Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A ‘Socialist’ Leader (2005)

From the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Bertie Aherne calls himself the last ‘socialist’ in Irish politics, but the media don’t take him seriously and neither, argues Kevin Cronin, should we
In November of the year gone by, Bertie Aherne, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic Of Ireland, celebrated his tenth anniversary as leader of Fianna Fail, the largest party in the state and the dominant partner of the current coalition government. Such occasions are meant to inspire reflective contemplation and Aherne used the event to announce publicly that he is and always had been a socialist. Indeed he further claimed that he was ‘one of the last socialists left in Irish politics’ and always had ‘a very socialist view of life’. This point was embellished in a number of subsequent interviews where he pronounced that the current regime ‘was the most left-wing government in the country’s history’, was ‘the party of real workers’ and as evidence for all this said that the government’s actions ‘helped spread wealth more evenly’ and simultaneously ‘helped the deprived’. This barrage of nonsense was crowned with some rhetorical philosophy where Aherne gave his definition of socialism: ‘What is the best form of equality? It is the fact that the richest family in the area can go on a Sunday afternoon to the [publicly owned] Botanical Gardens and the poorest can too, for free!’. Actually with this last statement, though with an entirely different intention in mind, Bertie Aherne had unwittingly stumbled towards a rudimentary but crucially correct definition of Socialism; free access to everybody of everything.

To the media commentators all of this was a welcome ‘bit of sport’. The ‘coming-out’ of Aherne wasn’t taken seriously amongst the pundits and rival politicians treated it with derision. There is a good reason for this. Aherne has built a formidable reputation for himself for his innate cunning, adroit manoeuvring and endless ability to wrong foot opponents. His sudden revelation of his socialism was seen very much in this vein. Bertie Aherne was first elected to the Dail (Irish Parliament) in 1977 and within a few years achieved ministerial rank. He held a number of important cabinet positions before becoming Taoiseach in 1997. Due to the electoral success of Fianna Fail, he has more or less been at the summit of the power pyramid for the last 20 years. However in the most recent local and European elections his party did badly, being perceived (quite justifiably) as having implemented policies that proportionally benefited the wealthy and making Ireland one of the more unequal societies in the developed world. Of particular concern was the loss of votes from their urban ‘working class’ electorate to the growing Sinn Fein movement with its leftist pretensions. Aherne’s announcement was generally considered to be a cynical and tactical exercise to reposition Fianna Fail leftwards for the general election that is expected in 2007. Much populist rhetoric can be anticipated combined with paltry amendments to the social welfare codes and other ‘caring’ aspects of government policy. Needless to say, the rich financial backers that Aherne has cultivated over the years won’t be alarmed, knowing that these games are part of ‘democratic politics’ and won’t seriously threaten their position.

One accidental outcome of this whole episode has been the raising of the question ‘what is socialism?’ as a public issue, something which many people thought was moribund. This occurred because the ‘real’ socialists in Irish politics couldn’t stand by while Aherne shamelessly grabbed the proletarian spotlight. First up was Pat Rabbitte, leader of the Irish Labour Party. Pat’s freedom of manoeuvre was limited because he is currently engaged in building a potential rival government alliance with a variety of decidedly pro-business parties. So rather than engaging in any serious policy or ideological debate with Aherne, which could in future times embarrass him more than the Taoiseach, he restricted himself to a few sarcastic cracks at Aherne. The next challenge came from Joe Higgins, sole member in the Dail for the so-called Socialist Party (formerly Militant). Joe set a test for Bertie asking for his views on public ownership, imperialist invasions and social equality. While the nature of these questions betray the Trotskyite nature of the ‘Socialist Party’, at least they were an attempt to tie down in some definite form what socialism could mean. In response to these questions, Aherne waffled through a garbled analysis about ‘extreme communism’ confirming to any observer that for Aherne at least ‘socialism’ is just a convenient phrase to be aired for a while when convenient and then, having served its purpose, quickly forgotten about.

Finally, Kieran Allen, editor of the Socialist Worker was given an opinion slot in the newspaper the Irish Times  to give his perspective. The article began well, pointing out that under capitalism we vote every four to five years on ‘how to run the country’ but that’s the end of our input into the organisation of society. In continued in this sensible course by explaining that the former regimes of Eastern Europe were not socialist and also talked about the growing power of multinational firms in a globalized world and the enormous remunerations that their CEOs receive. However, it then degenerated into into proposals for nationalisation of development land, taxes on wealth to fund the health service and taking banks into public ownership. Ironically, although Kieran Allen presumably thought that with these last three ideas, he was illustrating the gulf between his and Aherne’s definition of socialism, what Allen missed is that Aherne himself with a lifetime of political expediency behind him would have no ideological problem with any of these suggestions if that’s what it took to stay in power.

