Friday, August 18, 2023

Obituary: Michael Gill (2001)

Obituary from the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is with much regret that we record the death from cancer in June, at the age of 70, of Michael Gill who will be familiar to readers as our theatre critic. Michael originated from Manchester but moved to London as a young boy. He joined Edgware branch in 1950. Later his jobs took him to different parts of the country and then back to the South East, to Braintree. He was a founder member and secretary of the Colchester Branch and one of the driving forces behind the East Anglian group.

Michael was trained as an industrial chemist and worked in the chemical industry before leaving to teach in further education. For a while he was an inspector in this field from which he eventually resigned in protest. Retirement allowed him more time to devote to socialist activity and since the early 1990s he was one of the Party's most devoted and active members. He was several times an Executive Committee member, and was always willing to lend his educational expertise and diplomatic skills to various committee tasks. Among other pieces, he wrote regular theatre reviews for the Socialist Standard, the last one appearing as recently as January. A good play from a socialist point of view would earn his lyrical praise — a bad one his measured wrath.

Kind, considerate and helpful, Michael was a keen advocate, and personal exemplar, of the ways in which socialists should treat each other. As he put it in a message dictated shortly before his died and read at his non-religious cremation:
"My life has been concerned with staff development, education, socialism and change for the better in human lives. Increasingly there seems to me to be a unity between fraternity, equality, and the full flowering of human potential. And in respect of my professional concerns and political convictions, I aspire to a transformation of society to allow for the growth of fulfilled and rounded people, able to be creative, fraternal and empathetic in meeting one another's needs. I hope there is a visible coincidence between my personal, professional life and the nature of socialism. I want people who have known me in different capacities to understand the connections between my aspirations and behaviors and ways of knowing — a gestalt view across all these perspectives . . . go well."
We offer our condolences to his wife, Jan, and children.

Blogger's Note:
A further obituary for Michael appeared in the Guardian. According to the Guardian website, it was published on the 10th July, 2001.

More nationalist madness in the Balkans (2001)

From the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Late June and early July saw much tension in Macedonia, threatening once more to ignite nationalist hatreds that have ripped the Balkans apart now for almost a decade.

It was uncannily ironic that as Yugoslavia was sending former president Slobodan Milosevic to stand trial in The Hague on war crimes, a mob of 5,000 Macedonian protestors, including police, soldiers and reservists, stormed their parliament and forced president Boris Trajkovski flee in fear of his life. His crime? He had agreed to a Western brokered cease-fire with Albanian rebels and also allowed NATO to ferry rebel fighters to safety from a village they had captured six miles away from the capital Skopje. Not only was the mob furious that their government had signed a cease-fire with a movement that Nato’s own command had labelled “terrorists” and “murderers”, but here was the West once again coming to the aid of insurgents.

Ostensibly, the Albanian rebels claim to be only interested in winning equal civil rights for Albanians and constitutional changes. This however is no civil rights movement. If so, then why the armed insurgents and why do they call themselves the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA)? The answer is simple, they are nationalists bent on creating a greater Albania. They are after territorial gain and control of the porous borders which show a fair profit in drugs and arms smuggling and the lucrative trade in “illegal” immigrants. Violence and guerrilla warfare as practised by the NLA is not normally the stuff of “civil-rights” movements, which generally pursue a non-violent agenda. It is the remit of liberation forces intent on wresting territory from its present owners. What has prompted the NLA to pass themselves off as a “civil-rights” movement is NATO’s refusal to redraw the borders of the Balkans.

Moreover, why do they launch attacks on government forces? Simple – they hope to incur a heavy-handed response from Macedonian forces which would win them support from Macedonia’s Albanian population, who perhaps need a little egging on, bearing in mind their social and economic gripes, and from Kosovo – Albanians and Albania itself. They have further counted on benefiting from a similar situation when their parent organisation, the KLA, incurred such a harsh and brutal response from Serb forces that NATO was forced to intervene on behalf of the Albanians in 1998.

The risk of all-out war is serious enough. It is feared that the mob fury could now be focused on isolated pockets of Albanians in Macedonia (they make up one third of the population) now that Trajkovski has agreed to the temporary EU brokered cease-fire. At present the rebels have captured areas of territory in the west of the country and have cut off water and electricity supplies, further inciting Macedonian hard-liners in Skopje to demand armed intervention – a situation made all the worse with the rebels threatening to descend on Skopje to protect Albanians living there.

