Thursday, August 23, 2018

Prices since the 1200s (1969)

Book Review from the August 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Cost of Living in Seven Centuries (A History of the Cost of Living) by John Burnett (Pelican, 8s.)

There are two kinds of half-truth letters which will always find a place in the correspondence columns of certain newspapers. One is from readers who recall how low prices were when they were young. A Sunday newspaper in June 1969 published a letter quoting old grocery prices, and ending “we certainly did not know how well off we were in 1915". The other is from readers who draw attention to the smallness of the wages received by their fathers and grandfathers. So we have the conflicting beliefs in the ‘good old days’ and the ‘bad old days’. John Burnett, reader in economics and social history at Brunei University, brings together a large amount of detailed information to show not only what people paid in past centuries but what was the income of different social groups, how they lived, and what was their standard of living.

He deals with the big movements of prices and how these movements, along with other changes, affected the different classes. For example, the rise of prices in the 14th century, accompanied however by the labour scarcity after the Black Death of 1349 which led to a rise in wages and “placed the labourer, perhaps for the first time in English history in a strong bargaining position". On the other hand, the second half of the 17th century saw the opposite situation—rising prices and lagging wages causing a drastic fall in living standards.

Burnett stresses the difficulty of obtaining enough representative statistics about prices in earlier centuries and warns the reader against expecting a greater degree of accuracy than the information warrants. He reproduces two indices, one by Prof. Guy Routh covering the years 1906 to 1960, the other by Prof Phelps Brown 1906 to 1954, and a graph summarising price changes of consumer goods in Southern England from 1264 to 1954.

He comments on the general long-period agreement between the two indices but might well have used their non-agreement in the war years 1938 to 1945 to illustrate the way in which—in certain circumstances—indices, accurate enough for their defined purpose, can diverge if they cover some different articles and if the articles excluded from one index are rising (or falling) in price at an abnormal rate.

For the years 1938 to 1945 the Routh Index shows a rise of 47½ per cent, while the Phelps Brown index shows 79 per cent Two other indices (Ministry of Labour and London and Cambridge Economic Service) show 30 per cent and 49 per cent respectively.

One of the major reasons for war-time divergence was that it was Government policy to use subsidies to keep down the prices of articles which were heavily represented in the Ministry of Labour Index.

Burnett might also have warned the reader against the still widespread belief that the larger the number of articles covered by a price index the higher the price rise it will show. It all depends on whether all prices are rising at much the same rate or whether some are rising faster than others. If all prices rise by a uniform 5 per cent in a given period it does not matter whether an index contains 10 articles on a 100 or only one: the answer will still be 5 per cent.

Complaints were often made that the official index in past years gave greater weight to certain articles than was warranted by the relative amounts spent by certain social groups. It was sometimes forgotten that this can work both ways. When civil servants had their pay automatically regulated by the cost of living index they were the losers when food prices were falling fast because food was overweighted in the index, but equally they were the gainers when food prices were rising faster than other articles.

On a number of aspects of price and income movements Burnett has been able to extend the range of his information beyond what was known to earlier writers. One such aspect was the decline of the fortunes of the aristocracy because of rising prices between 1540 and 1640. The traditional view of this was, he writes, “derived ultimately from the economic interpretation of history of Marx and Engels, modernised and qualified by R. H. Tawney and Lawrence Stone” and he now argues that the decline was less general than has been assumed.

About the date at which money was gradually coming into general use his views do not appear to differ from earlier ones. He writes: “That money was in regular, if limited, use on 13th century Manors is certain”. Townsend Warner, writing in 1899, said that money payments on the Manor “begin to be common in England in the early years of the 13th century” (Landmarks of English Industrial History). Of course both writers agree that money was in use centuries earlier among traders and merchants and in the big towns generally.

