Friday, July 13, 2018

CIA and the Third World (1982)

Book Review from the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

CIA and the Third World, by Satish Kumar (Zed Press, 1981).
   “In the Clandestine services we were ready. On the morning after the election of Eisenhower one of the senior paramilitary officers home from the SEA Supply Company in Thailand ran through the offices shouting: “Now we’ll finish off the god damned Commie bastards. We’ll get rid of the fucking pinkos in the State Department and around this place too. They’ll all be as dead as that little bald-headed son-of-a-bitch who said he thought he was going to cry last night when he had to concede to Ike." 
This scene, described in J. B. Smith’s Portrait of a Cold Warrior, is reported in Satish Kumar’s new book as summing up the atmosphere in CIA headquarters the day after Eisenhower’s victory in 1952.

But American secret service operations were in full swing well before Eisenhower came to power. By 1953 they extended to 48 countries and since then, whoever has been president, have never ceased to escalate in nature and extent. Kumar takes us through these operations in Africa, Asia and Latin America using the evidence available from various books, articles and official reports published in recent years. He has chosen the Third World countries in particular (the Congo, Angola, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, Guatemala, Dominican Republic) because they have been especially susceptible to “penetration” by foreign secret services owing to the relative newness and fragility of their rulers and institutions.

Subsidies, bribery, arms supplies, blackmail, assassination plots and hiring and arming of mercenaries are some of the methods described as being clandestinely used by the CIA to undermine undesirable regimes and shore up or instal favourable ones. Not, however, that such efforts have always met with success. On the contrary this book is less a catalogue of success than one of dismal failure with Cuba, Laos and Angola being prime examples. And failure for the CIA has usually meant success for its Russian counterpart, the KGB, which, as Kumar is at pains to point out, has certainly been at work with an intensity equal to the CIA but whose operations are impossible to document because of the more closed nature of Russian society.

The main point, however, is that every major CIA operation, whether a triumph or a disaster politically, has brought turmoil, misery and death to the population it has been visited on. And although this study tries to be as technical and dispassionate as possible, and not to dwell on the grisly human consequences of "covert diplomacy", it cannot at times’ avoid giving glimpses of the horror stories behind the operational details: the "decimation" of local populations secretly recruited to help favoured regimes in Laos and Vietnam, the mass slaughter and public torture in the Congo in the early ‘60s and the “recurrent terror and repression" there ever since.

Kumar is not completely silent either on the question of why the super-powers go to enormous trouble and expense to clandestinely win foreign rulers and, if possible, populations on to their side. “Foreign policy in the ultimate analysis", he writes, “is the extension of a country’s domestic policy . . . it is natural that foreign policy should also reflect the interests of corporate capitalism ". He goes on to quote with approval the view expressed in R. J. Barnet's Roots of War that what a government does is to “use its power to open up investment and market opportunities, to collect bills and to regulate competition". In other words a country's foreign policy, whether open or covert, is directed towards the defence and capture of markets, raw materials, trade routes and the strategic positions needed to assure these. And Kumar, although frequently pointing to the cloak of "ideology" behind which the battle for control of the Third World is fought, also makes a number of telling references to the underlying economic and strategic motives ("market for US goods”, "mineral wealth”, "strategic location", “wealthy nations"). If he had still been writing his book he might also have referred to the recent declaration by an American Embassy official in North Yemen that the US intends to do nothing to stop the present government there falling in favour of a Communist regime: "We feel that if North Yemen moves left, the Saudis will be so terrified they will move even closer to us. North Yemen has no oil. Saudi has. It’s as simple as that". (Sunday Times, 13 December, 1981.)

Not that the author is anti-American or thinks there is anything wrong with the world being run on the basis of international economic rivalries. Indeed he agrees with R. J. Barnet that the foreign policy of American governments is a legitimate “means of enhancing the power and prosperity of the American nation”. What he is opposed to is this being done in covert underhand fashion by an agency whose crude anti-Communist mentality has at times been at cross-purposes with the interests of American capitalism and which, with its considerable independence from central government, has sometimes landed America’s rulers in the international soup. He qualifies CIA operations as “illegal” and as “violations of human rights", and advocates traditional diplomacy conducted through ambassadors and adherence to “international law" embodied, as he sees it, in a United Nations General Assembly resolution of 1965 which declared that: “No state has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever in the internal or external affairs of any other state".

