Sunday, July 23, 2023

Brave community (2007)

Book Review from the July 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Brave Community. The Digger Movement in the English Revolution. By John Gurney. Manchester University Press £55.

Gerrard Winstanley has a prominent place in the socialist tradition. In advocating, in 1648-1652 in the course of the English bourgeois revolution, a new social order where there would “be no buying and selling, no fairs nor markets, but the whole Earth shall be a common treasury for every man, for the Earth is the Lords’”, he was clearly just as much a forerunner of modern socialism as was Thomas More and his Utopia of 1516. In fact, he went one better than More and tried to put his theories into practice when on 1 April 1649 he and others started tilling and planting crops on (St) George’s Hill, near Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, on a communistic basis as a first step towards spreading such moneyless communities throughout England.

Gurney’s book is a detailed examination of the social, economic and political situation in the area that led to this as well as of the other individuals apart from Winstanley who were involved. The driving force of the English Revolution has been analysed as the “middling sort”, i.e. those who were neither big landowners nor landless labourers. In the countryside these were mainly tenant farmers; they had their conflicts with the lords of the manor which radicalised some of them in and around Cobham in Surrey. But it wasn’t them who became the Diggers, even if Winstanley himself was a “middling sort”.

The year 1649, as the year in which the King had been executed, was a year when to many people anything seemed possible. The previous year had seen a bad harvest and many poor people were in desperate straits. It was to them that Winstanley – whose clothing business in London had failed – preached (and this is the right word, as his motivation was both religious and practical) that God had given the Earth to everyone to be used as a common storehouse from which to feed and clothe themselves and that they should use it to produce what they needed without working for wages and without any buying and selling.

According to Gurney, Winstanley wavered between seeing this as the result of the Second Coming (in people’s hearts) that would restore the original situation of no ownership and seeing it as a practical solution of the landless poor in post-civil-war England.

The occupation of George’s Hill did not last long, only a few months till August, when local opposition from tenant farmers who wanted the land for grazing forced the Diggers to move to another site at Cobham. This lasted a little longer, but it too was over by April 1650 as a result of both legal and direct action initiated by two local landlords.

This prompted Winstanley to publish his Law of Freedom in a Platform which is a classic of socialist literature. According to Gurney, Winstanley stayed on in Cobham for the next twenty or so years as a respectable member of the local community, but by 1675 had moved back to London, apparently relatively well off and a Quaker sympathiser. He died in 1676.
Adam Buick

Ubiquitous Marr (2007)

Book Review from the July 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

A History of Modern Britain. Bt Andrew Marr. Macmillan, 2007, £25.

Some readers will find much to like about this book, written by the ubiquitous teleMarr, radioMarr and Daily Marr and based on his recent TV series on BBC2. It is entertaining, witty, good-humoured – and never boring. Others will be less keen, seeing its 630 pages as obese and garrulous, stuffed with descriptive detail but light on discussion of ideas (do we really want to pay good money to learn about Churchill “sitting in his hospital bed wearing pale blue pyjamas with a silk shirt and cardigan?”)

The book has five parts, each covering about a decade from the end of the World War II to the present time. Marr sums up the 1945-51 period: “Labour had made Britain a little more civilized and certainly fairer. But it had accomplished nothing like a revolution.” He write of “a certain vision of British socialism” and the word socialist (as noun or adjective) is used dozens of times in the book. But always it refers to Old Labour people or policies like nationalisation.

Part Two, titled “The Land of Lost Content” (meaning happiness) is about the 13 years of Tory government, (1951-64). Marr drops a few top political names (Macmillan, Home), rakes some sexual muck (Profumo, Vassall) and celebrates miscellaneous celebrities of the time (Ernest Marples, the Beatles, Sir Bernard Docker). Domestically, manufacturing industry and shipbuilding were in decline and “the growth of car mania” was under way. Internationally, Suez was a disaster, and British Empire was reducing to Commonwealth of nations.
Part Three takes us on to the years 1964-79. Andy calls this part “Harold, Ted and Jim”, meaning Heath’s Conservative government was sandwiched between the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan. Economics is one theme: the balance of payments crises, the pre-Thatcher rise of the free market, the overflowing rubbish winter of discontent (1979). Internationally, Rhodesia broke away from British rule, and the “troubles” in Ireland got worse. But Marr seems most enthused by cultural issues: legalising homosexuality, reducing censorship, the growth of the pop music and celebrity industries.

The author calls Part Four “The British Revolution” (1979-90). He means Thatcherism. It “heralded an age of unparalleled consumption, credit, show-off wealth, quick bucks and sexual libertinism.” Marr believes that Thatcher was “extremely lucky. Had Labour not been disembowelling itself and had a corrupt, desperate dictatorship in South America not taken a materialistic gamble with some island sheep-farmers, her government would probably have been destroyed after a single term.” Maybe – probably not. It’s idle speculation. More solid is Marr’s account of why Labour lost power after and took 18 years to regain it: briefly, failure to deliver on promises.

