Saturday, July 15, 2017

Editorial: What we stand for (1986)

Editorial from the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is an organisation of men and women who recognise that our material interest depends on the transformation of society from a class monopoly and production for profit to one of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use.

We understand that society is divided into two main classes: those who possess the goods of the earth but do not produce them and those who produce but do not possess. The minority own and control the means of producing and distributing wealth, such as factories, land, offices, mines, media, transport. The minority, be they inheritors of class power or capitalists who have worked their way to affluence by the sweat of other people's toil, are living off the majority. The working class work to keep the bosses in luxury and idleness; we are their benefactors. Socialists are workers who have decided that the days of such foolish charity must end.

The non-socialist regards wages and salaries as gifts by the employer to the employee; the socialist views them as crumbs which the exploiter offers in return for the cake we have baked. The wages system allows us only enough money to exist as profit-producers. Socialists do not aspire to be robbed with dignity; unlike our reformist opponents who dream up endless reforms to soothe the injuries of the robbed, we are for abolishing, not improving, the wages system.

The socialist stands for a system of society where the necessities and luxuries of life are not commodities to be bought, but are there for the use of all. on the basis of free access. The wealth of a socialist society will belong to everyone, not because they are "owners", but because they are members of a free and equal community where property relationships have ceased to exist. The non-socialist worries at this point, scared that without money as an obstacle between humans and the satisfaction of our needs we will be greedy: we will over-consume. But the desire to over-consume is only a fetish adopted by workers who are compelled to under-consume: if we are used to paying for every steak we eat, we dream of eating more steaks than we would ever choose to eat in a society where food is free. The myth of "the greedy person" is a product of a system where money does not allow workers to have enough and calls us greedy when we demand nothing but the best.

So, a socialist society will have no money and no wages. It will be a system of conscious human co-operation. Indeed, socialists are very confident about the possibility of human beings behaving as intelligent co-operators. We do not share the miserable assessment of human potential advanced by the proponents of the theory of Human Nature. Human behaviour is not genetically determined, but governed largely by the social environment. In the absence of a jungle society we are certain that men and women will cease to act like beasts. Competition will give way to mutual aid, war to fraternity.

Unlike those who favour government of the few over the majority, socialists want a society where there are no governors or governed, but where humanity, organised on the basis of full-scale democracy and making use of modem communications technology, will make decisions by itself for itself. And as socialism will not be a society of leaders and led, so it is the case that workers cannot be led to the establishment of socialism. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

Socialists do not think nationally. We recognise that socialism was never established in the so-called socialist or communist countries, and nor could it have been. These are state-capitalist countries, essentially the same as the rest of the capitalist world. Socialism entails worldwide action by the working class.

Socialists reject gods, religion and other superstitious follies. We are scientific enough to understand that it is up to human beings to make history and there are no superior beings, other worlds or external moralities which need get in our way. The socialist is a clear-headed materialist who seeks explanations on the basis of cause and effect and admits ignorance about those phenomena which are incomprehensible rather than invent dogmas relying on faith.

The Socialist Party is opposed to all other parties, for the lot of them stand for capitalism in one form or another. We reject the system and stand in uncompromising hostility to those who, knowingly or in ignorance, advise workers to support it.

Socialists are in a hurry. We realise that the task of social transformation is an urgent one and no effort can be spared in hastening the day when the rotten system of profit and plunder leading to war and waste is replaced by worldwide production for use.

Bloodsucker flees (1986)

Book Review from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Haiti: Family Business by Rod Prince Latin American Bureau (London. 1985)

The recent political unrest in Haiti, resulting in the flight of pitiless dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier. makes this study particularly timely. A byword for terror and corruption, the country has a history of armed intervention by governments and an undeveloped political system in which presidents have been wholely corrupt. Prince shows that the people of Haiti have been suppressed by arrest, brutality and imprisonment and that this pattern has been consistent since its establishment as a French colonial possession in the seventeenth century.

Haiti has been independent since 1804. although it was in debt to France until 1922 and has been financially dependent on the United States throughout the twentieth century. François Duvalier was elected president in 1957 and proclaimed life president in 1964. The dynasty was continued after "Papa Doc" died in 1971 and his son Jean-Gaude ("Baby Doc") was proclaimed President-for-Life in the same year.

Prince describes Duvalierism as "a black nationalist ideology with a radical rhetoric" which claims to be opposed to the "ideological intolerance of a levelling and inhuman communism" (p.28). The regime controlled national finances for personal gain without feeling a need to reveal the extent of its tax income or disbursements. As Prince points out:
the continually widening gulf between the corrupt and luxurious lifestyle of the elite and the wretched conditions of the mass of the people has produced further tensions, (p.34)
Duvalier's power base was dependent on the United States and the business elite of Haiti. Security was maintained by the Voluntaries de la Securité Nationale, who did not receive salaries and consequently practised widespread extortion of cash, goods and crops. Their efforts tended to concentrate on political party leaders, journalists, trade union activists, church figures and community development workers. After 1977 there was some cosmetic relaxation of oppression but in May 1984 all political activity, except that in support of Duvalier. was banned. In April 1985 there was a concession allowing political parties, but subject to the guarantee of Duvalier's Presidency-for-Life. There was a promise of elections in 1987 but only approved political parties would be allowed to participate. In other words, the system did not permit serious opposition but only variations of Duvalier.

According to the World Bank, 78 per cent of the rural population and 55 per cent of the urban live at or below the level of absolute poverty. In a country where the state is the largest landowner the Duvaliers were the main beneficiaries. At the same time Haiti is the recipient of massive foreign aid. primarily from the United States. This actually adds to Haiti's problems for, according to Prince, the distribution of free food undermines the market so that "aid actually exacerbates problems of poverty and dependence" (p.46). There is also the problem of "free" food being sold in the market place.

Haiti epitomises the corruption of capitalism at its most blatant:
One pet cent of the population receives 44 per cent of national income but pays only 3.5 per cent in taxes. An IMF team which visited Port-au-Prince early in 1981 found that US$16 million had disappeared from various state bodies over the previous three months They also found that President Duvalier had obtained US$20 million from government funds for his personal use in December 1980. and the central bank had been instructed to pay his wife Michèle a salary of US$100,000 a month, (p.51)
This is a country whose gross external debt in 1983 was estimated at US$859 million and in which 90 per cent of the population live in destitution and squalor with an income of less than the minimum wage of US$3.00 a day.

The United States has an uneasy relationship with Haiti, condemning its corruption and incompetence yet maintaining close ties because of its "friendly government" status.

One grotesque aspect of Haiti's poverty was the export of blood. With infant mortality so high, surviving Haitians are rich in anti-bodies:
At different times an estimated 6.000 donors sold their blood at US$3.00 a litre, and five tons of blood a month were shipped to US laboratories run by companies such as Armour Pharmaceutical. Cutter Laboratories and Dow Chemicals. (p.80)
There is no depth of poverty that capitalism is not capable of exploiting
Philip Bentley

The War On Poverty (1986)

From the April 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

(Click to enlarge.)

