Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Go Tell the Spartans (2005)

TV Review from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Time Commanders, BBC2, Sunday 7.45pm

There's no doubt that the rapid development of computer graphic imaging has done wonders for livening up history documentaries that used to rely on bearded men lyricising over lumps of masonry in a field. By filling in all the visual blanks it has opened up a fascinating subject to a generation of new enthusiasts who find archaeology a bore and Tony Robinson terminally aggravating. But even with CGI there's a limit to how gripping you can make an Iron Age settlement or an Egyptian temple complex. Now, perhaps inevitably, comes the adrenalin-fuelled rush of a real time video game crossover where teams of men (well, it's a man thing) take on the roles of ancient generals and refight famous battles on a huge computer screen.

In the first series Eddie Mair, normally lugubrious even on the radio, looked positively tragic as he watched suburban Essex car salesmen pretending to be world-conquering military leaders and throwing away their virtual armies in clueless abandon. In the second series Richard Hammond bounds around like a boy scout cheering on all the corking good fun and offering pointlessly inane advice like "don't let them get you in the flank!", while two dour bona-fide experts sit upstairs and witter grumpily about everything the 'generals' are doing wrong. Occasionally the teams even win, but even so it rarely seems that they have much idea what they are doing.

To anyone who imagines that historical battles were gigantic chessgames played out by masterminds this game reflects the truer historical picture, which is that battles were usually ugly and confusing messes presided over by frequently incompetent generals who were there by virtue of birth rather than merit.

The popularity of this show can scarcely have anything to do with any widespread knowledge of or interest in the history behind these battles or of the times in which they occurred. The vicarious thrill of being a general in charge of mass slaughter is perhaps bound to appeal to individuals who have no real power in society and whose only realistic experience of battle would ever be as cannon-food. It’s only a bit of fun, yet the concept is surprisingly repulsive.

All through history soldiers like these were 'spent' like so much disposable currency on the whim of human beings behaving like gods in the interests of wealth and power. For all their clockwork clone appearance these virtual soldiers are good enough to represent those historical but nameless human beings whose cruel lives and terrible deaths are being played out for our amusement. And as the graphics improve and the mutilation and gore acquire better and more prurient detail, the savagery of power and powerlessness becomes ever more poignant, and the pity of war ever more pitiable.

What really sticks in the craw and what this show inadvertently emphasizes is the thought that everything that holds meaning and value in our lives is actually meaningless and valueless to our rulers. Indeed the computer graphic algorithms reinforce this in a way since they simply create one virtual soldier and then make multiple identical copies to form the virtual armies. One can't escape the feeling that the owning class of the world must see us in largely the same way, as essentially wealth-producing bacteria without names, faces, rights or identity, cultured on their slides in order to grow them new wealth, and to be disposed of whenever we become unproductive. What is even more chilling is the idea that we ourselves might even adopt in some sense their view of us, certainly enough to fight all the savage battles of the future on their behalf. No wonder socialists oppose all wars.
Paddy Shannon

50 Years Ago: Atheism on the Air (2005)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard  

It would appear that in over 30 years of its existence the B.B.C. has never once permitted anybody to voice an opinion in favour of Atheism in any shape or form, until one evening in January when Mrs. Margaret Knight (lecturer in Psychology at Aberdeen University), was permitted to state in her broadcast on “Morality without Religion” that we should tell our children that we no longer believed in God although some people still do. She compared God with Santa Claus and referred to the Christian myths as useless for moral instruction. In her opinion if we taught children these biblical myths, when they grew up and learnt that they were at variance with the facts, they would be easy bait for Communism. The problem of evil was one point which she dealt with by declaring that an infinitely wise and all powerful God would not create evil. “If God cannot prevent evil then he is not all powerful, and if he will not, then he is not all Good.” The answer that many Christians give is that evil is man-made and nothing to do with God, or that its existence proves that man has departed from God. But here she said that there are a lot of evil things among the animals for which mankind certainly is not responsible. “The cat,” she said, “takes delight in playing with a mouse and inflicting torture on it until the mouse dies after a long drawn out and painful death.” The rest of the talk was about what she called “scientific humanism” and the education of children without the traditional religious beliefs.