Marr lingers for six crocodile-tear splashed pages over Thatcher’s political death. The poll tax was a disaster for her. “One by one the inner core of true Thatcherism fell back.” She eventually resigned, but not before fixing John Major as her successor.

Part Five, oddly called “Nippy Metro People”, brings us up to date. First there are seven Major years and then a Blair decade. The blurb for the book talks of “the victory of shopping over politics… a culture of consumerism, celebrity and self-gratification.” Marr reviews recent economic and political events: the pound not going in with the euro, the modernisers of Labour who moved it away from the “unelectable” left. But again he gives prominence to cultural matters: the Diana cult, New Age spiritualism, celebrity glossy magazines, the costly Dome.

On the last page Marr shows his inegalitarian hand on leadership. “[We] need those optimistic politicians, the next leaders, the ones whom we’ll laugh at and abuse. And we need them more than ever now.” Speak for yourself, Andy – only sheep need shepherds!
Stan Parker

Northern Ireland: Back to power-sharing (2007)

From the July 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
What thirty years of death and destruction in Northern Ireland brought?
It was a great day at Stormont. The great and the good from many countries were there including the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Centre stage, of course, were Ian Paisley, yesterday’s ‘Never-Never’ man, now grinning like death in the apocalypse, and Martin McGuinness, yesterday’s IRA commander, expensively tailored and replete with effusive grin.

The event was generally acknowledged to be the formal end of Northern Ireland’s infamous thirty years of internecine warfare in which nearly 4,000 people were killed and some 60/70,000 injured.

Doubtless the fare was rich and the guests ate heartily. Paisley, Adams and their followers especially may have baulked somewhat at the political menu and the public exhibition of having to eat their words – admittedly, generously marinated in personal emoluments well beyond their past dreams of fulfilment. They could all be well satisfied with the price they got for their bloodthirsty ‘principles’.

Among the less great, the voting fodder who were afforded the democratic privilege of watching the circus on television, there was cynicism and utter disbelief but undoubtedly the overwhelming majority of the people of the province looked on the spectacle with differing measures of relief. If this collection of provocateurs and proxy killers was to be endured for peace – or what passes for peace in capitalist society – they would put up with it. The more thoughtful would have scratched comfort from the realisation that its not very different elsewhere.

Who better to end conflict than those who had created it? It was the First Minister in this new legislature, Ian Paisley, then a clergyman in a church of his own invention and busily engaged translating biblical inanities into mantras of political hatred, who was the principal architect of conflict for the last forty-five years.

If he had reason to hate the traditional IRA it might have been because they had publicly renounced armed struggle in 1962, thus threatening the political fabric of an Orange hegemony which was based on the threat of the IRA. Paisley’s religion and its associated politics were nourished by hatred of catholic nationalism and official Unionism’s updated response to the new political climate harboured the promise of a peace that would leave Paisleyism – the brand of bigotry that bore his name – redundant.

Ironically, Paisley’s anger at the threat of peace was shared by those republicans who abandoned the new pragmatic IRA; effectively, those on the catholic republican side who mirrored the hate politics of Paisley and his cohorts.

First killings
When the first shots and explosions in the Northern Ireland conflict occurred the Provisional IRA did not exist. On the 27 May 1966 a three-man gang of protestant paramilitaries went into the catholic Falls Road area with the intention of assassinating a well-known republican. They missed their target but they availed of the opportunity to shoot and kill a drunken catholic called John Scullion.

The circumstances of the second killing demonstrates that, despite Paisley’s bigoted ranting, inter-denomination movement in the Belfast ghetto districts had not yet reached crisis point. At 2 a.m. on Sunday 26 June 1966 four young catholics felt safe enough to go for an after-hours drink in a hard-line protestant area when they were attacked by loyalist killers; three were shot, one fatally. Later the police arrested and charged three members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Thereafter politico-religious zealots, some directly associated with Paisley, carried out explosions at four reservoirs serving Belfast and a member of Paisley’s religious sect was killed by his own bomb while attempting to blow up an electricity generating station in Ballyshannon, in the Republic of Ireland. Paisley’s close associate and fellow director of the Puritan Printing Company – who, incidentally, stood as a Protestant Action candidate against the World Socialist Party in the late 50s – was convicted on explosives charges.

By now the touch-paper of violence had been well and truly lit. The Unionist Prime Minister at the time, the condescending Captain Terence O’Neill, and several subsequent Unionist Prime Ministers tried to take the heat out of the situation with puny reforms limited by the spectre of a bellowing Paisley demanding their political heads for ‘selling out the protestant people’ but the mass torching of homes had become a grim nightly diversion of the lumpen proletariat on both ‘sides’ . The sectarian police force was overwhelmed and the British Labour government, that had allowed the pot to boil over the years, sent in the army.

Another terror element
This was the period of the so-called Cold War and in the higher echelons of the British army there were those who adhered to the ‘Eastern School’ of military strategists. Their thesis was based on the notion that the balance of terror represented by nuclear warfare made conflict between the two major power blocs improbable. Instead, ‘the enemy’ would make war by proxy, exploiting areas of local conflict and potential conflict.

