Monday, January 22, 2018

Whip Crackaway (1958)

From the October 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

One morning midway between my tea and cornflakes my attention was arrested by an announcement in a programme on the radio that scientists had carried out an investigation to find out why a whip cracked when it was flicked. Moreover, one of them was about to make a statement on this phenomenon. I listened with, breathless interest while a wise, grave voice poured out a mass of scientific detail about supersonic sound barriers being broken and other effects. The whole thing seemed quite fantastic. Surely a group of scientists didn’t carry out a detailed study just to find out why a whip cracked.

The idea began to present some fascinating possibilities. Perhaps a vast research station somewhere in the Nevada desert. Rubber gloved and masked technicians cracking whips by remote control. Huge areas cordoned off, concrete shelters erected, complicated machinery recording every effect. Then later, the dramatic headlines, “The United States has cracked its biggest supersonic whip to date.”

From there, inevitably the Whip Disarmament Committee. Demonstrations at Trafalgar Square. Momentous statements by Mr. Bevan and the Archbishop of Canterbury—and what will Donald Soper do now, poor thing? Later, public spirited citizens will call for the pooling of whip-cracking secrets and international control. The Russians offering Ike a conducted tour of their whip plants in Siberia. The whole world waiting tensely for talks at the summit. Tass Agency issues the statement that Russia has cracked a supersonic whip with a small dog attached to the end. An American Lieutenant-Colonel announces that the United States will carry out their experiments with an even bigger dog.

What a panorama unfolds of State visits, high and low-level conferences, broken treaties, falling shares, the Queen “Bless this whip and all who crack it.”

I can see the whole stupendous drama culminating in the biggest crack of the biggest whip—but quite incidentally, why on earth does a whip crack?
John Higgins

Aladdin Safes for Everyone (1958)

From the November 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

The press had an unusual story of a locked safe which was bought for 30s. and when opened, out tumbled a jewelled tiara, a collection of antique silver and plate, gems mounted in gold and other jewellery, very much like the contents of Aladdin’s cave. Many newspapers throughout the world spread the news and some published photographs of this unique find. The news obviously caught the imagination of the public and the lucky purchaser was seen on two television programmes, and the whole process was featured in a Gaumont-British film, and even broadcast over the French radio.

One newspaper, using a clue found in the safe, was able to locate an old retainer of the family which had once owned these jewels. He remembered the splendour of their regency home, the big parties they held and the magnificent silver laid for dinner. Also that the mistress would drive along the front at Brighton with her coachman in livery.

They had a large house in fashionable Bryanston Square, London, and would spend two months of the year there. She was a fine regal woman and when she visited the Theatre Royal she would be magnificently dressed with diamonds at her throat and a gleaming tiara.

This was clearly a ruling-class family and it might be both interesting and useful at this point to discuss why it is that jewellery and plate are so closely connected with the lives of these people.

Of what use are gems?
That class who live by the exploitation of working people, have, from historical times, been proud of their privileged position in society which they advertised by displaying the insignia of their wealth, the ownership of which sets them apart from the mere plebians.

Employing workers to wear livery is one method of display, for livery indicates that the wearer is unable to take part in industrial money-making employment, and this, in turn, indicates the wealth and therefore the reputable degree of the employer on whom is conferred blameless social standing.

Jewellery has also played its part for centuries as a distinguishing badge of the upper-class. Gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products, is, in great measure, a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty. The fact that some precious metals and gems do have a measure of intrinsic beauty is incidental. Great as their sensuous beauty may be, their rarity and price adds an expression of distinction which they would never have if they were cheap. The chief purpose of valuable jewellery is to add distinction to the person of the wearer by comparison with those who cannot afford such things and have to do without. The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of expensive jewellery.

And, incidentally, this display sets an example to those in lower stations of life and acts like a carrot before a donkey’s nose, goading him on to ever greater effort. This, in turn, rebounds to the benefit of those who own the means of profit-making and thus is completed the happy circle for those who own the means whereby we live.

Indianapolis Star, 12 Sep 1958, Friday
How mad can capitalism get ?
A little reflection will reveal the waste of human labour used in spreading the news of this find, which is of no real help or use to any of the readers. The national press employ large staffs of reporters, on duty day and night, to sift the items of news coming in, with the idea of blowing some of them up enough to hit the headlines, which have to be filled if the papers are to fulfil their main function of profit making. These individuals, though they are professional writers, fritter away most of their time, not on straightforward writing, but on the tricks of their trade, waiting all night outside the house of someone in the news, in order to get a little more information, usually of a senseless but highly personal nature, or, as in the Aladdin Safe story, taking infinite pains in trying to trace the family mentioned on the flyleaf of the bible found in the safe, just to get those people’s reactions to the news. Then there is the paper-pulp for the newspaper itself and its transport across the world and the vast army of photographers, engravers and printers, to say nothing of the fleets of motor-vans racing round the streets delivering the papers to those who have the job of selling them.

Following our particular item of news through, there is the waste of schooling and training of the lawyers engaged in sorting out the ownership of the find—whether it should be the old bedridden lady of 77 who should have the tiara and other jewels, or the man who found them, or the firm that sold the locked safe. The more we consider it, all the more glimpses we get of how mad and wasteful this Capitalist society is.