About the causes of the price rises in recent years Burnett is not satisfactory. He offers a sort of explanation but it is difficult even to understand what it means. It starts with the statement that “one of the main influences on prices must be the pressure of demand” but later on goes on to say “The pressure of demand, it seems, has had little direct affect on prices, but it does have direct effect on earnings which then lead to price increases by the process known as ’cost-push’: price increases then lead to renewed wage-increases by a process of ’cost-of-living push’. In popular language this is the wages and prices spiral”

So we are asked to believe (in direct contradiction to the facts) that sellers of goods do not put up their prices in response to increased ’pressure of demand’ but only because and after wages have gone up. So price increases are due to the workers’ ‘demands’; but why then did prices rise twice as much in Britain as in Switzerland and the U.S.A. in the 20 years to 1968 ? And why did not Burnett offer the same kind of explanation for movements of prices and wages in earlier periods ?

What he entirely ignores here is the effect of currency depreciation as the biggest single factor of the price rise. It is strange that he overlooks this on p315 for he is aware of it on p11 and elsewhere. On p315 he offers his explanation, not directly as his own conclusion, but as what “most economists would accept”; but on p4 he puts forwards a view which nearly all the economists he refers to would completely repudiate. They reject the view of earlier economists, including Marx, that there is a direct relationship between the amount of inconvertible paper money and the price level, but on p11 Burnett appears to accept this as he states that ’’prices are determined by the ratio between the supply of and the demand for money: the supply of money is the currency in circulation . . .”

It is a pity Burnett allowed the confusion of modern monetary theory to divert him from his earlier view.
Edgar Hardcastle

What is obscenity (1971)

From the August 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

On learning that you wish to investigate the pornographic and the obscene in our society, might we respectfully suggest some relevant fields of enquiry? So far you have only apparently investigated the obscene in relation to art and entertainment, such as books, films, plays and peep-shows.

This however is too superficial an approach! The Soho growth industries are merely a pimple on the very warty nose of an extremely nasty way of life.

Is it not obscene that millions of men and women have no roof over their heads and with their children have to queue in refugee camps for a bowlful of stodgy rice? This is obscenity.

Is it not also obscene that one class of men lives in poverty and misery, whilst producing all the wealth owned by that other class, the class of affluent parasites? This, too, is obscenity.

Is it not also obscene that in every country the wealth spent on armies and police, with all their inhuman paraphernalia of napalm and H-bombs, gases and coshes, that this wealth is produced by the very class of people who will find these weapons turned against them ? This surely is obscenity.

Is it not also obscene that this once beautiful world in which we live is being so polluted in pursuit of quick profits that society now has to pay the polluting class to make profits from de-polluting the places they themselves have polluted? This paradox too is obscenity.

Is it not an appalling and filthy obscenity that man throws food into the sea rather than give it to his starving and impoverished fellows? This, Lord Longford, is obscenity.

Poverty is obscene: will you investigate this?

War is obscene: will you investigate that ?

Capitalism’s sordid cheating, squalid exploitation and phony values are all obscene: will you investigate them?

Capitalist society is an obscene and filthy thing: it has been investigated. Will you join us in destroying it, Lord Longford, or will you continue to damn the effects while defending the cause ?

Charmian Skelton

Jesus Christ! (1972)

From the August 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Saturday, while standing by Queen Victoria pointing with her sceptre in the customary direction, I witnessed a disturbing spectacle. A Salvation Army band was marching round the statue playing Onward Christian Soldiers while the latter indulged in cries of “Jesus” and “Hallelujah”.

No, it wasn’t the Black and White Minstrels. It was the so-called Hull and East Riding Festival of Light aiming to promote love, purity and family life. About 250 people attended which must have disappointed the organisers who expected a growing movement following the London version. Most of the crowd were young and somewhat hairy in contrast to a later meeting in which the middle aged and self-styled middle class sang hymns and loved each other with cold, aloof, even frigid passion.

The well rehearsed vocal responses of the younger section suggested that they might have been imported by coach from various communes of Jesus People to make up the numbers. The citizens of Hull were no doubt engaged in such selfish pursuits as scouring the market to spread out their dole and Social Security money or cleaning up the fallen ceilings of their slums. They might even have been making love!

