Sunday, January 28, 2018

50 Years Ago: Do we want a Censor (1978)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is unique in keeping open platform for the expression of the point of view of opponents.

We oppose all forms of suppression, not in response to some abstract principle, but because we recognise that socialist society demands for its operation, as for its achievement, a responsible, intelligent population, used to drawing its own conclusions from the observation of facts and the weighing up of the arguments of opposing schools of thought. We only know our position to be correct because it survives continuous criticism. We do not deny that suppression may be immediately useful to the British or Irish governing class. We do deny that it can serve the purpose of the socialist movement.

From an editorial "Do we want a Censor?" Socialist Standard, November 1928.

This is our life (1978)

From the November 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Urban crises; Dockland rehabilitation; Housing problems; Educational choice; Urban renewal; Transport co-ordination. These phrases drip from the lips of pompous politicians and the pens of ‘specialist’ journalists to the point of sheer boredom.

They speak and write about the world in which we live, or at least those features of it they think are problems needing solution. Without always knowing it, they are referring to aspects of the capitalist set-up. Its hallmark of class ownership of the means of production; its wages system; competition, profit motive; market economy. This system has been operating for a long time — far too long for us Socialists. Over decades it has developed on a world scale, more intensely in some areas than others. We have seen the growth of large cities to the point where they encompass all the frustrations of modern life: slums; traffic jams; pollution and an ever increasing housing problem.

We are talking about LIFE for the working class. Not just from when we get a job, but from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Let us look at some aspects more fully, bearing in mind that they are part of the social fabric. They cannot be dealt with in isolation; one relates to the other. Even if you have a roof over your head you cannot escape the housing problem. But it is a social problem affecting hundreds of thousands, concentrated mainly in the large cities. As the Daily Express said (July 24 1978), “After 33 years of post-war development, housing is still the great British disaster story . . . the statistics of human distress are grimmer than ever”. Efforts by political parties to deal with this problem have failed. What they have done in many cases has foundered on the rocks of ‘an economic figure for building’.

Houses built in the 1950s in the New Town of Corby, Northants, recently handed over to the local council for administration, need replacement of all windows and repairs to brickwork, chimneys, roofs etc. Nine thousand houses in all need an urgent repair programme costing £4 million. “The condition of New Town houses is regularly being found to stem from bad basic design” (Guardian 27.7.78.). In short, working class housing is built as cheaply as possible. A more recent case concerns nearly five hundred council homes at Ashford, Kent, built in the late 60s. Total repairs are in the region of £2 millions, but the council are debating whether demolition would be cheaper. At the other end of the scale, a house in Cadogan Square, London is on the market for £1¼ million; it has of course been renovated.

Liverpool, with a housing problem second to none, has long been the football of feuding councils. Flats and houses by the thousand are being offered for sale. Not at £1¼ millions each, but at 10p and 5p. In fact, any offer will be considered. Most have been vandalised, but as the report of Liverpool Housing Committee said last year, “Because of their reputation, location and design, they will now never make any positive contribution to meeting the housing needs of the city”.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which numbers among its residents none other than Princess Margaret and the Soviet and other Embassies, has a waiting list of nearly eight thousand families for rehousing. (Her Royal Highness and their Excellencies, the various ambassadors are not on the list). The Borough posess some of the worst and most overcrowded housing in London. Housing Charities such as Shelter are constantly bemoaning the fact that the Council will not take its finger out. Isn’t it time they realised, Councils are not there to solve this problem, despite what various Acts might say.

The Inner London Docks have been a headache for years. With a revolution in the handling of cargo (containers, unit loading etc) the demand for traditional facilities has fallen away. 8½ square miles of dockland is to be redeveloped, and with the latest overtures from the Port of London Authority to close further docks, the area available may be much larger This development plan has long been a pipe dream. The overall cost is £233 millions to include 9,000 houses, industrial sectors, better transport etc. Industry is to be encouraged to come to the area after years of Government policy to get industry to move out of London into new development zones. The nine thousand houses are estimated to cost £98 millions. About £11,000 a house — a ‘reasonable’ figure for a working class residence.