The main protagonist of this doctrine was Brigadier Frank Kitson, then a senior officer serving with the British forces in Northern Ireland and responsible for key elements of army strategy. Kitson had served in Aden where the practice of army sponsored gang-and-counter-gang operations had been operated unsuccessfully against the two opposing nationalist forces fighting the British there. The evidence of collusion in sectarian killings levelled against the army over the years in Northern Ireland are consistent with the working of such a policy.

The entry of the British army brought another element of terror into the Northern Ireland conflict. Not only was the army bereft of any ultimate political objective, it was heavily influenced by some officers who perceived a local conflict in absurdly wider terms, and, despite the evidence of then current happenings, its intelligence base was that of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a notoriously anti-nationalist paramilitary police force.

The IRA (later called the Official IRA), wanted no part in a sectarian war and to its credit initially refused to release weapons to its Belfast and Derry members to use against protestant workers who were loyalists. In the wings a small group of republicans were endeavouring to create a movement that would offer armed resistance to loyalists. Their efforts were sustained by the bigoted posturing and naked aggression of Paisley, the partiality of the RUC, and the crass stupidity of the military strategists.

In July 1970 the army put a ring of steel around part of a nationalist area in west Belfast, declared a curfew, brutally confined people to their homes and killed four civilians. The curfew lasted over the week-end during which houses were systematically searched . On the Monday the media showed the destruction the troops had wrought. That destruction could be said to be the birth pangs of the Provisional IRA; the republican sectarians now had an army and a surfeit of recruits.

It would be naive to believe that the reckless move on the part of the army – a move which could only give emotional muscle to those promoting a return to militant republicanism – was an act of military stupidity, but in the background there were events which explain why the London government, which, as always, were the puppet masters of the generals, permitted the move.

The previous month had seen the return of the Tories – the Conservative and Unionist Party – to power in Britain. This gave the Ulster Unionists – the Tories’ political cousins – a more sympathetic ear at Westminster and in Northern Ireland the Ulster Unionist Prime Minister, James Chichester Clarke, was in serious trouble and inevitably Ian Paisley was prominent among those creating that trouble.

Go, so I can take your place
Paisley had led a strident crusade against Clarke’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill, because O’Neill had shown a willingness to remove some of the notoriously undemocratic practices used to consolidate Unionist political hegemony; practices which affected the working class in general but which catholic nationalist leaders nourished as purely anti-catholic grievances.

Paisley had raised the slogan ‘O’Neill Must Go!’ and it found sufficient response among the backwoodsmen of the Unionist Party to force O’Neill’s resignation. Now his slogan was ‘Clarke Must Go!’ The legend for Clarke’s proposed exit was because the writ of the sectarian Unionist Party did not run in some nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. Again, Paisley’s activities were causing tremors within the Unionist Party whose Standing Committee was summoned to debate Clarke’s fate. Five days before that debate was scheduled to take place the army carried out its ruthless attack temporarily removing the sting from the Paisley threat.

Others who took on the Prime Ministerial role and later the role of First Minister had to ‘Go! before the present incumbent – Paisley – got the job.

By now, of course, the Provisional IRA’s murder campaign was in full swing endorsed by the notion that they were fighting a war to drive out the Brits but inexorably they were drawn into tit-for-tat sectarian killing. Additionally, they murdered catholics and protestants in any way tenuously associated with the British administration – numerous in an economy where public money underwrote some 60 percent of all jobs. Especially ruthless and cowardly, the Provisionals forced non-combatants to fight their dirty war by forcing them by threat to themselves or their families to deliver bombs to determined targets.

The IRA and the protestant paramilitary gangs as well as the duplicitous ‘security’ forces were killing people with military ordinance. Paisley brought death and disorder by threats and phantom battalions of red-bereted ‘defenders’ and midnight squadrons of men waving their government-issued firearms certificates.

Now Paisley’s DUP and the IRA’s Sinn Fein are together in government. Sane people can only hope that the electorate put them there because it was the despicable price that had to be paid for peace – for the game was always about power – even in Mother Erin’s British-subsidised Fourth Green Field.

Ironically, Paisley’s antics over the last 40 years have done more to emaciate Unionism’s power base than the IRA; conversely, Sinn Fein is now an integral part of the political structures its murder campaign was supposed to destroy.

It is reasonable to ask what the working class got in return for its suffering, for the victims – the killed and the killers, the mentally and physically maimed, the prisoners – were, as always, overwhelmingly of the working class. The media clarions our reward; we are going to get peace, we are told. The agencies that were making war have gone into partnership – showing once again that peace and war emanate from the same source.

Meanwhile real power will not reside in Stormont, or London, or Dublin. It will reside in the cheque books of the billionaires and the multinational consortiums whose profit considerations will decide the priorities. Ultimately it is their writ that determines how we live in latter-day capitalism – even, indeed, if we live.
Richard Montague