Obituary: Robert Housley (1986)

Obituary from the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to record the death on 24 February of Robert W. Housley in Long Beach. California, at the age of ninety-one. While in his teens he joined the BSP in Manchester but soon became disenchanted with their analysis. He then joined the SPGB and continued to be a socialist until his death.

During the First World War and the early twenties he wrote a number of articles for the Socialist Standard. He emigrated to the United States in the mid twenties and continued to write and support the WSP. His last article was a highly critical review of Sidney Hook's Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx in the early forties for the Western Socialist. His wife Evelyn preceded him in death four years ago.

We extend our sympathy to his son Conrad.

Observations: Labour pains (1986)

The Observations Column from the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour pains

So the Labour Party, struggling to shake off its traditional tendency towards militant state-capitalist left-wingery, has spawned instead the transparently empty slogan: "Freedom and Fairness". Neil Kinnock, Labour's latest experiment in a long and unwholesome line of backsliders, underwhelms us absolutely as he patronises and exploits comedians and little girls, or as he glad-hands all and sundry with his implied "Oh. what a decent fellow I am. Let me lead you to the promised land". Never prepared to offer much more than the odd placebo, tossed to an uninformed, if not downright deceived, constituency from a thinly-veiled platform of undiluted capitalism, Kinnock and the Labour Party are now thrashing about in a quagmire of political duplicity that must have the ghost of Niccolo Machiavelli wishing he could re-write The Prince.

Naturally, nothing resembling socialism must ever be permitted to infect the Party's counsels. But how do these same leaders retain the loyalty of all those supporters, especially among the "idealistic"' and energetic young, who have no desire to find themselves transposed, by sleight of hand, as it were, into members of a down-market version of the SDP? And after all, most of these people remain convinced that Clause Four of the Party’s Constitution — anathema to the top brass — corresponds to the Holy Grail. The truth is, surely, that divisive sectarianism is the fate of all those who say one thing and do another. And in this respect the Labour Party is a sorry mess indeed. Should they succeed, through their superficial PR banalities, in conning enough voters to win them the next election, then it can be guaranteed that the customary disaffection, both within and outside the party, will begin almost as soon as they take their seats in the Commons. What a pity such protest must once again prove so uninformed!

Death of a delinquent

No matter what blunders, omissions and deceits they are responsible for in their prime of life, politicians find that all is forgiven when they reach their dotage. The older they are, the better; then they can mouth all manner of outrageous lies, distortions and conceits because everything they say is admiringly and reverently absorbed.

The most recent example of this was Emmanuel Shinwell, who died last month at the age of 101. The Labour Party seems always to have a few members like Shinwell — Philip Noel-Baker, Fenner Brockway — who each year at their annual conference totter frailly to the rostrum and deliver themselves of some meaningless and complacent drivel. The audience love it, for people of Shinwell's age have a licence to indulge in orgies of senile delinquency.

To the end of his life, Shinwell was called a socialist, which in his case meant that he had once been a famous strike leader, had roared into the Commons as one of the Red Clydesiders. had been the minister responsible for nationalising the mines. In truth these were evidence, not of any unusual socialist principles, but of a commonplace concern with trying to reform capitalism.

That Shinwell stuck to this for all those years, through all those battles, says a great deal about his unwillingness to learn from experience. He actually had no doubts about which society he supported, under all that ballyhoo about being a rebel. This man who was sent to prison for ""inciting a riot" when the police attacked strikers in Glasgow in 1919 became a prominent minister in the 1945 Labour government, which devoted a lot of energy to breaking strikes. This opponent of the 1914/18 war became Minister of "Defence" responsible for organising, and improving the efficiency of, British capitalism's state killing machine and urged the government at the time of the Falklands war to "get on with the fighting and hang the expense". This firebrand of the left grew into a great admirer of Winston Churchill, whose contempt for, and enmity towards, the working class was matched by his admiration for Shinwell:
. . . his sterling patriotism  . . . heart was in the right place where the benefit and strength of our country was concerned . . . The spirit which has animated Mr Shinwell . . . added to the strength and security of our country.
The leaders of capitalism come in many guises. At times they recommend themselves because they are young; at others because they are old; at times women, at others men; or aristocrats and plebians. The possibilities are many — but staggeringly irrelevant. It is not the politicians' image, whether achieved by them or thrust on them, which matters but what they stand for.

By that assessment Shinwell died, as he had lived, an enemy of the working class. No socialist will mourn him.

Brave face

Putting a brave face on election results is something with which the capitalist parties are well familiar. At times they manage this to such effect that it seems as if, whatever the result, no party has actually lost.

Now it is the Tories' turn to stiffen the upper lip, as their poor showing at the recent by-elections and council elections pronounces an ominous — for them — verdict on their seven years of power over British capitalism. They were equal to the task; one of their spokespeople, commenting on the by-elections, employed the elegant evasion that no party ever wins an election — it's just that the other side loses.

This is all of a piece with that well-used Tory explanation, whenever there is any falling away in their support, that the reason is their failure to get their case across to the electorate. This has some engaging possibilities, for it implies that the working class are really imagining the misery of their lives under capitalism. People who suffer the extra impoverishment and indignity of being on the dole are actually living a life of luxury; the slums of Britain are really sumptuous palaces; pensioners do not actually die of the cold in winter because they can't afford to eat as well as keep their homes warm; the despair and sense of alienation symptomised by crime and drug addiction are, in truth, harmony and security. All it needs is for the people to be told that they are happy and cared-for; they will then come to their senses and stuff the ballot boxes to overflowing with Tory votes.

What has actually happened is that millions of workers who were, until recently, impressed enough with Tory promises to vote for a Thatcher government are now having second thoughts, as the reality of experience bears in on them. So far, so good; no worker should ever insult their intelligence, and abuse their power to bring about a fundamental social change, by voting Conservative.

Except that when they decide against voting Tory, workers usually switch to Labour or, if they are in a mood of extreme adventurousness, to the SDP/Liberal Alliance. They do this under the delusion that they are voting for change. No Labour government has ever succeeded in controlling capitalism or in keeping their promises to make it work in the interests of the majority. That is why, one after another, they have gone down in wretched defeat.

The Alliance offers no real alternative to this dismal mess. In policy and personnel they are no better than a re-arrangement of what is on offer by the other two parties. A vote for them is like shaking up the pieces of a kaleidoscope so that the superficial pattern changes while the basics remain the same.

So every vote cast in those elections was wasted, for they all went to support a continuation of capitalism instead of for the radical solution to our problems of abolishing this system and replacing it with socialism.

Coal Strike (1986)

Book Review from the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Striking Women. Communities and Coal (Pluto Press. £5 95).

In photographs by Izabela Jedrzejczyk, Raissa Page, Brenda Prince and Imogen Young, this book documents women's involvement in the year-long miners' strike. There is no text as such but captions to each photo, in words by the women pictured. There are women cooking, sorting food parcels, holding meetings (sometimes still in the kitchen) and on the picket line. "We didn't just peel tatties"; "As my children are small, my husband had to look after them while I went to the kitchen, went to meetings . . . " Women were heartened by the strength they gave each other; "I miss it now It was like being part of a family", but it wasn't all fun, especially at pits where many men were still working "I've had intimidating letters, with filthy language".

