Thursday, February 15, 2024

William Morris and art (2002)

Book Review from the January 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

William Morris: The Art of Socialism by Ruth Kinna. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. £14.99.

This is a series of titles on the theme “Political Philosophy Now”. As such it purports to reveal the relevance of William Morris’s political thought to the present. Most of the book, though, is an examination of Morris’s literature and the political context of his socialism, with only the introduction and conclusion displaying any attempt to reveal contemporary relevance for Morris’s socialism. However, the sections on Morris’s literature, the importance of art to the development of his political thought and especially the contemporary political background will be informative to those interested in Morris or the background to the emergence of revolutionary socialism in the 19th century. Ironically, it is where the book briefly tries to find relevance for Morris’s socialism that it is least worth reading, trying as it does to square reformism with revolutionary socialism.

The opening chapter rightly criticises those on the left who have tried to attach the legacy of Morris’s inspirational revolutionary socialist creed to whichever political fad is in vogue. Thus Morris has been subject to the claims of left-wingers anxious to establish a tradition for Labourism, libertarianism, utopianism, green politics and, most recently, “New” Labourism. In this vein Tony Wright has tried to reduce Morris’s relevance to a mere vision of an ideal, impractical because Wright supposes “Marxism” has failed, but somehow in a plural tradition of progressive visions. One only has to have a limited knowledge of Morris’s political writings to know that claims placing his politics in any other category than that of revolutionary socialism is historical fantasy and political falsehood. The central concern of Morris’s political thought, of socialism, is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a social system allowing for further human progress unrestricted by the constraints of the profit system and this remains its crucial relevance.

Although the author criticises attempts to bastardise Morris’s political thought for leftist and other ends, she proceeds to fall into the same shoddy practice. Inspired, no doubt, by the author’s own reformist tendencies, in the conclusion, Morris’s socialism is said to be outdated and his appeal is reduced to the desire to end poverty, the necessity for creative and attractive labour, the importance of meaningful education and, here the author is really stretching the bounds of credulity, an interest in the question of “national identity”. The irony is that (the last concept excepted as an irrelevance) if these aims are to be achieved it is precisely this sort of partial reading of Morris’s relevance which has to be overcome. By seeking to concentrate on values, or aspects of social change, the analytical whole is lost and with it the possibility of fruitful political understanding of the relevance of all-encompassing socialist revolution.

There are many better books on Morris available but it is his own works that still remain some of the best for understanding the pressing need for socialism.
Colin Skelly

Utopia or socialism? (2002)

Book Review from the January 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Yes – Utopia! – we have the technology. Ron Cook. Self published. Available on-line at £1; or as a 191-page paperback produced to order by the author for £5 plus postage (£1.50 UK, £3 overseas). Order from Ron Cook, 11 Dagger Lane, West Bromwich B71 4BT (cheques, sterling only, payable to “Ron Cook”).

There is a lot to like in this book, written by a long-standing member of Birmingham Branch of the Socialist Party. It is a well-researched analysis of contemporary capitalism, together with speculations about a possible and desirable future. Ron Cook is a keen technophile and much of his book reflects this stance. There are more references to computers than to revolution, more to machines than to education,. But he is by no means obsessed with technology. His 16 chapters range over democracy, production, shopping, crime and violence, women and children, and much else.

The book essentially puts the case for socialism, but instead of using that word utopia is substituted for it. Why can perhaps be guessed at.

There will probably be two main kinds of reader of the book. One kind will already know something about socialism. At various points in the book those readers will come across the word utopia. They will learn that utopia is something to be established by knowledgeable people who don’t need leaders. In utopia there will be freedom and scope for personal fulfilment. There will be no money in utopia. So when readers of the first kind learn that utopia is going to be that kind of world they can be forgiven for thing “But isn’t that what the Socialist Party stands for?”.

The second kind of reader won’t have come across the idea of socialism except as described by one of the capitalism-supporting parties or writers. They will read about utopia as discussed in the book and they may well like the idea of it. But there isn’t actually a Utopian Party – or even a utopian movement worth talking about. So to get anywhere they will have to look around and see what other organisation expresses the author’s views, which they would like to know more about and perhaps even join. And the answer is, of course – the Socialist Party.