The reader will probably have noticed many parallels between the Salvation Army and their political counterparts, the Socialist Labour League. But some other interesting comparisons suggest themselves. The Jesus Freaks who demand the Jesus revolution now are surely none other than the elusive third wing of the Situationists.

From a distance the ritual spelling out of “Jesus” (Give us a J! etc.) and “Who’s alive?. . Jesus!” gave one the impression that the childishly intended and executed swastikas on the festival’s posters were not so inappropriate after all. In contrast, something analagous to political vanguardism also seemed to be present in the march behind the band and the great crusade for liberty fearlessly waged by Mrs. Whitehouse and her small but dedicated élite of television addicts who know what’s best for us better than we know ourselves.

A petition was available aimed at forcing the government to put through the transitional demands of television censorship and book burning. At the evening meeting the well known right wing Tory Patrick Wall M.P. spoke in support. A socialist asked if questions were permitted, to put other points of view. On being told that the people had only come to hear the speakers, several opponents left the meeting pursued by an embarrassed and apologetic methodist.

But the Festival’s supporters had the last word from the top of the City Hall steps. Our friends who did not have their questions answered have the consolation of knowing that they will be prayed for. Meanwhile Mrs. Whitehouse spoke of the enemy within and forces working for the overthrow of our society; and some Labour M.P.s sent their support for the Festival.

Consider love, purity and family life. “Love” is simple enough, being a feeling of general benevolence for everybody but especially one’s enemies. Any physical relationship must remain in strict bureaucratic limits. The Jesus Communes hold everything in common except each other.

“Purity” means that certain biological facts can be mentioned while others cannot, especially when children are waiting around to be corrupted or frightened out of their wits. When Christians advocate family life they are at their most naive. Can they say that the family structure of western civilisation, or that of 2,000 years ago from which their dogmatic rules which control it derive, are in all or even most cases satisfactory?

Of course a “perfect” family life with unbounded happiness would be great as would "perfect” feudalism or “perfect” slavery. They say that failures and stresses in family life are due to the faults of people; their ungodliness; their lustful desires and their failure to appreciate the fact that family life must be the best possible system because that is what it says in the bible.

The usual reasoning prevails of accepting the dogma and twisting the facts to fit it, just as much now in this mini-revival as in the ancient Catholic church which fiddled a second marriage for Joseph to explain away Jesus’s brothers while preserving Mary’s virginity for her crowning in heaven.

And it is this attitude that makes nonsense of the Jesus People’s claim to be a revolutionary force. True, they claim to be for democratic action. Two of their banners showed ballot papers with the choice: Jesus—Satan and Porno—Purity. The communes are just self multiplying bisexual monasteries with regular biblical readings and rhythmical incantations.

An organisation which bases itself on divine revelation can hardly be expected to be able to analyse the modern system and thereby find serious ways to change it. However, the movement is not catching on; if it did, it would be one more force against the free thought and free discussion and the build up of revolutionary consciousness.

So They Say: For Ever England (1973)

The So They Say Column from the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

For Ever England

The petrol companies have agreed to stop competing with “free gifts" to customers: no more soup-bowls, Famous Paintings, one-size tights, or the sets of imitation medallions which looked like becoming the successors to cigarette cards.

Texaco’s series of reproduction Army badges is therefore the last of its kind, and it is almost worth the 25p for the album to find a cat let out of the bag in an unexpected place. “Great British Regiments” has an introduction by Lieut.-General Sir Brian Horrocks, and he says:
  In my opinion, however, their greatest contribution to the British Empire which is rarely mentioned has been the protection they have given to our indomitable British merchants who, in search of fresh markets, spread our influence all over the world. For some this has involved spending many years in distant garrisons where their casualties from disease were often far greater than those suffered in active service.
Young collectors may find that enlightening. They should remember it when they are being told the Army is there to defend freedom and combat oppression, and dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

If Things Don't Alter . . .