These are extraordinarily naive solutions to offer. The author's wide knowledge of his subject should have taught him that the economic rivalries of capitalism defy appeals to notions such as “legality", “human rights" and the rest. These rivalries inevitably lead to conspiracies, corruption and bloody conflict. The real lesson of this book, apparently unlearned by its author, is that the need for a vast expenditure of resources, energies and lives in so-called “intelligence operations" will only disappear with the disappearance of the need for governments to seek profitable outlets on the world market for their capitalists’ goods. In other words we will have the CIA, the KGB and all their lesser brothers until we decide to get rid of the system that produces them and that needs them as tools for its normal functioning.
Howard Moss

Religion and Reaction in Russia (1943)

From the November 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard

The news that Stalin has approved the election of a Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Russia and the formation of a Holy Synod is not the least surprising to Socialists, especially after the information published in the Daily Worker (see August Socialist Standard) about the increasing numbers of rouble millionaires. 

Perhaps one of the best comments is that of General de Gaulle's paper, La France. It compares the present developments in Russia to the end of the Robespierre regime in France in 1798, and further points out that the old official Greek Orthodox Catholic Church in Russia has energetically supported the war against Germany, openly threatening denunciation as a traitor and ex-communication for any priest guilty of failing to lead the people against the enemy. According to the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Herald (September 6, 1943), "Since the war there has been an upsurge of religions feeling by no means confined to the older generation." This is simply one further aspect of the profound truth of the contention of the Socialist Standard 23 years ago that the people of Russia were not Socialists—but largely illiterate peasants. They still are— and are therefore priest-ridden.
  It is the development of industrial forces, and mankind's consequent growing control over nature, and increasing knowledge of her working, that provides a wider and firmer basis for science, and leaves less room for superstition in the minds of working men. (Socialism and Religion, S.P.G.B., p. 15-16.)
The position of the hapless British Communists becomes ever more ridiculous. One-time sponsors of the "League of the Godless" they are now forced to whitewash what is the most reactionary Church in Europe—the Russian Church— former organiser of pogroms against the Jews, spiritual managers of the Czar's public brothels, and breakers of strikes. Meantime, the British Archbishops and Deans of Canterbury, York, etc., have proved how astute they are and how well they understood that the backward conditions of Russia would serve religion.

According to the Daily Worker (September 16), the Dean of Canterbury welcomes the visit of the Archbishop of York to the Soviet Union. In an article in the same issue he states that "the Russian Church of to-day differs widely from the Russian Church of Tsarist days, proving itself by a whole series of acts, especially in war time, a loyal ally of the Soviet Regime." The Dean considers that this recognition of the Holy Synod in Russia makes it "the first great union of peoples to practise things which for 1,800 years the Church has been preaching."

When we recall the books written by these people, The Socialist Sixth of the World (extensively debunked in the Socialist Standard) and hear the statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the radio that they (the Church of England) have long been on the most friendly terms with the Greek Orthodox Church in Russia, and are now exchanging delegates, it becomes clear that the clergy are up to their age-old game, consistently played throughout the ages, of repainting their theological scenery to suit the political policy of the ruling clique of the day. In the same way that Ancient Rome and the Incas of Peru took the idols of conquered tribes and placed them in the Pantheon, so the Patriarch of the Holy Synod is quite willing to send greetings to Joseph Stalin so long as Stalin recognises the Church, or vice versa. Once Churchill "recognised" Stalin, the Church of England follows suit. Stalin has done this, as the Times indicates, because the Greek Church is the most suitable machinery for influencing Russian and Balkan peasants, not the Communist International, which it has superseded. Eleven years ago they said: —
   In all the Catholic Churches in the Liverpool diocese a pastoral letter from the Archbishop was read during the High Mass last Sunday. After stating that the abolition of religion is a fundamental tenet of Russian Communism, the Archbishop asserts, "Almost from the outset the price which the workers paid for the somewhat fictitious benefits of Communism was very real slavery; and slavery not merely of body but of mind, for the serfs of the soil in their misery soon discovered that the only free-thinkers in Russia were the despots who ruled them.
   Even at this late hour the world's ports should be closed to the commercial fleets of Russia and the plague of Bolshevism isolated within the Soviet State." (Daily Worker, November 29, 1932.) 
The official Church of England, through the Dean of Canterbury and others, will try to pass this off as "Socialism," and surely, if Hitler and Stalin can call themselves "Socialists," so can the Dean of Canterbury and the Russian Church. Yelping at his heels, the Daily Worker and Russia Today announce that the modern Russian Church, like the new Soviet millionaires, is " quite different."