Training for life
If you’ve got a house, what about a job. Jobs in the big cities are becoming harder to find. Unemployment is knocking around 1.6 millions and there is an even chance of this increasing by another ¼ million over the next year or so. This is no passing phase. Unemployment is part and parcel of this system and many commentators and politicians now refer to it as a structural part of society. But they keep trying new ways to lessen the impact. The Government, among other schemes, have recently announced a new £1 million training programme in ‘life and social skills’ for about five hundred youngsters in the Liverpool/Manchester areas. Called Training for Life, it will give these people a chance to study banking, finance and social and legal rights. Plus courses on sex and coping with freedom. The scheme is aimed at the hardcore of young unemployed people, who have few or no academic qualifications and who may only expect to get low paid manual work. Anything to take them off the labour-market. They should be told of the many young people, with University degrees, who have little hope of a job involving the subject in which they have qualified. Was our Prime Minister being a little more honest than usual when, as Foreign Secretary after a Brussels Conference, he said that the Commissions analysis “will show how a serious structural unemployment situation is developing”. The Commission had formed a committee to look at the problem of unemployment, and honest Jim stated . . . “None of us has any answers, and I do not suppose they have either (Guardian 14.12.76).

You’ve got a house and a job. Your next worry is getting to and from work. As men shoot to the moon at unbelievable speeds, the journey from Hackney to Piccadilly or Willesden to Victoria becomes increasingly difficult. And if you live in the country, a car is almost essential to get and keep a job. Roads in the cities are cluttered with private cars, a large proportion of which are company owned. Hundreds of travellers and reps chasing around for business. And as the juggernauts thunder their way across the country, the British Road Federation claims that cutting back the road programme is costing British industry millions every year and endangering road safety. Their claim that lowering design standards on trunk roads threatens more accidents is possibly true, but accentuated by the need of profit.

To get from one place to another in the shortest possible lime is assessed in monetary values. If capitalism is to continue, with its constant need for trade, we can envisage this island as a criss cross of concrete runways. But for a brief moment think of more leisurely ways of transport — the slow moving canal and its low slung barges. The Government are to reconstruct a section of the Sheffield and S. Yorks canal, enabling barges of 400 tons capacity to reach Rotherham. The waterway is already there and could eventually link up with the Port of Hull for large barge consignments. But the dockers, seeing their jobs threatened by a revolution in barge traffic (akin to the development of contained traffic), look askance at the scheme. Canal transport obviously has a role to play in any society and a less pernicious one when it comes to pollution safety etc, but here is a classic example of the conflict among workers on the industrial field, when capitalism dominates their ideas and the way they live.

Cost effectiveness
The house, job and transport are fixed up. Now there’s the kids schooling. Discussion still runs riot on the effectiveness of comprehensive versus grammar schools. But what about those in the villages, with the old Victorian buildings and, in many cases, sanitary accommodation that leaves much to be desired. In many ways the school is part of a village community. But says capitalism, Big is Beautiful and certainly Big is more economic according to the experts. Over the past ten years, it is estimated that more than 2,000 primary schools with fewer than a hundred pupils have been closed down and the properties put up for sale. The closing of such a school is not just the end of education for kids on their ‘home ground’. The premises are often used for a range of community activities. Capitalism has little thought for people. Can we afford it; does it pay, is its constant theme.

So a couple of weeks holiday. There are some nice beaches in Brittany and East Anglia, but both have been the scene of devastating pollution by oil spillage from crippled tankers. A problem that could be tackled using all the resources at our disposal. But the Department of Trade, Marine Division says, “To be always prepared for the worst would cost too much when it comes to oil pollution disasters”. But the Department is not letting the matter rest. Every effort, they say, should be made to prevent accidents which cause pollution. You will be pleased to know another committee is looking into this.

So, as old age silently creeps up on you, don’t think you can opt out. An independent body, Personal Social Services Council, set up by the Government to advise them, claims that the pace of developments in services for the elderly, mentally ill etc. is far too slow to meet increasing demand. And that it will take 14 years to reach Government guidelines of 200 meals-on-wheels per week, per 1,000 elderly people. So try and hang on until 1992 if you are over 65.

The world is rich and underdeveloped in many ways. The greater part of Japan consists of unused forest-clad mountains, while vast areas in Australia consist of unused deserts and semi-desert. As Arnold Toynbee in his book Cities on the Move says . . .“The proximate reason why, in both countries these tracts are unused is that the cost of transforming them into economically productive areas would not bring adequate returns”. And this world is owned by a few. Why not consider the possibility of us, the producers in this world, taking it over and running it in the interest of all, with human needs the dominant factor.
Cyril May

50 Years Ago: That Elusive Property (1978)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

I was listening to  Miss Sackville-West the other evening lecturing on Modern English Poetry. Very charming, very entertaining, but marred at the outset by a slight inaccuracy. It is a pity when one sits down to be charmed that one should get a half-brick in the car for a start, but so it was. Miss Sackville-West asked us to commence what she called the Georgian period with 1900. She gave as her reasons for choosing that year as a starting point, "the South African war is over, the world is at peace, we are surrounded by the large air of material prosperity . . ."

