Posts Tagged ‘Ruskin’

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

May 16, 2020

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons┬átreatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.

 

 

Radical Balladry: John Clare, the Enclosures and the Destruction of the Environment

May 18, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Jess also posted up this poem by John Clare, the 19th century poet and agricultural worker, in her comment to one of my pieces on radical working class music and poetry, as another piece that continues to speak to modern needs and issues today from over a hundred years ago. In this instance it’s the threat to the environment from intensive commercial agriculture.

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
John Clare

Click to access clare-poems.pdf

Firth and Arnove include it in the section, ‘Land and Liberty’, in their The People Speak, as an example of popular protest against the Enclosures, which saw thousands of tenant farmers and agricultural workers forced off their land as they were enclosed and developed by the landlords.

Historians now take the view that before the rise of the Romantic movement, and particularly before Shell published their motoring guides to the British countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, people had a much more utilitarian attitude to the environment. Rather than seeing it simply or primarily as a place of beauty, it was seen instead as a working environment, valued by the people who lived there for the resources they could exploit.
This changed when Shell published their motoring guides, which opened the countryside up to city dwellers, who were now able to travel by car into the countryside to enjoy its beauty and quaint, historic buildings.

I’m not entirely convinced by this. While people I know who’ve come from a farming background have said that the farming and agricultural community does have a much less romantic attitude to the countryside, and does indeed see it in terms of what can be used, people down the centuries have always celebrated it’s beauty. You can see it as a far back as one of the Viking romances. There is a tale where a Viking warrior decides to leave his home due to harassment from other, hostile warriors. Travelling on the road away from his farmstead, he takes one last look at it. He is struck by the beauty of the sun shining on his farm in the valley, and so changes his mind. He turns back, determined to fight for his land and his home.

And of course there are all the songs and poems written during the Middle Ages about the beauty of the countryside in spring time.

As for modern attempts to preserve the environment, these date to the late nineteenth century, when Ruskin and others up and down the country started a movement to preserve the local countryside from development so that local people could continue to enjoy it, over two decades before the Shell Guides appeared. The enjoyment of the countryside, not just as a place of work, but also as a place of leisure and beauty, goes back a long way.

The Face of 19th Century Serfdom: Coming Back to a Supermarket Near You

January 8, 2014

Serf Work

19th Century Picture of Russian Serfs at Work. This is the real face of slavery – toil, degradation and despair, not the cheerful optimism the Prince’s Trust promise.

I’ve blogged and reblogged articles by myself and others, such as the redoubtable Johnny Void, pointing out that workfare constitutes and form of 21st century slavery. Earlier this week I reblogged a piece by Mr Void, in which he reports and attacks the Prince’s Trust for recommending an expansion of the workfare programme to combat the feelings of utter, suicidal hopeless felt by a third of the nation’s young jobless. The Prince’s Trust appears to believe that this would work on the grounds that actually performing some kind of work can allow a person to feel valued and that their life is worthwhile, even when they’re not paid. The great 19th century artist and essayist, William Ruskin, recognised that if work was interesting, worthwhile and enjoyable, then the workers would not care quite so much about payment, and tried to act on it. Now this is true. A friend of mine told me that the work he set the mason’s building and decorating his house was so fulfilling, that they willingly worked on it for sometime without payment, simply because the work was so good. There are thousands of people like myself doing voluntary work, not to get paid, but because the work itself is rewarding.

But that’s the point: it has to be rewarding. Otherwise, it really is another form of slavery. Ruskin recognised this, and his remarks were not to advocate unpaid labour and the exploitation of workers, but to demand their better treatment and that work should be made more interesting, pleasing and fulfilling as part of a general criticism of the horrors of 19th century capitalism.

The workfare embraced and extolled by the Prince’s Trust is the complete, absolute opposite of this. Those benefit claimants wishing to do some kind of meaningful, fulfilling voluntary work have been met with hostility and sanctions by the Jobcentre. One of the best-known examples of this was the Geology graduate, who was forced to take court action after the Jobcentre tried to stop her working in a museum and send her stacking shelves in the local supermarket instead. I’ve encountered exactly the same attitude from Jobcentre staff in Bristol. This is not the fulfilling, aesthetically and spiritually uplifting labour envisaged by Ruskin, but simply another form of serfdom in which the individual is made to labour without payment for the profit of the immensely rich. The picture at the top of this post shows the reality of such serfdom in 19th century Russia. It was back-breaking toil, in conditions of grinding poverty, without any hope of release or improvement. And this isn’t by any means the only painting to show similar scenes of poverty and despair amongst Russia’s immense population of the unfree.