The next day the Press was shocked and upset. The News Chronicle's leading article was headed “Atheism on the Air” in which it declared “Should she have been allowed to put and press her points without a balancing exposition of Christian beliefs? That is where we think the B.B.C. went wrong .” (14/1/55.)

Why this wonderful tolerant idea of a balancing exposition? Has not the B.B.C. been broadcasting religious beliefs for 30 years every day and often several times a day on all programmes and by thousands of exponents? Have they not a committee that on religious broadcasts see that we are all well soaked in traditional religious ideology?

Letters to the Press poured in by the thousand; such an hysterical outburst of injured religious pride has not been seen for a long time. 
(From an article by H. Jarvis, Socialist Standard, March, 1955)

Election News (2005)

Party News from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

By the time you read this the general election campaign might be officially under way. As announced, the Socialist Party is standing a candidate in the Vauxhall constituency in South London. Our Head Office, which is in the constituency, is serving as the campaign rooms. If you want to help get the socialist message across against the Gang of Three (Labour, Liberal, Tory: Same Old Futile Story) and their apprentices in the Green Party (and other would-be managers of capitalism such as RESPECT and VANITAS), phone 0207 622 3811 or call in at 52 Clapham High St, SW4 (nearest tube: Clapham North).

If you are connected to the internet you can also follow the campaign on a daily basis by visiting the site of our campaign blog "Vaux Populi" at

Brown Reorganises Poverty (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 
They don’t give out more money, they just give out the same money in different directions. And the more they change the systems, the less the system changes.
The Labour government is in the process of introducing new measures through the inclusion in the social security system of tax credits which more than likely will not only deter workers from claiming their full entitlement to benefits, but not claim any at all.

Gordon Brown and his team in the Treasury are trying their hardest to put over the image that these new measures are a direct assault on child poverty when in fact all they are doing is keeping the annual budget for social security stable around the figure of £100 billion, knowing full well that once it starts going over this amount his future career in politics will be on the line. So despite the fact that politicians go through the pretence of improving certain features of social security, it is nothing else than shadow boxing around the issue of child poverty. For there’s no intention, so far as this government (or any other whatever its political hue) is concerned, of doling out any new money.

By the time the full package of the current social security overhaul is completed a new means of administering and calculating entitlement to social security benefits will be in place, where the emphasis will be on the introduction of further means-tested benefits rather than on non-means-tested benefits.  Means-tested benefits, besides being far more costly to administer than non-means-tested ones, are subject to bureaucratic hold-ups where the claimant suffers the consequences of waiting anything from 6 to 13 weeks for their claim to be processed, leading to a crisis period when you’re unsure if your claim will be successful or not.
Ever since its introduction in 1948 the social security system and in particular its means-tested benefits has been notoriously associated with compulsion, complexity and confusion and it’s likely that the outcome of these changes will mean more of the same.  Indeed, for many claimants the benefits system is in total and permanent disarray where the possibility of obtaining a ‘fair shake’ in an effort to maximize their full entitlement to benefits depends on their individual skills in negotiating a legal minefield with sanity intact.
So it is no surprise that the bureaucratic nightmare associated with social security claims has resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of workers finding it is not worth the hassle.  For example, in Rhondda Cynon Taf alone, it is estimated by the census that there are some 6,000 individuals who despite being entitled to some kind of social security do not claim any whatsoever.  Nationally, there are also estimates of approximately 800,000 pensioners who fail to claim their full entitlement to a various array of benefits.  These are just some of the many reasons why £6.2 billion was returned to the Treasury in 2002-3 in unclaimed benefits. But these figures also suggest that, when considered as a whole, the barriers of compulsion, complexity and confusion are inherent to the social security system. As such they are proving to be effective bureaucratic deterrents for claimants, thus keeping the burden on the capitalist class of meeting the cost of maintenance and reproduction of the non-working section of the working class below what they have estimated. These estimates are in any event is based on a growing domestic economy and, when this is no longer the case, historically social security is hit the first and hardest.

