Thursday, November 16, 2023

Letter: Chomsky replies (2020)

Letter to the Editors from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some truth to it, but wrongly put. I’ve never adopted the curious new concept of ‘lesser evil voting’ and have argued strenuously that even raising the notion, as is done here, is a sellout to the establishment. For the left, politics is activism, daily. Every once in a while an event comes along called an ‘election’. A genuine leftist asks whether some candidate is so awful that it’s worth taking a few minutes to vote against them, and if it is, does so, and then goes back to work.

Noam Chomsky in reply to ‘Lesser Evil’ article in October Socialist Standard.

But, unless this is just going to be a private gesture, it will involve much more than just a few minutes, won’t it? If you really want to stop the most awful candidate you need to work out who amongst the other candidates has the best chance of winning instead, even if there is another candidate standing who is less awful. And then you need to urge others to vote for your chosen anti-most-awful candidate. Which is what you have been doing, urging voters, at least in the swing states, to vote for Biden and not to vote, for instance, for the Green Party candidate. We would have thought that this is precisely ‘lesser evil’ politics. If we are talking of gestures, a more principled one would be to cast a write-in vote for socialism. 

Trump and lying as a tactic (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The reign of President Trump in the United States has been characterised by open deceit. Many of his opponents berated the media for not calling his lies outright lies, but even when they have, it has not scratched the levels of support he possesses among his millions of followers. A recent example was following the revelations, in the Bob Woodward recorded interviews, that Trump had tried to downplay the seriousness of Covid 19, while knowing full well the danger it posed (as he later found to his cost). His team’s response was to announce that Trump had never played down the seriousness of Covid, despite him – on tape – saying he would and the plethora of public statements that can demonstrate that he did. That does not matter, they are sticking by the lie.

As Gary Kasparov, former Soviet chess grandmaster, has had occasion to point out, the purpose of such lies is not just to deceive, but to prove loyalty by seeing who is willing to swallow their pride and utter deliberate untruths that they know not just to be untruths but unconvincing ones at that. Kasparov had experienced this first hand in the Soviet Union and under Putin. It is an exercise in raw power. It promotes the cult-like following President Trump has whipped up.

Of course this is nothing new. As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology:
‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it’.
Those ideas, necessarily, are going to serve that class (and they are by no means homogeneous and uncontested within the ruling class and between contending classes). To the extent that they present the interests of the ruling class as the interests of the whole of society, they are inherently deceitful (but not necessarily consciously so).

This accounts for so much of the noise around Trump: as a billionaire capitalist who surrounds himself with millionaires, centimillionaires and the billionaire Betsy DeVos, and who took the reins of power from the career politicians, he refuses to think and act like a career politician with the sensibility and decorum usually demanded of a candidate or office holder. The Democrats who find Trump uncouth are precisely the technocrats Noam Chomsky warned about in his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals, who believe that ‘the age of ideology is ended, supplanted, at least in the West, by a general agreement that each issue must be settled in its own terms, within the framework of a Welfare State in which, presumably, experts in the conduct of public affairs will have a prominent role’. (

Those ‘experts’ dominated the Clinton, Blair and Obama governments. As the late David Graeber pointed out, they represented the ‘peculiar fusion of public and private, market forces and administrative oversight, the world of hallmarks, benchmarks, and stakeholders that characterizes what I’ve been calling centrism is a direct expression of the sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes’ ( Professional-managerial classes who value procedure over substance, the upshot of which is worth quoting at length:
‘All this also helps explain the otherwise mysterious popular appeal of the disorganized, impulsive, shambolic (but nonetheless cut-to-the-chase, get-things-done) personas cultivated by men like Trump and Johnson. Yes, they are children of privilege in every possible sense of the term. Yes, they are pathological liars. Yes, they don’t seem to care about anyone but themselves. But they also present themselves as the precise opposite of the infuriating administrator whose endless appeal to rules and demand for additional meetings, paperwork, and motivational seminars makes it impossible for you to do your job’.
The anger against the infuriatingly anodyne procedures designed to smother conflict in the workplace and society lies behind much of the willingness to submit to the enthusiastic lies of Trump. Added to this is the conviction that Trump’s Democrat rivals are themselves pathologically dishonest (albeit they prefer more plausible lies).