Chief protagonists of the Macedonian Slav majority, including Prime Minister Ljubco Georevski still hanker after a ham-fisted solution to the problem and perhaps the fact that the government has recently taking delivery of eight new attack aircraft – doubling the size of its air force – and that Georgevbski’s VMRO-DPMNE political party have recently handed out automatic weapons to 2000 reservists suggests they are not putting much faith in a peaceful solution to the crisis. If Macedonian Slavs, tired at the slow pace of a settlement in their favour, frustrated with the unchecked gains of the rebels, decide to even the score and attack ethnic Albanian areas, this will most certainly witness the beginning of a new wave of civil war.

 A political settlement however is still on the cards, with negotiators from the EU and NATO having set an unofficial deadline for a peaceful solution, which would then pave the way for British, French, Italian and Greek soldiers to take part in a mission to disarm Albanian rebels. The cease-fire, signed by the heads of the Macedonian army and police force as well as the NLA, consists of two linked agreements – one between the NLA and NATO and the other between the Macedonian forces and NATO, with the NLA agreeing to disarm if a political settlement can be reached.

Critics, meanwhile, warn that by acknowledging the NLA as a legitimate protagonist in debates about Macedonia’s future, the West has effectively conceded the carving up of Macedonia along ethnic lines – and this is cold comfort for Macedonian nationalists and the paramilitary groups now springing up and arguing for the expulsion of Albanians from Macedonia’s mixed communities. Many Macedonians still remain distrustful of the US, who they see as pro-Albanian following the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and are contemptuous of any Western-designed solution.

Little surprise, then, that Balkan analysts see only a deteriorating situation and one that can’t be solved by further Western solutions that sparked the storming of the Macedonian parliament.

To date the present conflict has not been as bloody as previous Balkan disagreements, but it has nevertheless resulted in 100,000 refugees who represent perhaps 5 percent of the population. It is perhaps too early to predict events in the coming weeks in Macedonia. Whilst nationalism, like the disease it is, can be diagnosed, there remains no immediate prognosis. For it feeds on fear and insecurity, alienation and ignorance which themselves can lead to irrational passions and attempts at quick-fix and spontaneous violent attempts at remedy which always prove counterproductive and detrimental to all concerned.

Nationalist conflict has raged for 10 long years in the Balkans. What, in all honesty, have any of the victors gained? What is the “independence” they yearn after, if it means being trapped within borders – artificial constructs, no, prisons – inside of the bigger prison of capitalism?
John Bissett

Mass media and mass politics (2001)

From the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Parliament is a place full of games and flippancies, so what better basis for a new drinking game? The rules are simple, sit down and watch the live-feed television channel BBC Parliament just after the election, and wait (bored beyond tedium by the irrelevancies of the place) for the swearing in of the new MPs. Simply, knock down one drink for each MP who affirms rather than swearing to God, and knock down two for each MP who clearly indicates that they don’t believe a word they’re saying – and its guaranteed after all that you’ll be as sober as a fish.

What sharp-eyed readers will have noticed, is that there is no provision for those MPs refusing to believe in the Queen. Indeed, they are not allowed to not believe in the Queen, and so must swear by her, whether they swear the oath on the Bible or “honestly and sincerely” affirm. Many see such oaths as an irrelevant anachronism, and so take them without caring about the substance. Socialist delegates sent to Parliament, too, would not allow the requirement to swear fealty to the parasite and her family to prevent them taking up their seats.

The reverence to the monarch, though, is all-pervading in Parliament, as when MPs considering “The Queen’s Speech” (i.e. the announcement of government business for the year) debate motions “humbly and gratefully” thanking the Queen for a speech she had no hand in, other than reading aloud (badly). All of which is a throw-back to the times when Parliament was simply a forum for expressing views, which could be conveyed to the person of the absolute ruler of the land, the monarch. Despite the historical changes in power, the superficial forms have been retained.

The historical hangovers, however, go further than in the simple fripperies of the place. When Parliament became open to a general franchise (i.e. read, open to the votes of the capitalist class) after “The Great Reform Act”, the 1832 general election saw 827,776 people eligible to vote. They were voting for some 658 seats, which meant at least one MP per 1,258 voters (although some voters lived in multi-member constituencies, an undemocratic practice which managed to survive until 1950 until the abolition of the University Seat.

This ratio of electors to members is more reminiscent of the ratios on modern local councils, and it would have meant that there was more than a fair chance of actually knowing (at least by sight) the person being elected. As the franchise was generally widened, the number of seats in Parliament was not (at least within the same ratio). What this effectively meant, was a diminution of the effective power of each vote. Obviously, if the number of MPs had risen with the number of voters, it would have meant a corresponding decline in the power of vote for each MP in the Commons. Our current 40 or so million voters would need around 31,000 MPs in order to have that much effective control. The point, though, is not about mathematics, or pragmatic power, but about the “quality” of the vote. In the modern constituency, it takes a huge number of electors to change, to register any sort of shift in the public mind. It also takes huge numbers of people to effect a quantitative change into the qualitative change of having a representative in Parliament.

