Friday, April 5, 2019

Proper Gander: Alice Through The Looking Glass (2019)

Alice Levine and Jack Sen.
The Proper Gander column from the April 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Understanding why people come to have far right views is an important part of fighting against the movement and its sickening ideology. Nationalists and racists aren’t born that way, so their beliefs must come from how they interpret the world around them. Not many of us would want to spend a week living with a far right activist to find out what makes them tick, though. So we should applaud the efforts of broadcaster Alice Levine, who did just that for Channel 4’s Sleeping With The Far Right.

Alice goes to stay with Jack Sen, whose opinions are extreme enough to have got him pushed out of both UKIP and the BNP. He lives with his wife, daughter and mother in a suburban street in Southport, Merseyside, an area Sen likes because it hasn’t changed much over the years. Not long after the cheery greetings, Alice finds out that the household has a 7pm curfew because of supposed death threats against them. And Sen’s opening diatribe about how he wanted to run as Mayor of London with openly racist policies (‘mass immigration should stop … Then you can at least sit down and formulate some sort of policy’) gets interrupted by his mother offering a nice cup of tea.

Alice’s first morning involves joining in with the family’s exercise routine, then sitting with Sen as he posts online criticisms of Winnie Mandela, signing off with ‘warmest regards’. Next, Alice goes for a walk with his wife Natasha, and they chat about her belief that only non-white men commit rapes. Later in the week, Sen takes Alice to Southport town centre for a meeting of other far right activists, which he says will be ‘good fun’. They’re a bunch of embittered middle aged men who claim they’re not racists because Sen’s ‘foreign’. They’re involved in ‘guerrilla warfare’, which includes writing ‘Labour paedophiles’ on a roadsign and making placards with snappy slogans like ‘Protect our kids by banning Islamic and rainbow flags’. Sen’s politics have a wider and more dangerous reach, however. Among his other cohorts are a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and fellow ex-BNPer Nick Griffin. Alice’s visit turns sour during a video call to Griffin, who is working with Sen on a programme about ‘racism against whites’ for some hate-filled internet radio station. They turn on her and absurdly, and without seeing the irony, accuse her of being a bigoted extremist. After an awkward photo shoot, Alice’s visit is wrapped up.

Sen was a member of UKIP and stood as their candidate for West Lancashire in the 2015 general election. Just before polling day he was expelled from the party for tweeting that the Labour candidate, who was Jewish, would ‘send the £ to Poland / Israel’, although his profile on Amazon states that he left because of ‘his honesty, and attempting to broach the subjects of indigenous displacement in Britain and British cultural suicide’. He was later quoted as saying that UKIP was ‘in the pockets of Jewish special interest groups’. After joining and leaving the BNP (who aren’t right wing enough for him), he went on to set up the fortunately-insignificant British Resistance Party and the British Renaissance Policy Institute. To spread his abhorrent views, he runs over 25 Facebook pages and websites, using cheap tricks to get attention. On his websites he interviewed himself using another name and ‘leaked’ the interview to newspapers when he was running for election. And to try and discredit those who disagree with him, he pays to have his articles criticising them bumped up on Google searches. Alice is worried he’ll do that to her if he doesn’t like her film.

Sen’s background isn’t one which we might expect a fervent nationalist and racist to have. Born in Britain to a half-Indian and half-South African father and English mother, he spent his late childhood in America before returning to Britain and marrying a Ukrainian. His cosmopolitan upbringing didn’t make him more open-minded, though, and instead he says he felt like an outsider in a multi-ethnic society. Sen’s wife Natasha has similar views to him, although she says that her beliefs developed because she grew up somewhere which wasn’t diverse. That they have come to far right ideology from different directions suggests that our background in itself doesn’t dictate our beliefs, but our perception of it is what’s important. Sen grew up feeling like an outsider, and allowed this to shape his blinkered, paranoid view of his identity. Like all on the far right, he fixates on the differences between people, and sees them as a threat. So he tries to find a sense of security by latching on to nationalism and racism, and defining himself by who he hates. In that way, he’s like any fascist. Unlike the stereotype of a far right thug, though, Sen is articulate and media-savvy, hence his 25 websites. He’s got more exposure through Sleeping With The Far Right, of course, although its insights into his repellent mindset presumably wasn’t the kind of publicity he wanted.
Mike Foster