Sir Geoffrey Howe, Minister for Consumer Affairs, has been trying to impress with a muscular posture. On the front of the Observer on 24th June, under the headline “Minister’s Warning on Profits”, it was reported that he had
  yesterday warned businessmen that they would be wise to remember that if they were making good profits the Price Commission could compel them to reduce their prices.
The same issue of the Observer shows, elsewhere, plenty of scope for Sir Geoffrey. On page II Weston Pharmaceuticals, who have 197 retail branches, reported that their profits rose from £459,070 in 1972 to £1,872,586 this year. The dividend was 27.3 per cent., and the “earnings” per share went up from 5.6p to to 8.1p. On page 13 Lead Industries Group Ltd. state an increase in profit before tax from £6,585,000 in 1971 to £7,040,000 in 1972, and in gross dividends from 11.5 per cent, to 12.075 per cent.

Both these companies appear to be making “good profits”. Are they alarmed by Sir Geoffrey’s warning? The annual report of Lead Industries Group says:
   There must inevitably be uncertainties as to the effects on profitability of the Governments’ anti-inflation policy and fluctuating currencies, nevertheless the present picture is a cheerful one overall and prospects for the current year look good.
In other words, they are “being wise” — and expect to go on doing well.

. . . they'll Stay as They are.

The strongest uncertainties, in fact, appear to be Sir Geoffrey Howe’s — as to what is going to happen anyway. The report of his speech ends:
  He quoted the view of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research that commodity prices would fall back from their recent high levels . . .  if the national institute was right, he said, ‘we can certainly expect a significant reduction, in the months ahead, in the pace of inflation that has beset us all’.
This recalls the classic headline-question: Did She Fall Or Was She Pushed? What the Minister says, summarized, is that he could try to make prices come down, but if they do it will be of their own accord.

The inability of governments to control the economic working of capitalism could hardly be demonstrated more clearly. While Sir Geoffrey waits for the answer, anyone with £25,000 can try phoning Bevington Lowndes Ltd. (20 lines, 24-hour service) — who, in the Sunday Times the same day, were advertising “the lifelong investment that beats inflation”. That sum will bring you £2,500 a year tax-free, and to heck with the Price Commission.

Into Europe

We recently reproduced an item from The London Property Letter, which tells its subscribers how to play the regulations and exploit the housing situation. Its publishers, Stonehart Publications Ltd., are now launching The European Property Letter, again with Robert Troop of the Sunday Times as editor. The annual subscription is £25.

The introductory leaflet is headed 1975: The Year of the Property Gold-Rush, and begins:
  Over these past months British property companies have taken a quickening interest in Europe. Samuel Properties spent £8,000,000 on an office block in Frankfurt. Abbey Life £7,500,000 on one in Brussels. This is clearly the right moment for UK investors, large and small, to begin exploring the EEC — not simply because Britain has now joined, but because there is bound to be a huge rush of funds into European property and a consequent rise in prices when exchange controls are lifted, somewhere about 1975.
They promise to present:
  Street-by-street profiles of cities and towns where property is still underpriced.
  How to exploit the many investment anomalies that still exist in European backwaters.
  Advice on land: where to buy, what to pay, whether you’re permitted to hold.
  Planning: where it’s easiest to get it and why.
And other good things — for capitalists. Thrilling to be in Europe, is it not?

Meanwhile, back at Mon Repos —

Still in property, The Guardian had something cryptic in its house-market page on 6th July. Stating that mortgage repayments have gone up on average from £19.75 a month at the end of 1970 to £32.74 at the end of 1972, Nicholas Heman wondered how people were finding the money “when wages and salaries have not risen by anything like the same amount". His view was that
   the greater number of first-time purchasers may be explained by the fact that they are now regarded much more favourably by building societies who previously would have been more demanding in their requirements.
Which sounds like saying that building societies lend money to people who cannot afford to repay it with interest. And on 11th July The Guardian reported “the whole chilling picture" given by Shelter Housing Aid Centre, headlined “Shelter Finds Better-Off Have Housing Problems". It said:
   In this situation, people are more willing to commit themselves to higher mortgage payments than they can really afford. SHAC encountered one example of a 37½ per cent rate of interest. One man was paying a £140 a month mortgage on a £200 a month salary . . . “In 1973, a family needs an income of at least £2,500 and savings of £1,000 minimum before house purchase in London becomes a possibility."
There is something wrong with The Guardian’s headline. These people are not “better-off”: they are living in crippling poverty.