We in the Socialist Party were not invited to give our views on this issue. We could send Aherne a copy of our pamphlet Socialist Principles Explained, though without any great optimism that it would be read. Nonetheless the affair does indicate that after almost ten successive years of Aherne and the Celtic Tiger and the complete absence of genuine alternative political analysis by the mainstream media, the issues thrown up by society continue to perplex our leaders, forcing them into opportunistic radical poses.
Kevin Cronin

Torturers 'R' US (2005)

From the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Can belief in God help to nullify the effects of pain? This is the objective of an experiment to be carried out at Oxford University and funded by the US (where else?) John Templeton Foundation, which will subject volunteers/victims to painful experiments in an effort to determine whether faith in a deity will make pain more bearable.

The report (Times 12 January) goes on to say how the two-year study, headed by neurologist Susan Greenfield, will be undertaken at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (well, they could hardly call it "Torturers 'R' US"). It will measure people's neurological responses as they are exposed to religious symbols while being tortured in order to "determine the efficacy of their faith in helping them to cope". The aim of this is apparently to develop new approaches "for promoting wellbeing and ultimately maximising individual human potential", although how this can be achieved by torture is (pun intended) mind- blowing.

Now far be it for socialists to advocate torture in any form; however, purely in the interest of science and more importantly, since these people are actually volunteering for this experiment, may we suggest that these sanctimonious bible-bashing nutters be strapped down and subjected to a continuous playing of Cliff Richard's abominable "Millenium Prayer."

Should these volunteers be heard screaming "Jesus Christ" at the top of their voices, this should not necessarily be interpreted as an exaltation of their faith in some alleged god.

Settling for what you don't want (2005)

Book Review from the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rehearsals for Change: Politics and Culture in Australia’. By Dennis Altman. Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network, 2004

It looks encouraging that the index to this book has about 20 references both to socialism and Marxism. Unfortunately from a socialist point of view, this is deceptive.

The author sees himself as an actor in rehearsals for change, but when it comes to the performance itself he proves to be no revolutionary. His subject is politics and culture in contemporary Australia. Like the “vote Labour with no illusions” brigade in Britain, he believes that “a Labor government will probably disappoint those of us who want radical change, but it will be more susceptible to pressures from the left than is a conservative government.”  So for the author it’s the old choice between the lesser of two evils. Don’t go for what you really want — settle for the least unpalatable version of what you don’t want.

Altman knows “There are strong pressures on the ALP (Australian Labor Party) to accept the need to cut back on its aspirations and become an alternative manager of recession.” Actually Australian capitalism is doing rather well in its own terms — the conservatives (Liberal Party) recently won their fourth election in a row. Maybe the ALP has something to learn from Blair about how to appeal to the electorate as the best alternative to run capitalism.

Altman believes “there is a real need for a full re-evaluation of what we mean by socialism”, but his own contribution to that end is, to say the least, not very helpful. He writes of “two conflicting tendencies, centralized control, planning and governmental direction, [and] the maximum freedom consistent with social goals.” He correctly sees that the first tendency results in highly authoritarian state capitalism. However, because it is sometimes described as socialism he appears willing to accept that aim without question.

The best thing about this book is not its view of the future — which lacks inspiration and imagination — but its analysis of the present.  Altman quotes R W Connell: “Class society exploits most of the people within it, is profoundly irrational in its use of resources, and violent in its response to threats.”  He adds that whereas capitalism’s major need was once for a disciplined workforce, the average person now needs to serve the system as both worker and consumer.
Stan Parker 

Opera Winning Free? (2005)

TV Review from the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jerry Springer — The Opera Live at Cambridge Theatre Jan 8, 10.00pm, BBC2

Nothing is more likely to revive a flagging and esoteric artform than notoriety, and with a record 47,000 complaints to the BBC before it was even screened, Jerry Springer — the Opera has probably done more for opera in modern times than any number of Magic Flutes and Traviatas, even if the music wasn't quite that good. From the moment the curtain went up and the choir opened with 'She gave good head, slurp slurp, that chick with a dick' you just knew this wasn't art wearing a black tie, more a leather gimp outfit.