In defence of the use of the word utopia, it has to be admitted that the word socialism does carry a lot of unfortunate baggage. But so does utopia. Labelling things is easy. But when the same label is attached to different packages it becomes necessary to inspect the packages. I hope the book has a future. But in a revised edition I personally would like him to seriously consider changing the title to something like “Yes – Socialism! – we have the vision and the means”.
Stan Parker

The Socialist Party and Trade Unionism. (1906)

From the September 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

[All Resolutions adopted during the course of this discussion have to be referred to the Party Membership through the Branches for ratification or otherwise. The decision of the Party will be published after the full Report of the Debate has appeared.]

[Continued from August issue.]

Fitzgerald said he was sorry Jackson had moved this amendment because the substance of it was contained in a resolution he intended to move. He opposed the resolution because it contained “terminological inexactitudes” and committed the movers of it to a position which he thought they perhaps did not understand. Because he contended that if the class principle was to be first it was contradictory to say the industrial was not non-sectional. The word “industrial” gave certain impressions in certain directions. The man in the street would have the idea that it was something different from the ordinary Trade Unions. But to the Socialist the word “industrial” conveyed something distinct. It conveyed I.W.W. The members of the Party who met to form an I.W.W. club during the week went there either to form a club to propagate Industrial Unionism or they went there as deliberate frauds. He would read the call:—

“Following on the resolution passed at the S.L.P. Annual Conference, April 15th, endorsing Industrial Unionism and pledging our membership to set up clubs for the spread of Industrial Union principles, several members of the London S.L.P. and of the S.P.G.B. have decided to call together a meeting to the end of formally constituting such a club. 

The meeting will be held at the Communist Club, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, W. on the evening of May the 16th at 8 p.m. Sympathisers of whatever political party are invited to attend and assist in the formation of a revolutionary economic organisation.”—Socialist, May, 1906.
The call fairly and squarely was to those who sympathised with the resolution of the Annual Conference of the S.L.P. on the I.W.W. The resolution referred to in the call was :—
“Considering that the task of emancipating the workers demands economic organisation as well as political, the Socialist Labour Party endorses the new international union known as the Industrial Workers of the World and urges the members arid adherents of the Party everywhere to set up clubs for the spread of Industrial Union principles as a preliminary to the definite establishment of the I.W.W. in Great Britain.”—Socialist, May, 1906.
Leigh, interposing, said that at the meeting at the Communist Club an entirely different resolution was put.