Give the Fellow a Break

“What you've got to remember about Prince Philip is that he is in a dead-end job.” — A Pressman in “The World at One”, 11th July.
Robert Barltrop

Why Socialism? (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Confusion is undoubtedly the strongest weapon in the capitalist armoury. The fraudulent Labour Party, without a single measure on their programme that can benefit or interest the working class, lends itself to Tory and Liberal politicians as a socialist chopping block.” So said the Socialist Standard in July 1913 and to this day the smokescreen of gibberish constantly perpetrated by the capitalist parties obscures the class nature of society, and the antagonisms that therefore exist. Every proposition is debated ad nauseam except the most important one: necessity for a new society (Socialism) — now. The interest of the working class lies in the immediate establishment of Socialism, and this is the one and only object of the SPGB. We are not to be fobbed off by the “Immediate Demands” or “Something Now” Brigades. We have seen them march in confusion backwards and forwards across the social reform parade ground only to remain where they were. The “realists” have had their chance to find solutions to social problems and have failed miserably. Now is the time, not to be disillusioned, but for members of the working class to study our case and realize its validity.

Capitalism is the predominant form of society in all countries throughout the world. In this country it is estimated that 72 per cent of the wealth is owned about 10 per cent, of the population [1]  — the capitalist class. They also own the means of producing and reproducing wealth. Those who own nothing of the means of production, the working class, must sell their labour-power, skilled or unskilled, to an employer for a wage or salary. The working class forms the majority of society and is composed of all wage-earners, not just industrial workers but also those who would like to think of themselves as "middle class”. It is through the labour of the working class alone that all the wealth of society is produced and yet this is legally appropriated by the capitalists who produce nothing and are socially a useless class. As Engels so clearly put it:
   The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons and gambling on the stock exchange.
(Socialism, Utopian & Scientific)
Apologists for capitalism often argue how necessary (and no doubt kind-hearted) the capitalist class is to society by providing, at great pains to themselves, the capital for investment in new factories, works etc., and thus providing work for the workers. If the capitalist class think of themselves as doing society a good turn it does not concern us, although we rather suspect that their motives are not sublime. What can we be sure of is that capitalism inevitably creates unemployment and that an individual capitalist will invest not to provide work for others but only for profit or good “return” on his capital.

Capital constantly seeks to expand and stretch its grasping tentacles into every conceivable avenue, and of course engulf capitals smaller than itself. The real needs of human beings are not taken into account where production of wealth is only carried on with the motive of producing more and more capital. As long as the profit motive is the driving force behind production the needs of people cannot be met. Since the way in which wealth is produced and distributed in a given society will be the basic factor in determining the character of that society, it is not surprising that the anarchy of capitalist production and distribution gives rise to myriad social problems: housing, poverty, unemployment, etc. Such problems are indivisible from capitalism and insoluble under it. Historically capitalism has been a useful form of society in that it has enabled the means of production to be developed on a vast and world-wide social scale. Commodities are exchanged on a world-wide basis; e.g. many British workers have New Zealand lamb for their Sunday lunch, those that can afford it that is. There is however no world-wide social control over production and distribution, only an anarchy of competing capitals chasing the surplus-value produced solely by the working class.

The only alternative to capitalism is the establishment of Socialism where society as a whole will own and control in common the wealth and means of transporting it. Common Ownership means that individual members of society will have free access to what they want and require without regard to any form of exchange system. As Socialism can only be brought into being by the political act of the majority of people wanting and working for it, we assume that the majority of people would want to co-operate with each other in running and maintaining a Socialist society. Democratic control means that decisions affecting society would be taken by the majority and based upon the best available information. Society will make decisions in its own best interests. This is not the case today. We do not claim that Socialism will be trouble-free but compared with the madhouse of capitalism it will be a sane society indeed. Socialism will be the beginning of civilized history before which all societies will be classified as barbaric.
Tony D'Arcy

[1] See Hansard, 5th July 73.

