Sunday, January 21, 2024

Voice From The Back: Land of the Free (2008)

The Voice From The Back Column from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Land of the Free

Behind all the bombast of “land of the free, home of the brave” national anthem in the USA lies a sinister reality. “From the 1880s to the 1960s, at least 4,700 men and women were lynched in this country. The noose remains a terrifying symbol, and continues to be used by racists to intimidate African-Americans (who made up more than 70 percent of lynching victims). In the past decade or so, only about a dozen noose incidents a year came to the attention of civil rights groups. But since the huge Sept. 20 rally in Jena, La., where tens of thousands protested what they saw as racism in the prosecution of six black youths known as the ‘Jena 6,’ this country has seen a rash of as many as 50 to 60 noose incidents. Last Tuesday, for example, a city employee in Slidell, La., was fired after being accused of hanging a noose at a job site a few days earlier. These incidents are worrying, but even more so is the social reality they reflect. The level of hate crimes in the United States is astoundingly high — more than 190,000 incidents per year, according to a 2005 Department of Justice study.” (New York Times, 25 November)

Death in a Harsh Society

The latest figures on deaths in winter make for harsh reading and illustrate the fate awaiting many British workers when they are unable to work anymore. “More than 23,000 people died of cold last winter despite it being one of the mildest recorded, according to the Office for National Statistics. Of these deaths, 19,200 were among those aged 75 and over. Charities called it a ‘national scandal’ and gave warning of more deaths this winter because of higher fuel prices and colder temperatures.” (Times, 29 November)

Heiress On The Run

She was left $12 million but it was a mixed blessing as she received threats from blackmailers and kidnappers. “Their threats forced concerned friends to bundle her onboard a private jet under a new identity and take her into hiding. Her location is a closely guarded secret but she is reportedly living somewhere in Florida under 24 hour guard.” (Times, 4 December) It is reported that her annual upkeep is $300,000 but this includes a rotating security team. Oh, did we mention she has weekly grooming visits and has to visit the vet for her liver condition? Yes, the vet! For she is a white Maltese dog called Trouble whose former owner was the hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley. Go on tell us that capitalism isn’t crazy!

Old Age Fears

In so-called primitive societies that practiced a hunting-gathering existence, the elderly were protected and respected as knowledgeable members of the group. In modern capitalism the old are looked upon as a burden as can be seen from these findings. “Britons are living in fear of growing old in a society that fails to respect the over-65s or provide adequate support for those in need, a Guardian poll reveals today. …The ICM poll found: 40% of Britons fear being lonely in their old age. Two thirds of the adult population are ‘frightened’ by the prospect of having to move into a care home; More than 90% said they knew they could not survive on the state pension and would need to rely on savings.” (Guardian, 3 December)

Promises, Promises

Back in 1999 the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair promised to halve the number of poor children in 10 years and eradicate child poverty in 20 years. “The government’s approach to tackling child poverty has lost momentum and is in ‘urgent need’ of a major rethink, a charity has said. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report said there has been no sustained progress in the past three years. One in three UK children live in poverty. A report by the Treasury select committee fears the pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 is in doubt.” (BBC News, 3 December) This is typical of reformist politicians – make promises, preferably far into the future and they will probably be forgotten when the next election comes along.

The Price of Gold

About a quarter of a million mineworkers downed tools on Tuesday in South Africa, the world’s top producer of gold and platinum. “This year’s death toll has reached 200, mostly owing to rock falls and explosions in several mines. Many mines have been unchanged for decades but recently reopened, thanks to high world prices that have made them profitable again.” (Times, 5 December) The miners are concerned about the lack of safety in the mining industry which one striker described as “dripping in blood”. The average wage of a miner in South Africa is about $200 a month. None of them will be wearing gold or diamonds, that is for sure.

The nature of human nature (2008)

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
The cultural anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said that what cultural anthropologists were really interested in was “the nature of human nature”. So what do they think it is?
Today, all humans are members of the same species, homo sapiens. We know what our main features are: upright position freeing our hands, stereoscopic vision allowing us to see things in three dimensions, a long period of growing up, the anatomical ability to utter a wide range of sounds, and, last but not least, a powerful brain as the centre of our nervous system. These are all genetic features, inherited via our genes, and are what distinguishes us, genetically, from other animals and living things.