Some of this stretches back to Trump’s role in ‘birtherism’, the unshakable belief that Barack Obama wasn’t really American enough to be president (despite production of his birth certificate). But it also goes back further to things like 9/11 Truth, and the refusal to believe the ‘official story’.

His most fervent acolytes have been found through incidents like the  Pizzagate furore (the belief that high ranking Democrat officials were meeting at a Washington DC pizza restaurant that was a front for human trafficking and paedophilic abuse). It was totally false, but one man decided to take action, and attack the restaurant. There has also been an arson attempt. The man claimed to believe he was freeing the children

This story has since merged with QAnon. Q is a putative member of the Whitehouse staff, leaking the ‘real’ agenda to the Trump administration. It is best summarised by the Wikipedia entry:
‘QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling them, leading to a “day of reckoning” involving the mass arrest of journalists and politicians. No part of the theory is based on fact’,
Q posts gnomic comments on various right-wing communities boards, and his followers seek to decode them, believing that Trump is playing a long game against entrenched powerful interests, until the day they will all be arrested and tried. His lies are part of that game against the corrupt officials who infest Washington.

Q followers post on Twitter under the hashtag #WWG1WGA (‘Where we go one, we go all’) as a sort of rallying cry. They also post a lot under #SaveTheChildren. The centrality of the paedophilia claims is curious. Certainly, it is common to impute absolute immorality to opponents. In this instance, partly, it is a method to gain support by finding people who will be upset by the horror of child abuse. It is also likely that this is an imaginary sublimation of the idea that their enemies are taking something precious away from them, and children are the most precious thing most people possess (as well as being metonymically linked with vitality and the future).

Dan Olson, in his YouTube video, In search of flat Earth, puts forward the analysis that the QAnon believers are actually engaged in a form of violence. Their whacky ideas are not about debate but about forcing people to choose sides (firstly by weeding out adherents who don’t buy the theory wholesale, then by closing down debate with anyone who tries to argue with them factually). QAnon is a refusal to see a structural problem, instead believing the system itself is being subverted by infiltration, which must be fought by any means necessary, including outright conscious lying. They want to shut up the critics of the system.

Trump turned himself into a danger to the world by clamping down on US state-sponsored climate science. Lies are a weapon against humanity. They cannot simply be debunked, the antidote is the building of conscious analysis of the way the world really is, and finding a constituency willing to listen to that truth that is bigger and better organised than the QAnon cultists.
Pik Smeet

Peace? In Capitalism? (2020)

From the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

To mark the retirement earlier this year of David Krieger, founder and director for 38 years of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), The Spokesman published a special issue, Waging Peace. The Spokesman itself is a publication of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation which was founded in 1963. The general aim of both these foundations is that of maintaining peace in a nuclear era world and to work to bring about the reduction, if not total abolition, of nuclear weapons.

This particular edition offers much good evidence of the need to stop war (of all kinds) but socialists have a number of points of issue to address that can demonstrate the clear need for recognising the imperative of superseding the capitalist system in order to achieve this goal. However, the publication refers to capitalism per se only occasionally as one of the stumbling blocks but never puts it directly in the spotlight.

Elephant in the room
Waging Peace contains twelve articles which have a common view of a world of states accepted as the norm, not questioned. The crying need to explore the reasons of how and why separate states develop animosity towards others is the elephant in the room waiting to present the socialist case. For instance Richard Falk, Senior Vice President at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and who has acted as counsel before the International Court of Justice states that geopolitical factors are not generally considered. He states that geopolitics subverts ‘the major premise of state-centric world order; namely, the equality of sovereign states’ (Article 2.1 of the UN Charter). ‘The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.’ However, Falk reveals serious flaws in a policy of so-called juridical equality:
‘A primary ingredient of sovereignty is the unconditional authority of states to determine their own security policy, especially in response to threats. The irony of the managerial approach is that the two states with the most plausible security justifications for recourse to nuclear deterrence, Iran and North Korea, are the only states under pressure to forgo or renounce such weaponry[…] Instead of juridical equality, nuclear weapons policy is geopolitically hierarchical’.
Another contributor, Daisaku Ikeda of Japan, founder of several international institutions promoting peace, culture and education, wrote in 2011 that we should abolish and dismantle not just nuclear weapons but ‘the war system itself’. He follows this with suggestions of how to measure military spending comparing this with what other, better, things could be done with that money for the good of populations around the world. Two examples: three hours’ equivalent worth of global military spending was what it cost the World Health Organization to eliminate smallpox; and three days’ worth of global military spending in 2011 could have taught the 275 million illiterate children of the world to read and write. Later he talks of the cold war and the fact that more than half of the world’s physicists were engaged in military research in order to manufacture more than enough nuclear weapons capable of annihilating the human race many times over. And then he declares ‘What absurdity! What an incredible waste of human resources!’ Well, absolutely, but the socialist answer to this would be that dismantling the profit system would have a much more solid assurance of improving, by abolishing, the various negatives listed in his article. Instead of a cry to dismantle the war system we say dismantle the whole profit system because this is what prolongs the inequalities and inadequacies facing us.

