George Walford: Editorial Notes (40)

Is it good or bad? On the one hand, worries about unemployment, and cries of triumph at having got more people back to work. On the other, a report that since 1979 the increasing productivity of car factories has enabled them almost to halve the number of people employed to 289,000 – and that, too, proclaimed as an achievement.

THE FEMINIST “saw God, and She was black.” With theology corrected, we await the amendment of diabology – and feminists who prefer to leave Satan his masculinity might bear Blake and Milton in mind.

DOES the law alter public opinion? Hardly. Rather does public opinion alter the law.

“The moment when first the conqueror spared his victim in order permanently to exploit him in productive work was of incomparable historical importance. It gave birth to nation and state; to right and the higher economics, with all the developments and ramifications which have grown and which will hereafter grow out of them.” (Franz Oppenheimer, State: its History and Development Viewed Sociologically. 1914. Reprint 1926, NY: Vanguard Press).

“CIGARETTES kill 1,000 times more people than heroin does.” (David Simpson, director of ASH [Action on Smoking and Health] OBSERVER 21 May 89).

REVOLUTION, like ideology, cuts across classes, and the French one with its guillotine did so only too literally. In the Terror some 40,000 were killed, barely 10% of them nobles, while of the 1,500 victims of the September massacres all but a handful were ordinary men and women. (Patrick Taylor Martin, reviewing books on the French Revolution, SUNDAY TIMES 21 May 89)

WHICH general claimed to be engaged in a triumphant retreat, while the enemy advanced in utter disorder?

The BBC (6 O’Clock News, 5 June 89) reports a row between government and opposition over pensions. The two sides seem to agree that pensions have kept up with inflation but Labour, and the people who speak for some pensioners’ organisations, complain of a growing gap between pensions and wages. This might appear to give grounds for satisfaction, since it means the condition of the workers has improved, but that view is not taken; all emphasis goes on the pensioners’ having dropped behind. IC has commented already on the tendendy of the reformers and revolutionaries to put equality before well-being; their present complaint, placing no value on what the workers have gained, speaking only of what the pensioners have (by comparison) lost, invites correction by a reduction of wages, closing the gap by bringing the workers back towards the pensioners. IC would not recommend this. (Not that either party has asked our advice, or seems likely to do so).

If it be agreed that there is something wrong, then the question arises: Who is responsible? One can, of course, blame the government for this as for most other social problems, but the workers have a remedy in their own hands. Nothing stops them from donating to the pensioners enough of their pay to restore the balance. Perhaps the pensioners would indignantly reject such charity, but it would be nice of the workers to give them the chance to do so.

Alternatively, we could congratulate the workers upon having won benefits and seek similar improvements for the pensioners, the unemployed, and other groups so far excluded. But this would mean accepting that capitalism has, in this instance, served the interests of the workers.

Growing liberalisation in the USSR has eased pressure on the communist parties abroad. From the 1930s into the 50s the Communist Party of Great Britain spoke with two voices, advocating the humane and liberalised society envisaged by Marx but also supporting the brutalities of Stalinism. After Hungary they began to change, and now the abondonment by the Russian Communist Party of the attempt to force its beliefs upon an unwilling populace has released the CPGB to follow its deeper inclinations. The SUNDAY TIMES, not a paper disposed to favour revolutionary movements, describes its new manifesto as “quiet and impressive,” saying it is now a pleasure to converse with the party, and reporting that it is “acquiring respect and goodwill out of all proportion to its exiguous numbers and rather gaslit name.” Systematic ideology indicates that the range of movements from conservatism to communism, none of them taking an exclusive stand, are capable of co-operation and, in fact, dependent upon each other for success. It was not easy to reconcile this with the earlier stance of the CPGB, but it too has been moving towards acceptance of complementarity.

Writing under this title [1] Jeremy Seabrook objects to the privatisation of council housing. It fosters separateness, increases the numbers of the homeless, produces aesthetic disaster as the new owners overdecorate their new possessions, and leads people into debt and trickery; some couples have pretended to separate so they could buy a second council house, to be sold for profit.

