Sunday, July 2, 2017

Snakes and ladders (1963)

From the May 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

This is one game which has been going on too long and too fruitlessly for the people who have been forced to play it. The housing problem which we know today came in with capitalism and has defied over a century's efforts to reform it out of existence. The working class are still lost among the Snakes and Ladders, still bemused by the measures which, the politicians assure them, will improve the housing situation but which turn out to have no effect on the problem. The ladders are few and what there are of them are short and rickety. The snakes are many and they are long and slippery and venomous. The promised land—the square marked “Home" is as far away as ever.

That black thing which we now call the Housing Problem was born in the intense transformation of this country during the Industrial Revolution. The break up of the agricultural communities forced the farm workers into the towns, where the greedy factories were demanding human labour. These people had to have somewhere to live, even if this was a secondary consideration to their ability to produce a profit for their employers. As they were only workers, there was no especial need to provide them with adequate washing and sanitary facilities; no need either to give them an excess of living space and fresh air. So the men who had lately spent their days in the wind and the sun were stacked away, when their stint in the factories was done, into cellars, into the back-to-backs, and into the court houses. In their book The Bleak Age the Hammonds record this description of such homes in Manchester in the 1840’s:
They are built back to back; without ventilation or drainage; and, like a honeycomb, every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these house form courts, with, perhaps, a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty houses.
For the capitalist class, the Industrial Revolution was no time for thinking about anything other than making money. Few of them were farseeing enough to realise that bad housing was a false economy, because it could spread disease the cost of which could wipe out a lot of the profit to be made from the pale, emaciated wretches who lived like vermin in the squalid homes of the expanding industrial towns.

A cholera epidemic in 1832 highlighted this fact and in 1851 came the first Public Acts dealing with housing—The Common Lodging Houses Act and The Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act. These were thus the first of the many ladders to be propped up for the working class and, typically, they turned out to be snakes after all. The Acts gave local authorities certain powers which were supposed to enable them to combat the housing problem, but these powers were hardly used—for the good, sound, capitalist reason that the cost of doing so was prohibitive. Since then there have been any number of other Acts dealing with housing. Sometimes the Statute Book has become so choked with legislation that another Act has been needed to clear up the mess and to consolidate the existing measures. Nowadays the term “The Housing Acts” is taken to refer to no less than thirteen separate Acts and to other closely related legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Acts.

Hardly a trick has been left untried. All manner of financial juggling has been authorised, many kinds of inducements have been offered to housing authorities to build. The ladders have all proved to be snakes. The 1923 Housing Act, which was Neville Chamberlain’s brainchild, was supposed to encourage private building for sale, so that the buyers would leave their “intermediate” houses to be hungrily occupied by people from the slums. Chamberlain and his experts forgot, however, that the majority of people under capitalism have to live within the limits of their wage. In 1923 there were so many unemployed, and wages were so low, that very few workers could afford the deposit on a house, even though it was only a few pounds. The whole idea of the Act quickly collapsed. In 1924 they had another go. The Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of that year provided for Exchequer grants for houses to let. The capitalist class themselves dismantled that ladder; in 1932 the Ray Committee on Local Expenditure recommended the abolition of all Exchequer aid for housing other than that for rehousing slum dwellers because the economics of the thing did not justify government aid. This recommendation was put into effect by the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1933.

So it has gone on through the years. One government after another has produced its plausible schemes to tackle the problem once and for all, but every one has failed. In November, 1960, Mr. Henry Brooke, who was then Minister of Housing, apparently decided that the problem was not, after all, one of building houses so much as putting baths into the houses which did not have them. Admitting that in England and Wales there were three million houses which were “far from ideal,” he announced: “The battle for a bath in every home has begun.” But before Mr. Brooke could let off his first cannon he had lost his job as Minister of Housing to Dr. Charles Hill. Dr. Hill had the bright idea of going to have a look at the slums himself, but almost as soon as he had come back he, too, was removed from the job and replaced by yet somebody else who was going to clear up the mess—Sir Keith Joseph. Sir Keith also went to visit the slums, and the slums—in the shape of some homeless members of the working class—came to visit him, giving the press some fetching pictures of Sir Keith’s wife smiling bravely as she admitted several scruffy children to her posh home. Then the new Minister had an inspiration. He would speed up slum clearance! He even went so far as to mention Cable Street, Stepney, as one place which could do with some attention. Everybody was amazed; here was obviously a Minister of Housing who knew a slum when he saw one.