Commander Robert Green served in the British Royal Navy between 1967 and 1982 and was well acquainted with nuclear weapons. After retirement he talks of how, as a former operator of British nuclear weapons, he came to a gradual rejection of pro-nuclear deterrence indoctrination. He is author of Security Without Nuclear Deterrence published in 2018 by Spokesman Books. One of the points he raises about deterrence or reduction of nuclear weapons is that of a ‘new world role for the UK’. He sets out a case for the UK, as the smallest member of the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN security council which were the first five nuclear states) to claim a new world role by unilaterally declaring a rejection of nuclear deterrence. If they were to do so he writes that ‘an overwhelming majority of world opinion would erupt in support’ and ‘the UK would gain a global role in which it would be welcomed as truly a “force for good.”’ This may be a great rallying call but hardly seems realistic with the current global hegemonic order as it is.

Possible nuclear Armageddon is hardly something to view lightly but a writer of one of the articles certainly has an optimistic viewpoint offering two lights on the horizon. First, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the achievement of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) ‘is an essential and long overdue first step to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.’ This treaty is seen as a complement to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and supposedly reinforces the commitment of its parties to non-proliferation.

The second light on the horizon is Global Zero which, among other things, has ‘developed a plan for the phased and verified removal of all nuclear weapons from military arsenals of the nuclear-armed countries by 2030 with continuing verification and transparency requirements for the entire process of dismantlement to total elimination.’ Again, no mention of the absolute imperative of capitalism and capitalist companies to continue making profit from sales of these to-be-eliminated weapons and all that goes with them.

An article titled ‘If weapons had been the answer’ by Fredrick S. Heffermehl addresses the manipulation and distortion over the years of Alfred Nobel’s statement on the establishment of the ‘Peace Prize’. It appears that Nobel’s words were about such things as disarmament, creating the brotherhood of nations and promoting the ideas of the peace congresses of the 1890s and, in fact, Nobel made specific mention of disarmament in his will. Heffermehl discusses the distortion of Nobel’s wishes as the prize is given regularly for reasons having nothing to do with his original intentions but is subject to ‘political and diplomatic pressure and a decay of justice’. Two examples of individual prize winners who can hardly be listed as peace activists – Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama.

The Inseparables
Three quarters of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s existence has been post-cold war and in those years there has been, globally, an enormous proliferation of all manner of weapons of war and especially the most dangerous of them – nuclear weapons. Treaties have been made and treaties continue to be broken, assuring us of negative progress. Why is that? Could it be linked to one of the biggest bugbears of socialists – reformism? So much of ‘Waging Peace’ is about reforming the system we have into one supposedly more favourable to the whole world’s population.

In 1984, during the cold war and just a handful of years before NAPF was established, a book was published addressing just that – The Futility of Reformism. The author, Samuel Leight, a member of the World Socialist Party of the US, headed Chapter 13 ‘The Inseparables (Capitalism and War)’ which ably and convincingly addresses all the problems raised above.

The book had an appendix of 36 pages, solely pertinent to this chapter, concerning the statistics of war from 1945 to the end of 1983. Leight gathered together information from encyclopaedias and various other sources including newspapers and listed them in chronological order, some of the events lasting for years, some for days and others going on intermittently. In addition to well-known international wars these include coups, invasions and general hostilities, most of them resulting in loss of civilian lives and wrecked communities with hardly a day going by without conflict somewhere in the world.