Ideas and Understanding (1975)

From the August 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

For some unexplained reason we are constantly being told that capitalism is so different from previous societies that it is not subject to the law of social growth which governed the development and decay of these previous societies. The point is, can capitalism make history stand still and do its bidding? Can it, in effect, ensure that it will continue to exist simply by the power of property which most men worship but very few enjoy? Presumably, if capitalism can make its own historical rules there could be no prospect of its abolition.

Looking at the evidence around us, the working class show no signs of challenging capitalism’s rule. There is plenty of social discontent, but this is largely concerned with social reforms or Trade Union issues, and cannot be regarded as revolutionary activity. What are we left with? First, a solidly entrenched social system, second, an apparently disinterested working class, and third, a relatively small revolutionary party. Little wonder we are dubbed as dreamers, Utopian preachers and sectarian cranks by our opponents. Yet we persist. An organization which takes on the task of making workers Socialists in face of tremendous difficulties is considered to be either unrealistic or motivated by spiritual rather than material influences. We are neither.

We do not accept the permanence of capitalism any more than we accept the fact that the workers’ ideas of society cannot be changed. History shows that social systems change, and that these changes are accomplished by thinking men, and that mens’ ideas change with them. This includes ideas on all subjects — religion, politics, morality, science, law and art. Ideas have changed considerably over the centuries and dramatically in the last 100 years. The spread of opinion, or social consciousness, as with man’s social life generally, develops in accordance with the development of his productive forces. Today, the artificial organs of man, his greater control over nature, play a decisive role in his social existence. These artificial organs are not individual but social in character.

If social man’s intellect, his opinions and culture, are dominated by the circumstances of his economic conditions, at what point can we expect a change in men’s ideas which will result in a political decision to establish Socialism? The body of opinion today, or the prevailing ideology, is overwhelmingly capitalist, because capitalist ideas are socially sponsored, propagated and broadcast at all levels. Socialist ideas, which arise from the same economic conditions, are ignored or misrepresented as State capitalist, or distorted in other ways. Yet the battle of ideas can be fought against such overwhelming odds. In the first instance, we are not merely dealing with men’s opinions but the social factors which give rise to those opinions. The old French materialists were nearly right when they said opinion governs the world. We know that throughout the ages men’s ideas of politics in particular have changed. For example, the political domination by the Catholic Church as in Feudal society is no longer feasible or tolerated, yet the Catholic Church was the political centre of Feudalism for over a thousand years. Further back in early society it was moral to have incestuous sexual relationships, group marriages, infanticide and cannibalism. These were the product of well defined social conditions. The absence of these today has nothing to do with moral enlightenment or higher idealistic standards, but to the changed social conditions. Capitalism produces its own sophisticated form of barbaric cruelty and inhumanity on a far greater scale than these seemingly outrageous practices of yesteryear.

Idealists, and this includes religionists, moralists, humanists, etc., constantly refer to the innate goodness of man, and what the world ought to be — the world of the true and just. This conception of the world as it ought to be bears no relation or connection with the world as it is, but also with the historical development which has occurred. The idealists’ conception of history, which claims men’s development to be purely intellectual, based on some timeless ethical cause, is the happy hunting ground for the ostensibly reasonable apologists of capitalism — reason will solve everything, they claim. Pure reason, like abstract truth, does not exist. Every thought process must be related to social man’s material needs. This is what society is all about, the organization of a system of production to meet men’s material needs. The question which obviously arises is does capitalism satisfy or can it be made to satisfy men’s needs? The answer is obviously — no. The contradictions within the system of poverty in the midst of plenty, its dependance on the market economy, its unpredictability and general anarchy, disqualify it as a social system rendering social service in the real sense of the term.

The capitalists’ monopoly of propaganda undoubtedly influences the millions of workers who give their support to it generally. But the performance never matches the promise. You cannot indefinitely persuade people that the temperature at the North Pole is 80° Fah. The greatest ally of the Socialist is the temperature of the economic conditions. We apply our materialism, our factual analysis, continually to the economic background. Socialist propaganda is not aimed at man’s ‘innate goodness’ or higher nature, but at man’s practical material needs. It will be this factor alone which seen as an alternative will create revolutionary consciousness, and the subsequent political action based on that consciousness.