Why the story of Aladdin is so popular
The question also arises of why the story of Aladdin is so popular. Aladdin was a poor boy who found a cave of jewels and through these riches was able to care for his poor mother and who eventually married a beautiful princess. Any man who suffers from insecurity (and who doesn’t in a class-dominated society) can easily put himself in the position of Aladdin. Any woman can put herself into the position of Aladdin’s bride or mother. No wonder the story has become a hardy annual for the pantomime season. There does not seem to be any reason why the popularity of this story is likely to diminish, at any rate, not for the time being.

The tragedy behind the story
But behind the story of this modem Aladdin there should also be tragedy. While the great moguls of the press, cinema and television are prepared to devote plenty of publicity to an irrelevant story of a purely chance find, where no intelligence, forethought or imagination is involved, there is no space available, whether in the so-called Labour Press or elsewhere, for a sensible analysis of a society which enables an individual to come into possession of wealth produced by others in society. For such an analysis of the news would contain revolutionary implications.

But what should be the greatest news item in the world today gets no publicity, except in the columns of the Socialist Standard and companion papers. And that is that Socialism, a system of society where all wealth is owned and controlled in common, by eliminating war and insecurity, can confer on everyone even greater benefits than can be obtained from safes full of jewels.
Frank Offord

Editorial: Russian Riddle Explained (1958)

Editorial from the December 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Winston Churchill, in one of his little oratorical exercises, once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” If he meant that it is hard to foresee where Russian internal strains and stresses will thrust out next, and the precise form they will take in foreign policy, it could have represented his true opinion. But on a rather larger scale he was doing himself an injustice. With his background and outlook, and his own easy disregard for political party shibboleths and loyalties when British capitalist interests are concerned, he could have no difficulty in understanding long-term Russian state policy and actions: one representative of aggressive imperialism can hardly fail to appreciate his opposite numbers in Russia.

But if Churchill chose to write himself down as more ignorant than he is, there are many others who claim to understand about Russia much more than they do.

These reflections are provoked by an article by Emanuel Litvinoff, reviewing E. H. Carr’s Socialism in One Country (Manchester Guardian, 14th November, 1958). Carr’s book describes developments in Russia in the years 1924-1926. His theme is that “Mother Russia was digesting the Bolshevik Revolution.” “As the Soviet. Government became more and more openly the heir of Russian state power and attracted to itself traditional feelings of Russian patriotism, it proclaimed its mission in terms which conveyed to sensitive ears unmistakable echoes of the Russian past  . . .  the cause of Russia and the cause of Bolshevism began to coalesce into a single undifferentiated whole.”

It is on this theme that Carr explains the passing of the “Westerners,” Trotsky, Lunacharsky and others and the rise of Stalin with his isolationist slogan “Socialism in one country.”

Emanuel Litvinoff accepts this proposition and opens his review by recounting a remark made to him by a Communist friend who is troubled about the Russian tyrannies. He said: “For me the important question now is whether these arise out of something inherent in the Communist movement, or whether they are specifically Russia.”

Carr and Litvinoff and the “Communist” friend are all wide of the mark. Of course, different countries have different histories, different geographical features, different institutional developments and different traditions, but in their study of these the men we are criticising have been so obsessed with the detailed differences that they cannot see the underlying capitalist development that marks Russia and the West, and the whole of the modem world of Capitalism. They cannot see that the democracies of Western Europe had a history that mirrors Russia’s present stage of institutional evolution. They have been so busy studying the varieties of leaf and flower that they cannot even see the trees, let alone the wood.

What basis is there for their repetition of the popular misconception that Russia is “Socialist,” or for their new misconception that Russia is not Capitalist but ‘‘Russian.”? Apart from the political dictatorship—which they could study in the past of Britain and Western Europe—where are or ever were these so-called Socialist features of Russia? Commodity production, the production of goods for sale and profit, the existence of a great propertyless wage-earning class, the huge national debts and bond-holding, the banks and insurance institutions, the inequalities of income and the complex taxation systems, the preoccupation with Capitalist investment, foreign trade and the military struggle for territories and the control of trade routes—these are the features not of Russia as such or America or Britain as such, but of world-embracing Capitalism.

Their defence for their unsupportable notions always is that Russia has gone further in State intervention, in the form of the great nationalised industrial and commercial monopolies. This, of course, is the crux of the question and the source of their confusion. These features are not Socialist, but Capitalist: State Capitalism is not Socialism and cannot be shown to be anything else, but a form of Capitalism and one familiar enough in all countries.

And if thrown out of that indefensible position, they retire to their second line of defence, i.e., that “Socialism” now means “State Capitalism,” because they and so many others profess to think that it does, they have to explain away the fact that the early Bolsheviks in Russia never held that view, but always lined themselves up with the Marxian conception which flatly rejected it.

What has happened in Russia is not the mere continuation of Russian tradition under another name, nor the development of a different “Socialism” (which would be like deciding to call chalk, cheese), but the emergence of Capitalism, growing more marked with the passage of time, in place of feudalism. Russian evolution is Russia’s delayed version of the Revolution which brought Capitalism to supremacy in France a century and a half ago.

The turn of events in Russia is not the failure of Socialism or its corruption by Russian tradition, but the total failure of the Bolsheviks to impose Socialism on an unready country, against the wishes of the population who were not and are not Socialists.

The S.P.G.B. foretold this failure at the start, forty years ago. How long will it take the Carrs and Litvinoffs to see the riddle as it really is, no riddle at all?