Before us there were other species of homo (Man) but which are now extinct. The most well-known of these was Neanderthal Man which only became extinct about 30,000 or so years ago. Then there were the likely direct ancestors of our species: homo habilis (which Richard Dawkins translates as “handy Man”) and homo erectus or upright Man. The currently available evidence suggested that the first Man, as distinct from the last Ape-Man, emerged about two million years ago.

But this is partly a question of definition since biologists distinguish the first Man from the last Ape-Man by brain size – an inevitably arbitrary, genetic distinction. Anthropologists have introduced another but non-biological distinction: the generalised making and use of tools. While the ability to make tools depends on biology (free hands, good eyesight, more powerful brain)  the actual making of the tools – and what they were and how they were used – does not; it is learned not inherited and, as such, part of what anthropologists call “culture”.

It is now generally accepted that the evolution of homo habilis  (toolmaking Man, if you don’t like Dawkins’s translation) into modern humans was not just a question of biology but also of culture; that it was a biological-cultural co-evolution. That, as Man made and used tools, natural selection favoured those with a more powerful brain and so a greater ability to learn and, crucially, to think abstractly (i.e. of something not present to the senses). Since abstract thinking and language are probably indissolubly linked, this depended on the development of the vocal cords and other parts of our speech organs. The end-result was us, some 150,000 years ago, on the savannah, or open grasslands, of East Africa.

Since then the most noticeable biological change was the development of the different varieties of our species – sometimes mis-called “races” – as isolated groups of homo sapiens adapted biologically through natural selection, over many thousands of years, to the different physical environments in which they lived.

Otherwise human adaptation has been cultural rather than biological: humans making use of their biological capacities, to build-up a social tradition so as to better adapt to their environment, which is then passed on to a new generation through teaching and learning rather than through genes.

“Cultural anthropology is concerned with the study of man’s cultures. By ‘culture’ the anthropologist understands what may be called the man-made part of the environment; the pots and pans, the laws and institutions, the art, religion, philosophy. Whatever a particular group of people living together as a functioning population have learned to do as human beings, their way of life, in short, is to be regarded as culture” (Ashley Montagu, Man: His First Million Years, 1957).

Culture allows humans to adapt to a new or changing environment much, much more rapidly than biological adaptation through natural selection ever could. Cultural adaptation is measured in decades while biological adaptation is measured in tens of thousands of years. Other animals do have a culture in the sense of a tradition of behaviour that is passed on through learning, but none can vary and develop it as humans can. So, the capacity for adaptation through cultural change can be said to be a distinguishing feature of our species. It is of course a biologically-determined capacity, dependent upon in particular a powerful brain and the capacity to speak and on the extended period of childhood during which culture can be learned.

This is “human nature”: the set of biological capacities enabling humans to learn, teach and develop culture, which is a non-biological means of adapting to the environment in which they find themselves. Faced with a new environment, humans can and do adapt their behaviour not their biological make-up. Because culture is non-biological and not fixed, the cultural anthropologists emphasised that educability, behavioural adaptability and flexibility was the key feature of human nature, what made us human:

“The most notable thing about human behaviour is that it is learned. Everything a human being does as such he has to learn from other human beings. From any dominance of  biologically or inherited predetermined reactions that may prevail in the behaviour of other animals, man has moved into a zone of adaptation in which his behaviour is dominated by learned responses. It is within the dimension of culture, the learned, the man-made part of the environment that man grows, develops, and has his being as a behaving organism” (Ashley Montagu, Man and Aggression, 1968).

This biological capacity for culture, for learning behaviour and passing on to other humans and to other generations, was clearly an adaptive advantage and it is this that has allowed our species to spread and survive in all parts of the world, despite the widely differing environments. Much less of the behaviour of other animals is learned (and what is learned is essentially repetitive from generation to generation) and much more is governed by what used to be called “instincts”.

This is a word that has long fallen out of favour in scientific circles, but it would simply denote a fixed response to a given stimulus – like the literal knee-jerk reaction in humans. Or moths flying into lights. Another, more complicated response would be squirrels reacting to the shortening of periods of daylight by going into hibernation.