What this approach encourages is the aggregation of voters into an undifferentiated mass, votes expressing difference or disagreement needing to be lost into the swamp of a high bar majority. This aggregation is furthered by the attempts of politicians to turn the elections into presidential style elections for a government, rather than for representatives, thus making it the sum across the whole country, resulting in one qualitative change, that of the government overall.

It’s no wonder that people feel no pragmatic connection between their voting preferences and the outcomes; and no wonder that people feel so little connection with any of the parties. All these become are technocratic career structures for advancing politicians, a platform from which to project policy ideas to be reflected off the undifferentiated mass, which has no control over what is projected, beyond passive reflection.

This process of “mass culture” has, of course, been assisted by the spread of the mass media. The social relationship is the same, a few technocratic broadcasters/media barons, projecting images and ideas to be passively reflected by a land mass of consumers. Indeed, representative politics follows the same course. Instead of abstractedly measuring response in terms of money, it reads response in terms of flat votes, formally equal but failing to register differences in value or quality.

The politics of mass powerlessness
The mass media, though, has effected another change in the political scene. Where once parliament was intended to function as a forum, representing the views and analysis of “the people”, this can now be achieved by the mass media. Whenever a story breaks, or significant events are occurring, the media produces “community leaders”, and “representatives” of consumers, fishmongers or whatever so-called “interest groups”. Thus, the media can claim to represent the divergent views on a particular topic.

This claim, however, is undermined by the fact that the media self-selects these “representatives”, and by the fact that more often than not, these representatives are not even vaguely appointed by the people they claim to represent. In selecting who can speak, the media exercises power similar to that of the medieval monarch determining who gets to sit in their parliament. Indeed, the modern mass media presents itself as a forum for the people, as the place for representation and for determining legitimacy. It is effectively a third house of parliament, the House of the Mass.

A clear example of this can be seen from the recent general election. The BBC published their broadcasting guidelines on the internet, boldly stating that Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and the assorted Nationalists were to be regarded as “major parties”, and thus entitled to technically unlimited national coverage, and anyone else could only be guaranteed the coverage of their manifesto launch if they were contesting over 100 seats. In this way, they effectively determined who was going to do better in the parliamentary elections, who got the all important media coverage.

The eighteenth century Liberal philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (whose thought Marx spent so much time criticising and adapting) postulated the ideal state as one in which an absolute technocratic ruler, freed from social interest, held power, and in which all other classes in society were recognised and represented in a parliament for/by this ruler. For such opinions he has been execrated in the past; however, his analysis finds itself borne out in the genuine movements of liberal society, for that is exactly what obtains today in modern politics.

Advisers and hangers-on maintain a stranglehold on the state apparatus, while the mass media provides a means of identifying and recognising certain interest groups within society, and constructing the playing field on which political battles are fought out. The media, though, always lies within the hands of the ruling elites, and so ensures that representation remains within the bounds of holding the existing social relations together.

Given, though, that these “representatives” only exist by and through the virtual world of the media, and only exist through the recognition of power and not through the active involvement of those they claim to represent, they can only present an abstraction of the views they claim to put forward; akin to the abstract “people” of radical bourgeois politics. As such it is the politics of mass powerlessness.

Unlike some anarchists who claim that democratic decisions represent a tyrannous act against the sovereign individual, we state that a free society can only be one in which people can directly and actively take part in politics, and concretely have their minds known through democratic voting on the ideas, rather than for representatives, to talk in their place. The important point must be that debate on issues is two way, with the full and active involvement of all parties concerned, not a one-way monologue to reflect off the enforcedly passive audience.

This all means that those engaged in political struggle must battle against the media for access and for the opportunity to air views. The opposite response, like that of those anarchists who refuse to deal with the media, leads simply to surrendering the field of political combat to the opposition.
Pik Smeet

Letters: Religion – again (2001)

Letters to the Editors from the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Religion – again

Dear Editors,

I am not sure that I would go along with all you say in your response to Tony Curry and Rachel Pass on the subject of religion (June Socialist Standard).

I would say that our primary purpose as a political movement is the establishment of socialism and that our attitude to religion should be purely governed by this objective. Looked at from this perspective, does that attitude, which seeks to justify the policy of excluding anyone with religious beliefs from membership of the Party, hinder or advance the cause of socialism?