Now that is where one gets the nasty jar. I happen to have been alive, and taking keen notice of my surroundings in the year 1900. "The large air of material prosperity". I like that! One remembers it so well. Only 28 years ago and it comes back like a beautiful dream. Speaking from memory, according to a tract issued about that time the average wage of the working class was about 25s per week, and one worker in every three died either in the workhouse, hospital or lunatic asylum. The twelve-hour day was normal in scores of industries. And the unemployed! There is a touchstone for the large air of material prosperity. Who that is old enough docs not remember the shabby processions of half-desperate men chanting their grubby war-cry. "we want work?” . .  . There were half-a million men out of work. Among other disturbances the Town council of Croydon was stormed by the unemployed.

For one thing, it is interesting to note and dwell upon the fact that one has lived during a period to which the term "prosperity” is applied, lip till now, during my short lifetime, no one has ever discovered prosperity in the present tense. Years ago. or years ahead, yes! Today, never! A case of jam yesterday, or jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

From an article "The great pre-war prosperity” by W. T. Hopley. Socialist Standard, December 1928.

Striking a balance (1978)

From the December 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone who wrestles crocodiles for a hobby might care to test their strength further by going along to any main line London station in the middle of, say, a railwaymen’s work-to-rule and asking the seething commuters what they think about it.

Because workers who strike and thereby cause their fellow workers a lot of trouble in getting to work, or buying essential food, or keeping their homes lighted and warm, are an example of those people—others might be corrupt politicians, hardened criminals, revolutionary socialists—without whom, we are told, the capitalist social system would be a cosy, sympathetic, fulfilling experience.

There is, of course, no argument about strikes causing problems. Sometimes they mean widespread inconvenience—like power cuts when electricity supply workers are taking action—or danger, as when the firemen went on strike. At other times the results are less immediately apparent—for example the effects upon prisoners’ existence of the prison officers' campaign for higher pay.

Now there is no reason for anyone actually to enjoy the effects of a strike; sitting in the candlelight when you would prefer to be watching Bruce Forsyth, or waiting in the rain for the phantom ‘bus not to arrive are hardly satisfying ways of spending time. So it often happens, that the frustrations of the people who directly suffer through a strike—like those commuters at the stations, late home from work — are vented exclusively against the strikers, who are seen as lazy, greedy and careless.

This propaganda line is set in a long, dishonourable tradition. During the general strike, the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who was widely admired as having one of the most efficient brains in the world, wrote in the government’s mouthpiece, the British Gazette,
The real victims of a general strike are what is called the common people—the men and women who have to labour hard day by day, for their own livelihood, and that of their children . . . 
Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, saw it in starker, more threatening, terms, writing in the same newspaper:
The general strike is a challenge to Parliament, and is the road to anarchy and ruin.
The same type of argument was used almost fifty years later by Ted Heath when the combined effects of the miners’ strike and the work to rule by electricity workers and train drivers provided the political excuse for the three day week in industry. And more recently the hospital works supervisors were subjected to mounting pressure about the effects upon patients of their dispute. On October 23, the Daily Telegraph reported a consultant surgeon saying that “It is impossible to say that any given patient has died as a result of this dispute” but few days later, on October 27, the same newspaper was more definite: “At least 30 people have already died needlessly, in pain and considerable discomfort, because of the Health Service works supervisors’ dispute — and the death toll is rising daily, medical experts confirmed last night.”

Which gives the final touch to the popular image of the striker—lazy, greedy, disruptive and, if need be, a killer as well. Yet many workers who might accept this image themselves come out on strike. Is there, then, another side to the picture?

The first thing to be said is that strikers are not the ungovernably omnipotent figures they are made out to be. Strikes often fail, with much damage to the workers who have taken part in them. One historical example was the general strike and then the long resistance of the miners until they were literally starved back to work. More recently, in 1971 the Union of Post Office Workers called the first national strike in their history, transforming the friendly neighbourhood postmen into another threat to the livelihood and the constitutional safety of British capitalism. Four months later the postal workers, defeated, settled for a little more than they had been offered before the strike began. And last winter the firemen — again, this was their union’s first ever national strike—beaten by a combination of a lack of support from the TUC and the use of troops as strike breakers, went back to work on the government’s terms.