What the brain does is to allow a period between the stimulus and the response. The more developed the brain the wider the range of possible behavioural responses that the organism can make on the basis of its own past experience. We are the animals with the most developed brain and it is one that allows us the greatest choice of behavioural responses. So much so, the cultural anthropologists argued, that it can be said that we don’t really have any instincts. According to Montagu, any “instincts” that might have existed in the pre-human ape-men from which we evolved would have disappeared in the course of evolution:
“Instead of leading to fixed responses to the environment, man’s evolution has been such as to make him the least behaviourally fixed and most generally educable or plastic of all living creatures. It is this very plasticity of his mental traits that confers upon man the position he occupies. The acquisition of this capacity freed man from the constraint of the limited range of biologically predetermined responses that characterises all other animals” (Human Heredity, 1963 edition)

“ . . . man is man because he has no instincts because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of his environment, from other human beings” (Man and Aggression).
The scientific consensus that was established in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was that it was “human nature” to be able to have a wide range of  behavioural responses to the environment; that human behaviour was learned not innate; that it was culturally not biologically determined. This was confirmation that there is nothing in the biological nature of humans that would prevent us living in the co-operative, non-hierarchical, society of self-motivated individuals that socialism would be.

Since then the biological determinists have regrouped and counter-attacked, claiming that there still are “biologically predetermined responses” in humans. They have made some headway in that biological determinism is more intellectually acceptable than it was fifty years ago. People like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker  – none of them anthropologists – have been able to achieve some popular success. But they have only done this by playing to the gallery, exploiting the fact that most people have a negative view of human nature – inherited from the Christian dogma of original sin and innate human depravity – and knowing that they could sell their books by pandering to this prejudice. Ardrey, Morris and Pinker also appealed to anti-intellectualism to ridicule and marginalise the scientific findings of the cultural anthropologists by painting them as an arrogant, liberal elite.

But they have failed to show how genes could determine human behaviour (as opposed to setting limits to it). Basically, genes are self-replicating codes for the production of the proteins in the cells of which we (and all other life-forms) are made. What they govern is the development and renewal of our physical, material bodies. They don’t govern behaviour – that depends, as the cultural anthropologists have established, on our social and cultural environment.

The biological determinists hoped that advances in genetics would back up their case, but it is proving to be their undoing. Molecular biologists are making huge advances in identifying and discovering the effect of individual human genes. And they are not discovering genes for any behaviour, only for how the human body develops and renews itself – and what happens when a gene is faulty or abnormal or unusual. In which case the person concerned will suffer some, usually crippling bodily defect, but which genetics holds out the hope of someday being able to correct.

The findings of the cultural anthropologists still stand. All human social behaviour has to be learned and so is culturally not biologically determined. A key distinguishing feature of our species is behavioural adaptability. Human nature is not a barrier to socialism.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Bottom line building (2008)

The Cooking the Books column from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like everyone else with an email address we get loads of spam. Most go straight into the trash can, but the subject of one – “Crack Patient Paying Problems with these Helpful Hints” – caught our eye. It turned out to be a plug for an audio-conference in America on “Tried-and-True Ways To Get Chiropractic Patients to Hand Over Their Dues”. The message began:
“Getting patients to pay their bills at your chiropractic office isn’t always the most successful part of the visit. And even a handful of patients who don’t pay their bills can start adding up – and hurting your practice’s bottom line. But you can learn less-stressful way to collect pays, deductibles and co-insurance in this 1-hour session. Your expert speaker, Marty Kotlar, DC, CHCC, CBCS, will provide strategic advice on everything from gathering patient information to forming an office policy explaining the patients’ financial obligations. Don’t miss this bottom-line-building session . . .”
Chiropractics is an “alternative medicine” that is regarded by most conventional doctors as quackery (it is based on the idea that by manipulating the spine you can deal with ailments in other parts of the body, a bit like reflexology claims for manipulating your toes). But that’s not the point since no doubt teleconferences also take place in America about how conventional doctors can boost their bottom lines too – except that it does not fit in with the caring image that “alternative medicines” seek to cultivate as a way of attracting paying customers.