I would say that, on balance, it hinders it. Why? Because it unquestionably turns off a large number of sympathisers who would otherwise join our movement and accelerate its growth. The counter-argument to this which you give in your response is that religion “is a weapon in the hands of our class adversaries” because it (1) acts to “divide the working class” and (2) is based on a world view “totally at odds with the working class perspective of scientific dialectical historical materialism”. I do not feel either of these arguments are sufficiently persuasive to warrant our blanket bar on all applicants holding religious views (though this might be justified in some cases).

As far as (1) is concerned, I do not see this is necessarily the case at all. Certainly one can point to examples where religion is used as a pretext for dividing the working class – look at Northern Ireland or the clash between Sinhalese Buddhism and Tamil Hinduism in Sri Lanka. But how can it possibly be maintained that a vague personal religious belief such as that there is such a thing as a supernatural lifeforce permeating the universe, really be construed as “divisive”? On any reasonable interpretation it cannot be. Surely, if religion is divisive then one way round this problem may be to make a distinction between personal religions and organised religions, so that only individuals adhering to the former may join our movement.

As far as 2) is concerned I don’t find the argument particularly convincing either. It is entirely possible for individuals to hold two theoretically incompatible sets of views without one interfering with the other. There are scientists who are Christians but whose religious beliefs do not in any way interfere with their scientific work. Similarly, one may entertain a personal religious belief (such as the above) and yet be an ardent supporter of socialism. One may wholly accept the materialist conception of history as a paradigmatic model of historical explanation and yet still believe in a supernatural entity. Besides which, I would suggest that, as far as we are concerned as a practical political movement, “metaphysical materialism” (which has to do with deeper questions of why we are here and so on) is completely and utterly irrelevant to our purpose; the only kind of materialism that is relevant to us is historical materialism which is emphatically not the same thing as metaphysical materialism.

In the final analysis, the objection to members holding religious views is that it might subvert in some way the integrity of our socialist outlook. But this objection is wholly superfluous; if it were the case that a religious outlook were antithetical to our socialist viewpoint, then this would soon enough manifest itself by the individual concerned coming in to conflict with one or other of our several principles. These principles act as safeguards to ensure the integrity of our socialist movement; our current policy on religion is redundant to this requirement and as such an unnecessary obstacle to the growth of the socialist movement itself.
Robin Cox, 
Redruth, Cornwall

We still say that socialist understanding is based not simply on a materialist approach to history (no supernatural intervention) but also on a materialist approach to the universe (no supernatural intervention there either), and also to life – this is the only one all of us are going to get, so let’s make the most of it by establishing the best material environment for it, down here on Earth, i.e the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. We readily accept that people can – and do – hold contradictory views but don’t see this as something to be encouraged by opening our ranks to them.– Editors.

… and again

Dear Editors,

The letter from Tony Curry and Rachel Pass, in your June edition expresses a criticism that I have made in the past myself. (In my case, as a Christian.) You overlook the following passage from Alasdair MacIntyre’s summary of Marx on religion, in his book Marxism and Christianity:
“At the same time, by holding before them a vision of what they are denied, religion plays at least partly a progressive role in that it gives the common people some idea of what a better order would be”.
There has always been a stream of Christian thought that stresses the coming kingdom of God and its difference from the kingdoms of this world. It therefore stands in judgment over the established political order, encouraging Christians to live by the values of the coming kingdom as a witness against that order. One example of that stream is condemned in Article 38 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England: “The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do boast”. There are an increasing number Christians who would see ourselves as heirs of those Anabaptists.

Those, such as myself, who belong within that stream of thought would echo Marx’s criticism of “religion” ourselves, on Biblical grounds, since true Christianity is not a “religion” in that sense. Religion is about humanity creating gods to help them cope with their present state. Christianity is about the true God breaking in on his creation to upset that state. He did this (we believe) above all in Jesus’ death (that of a rebellious slave) and resurrection (God’s verdict on him). You may dispute our claims about Christ, but please do not question my sincerity in saying I am socialist, a believer in common ownership under democratic control, not in spite of, but because of those beliefs.
Bob Allaway, 
London N22

We don’t challenge your sincerity. We just say you’re wrong: there is no evidence for the claims you make about “Jesus” and “God”. But thanks for identifying the article Marx must have had in mind when he said that the Church of England would give up 38 of its 39 articles rather than one-thirty-ninth of its income.– Editors.

Top class

Dear Editors,

I wish to ask a question – how best to describe collectively, what is the best term to use, to encompass “the ruling class”, “boss class”, “capitalist class”, “power brokers”, etc, etc? For when responding to pensioners in the supermarket. I am 81.

Any of the terms you use will do. We tend to use “capitalist class” and “ruling class”, though our Declaration of Principles uses “master class” which is a bit dated. We don’t recommend you use the word “bourgeoisie” in supermarket queues.– Editors.