The solidarity and determination were increased by adversity: "We'll never forget this strike. I don't think it 's over . . . it's just beginning for me. My husband hasn't done seven days in jail for nothing'; but in spite of saying "In one way Margaret Thatcher has done us a favour, because I'm more aware now of what's going on" all the mining communities are asking for is the right to carry on being wage slaves, and not for the abolition of this slavery and for common ownership of the earth's resources.

However, the book does not set out to put forward political theory but simply to show women as they were during that year, and as social history it makes its point The postscript by Angela John adds a useful list of articles, pamphlets and videos made by community groups. The photo that stays in my mind is of a woman with a hesitant smile and anxious eyes, leaning on crutches, with the colliery behind her in the evening light. Her kneecap was shattered by a truncheon blow. No wonder they won't forget.

Editorial: Socialism and Ecology (1986)

Editorial from the August 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Only when the Earth has become the common heritage of all will humanity be able to face up to the ecological problems posed by its existence as the only animal species that changes nature to satisfy its needs.

All other animal species merely take (the rest of) nature as they find it, feeding off the plants and/or other animals that nature spontaneously supplies and are in fact, both during and after their lives, part of what nature supplies for other animal species. All forms of plant and animal life are linked together in a network of relationships known as an "ecosystem". This system is normally self-sustaining and self-correcting in the sense that if an imbalance develops it is spontaneously eliminated, either by the old balance being restored or by the establishment of a new balance. This latter course is how change, including evolution, occurs.

The animal species known as homo sapiens is also part of nature and must have evolved out of a related species that at one time also merely lived off the spontaneous fruits of nature, gathering plants and insects. Pre-humans came to be distinguished from the other animals — became "human" — when they began to change nature to satisfy their needs, as for instance by systematically using sticks and stones as weapons to capture and kill other animals which they would otherwise have been unable to do. This introduced a new. potentially disturbing element into the ecosystem that had not existed before. Previous disturbing elements which upset the balance had resulted from changes in the non-living part of nature, from climatic and geological changes. Now the activities of a living species also introduced changes. This human activity — changing nature to supply their needs — is what we call today production and is an activity engaged in by no other animal species.

Production inevitably upsets the previously existing balance of nature. This is not necessarily a problem in itself since, as we saw, a new, different balance will sooner or later come into being and there is no reason to suppose that one particular balance is any better than any other. This new balance, like the old one, will tend to be self-sustaining as long as new changes — such as a change in productive methods — do not happen. Humans are in fact quite capable, despite the production (changing nature to satisfy their needs) they engage in, of being a fully integrated part of a self-sustaining ecology system. This was the case of many early human societies which lived in full harmony with the rest of nature and there is no inherent reason arising from the nature of production why this should not be possible today on the basis of modern technology and productive methods.

It is not production itself that is incompatible with a sustainable balance of nature - though all the great productive innovations, from hunting, fire and metal-working to agriculture and the domestication of animals, will have initially been upsetting factors — but the application of certain productive methods as if there was no balance of nature to be upset or which introduce changes too quickly to allow a new sustainable balance to develop. This, basically, is what capitalism's use. or rather abuse, of industrial methods of production has done over the past two hundred or so years and is still doing today. As a system of society rent by property and class divisions in which economic units compete to achieve relatively short-term economic gains (monetary profits), it is inherently incapable of taking into consideration the longer-term and overall factors which ecological science teaches are of vital importance.

This is why it is only when the original communist condition of humanity is restored, but at a global level with modern technological knowledge, that the ecological problems involved in industrial production and in supplying the needs of over 4.000 million people will be properly faced. Of course capitalism has ultimately to face up to the ecological problems its pursuit of profit creates, but only after the event, after the damage has been done. Capitalism in fact goes on from energy crisis to energy crisis adopting new sources when the old ones have become exhausted or too expensive; it exploits one source after another according to their relative cheapness without any concern for the future.

Humans occupy a unique place in nature. Not only are we the only species that engages in production and the only species whose activities are a potentially disrupting element, but we are also the only conscious part of nature, the only part which can, at least in principle, choose its patterns of behaviour. We are what the ecologist philosopher Murray Bookchin has described as the "self-conscious spokesmen of nature" and as such we have a special responsibility to the rest of nature in the sense of our being the only animal species capable of taking steps to ensure that a sustainable ecological balance is maintained.

Bookchin has attempted to derive from this an "ethic" in the sense of a code of behaviour governing what human societies should and should not do: we should abstain from using productive methods which are incompatible with a sustainable balance of nature or, expressed positively, we should only employ productive methods which are compatible with such a balance. Of course this is not a question of choosing particular productive methods in isolation from the structure of society but of the objectives and so of the structure of society itself.

Clearly, a class-divided society geared to production for profit is incompatible with humans fulfilling their responsibility to the rest of nature since, being governed by economic laws operating as external constraints on human productive activities, such a society allows no free choice as to what productive methods to adopt. In fact it is obliged to adopt those methods which serve profit rather than ecological considerations — with the consequences in terms of pollution, plunder of non-renewable resources and waste that are well-known.

We can only meet our responsibility as "the self-conscious spokesmen of nature" in, and by establishing, a society without property rights and the profit motive, a society in which humans would be free to choose which productive methods to adopt because it would be a society freed from the uncontrollable economic laws of profit-seeking and capital accumulation. Only a world socialist society, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the world's resources, is compatible with human responsibility to the rest of nature.

Proper Gander: Maid In America (2017)

The Proper Gander column from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lengthy, weighty, glossy dramas have become a speciality of US television producers in recent years. The more interesting examples have had some political slant: The Americans follows the increasingly complicated lives of Soviet agents undercover in 80s Washington DC, while House Of Cards depicts the power games and machinations in Congress. The premise behind The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4) is less familiar, but its themes have wider relevance to society today. The series is an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, who is one of the show’s producers and makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Leisurely dramatised over ten episodes (with a second series already commissioned), the series has more time to explore its setting than previous stage and screen versions and, arguably, the novel itself.

The story is set in near-future America, renamed the Republic of Gilead when a fundamentalist Christian movement took power following a terrorist attack on the government. Gilead is ruled as a theocracy-cum-military dictatorship, with tropes familiar from other dystopias: stormtroopers, unpersons, secret police (the ‘Eyes’), a strict caste system, surveillance and an underground resistance network. Gilead’s economy isn’t explored in detail; tokens are needed to purchase particular commodities, which could imply some form of state capitalism. Pollution has caused many people to be infertile, so women able to have babies have become a valuable commodity. These ‘Handmaids’ have been appropriated to bear children on behalf of the ruling elite, and are forced to be live-in sex slaves. The drama follows the repressed, trapped life of one such Handmaid, named Offred (literally ‘of Fred’, the Commander who owns her). Other women work as housekeepers or instructors for the Handmaids, and all are forbidden to read, write, own property or go outside unaccompanied. The system is enforced not only by cattle prods and rifles, but also by indoctrination using the language of the Old Testament. When writing the book, Atwood was careful to keep Gilead plausible: ‘One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities’(New York Times, 10 March).