In Britain NHS doctors – and patients – are freed from this stress since the doctor’s fees are paid to them directly by the government. Not a solution, we imagine, that Marty Kotlar will be proposing in his teleconference, even though chiropractors in Britain would dearly like to get in on the act and even though doctors’ practices in Britain are, with government encouragement, going the American way and converting themselves into profit-seeking businesses. Of course to the extent that they take on private patients these medical businesses do face the problem of getting patients to pay up, as do unrecognised “alternative” practitioners and NHS dentists. So perhaps, after all, they could learn something from listening in to Marty Kotlar’s “bottom-line-building session”.

Most people, in Britain at least, find it abhorrent that people should have to pay for medical treatment and health care. And they’re right; if you are ill, you should get treatment whether or not you can afford to pay for it. Socialists go further. We say the same as-of-right access to what you need should apply across the board, to housing, heating, electricity, food, clothes, transport, entertainment.

But this will only be possible once the means for producing these things have become the common property of the community as a whole instead of being, as at present, provided by profit-seeking businesses owned by rich individuals, corporations or states.

Letter: Silly ceremony (2008)

Letter to the Editors from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I, […], do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and successors, according to law.”

The above is the Affirmation of Allegiance required to be taken by applicants for British citizenship, at one of New Labour’s more inane gifts to the nation, the Citizenship Ceremony. Any applicant for British citizenship has to attend such a ceremony within six months of their application being accepted. Failure to do so means that one’s application is deemed unsuccessful, and that the whole tortuous process must be started again.

I recently found myself attending such a ceremony as a guest, struggling to keep a straight face as the Lord Mayor of Bristol, in his full regalia, informed us, while standing in front of a picture of the Queen, that, in Britain, “No-one is above the law.”

Twenty-three new citizens, plus their guests, were present to hear the Lord Mayor eulogise about the Greatness of Britain and its democratic institutions. Tellingly, however, he opened his speech by reiterating a couple of questions from the Citizenship Test (analogous to the Theory component of a driving test), which all of the new Citizens were required to have passed before reaching this stage. Unaccountably, not one of them could remember the literal meaning of Prime Minister or how many members the Welsh Assembly has.

I took some small encouragement from the fact that slightly more citizens chose to take the Affirmation of Allegiance, rather than the Oath (which beings, “I […] swear by Almighty God). However, the overall effect reminded me of nothing more than a school assembly, with a hall full of bored students intoning words to prayers which they find more or less meaningless.

And this, of course, is the point. The whole process has less to do with “citizenship” per se than with reminding workers who have often overcome massive difficulties and obstructions in order to be allowed to settle here (admittedly not the case for the person whose guest I was) of precisely who is the boss, and showing that they are expected to be good little boys and girls.

Needless to say the proceedings ended with the playing of the National Anthem. Not wishing to embarrass my partner, I confess that I did stand up for the wretched dirge (albeit with my fingers firmly crossed throughout!).

Surely the world can be organised more sanely than this? Why should it not be the birthright of every human being to settle in any part of our planet (or even to continuously travel around it, should one so require), and be accepted as an equal member of one’s community without having to participate in silly ceremonies to prove one’s worthiness to do so? Why should we have to swear (or affirm or whatever) Allegiance to anyone? As Leon Rosselson wrote in his song “The World Turned Upside Down”, “This world was made a common treasury, for everyone to share.” However, until the world’s working class unites consciously and politically to ensure that the treasury can indeed be shared, a minority class with retain control and the rest of us will continue to be expected to be grateful when we’ve passed enough of their patronising “tests” (and, of course, have sufficient funds) to be able to relocate from one part of the planet to another.
Shane Roberts,

Simon the Sociobiologist (2008)

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Obituary: Edmund Grant (2008)

Eddie speaking from the Party platform in the 1950s.
Obituary from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Edmund Grant, a life-long member, died, at the end of November after being incapacitated and out of circulation for the past six years. His father was a Party member and he himself joined in 1950 at the age of 16 and was a member of successive North London branches. As a conscientious objector to “national service” in the State’s killing machine, he was ordered to work instead in Colney Hatch psychiatric hospital. Partly brought up in Argentina, he was a fluent Spanish speaker and also spoke other European languages, which helped him find employment as a shipping clerk. Later he was employed by Remploy. He was a member of the Executive Committee for many years and the Party’s candidate at the 1964 and 1970 General Elections. He spoke outdoors, at Hyde Park, White Stone Pond and elsewhere, and indoors at lectures and in debates, including one against the National Front. He wrote occasionally, mainly on Spanish and Latin American affairs, for the Socialist Standard. He was an early member of the William Morris Society and of the old ASTMS trade union. Our condolences go to his wife, children and grandchildren.