The introduction of tax credits also includes major changes in the administration and payment of social security, and especially who is legally responsible for any mistakes that are made by either the claimants or bureaucrats. Whilst both benefits and tax credits are part and parcel of the social security system, currently the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) are responsible for the paper chase and payment of benefits, and only responsible for the administration of tax credits, whilst the Inland Revenue is solely responsible for the payment of tax credits.  Eventually, it is planned that the DWP will deal only with the administration of benefits and tax credits and the Inland Revenue with the payments of all social security and tax credits. Obviously, during this transition period there is a considerable amount of bureaucratic and legal overlap between the DWP and the Inland Revenue, resulting in further increases in the miscalculation of benefits.

Under the previous Department of Social Security, any overpayments were the responsibility of the local office to correct and if the overpayment was through a miscalculation – made by them – it effectively meant that under the law, as it then stood; the claimant was not compelled to make a repayment. Although this obvious loophole must have cost millions in lost revenue, it most certainly left many a claimant with a knowing smile every giro day. For under the previous law the claimant could not be punished or held responsible for someone else’s mistake.   The change in the law now means that the claimant is held responsible for notifying the DWP of the miscalculation even when it’s the department’s mistake.  But even when the miscalculation is corrected, the problems for the claimants – especially those on Working Tax Credit (WTC) – don’t end there for the overpayments in tax credits can go on being paid until the end of the tax year.  This means in effect that WTC claimants in particular can face a comparative mountain of debt, whether they are responsible for it or not.

But the problems for the 6 million claimants of WTC still don’t stop there. On its introduction Gordon Brown hailed it as a radical step forward in providing a stepping-stone out of the dependency and poverty trap by granting those on low wages a top-up, dependent on their circumstances. What he didn’t say was that when the claimant actually took that step to increase their financial prospects in the labour market they enter a new tax bracket, which is then calculated over the whole year and also puts them outside the scope of WTC. Which meant for the former WTC claimant who followed Brown’s advice, the Inland Revenue could in effect penalize them to the tune of £2000 to £3000 in backdated overpayments of WTC, thus wiping out any corresponding increases in wages.

For the WTC claimant it means, if they don’t want to be faced with a hefty demand from the Inland Revenue, to fine-tune any changes in the job market so that their income corresponds to the yearly tax demand. Presently, approximately 2 million claimants, or around 33 percent of the total claimants for WTC, are facing the prospect of paying these repayments within the next twelve months. If they fail to meet this deadline, which undoubtedly many of them will, they face being saddled with a further bill for the interest on the amount still owing – which is usually over the basic rate of interest charged by the banks. Gordon Brown, the CEO of Financial Operations GB plc, with a client base of 2 million, has probably created the biggest loan-shark business in Europe, feeding off the poverty of those workers who are trying their hardest to improve their means of living.
Brian Johnson

America – The Land of Bombast and Poverty. (1922)

Book Review from the June 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Review of “Men and Steel,” by Mary Heaton Vorse—published by The Labour Publishing Co., 6, Tavistock Square, W.C. 1. Price 3s. 6d.

This is a book of 185 pages dealing principally with the American Steel Strike of 1918-1919. It is written in a rather rhetorical style, and, apparently, is the work of a visitor—a visitor whose emotions were stirred by the poverty and oppression she witnessed—who went to various districts and recorded impressions received, conversations, odd statements at meetings and descriptions of places visited and people seen. While a good deal of information is given as to housing conditions in the steel towns, and oppressive actions during the strike, there is little information as to the working conditions prevailing in the steel works. At the same time there is a good deal of useful information contained in the book.

On page 17 we are told :—
 "About one-half of the steel industry is owned by the U.S. Steel Corporation. These are the figures of the Corporation’s surplus :—

The “Total undivided surplus” signifies the surplus after paying dividends and setting aside large sums for other purposes. For example, according to a further quotation by the author from the Interchurch Report (same page), it appears that in 1918 the above corporation paid over 96 million dollars in dividends, set aside over 174 millions for Federal taxes due in 1919, and still had an undivided surplus of nearly 500 million dollars !