It would be tempting to draw parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America, although work had begun on televising The Handmaid’s Tale months before he became president. The producers have wanted the series to draw attention to longer-term threats to women’s rights; since 2011, a resurgence of conservative lawmakers in America have passed hundreds of restrictions on abortion and access to birth control. America’s shift to the right with Trump’s ascendancy has made the story more politically charged. Lead actor and co-producer Elisabeth Moss is concerned that people could sleepwalk into an even harsher society: ‘People have to stay awake. And after you wake up, you should get out of bed and start doing things. There is no time later. My worst fear is that people become complacent, and apathetic, again’(Guardian Guide, 10 June). So, The Handmaid’s Tale can be interpreted as a warning against complacency. Offred often recalls her comparatively free life before Gilead was established, raising the question of how society could shift so quickly. Atwood suggests that people would be more likely to drift into accepting oppression if it was couched in pre-existing structures. When writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she imagined such a foundation could be ‘the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th Century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself’(Guardian Review, 21 January 2012).

Atwood had studied Puritanism at Harvard University, which itself would become one of the novel’s settings. She wrote the book during the mid-80s’resurgence of the right wing in America, which encompassed conservative religious preachers as well as government. ‘One third of all federal budget cuts under Reagan’s presidency came from programmes that served mainly women’(Just A Backlash: Margaret Atwood, Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale, Shirley Neuman). Atwood also drew inspiration for Gilead from her stays in Iran (then going through its Islamist ‘Cultural Revolution’ and at war with Iraq) and countries behind the Iron Curtain. In Ceausescu’s Romania, for example, contraception and abortion were severely restricted and pregnant women were policed closely, with the aim of increasing the birth rate.

The impact of authority on women is the central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss said ‘for me, feminism is equal rights for men and women . . . I play a breeder, a host, a woman for whom all of her rights, and all of her family and friends, have been taken away. She has nothing. So, yes, it is a feminist story’(Guardian Guide, 10 June). Atwood has said that the book is ‘a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime’(New York Times, 17 February 1986). In the story, those who are oppressed also reinforce the oppression of other people around them, such as when a group of Handmaids publicly blame a rape victim for being assaulted. Atwood said that since she first wrote this scene, it has taken on new relevance in our ‘age of social media, which enables group swarmings’(New York Times, 10 March). The most effective dystopias reveal different facets as their real-life context changes. All speculative fiction is really about the past –  and present –  rather than the future. The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us of the dangers of accepting authority, and its new adaptation is as timely now as it was when it was first written.
Mike Foster

Tolpuddle weekend (1986)

Party News from the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party was once again well represented at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs' rally which took place on a Sunday in July to remember six Dorchester farm labourers who, in 1834, were sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia for the "hideous crime" of trying to form a trade union. A weekend of events organised by the Bournemouth branch was supported by members from many parts of the country. Support was given an international flavour by a 79-year-old Australian comrade who is currently visiting the country and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy it all.

The weekend of events started out with a well supported public meeting in Bournemouth, the subject being Socialism and the Labour Movement.

On the Saturday afternoon literature was sold in Bournemouth and Southampton and when the members were reunited at a social event that evening, reports from both venues were very satisfying. So after getting together on the Saturday evening to recount our experiences we all travelled down to Tolpuddle early Sunday morning to put forward the socialist message at what is a very important event in the calendar of the working class movement.

After a slow start in selling and some difficulty in setting up the literature stall, owing to different arrangements in the organisation of the event this year, we soon began to sell all types of socialist literature and the badges started to sell particularly well.

The Socialist Party stall was probably the most impressive with a wider variety of literature than the various left wing organisations. The newer pamphlets, particularly Women and Socialism, raised a good deal of interest and sold very well. 

Events such as the Tolpuddle rally have tremendous political significance as they bring together workers involved in various struggles within capitalism and it is at gatherings such as these that workers are likely to be receptive to what to many of them are new ideas. Of course it is true that at such events there are many groups willing to direct the working class down more wrong roads and dead ends but this is all the more reason for us to be there with a clear socialist message and to attempt to change the various struggles within capitalism into one struggle to end it.

The message from the Tolpuddle weekend is clear; events that bring large numbers of workers together in a mood of unity provide us with a real opportunity to present the one real alternative
Ray Carr

Too much oil? (1986)

From the October 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many ports on the east coast of Scotland have recently had the strange sight of rows of oil rigs moored along the shore. This does not reflect any great new oil discovery, but the current slump in the world market. The "over-production" of oil, resulting in a fall in price to under ten dollars a barrel, meant that many of the fields in the high-cost North Sea have become "uneconomic" and has virtually ruled out any new explorations.

The bright future that North Sea oil was supposed to bring to Scotland's economy has not arrived and few Scottish Nationalist politicians now bother to bring out that empty phrase. "It's Scotland's Oil".

The effects of the slump in the oil industry are continuing to be felt. Many workers who believed that the industry offered security and high wages are having to get used to replacing their wages with thirty pounds a week on the burroo. The benefits that their high wages enabled them to enjoy are becoming the burdens of mortgage and HP repayments.

Those still employed in the industry are feeling the effects as well. In an effort to retain profit margins, wages are often the first targets of any employer, and these have been reduced, often sharply. Previously, wages have been paid for the whole of the "two weeks on. two weeks off " period commonly worked on the rigs but now many are being paid only for the time actually spent off-shore. Expenses that the workers received are being cut back; many are having to buy their own meals.

The unions are unable to do much about these cuts. They are not strong in the higher paid, higher skilled parts of the industry and the workers where they are organised have not much muscle anyway. In any recession, however, the union s position is always weak.

The service and supply industries are also feeling the pinch. Two of the four refabrication yards in the Moray Firth are facing closure. as the reduced amount of work makes them surplus to requirements. This area already has high unemployment. In Aberdeen, there are other industries and employers but the small towns of the Moray Firth have no such hope.

Oil-rig construction in Scotland has been dead for some time and the current slump has only emphasised this. Even if things do pick up it is estimated that the North Sea is about at its peak production and will soon start to decline. Anyway the "surplus" rigs can be brought back into production. The boat yards on the east coast which hopefully viewed the oil industry as an alternative to the decline in shipbuilding, have a grim future.

The OPEC conference at the start of August may offer the industry some respite. It surprisingly agreed to restrict production to beneath the current world demand, in an attempt to force up the price and clear the current glut. It succeeded in the first aim anyway, as the price shot up by four dollars a barrel when the news broke.

Whether the agreement will last remains to be seen. The market for oil remains very depressed and the underlying cause, the world recession, shows no sign of ending. The temptations to bust the cartel are very strong. Many of the oil-producing countries are desperate for revenue and have been hit hard by the slump. Britain, which is not an OPEC member, is continuing to produce at full capacity; OPEC has been annoyed by this and by British oil interests benefiting from its cartel. Some of its members may not restrain production for long.