Accepting Mr. Seabrook’s facts, who is responsible? Council tenants were not forced to buy their houses, they chose to do so. Their choice was not unconstrained, but in a complex society no significant choice ever is; the decision to become council tenants was not unconstrained, either. Mrs. Thatcher appears as the demon of Seabrook’s piece, being motivated by “ideological hatred,” yet even if we swallow the naive idea that she, herself, effected this social change, what in fact has she done? She has widened the range of available choices, offering many council tenants an opportunity they did not have before. In objecting to this Mr. Seabrook demonstrates the conviction of the reformers and revolutionaries that in economic matters the people must not be allowed to follow their preferences. Political freedom, yes; full liberty to think, to assemble, and to speak publicly. But when it comes to material goods, to buying and selling and owning, rigorous controls must be imposed. Movement along the ideological range is not from restraint to freedom but from one combination of freedoms and constraints to another (which turns out on examination to be a near mirror-image of the first). [1] OBSERVER COLOUR SUPPLEMENT, April or May 1989 (no date on cutting)

As the German Greens have increased their following the blue tinge in their colouring has strengthened; having originally entered politics as a small movement standing for (among other things) peace and anti-militarism, in growing they have become involved in trading favours and support with other parties. This has recently led their
deputies to vote in favour of a huge military budget. (SOCIALIST STANDARD April 1989 p. 60)

In this shift they follow a familiar British precedent. As the Labour Party has become a party of government it too has moved towards acceptance of armies and what comes with them. In the thirties the arms dealers were “Merchants of Death,” but among the proudest achievements of the post-war Labour governments were large orders for the British armaments industry.

A moralistic response is tempting but unhelpful. The ideology which places high valuation on powerful armaments (together with private ownership, and political solidarity of the nation behind its leaders) attracts far larger numbers than the one which values the contrary features, and this governs the sizes of the movements which set out to express the different out to express the different ideologies. The outstanding example of a movement which tries to alter the ideological structure to suit its own preferences is of course the (A-)SPGB; declaring that it needs a majority to accomplish its aims, after 84 years of unremitting effort in a country now containing some 50 million people it has around six hundred members.

Evidence accumulates of the inability of even communist indoctrination to affect the more deepdeated levels of ideology. Soviet Russia is now into its third generation since the Revolution, but local patriotism continues to outweigh any interest in the working-class as a world-wide group. In the Southern Soviet Republic of Georgia the Abkhazians demand independence, and in one day 18 people died in the resulting upheavals. (TIMES 12 April 89).

Abkhazian pressure has been strong enough to extort concessions – more Abkhaz language schools and textbooks, their own university, more investment. Georgians, Estonians, Latvians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians and Ossetians are all pressing forward. After seventy years of communist education and propaganda it is the prospect of national independence that arouses their hopes, producing the riots and the martyrs.

These events go to confirm that the assumptions governing the political-ideological behaviour of large social groups do come in determinate, predictable sets. From soon after the October Revolution until within the last decade or two the ideology underlying what is known in Britain as liberalism was denied public recognition, the power of the state devoted to an effort to impose communist principles. Following preliminary moves by some of Gorbachev’s predecessors this pressure is now being released, competition, private enterprise and political democracy being accepted again. But these things are parts of an ideological constellation to which a high valuation of independent nationhood also belongs, and it is the┬átotal constellation, not just selected parts of it, that comes to the surface when pressure is released. If the Russians are going to accept private enterprise and competition and political democracy they will find themselves facing also demands for independence from national minorities.

China has run up against a different facet of the same problem. Unlike the USSR it is not a union but a single ethnic unit; that statement doubtless requires some qualification, but China does not faze minorities seeking independence. But it, too, has attempted to admit one part of the “liberal” ideology while maintaining suppression of the other parts, and it too is finding that this ideology, like others, is a whole. An economic system which secures freedom for large numbers of small units to engage in competition requires political democracy.

What do Mrs. Thatcher and William Blake have in common? Each of them tries to deny the existence of society, reducing it to its constituents. Mrs.Thatcher does this directly; saying: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” [1] Blake asserts a wider principle: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” [2]

Characteristically, the simple statement of the traditionalist coheres while the more ambitious effort of the revolutionary falls into self-contradiction; Blake’s repudiation of generalisation is itself one of the broader generalisations. But coherence is one thing, validity another. Mrs. Thatcher may refuse to look at the wood, fixing her gaze on individual trees, but the wood still possesses attributes not possessed by its constituent trees, and this establishes its reality. A wood can outlast each of its individual trees, and commonly does so, it has a micro-ecology of its own and affects climate, and to ascribe these effects to a number of individual trees acting together is only to use that clumsy phrase as a synonym for “a wood.”

Any complex entity can, conceptually at least, be reduced to its constituents, but only at the cost of losing some of its attributes; water can be reduced to hydrogen and oxygen but neither of these exhibits wetness. Society can be reduced to men, women and families, and every generalisation to its particulars, but in each case some attributes of the original disappear. The beings known respectively as Mrs. Thatcher and William Blake can each be reduced to a few pints of water and a small heap of dust, but in that condition they would attract neither voters nor readers.