Unfortunately for them, information is not lacking to the contrary. In the Daily Mirror for September 17 is a report from Moscow by Marion Sinclair entitled "An exhausting time was had by all," on the reception of the Patriarch by Stalin and his enthronement in Moscow Cathedral.
  "Never in the history of Soviet Russia has there been such a blaze of colour, jewels, candles, velvets, brocades—or such a concourse of people in an ecstasy of religious fervour."
The Cathedral Dean was fussing about like the stage-manager before the opening performance.
   "Don't forget those candles, line up the beggars at the door—they're blocking the entrance. Where are the people who are to line the path to keep back crowds? "
   Sergei (the Patriarch) put on the golden mitre blazing with rubies, sapphires, amethysts and pearls. One girl whispered "they can't all be real." But they were, for canonical law forbids the wearing of false jewels. (Italics ours.)
So we see. It is almost the same old superstitious Russia in spite of everything. Great wealth for priests—based on crowds of beggars at the door as they always were, with "modern" rouble millionaires and masses of pauper-workers added. And yet not quite the same, for somewhere in the back streets of Moscow there are working men and women who recall the words of one of Russia's outstanding sons : —
   Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weigh upon the masses who are crushed by continuous toil for others, by poverty and deprivation. The helplessness of all the exploited in their struggle against the exploiters inevitably generates a belief in a better life after death, even as the helplessness of the savage in his struggle with nature gives rise to a belief in gods, devils, miracles, etc.
  Religion teaches those who toil in poverty all their lives to be resigned and patient in this world, and consoles them with the hope of reward in heaven. As for those who live upon the labour of others, religion teaches them to be "charitable"—thus providing a justification for exploitation and, as it were, also a cheap ticket to heaven likewise."Religion is the opium of the people." Religion is a kind of spiritual intoxicant, in which the slaves of capital drown their humanity, and blunt their desire for a decent human existence.
  But a slave who has become conscious of his slavery, and who has risen to the height of fighting for his emancipation, has half-ceased to be a slave. The class-conscious worker of to-day, brought up in the environment of a big factory, and enlightened by town life, rejects religious prejudices with contempt. He leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois hypocrites. He fights for a better life for himself, here on earth. The modern proletariat ranges itself on the side of Socialism, which, with the help of science, is dispersing the fog of religion and is liberating the workers from their faith in a life after death, by rallying them to the present-day struggle for a better life here upon earth.
The same Russian writer went on :—
  Marx said : "Religion is the opium of the people"—and this postulate is the corner-stone of the whole philosophy of Marxism with regard to religion. Marxism always regarded all modern religions and churches, and every kind of religious organisation as instruments of that bourgeois reaction whose aim is to defend exploitation by stupefying the working-class.
And finally perhaps Josef Stalin ponders these words written to Maxim Gorky : —
   By redecorating the idea of God you actually repaired the chains by which the ignorant workers and peasants are bound. "There!"—Messrs. Parson & Co. will say—"see what a fine and wise idea (idea of God) this is ! Even ' your ' democrats, your leaders, admit it; and we (Messrs. Parson & Co.) are the ministers of this idea." . . . Now in Europe, just as in Russia, every defence or justification of the idea of God, even the most refined and well intentioned, is a justification of reaction.
The Russian writer from whose work the above quotations are taken is N. Lenin (Lenin on Religion, Lawrence & Wishart, 1943, 1s.), and Mr. Harry Pollitt has been so busy at the back of the Second Front lately that he hasn't got round to suppressing it yet.

Activity and news from the constituencies (1997)

Party News from the April 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jarrow and Easington

North East Branch is to contest two seats at the coming General Election—Jarrow and Easington, where the socialist candidates are, respectively, John Bissett and Steve Colborn. In recent months members have held public meetings, set up literature stalls, carried out mail drops and embarked upon an intensive letter-writing campaign to the local press.