The unusual factor in the OPEC deal was how the agreement was reached. The main stumbling block had been Iraq, who claimed that it should get special dispensation as it needed the revenue to wage war on Iran. Ominously, at the conference, Iran itself agreed to this saying that it would pursue "other means" to cut back Iraq's production levels. How many more lives this will cost remains to be seen. This war has already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. The price of oil is sometimes very high.

In a sane society, oil with all its benefits would be used as it could be, solely to satisfy human needs. Such terms as "price", "profit levels" and "uneconomic production" would become meaningless. It is not the price of oil that really determines whether it can be extracted but the cooperative effort of human labour, using all its skill and techniques, which allows such inhospitable places as the North Sea to produce an item of such great benefit.
Ian Ratcliffe

Closed house (1986)

From the November 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The editor of the Guardian, Peter Preston, recently issued a much publicised (especially in the Guardian) challenge to the lobby system of briefing journalists. In a letter to the Prime Minister's Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, he stated that it was his intention that, when Parliament recommences after MPs' summer holidays, journalists working for the Guardian would be instructed to identify the source of information given to them at daily lobby briefings. What is the significance of this proposed change? Will it herald a new era of freedom of information and so enhance democracy?

The Lobby (short for Parliamentary Lobby journalists) is an exclusive "club" of around 150 accredited journalists who, in return for an agreement to abide by the Lobby's own self-imposed rules, are allowed to attend daily press briefings to which government and opposition spokespersons are "invited". These briefings are one of the main sources of information about government and politics in this country. Defenders of the system claim that the Lobby contributes to the flow of information between rulers and the ruled, since politicians feel able to speak freely because they are confident that the Lobby journalists will stick to their own code of conduct and treat everything said at Lobby briefings as "off-the-record" and not reveal the source of their information.

The system has clear advantages for the government. First it means that the political agenda and the flow of information out of Westminster can be effectively controlled. Lobby journalists are fed selected morsels which, it is hoped, will stave off the hunger pangs which might tempt them to go out in search of juicier delicacies in hunting grounds which the government would prefer to keep strictly out of bounds. Secondly, because information thus received is "non-attributable', then politicians can simply deny ever having made a statement that later proves to be too embarrassing or contentious. In other words they can say pretty much what they like without fear of redress and without having to justify themselves.

But the Lobby system has also proved advantageous to journalists who, because of their exclusive access to official information, have managed to retain a virtual monopoly on political news. But that monopoly has been purchased at a cost — the cost of adhering to an out dated set of rules and restrictive practices which compromise them as journalists by forcing them to accept what little information they are offered instead of seeking out what is really happening in the closed world of British politics.

Many newspapers and journalists have clearly felt that this is not an unreasonable price to pay for a staple, if bland, diet of political information. The cost to the rest of us has been much higher. The lack of penetrating and critical political journalism has meant that we have been stuffed full of rumours, half-truths and misinformation designed to show us what a good job politicians are doing running capitalism. The only time that shining image is tarnished is when a member of the government or opposition breaks ranks (usually for opportunistic reasons) and gives the Lobby a different story which they then dutifully pass on to us.

If the Guardian's challenge to the Lobby system is successful and the rules are changed, can we then expect a substantial improvement in the quantity and quality of political news? The most likely outcome if the Lobby agrees to a new system (and that is by no means certain) is that the daily non- attributable press briefings will be replaced by attributable briefings. Journalists will then be allowed to identify their sources and quote them directly. In other words we would end up with a system similar to that which operates in the United States, where White House spokespersons hold press conferences, on the record, to inform journalists of official thinking on the issues of the day.

Some defenders of the Lobby system argue that such attributable press briefings would result in the press being given less, rather than more, information. If they knew that they would be identified and quoted directly, it is claimed, officials would be forced to pick their words more carefully and this could only have an adverse effect on the atmosphere of frankness which is said to prevail at Lobby briefings. More cynical observers might argue that it will only mean that Bernard Ingham will not be at liberty to refer to Francis Pym as "Mona Lott" or John Biffen as a "semi-detached member of the government".

The Lobby system is just one small brick in the wall of secrecy protecting politicians' and civil servants' actions from the public gaze. British government is closed government, protected by the Official Secrets Act and the general obsession with secrecy that infects both Whitehall and Westminster. The public have no "right" to know what politicians do, or how they make their decisions nor, in many cases, what issues are being discussed and by whom. Newspapers contribute to this lack of information not only because of their collusion in the Lobby but because, as capitalist enterprises, they are owned or controlled by members of the same class whose interests are protected by the government. Many journalists themselves often share the same attitudes, values and assumptions that are held by the ruling class, are deferential to the wealthy and powerful and are unlikely to risk their careers by rocking the boat.

The Guardian's attempt to remove that one brick from the wall of secrecy may briefly open up a chink of light on the closed world of the ruling class. But so long as the rest of the wall remains intact, then it is highly unlikely that we will be better informed politically just because we know that "sources close to the Prime Minister" is really Bernard Ingham.
Janie Percy-Smith

Between the Lines: Prole Pop (1986)

The Between the Lines column from the December 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prole pop

Why do TV producers assume that people who want to watch (and hear) pop/rock music on TV must be dummies who deserve no better than the incoherent idiocies and inanities offered by the likes of Paula Yates (presenter of The Tube. C4. Fridays. 5.30pm)? Since TV pop shows first began in the Sixties with The Six Five Special (including the awful Pete Murray — last seen campaigning for Thatcher in the 1979 election together with a bunch of other has-beens). Ready Steady Go and the atrocious Top Of The Pops, hosted by nauseating Jimmy Savile and Tony Blackburn, it has always been assumed that those who like "popular" music are fit only for condescension.

Pop. it is felt by those who run TV. is the music of the proles who are too intellectually limited to appreciate the likes of Beethoven. So if you want to see the latest musicians perform on TV the price you must pay is to be treated like a cultural inferior. The Radio One mentality is that if you like workers' music you can't expect serious presentation. If you are a Radio Three, opera on BBC2 type. TV is prepared to treat you with a little dignity. They get Richard Baker to whisper in pompous tones about what led Verdi to write his four-act Rigoletto. Meanwhile, for the proles who watch the bands which most workers buy (Madness sell more records than Verdi's four acts multiplied by twelve) the best we can expect is Steve Wright being patronising or Paula Yates giggling and plugging her old man (Geldof's) Christmas record.

Negative marketing

The US elections for Congress last month were marked by a new campaigning feature: negative advertising. Candidates for Congress can buy space on American TV in order to sell themselves and it has been this soap-powder approach to politics which has characterised US elections for years. In 1986 the advent of negative advertising — used as a tactic by both of the big parties — has meant that candidates' ads are increasingly based not on what a good guy Our Man is. but what a lying, hypocritical, uncaring ponce Their Man is. All over the USA workers have been appealed to on the basis of purely negative messages.

