affiliated bodies, for events have finally disposed of the claim to be socialist that that organisation pressed in its early days.

Socialists have pointed out, year in, year out, to the Communists that their tie-up with Russia’s foreign policy precluded a clear understanding of the nature of capitalism.

The State capitalism of that country may have distinguishing features from orthodox capitalism, but it was not Socialism.

The road to Socialism is a long one, and unremitting propaganda must make an intelligent working-class fit for Socialism.
Frank Dawe

Party Notes (1904)

Party News from the October 1904 issue of the Socialist Standard

The encouraging results attending our outdoor propaganda continue. New members are being enrolled every week. But if comrades in charge of the meetings would keep a sharper look out greater results still would be achieved. 

* * *

At the close of the meetings, one can usually observe a few persons remaining after the bulk of the audience has gone away. In many cases these persons are waiting to be approached by our members. They are a little shy of taking the initiative, but our comrades should break the ice and introduce themselves in a friendly

* * *

Then a quiet suggestion could be made that if they find themselves in agreement with the position of the speaker to whom they have just been listening, they ought to join the party and help to spread the light. On the other hand, any point on which there may exist any misconception could be plainly elucidated and the listeners will go away impressed with the opinion that at any rate the members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain have a sincere desire to impart a knowledge of the true position of the working class.

* * *

The Socialist Standard, if we judge by the first number, has been a success. The sales have been good. We have to thank the many readers who have expressed their appreciation of its contents.

* * *

While we recognise the strenuous efforts made by our comrades in disposing of the papers, we trust that they will not slacken those efforts. We fully realise that we have brought out our paper at the worst possible time—the end of our summer propagandist season. That being so, we must rely on our members to use their best endeavours to boom the paper in the winter months. The paper is the property of the party, and its success is desired by all who have the best interests of the party at heart.

* * *

Since our last issue we have to chronicle the formation of two new branches—one in Clerkenwell, London, and the other in the Romford Division of Essex. All Socialists in these districts should get in touch with these branches so as to make them the nuclei of strong local bodies.

* * *

We have bad further requests for information from various parts of the country, and we think the result will be that in the near future we shall be able to record the formation of branches in the provinces.

* * *

Any Socialist desiring to obtain information as to the constitution or principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain will receive courteous consideration at our hands. We shall always be willing to satisfy any doubts in the minds of our correspondents or to give them any information'

* * *

Any Socialists residing in any district where no branch of the party exists may, pending the formation of such branch, become members of the Central Branch of the party.
Con Lehane

Party Notes. (1905)

Party News from the July 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Manifesto of The Socialist Party of Great Britain to the Working-Class has been published in pamphlet form, and can be had from the Party Literature Agent, F. C Watts, 154. Ashmore Road, Paddington, London, W., price 1½d. post free. This pronouncement will, of course, be differently viewed by both the friends and the enemies of the working-class. The publication of the document marks the advent of a new era in working-class polities in Britain.

* * *

The Manifesto deals with the present position of the working-class, the historical developments which brought about that position, lays down the basis of working-class political action, and by a clear and sober analysis shows wherein the various political organisations other than the S.P.G.B. claiming to be the party of the workers fail to meet the requirements of the present juncture. No student of modern politics should be without a copy of the Manifesto.

* * *

What is the difference between the S.P.G.B. and the S.D.F.?—the Fabian Society?—the I.LP. ?—the L.R.C.? Read the Manifesto, which is replete with facts bearing on the differences. What are the tactics of The Socialist Party? Read the Manifesto.

* * *

The Party Organ and the Manifesto should be pushed at all propaganda meetings. During the summer we base the best opportunities of selling the Party literature. Make hay while the son shines.

* * *

Propaganda meetings should always be held precisely at the advertised time. This is generally done, but s few cases have come under my observation where, owing to meetings being opened a little late, our speakers have failed to secure audiences they otherwise would have had. Let punctuality be the order of the day.

* * *

Branches and speakers are reminded that they should regularly send to the centre reports of the propaganda meetings, so that the entire propaganda activity of the Party may be accurately ascertained. If a meeting is worth holding it is worth reporting.

* * *

The West Ham comrades show evidences of greet activity and the East Ham Branch of the Party is in process of formation. More power to their elbows!

* * *

The Romford Division Branch is opening an S.P.G.B. Club at 43. York Road, Ilford, and all Party members residing outside the Romford Parliamentary Division are honorary members. This Branch, too, seems determined to give a good account of itself, and has extended its activity into the East End of London.

* * *

In Islington the S.P.G.B. is at present well in evidence. In Finsbury Park our local Branch appears to have killed the efforts of the other organisations claiming to be Socialist, for during the past few Sundays our comrades have had no opposition “Socialist” meetings.

* * *

In other directions our Branches are doing well, and if the results so far are a fair indication as to the success of our Party during the remainder of the propaganda season, then we may rest assured that our efforts will not have been in vain.

* * *

The Delegate Meeting of the S.P.G.B. will be held at the Communist Club, London, on Monday, 31st July, 1905, 8 p.m., and in order that the E.C. may be enabled to present a complete report Branches are requested to send in their quarterly statements with the least possible delay.

* * *

Photographs of First Annual Conference of the S.P.G.B. are still obtainable, price 2/-. Orders, accompanied by remittances, should be sent to the undersigned.
Con Lehane