On the streets we have had much verbal support and many we have spoken to agree with our ideas. One thing is certain—when the Socialist Party contests the Jarrow and Easington seats, few serious voters will be unfamiliar with our name or our standpoint.

All said, there is much work to be done in both parliamentary constituencies as both are traditional Labour Party strongholds with large majorities. Furthermore, both constituencies have suffered much in recent years through Tory cut-backs and many voters will be looking forward to the election in the hope that a Labour victory will mean life improvement.

Socialists, however, are aware that no matter which of the mainstream parties wins, it will not alter the fact that we live in a world racked by poverty and insecurity and subject always to the worst exigencies of the profit system. The establishment of world socialism remains the only secure future for humanity.

If you would like us to hammer this message home to the electorates of Jarrow and Easington and can offer your help or support, no matter how small the contribution we d be delighted to hear from you.
Offers of help to:John Bissett,Phone: 0191 4890253,Tim Kilgallon,Phone: 0191 2528704Harland Wears,Phone: 0191 5170470.


The Socialist standard-bearer in this constituency, to the west of Edinburgh, is Matt Culbert. He is standing against the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and other supporters of the profit system such as the Tories, the Liberals and the Tartan reformists of the SNP.

In a sense this is a follow-up to Edinburgh Branch’s activity during the 1994 Euro-election campaign when the Socialist Party contested the Lothians constituency which includes Livingston as well as Edinburgh itself.

Preparatory activity has involved making contacts and leafleting in Livingston itself which is the biggest town in the constituency whose shopping centre attracts people from the whole of the surrounding area. Local members have also distributed leaflets in West Calder and other ex-mining villages.
Offers of help to:Matt Culbert,53 Falcon Brae, Ladywell,West Lothian, EH54 6UWPhone: 01506 462 359.


The Vauxhall constituency in Lambeth was chosen as the parliamentary seat that the Socialist Party should contest in the London area, where our candidate is Richard Headicar. The Party's Head Office is based in Lambeth and members can easily gather there to contribute to the campaign.

The election activity was organised by representatives from all the London branches to co-ordinate the work of socialists across the capital. A barbecue was held last summer to help to raise funds, and in the autumn we had two debates; first with Tory Euro-sceptic Sir Teddy Taylor on the European issue, and then against a local Liberal Democrat councillor. Whilst all this was going on we leafleted as much of the constituency as possible to publicise the campaign.

Last November we had the opportunity to contest a local council by-election in the constituency. The Clapham Town ward was vacated and it was our good fortune that Head Office came within its boundaries. It was therefore an excellent chance to gain experience in contesting elections and to introduce ourselves to the Lambeth Returning Officer. Head Office was turned into an attractive base where people could wander in and see our election activity for themselves. Lessons learned from the experience have prepared us well for the General Election.

In the final run-up to the General Election date we plan to have more public meetings and in particular point out the shallowness of Labour’s position—the party that appears most likely to win power. We intend to try to publicise our campaign in the London media as much as possible and to have a regular literature stall in the constituency. Postering, canvassing, and more leafleting are also all on our agenda.
Offers of help to:Gareth Thomas,Phone 0171-622 3811.

Glasgow Kelvin

Our election campaign began last year with thousands of leaflets being delivered to households in parts of this very spread-out constituency. We set up our literature stand on Saturday afternoons during the summer and autumn in the heart of the constituency and displayed posters announcing our intention to contest the General Election.

This year, the campaign resumed with a public meeting entitled “The Challenge of Socialism", and another one to which we will invite the other candidates to state their case is being held this month (see meetings page for details).

Our literature stand will be visiting different parts of the constituency throughout the campaign and hundreds of posters will be displayed. Fortunately, Militant in Scotland will be contesting the election as the “Scottish Socialist Alliance”, so voters in Kelvin (and Livingston) will be spared the sight of ballot papers listing two “Socialist Party” candidates! The Socialist candidate is Vic Vanni.
For further details and offers of help:Tel: 0141 649 9338.

#   #   #   # 


Readers in a number of places outside Scotland may find that there is someone standing in their constituency calling themselves a “Socialist Party” candidate.