In one sense nothing could be more fitting for capitalism in the tired, intellectually bankrupt condition it has now reached. No more New Deals or Great Men of the People: the only way to persuade workers that Tweedledum is worthier than Tweedledee is by digging up the dirt on Tweedledee. The British need not feel superior; if Kinnock is to oust Thatcher his main hope rests on negative attitudes to her; if Thatcher is to keep Labour out she will need to play on fears of the Labour Left gaining power. Such is the level of capitalist politics that merchants with nothing to sell can only get your votes by claiming that the merchant at the next stall is selling shoddy products. The best to be said for it is that at least with negative advertising politicians tell fewer lies: after all. if they are buying space to explain what a bunch of crooks the others are workers have only to draw the obvious conclusion.

BBC bias

Yes, Norman Tebbit, the BBC is biased. That is why the oldest party in Britain claiming to stand for socialism, and the only one which does, has never been invited to appear on national BBC TV.

It is scandalous for Tebbit and the Tories to attack the BBC for showing viewers the results of the Libyan bombing of civilian workers, in which the British government colluded with the US government in an act of appalling state terrorism. If Tebbit wishes to blame the messenger for delivering the message that is the slippery slope to total state control of the media by the government.

In addition to criticisms over the Libyan reporting Tories have also been attacking the BBC over a Panorama programme (Maggie's Militant Tendency, broadcast on 30 January 1984) which showed the clear links between several known fascists and the Conservative Party. Two of the MPs named in the programme sued the BBC for libel and. after several months, the BBC caved in and dropped its defence. It is highly probable that the BBC was under government pressure to do so. Several points concerning the Panorama programme need to be made:

• It has been alleged that the two Tory MPs who sued for libel are now totally cleared of any fascist connections. That is false. The MPs concerned — Neil Hamilton and George Howarth — denied the Panorama claim that they were members of a neo-fascist group called Tory Action which has infiltrated the Tory Party. What they did not deny at any time were other claims made in the programme: that when Hamilton was at university he advocated "the abolition of parliament and the suppression of the lower classes” (this and all quotes are from a direct transcript obtained from the BBC); that in 1972 he went to the Youth Leaders Congress of the MSI. the Italian Fascist Party, and that when in August 1983 he was on an official parliamentary delegation to Berlin he shocked his hosts by appearing in public and giving a Nazi salute. In the case of Howarth. he hosted a Tory Action reception in the House of Commons in July 1983 — Tory Action is an explicitly racist group led by G.K. Young. ex-Tory candidate for Brent East of whom Young Conservative chairman Philip Pedley said in the programme: “He is a man who seems to see a Communist under every bed and usually a Jewish Communist. He seems to be convinced that unless you are racist you are some sort of traitor . . . ” Howarth's mother was an active NF member for four years, according to NF records.
• Quite aside from the fact that none of the above points were ever denied by Hamilton and Howarth in court, there is the fact that they were not the only Tory MPs said by Panorama to be backed by Tory Action and linked to fascists. The main MP attacked by the programme was Harvey Proctor, described as having "been involved in Tory Action since G.K. Young first set it up". Why did Proctor not sue for libel, considering that the programme explicitly connected him with the National Front and accused him of stirring up racism? Proctor is now under police investigation for homosexual vice crimes — beating male prostitutes — and again he has remained silent. Proctor was not the only MP apart from Hamilton and Howarth named in the programme If the legal victory of Hamilton and Howarth indicates that they were the victims of false allegations (which, in general, they do not seem to have been) the legal inaction of the other MPs might be taken to read that they had no defence to offer.

• The programme made several other highly damaging points, based on indisputable evidence, to show that fascists are operating in the Tory Party. For instance, the programme opened by interviewing Don Moody who had recently been leader of the paramilitary Nazi group. Column Eighty-eight. He had spent thirty years in neo-fascist parties in Britain. He made his office into a shrine to the memory of Adolf Hitler. In 1983 Moody was a Conservative candidate in Cleethorpes. No denial of this evidence has been offered — indeed. Moody was interviewed on the programme, saying that "I think that Adolf Hitler will go down in history with complete and total detachment as the saviour not only of the white man. if you like, but of humankind". Neither has there been any denial of the programme's damning evidence regarding the pressure group run by the neo-fascist historian. David Irving, who claims on the programme to have bought a copy of the membership list of the Federation of Conservative Students for use by his organisation.

The Panorama documentary provided an excellent exposure of clear links between Tories, some of them MPs, and fascists. As such it made public information which should be known. That efforts have been made to silence the programme-makers and intimidate the BBC is proof that capitalist politicians do not like the facts about themselves given to the workers.
Steve Coleman

The Real World Outside (1975)

From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

When socialism is established people will look back on today’s society and wonder how it was that we managed to look at everything upside-down. Take something like prison reform. The Socialist points out that crime as we know it can only occur in private property society. The majority of so-called crimes could not happen when everything is owned in common. After all, you can’t steal what you already own. So the obvious solution to the problem of the increasing crime rate is to establish a system of society where want and deprivation have been eliminated.

Now see how this strange social system we live under today completely distorts this clear way of looking at things and makes double think a necessity.

The Howard League for Penal Reform published their annual report in September of last year (The Guardian 16th September 1974.) This august body is the main organization that deals with proposals for improving conditions in prisons. The report states:
    The task of promoting pro-social (our emphasis) behaviour therefore consists primarily in making potential wrongdoers (which means all of us) care whether other people are hurt.
The Howard League are referring to people who behave anti-socially. What comes to your mind in this category? Some of the obvious examples are these: the production and use of instruments of war, the destruction of food crops whilst millions starve, the existence of a minority class living in luxury whilst the majority exist on the borders of poverty, the building of office blocks whilst lists of homeless get longer, the minority ownership and control of the means of life, the deliberate restriction (in a world of shortages) of production to what can be sold at a profit, etc. The list is endless. But the Howard League (like the good bastion of the privileged class that it is) thinks anti-social behaviour means only robbing a bank. Double-think? You decide.

The League point out in their report that putting a person in prison deprives him or her of liberty. They follow that perceptive observation by stating that prisoners, in addition to suffering a loss cf liberty itself:
Are also subject to numerous other deprivations. Of the right to communicate freely even with their families, their lawyers or their MPs: of the right to decide when to get up in the morning or to put the light out at night, of free choice of occupation or study.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the writers of the report had never seen the real world outside the prison gates. Do you choose when to get up in the morning or do you have an alarm clock, church bell or factory hooter telling you that it is time to go to work? Do you decide when to put the light out at night, or is that decided for you by knowing you have to get up for work in the morning and feeling too tired anyway to want to leave the light on? Free choice of occupation? Would you choose, if that word meant anything, the boring repetitive progress of employment you currently undergo? Do you communicate freely with your lawyers (have you ever seen one?) or your MP?