Who would have thought of doing a musical send-up of confessional TV? In retrospect, it was begging to be done, for this was a sassy, strutting, lewd and outrageous work of genius. Amidst the riotous satire of Act 1 was a man wearing a nappy proclaiming to his wife 'I want to be your ba-by!', a song and dance act from the Ku Klux Klan that was a nod to 'Springtime for Hitler' in Mel Brooks' The Producers, and a serial polygamist wife-beating trailer-trash whom the singing 'audience' lovingly taunt as an 'inbred three-nippled cousin-fucker'. Even commercial breaks are included on high floating screens, with the choir snapping off superb one-liners for liposuction, fast food and Prozac. Buried in the farce there are poignant hints of the real tragedy behind the lives of people who go on these shows, as a woman snarls to her psychotically religious mother 'You are just a sack of misery / Everything you touch turns to cancer', and vicious, stabbing sarcasm against the couch potato culture that has supplanted vitality with vicariousness: 'We eat, excrete and watch TV / And you are there for us, Jerry'. At times the show achieves genuine, almost Ole Man River pathos, as for instance when overweight trailer-trash wife who wants to be a pole-dancer sings a beautiful aria in these words:

‘I don't give a fuck no more / if people think I'm just a whore. / I wanna do some living / Cos I'm so tired of dying / I just wanna dance.’

Most of the complaints, by people who hadn't seen the show (of course), were about swear words (naturally), amplified by the Daily Mail (who else?) using the ingenious device of multiplying each word by every member of the 27 strong choir who sing it, thus achieving a total of 8,000. The rest of the fuss was over Act 2, a somewhat superfluous attempt to string out an already worked idea, which featured a dying Jerry Springer being forced by the Devil to conduct a show in Hell in an attempt to reconcile Satan with Jesus. Jerry, alarmed, turns briefly into WC Fields: 'I don't want to serve in Hell. At this stage in my career that would be a sideways move.' The reconciliation doesn't work, of course, as Springer had warned: 'I don't solve problems, I just televise them' and in classic confessional tradition degenerates into a multiway row between Jesus, Satan, God, the Virgin Mary and the audience. All very amusing, but the Christian objectors were too egocentric to see that this wasn't really the point of the opera at all, even if the religious hysteria that resulted certainly did wonders for publicity. The point was to confront Springer, Scrooge-like, with the consequences of his show, the real broken lives out of which he profits. How does he sleep at night, we are invited to ask? Only mildly chastened by an harangue from a dead woman with a monkey-wrench in her skull, he muses: 'A person with less broadcasting experience might feel responsible', but his real philosophy is summed up by his warm-up man (aka the Devil): 'You and I both know they're scum' and in the event he is exonerated even by the scum themselves: 'Jerry is not to blame / With or without Jerry's show / We'd all end up the same'.

The BBC deserves particular credit for not quailing under the religious onslaught, including direct action threats and a private prosecution for blasphemy, especially given the recent decision to pull another play about an abusive Imam after complaints from Moslems. London readers can see this sell-out show live, if they can get a ticket, while the rest of us have to hope the BBC has got the cojones to screen it again. It may not analyse class, it may not offer hope for the future, it may be just a tad elitist in its targets, but this is blistering stuff all the same, and satire doesn't get better. It's also the best performance David Soul's ever given.

Paddy Shannon

World War, Not Class War (2005)

Theatre Review from the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Journey's End' by R.C. Sherriff. The Duke of York's Theatre, London.

Once there was a war in which men walked into battle kicking footballs, with rum on their last dying breaths, lead by officers in riding breeches carrying silver-topped canes.

Whilst equal through the sights of a Maxim gun, in the last analysis class separated them as effectively as no-man's-land kept them apart from the enemy. Although the ordinary Tommy or Hun possessed some degree of loyalty to their officers, class underpinned all social relationships to the extent that the average soldier often felt more in common with his enemy counterpart than with his own superiors.