This is typical of the floundering which has accompanied this past century of reform, some of it administered by wordy politicians who have climbed to high office after notching up a dismal record on housing. And what has been the result of it all, up to the present? You can take your pick from the facts and figures which clamour for attention. In 1954 there were officially 850,000 houses in England and Wales which were condemned as unfit; this figure is a wild understatement, because it only took account of the slums which local authorities thought they could clear, instead of those which they thought should be cleared. And faster than any slums are pulled down, others take their place. In July last year Dr. Lichfield, an urban economist who had just left the Ministry of Housing, said that over twenty-three per cent. of our houses were built before 1875 and that even if the present rate of slum clearance were doubled there would still be a million of them left in 1982.

Capitalist politicians are fond of telling us that the housing problem springs from a physical difficulty of building enough homes for those who want them. It is nothing of the kind. Rich people simply do not have housing difficulties; these are reserved exclusively for the working class, who must budget for their housing, just like the other essentials of living, against a restricted wage packet. And that is something which no reform of capitalism can alter.

It is true that the majority of workers do not live in what are officially classified as slums. Even so, the poverty of their lives is reflected in their homes. We all know what an average three-up-two-down working class house, perhaps the pride of its occupant’s life, is like. We know how cramped are the rooms, how the doors don’t fit, how the draughts whistle around in the winter, how poor are the materials of which the place is built. Yet officially these people have no housing problem. They are off the list.

The fact is that, however many reforms batter themselves against it, the problem of housing will remain for the working class and all of them will be afflicted by it. As long as capitalism lasts none of them can escape it. After all, the first rule of Snakes and Ladders is that it is a game for any number of players.

Party Notes (1908)

Party News from the February 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Manchester Branch continues to do well. Each week brings fresh tidings of meetings held and literature sold. They attend meetings of other parties, asking questions and offering opposition, and selling Manifestoes. This is distinctly good business. On Jan. 19th Moses Baritz was refused permission to oppose an I.L.P. speaker. Owing to his persistency the Manchester (Central) branch closed the meeting, whereupon Baritz addressed the audience and afterwards had a good sale of our literature.

* * *

At the Co-operative Hall, Burnley, last month, Mr. Philip Snowden was asked bow he reconciled his position with the compacts made by l.L.P. candidates with the Liberals at Leicester and Halifax at the general election. Mr. Snowden denied that any compacts existed.

* * *

A Manchester comrade has sent Mr. Snowden, in a registered envelope, a copt of the Manifesto of the S.P.G.B. in which full particulars of these compacts are given. Mr. Snowden will therefore be enabled to reply to the question differently when he speaks at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on Feb. 2nd.

* * *

The Manifesto is the most comprehensive statement of our position yet made, and all comrades should do their best to push it. A Third Edition is now ready, the second edition of 5,000 being sold out within seven months. This edition should be sold out before the Easter Conference.

* * *

The second of the Kautsky pamphlets will he shortly on sale at a penny. Branches can be supplied at the usual price of 13 copies for 9d.

* * *

The last month has seen a large number of debates, and preparations for several are even now in progress.

* * *

At Poplar on Jan. 12th Anderson debated with R. C. K. Ensor the question of “Reform v. Revolution.” Ensor boasts of being the best educated man in East London, but his arguments on behalf of reform were of the usual kind dealt with in these columns. Will Crooks M.P., was present at the debate and assisted the proceedings by shouting “liar!” “liar!” during the course of Anderson’s speech.