Fitzgerald said they had to examine their position in regard to the organisation known as the I.W.W. A certain preamble was laid down in the constitution of that organisation which they were told was revolutionary. The question was raised at the last meeting whether this preamble did not denote a revolutionary organisation. He said, no. What were the constituents of the I.W.W. ? First, the Western Federation of Miners. He read from the stenographic report of the Chicago Convention which said :—-
“I am … a member of the Western Federation of Miners, a revolutionary industrial labor organisation. We have not got an agreement existing with any mine manager, superintendent or operator at the present time.” (Page I54.)
But the I.W.W. had agreements with certain people : Haywood said, “We are a revolutionary organisation,” yet in the industrial war in Colorado the Western Federation of Miners asked its members to vote for capitalist candidates after lessons against which Featherstone was child’s play. And the W. F. of M. formed the backbone of the I.W.W. ! They therefore had a rank and file not understanding Socialism adopting a Socialist preamble. They claimed that the L.R.C., although it had certain members Socialist, and had passed a resolution in favour of the Socialisation of production, was to be opposed. They had again from the stenographic report the following statement by Delegate Klemensic:
“We must not overlook the fact that we are here as working men, and as such we do not recognise the Socialist, the Anarchist, or any other kind of ‘ist.'” (Page 232.)
At that conference De Leon and others, all members of the S.L.P. and the S.T. & L.A., were present, and not a single one got up to deny that statement. Another man, Delegate Murtagh, said, referring to a clause in the Preamble:
“I think that this clause is just exactly the thing, and is born of exactly the same need that the old live trade unions mean when they say ‘no politics in the union’ . . . It is useless for us here to attempt to disguise this fact that we have every shade of political opinion. We have the Socialists—I happen to be one of them who believe thai action in the political line is absolutely necessary. We have the Socialist on the other hand, who is so near the Anarchist that he is beginning to think as the Anarchist does, that action along the political line is absolutely harmful instead of being useless.” (Page 228.).
Now several people had made an attempt to explain that. They could not do it, but had to talk about something that might occur in the future. That is what Murtagh did. Another delegate, Clarence Smith, said :
“It seems to me that this paragraph of the Preamble particularly is intended, not to represent the Principles and purposes of Industrialism, but represents a toadyism to three different factions in this convention. (Applause.) … It seems to me that this paragraph could not have been more involved or more confusing if it had been written by the platform committee of the Republican or Democratic party. . . It seems to me that this paragraph is intended to be such that the supporter of this movement can point to it when talking to a pure and simple unionist and say ‘that is just what you want and expresses what you believe in.’ I believe it is intended to be such that a Socialist can be pointed to this platform with the statement that ‘this is Socialism.’ I believe it is intended to be such that an Anarchist can be confronted with this platform and told that ‘this means Anarchy as it is written right in this paragraph.’ … I am going to talk to individuals wherever I find them for this movement, and I cannot afford to have Bro. De Leon along with me every time I meet a man to explain what this paragraph means.” (Pages 220—230.)
As Smith said, it meant all things to all men. He hoped a lot of them had read “What Means this Strike.” In that you had one of the clearest expositions of the Socialist attitude to an economic strike. Moreover, some of them had heard De Leon in London. He knew of no man who could put the Socialist principle simpler than De Leon. It could not be said he did not understand the position. Then why did he attempt to wangle round the Preamble of the I.W.W. when he said :
“I know not a single exception of any party candidate ever elected upon a political platform of the emancipation of the working class who did not sell them out as fast as elected (Applause). Now it may be asked, ‘that being so, why not abolish altogether the political movement ? Why at all unite the workers on the political field ?’ The aspiration to unite the workers upon the political field is an aspiration in line and step with civilisation. Civilised man, when he argues with an adversary, does not start with clenching his fist and telling him, ‘smell this bunch of bones.’ . . . He begins by arguing ; physical force by arms is the last resort. Civilised man . . . will always give a chance to peace. But civilised man, unless he is a visionary, will know that unless there is Might behind your Right, your Right is something to laugh at. And the thing to do, consequently, is to gather behind that ballot, behind that united political movement, the Might which is alone able when necessary to ‘take and hold.’ Without the working people are united on the political field; without the delusion has been removed from their minds that any of the issues of the capitalist class can do for them anything permanently, or even temporarily; without the working people have been removed altogether from the mental thraldom of the capitalist class, from its insidious influence, there is no possibility of your having those conditions under which they can really organise themselves economically in such a way as to ‘take and hold'”. (Page 227.)
For sixteen years the S.L.P. had been endeavouring to get on all the ballots on a revolutionary basis. Now we come to the statement that any man elected on that basis would be a suspicious character. That was the fact of the situation.

He said :
“If any individual is elected upon a revolutionary ballot, that individual is a suspicious character. (Applause). Whoever is returned elected to office on a program of labour emancipation ; whoever is allowed to be filtered through by the political election inspectors of the capitalist class, that man is a carefully selected tool, a traitor of the working people, selected by the capitalist class.” (page 226)
In other words he used the same argument as Jack Williams used to E. J. B. Allen in connection with the unemployed that it was necessary to go to the Government and ask for something to find that you would not get it ! We fight for control of political power because the armed forces of the capitalist class were controlled by the political party. It was a fallacy that an industrial organisation could take and hold anything which the capitalist would not allow you. They could blow you out of existence when they liked while they controlled those forces. He opposed the resolution.