As will immediately become clear from reading their election manifesto with its long-list of reform demands, such candidates have nothing to do with us. They have in fact been put up by Militant, a Trotskyist group which has been in decline since being expelled from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock and which is trying to relaunch itself under our name.

They don’t even stand for Socialism, but for nationalising everything and all of us becoming employed by the state, i.e. state capitalism.

Those in these constituencies who want socialism should not (of course) vote for these false “Socialist Party” candidates but should, as usual, write the word “SOCIALISM” across their ballot paper.

Socialist Party Election Statement (1997)

From the April 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

All the politicians will tell you that they have the answers. But their answers fail to solve the problems which face society. After decades of politicians' clever answers the society we live in is still in a mess, with mass poverty, social insecurity and environmental destruction getting worse, not better.

Socialists say that if the politicians' answers are worthless, perhaps they are answering the wrong questions. Instead of leaving it up to the politicians, why not ask yourself a few questions?

  • Do you live in a society which puts your needs, and those of millions like you, before the profits of the few?
  • Are we living in a society where making money for big business is more important than making life decent for the vast majority of us?
  • What does capitalism value more, hospitals or banks?
  • Given a choice between providing a cleaner environment for people to live in and making a fast buck out of polluting the earth we inhabit, which do you think those with power will opt for?

Any political party seeking to run capitalism puts PROFIT BEFORE NEEDS. That’s the only way to run this system.

Politicians tell us that they're running things for our benefit, but capitalism can only be run in the interest of the small minority who own and control the means of producing and distributing goods and services.

But what about us—how much power do the majority have under the profit system? Ask yourself a few more questions:

  • If you decided to give up your job (assuming you have one) and live without selling yourself for a wage or salary, how long could you exist on your assets?
  • If you or a close relative needs urgent health treatment of the best quality, how long will you have to wait compared to an idle millionaire who can demand the best possible treatment instantly?
  • Who has more power to control their lives, an eighteen-year-old fresh out of public school who's just inherited a few million pounds or a hard-working nurse, farm worker, fire-fighter or factory or office worker?
  • Even if you have a few quid in the bank, your own car, a video machine and an annual holiday abroad, isn’t it true that the life you lead is becoming increasingly pressurised, with dangerous streets, drug epidemics and a mind-numbing media destroying the quality of everyday life?

Politicians are out to represent the minority who own and control most of the marketable wealth.

Capitalism can only be run by treating the working-class majority, who produce all the goods and services, as second-class citizens. And most people know that they are living in a class-divided society; when asked. 81% of respondents in November 1995 told a Gallup opinion poll that they thought there was a class struggle in this country.

Politicians are asking you to vote so that the owning minority can stay in power.

But can anything different work better? Try some more questions:

  • Would you prefer to live in a society where production was solely for use and not for sale on the market to make a profit?
  • If you knew that everyone else was prepared to do their bit to run society, would you prefer to cooperate with them according to your abilities rather than be a wage slave?
  • If the abundant resources of this planet were freed from the shackles of the market and used to satisfy everyone, would there be starving children in the midst of food mountains or homeless youngsters sleeping in shop doorways in the midst of brick stockpiles or hospital wards standing empty or millions forced out of work?

Socialists say that there is a real alternative. It has never been tried. The twentieth century has been the epoch of wrong answers from politicians who have never seen further than capitalism.

The alternative of production for use, common ownership, democratic control. and free access for all to the available store of social wealth has yet to be tried. So why not give it a try—why not support the alternative?

Now for the biggest questions of all:

  • Will you help to wipe the smug smiles off the arrogant faces of the politicians who think that all they need to do at election time is offer you false and unrealizable policies for a system which ignores your real needs?
  • Will you consider the socialist alternative, we are putting forward in this Election, to the profit system?
  • Will you help us to build a real socialist alternative to the policies of callous Toryism and their mirror refection, New Labour?

Are you prepared to find out more about what socialists stand for and what you might do to stand alongside us?

Letters: Who are the culprits? (1982)

Letters to the Editors from the April 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who are the culprits?