Blake’s repudiation of generalisation, if carried through, reduces thinking to something incapable of that repudiation, for it is itself a generalisation. Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion is self-consistent but the response to it demonstrates the reality of society, for it attracted attention only because it was made by a Prime Minister – holder of an office created by society. [1] Quoted in the OBSERVER COLOUR SUPPLEMENT, April or May 89 (no date on the cutting) [2] Quoted in Peter Marshall’s William Blake, Visionary Anarchist (London: Freedom Press, 1988) p. 23.

JOHN RENTOUL has written Me and Mine: Triumph of the new individualism (Unwin Hyman 1989). Declaring the opposition. parties to be philosophically united as collectivist opponents of conservative individualism, he concludes that they can beat the conservatives in the next election provided they work together. They hardly needed him to tell them this; the demand for unity has been a constant theme of left-wing spokesmen almost since the movement first appeared. Unfortunately for these parties, the tendency towards intellectual and political individualism that arises and strengthens in the course of ideological development has the effect that this demand remains a demand.

IC (following Peter Lumsden) has pointed out that if we are to have chairpersons in place of chairmen, and policepersons in place of policemen, then we must also accept hangpersons; to these gun-, sword- and riflepersons have to be added, and Margaret and Patrice Higonnet, in reviewing a batch of books on the French Revolution (TLS May 19) show that the capacity of women to transcend the limitations of the “gentle and caring” image is no new thing. When the Parisiennes marched to assault the Tuileries one of them was dissuaded by the crowd from carrying the pike, a weapon reserved for men. (The contemporary illustration accompanying the article shows many women carrying pikes, and others rifles with fixed bayonets).

The calls by Pauline Leon and Theroigne de Mericourt for female battalions remained unheard, but women repeatedly demanded arms, “hundreds” disguised themselves as men and joined the army (Angelique Duchemin receiving the Legion of Honour for her military services), and “thousands fought in the journees.” Members of one women’s organisation publicly whipped a woman who had aroused their wrath. By committing assassination Charlotte Corday plunged further into violence than most men ever do, and women took commissaries hostage, pillaged shops, seized food supplies, and used drums to incite the men to fight.

The writers repeatedly use phrases suggesting that women generally acted in this way: “women’s commitment to political abstractions.” “Women understood the need to create or renew means of political expression.” “What moved women to vocal, explicitly political consciousness?” “As Revolutionary history unfolded, women failed in their strategy of combining a Rousseauist discourse with Jacobin politics.” Of course it wasn’t so, and the implication (perhaps unintentional anyway) is refuted whenever a direct approach to specific events reveals how small a proportion of women took an active part. In this, of course, women were not significantly different from men. The great majority of both sexes, remaining peaceably at home or at work through all the upheavals, because it makes no news receives no publicity.

Of particular interest here, Dominique Godineau, author of Citoyennes Tricoteuses: Les femmes du peuple a Paris pendant la Revolution Francaise, is reported as deducing from her studies that “her popular leaders were driven not by years of poverty or pangs of hunger but by political alignment.”

ANARCHISTS, communists and socialists seldom realise the extent of general disinterest in social and political affairs, even the more dramatic ones. An American Gallup Poll taken in September 1942 reported that some 40% of those questioned said they did not know “what this war is all about,” and other enquiries confirmed this. (Reported by Christopher Thorne, TLS 7 April 89). And not knowing what it’s all about is a different thing from refusing to accept official explanations.

RELIGIOUS thinking, at least in its less sophisticated forms, entails accepting some sort of special connection between representation and reality. Painting, statue, and character in a nativity play are taken to be, in some sense, all one and all identical with the saint being represented and adored. The connection is hard to define and clearly not fully rational, and one result of this is that the demotion of religion to a less prominent role comes to be presented as a move towards greater public rationality. But religion, and the pattern of thinking manifested in religion, are two different things, and one feature of this change has been the appearance of the pattern in new connections. The public are notoriously inclined to identify the actor with the role, and politicians would be less concerned about their “image” did responses to it not affect themselves. Nor is this all; engineers and builders use blueprints and plans to produce machines and buildings while science itself uses (or did use, pre-computer) the trails left in a Wilson cloud-chamber, the pattern on a spectroscopic plate and the image of a star in a photograph to widen knowledge about the world. So where does all this leave us? The answer seems to be: With a fuller recognition of the way sophisticated modes of thought incorporate the simpler ones rather than displacing them.

ARCHIMEDES could not use his lever to move the world for lack of a fulcrum, and a similar difficulty faces students of ideology. To start from the assumptions of any one major ideology would be to take a slanted and blinkered view, yet no independent base can be found, no mental attitude external to the system of major ideologies, to use as a standpoint from which to study it. Only one solution offers: Whoever would tackle this sUbject has to accept the assumptions of all the major ideologies, grappling as best they can with the difficulties entailed.

from Ideological Commentary 40, July 1989.