Leight drew attention early in the chapter to the month of July in 1983 when an article was published, ‘Even in ‘Peacetime’, 40 Wars Are Going On’ and that these hostilities claimed as many as five million lives. Certainly politicians worldwide claim to want peace and abhor war whilst building up their ‘capabilities’ for defence, never for attack, and they are always ready to blame the other party for provocation. Worldwide budgets for defence have risen year on year and international sales of war materiel continue to increase annually assisted by armies of lobbyists – layer upon layer of profit to be made throughout the whole continuous and continuing procedure.

Also in 1983 referencing a Los Angeles Times 16-page supplement ‘Servants or Masters? Revisiting the Military Industrial Complex’ Leight drew attention to statistics pertaining to the numbers of specialists engaged in Reagan’s five-year plan of expansion of ‘defence’ spending. Workers in the military industrial complex included 30+ percent of the country’s mathematicians, 25 percent of the country’s physicists, 47 percent of the aero/astronautic engineers and 11 percent of computer programmers. Nearly 40 years later no doubt the numbers in these areas will have changed as technology has changed considerably but it certainly holds true that a huge percentage of the workforce will still be working in this area of research, development and production. And, as in all areas of employment globally, individuals rely on this work to support their lives.

Leight wrote about the various treaties, especially relating to nuclear weapons that have been signed by different countries at different times only to be broken by one or other of the signatories at some future date, just as the contributors to Waging Peace also do. Some of his references were to older treaties such as one from 1925 on chemical and toxic weapons which have been broken by one or more signatories over the years as they discover even better (more lethal) options, leading him to point out the fact that ‘not only can governments not be trusted but the measures they support are not reliable or practical for their intended purposes.’

With regard to the various nuclear deterrence treaties signed (and reneged on) over the years, there has been a common factor which is that nuclear weapons only make sense as a means of deterring nuclear aggression by a potential enemy (whilst decades go by with increased yields of these weapons – greater deterrence?). Leight pointed out what should be abundantly clear to any thinking person – a nuclear war cannot be planned with the aim of winning it.

A brief look at active wars at the time this book was written – Iran and Iraq, Lebanon’s civil war, Afghanistan and USSR, Libya v. Chad, the Basque separatist conflict, Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’, just to mention some, and all of these ‘Even in Peacetime’.

The final words from Samuel Leight: ‘As always, capitalism and war go hand in hand. “The inseparables” can never be separated. To get rid of one is to get rid of the other.’
Janet Surman

Proper Gander: Rubber Reboot (2020)

The Proper Gander column from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Longstanding rivals ITV and the BBC have realised they share a common enemy in the online video channels and streaming services poaching their viewers. So they’ve uncharacteristically teamed up to try and compete against young upstarts like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Their ‘joint vision’ (as they put it) is Britbox, a video on demand channel launched in November 2019 in the UK, having previously been available in North America. Take out a subscription and you’ll have access to TV series from the archives which you’d have hoped would otherwise be on the BBC iPlayer or ITV Hub for free. Many of the two channels’ well-known dramas, sitcoms and documentaries are on Britbox (along with a little content from Channels 4 and 5), but there’s nothing too obscure, unfortunately. The range would be improved if they dug out some Play For Todays and World In Actions.

Britbox is aimed at fans of familiar old telly, but has recently branched out into premiering its own new material. So it’s pitching to its target audience by starting with something nostalgic, a revival of puppet-based satirical sketch show Spitting Image. Last seen on ITV in 1996, the series is best remembered for its 1980s heyday, with its increasingly-insane Margaret Thatcher, its tipsy Queen Mother and even chart-topping The Chicken Song. It probably got more people interested in current affairs and party politics than more serious-minded fare did, being one of those programmes regularly talked about in offices and playgrounds the morning after each episode.

Will Spitting Image’s reboot be as popular? Probably not, as its audience is limited to Britbox subscribers. Its makers are hoping for an international reach, though, and have brought in staff from American TV shows to widen its appeal stateside. As the new series is only a few episodes in, it’s too early for the production team to have hit their stride. To keep the sketches topical, they have to be written, blocked out and performed only a few days before transmission, which must be a challenge even without the impact of the pandemic on the TV industry. A lack of material definitely isn’t an issue, though, with the government’s (inevitable) inability to manage the virus situation, and the US Presidential election being obvious targets, along with celebs like Meghan Markle and ‘the husband formerly known as Prince’ Harry.