S.C. [Steve Coleman] writes: Eddie Grant personified Oscar Wilde’s ‘soul of man under Socialism’ and served as a model as well as a mentor to many of us who had the patience to learn from him. (Eddie was not given to abridged versions of the case for Socialism – or of anything else.)

Eddie exemplified a boundless humanism: kindly, jocular, literate, cosmopolitan and never dogmatic. He hated what he called ‘narrowness’: that particular sclerosis of the intellect which characterises the true believer who knows because he knows. What made Eddie’s knowledge so remarkable was his capacity to explore the peripheries of his own experience and understanding, searching for reality in global corners too easily overlooked by others. His linguistic ability helped here, but more important was a deep and uncommon cultural sensibility to different ways of living, thinking and working. His knowledge of European and Latin American history and politics was extensive, as was his great appreciation of music, dance, fine art, literature and the theatre.

Given these broad aesthetic enthusiasms, Eddie’s life-long interest in the art and socialism of William Morris is hardly surprising. He was an active member of the William Morris Society and encouraged many others to explore and learn from Morris’s constructive approach to socialism. Indeed, like Morris, there was something about Eddie that was particularly unsuited to the absurdities of the money system; doing a job; possessing a passport; or confronting the anti-social. (I was with Eddie when he was mugged one night on the way home from the Executive Committee; his combination of genuine incomprehension and indignation so frustrated the knife-wielding muggers that in the end they jumped off the train at the next stop in search of a less verbosely recalcitrant victim.) Of course, this was nothing to compare with the legalised robbery against which Eddie fought with no less determination.

Many of us gained from Eddie an inescapable core of socialist consciousness. He gave us a foundation for seeing and making sense of history which could only have been absorbed through personal interaction with someone whose principles and behaviour were in accord. His sensitivity to both the personal and global dimensions of power inequalities led him to develop a sophisticated commitment to socialism as a mode of living as well as a system of production. Until his health finally prevented him from doing so, Eddie pursued this commitment with a vivacity and joviality that none who knew him could forget. His truly awful puns reflected a mind that could not resist mocking the absurdity of the world around him. He enjoyed laughter and refused to believe that politics must be deadly serious. Above all, Eddie inspired his fellow socialists not simply to get what they want from the world, but to want more and better from the world – a world that is poorer for his absence.

The trouble with gods (2008)

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Those fortunate enough to live in relatively secularized societies should not underestimate global power of religion.
Gods do exist, in a certain sense (I use the word “gods” as a gender-neutral term that includes goddesses). Humans create them in their own image, though without being aware of doing so. The fact that gods are male or female in itself strongly suggests that they are creatures of the human imagination. But they infest the mind as powerful, capricious and mysterious beings who demand endless worship and praise, reverence and obedience, devotion and propitiatory sacrifice. The gods in the head of the believer thwart the development of confidence, self-respect, rational enquiry and independent judgment.

In this way the idea of domination and submission is imprinted in the psyche as a model for relationships between beings. That model is then readily applied to social relationships – to the relationship between man and woman, master and slave, and so on. The Moroccan scholar Fatna A. Sabbah has shown how this works in the case of Islam in her brilliant (pseudonymous) study Woman in the Muslim Unconscious (Pergamon Press, 1984), but her analysis applies equally well to the psychology of “God-fearing” Jews and Christians.

The imaginary world of the divine, in turn, draws its inspiration from the real world of human power structures. God is “king of the universe”, the archangels and angels are his ministers and officials, and the devil has the job of running the Gulag.  

My argument is that it is above all these psychological effects, and not specific religious dogmas and practices, which make god worship a bulwark of class society. That, surely, from the socialist point of view is the main trouble with gods.

It may be objected that some religious beliefs do not seem compatible with the division of society into classes. An obvious example is the idea that “we are all equal in the eyes of God.” Beliefs of this kind have, indeed, inspired peasant uprisings. “When Adam dwelled and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” asked John Ball in the 14th century.