Dear Editors

In an article in the February, 1982 Socialist Standard (“A Better World To Die In”) our society is depicted as “wasteful" and "destructive” and at the centre of this dirty world is a brutal capitalist. You forget that many of these capitalists are responsible for establishing charities and research centres aimed at improving the quality of life. Furthermore, it is the surplus value created by capitalism that allows these institutions to flourish. The proletariat are made to appear the victims of this vile society. However, they are not forced to commit slow suicide by smoking cigarettes, nor are they forced down mines like cattle to a slaughter-house. Yet the writer urges us to follow him into a fantasy world which he imagines will eradicate problems manifested by capitalism. What makes him so certain that this society with no blueprint will be any better? It is further puzzling that some socialists, ready to put the world to rights, also invest in government stocks and hold debentures. These people are probably laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps the crocodile tears shed on behalf of the proletariat are wasted on a group who demand not a different world, but more of the existing one, i.e. more booze, more fags and more entertainment. Thus, one question still remains in my mind: who are the victims and who are the culprits?
R Katan, 

Ours is not a moral case; we are not in the business of blaming people for capitalism. This system is part of a long, historical process; the socialist argument is that it is now time to move on to a new social system which will be in line with the productive potentialities of our modern world.

It is quite true that some capitalists indulge in gestures of benevolence towards the class which they legally rob. So what? The essential point is that the capitalist's power and affluence are based on exploiting the working class. Within capitalism the capitalist cannot act as anything but an exploiter and the worker cannot act as anything but a wage slave.

It is rather naive to say that workers want things the way they are. Workers are constantly campaigning and protesting against the evils of capitalism. How many workers want to be blown up in a war? Although capitalist propaganda tries to persuade workers that their problems can be solved under capitalism, their experience under capitalism is on the side of socialists.

Socialism is not a fantasy world any more than any other untried idea is a fantasy. Socialists cannot draw up detailed blueprints for a society which will have to be democratically organised by the men and women who establish it. However we can—and do—examine the possibilities which a socialist world will allow humanity to bring about and we are certain that a society where production is for need will be far better than one where production is for profit.

We have not encountered many socialists who are "laughing all the way to the bank”; most of those we know keep well away from the bank in case the manager catches them. Socialism has to be brought about by workers. If any capitalists want to join us they may. but socialism does not rely on the aid of such people for its establishment.

Instead of looking for mythical culprits on whom the the problems of capitalism can be blamed. Miss Katan is urged to examine the objective laws of capitalism and to discover that the system—and not individuals within it is responsible for what is happening.


Dear Editors

In the article “Marxism, Materialism and Morality" (December, 1981), we are given a Marxist materialist explanation of man’s whole natural and historical existence from the dawn of human consciousness to the present time without once mentioning the word “freedom”. The writer is a determinist, determined to fit Man into his Marxist philosophical straightjacket. telling us that humans have a capacity to think in three ways, none of which includes freedom. Yet without some kind of thoughts about freedom there would be no desire for the moral development of Man in society. A socialist consciousness presupposes a consciousness of freedom in Man, for without this consciousness of freedom Man cannot be regarded as a human, responsible being with a personality which distinguishes us from robots.
R Smith, 

It was Engels who wrote that historical freedom is simply "an insight into necessity". To be historically free is not to be in a position to do anything, but to recognise what can be done. R. Smith's fancy idealistic talk about humans being free is reminiscent of the early capitalists who were philosophically obsessed by the belief that capitalism equals freedom. In one sense it does: workers are free to be exploited. Socialists do not accept the vulgar economic determinism which is sometimes presented as Marxism. Of course, humans have the capacity to make history; human thought is extremely important. But thought is never free. We are bound by our historical conditions, our language and our experience. Socialism is not about “moral development", but about developing society by ourselves for ourselves.

H. M. Dustbins: Prisoners' Riots (1982)

From the February 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Every day a fresh humiliation." — one prisoner’s description of life in the long term wing at Wormwood Scrubs.
Whenever there is a Tory government, and the jobs are being dished out, one who is always willing to sacrifice himself in the more harrowing of ministries is Willie Whitelaw. Perhaps this is because he is such an amiable man. Or perhaps he is convinced that being a rich aristocrat is a burden he bears more in our interests than his own. Whatever the reason, his career has been studded with crises as regular as cairns on the route up a mountain. Recently, for example, there have been the city riots and — one of his persistent concerns — the turbulent state of British prisons.