It will be observed that the undivided surplus has risen by over 200 per cent, in six years !

When, along with the above figures, we recollect the enormous amount of watered capital usually introduced into the actually paid up capital of such corporations as the above, we can obtain a faint idea of the staggering amount of surplus value robbed from the American steel workers by the steel magnates.

On page 26 we learn :—
  ” The United States Steel Corporation’s policy as regard labour dominates the steel industry.
  ” There are, roughly speaking, 500,000 steel workers in the United States.
   ” 191,000 employees work in U.S. Steel Corporation’s manufacturing plants.
   ” 32 per cent. do not make enough pay to come to the level set by Government experts as minimum subsistence standard for family of five.
   ”72 per cent. of all steel workers are below the level set by Government experts as minimum of comfort level set for families of five. That means that three-quarters of the steel workers cannot earn enough for an American standard of living.
    ”50 per cent. of the U.S. Steel Corporation’s employees work 12 hours a day. 50 per cent. of these work 7 days a week.
    ”Steel workers work from 20 to 40 hours longer a week than other basic industries near steel communities.
      ”American steel workers work over 20 hours a week longer than British steel workers.”(*)
(*) “Interchurch Report of Steel Strike.”
Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for less than the minimum subsistence standard for a family of five ! And the steel workers, according to the author, are in the habit of having large families. It is a pity the author does not state the nature of “the level set by Government experts as minimum of comfort level set for families of five.”

Such are wages and hours in the land of “hustle”—the country to which the sweated slaves of Europe turn hopeful eyes, under the delusion that there they will be able to find the comfort and security denied them in their present surroundings. Many buoyed up by this hope have scraped together what enabled them to reach the hopeful West?—only to find disillusionment in such places as the steel towns. Experience is bitterly teaching the workers that the ugly head of capitalism is reared in practically every land under the sun.

The author of the book under review gives various descriptions of the Steel Towns. One such description is as follows :—
   “The mills of this town were on the flat river bottom. The old river banks mount steeply. The yards of the rickety frame houses slope sharply down. Melting snow had uncovered the refuse of winter. In the air was the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage. The steep yards were surrounded by ramshackle fences. At the bottom near the street heavier things had slipped down hill—discarded bed springs, coal scuttles with holes in them, rusty pots and pans, old corsets, shoes, and more tin cans. In these towns on the Monongahela refuse and garbage are not taken away. For months it rots where it lies. Spring finds it there.” Page 27.
Here is another description, this time of the steelworkers’ dwelling places in Braddock :—
   “They live some in two-storey brick houses, some in blackened frame dwellings. One set of houses faces the street, the other the court. The courts are bricked and littered with piles of cans, piles of rubbish, bins of garbage, hillocks of refuse —refuse and litter, litter and refuse. Playing in the refuse and ashes and litter—children. The decencies of life ebb away as one nears the mills. I passed one day along an alley which fronted on an empty lot. Here the filth and refuse of years had been churned into viscous mud. A lean dog was digging. Pale children paddled in the squashy filth, and made playthings of ancient rubbish. Beyond was the railway tracks, beyond that the mills. Two-storied brick houses flanked the brick street. No green thing grew anywhere.” Page 33.
Such are the districts occupied by the workers, in filthy courtyards without running water, without conveniences. As the author points out these are the only places they can occupy.
  “If a man is working in the Edgar Thompson Works, he must live in Braddock ; if he is working for the Carnegie Steel Co. in Homestead, he must live in Homestead. If you look around and try to hire a better place, you will find there is none.”
Many of the people who live in these “salubrious” surroundings have come from European villages. They went to America with high hopes, but their hopes and their health were smothered in the smoke and filth of the steel towns.