Wood for the Trees: Authority (2019)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the April 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is no surprise that socialists have little time for ‘authority figures’. The origin of any level of power within this culture ultimately always derives from the capitalist class and their lickspittles; born of exploitation and oppression this kind of status is worthy only of our contempt. But what of moral and intellectual authority? Whilst discussing the nature of consciousness with the person behind the bar the other evening I commented upon the hubristic nature of our discourse (this is Cambridge remember) by reference to the generations of great minds who had considered the phenomenon before us. She paused and smiled and then resumed her musings on the subject. Philosophers of past and present have the ability to both intimidate and stimulate thought but what ‘authority’ do they have? Does the implied high level of intelligence together with a lifetime of study invest a person with authority? We might quibble with the usage preferring the word authoritative to describe an informed opinion; indeed such a person might not expect their conclusions to have any importance for others – but should they have? And if they do, of what significance are our own humble conjectures in comparison?

Many often claim to ‘have a right to their opinion’ and socialists would support that assertion but does the articulation of an unconsidered and therefore unresearched conclusion have any value? When we place ourselves in the dentist’s chair we assume many years of dedicated study and the certification to prove it; reassured by this we place ourselves under their authority. Unfortunately even with such advantages a dentist can still be rubbish at their job but this would not dissuade us from the belief that a profound knowledge of teeth is a definite advantage for anyone claiming to be a dentist. Is it the same with other disciplines like politics and philosophy? There are no certificates for intelligence and integrity but we usually recognise it when we encounter it in others. This kind of gravitas is always the result of study and coherent contemplation. Of course they can still be wrong despite all of their endeavours but such a conclusion, even if it is mistaken, has more value than an assertion based merely on ideological prejudice. Phrases like ‘the truth of the matter’ and ‘in the real world’ are used frequently with no reference to the profound philosophical implications of the concepts of truth and reality. So although we may dismiss the relevance of philosophy to our daily conversation it has to be acknowledged that without the concepts it creates we would have a very impoverished language with which to converse  and, ironically, it is only by using its logic that we can see that the phrases above are not related to their connotative meaning but rather to ideological prejudice and should really be articulated as: ‘this is the truth because I want it to be’ and ‘this is the real world because I need it to be’.

In the amoral cultural context of capitalism is there any source of moral authority? Are the ethical condemnations of its more obvious injustices just another example of empty ideological rhetoric?  In most advanced countries god is dead (or at least dying) and his priests no longer have any moral authority for the vast majority; however when asked about morality many will speak of it as ‘a personal matter’ as if their code of behaviour is somehow generated by individual free will rather than social conditioning and unfortunately the ghost of Christianity still haunts the European concepts of morality as do many of its hypocrisies. Giving to ‘charity’ is capitalism’s highest concession to any moral sensibility – conveniently forgetting, of course, that capitalism itself is a charity for the rich which directly causes the need of charities for the poor. We may refuse to buy goods that are created in third world sweatshops or decline to put our savings into banks associated with such companies only to discover that our own jobs might depend on a business which can only survive by using such cheap labour in a cut-throat market place. We might be morally outraged by the destruction of the environment but if it was a choice between not being able to provide for your family or taking the only job available which was to cut down trees in a rainforest we know the (moral) decision we would all, however reluctantly, have to make. This is why socialists believe that an entirely moral approach to politics is impossible and that no genuine moral authority can exist within an amoral world.

There are no individuals, books, ideologies, religions or traditions that can claim exclusive rights to intellectual or moral authority. We are all part of a process of cultural development that both informs us and to which we contribute (to a greater or lesser degree). Authority based on an economic power born of exploitation will always seek to inhibit this process but will always fail to do so in the end. Ever vigilant of the lurking seduction of our own prejudices and cultural conditioning we can seek out our own meaning from this rich human reservoir of knowledge. Even then we must subject what we think we know to our peers in debate and conjecture. Only such a democratic consensus (in the full awareness that it might be mistaken in both its method and aims) can claim to have any kind of political and/or moral authority.