Around a hundred puppets have been made for the series, in the same rubbery, irreverent style as before. To work, the caricatures need to be exaggerated, while still being close enough to how their real counterparts would talk and act. Memorable grotesques include smug Home Secretary Priti Patel as a dominatrix and later as a vampire (not far off from how ex-Tory MP Edwina Currie had been portrayed), and chief adviser Dominic Cummings as a creepy, googly-eyed alien who eats babies.

 Just as important as the puppets are the scripts, which need to raise both a chuckle and a serious point. The sixteen writers working on the show haven’t yet been able to come up with much that shines, though. One of the better running gags has Donald Trump trying to make a deal with the Coronavirus, or ‘Corony’, as he calls the floating spiked blob which talks with him. ‘You’re everything I like. You’re tough, you’re sneaky, you’re an affront to humanity. I want you in my organisation’, coos Trump. In another skit, Boris Johnson wants to buy off the virus by getting it a seat in the House of Lords and then ends up having a fling with it. Other sketches fall flat: recently re-elected NewZealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is presented as Mary Poppins running the perfect country, but where’s the satire in that? Boris Johnson is depicted as an oblivious mop-topped buffoon, so it’s hardly a caricature at all. And the slanging match between puppets of Donald Trump and Joe Biden wasn’t much different to their real televised ‘debate’. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the show isn’t being imaginative enough or if our rulers are too far removed from the rest of us to need satirising.

As its focus is on the puppets, Spitting Image ridicules society’s figureheads rather than criticises the system itself. And many of the lampooned luminaries haven’t minded this, and probably like the publicity. Old episodes uploaded to Britbox are introduced by some of the politicians immortalised in latex, including Neil Kinnock on the one hand and Ken Livingstone on the other. They reminisce about enjoying the show at the time, and add that having a puppet made of you was seen as a badge of honour. So, ‘80s Spitting Image wasn’t as anti-establishment as it might appear, and the new series doesn’t even push the boundaries as much as its predecessor. The puppets haven’t got out of hand. So far, the revival has only attracted any controversy with its mean-spirited caricature of environmental activist Greta Thunberg, rather than by saying anything which challenges the status quo. Satire risks just being a safety valve, where our frustrations about the system can be voiced in a contained, witty way. At its best, and Spitting Image sadly seldom gets there, satire highlights the absurdities of capitalist society, and thereby helps undermine it.
Mike Foster

Cooking the Books: The National Debt: whose debt? (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The UK’s national debt hit a record £2.024 trillion at the end of August, £249.5 billion more than the same time last year’, reported the Evening Standard (25 September). Presumably seeking to be helpful but actually confusing the picture, the report went on:
‘To put the figures in some perspective, the debt level works out at roughly £30,000 per person living in the UK’.
So we are all on average £30,000 in debt, are we? No, it’s the government’s debt not ours. What is popularly called the ‘national debt’ is the outstanding debt, accumulated over the years, of the capitalist state and so is no concern of ours. To be fair to the statisticians at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who compile the figures, their official name for it is the ‘General Government Gross Debt’. The total debt owed by persons is called ‘Household Debt’. At the end of March 2018 this totalled £1.28 trillion, most of which was mortgages. The two statistics are quite different.

Note that since 1974 a ‘trillion’ means only a thousand billion (not the billion billion it used to be). But it makes a more sensational headline to say that the government’s debt is £2.024 (with a full stop) trillion rather than £2,024 billion (with a comma).

Governments (unless they are directly involved in capitalist production themselves) generate no income of their own. The money they spend comes from two main sources, mostly taxes. If a government wants to spend more than what this brings in it has to resort to borrowing. This is normally done by selling short-term (Treasury) bills or longer-term bonds (gilts). The interest on these has to be paid from tax revenue.

Another statistic we are urged to get worked up about (but needn’t) is the ‘General Government Deficit’. This is the difference between what the government spends and what it raises through taxes and which has to be made up by borrowing. At the end of June it was £128.8 billion. If, on the other hand, a government’s income from taxes is greater than what it borrows, then there is a surplus which can be used to pay off a part of its debt.