Phillips said he rose to oppose both the resolution and the amendment. He thought Fitzgerald was wrong when he said that the man who went to the I.W.W. meeting and did not take a part in it was a fraud. He (Phillips) went with the idea of seeing that the organisation had a sound political basis and a sound economic expression. He took up the same position with regard to the resolution as he took up towards the I.W.W. They were bound to fight existing Trade Unions and organise the workers on the economic field but he did not think the Bexley resolution good enough because it would allow the members of the economic organisation proposed, to ‘monkey’ on the political field. Upon the political as well as on the economic they should have sound organisations supporting one another, and they should not allow any members to in any way support Capitalism on either field. He did not think a case had been made out for the doctrine of ‘permeation.’ Therefore they had to organise the workers in an economic organisation to which they could point the members of the political party. He believed, however, that the rank and file of the S.L.P. and of the S.P.G.B. were honest and consistent Socialists and that neither organisation had departed from the principles of revolutionary Socialism. The only point was that the S.L.P. had endorsed an organisation which would allow its members to take any action they liked on the political field. He claimed that when members of the S.P.G.B. joined with members of the S.L.P. to form an economic organisation without a clear political expression they were not holding correctly to their principles. But while the S.P.G.B. allowed its members to belong to unsound economic organisations like Trade Unions the Party itself was unsound.

A. W. Pearson said during the week he had picked up a copy of the Weekly People in which De Leon points out that the S.L.P. in America should dominate the S.T. and L.A., or the economic organisation. The economic organisation should now, however, dominate the S.L.P., yet the I.W.W. will accept any brand of politics. He supposed a member of the working class would come to an I.W.W. meeting and ask what political party he should join. Then they would have the members of all the political parties shouting at once and claiming that their party was the only one. Leigh was speaking about members of the S.L.P. being quite willing to throw over their leaders. The S.D.F. and I.L.P. members were also saying they only needed unity conventions of the rank and file to effect unity. The S.L.P. only existed in Scotland because the S.P.G.B. was not there. It was already dead in London. If they were going to have a Trade Union let them have one affiliated to the Party. They did not want men in a Trade Union under false pretences—men who would accept a preamble said to be Socialism but who were class-unconscious. At the bottom of the I.W.W. business was merely the old anarchist principle.

E. J. B. Allen said he noticed Fitzgerald laid great stress on what the I.W.W. delegates had said at its convention. If they were going to take the speeches of any individual delegate they could make a great deal out of any convention. Trouble had been made because there had been an economic organisation established without affiliation to a political party and he maintained that the Socialist organisation could be formed without affiliation. The l.W.W. Propagation Society was formed to propagate what they believed to be correct. Let them look at the so called contradictory statement of the I.W.W. Preamble. The party that stated “until they come together on the political field” could not be an anarchist organisation. He had never said that it was not necessary to capture the political machinery. How were they going to take and hold the means of production ? He had always held that it was impossible until the political power of the capitalist class was smashed. When the political power of the capitalist class was smashed they would no longer have use for it. Last Wednesday five-and-twenty men decided to start a propagandist organisation. Did that look like seeking after big numbers ? When at the first conference of the S.P.G.B. he moved the resolution to establish a Socialist Union when sufficient members had joined he did not get a seconder. There were men who saw that a political party not the expression of a sound economic organisation could never make any progress. The workers had to be drilled with an understanding of their economic position, and the best way of getting them to recognise their class interest was to organise them on that field where they came every day in direct conflict with the capitalist class. The propertyless class interest of the worker could only be reflected in the politics of Socialism. Till the workers were united on the economic field as a whole they would have several types of so-called Socialist parties. The organisation of the present political State was a direct negation of the organisation which would prevail under Socialism. Therefore it was necessary to organise them on that basis. Men who may come into an industrial organisation, even if they were ignorant, could not but come to have a clear expression of their economic class interest. Educational work could be done effectively from an economic organisation. A political party not backed up by an economic organisation was trying to rush ahead faster than the rest of the working class. If they had these various political parties fighting one another and claiming to be Socialist they could do nothing until they had a sound economic organisation of the working class. The Socialist Republic had got to live on its economic foundation, and until they had a political party representing an economic organisation their efforts would be futile. While claiming that they should continue their political propaganda, they should have a sound industrial organisation. He claimed they had a Socialist union even if it was not affiliated to the S.P.G.B. Whilst the S.P.G.B. may be claimed to be the only sound organisation it was another thing to claim that there were no sound Socialists outside that organisaton. There were men in the S.D.F. to-day still trying to pull the S.D.F. straight. Had we the greater interest of the S.P.G.B. before us or the interest of the working class ? If there were S.D.F. members saying and advocating that the only sound principle was that of uncompromising hostility to the whole of the capitalist class at all times there was no reason why they should not work with them. He would say to these men, are you in favour of an economic organisation based on the class struggle and aiming at the overthrow of the capitalist system ? And there were such men. He was willing to unite on that basis with any man with honest principles, believing that men in a straight economic organisation could not but take straight political action. If they said the unions must take up the Socialist position what organisation must be offered to them instead of the present unions ?