The Passing Show: Misrepresentation (1959)

The Passing Show Column from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recently Lord Birdwood protested in the House of Lords about “misrepresentations of conditions in Britain which, he said, had followed an interchange of journalists with Czechoslovakia last year ” (Manchester Guardian, 11 / 2/59). One Czech newspaper, said Lord Birdwood, “carried a report of a bearded beggar, covered by a tarpaulin and with his feet in a paper sack, who lay asleep in Hyde Park ‘not far from glittering Piccadilly.’ This was intended to indicate that Britain could not maintain work and homes for all its citizens.”

False information
Lord Home replied for the Government and defended the interchange. We had to accept, he said, “that there was a risk that journalists in Communist countries might toe the party line and produce the kind of misrepresentation of which Lord Birdwood had given examples.” There is no doubt, he lamented, “that from time to time we will find people coming here from other countries and reporting false information.”

The Czech newspapers, of course, would be very glad to tell their readers how badly off the British people were, in order to take their minds off the conditions which they have to endure under Czech capitalism. But to return to Lord Birdwood’s protest about misrepresentation.

Mutual admiration society
It is not recorded that any of the other peers expressed surprise at this Birdwood-Home duet. Augustine Birrell once said that the House of Lords represent nobody but themselves, and they enjoy the full confidence of their constituents. On this kind of performance, they certainly have little claim to the confidence of anyone else. For on the very same day as Lords Birdwood and Home were being indignant about foreign journalists suggesting that “Britain could not maintain work for its citizens,” in the House of Commons (whose members have to be elected, and therefore must maintain some kind of contact with the real world), the Minister of Labour was announcing that six hundred and twenty thousand of the citizens of Britain were unemployed. This means that six hundred and twenty thousand workers in this country are being denied by capitalism the chance to be of use to society, that hundreds of thousands of families are living on the dole and going short perhaps of those very things which the father of the family is not allowed to make because no one will get a profit out of it. Presumably Lord Birdwood hasn't heard about these 620,000 unemployed now drawing the dole. None of them, it is safe to say, belong to the House of Lords; nor do Lords Birdwood and Home have to remember their votes at the General Election—however baseless their statements are, the noble lords are in the happy position of knowing that at the General Election they will be returned to Parliament without the vulgar necessity of being voted for.

And what about the other part of the complaint? Surely that is justified? For the Tories make a great boast of their treatment of the housing situation. Since they took office each responsible Minister had been beating his chest about his successes in housing the people: foundation-stones have been laid, ceremonial openings performed, and our ears filled with torrents of speeches about how lucky the workers are to be having so much done for them.

And the facts? For BBC television, Robert Reid investigated the housing situation in Glasgow seven years ago, when the Conservatives had just been returned to power. There were then 100,000 applicants on the town’s housing list. Last month he returned to Glasgow to estimate progress. The number now on the housing list? 126.000.

But despite these facts, it is “misrepresentation” and “false information” according to Lords Birdwood and Home—to say that Britain cannot maintain work and homes for her people.

How comforting it must be not to know the facts of life under our social system! How fine to be able to assume that because you have a home and a solid income, everyone else has too! In short, how lovely to be a Lord!

The pot speaks up
You don’t have to be a baron to know nothing about what goes on. You can be quite ignorant even if you’re only a knight.

Sir Hugh Foot, Governor of Cyprus, commenting the other day on the Eoka truce, said: “ There will be no bargaining with violence” (Manchester Guardian, 14/1/59). No bargaining with violence! If there was no bargaining with violence, there would be no politics at all. For violence—that is war and armed conflict—is only the “continuation of politics by other means,” as Clausewitz put it. Sir Hugh may have forgotten, but the country on whose behalf he rules over Cyprus not only doesn’t condemn violence as a means of solving capitalism’s problems —it has actually engaged in two colossally destructive wars on a world-wide scale within the last half-century, and is now arming so that it will not be left out if a third one begins. Sir Hugh raised no voice against the violence used by Britain in the second world war, which included dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a joint death roll admitted by the Allies to be at least 120,000. Sir Hugh reserves his condemnation of violence for the agents of the would-be Cypriot ruling class, when they use the same methods—killing and destroying—which all the capitalist powers have used to further their ends in every war they have ever engaged in. This does not justify Eoka: but a British Governor can no more complain about the violence of others than one iceberg can complain how chilly the other icebergs are.