* * *

Although wit and learning were thus combined against us in Poplar, and although our man had to speak first to draw the crowd, some of the audience will have been given furiously to think as a result of hearing a word for the other side.

* * *

The Islington Branch have fixed up a debate in Grovedale Hall, Upper Holloway, on Thursday, Feb. 6th, at 8 p.m., between A. Anderson and Councillor Dey on the question whether “Socialism would be detrimental to the interests of the People.”

* * *

Meetings will be continued on subsequent Thursdays until further notice in Grovedale Hall.

* * *

Fitzgerald debated at Battersea with an Anarchist on the 12th Jan. All the other Anarchists present disagreed with their exponent’s exposition, with the result that Fitzgerald debates again, with another Anarchist, in the same hall. Watch Battersea’s lecture list.

* * *

Tooting Branch have challenged the Rev. Waldron to debate, and he has accepted. Negotiations are pending.

* * *

We have received a letter from Comrade T. Dix, from Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A., in which he draws a gloomy picture of poverty in the land of the free. He corroborates our conviction that there is no essential difference between the conditions of the working class in Protectionist and in Free Trade countries. Comrade Dix sends fraternal greetings to his old comrades. He will be remembered as the secretary of the Tottenham Branch a year or so ago.

* * *

We have pleasure in reporting the formation of a branch of the Party in Clapham. There is plenty of S.P.G.B. work to be done there and anyone willing to assist should communicate with the secretary (see Branch Directory).

* * *

Romford Division Branch are making satisfactory progress in their new Club premises. On Jan. 19th J. Kent dealt with other parties, specially criticising the Ilford Socialist Party. The discussion was long and lively, and was eventually adjourned to Feb. 2nd.

* * *

At the S.P.G.B. Club, 27, York Road, Ilford, a speaker’s class is held every Thursday, at 9 p.m., conducted by J. Kent.

Russia 1917: As We Saw It (2017)

From the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Standard described the Council of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies as a 'broken reed' for supporting the continuance of the war.
That we have due justification for refusing to slap the Russian on the back, with expressions of sickly sentiment, congratulating him upon having achieved his emancipation (sic !) is clearly shown by the fact that the Council of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies despatched a congratulatory message to the Leeds conference in which an invitation to Stockholm was embodied.
Despite the dearth of news from Petrograd and other centres we are in a position to know that the Russian capitalist class still hold the field, both economically and politically. If it were not so, then M. Kerensky, clearly an agent of the Russian ruling class, would have been removed long ago. Indeed, his election could never have been even mooted by the victorious proletariat.
Signs are not wanting that the workers out there are already losing strength, as the following words issued in manifesto form by the Council of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies to the Commander of German troops on the Russian front in reply to the pourparlers with a view to concluding peace, bear witness:
"He has forgotten that Russia knows that the overthrow of her Allies would mean the overthrow of Russia and the end of her political liberty." Daily Chronicle, 10.6.1917.
Such words are hardly indicative of class-consciousness and form strong contrast to the much-lauded "no annexation, no indemnity" pronouncement.
When, too, it is pointed out that just prior to the issuing of this statement a meeting of the self-same deputies had stood up and vociferously cheered M. Kerensky, the new figurehead of Russian oppression, it will become increasingly apparent that in giving trust to such a body the Russian worker is relying upon the proverbial broken reed.
Small wonder, then, that the labour hacks in this country are so anxious to assist in their usual slimy, game of confusing working-class minds and conflicting vital issues.
If proof should be wanted of Kerensky's little game ― and, needless to say, he has been pointed to as a genuine Socialist by the prostitute Press ― it is contained in the following extract from an Order of the Day issued by the wily Minister of War to the Russian troops:
"Remember that whoever looks behind, stops, or draws back will lose everything. Do not forget that if you defend not the honour, liberty, and dignity of the country your names will be cursed. The will of the people must rid the country and the world of violators and usurpers. Such is the high deed to which I call you."― " Daily News, 28.5.17.
It, would appear as though Kerensky's mortal fear lest the wretched soldiers look back is prompted by a dread that his own game might be discovered. The chances are, too, that if he, the Russian soldier, stands to lose everything, he will also be losing his chance of a German bullet. Certain it is that enough evidence has been forthcoming to conclusively prove the reluctance of a very large proportion of the Russian Army to continue the senseless slaughter which has transformed the European plains into vast graveyards.