This objection is not completely groundless. Submission to gods does not always and automatically translate into submission to human masters. But surveying the broad sweep of history, I still think that accepting divine authority tends to predispose people to accept human authority as well.  

Another possible objection is that belief in gods predates class society. Primitive people already feared gods who embodied the uncontrollable forces of nature. People were in thrall to gods before they were in thrall to other people. And yet this made them especially vulnerable to oppression and exploitation when other conditions were in place for the transition from primitive communism to class society.

God-kings and priestly castes
Many of the earliest rulers made the most direct use of their subjects’ belief in gods by demanding that they themselves be worshipped as gods (the Roman emperors, for instance) or – more often – as descendants or earthly manifestations of gods. Egyptian pharaohs claimed descent from the creator sun-god Atum or Re. The Inca was descended from the sun god Inti, while the Aztec king represented the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli (Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations). The Shinto belief that the Japanese emperor was descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu held sway right up to 1946, when Hirohito renounced divine status.

Some religions directly support the class structure by sanctifying the entire ruling class. The best-known case is the sanctification of the priestly Brahmin caste in Hinduism, although the Indian caste system no longer corresponds precisely to the class structure. Judaism also has its “pure” priestly caste – the cohanim, who trace descent from Moses’ brother Aaron.

Still mighty foes
By and large, however, the mechanisms through which religion supports class society (capitalism) are nowadays indirect. It is still risky to challenge the powers that be, but — except in a few countries like Iran — it no longer counts as sacrilege. The image of God has even started to mutate from that of the irate patriarch to that of the “sympathetic” social worker.   

And yet in large parts of the world religion still occupies a very important place in people’s hearts and minds. Those fortunate enough to live in relatively secularized societies should not underestimate its global power. The gods remain mighty foes of their deluded human creators.

Local histories (2008)

Pamphlet Reviews from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Class War Radical History Tour of Notting Hill by Tom Vague, Psychogeography, 2007.
Camden History Review 31, Camden History Society, 2007

The Class War pamphlet, the ‘souvenir programme’ of a recent London march maturely entitled “Bash The Rich”, is a rambling and rather unfocussed (as the doubtlessly pseudonymous author’s name would suggest) example of the local radical history writing which is currently fashionable. In this case it also is an unintended comment on the Class War organisation, which has itself become historic. Nonetheless the pamphlet might help locals gain “the sense of place in time” necessary to overcome the crazy disconnectedness of London living which makes political action in the capital so difficult to achieve nowadays.

In contrast the politics (and arts) issue of the Camden History Review is, as one might expect coming from the premier local history organisation of the capital, immaculately produced and finely focussed. The piece on Camden’s MPs is a rather old-fashioned biographical exercise, useful mainly for reference; however, the articles on the fight for a free library in Highgate and the St Pancras Civil Defence revolt of 1957-58 are prime examples of how on-the-ground-floor writing can help illuminate the real processes of history. The particular lesson to be learned from these two cases is that within capitalism every advance in the freedom of knowledge or the search for peace has to fought for tooth and nail. And how fruitless such actions, whether achieved via constitutional reform or direct action, ultimately are. The Socialist Party gets a mention fourth political essay, on the radical history of Grays Inn Road, as a radical organisation which once had its head office in the area and which pushes the solution – production for use not profit – to all capitalist problems from attacks on libraries to warmongering.

History writing (2008)

E. P. Thompson
Pamphlet Review from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal. Edited by Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, 2007. 
The clumsy title comes from E. P. Thompson’s phrase to describe the difficulty of writing “history from below.” After the Second World War, a group of Communist Party historians including Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton set out to bring the experiences of the working class to the fore in the study of history. This was to some extent a reaction to structuralist and functionalist interpretations in which workers’ experiences and abilities to effect social change were down-played or ignored. The most famous example of “history from below” is EP Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963 and still worth reading. But Thompson’s concept of class is controversial in some quarters:
“If we stop history at any given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and in the end, this is its only definition.”
Some have seen this definition of class as being subjective, but Thompson must be right in saying that class is not simply an economic category but also an historical concept. The working class was not just the product of capitalist social relations or the industrial revolution: “The working class made itself as much as it was made,” wrote Thompson. Writing history from below means not invoking “iron laws” and ignoring the abilities of the working class to effect social change on the one hand, or getting lost in the detail and denying the importance of class on the other hand. This short pamphlet discusses these and other problems in writing history.
Lew Higgins

Clarification (2008)

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The editorial in the December issue may have given the impression that we were not opposed to the “criminalisation” of racist ideas. As advocates of free speech, we are opposed to making the holding of any ideas a crime.