This, of course, was the First World War, in which R. C. Sherriff's play Journey's End is set. As a teenaged officer, Sherriff saw action at the Somme and later at Passchendale where he received a 'Blighty' (was wounded badly enough to be sent back to Britain). Thus his play has what Remarque's contemporaneous All Quiet on the Western Front also has: the authority of first-hand experience. Indeed, the believability of the play is one of its strengths. Set solely in a front-line dug out, the story concerns the relations between a group of officers as they await the start of Germany's 1918 Spring offensive. Raleigh, a rosy-cheeked 18-year-old fresh from the playing fields of Eton or Harrow, meets Stanhope, his childhood hero from school and now a hard-bitten whiskey-driven veteran of 21, who immediately resents the return of the fawning teenager into his life. The laid-back leadership style of 40-year-old Osborne, 'Uncle' to the youngsters, affects a calming influence as he comes between the petulant youngsters like a relentlessly understanding class tutor. 'Dear old Uncle, tuck me up', says an exhausted Stanhope from his bunk and in a moment of tenderness it's as if a patient father is putting to bed his straying but essentially decent son. The play concludes with a touching reconciliation between Stanhope and Raleigh before the naïve youngster's inevitable death.

But a play about the officer class would not be complete without its representatives of the common soldiery. After all, the officers need their servants and clowns as much as Shakespeare's aristocrats needed their Bottoms, Pistols and Porters. Sherriff gives us Trotter and Mason, the former a mercilessly chirpy Cockney promoted from the ranks to officer status who walks eye-deep in hell with a song and a smile; the latter the dug-out dogsbody treated like a servant even in these conditions and whose lines mainly concern the dietary requirements of the officers. There is something comical about these two characters, something of the Sam Weller 'wery pleased to make your haquaintance, sah', something you are meant to laugh at. This only may be to provide some light relief for the fraught situation, but you are not meant to laugh at the other characters — you are meant to understand and empathise with them. Being working class, at best they are shrewd but, lacking the formal education of the others, contribute little to the gravitas of the play other than to make remarks such as 'these hapricots is gorn orf, sah'. One would not want an Owen to walk into the trenches to teach Tommies socialism, however, for it would not work in the context of the play. Journey's End after all is concerned solely with the officer class and so there is not the space for serious and intelligent working class characters (whereas there is in Miles Malleson's D Company and Black Ell). Unfortunately, 75 years after the play opened, there still seems little room for serious and intelligent working class characters in theatre, film and TV. But that's another story.

Despite this, Sherriff's play is a powerful and memorable piece of theatre which succeeded to entertain and move its audience. Whilst relegating the noticeably working class characters to minor or frivolous roles, it does offer what is probably a faithful account of upper-class men at war.
Nick White

Greasy Pole: Toadies And Rebels (2005)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Naughtier readers of the Guardian enjoy a weekly item which delights in exposing the sickening antics of the Top Toadies – New Labour MPs who unfailingly toe the Blairite line in the hopes of ensuring the continuity of their ambitions. To justify this behaviour, appalling as it is to anyone concerned to debate political solutions to society’s problems, grovelling Labour Members may refer to the experiences of two ex-MPs, both Tory, who died recently.

Anthony Meyer was known as a “natural” MP in the sense that he did not foresee, nor perhaps want, promotion – which made it easier to be a rebel. Of course it always helps in this to have a secure background. Meyer’s grandfather was a wealthy banker and his father vice-chairman of the De Beers diamond cartel. Meyer went to Eton and Oxford and after the war he joined the Foreign Office, posted to embassies in Paris and Moscow. In 1962 his career plans were changed when on the death of his mother he inherited the family wealth. His background made him an ideal Tory candidate and he was nominated to contest Eton and Slough in 1964 against Fenner Brockway, whose role in the Labour Party was to re-assure doubters that, in spite of everything their party did, it still had principles and a conscience which somehow, sometime, could be nurtured into flower.

A local Tory advised Meyer to flavour his election campaign with some discreet but unmistakable racism; he rejected this idea and went on to scrape home by a majority of eleven. He had had hardly any time to savour his victory when Harold Wilson cashed in on Labour’s popularity to call another election in 1996, where Meyer lost to Joan Lestor, who should have known better than to embark on a wretched career as a Labour politician. Adrift without a constituency, Meyer was not above using the Etonian connection to get himself selected for another, his old friend Nigel Birch’s seat at West Flintshire. Finally, he represented Clywd North West.

Soon after he arrived at Westminster Meyer clearly asserted that he did not regard toeing any party line as being essential to an MP. Aside from upsetting a lot of his fellow party members with his ardent support for British capitalism joining the European super market, he opposed the Conservative government over the Westland affair, the Poll Tax and Reagan’s bombing of Libya. In amongst a storm of jingoist hysteria, he stood out against the Falklands War, putting to shame Labour MPs, including their leader Michael Foot, who supported the war. This is not to say that Meyer was what is called a left-wing Tory; he opposed sanctions against the Smith regime in Rhodesia and after losing at Eton and Slough he subsidised and published Solon, a magazine for “intellectuals” on the Right.