On The Box (1998)

TV Review from the October 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last Friday I found myself in a television studio feeling unable to take part in what was going around me without wanting to throw up. I am seldom at a loss for words, but I am struggling now to describe this programme with any degree of objectivity or enthusiasm. I wouldn't know whether to call it a game show or a quiz show. And I am still not quite sure what the point of it was. True the information I had received on it had not endeared it to me long before I was due to take my place, along with three other socialists, in the studio audience. I rarely watch programmes of this ilk. A woman representing the Audience Research Unit had promised me we would be involved in a lively debate. Now I think I could be forgiven for believing this might lead to an opportunity to voice ideas sympathetic to socialist thinking. I didn't know then that the studio audience had been—how can I put it? — manipulated.

We arrived at the television centre several hours before the programme was due to go out, whereupon we were ushered upstairs, along corridors, round corners until we finally reached a place called "hospitality", but which looked like a works canteen. We were invited to help ourselves to tea and coffee. I jokingly asked if we got a glass of wine. Sharon from the Audience Research Unit told me "We can't run to that." I bet they "ran to it" for the guest celebrities. Someone called out names from a list and about six people marched off to another part of the building. The same people turned up later, already in place in the studio, and did most of the talking once the programme had got underway. And I had thought it was going to be a free for all. What naivete on my part; but this was my first time ever on television. Of course this did not necessarily mean we could not voice our opinions, but what it did mean to us was that having once discovered that people had been previously singled out for their contribution, and having realised also that the programme was tasteless and a load of rubbish to boot, we became hard put not to sit in the front row of the studio audience with arms folded and wearing, each of us, expressions of doom. It was so awful.

This is what was on offer. A panel of three celebrities (one of them describing herself as a "socialist anarchist" in some information handed out to us), a studio audience taken from a cross-section of the public, a well-known name to "host" the programme, and a chair reminiscent of the Mastermind hot seat. Three people in the news that week had been asked along to occupy the chair, one at a time. Each member of the panel would ask questions of the newsworthy guest with the intention, I think, of making him squirm. The audience got its turn, but the people who had been primed beforehand spoke first and had the most to say. Anyone lucky enough to get in after that was often cut short so that the next chair guest could be introduced. But not before we had voted. We were asked to hold up a card with an H on one side and a V on the other. H for hero, V for villain. Such responsibility! We three didn't bother, except that I did vote once in an attempt to look as though I was joining in. Debate was very limited before we were expected to make that all-important decision as to whether the chair guest was a hero or a villain. One contestant for the chair was the landlord of a pub who had incurred local disapproval for wishing to employ male strippers on his premises. The host went to town on this one with a line in jokes and puns on male genitalia, the kind of which I had given up laughing at when I was thirteen years old, and I didn't laugh much then either. "Turkey's giblets" was one of the expressions used. It was all so pathetic that my fellow-socialists and I looked at our watches and yawned. It was going to be some time before we could repair to the pub.

It is no wonder that when the programme went out the cameras seemed to have missed the three of us. We could be seen as three blurred images. It was obvious that someone in authority had given us the thumbs down. What self-respecting producer, concerned for his ratings, is going to allow shots to be taken of three people who look as though they are taking part in a mass suicide? What a relief. Who wants acquaintances coming up to them in the street the next day saying "I saw you on telly last night" when in reality that turned out to be the last place they ever wanted to be. And talking of reality-that little square box in the corner of our living room is not reality whatever else anyone thinks it is. Even members of the celebrity panel looked bored and lethargic and they were getting paid. Since we live in a world where money is the name of the game then perhaps audiences should be paid too. Not that a freebie could ever be any inducement for me to take part in such tripe.
Heather Ball