Anderson asked whether Allen knew that the only parts on the Continent where the Socialist Party had been successful was where the political party had dominated the trade unions.

Allen said the political parties, as far as he knew, never ran a trade union.

Jackson in reply said Allen thought it was necessary that an economic organisation should be formed for taking and holding the means of production. An economic organisation alone could take and hold nothing. The question was one of class consciousness. He did not accuse anyone of dishonesty. The point was were they mistaken or were they not ? When the working class became class-conscious then such a modification of their economic organisation would take place that the necessary correct action on both fields would be taken. The logical conclusion of the principle of the I.W.W. was Anarchism, the General Strike, and street riots. Only when the mass of the workers had been organised in a political party of the workers could sound progress be possible.

The amendment was carried by 25 to 18 and became a substantive resolution.

Here A. J. M. Gray had to leave and W. Gifford was elected to the chair.

Anderson moved to amend by substituting the words “wage workers” for “trade unionists,” which was carried.

The substantive resolution as amended was then put and defeated by 20 to 13.

The discussion was adjourned.

A Look Round. (1906)

From the September 1906 issue of the Socialist Standard

A municipal bye-election has just occurred at Northampton. The Liberals and Conservatives united upon a candidate, who was successful with 1,021 votes. The unsuccessful candidate stood as a Socialist, but polled only 463 votes.

* * *

In the report of the contest appearing in the Northampton Pioneer, a writer says, “The inaction of the workers was most deplorable. Thousands of them refrained from going to the poll. . . Many of the Socialists even abstained from voting. This, I have ascertained, was due in many instances to their belief in the impossibility of Cde. Wright’s success. In one street alone six or seven Socialists would not go to the polling booth, because they thought our candidate was bound to be defeated.”

* * *

Personally, I believe that Socialists, when a definite policy has been decided upon, will pursue that policy, without regard to the prospects of immediate success. When once the workers become class-conscious, understand the one and only cause of their universal poverty, and that nothing but the Social Revolution will effect a change, there will be no occasion to complain of their inaction. But to induce a man to vote for a “Socialist” candidate because his program contains a number of “reforms” which it is hoped the capitalist class may be induced to concede, does not make him class-conscious.

* * *

The fact that a candidate’s program may have a “Socialist objective” does not alter the position. In the canvassing and campaigning generally that usually receives very little reference. It is the “immediate reforms” that are kept to the front, with the object of tickling the ears of the electors sufficiently to induce them to record their votes. One man votes “Socialist” because the candidate favours a minimum wage of 30/- a week; another because he advocates that children should have one free meal a day, and so on ; but it can’t be claimed that they understand the principles of Socialism, and therefore they are an unreliable quantity.

* * *

And often candidates with a “Socialist objective” do not understand the principles of Socialism how to translate those principles into intelligent action. When such are elected they are hampered by lack of knowledge as well as lack of opportunity, and the cause of Socialism thereby suffers.