According to Whitelaw, the essence of the problem in prisons is overcrowding the relentless stuffing of men (it only affects male prisoners at present) into large, gloomy, decaying Victorian buildings which were designed to contain several hundred less than are being forced into them. This is no recent problem; six years ago (The Times 4/8/75) Roy Jenkins, who was then Home Secretary, said that it would “approach the intolerable" if the prison population reached 42,000. It now hovers around 44,000 and, as the courts do not seem eager to heed Whitelaw's regular pleas to impose prison sentences more sparingly, is unlikely to fall in the near future.

There has been no lack of effort from the legislators, to reform the problem away. The Criminal Justice Act 1967 introduced suspended sentences and even made them mandatory in many cases when the defendant would otherwise have been locked up straight away. Another Act in 1972 set up the Community Service scheme, supposedly as an alternative to imprisonment. But the numbers behind bars has continued to rise; now Whitelaw is suggesting more reforms, heedless of the fact that so many have already failed.

Overcrowding means that life for thousands of prisoners is near to intolerable. Hundreds are confined three to a cell, measuring 13ft. by 7ft., designed to hold only one. There they may well stay behind the locked door, for up to 23 hours a day. They spend their time reading, listening to the radio, sleeping. Sometimes they discuss, with a garnish of fantasy, what they did to be sent to prison. There is, needless to say, no running water or lavatory in the cell. For these men the first task each morning is slopping out, when chamber pots used for the past twelve hours or so are emptied into a single disposal point which gurglingly accepts the intestinal waste products of about one hundred bodies. The smell, as prisoners like to inform, has to be experienced — it can’t be imagined. This appetite-sharpening start to the day is followed by breakfast; in very few prisons do the inmates concede that the food is edible, let alone appetising.

Not only the prisoners struggle with such exigencies. One wrote to the Guardian (11/12/81) from Wandsworth that in that grim pile the working conditions of the officers “would try the patience of a Buddhist monk’’. The governors of Strangeways and Wormwood Scrubs have recently publicised their anger in the press — a dangerously unusual act in a profession normally disciplined into reticence. Wormwood Scrubs, a place under unique tensions, was described by its governor as a “penal dustbin” made up of “overcrowded cattle pens”.

It is assumed from this that British prisons are likely to erupt into riot. There are dire warnings of ‘another Attica’ unless something is done to ease the overcrowding. But this sounds rather like the government dodging the issue in advance. Overcrowding is usually confined to local prisons where men are held on remand or are received straight from court after sentence, to be held before they are sent on to what is called — optimistically — a ‘training’ prison.

There have been riots in recent years but these have happened in those very ‘training’ prisons where there was no overcrowding — Parkhurst, Albany, Gartree, Hull. (The disturbance at Wormwood Scrubs in August 1979 was in the long term ‘D’ Wing, which was not overcrowded. In any case that was a riot by prison officers rather than by prisoners.) A modern prison like Albany has no slopping out; the prisoners can get out of their cell whenever they like and are not normally locked up for excessively long periods. In fact such prisons have physical conditions better than those awaiting a lot of the prisoners when they are let out.

So why is there fear of fresh trouble within those walls? The moment a convict walks through the prison gate, the pressures of the place on him are as palpable as the smell. A massive readjustment is needed, to survive within the rules and the customs on which the place is run. “Few sounds can be more heart stopping than the noise made by the closing of a cell door . . . . With the closing of the door, the prisoner knows that he has ceased to be a father, a brother, a husband or a son; from now on he is — a prisoner” recalled one man. (Ron Phillips, Race Today, June 1974).

Being a prisoner means that all sorts of decisions about you — whether you actually did what the screw says you did, what job you should do in the prison, should you be released early on parole — are taken without reference to you. “The interests of the individuals have to be sacrificed continually to the interests of the institution” was how the governor of Wormwood Scrubs despairingly expressed it. One result is that the customary standards of ‘justice’ do not apply in a place which is supposed to teach its inmates to respect those very standards.

