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Book Reviews: 'The Abolition of Britain', & 'Socialism and Communication - Reflections on Language and Left Politics'

Is Britain being abolished?

'The Abolition of Britain'. By Peter Hitchens. (Quarter Books)

It certainly is according to rabid right-wing Daily Express columnist Peter Hitchens. Hitchens, who is critical of Mrs Thatcher and regards Michael Portillo as being too liberal, has set out his stall in a book which argues that the post-war period (especially since the 60s) has seen the gradual erosion of everything that once characterised Britain as a great independent Empire nation.

According to Hitchens, Britain's political, economic and social institutions have been taken over by "cultural revolutionaries" whose clear aim has been the abolition of Britain by stealth. This has resulted in some of the following: the decline of religion, morality and family life; the ruination of a perfectly good education system with comprehensive schooling; the legalisation of homosexuality and the rise of permissive sexual practice, and the abolition of corporal and capital punishment. Underpinning all of the above has been the general decline in respect for authority and patriotism. For Hitchens, this has led to a Britain which is no longer at ease with itself and one which has closed its eyes to its own history which is held in contempt.

Needless to say, with the arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour on 1 May 1997 the final nail in Britain's coffin was hammered home:

"1st May 1997 really was the start of a new era. The new Prime Minister's triumphal progress to Buckingham palace and Downing Street was filmed from the air by sycophantic broadcasters as if a dull cortege of motor cars were a rebel army finally emerging from the sierras to occupy a conquered city."

And we are all aware of what has subsequently followed. Devolution for Wales and Scotland, House of Lords reform and of course plans to join the single European currency and merge Britain into a federal European super-state. For Hitchens, all this is tantamount to treachery.

For socialists, Hitchens's entire concept of "Britain" is wrong. All capitalist societies are divided along class lines—capitalist and worker—therefore any talk of "nation" or patriotism is palpable nonsense. Capitalists and workers do not share a common identity nor do they share any interests in common.

Given this, it would be easy to dismiss Hitchens's views as the ramblings of a mad reactionary "golden-age" theorist who presupposes that the 1950s represented the last bastions of a perfect society. Hitchens, however, has identified certain negative trends in society but has drawn the wrong, reactionary conclusions.

The real materialist backdrop to Hitchens's entire argument is Britain's comparative economic decline as a world power and the profound social and political changes that this has undoubtedly brought about. However, Britain's decline started way before the second world war (as far back as at least the latter part of the 19th century) so there is a historical qualification to Hitchens's argument. His basic error lies in his uncritical support for Britain's imperial past whilst at the same time condemning Britain's rivals for having similar ambitions. His understanding of the nature of capitalism is clearly inadequate.

Clearly there is much wrong with modern society but it is not the result of the so-called "Liberal Revolution" of the 1960s. It is due to the decline of capitalism and the subsequent social havoc which has been created. Of course, Hitchens is really on a Christian/moral crusade against homosexuality and the rise of sexual freedoms which has threatened the sanctity of the traditional nuclear family as society's cornerstone.

It may be argued that Hitchens's obsession with morality is a cover for the increasing gap between rich and poor with the obvious social consequences: poverty, frustration, alienation, family breakdown and violence. However, Hitchens is slightly more sophisticated than this. He decries not only both main political parties for presiding over Britain's moral downfall but also the legacy of Thatcher:

"The apparent rebirth of Conservatism in 1979 was a false dawn because the Thatcherite movement was not interested in morals or culture. It believed mainly in the cleansing power of the market, which has much to be said for it but which has no answers to many fundamental questions—and which cannot operate properly unless honesty and stability are enforced through both ethics and law. Worse, the Thatcher government unwittingly helped to destroy many of the things Conservatism once stood for. In eighteen years of power, an immense time, the Thatcher-Major government was unable to reverse a single part of the cultural revolution, not least because it barely tried, and did not understand it."

There is always a certain irony when a staunch defender of capitalism starts to invoke a moral code for human behaviour but in a way it is quite refreshing. At the very least, Hitchens believes that humans are capable of behaving decently (although some of Hitchens's views can hardly be described as decent). However, he is likely to be disappointed because a social system based upon production-for-profit instead of production-for-need is almost by definition anti-social and amoral.

DAVE FLYNN

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Correct language

'Socialism and Communication: Reflections on language and left politics'. By Omar Swartz, (Avebury, 1999)

This short book, by an American self-styled communication professional, will prove both encouraging and frustrating to socialists. On the positive side, Swartz says a number of things that we say, or at least with which we don't disagree. But on the negative side he says much that represents confusion about what socialism is as opposed to capitalism, much that is calculated to deter the growth of socialism rather than promote it.

The good news first. In the order in which they appear in the book, Swartz makes the following statements:

    * Socialism ... can be usefully understood here as the system by which human beings—once their essential needs are taken care of—are motivated to work and create by considerations other than monetary profit.

    * The communist party cannot be hierarchical. It cannot be authoritarian.

    * The task of socialism is the battle against alienation.

    * Class conflict transcends racial or religious conflict, and is the root of all conflict.

    * The true socialist must reject the “beneficence” and “wisdom” of the so-called “vanguard parties”.

    * Socialism is about the abolition of all masters.

    * There are many different socialisms, some preferable to others.

    * [The communist party] cannot be anything more than a loose coalition of various leftist perspectives.

    * The left believes . . . that political decisions must be based on the active involvement of the people being governed.

    * In a very real sense, the world is crying out for a strong left leadership.

    * The choices before us are not between “socialism” and “capitalism', but between better or worse forms of government and economics.

    * There is too much fragmentation and divisiveness in the ranks of the political left. This divisiveness must be transcended.

The basic trouble with Swartz's position, and those who think like him, is that they are desperate to be part of a big movement, and are willing to sacrifice any long-term goals they may have for the sake of short-term expediency. The divisiveness that Swartz deplores is not between groups that share the same goal and differ only about how to achieve it. It is between a presently small group of convinced socialists who are organised to achieve their goal and a presently much larger group, some of whom pay lip service to the socialist movement and all of whom prevent the growth of that movement by supporting various reforms of capitalism.

STAN PARKER