Opponents of Socialism can be divided into two main groups. One, the out-and-out supporters of capitalism, and the other the false friends of Socialism; Labour, Communist, I.S. etc. — supporters of State capitalism. Of the two groups, the latter, these knights of confusion, are the most pernicious, rendering lip-service to Socialism they attack our case on the ground that workers want something now — not Socialism, which according to them the workers will never understand anyhow. Incidentally, the workers have got neither. Mr. Clive Jenkins, Mr. Jack Jones, Mr. Hugh Scanlon, Mr. Len Murray, and all the other “Lairds of Cockpen” are steeped in capitalist mythology. They really believe it can be made to work. To listen to the nauseating ignorance coming from these people on the subject of Socialism makes us wonder what has happened to elementary working class education, even at Socialist Sunday school level. Then we have the ‘instant men’, the featherbrains of IS, IMG, Trotskyists, who want to grow an oak tree in a plant pot in seven days. These groups always want something for themselves, and want it now, and to Hell with the future. These phoney militants are not equipped to carry on the class struggle for Socialism. For a start, they have no staying power, little knowledge of political economy, and no principles whatever. They can only be described as the Fifth column of the Labour Party.

Most of the people who tell the SPGB the workers cannot understand Socialism do not understand it themselves. Socialism cannot be established without working class's understanding, and this we accept. There is no alternative other than to work for that mass understanding. Workers are not fools. If a proposition is presented to them in a reasonable way they will consider it. At the moment information about Socialism is rare in most working class circles because of the present size and influence of the Socialist Party. There is a vast difference in having a splendid case to propagate and the opportunity to get yourself heard. This is the real reason why the workers do not understand Socialism. It is purely a technical problem of communication and not, as our critics would claim, a flaw in our case. The responsibility for the extension of Socialist propaganda is the workers at large. The speed in acceptance of Socialist ideas by the working class depends on that. There are no innate principles in men’s existence. Man, with all his views and feelings, is what nature and society has made him. The establishment of Socialism is a task well within the capacity of the modern working class. The alternative is to watch civilization degenerate and deteriorate under an obsolete social system.
Jim D'Arcy

The Truth About Freedom (1976)

Book Review from the August 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Political Police in Britain by Tony Bunyan. (Julian Friedmann Publishers Ltd., £4.95.)

We recommend this book to all those starry-eyed people who blissfully go round believing in the myth of “British freedom”. Tony Bunyan has done his homework very well, his book is crammed with detailed and relevant information. Most of the sinister and ugly features usually associated with tyranny and dictatorship, have their counterpart in what to the popular mind is a free country. Just as in dictatorships, a servile press helps to fashion a climate of opinion. To be accused is to be deemed guilty. Particularly in matters concerning “security”, the attitude is we cannot be squeamish about condemning a few conspirators; the national interest must come first. If, after many months in prison, charges are dropped or the case fails for want of evidence, then the “free” press can be relied upon to make capital out of those cases resulting in convictions and ignore the rest.

The sheer number of distinct police agencies carrying out a vast range of surveillance, infiltration, spying and oppressive activities, is bewildering. Apart from the “ordinary” uniformed police force (which is itself supplemented by Special Constables through Acts of Parliament going back to 1831) there are D15 and D16, the former dealing with foreign espionage and “subversion” inside Britain, the latter with external spying. Then there are the Special Patrol Groups. These are specialist riot police who go round in unmarked cars and carry arms as a matter of course and are trained in the use of CS gas. They were set up in 1965 and are not to be confused with the Special Branch, which goes back to 1883 and played its part in combatting an outbreak of Irish bomb attacks during that period.

From the beginning the Home Office had a direct concern in the “political intelligence” activities of Special Branch. Spies were planted in groups of minority activists such as the Legitimation League. In the early years, superintendents appointed under the Factory Act of 1833 were used to spy and report on workers’ activities.