50 Years Ago: Upset in Accra: Dr. Nkrumah upsets his friends (2008)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1951 the Gold Coast legislature for the first time represented all the territory’s inhabitants, voting in secret ballot. The elections of 1951 and 1954 were won by the Convention People’s Party (CPP), whose leader, Dr. Nkrumah was brought from jail to fill the newly-created post of Prime Minister. The CPP stood on a programme of independence from British rule and when they won a third overwhelming victory in the 1956 elections, Whitehall agreed to the inevitable. At midnight on 5th March, 1957, the Gold Coast ceased to exist and the State of Ghana took its place. A new national anthem—Ghana Arise, by Hector Hughes, a British Labour M.P.—was substituted for God Save the Queen. ( . . .)

The first signs that Ghana was going to betray the hopes of its friends came when Dr. Nkrumah appeared to be fostering his own little personality cult, by having his head stamped on the new coinage and going to live in Christiansborg Castle which, as the old residence of Danish and British governors, is heavy with unpleasant memories. Then came the expulsions and a Special Bill to allow Mr. Edusei to deport two men without the right of appeal. The municipal councils of Accra and Kumasi were suspended and so was the chief of the 300,000 Akim Abuakwa tribe. Several members of the opposition were kidnapped and from the other side, a plot to assassinate Dr. Nkrumah was alleged. In this hysterical atmosphere, it seemed. Africa’s immaculate embryo democracy had been born a deformed dictatorship.

The truth of the matter is that last March saw the end of Nkrumah’s days of agitation and faced him with the realities of power over a country which is trying to make its way in the capitalist world. The first reality was a staggering fall in the price of cocoa, so that the first budget was chillingly austere and the Ghanaian workers were told that it would be unpatriotic to ask for higher-wages. They had expected better than this from Nkrumah ; a national transport strike was called and rioting broke out in Accra. Another difficulty is that Nkrumah is struggling to establish government on modern capitalist lines and to stamp out the old system of tribal rule.

(from article by Ivan in Socialist Standard, January 1958)

Greasy Pole: Money, Money, Money . . . (2008)

The Greasy Pole column from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was a bit like an archaeological dig as enthusiastic excavators exposed, one layer after another, not the remains of some prehistoric wanderers but the identities of Labour leaders who had been offered and in some cases accepted, donations to help their campaigns in contravention of the rules of their party and, even more to the point, against the law which their own government had introduced. Day after day the incriminated names emerged from the soil of Westminster: Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn (who both refused): Harriet Harman and Peter Hain (who both accepted). Then there were the people outside the Commons but who, as party officials, must have known what was going on and how troublesome it could be but who apparently did nothing to stop it ; people like Labour’s funds organiser John Mendelsohn (who put up a defence so feeble as to be incredible) and Party Secretary  Peter Watt (who could find nobody to say how blameless he was and why he should not under any circumstances be required to leave his job over so insignificant a peccadillo so had to carry the can and resign). After the Honours for Loans affair, which so bitterly flavoured the final months of the Blair government, another such scandal was the last thing on Gordon Brown’s wish list.

The law in this matter is clear; in the case of any donation over £200 the party must record the full name and address of the donor, who must be a registered voter in this country. If the amount is over £5000 these must be reported to the Electoral Commission. In view of this it is not advisable for a donation to be accepted unless the source of it is known to the party. What is not acceptable under the law is that the donor’s identity should be obscured by the money passing through the medium of another person. This was what happened with those generous gifts from David Abrahams, a man who has been variously described as one of the party’s strongest supporters and their third largest financial backer.  While there is no question about his support for Labour and the fortune he has given to the party, there are other aspects about Abrahams which are rather less clear.