There was a lot of sympathy for the firemen, who ran a skilful publicity campaign, but it is questionable whether this feeling would have long outlasted any deaths in a fire for which the strikers could have been blamed. Yet to be successful a strike has to be disruptive, or even dangerous and much of the negotiation which surrounds it is about how effective, in these terms, it might be. And if, after the negotiations, a strike is called, who is to “blame”? The strikers? Or the employers? Neither have given way; both have been prepared to see disruption and danger rather than surrender without a fight.

It is worth looking at a couple of recent examples, to put the matter into some sort of balance. For some weeks now social workers in a few areas—Liverpool, Newcastle, Tower Hamlets—have been on strike for what amounts to a demand for higher wages. This has provoked a lot of derisory comment on the lines that capitalism is unlikely to be brought to its knees by being deprived of social work. “Forget the social workers, let’s get on with it” wrote a Liverpool Tory MP. “Social workers?” said one Newcastle mother in The Guardian, “I don’t care if I never see one again.” On the other hand there was evidence that the strike did cause some problems, even some suffering. Said The Guardian on October 13:
  A social workers’ strike has forced a judge to send two juveniles to prison . . . The boys' solicitor said after the case: “Social workers say they care for people. One wonders how they would like to spend up to 22 hours out of 24 locked up in a cell under the tender care of the prison officers.
And New Society (26/10/78) reported on the strike in Liverpool:
Whatever others may say about social workers, and about their strike, the clients are in no two minds. “They should definitely get more. They’ve helped me a lot with me nerves and helping to get me out of here,” says one young mother in a block fit only for demolition . . .
The attacks upon the social workers ignored the fact that it has not been just their strike which has denied their services to the “clients”. The Labour government has been responsible for an economy drive imposed on local authorities which has resulted in serious cuts in social services; this has been going on for years and it has no discernible end. On 26 October last, for example, The Guardian detailed some of the effects of the economies planned in Birmingham, among them the closure of nineteen establishments for children, including three residential nurseries and a home for handicapped children.

Health Service
These cuts are being enforced on the grounds of economy—to balance a budget. For some reason this is aceptable to many people, while the efforts of social workers to balance their budgets, by getting higher wages, is not.

The resistance to the hospital supervisors’ claim was also based on government policy—this time on the official limit on wage rises, to which workers in places like hospitals are specially vulnerable. “Just not on,” was the response from David Ennals, the Social Services Secretary, to the supervisors’ claim for a 15 per cent bonus. When the dispute was over the Sunday Times accused Ennals of agreeing to a settlement which had been available to him before the dispute began, which indicates that he, too, was ready to gamble with patients’ lives.

Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that any suffering caused to sick people originated in the government’s policies, to which the workers’ action was a response. These policies are still operating and in the case of the Health Service are responsible for a seriously declining standard of treatment and facilities :
   Standards of care in the health service have drastically worsened through lack of money, more work and shortage of nurses, the Royal College of Nurses said yesterday.
   A delegation from the college yesterday told the Secretary for Social Services, Mr. David Ennals, of untrained staff being left in charge of hospital wards, neglect in basic nursing routines, and inadequate supervision of learners . . .
   Mr. Ennals is accused of exploiting his staff. “It is an indictment of those responsible for the health service that a response is only forthcoming when there is a threat of strike action . . .” (The Guardian, 31/10/78)
So if (and it is a very big “if”) the nurses were to strike, and patients were to die as a result, who would be to blame—the nurses struggling for a living wage or Ennals who has exploited their reluctance to struggle? And who is responsible for the people who are already dying, through lack of facilities in the health service, much of it aggravated by the Labour government’s economies?

Policies like pay restraint were designed without any reference to human needs but to protect the interests of the British capitalist class, on the established principle that profit is good and loss is bad. When they draw up such policies, governments are aware that, directly or indirectly, people will suffer burdens additional to those which capitalism ordinarily imposes upon them. But little, if any, account is taken of this.

Strikes are not acts of bloody mindedness; they are an unavoidable result of the class division of capitalist society, which sets the non-owning majority against the owning minority. This struggle is about the division of wealth; it is not a matter of morality, of strikes with “justice ”on their side or of employers in the “right”. Like all struggles, strikes are a matter of power; if the workers can exert the greater pressure upon the employers they will win, as they have done in some recent, famous cases. But when the situation is reversed—as it was in 1926—the employers will ruthlessly assert their superiority and grind the workers to defeat.

How long capitalism endures is a matter for those who suffer under it and who are misled by it—the working class. They have the power to establish a society of harmony. We are talking here about a massive movement of ideas—no less than a majority revolution to overthrow one social system and replace it with another, an historically unique act. Beside that, wrestling crocodiles is gentle exercise with far fewer rewards.