Marx had something to say on the origin and consequences of the ‘National Debt’:
‘The state’s creditors actually give nothing away, for the sum lent is transformed into public bonds, easily negotiable, which go on functioning in their hands just as so much hard cash would. But furthermore, and quite apart from the class of idle rentiers thus created, the improvised wealth of the financiers who play the role of middlemen between the government and the nation, and the tax-farmers, merchants and private manufacturers, for whom a good part of every national loan renders the service of a capital fallen from heaven, apart from all these people, the national debt has given rise to joint-stock companies, to dealings in negotiable effects of all kinds, and to speculation, in a word to stock-exchange gambling and the modern bankocracy.’ (Capital, Penguin edition, Volume I, Chapter 31).
This is a fair description which still applies today but, unfortunately, is a source of many currency crank theories. Marx was aware of this and warned:
‘The great part that the public debt and the fiscal system corresponding with it have played in the capitalization of wealth and the expropriation of the masses, has led many writers, like Cobbett, Doubleday and others, to seek here, incorrectly, the fundamental cause of the misery of the people in modern times.’
The fundamental cause of this misery is not the financial system but the class ownership of the means of life and production for profit. What is required to remove it is not monetary reform but common ownership and production directly to satisfy people’s need.

SPGB Discord Meetings (2020)

Party News from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blogger's Note:
The following SPGB Discord Meetings from November 2020 were recorded for posterity. Sound quality varies:
  • Belling the cat: Marx and Engels on the practical organization of socialism. (Speaker: Bill Martin) Link.
  • Attachment Theory (Speaker: Tim Kilgallon) Part 1, Part 2.
  • The new atheism (Speaker: Nigel McCullough) Part 1, Part 2.
  • Bitcoin and the Dark Web (Speaker: Paul Edwards) Link. 

Laboured love (2020)

Book Review from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Love and Labour. (Red Button Years – Volume 1). By Ken Fuller. ISBN: 978-1-6990-9278-1. 2019.

As there is no publisher accredited, we presume this is a self-published book. The author lists seven other books, six being non-fiction. One of them, ‘Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1985, provided the basis for this story.

Self-publishing has become widely available due to technological advances making it much more affordable. It is an avenue for authors of books, fiction and non-fiction, with such limited appeal as to be unlikely to generate profit enough, or even at all, to interest commercial publishers.

This must not be taken to imply such books are badly written, but rather their appeal is to a limited audience due to the subject matter. The weakness of the process can be the absence of the critical eye of an experienced editor. Such is my the overall impression of this novel.

There can be no doubting Ken Fuller’s immersion in the subject on which he writers. A former bus driver and full-time officer in the Transport and General Workers Union, he has dedicated much of his life to exploring and recording the history of this element of trade unionism, with specific reference to London. Perhaps he is too close to his subject.

A basic tenet of writing good fiction is ‘show, don’t tell’, engage the reader, invite the reader to construct mental scenes, challenge those constructs through the story taking unexpected turns. Reading should be an active process.

Unfortunately, this novel does an awful lot of telling. There is page after page of what reads like verbatim minutes of union meetings. Anyone who has been active in a union will recognise how drawn out and, frankly, tedious, even though important, such meetings can be. Especially so for someone on the outside glancing in.

Fuller does not seem clear as to his intention. As a chronicler of London bus workers’ history he has undoubtedly a creditable depth of knowledge. He is also keenly aware of the wider contexts in which that history flowed its course.

However, to make sure no research goes to waste, characters find their mouths being over over-stuffed with historical details. They don’t so much have conversations so much as swap lectures. For example, George Sanders, a union official, delivers an impromptu potted history of London Transport companies, along with American influence and dividend returns while standing, supposedly chatting, at Hyde Park Corner.

The novel opens in 1913 and works its way through to 1917. Its two main characters are Mickey Rice, erstwhile tram driver in Reading who becomes a bus conductor, then driver, in London, and Dorothy Bridgeman.

Dorothy has fled a privileged, but stifling upbringing, to become a radical socialist in what would become the Leninist sense. Dorothy and Mickey become lovers as well as union comrades and we are treated to a number of their explicitly erotic scenes.

The first of these is revealing (sorry) in that mid-coitus Mickey and Emily, the name Dorothy was using at the time, engage in a discussion on the radical, or otherwise, nature of impromptu sex. Emily (Dorothy) concludes, it is ‘…no threat whatsoever to the bourgeois order – unless, that is, they also embrace the class struggle.’ (Page 52).

Both are fictional characters, but many others are historical personages. As such they serve to give voice to the competing elements within the burgeoning Red Button, a reference to the badge worn by bus workers’ union members, union.