The Official Secrets Act of 1889 dealt with spying and breaches of official trust by state employees. The 1911 amendment extended powers to act against journalists and newspapers for receiving and publishing information. Further strengthening Acts were passed in 1920 and 1939. Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail and Reginald Foster of the Daily Sketch were sent to prison in 1962 for failing to reveal sources of information. The phrasing of this legislation is very loose, lending itself to wide interpretation. The ruling class, through the government of the day, has a formidable array of oppressive powers at its disposal.

Books can be barred from publication or “doctored” to suit the Ministry of Defence, to which all ex-military personnel are required to submit their manuscripts. Examples are Sir Compton Mackenzie’s book Gallipoli Memories (1929) and a book by Anthony Nutting (a former Privy Councillor) on the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The Franks Committee, set up in 1971 by the Tory Government to look into Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, produced a report running to four volumes. Neither the Tories or the following Labour government took any action. The issue arose out of the use of D-notices against the Daily Express and the Sunday Telegraph. Three people were sent for trial at the Old Bailey over an article dealing with Biafra. The Public Records Act enables governments to suppress information for up to one hundred years.

Our “heritage of freedom” or rather the privileged position of the capitalist class, is further safeguarded by laws like the Statute of Treasons, dating back to 1351, and the Riot Act of 1381 (year of the Wat Tyler rebellion). The Tolpuddle Martyrs were condemned under the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797.

The Incitement to Disaffection Act of 1934 is aimed against the circulation of “seditious” literature to members of the armed forces. They must be trained to kill, not taught to think. Under this Act a man was sent to prison for two years in 1972 for possessing literature likely to cause disaffection, namely a pamphlet concerning the war in Northern Ireland.

Bunyan produces an illuminating résumé of the Angry Brigade trials. Of the twelve people arrested and charged, two had charges against them withdrawn, five were acquitted on all counts, and five were convicted on conspiracy charges. Prescott was sentenced to fifteen years in prison; Purdie was found not guilty after having spent nine months in jail. The press in general and the Evening Standard in particular applauded the sentence and ignored the acquittal. The conduct of the police in gathering evidence and making arrests, was somewhat devious. Purdie was arrested “for questioning, which is illegal. He was not cautioned nor was any warrant made out for his arrest”.

The police have powers to seriously restrict press coverage of trials. The Metropolitan and City Police Press Card is the means by which the number of reporters has been reduced from eight thousand to a trusted two thousand whose names and credentials are registered. Sir Robert Mark, promoted to power by Roy Jenkins and Reginald Maudling, is behind this censorship by the backdoor. According to Bunyan, Commissioner Mark is contemptuous of the legal processes he is supposed to uphold: trial by jury in particular. No doubt for him the ideal situation would be one where the police also acted as judge, jury and jailer.

Further specialized units are the National Drugs Intelligence Unit and the National Immigration Unit. All streams meet at and have common access to the Police National Computer Unit at Hendon. It is estimated that by 1979 more than 36,000,000 names and a variety of other details will be almost instantly available.

The staggering edifice of repressive legislation has been steadily built up over more than a hundred and fifty years. Particular emergencies, such as two world wars and outbreaks of social disturbance, have prompted a reactionary and obsolete ruling class to try to strengthen their hand to preserve a little longer their parasitic position as a privileged owning class. Organizations like the Angry Brigade and the IRA help to create an atmosphere of fear, which provides the ruling class with their excuse to act in the name of security. The backlash of increased repression effects everybody.

In recommending Tony Bunyan’s book as a useful source of information on an important subject, we do not share his conclusion. He denies that the elected government controls the institutions of the state and is vague about how capitalism can be ended.

However ugly and menacing the coercive machinery may be, it will not avail against the rising tide of working-class understanding of and desire to establish Socialism. In fact, the whole set-up can only operate against a background of working-class acquiescence. The most useful lesson to be learned, is, that the vote is all-powerful. The state cannot be smashed. It can and must be captured by a conscious working class, in their quest for freedom.
Harry Baldwin