When only the best will do
Many of the goods which crowd the shop-windows are only shoddy stuff, botched-up to sell at the cheapest price and yield the highest profit. But a Johannesburg reader sends me a cutting revealing that at least one article designed for the workers’ consumption is made to the highest specifications. The item was in the Johannesburg Star (30/12/58):-
  "Rubber batons, designed and made in the Union, will gradually replace wooden batons in the police.
   "An order for 1,000 rubber batons, which have been approved by the Bureau of Standards, has been placed with a large rubber concern."
So any unemployed South African worker, tenderly feeling his head after the dispersal of demonstrations, can comfort himself by reflecting that the lump upon it has been raised by a precision-made instrument of the first quality, and that the throb in his temples carries with it the full approval of the Bureau of Standards.
Alwyn Edgar.

General Election — Appeal for Funds (1959)

Party News from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party needs money urgently for the General Election.

In East London our members have already been working for months, preparing an all out campaign in the Bethnal Green constituency. Meetings are being held, canvassers are going from door to door, the local papers are advertising our activities.

This work is going on NOW. Every week we are spending more money in Bethnal Green—and this is only preliminary to the final attack in which the candidate’s deposit alone will cost us £150.

We have great hopes for this campaign. Last year’s LC.C. elections in the same area gave the encouragement we needed. This time we believe we can achieve still more for the Socialist cause in this constituency.

But—we only have a fraction of the money we need. If you want to strike a blow against Capitalism with us, please send whatever you can to E. LAKE, S.P.G.B., 52 CLAPHAM HIGH STREET, S.W.4, and earmark it "'Parliamentary Fund.”

We shall not hoard it. We shall spend it almost immediately on more work for the next election’s only Socialist campaign.

Letter: A Reader's Views on Russia and China (1959)

Letters to the Editors from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We have received a letter from a reader who disagrees with our attitude towards the Communist parties. The letter is reproduced below and is followed by our reply. For convenience we have numbered the sections of his letter.


Dear Comrade,

(1) I read the Socialist Standard with interest, but not always with agreement. In particular, I am not sure that you are correct in your assessments of the nature of Soviet and Chinese society. If they are "State Capitalist” and not "Socialist,” why is it that the "Private capitalist States” fear them from consideration of their social and economic nature and not merely as "imperialist rivals.”

(2) To state that a society must go through a phase of capitalist development before it can move on to Socialism is to make a dogma of Marxism and to imply that the man himself was infallible and the fount of all truth.

(3) The theory of Socialism is easy enough to understand, all that is required is some intelligence: it is not necessary that a man live in a highly industrialised capitalist society before the light of Socialism can begin to shine in his eyes. It follows therefore that a whole people, say, six hundred million Chinese, can become sufficiently enlightened to seek to establish a Socialist society even though they may not have enough industrial power to make a bloomin’ push-bike.

That is to say, political understanding may run far ahead of economic development. In that event the people take possession of their land and such industry and “means of distribution and exchange” as stand on the land, and proceed from there. That, comrade, is Socialism. They can each render service "according to his ability,” but cannot receive goods and services “according to his needs.” That, comrade, would be Communism. Why, if a Chinaman has an abdominal pain, it is unlikely if there will be a medico within a hundred miles to administer a dose of salts, but because he cannot, receive “according to his needs” it does not follow that somebody is exploiting him.

(4) It follows from this that, given this basis of society, some system of priorities must be established. They cannot all be adequately fed until they have tilled a lot of land, or adequately clothed until they have grown a lot of cotton and reared a lot of sheep.

And they cannot even make a screwdriver, let alone a motor car, until they have mined some coal and iron ore and built a blast furnace.

Meanwhile, they have to suffer great privation. That is just bad luck, but does not mean that they are being “exploited.” I have a hunch that the Chinese are doing fine. They are using every bit of machinery and tools that are at hand, and even smelt iron ore in little brick-built fireplaces.

(5) And as for the trials and “liquidations,” well, it is sheer political innocence to pretend that when the power of the workers and peasants is established that they will have no more enemies, and that the dispossessed parasites will begin to love them. It is utterly naive to imagine that capitalism can be liquidated and Socialism consolidated without a little bit of "roughness.”

Comrade, I reckon history is passing you by. Your Socialism is purist and idealistic, but bears no relationship to the stark reality of the state of the world.
E. C. Rushton.