Dorothy takes the story off into London’s seriously impoverished East End when she meets and allies herself with Sylvia Pankhurst, who has split from Christabel and Emmeline who betray themselves by becoming purveyors of white feathers activists as they aid the war’s recruiting drive.

Dorothy ends up in Holloway after indulging in the suffragette habit of smashing windows; a hammer being more effective than a rock, Sylvia opines. This leads her to conclude that breaking windows changes nothing.

The First World War does energise the novel, especially the accounts of those trying to stop workers killing each other on behalf of capital. The danger this invites in a jingoistic atmosphere is explored and does point up that the war effort was not universally popular.

Fuller explores how circumstance, especially extreme circumstance, can affect an individual. When Dorothy is killed by a German bomb, Mickey seriously considers enlisting. He is eventually talked out of it by Dorothy’s ‘ghost’ as his own conscience and political consciousness manifest through his memories of her voice.

The politics of the novel focus on the role of the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and the ILP. There is a Leninist thread represented by the character Rothstein, but the main focus is on the union and competing factions within it.

A familiar story of the left-right dichotomy, still playing out over a hundred years later. The pro- versus anti- war elements give expression to this, and there is some understanding of how capitalism is the root cause of war. There is no mention that in the ten years leading up to the war’s outbreak the Socialist Party of Great Britain had consistently voiced this point.

Indeed socialism, as dealt with in this book, is to be achieved via reformism or some Bolshevik-style revolution. That the working class will have to look beyond trade unions and political parties vying for power and achieve socialism through its own conscious action is not addressed.

Any undertaking on the scale of this novel is admirable. It appears to me, though , there is a much better novel in here begging to be revealed. I started This review began by invoking the role of the editor. If the book was 200 pages shorter it would be 200 pages better.

‘Love and Labour’ is a labour of love on the author’s part, and also the reader’s. Dispense with the potted histories, the detailed accounts of union machinations and let the story emerge. Dorothy and Mickey are strong characters, but even they are too often recruited as mouthpieces for the author.
Dave Alton

Blogger's Note:
Ken Fuller's book, Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s, was reviewed in the April 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard. It was of particular interest to Socialist Standard readers 'cos a couple of SPGBers, Frank Snelling and Bill Waters, were active in the Busworkers' rank and file movement in the 1930s.

On the SPGB website, Ken Fuller replied to the above review. Reproduced in full below:
The author the book “Love and Labour” has sent in this reply:

Dear Comrade,

I was in two minds whether to respond to your review of my novel, Love and Labour, but decided that, in view of the fact that your reviewer gets certain details wrong, I should do so.

Your reviewer is of the view that the novel would have benefited from the services of an expert editor. Maybe so, but he seems to have missed the point, as what he describes as “union machinations” constitute one of the major themes of the book. (An expert editor could also have eliminated the several typos which disfigure the review.)

Most damningly, however, there is evidence that your reviewer gave but cursory attention to the book. For example, he complains that George Sanders, while standing at Hyde Park Corner, goes into great detail concerning the history of the Traffic Combine, even to the extent of mentioning the rate of dividend. Well, no. In fact, Sanders is driving Dorothy Bridgeman to her interview for a job at the London General Omnibus Company, where she will gather intelligence for the red-button union. Surely it is reasonable in these circumstances for Sanders to voice his concern that the profits of the LGOC (with its 20 percent dividend) will be used to subsidise the Underground rather than being used to improve the wages and conditions of busworkers!

Then again, your reviewer has Dorothy thrown into prison for breaking windows a la Sylvia Pankhurst. In fact, she ends up in Holloway for throwing rocks at a tram driven by a strike breaker at the tail end of the London Tram Strike of 1915. Given the fact that the account of the tram strike constitutes one of the longest chapters in the book, it is difficult to see how such a mistake could have been made, unless the reviewer’s attention was elsewhere.

Then again, the review mentions in passing “the character Rothstein” with apparently no understanding of the fact that Theodore Rothstein was a towering figure in the socialist and anti-war movements of the period.

I would have posted the above as a comment after the review, but can see no way of logging on, as I am not a member. I would therefore be grateful if you would insert it for me.

Yours fraternally,

Ken Fuller.

Not So Radical (2020)

Book Review from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Clear Bright Future: a Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason (Penguin £9.99.)