To begin with there is his name; to the tenants of some properties he manages in Newcastle he is known as David Martin. Then there is his age, variously given as 53 and 63. When he was resisting being deselected as the Labour candidate in William Hague’s seat in Richmond Yorkshire he presented himself as a married man with a young son. Perhaps he did this under the impression that an image of domestic stability would help his case but there were serious doubt about this, aggravated by clashes between him and a divorced woman who asserted that he had more or less hired her and her 11 year old son to pose as his family. Not surprisingly, when he was re-adopted (by one vote) by the Labour Party in Richmond a group of party officials resigned in protest. Abrahams has explained the confusion over his identity by saying that he is a very private person, although a party activist thought him “the pushiest person I ever came across” and to an MP he was “The kind of person you sometimes see at conferences and such – hanging about and wanting to shake hands with everyone”.

The Builder
For all his cunning and survival skills Abrahams was less than totally discreet in his choice of people to conceal his identity by acting as channels for his gifts. One woman, who professed herself puzzled by the matter, said she was a lifelong Tory; another was his secretary. But the most exciting material for the scandal-excavating media was Ray Ruddick, said to be a director of Abrahams’ property company but who works as a builder, and leaves his ex-council house each day in a battered old Ford Transit.  Ruddick is reputed to have given £140,000 to the Labour Party during the five months since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister but what he said about it was: “I can’t stand Labour. I can’t stand any politicians…I’m off to the bingo to see if I can win that sort of money”. This penetrative comment dragged the matter down to the appropriate level of a farce – but one which seemed to have brought Labour’s spin machine almost to a standstill, unable to respond in the customary manner of diverting attention onto their opponents.

All political parties must be preoccupied with money and the bigger the party the more immediate and desperate their preoccupation. A lot of design, effort and organisation must be devoted to the task of, essentially, persuading millions of people that all the evidence available to prove the impotence of those parties must be disregarded so that they are willing to trust again policies which have been massively discredited. To convince voters of the usefulness of choosing between one hopeless way and another  requires a big effort and a lot of money and the parties, steeped as they are in capitalism’s obligingly acquisitive morality, do not need to be too choosy about how they come by it. For them, custom, rules and laws are there to be broken if by that they can win advantage over their rivals for power. What this means is that Labour are not alone in financial manipulation; the Tories and the Liberals have similarly disreputable histories.

Dodgy Tory Finances
The source of the funding of the Tory party is as prudently obscure as it needs to be –and it goes back a long way. Most infamously, in 1993 the businessman Asil Nadir fled to Northern Cyprus, out of the clutches of any extradition treaty, to escape prosecution arising from him defrauding  the Polly Peck company of some thirty four million pounds. Since then he has often told of his desire to return to England to face the music.  If he does so he may well be greeted by some old Tory friends, anxious that the years in exile have not stunted his generosity which, just before his hurried departure, ensured that he gave them £440,000. More recently a Berkshire company going under the name of Bearwood Corporate Services has been a generous, if selective, donor; it is owned by Bearwood Holdings which is itself 99 percent owned by an investment company entirely owned by Lord Ashcroft, previously Conservative Party treasurer and now Deputy Chairman of the party. The Bearwood contribution did not go to Conservative central office but to individual parties in marginal constituencies. But the effects were uneven; in the 2005 election of a sample of 15 seats six were held by Labour, six were won (2 of them gains) by the Tories and three  (one gained) by the LibDems. There are questions about Ashcroft’s legal status as a donor, connected to his complex financial affairs and whether he is disqualified from donating by really being domiciled in a tax haven.

Another large corporate donor was IIR Limited, a company dealing in conference and training facilities. This firm’s donations were registered with the Electoral Commission but they said that they were made personally by their chairman Lord Laidlaw. In fact Laidlaw is a tax exile, Scotland’s second richest person; he sold IIR Ltd, for £7 million, in 2005 and is one the four biggest donors to the Tory party. 

And so it goes on; what is abundantly clear is that the finances of the big players in the political game are anything but clear and open and accessible. The wealth of people like Abrahams and Ashcroft originates in the exploitation – the wage-slavery – of the working class, who are deceived by the political parties so generously financed into supporting the social system which keeps them in their inferior position. That is the motivation for the millions of pounds which, through a variety of labyrinthine accounting methods, finds its way into the coffers of the Labour and Tory parties and others like them. Through their exploitation and their votes  for these parties at the polls  workers are paying to keep themselves subjugated.