Another factor is the growing militancy of prison officers, to the point when many prisoners are convinced that it is the officers, and not the governor or the Home Office, who decide how a prison is run. This militancy is a significant change for the prison service and has a lot to do with current economic conditions. At one time the prison service was something of a refuge for the ex-regular servicemen who found civilian life difficult, without the reassurance they gained from the military routine and structure. These officers with their guardsman’s peaked caps and their burnished boots, were a walking nostalgia. Now the service is often a refuge from redundancy and the inflow of recruits from industry has meant that a para-military discipline has been undermined by a trade union militancy. It is common now to see long hair underneath the warders’ caps, much to the disgust of the old time screws.

Militant prison officers may refuse — as they recently did at Strangeways - to receive any more prisoners; they can refuse to send them to court, or to work the hours needed for prisoners to go to evening classes or to week-end sport. These actions make life harder for the prisoners. Under the tensions of prison, it needs only one incident — a particular example of repression or brutality by the officers, an abrupt withdrawal of ‘privileges’, some specially bad food — to spark off a protest which can explode into a riot.

When that happens the official pretence that prisons are humane institutions which concentrate on caring for, and ‘reforming’, their inmates is torn away to reveal the truth that they are more akin to a battleground. On one side are the staff who like to think they represent ‘society’, which actually means the capitalist precept that one class holds the position to exploit the other, who must accept their degraded status. The prisoners are ‘offenders’ — they have breached that precept, even if they wouldn’t see it that way.

Many of them are obsessed with achieving the symbols of privilege — a gleaming fast car, glamorous women, a sumptuous home. If they had the income of a company chairman they wouldn’t offend but the real limit of their ambition is a typical working class wage, so they take refuge in fantasy. Perhaps their big difficulty is an inability to draw the sort of distinctions which capitalism demands of them — to appreciate, for example, that violence is permissible from a member of the SAS but not from a robber. The courts are part of the machinery to ensure that those distinctions are drawn and to punish anyone who fails to do so. In the end the most lenient of judges or magistrates will conclude that the only way of ‘disposing’ (a term often used in court) of someone is to send them to prison.

This is another example of the characteristic of capitalism, that it attempts to solve a problem by intensifying it. There is no evidence that prisons diminish crime; in many ways they are microcosms of society outside the walls — its jungle laws, its violence and cynicism. The highest aim of the entire penal system — including the reformers — is that members of the working class should emerge from a sentence prepared to accept a life of wage servitude. It is called rehabilitation and in the unreal world of prison it is in all ways the most savage fantasy of them all. 

Films (1993)

Film Review from the December 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Naked - Mike Leigh

If nothing else Mike Leigh's latest film provokes thought and discussion. I fell into a long, sometimes heated, discussion on the nature and meaning of this film shortly after viewing it. In short, it depicts the travels of a Mancunian initially fleeing Manchester and looking up an old girlfriend in London and later wandering around London bumping into various unusual characters: two homeless Scottish teenagers, a philosophic and lonely security guard, a fly-posterer, to name but a few. All this is handled with great sardonic wit and Leigh's usual social realism. It would be fair to say that this is a brutal film, depicting as it does a number of rape scenes, coupled with a sense of universal misogyny and a feeling of alienation gripping all the characters.

But from here my discussion came back to its point of departure. Whilst on the one hand my companion felt that this is the sort of viewing that everybody should watch, the sort of social realism that can be truly educational, the sort of film that can shake people into some vague form of action, I felt rather that the film had no "message." I saw it as the depiction of a hopeless scenario, one devoid of potential solution. The potential of the romantic ending was ignored, no spectre of a "solution" was apparent.

This is powerful movie-making. It is not the Hollywood variety that insults its audience with fantasy solutions, rather it reflects in things as they are — to a greater or lesser extent devoid of hope. We live in an age of the politically-correct slogan, in an age of "care in the community", of "charity", of "Red Nose Days", of Esther Rantzen TV shows  . . .  the list goes on.

Well intentioned 
No matter how well intentioned some of those involved in these activities are, the fundamental reality is that they don't work. Whether one accepts the socialist analysis or not, nothing present social institutions have ever thrown up of has gone far in addressing the problems depicted in the film.

Socialists would have it that it is the system itself that is at fault, and while this is far from being universally accepted, there is no denying the seriousness of the problem around us. For me it is this blank depiction of reality, devoid of hope, that is the only "message" in this film.