* * *

As with individuals, so with societies. It is claimed, for instance, that the Gas Workers’ Union and the Engineers’ Society have a “Socialist objective,” but that has not prevented the E.C. of the former sending W. Thorne to support capitalist candidates, thus acting as a decoy duck for the master class, nor the latter subscribing to John Burns’ Wages Fund. Merely having a “Socialist objective” does not make a society, political or industrial, a class-conscious, revolutionary Socialist organisation, whatever high-sounding title may be given to it.

* * *

John Knight & Sons, Ltd., Soap Makers, Silvertown, have just declared the result of the second year’s working of their bonus scheme. The Managing Director pointed out that they had had to face exceedingly severe competition and they could only meet it by trying their very utmost to reduce the cost of manufacture and distribution. “Their idea was to encourage all those associated with them in business to expend all the energy they were capable of in order that they might attain the object they had in view.” The bonus arrangement is that for every one per cent. over six per cent. that the Company earn, the employees in regular employ receive one week’s wages. The bonus this year, as last, was three weeks’ wages.

* * *

It was stated at the meeting that in the works they had 18 different departments, each of which had to show by weekly profit and loss accounts what it was doing. This also enabled them to see how the different employees in the various departments were turning out their work. But for three departments, owing to the severe competition and the high price of raw material, the bonus could not have been paid. With those three departments the workers had really nothing to do.

* * *

The Directors, in their generosity, decided to renew the bonus scheme for another year, and hoped the men would show their appreciation of it in the way that they should.

* * *

It is all so very simple. For twelve months the workers are to “expend all the energy they are capable of.” They are to risk getting squeezed out and thrown on the capitalist scrap heap earlier than usual, with the object of getting two or three weeks’ wages as a bonus at the end of the year, if trade has been sufficiently good to provide them with regular employ. The wages bill must, of course, be kept down, and in busy times the men must work sufficiently hard to keep the unemployed at the gate. At the end of twelve months they may succeed in adding a shilling or so a week to their wages for the whole year, at the expense of a few years of their lives, and, on the other hand, having slaved hard all the year, circumstances over which they have no control, unfavourable markets, competition, and bad management, may prevent profits reaching the necessary percentage, and the reward after all the slaving is—a lecture.

* * *

Sir W. B. Forwood, presiding at the half-yearly meeting of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, gave as one of the reasons for the present unfortunate state of the concern, the concentration of ships and steamers into few hands. The result of this was, he said, that instead of a large number of individual owners, each of whom employed his own stevedore and gang of men, steamers were now worked by staffs attached to a particular dock, and not only was it not necessary for these men to make use of the railway, but a further trouble was that the increasing adoption of mechanical means for loading and unloading vessels had very largely reduced the number of hands employed.

* * *

Economic evolution is the term applied by Socialists to this concentration of capital into fewer hands, the extension and adoption of mechanical appliances, the sub-division of labour, etc. If some of those who are groping about to discover why there is an unemployed problem would study this economic trend they might be enlightened somewhat.

* * *

Last month, for the first time in the history of the Port of London, a cargo of tea was discharged by electricity. On August 1st the “Huntsman,” of the Harrison Line, laden with tea from Calcutta, was unloaded by a system of continuous rollers worked by electricity. The chests were placed on the rollers and conveyed from the ship’s hold to the storage shed, without intervention by men or the existing hydraulic machinery. The new process obviates breakages of the chests, hitherto very numerous, and reduces the number of men employed.

* * *

It is such instances of economic evolution which justify the attitude of the S.P.G.B. to the reform parties. They prove “The Futility of Reform.”

* * *

Mr. Edward Tregear, Secretary for Labour, Department of Labour, New Zealand, writing under date Dec. 14, 1905, said, “Every advantage in wages, etc., gained for the workers by arbitration is being exploited and neutralised by robber rents.”

* * *

It is a far cry from New Zealand to Woolwich, and yet Lord Goschen, a Tory Cabinet minister, declared in the House that whenever the wages of the Arsenal workmen had been raised the landlords had raised rents and left the working class as before.

* * *

It is impossible to get out of the vicious circle of capitalism, excepting by the complete abolition of the capitalist system.
J. Kay