The truth is that capitalism is an inhuman form of society which boasts amongst its vile record the locking away of human beings. All the reformers in the world will not alter the fact that private property has its converse public deprivation. The result is that some people will inevitably try to take for themselves a little of what private property rules forbid, and be treated abominably for doing so. The solution to the problems of prisoners is not going to be found in reforming some of the repressive institutions in society. Only a repressive society needs repressive institutions. Socialist society will have no more need of prisons than it will have of bombs.
Ronnie Warrington

The Guardian of our Free Press (1975)

From the February 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is as well to start by resolving the deliberate ambivalence of the title of this article. The Guardian might have been in italics as we will be dealing largely with the role of its editor, Mr. Hetherington, as the leader of the Editors’ Union (or words to that effect) in the war between them and the combined might of the National Union of Journalists and the government (in the person of Michael Foot) over the proposed law to enforce the closed shop in Fleet Street — including editors. And in this context, Hetherington has adopted the role of the guardian of the freedom of the press. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard The Guardian, as Max Beloff punned in a recent issue of Encounter magazine? And if one word might have been in italics, the last phrase could equally have been in inverted commas. For the freedom of the press is to a large extent an optical illusion, whether Hetherington realizes it or not, even before the government puts its Foot in it. (The Guardian having decided to afflict us all with a plague of puns of sickening puerility, no apology is required either from a Tory Professor or a Socialist propagandist.)

First, let us be clear that freedom of the press is regarded by Socialists as very much a good thing. Democracy is the reverse side of the Socialist coin, and freedom of the press is an integral part of democracy. Socialist society will not be one where all you can read is state-controlled propaganda masquerading as news compiled by the trained monkeys on typewriters of Pravda and Izvestia. We can at once concede that the kind of capitalist democracy we have here which gives us a choice of rags ranging from The Guardian to The Sun, is preferable to dictatorship.

And there is something more important which we readily concede — because it is obvious, some people affect not to see it. The very fact that you are reading this journal; and are doing so without the slightest fear that a copper will nab you; and that unheroic specimens like the present writer can churn this stuff out with never so much as a tremor — all this shows that we have at least a modicum of freedom of the press. Socialist propaganda can hardly begin to breathe in the “communist” dictatorships until that amount of freedom is won. They have, of course, in their samizdat, the underground press, the embryo of a free press (though by no means necessarily a Socialist one). But by its very nature, this can only hope to reach the tiniest minority of the working class.

Censors Possible
The row between the editors (and with them the managements) and the NUJ is based upon the fact that if, or rather when, the closed-shop law comes into effect, all journalists, including editors, are to be compelled to belong to the NUJ. This, unsurprisingly, is something the editors regard with horror. Up to now, the editor has either been the actual boss of the paper (as in the case of Hetherington’s predecessor C. P. Scott); or he has been the boss’s representative, rather like the Pope being the Vicar of Christ (except that the Pope is reasonably secure from interference from his boss, while the editor is not always so comfortable. But more of this anon). And of course it becomes pretty difficult for the boss when he has to join the same union as his underlings.

The idea of having to attend a meeting of the NUJ chapel (union branch) is anathema to editors. They fear (not without cause, it must be said) that this will make the editor subservient to the majority vote in the chapel meeting. And, say the Hetheringtons, this will mean that the usual vocal minority of agitators and “Marxists” (but the editors don’t use inverted commas; a Hetherington wouldn’t recognise a true Marxist if he tripped over Karl’s beard) would use their power to control the paper. And bang goes the freedom of the press.

There is something in what they say. How much freedom of the press we enjoy, we will deal with shortly. But, though the Socialist Party has always supported the cause of unionism as an essential protection for the working class (while making it clear that the real job of a Socialist is to agitate and educate for the ending of class society) there can be no doubt that, in many cases, a closed shop could lead to a clique using its power to dictate what goes in the paper — and what doesn’t. The implicit and explicit power of censorship which now resides with the editor and his proprietor could pass to a group of IS types or Communists.

— and Actual
One inkling of the sort of anti-free speech attitude that could lead to was shown a few years ago over the visit of a white South African cricket team to these shores. During the winter in which the Hain campaign was being built up there was a cricket Test series going on in Apartheidland between the Springboks and the Aussies — fully reported of course in Hetherington’s Guardian which was at the same time running the Hainites for all it was worth. But The Observer didn’t print anything, not even the scores. Why not? Had the paper decided it was improper to report racialist sport — and after all the Aussies were in some ways as bad as the Boers for their racialism?

No. The Observer chapel had decided to indulge in some censorship off its own bat — if you’ll excuse the phrase. Observer readers were not permitted to decide whether or not they wanted to read the stuff. Some ignorant little commissars had decided for them. Little Big Brothers are watching you; and that is no good at all for the freedom of the press. Censorship is an evil no matter who wields the blue pencil — even fully paid-up members of the NUJ. Who should have been thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Censorship is traditionally the weapon of the rulers against workers; it is dangerous and deplorable when the latter use it themselves. This foretaste serves to justify the fears of the Hetheringtons of how a clique could take advantage of closed-shop conditions.

But having said all that, it remains true that the freedom of the press which the rulers of Fleet Street have boasted about has been severely circumscribed. If these editors and managements really cared about freedom, they would have opened their columns to their opponents and thus showed that they believed in it. In practice, they have almost totally denied freedom to Socialists to print even a letter putting their views. Like the BBC, the press has done its best to keep a blanket over Socialist views. So whose freedom are you worried about, Mr. Hetherington? Are you really afraid of censorship in principle? Are you not the censor yourself? (To be scrupulously fair, The Guardian did print a quite decent notice of the SPGB’S 70th birthday: the only paper that did. One tiny swallow. And summer nowhere in sight.)

It is worth referring before concluding to a contribution in the Lords’ debate on the matter from Lord Devlin, former Chairman of the Press Council (that sham tribunal if ever there was one). He said: “The man who had the power to let in or keep out must be free and independent and professionally pledged to make his choice primarily in the public interest  . . . That is the editor  . . . The freedom of the press depends on the . . . tradition that he is independent. He can be dismissed but he cannot be told what to do.” Only a top judge with an IQ of a million can possibly pack so much twaddle in so small a space. Only a Devlin could emit such crass poppycock as to say that an editor cannot be told what to do by a Beaverbrook and in the same breath admit he can be told: Put your hat and coat on and eff off out of your fine job with its fat salary. In other words, the press is just another part of the business of capitalism and exists primarily not “in the public interest”, but in the interest of the owners. Who are, indeed must be, concerned with circulation and profits. So that “independent” editors can be hired and fired by those who own the show just like less exalted members of the working class.

Whether the editors will be able to wring concessions in the Foot bill is not clear at the time of writing. What is always clear is that there is no happy solution to the problem of freedom of the press under capitalism, however much the Hetheringtons on the one hand and the NUJ chapels on the other delude themselves.
L. E. Weidberg

Art and Civilization (1975)

From the March 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Art Historians apply their knowledge of the lives of great men from the past; kings, artists, sculptors, writers and so on, and assess the worth of past ages on the basis of work done during the period. Socialists have a better approach. They apply the materialist conception of history. Only the social and economic environment explains how man acquires certain aesthetic tastes and conceptions. Above the level of barbarism, that environment is determined as much by the mechanics of the class struggle as by nature, while the majority of the population—slaves, serfs and the like— have remained passive for long periods. So we may say that the ruling ideas of any age, are the ideas of the ruling class of the time. The history of art is one continuous proof of this statement.