(1) State Capitalist Russia
Our correspondent tells us that the private capitalist States fear Russia and China not merely because they are "imperialist rivals,” but from consideration of their social and economic nature. He gives no evidence for his belief and, as it happens, the man who is widely regarded as the chief exponent of opposition to Russian policy, Mr. Foster Dulles, has just told Mr. Mikoyan that the Russian system is “State capitalism.” (This is dealt with in our Editorial.)

(2) Was Marx Right?
If our correspondent wants to show that it is possible for society to advance straight into Socialism without going through the phase of capitalist development all he has to do is to show where this has happened. It is now over 40 years since the Communists came to power in Russia with the declared intention of doing this—with total lack of success.

(3) Socialism, Communism and State Capitalism
In paragraph (3) of his letter our correspondent gives a definition that will fit State capitalism, and then declares: "That, comrades, is Socialism ” He further declares that Communism is something quite different and gives it a quite different definition.

This, of course, is the piece of political trickery used by the Russian Government. It was not the view held by Marx, to whom Socialism and Communism were synonymous terms. It has never been the view of the S.P.G.B., which adhered to the Marxian view.

What is more, it was not, in the first place, the view of the Communists who gained power in Russia in 1917. When Lenin held that “State capitalism” would be a step forward for Russia he called it State capitalism. (Lenin, The Chief Tasks of Our Times.) ,

When the late Maxim Litvinoff, in 1918, told us that the Communists in Russia would “in no distant future establish a Socialist regime in Russia," he did not mean that after 40 years they would have State capitalism and would call that “ Socialism." (See The Bolshevik Revolution, 1918. Page 53.)

He was using the term as it was habitually then used by him and his fellow Communists to mean the same as the term “Communism." As late as 1923 the Communist Party of Great Britain published an English edition of "A Short Course of Economic Science," by A. Bogdanoff, and this work was declared to be the standard textbook “ in hundreds if not thousands of party schools and study circles now functioning in Soviet Russia." This work defined “the Socialist system” as “ the highest stage of society we can conceive " (p. 391).

This is quite irreconcilable with our correspondent’s version, which claims that Socialism already exists in Russia. In view of Krushchev’s recent declaration that Russia would soon abolish income tax (but not the much larger turnover tax and profits tax) it is interesting to recall that this same book said that “With the establishment of Socialism, all taxes . . . will become superfluous, because the whole of the social product, necessary as well as surplus, will be at the disposal of society, to be used for the satisfaction of its requirements" (p. 295).

When our correspondent says that he sees the light of Socialism in 600 million Chinese eyes all he means is State Capitalism, and even for that he gives not a tittle of evidence.

(4) Defence of Inequality
What our correspondent here describes as a necessary system of “priorities." because “they cannot all be adequately fed," is just a Russian and Chinese version of the defence the privileged class offers in every capitalist country for the inequality that sustains their privileged position.

Here again this modern Russian version is a glaring departure from what the Communists said in the early years. Lenin had at first laid down the principle that as an immediate step they would introduce equal wages throughout the Russian system, all officials, etc., to receive approximately the “ordinary pay of the workers." And when they gave this up Lenin said frankly that the introduction of high salaries for a minority was “not merely a halt in a certain part and to a certain degree of the offensive against Capitalism . . .  but also a step backwards." (“Soviets of Work," Lenin, April, 1918).

Now the “step backwards" to inequality has become the normal principle of what our correspondent claims to be “Socialism."

Our correspondent says, “they," the masses, “have to suffer great privation’’—but not the privileged rulers and other favoured groups.

(5) Trials and Liquidations
Here our correspondent gives us a little lecture on the necessity of “roughness" towards the dispossessed parasites, and ends with the remark that history has passed us by.

To which we may retort that it is news to us that the thousands of Hungarian workers who, 2½ years ago were shot down by the Russian army, were “dispossessed parasites."

On the contrary, the new parasites are doing very well in the new State capitalist countries wrongly called Socialist.

And when our correspondent tells us of his “hunch that the Chinese are doing fine" (though he also says the masses are suffering great privation) it is he who is turning a blind eye to the fact that over 40 years of Communist rule in Russia has produced not Socialism, but State capitalism. If the Chinese workers model themselves on the experience of Russia their efforts will prove to be equally misdirected.
Editorial Committee