In Postcapitalism (reviewed in the September 2015 Socialist Standard) Paul Mason argued for what he called revolutionary reformism, a gradual transition to a supposedly new kind of social system. There would be a basic income for everyone, while essential goods and services would be made cheaper, with more and more of these becoming free. Yet there would still be money, markets, profits and banks, so it was hard to see how what he was proposing was really ‘post-capitalist’.

In his latest book Mason advocates a similar system, but he goes by a rather roundabout route to get to this proposal and then makes a detour at the end that promises very little. He looks at why people support Trump, a man who thinks facts are irrelevant. Racism and misogyny, he says, are the key factors driving white voters to Trump. We then get a discussion of many topics – including neoliberalism, the alt-right, post-humanism, trans-humanism, postmodernism – and various writers, such as Nietzsche, Arendt and Foucault.

Mason supports radical humanism, which means achieving freedom by transforming technology and society. Artificial intelligence should be placed under human control and made subject to an appropriate ethical code, and information technology (as argued in Postcapitalism) can be part of what makes economic abundance viable, as it creates goods that can be copied at minuscule cost. IT "makes Utopian Socialism possible: the appearance of islands of cooperative production for sharing, the massive reduction of hours worked and the expansion of human freedom and self-knowledge".

Two chapters are devoted to the views of Karl Marx, with both positive and negative comments. Marx suggested that humans can set themselves free by changing their social circumstances, which would involve abolishing private property. But he did not give an adequate account of women’s oppression or of reproductive labour as a specific form of exploitation. There is something in this critique, but no merit at all in the claim that Marx saw the revolution as "the blind actions of a single class", as it would in reality be the achievement of class-conscious workers (it is not clear, but it may be that Mason sees the working class as manual workers only). His vision is of the networked individual taking part in collective action, but this differs only in that it would now be far easier than just half a century ago for a revolutionary working class to communicate with each other and co-ordinate their activities.

Later comes a totally pointless chapter which argues that what passes for Marxism in China is nothing like the real thing. The book ends with a chapter on how to ‘live the anti-fascist life’ that is pretty vague and makes little connection to what has been said previously. More on the supposed ‘Utopian Socialism’ and how it could be a global system rather than just ‘islands’ would have been a more appropriate conclusion.
Paul Bennett

50 years Ago: Cathy – no home to go to (2020)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Cathy – shall we ever forget – was the fair, slim, lovely young girl whose family and life were wrecked simply because they could not find a home. They went from one hopeless situation to another, from verminous slum to wet tent to reception centre. She was parted from her husband and then from the last of her children. In the end she stood by the roadside with the passing lamps of the lorries playing across her face. She was going home, back the way she had come.

The play was an instant success, owing nothing to the fact that it was the work of an ex-Etonian. There were one or two rather half-hearted attempts to debunk it but the author had got in first; all the incidents in the play, it was announced at the beginning, had happened, in London, during the previous year. This was reality. Shocked, everyone agreed; something must be done about the homeless.

That was several years ago. Since then, there have been countless promises and schemes to deal with the problem. Statistics have been computed, weighted, published. Speeches galore have been made and applauded. And last month the latest figures came out, in the annual report of the grandly titled Department of Health and Social Security. (…) The report said that in 1969 20,820 people lived in emergency accommodation. In 1967 the figure was 16,176. which means that during the past two years the numbers of homeless people have risen by one third. (…)

The same month these figures were announced, saw the launch of Shelter, heralded with a procession of grim statistics: three million families in Britain in slums, near slums or in grossly overcrowded conditions; in Glasgow 100,000 unfit houses, in Liverpool 73,733; a waiting list in London of 150,000 families, in Birmingham 38,000. (…)

Poverty is ineradicable under capitalism but the system’s leaders can never admit their impotence to deal with it. They must go on. with their promises and their assertions and their programmes. Meanwhile, the harsh reality remains.

(Socialist Standard, November 1970)

Socialist Sonnet No. 122: Appealing (2023)

 From the Socialism or Your Money Back blog
An afternoon of snooker on TV,

With every frame winning followed by

A commercial break, adverts that try,

Through poignant entreaty, to persuade me

To pick up my phone or just send a text

And donate month on month, as if charities

Can correct all the gross disparities

Of capitalism. First, war zones, next

The homeless, food banks, then forced marriage

Of young girls, the latest famine, immense

Problems of diseases drugs costing pence

Could treat, chronic loneliness of old age.

Each and every one a worthy mission,

But none will cure the ills of competition.

D. A.