Barge Haulers Volga

Barge-Haulers of the Volga, by the great Russian artist Ilya Repin, showing the kind of hopelessness coming back under workfare.

One of the classic depictions of 19th century Russian slavery is the picture, ‘Barge-Haulers of the Volga’. This shows a line of ragged men, ranging from teenage boys to the old and elderly, harnessed together to pull a ship up the Volga river, simply by brute force like horses pulling barges in Britain. Their eyes are dead, their faces devoid of all hope. This, the painter says, is all they can look forward to in life – just more toil, endless, meaningless, degrading toil, from youth to death. I’ve no doubt that it was the horrific conditions endured by so many serfs that is responsible for the country’s severe alcohol problem. There’s a Russian saying about money: too much for bread, not enough for shoes, just right for vodka! When poverty is so great that even some items of clothing are unaffordable, and the quality of life and work so poor and degrading, people automatically turn to drink and drugs for some kind of release. It was the same with the factory slaves here in Britain in the 19th century, when the labouring poor sought oblivion in cheap gin. If workfare continues to expand, you’ll see the same faces and expressions amongst the workfare slaves people stacking shelves as on the 19th century Russian serfs: crushed, dead-eyed individuals from whom any hope has been robbed.

There are other similarities between 19th century Russian serfdom and today’s workfare. Although serfs comprised the overwhelming mass of the country’s peasant population, they were also used in factories and mines. Even after they were officially liberated by Alexander II, 19th century Russian employers continued to look upon their workers as serfs, free in name only. I can remember being taught at College when studying the causes of the Russian Revolution that in the 19th and first years of the 20th century, the Russian factory masters actually told the workers ‘We own you!’ And to make it absolutely clear that this is not propaganda, the lecturer himself made very clear that he wasn’t a Communist, and if he, by some weird accident he did end up in a Marxist party, he would soon be thrown out. There’s a technical distinction between serfdom and slavery. The serf is tied to the soil, and so technically cannot be removed from the estate on which he or she is settled. The slave, however, is his master’s personally property, and so can be taken anywhere his master wishes. It’s a fine distinction which was circumvented and ignored in Russia. Serfs could be and were bought and sold between different members of the aristocracy. This is shown in the picture below. Entitled, ‘The Bargain’, it shows the cheap sale of a serf to a noble. Now there are private companies involved in promoting the government’s workfare programme, such as, unfortunately, the Salvation Army, who clearly see it as a way of acquiring unwaged labour, exactly like the noble shown in the picture.

Serf Bargain

The Bargain: A 19th century Russian painting depicting the cheap sale of a serf. A 21st Century equivalent would be a company or charity bidding for a workfare contract. Then and now, workers are being bought and sold without their consent.

There is one difference between 19th century Russian serfdom and its early 21st century equivalent. In Russia artists were actively involved in showing the reality of poverty, feudalism and exploitation. One of that nation’s artistic movements was The Wanderers. They were so called because they moved from town to town with their paintings, which showed the poverty and degradation endured by the country’s working population. It was a form of agit-prop avant le parole. The 20th century equivalent is some ways were the social realist documentary makers and dramatists, like Ken Loach and others, who used film as a way of highlighting contemporary British social problems. I’ve no doubt there are still some like that out there, but nauseatingly they appear to have been replaced by squalid Right-wing propagandists determined to portray those on benefits as feckless, parasitical scroungers. I’ve reblogged a piece from the Oprichnik of the Oprichnik Rising website, whose friend was so misrepresented on one of the BBC’s programmes. This week the Tory linked Love Productions broadcast a documentary, Benefits Street, which was similarly biased. Tom Pride has extensively covered it, and the threats of violence it generated from Right-wing outraged viewers to his disgust over at Pride’s Purge. We need someone like The Wanderers in this country, to expose the growing workfare serfdom here.

Once upon a time Russian revolutionaries and intellectuals, like Turgenev, looked at their country and asked ‘Who can be happy in Russia?’ With the return of serfdom in the guise of workfare to Britain, we can turn the question round, and ask ‘Who can be happy in Britain?’