EGYPT. What’s left after an empire lasting 3000 years? Little more than the tombs and monuments of the pharaohs. The size of the pyramids makes them the epitome of slave-state architecture. Long since looted of their wealth, but inside there are the frescoes: the paintings on the walls—all with one subject. The dead pharaoh. The compositions are all about his life; how many slaves, wives, subjects he had. The battles he won with his armies. There are even illustrations of his favourite sports, hawking and fishing. Strikingly, the pharaoh is always portrayed larger than his subjects. Women smaller than men. Slaves a different colour altogether. All of this gives one a picture of the social hierarchy in Ancient Egypt. It was a neo-romantic civilization. The dead were worshipped.

More, the pharaoh was expected to rise from the dead. The pictures are, therefore, subordinated to the one end of informing him, when he woke up, of his past history, his greatness and the shape his body should reassume out of his embalmed tissue. This is the key to an understanding of Egyptian life-painting. All the figures are portrayed in one general pose, displaying the most typical views of their separate limbs. Heads in profile, to show the cranial curve, facial features, chin and neck. Torso and hips in a front view, showing the triangulation between the shoulders and waist and the shape of the pelvic bone. Both arms extended left and right, one palm outermost, the other innermost. The legs were both in profile, each foot pointing the same way, showing the inside and outside of foot, leg and knee. No painting survives from Egypt which did not assume this form. Therefore the ideas and needs of the ruling class, determined the artist’s and the public’s conception of beauty.

CLASSICAL GREECE. Athens was one of the first places in Europe where the old system of tribal councils gave way to government by the city-state. The social structure for them was: - patrician, plebian, slave. History for them ran from the battle of the Gods and the Titans, to the interlocking of heavenly spheres. From the Heraclitean fire to the eternal flux and slow change. The ruling class needed to promote this idea of harmony; their civilization was top-heavy with slaves. Twenty slaves for every free man! And great restrictions on employment for poor freemen. The art and architecture of the time was the ruling class’s propaganda against social unrest.

Have a look at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Notice how geometrically harmonic are the bodies of these heroic men and women. The sculptor built up the proportion of his figures from one basic dimension: the distance between the elbow and the wrist. The perfect man or woman was one whose body, when stood with feet that much apart, formed a series of equilateral triangles. Most humans are not good enough to model for a Greek statue. Neither were the Greeks! It was just a false theory, a ruling idea imposed upon nature. This is how you account for the ridiculously small heads on the statues by Praxiteles; the continuous line between their foreheads and noses: there was a secondary system of triangulation for the face as well!

ROME. Much that is true of Greece applies to Rome also. This can be illustrated from one Roman building: the Pantheon. The temple of all the gods. The Roman empire had continuous trouble on its borders. The marauding tribes of well-organized barbarians had to be placated. One way of doing this was to find a place in your temple for a statue of the enemy’s god, then invite the enemy chief to Rome to worship it. The Greek temple plan wasn’t much good for this. The barbarian shrines were a circle of tree-trunks with a conical thatch, an altar in the centre and a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. So the Romans built their enormous Pantheon on just these lines.

From within it is a ring of pillars supporting a celestory, with blind niches holding statues of the minor gods; below and between the pillars, are the shrines of the major gods. In the centre was an altar, while, the roof was a spherical web of arches. An arch needs a keystone to hold it up. But the Romans calculated that if they cross-vaulted arches to build up a dome, they could take out the large centre-stone and the whole structure would stand confined by its own stress. The building would then be lit directly from above. It worked. The barbarians were duly impressed and the Roman civilization lasted for another 350 years. This form of Architecture was admired as much for its political usefulness to the ruling class, as for anything else. Beauty, once again, born out of expediency.

MEDIEVAL EUROPE. The Cathedral Church. Here the decorative artist, architect and sculptor had but one patron—the church. The basis of Catholicism is mystery. No revealed religion can stand up to open enquiry. So the huge gothic churches they built had to be full of mystery. The large congregation was shut off from the sacrament by a tall choir-screen. Daylight had to be the tinted light of a religious vision. The wall hardly exists in a gothic church; just holes between piers and arches—all filled with lead - framed painted glass. The statuary carved on these piers and arches shows how closely art is connected with the ruling class’s ideas. Despite the tradition of free-standing statues from Greece and Rome; these are completely tied to the structure of the church and reflect the artist’s dependence. They are slim vertical figures and are mirrored in the dress of the time; with its tall hats and slender costumes, perhaps for people who went through narrow pointed doorways. Architecture and fashion for the ruling class were connected for the first time.

CAPITALISM. The Industrial Revolution. Once the first stage of the movement towards enclosing the land was completed in the 18th century and great capital accumulation had enriched the aristocracy; they began to improve their lands, have their parks landscaped and country palaces built. In literature this period sees the beginning of the romantic revival. In art the sudden renewal of landscape painting, by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and others. The popular conception of a good landscape painting still survives.
Among civilized people the technique of production more rarely shows direct influence upon art. This fact, to the superficial observer a contradiction to the materialist conception of history, in reality, when considered in the profound manner of a sociologist gives it brilliant support.
We can now develop upon this conclusion to Plechanov’s essay Materialism and Art. He wrote this at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps he was too close to the machine-made decorations of the time to see that they would be known as art. Some of the wrought-iron stair bannisters of the period were very beautiful. The Eiffel Tower and the early iron bridges were new ideas in three-dimensional form. The difficulty with even the best industrial products under capitalism, is that they are built for profit. Who has ever looked at one of the latest engineering “triumphs” and not felt that it could have been improved with a little more art and a little less profit? wasted sentiment, of course; capitalism will not work that way. But sometimes, by chance, it makes half-art.

The best example of techniques of production influencing art is that of the painter Seurat and “pointilism”. This style being a reflection of camera technology and research into the nature of light and colour, which produced the chemical pigments needed for the fast-dyeing of fibres. All the colours of the rainbow produce white light. Seurat found that by clustering a multitude of points of pure colour he could suggest lightness or darkness more after the manner of nature.

Since Plechanov’s time we have seen prefabricated “component art”, “chrome-plated art”, “collage”, and art formed from ready-made industrial products—all perfect examples of how the business of capitalism is beautified by art. Civilization remains the attempt on the part of the ruling class to impose order and permanence upon the wealth they possess.

What will be the conception of beauty under Socialism? Without a ruling class, will we have a unified art? It will be socialized, not civilized art. Human life shows infinite variety and for the first time, the people in an industrialized world will create an art which is a reflection of their own lives. We can’t use life under capitalism as a guide to Socialism. A few tribal peoples hold to conceptions of beauty which are attractive to people dissatisfied with capitalism, but that is not the answer.

Socialism will produce something other than the vicarious satisfactions of capitalism. Fewer people will want passively to look at works of art; many will want to create socially. One can imagine artists, artisans and craftsmen swarming over large-scale projects; but instead of being slaves toiling over pyramids, they will be free men and women creating their own kinds of beauty by their own conceiving.
B. K. McNeeney