But a consistent pre-occupation for him was his opposition to Thatcher. He found her performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, which so delighted the more slavish Tories in the Commons, “an increasingly sickening spectacle”. As the pressure on Thatcher built up Meyer was involved in the movement to challenge her leadership in an election. Thatcher described this group as “a range of back benchers who for various idiosyncratic reasons, or because they had been denied or removed from office, would be happy to line up against me”. In 1989 there were more likely candidates than Meyer but they would not stick their neck out at that stage so he got himself nominated. Predictably, he lost with only 33 votes but an ominous total of 60 Tory MPs did not vote for Thatcher and a year later she was persuaded to go after another election “victory” had left her mortally damaged. For his part in denting the apparent invincibility of the Iron Lady, Meyer was pronounced second only to Mikhail Gorbachev in a Man of the Year contest – which did not persuade the Tory party in Clywd to keep him as their candidate.

Meyer’s privileged upbringing was not available to Nicholas Scott who, without being one of the more obnoxious toadies, did show a certain readiness to adjust what he called his principles as the price of a place on the Tory Front Bench. He probably thought he was projecting the humane face of Conservative government — which in July 1974 ensured that Time magazine unwisely named him as a future world leader. He did not go to public school or university and his early career was in marketing and advertising. However when he was told that “all the prettiest girls are in the Young Conservatives” he felt an exciting new career beckoning. He rose through the ranks of the Young Tories and his local council to get into the Commons in 1966 for Paddington West. An early marker for him was his opposition to the Callaghan government restrictions on Asian immigrants from East Africa, which was a shamefully cynical reversal of Labour’s opposition to similar measures by the Tory government in 1962. (Scott himself also backtracked on this issue in 1972 when, as a Home Office Minister, he had to promote such limits.)

As a close supporter of Ted Heath, Scott held a variety of ministerial jobs until in February 1974 he lost his Paddington seat. In the general election of October that year Scott won easily in unwaveringly Tory Chelsea, although his reputation for extra-marital affairs did not go down well with all sections of the local party. ”Can a man who breaks his marriage vow be trusted as a politician?” snarled one of them, displaying the customary delusions about of the nature of both marriage and political parties. Now restored to the Commons, Scott held a succession of lower-rung posts, in some of which he both caused and endured a measure of embarrassment. During his time at the Northern Ireland Office, responsible for the prisons there, he had to answer for a mass IRA break-out from the Maze. Later, as a minister for the disabled, he chose to deceive the Commons about the government’s part in wrecking a private member’s Bill of Rights for the disabled. His discomfort was heightened when his daughter, who was a lobbyist for the disabled, denounced his trickery: “Professionally” she stormed “I think (for him to resign) would be the honourable thing to do. Professionally I am very angry. Personally I feel rather let down”. Caught bang to rights, Scott did as his daughter suggested.

As the storm clouds gathered over him, Scott began to look increasingly vulnerable. He did not help himself when he walked away from a road accident in which he shunted his car into another, trapping a pram holding a three-year-old child. Scott had to face three charges of drink driving. If he had been what is known as an ordinary member of the public he might have found himself in gaol; but as an extraordinary Member of Parliament he was merely fined and banned from driving. As if that was not enough, a short time later at the Tory conference in Bournemouth the police found him face down in the gutter and were not impressed by his excuse that two glasses of wine had not mixed happily with the pain killers he was taking for a bad back. The constituency activists in Chelsea decided they had had enough and he was de-selected. That was the end of the prospective world leader’s political career. “Well,” he said, “If you can’t take a joke you should not be in politics”.

While all this goes on capitalism, which is not a joke, continues to exert its misery and distress on its people. In this country the deputy prime minister’s office recently reported a seven per cent rise in homelessness last year. The charity Shelter said this represented 230,000 people without a proper home; the charity Crisis put this as high as 500,000. Abroad, as a normal event without the intervention of some great natural disaster, 30,000 people die every day of preventable causes; the effects of poverty kill a child every three seconds. In that perspective, what does it matter if capitalism’s leaders are toadies or rebels?  Meyer and Scott were once hailed as future leaders of capitalism. Now they are properly  footnotes in the system’s grisly history.