The power of capital over the lives of the workers is illustrated in a multitude of ways. The following quotation will give an idea of how the much vaunted “democracy” of America works in actual practice : —
   “The men who own the steel mills and the mines and the railways that brought the steel ore down to the water-front and the boats that carried it across the lake, own other things in Alleghany County. They control the law courts. The mounted state police are at their call. The political power—with all burgesses and sheriffs— they own also. In the steel country government is. possessed nakedly by those iron and steel masters and their friends.” Page 49.
In September, 1918, the steel workers struck. Now we have often been told of the way the Americans “get a move on things,” but an examination of the strike demands show that this evidently does not apply to the American workers. The demands illustrate a condition similar to what was general in England before the Factory Acts. The plentiful supply of emigrants to the “New World” kept flesh and blood relatively cheaper in America. It is only in the last twenty years that the American Capitalists learnt how much new men cost; the expensiveness of the shifting and ebbing of labour; the poorness, from a productive point of view, of a discontented and disaffected labour supply. Previously, in the tear and rush and scramble for wealth, they took no note of these things, but experience has at length forced this knowledge upon them, and so they have spent millions of dollars on welfare work.

The demands put forward by the striking steel workers were as follows :—
  ” (1) Right of collective bargaining.
  ” (2) Reinstatement of all men discharged for union activities with pay for time lost.
  ” (3) Eight hour day.
  ” (4) One day’s rest in seven.
  ” (5) Abolition of 24-hour shift.
  ” (6) Increases in wages sufficient to guarantee American standard of living.
  ” (7) Standard scales of wages in all trades and classification of workers.
 ” (8) Double rates of pay for all overtime after eight hours, holiday, and Sunday work.
  ” (9) Check-off system of collecting union dues.
 ” (10) Principles of seniority to apply in the maintenance, reduction, and increase of working forces.
 ” (11) Abolition of company unions.
 ” (12) Abolition of physical examination of applicants for employment.” Page 50.
Further comment on these demands is hardly needed, they speak for themselves, particularly 1, 4, 5, 6, 11 and 12.

Three hundred thousand steel workers came out on strike. Their organisation was poor; the companies controlled all news and the only means the workers had of finding out how things were going on in other districts was by the receipt of an occasional strike bulletin or, still less frequent, the visit of an organiser. Strike meetings were generally prohibited, strikers and sympathisers victimised. The constabulary was given a free hand and thousands of strikers were battered and thousands spirited away to prison to await a charge which was never preferred. The espionage system was in swing.

According to the Author the strike was killed by silence, by violence, and by the ultimate defection of one of the American skilled workers’ unions. The latter point is one upon which we have not sufficient information to form a judgment. Terrorist groups, under the name of citizens’ committees, also played their part in assisting to smash the strike.

Unfortunately the Author’s style prevents her from setting forth the facts of the situation in such a way as to enable us to form an accurate judgment of the immediate cause of the strike, its possibilities of success, and the reason for such a complete collapse in face of such solidarity at its commencement.

Of the strikers the Author writes :—
   ”They were without strike discipline, they were without strike benefits ; they were communities where no strike meetings were allowed to be held, some of the men never heard a speaker in their own language during all the strike.” Page 58.
Of the activities of the masters we learn :—
  “When the men struck violence by the police increased. The Constabulary had already become active. Now the state troopers appeared in all the steel towns. They broke up meetings. They rode their horses into the workers’ very houses. In Braddock no assemblies of peoples were permitted.
  They rode down men coming from mass. Steel workers could not assemble. They chased the children of Father Kazinci’s parish school.”


  “The idea seemed to be to terrorise the workers. There were besides deputised gunmen, Workers were arrested by the hundreds, held, and no charges preferred against them. Then they were fined.” Page 63.

  “The stories of beatings and arrests came in an endless flood. There was no end to them. Within two days one was drenched with them. In three days one was saturated. They made no more, impression. They became part of life.” Page 67.
We think we have now given a fair sample of the contents of the book under review. There are many tales of the patience and self-sacrifice of the strikers, but we have already overburdened this review with quotations.

To those who agree with “the right of the employer to do what he likes with his own,” it will give some staggering information. Generally speaking it is worth reading to obtain an idea of some of the methods used by the employing class of America against the working class of that country. It might help to remove the clouds from the minds of those who exalt “Republican America” over “Monarchical England,” and help to teach them that where capital goes, whether to Republic or Monarchy, there goes also its shadow—slavery and misery.