Is this progress?

There is, as we know, a vast Industry of Words which works flat out to justify and sustain the Capitalist system of society. One of the comfortable assumptions which this Industry uses to oil its wheels is that the present time (whenever that may be) is one of enlightened civilisation. A Japanese steel company, for example, advertises its products to Western businessmen in the following terms:

“The glow of the golden ’Sixties. The promise of the ’Sixties is a challenge to the imagination. How will the people benefit from the marvellous advances that are foreseeable?”

And so on. The advertisement may not be intended for a wide readership, but the point it tries to make is pretty general. The present is a good time to be living in. The past is rather doubtful —mistakes were made, foolish things were done, or foolishly left undone. Now, we have learnt our lesson.

How true is this? Was the period between the two World Wars, for example, any better than that since 1945? The ‘Twenties were certainly a classical period of cynicism and disillusionment. Strangely the boys in Fleet Street and Tin Pan Alley, who are good at such things, have always found it difficult to revive any popular nostalgia for the period. Perhaps it is because the frantic dances, the weird hair styles and clothes and what they called the “new morality” — although goodness knows there was nothing new about it—were the reactions of a generation bewildered by one of the most dreadful wars in history.

The tiniest village in England can show its memorial to a shockingly long list of young men who died in that war. And they died in such awful ways. They drowned in the mud at Paschendaele, they were slaughtered by the Turkish infantry at Gallipoli. It was so different from what everybody had been expecting when the British workers swarmed cheering into the streets on August 4th, 1914. Few among those delirious crowds could have foreseen the long, bloody anguish that quickly deprived them of all desire to cheer.

The Twenties saw what politician’s promises are worth. During the war there was no lack of well-kept ministers to assure the people who were actually doing the dying that they did not suffer for nothing. Some of the emptiest of the promises and the silliest of the blather have gone down in history and are still remembered with sardonic smiles. For there are still plenty of men who can recall coming home from the trenches to join the long queues at the labour exchanges, There are still bitter memories of the Means Test—so much so that the very name has political danger—and of official tricks like the “Not Genuinely Seeking Work” clause which were meant to deprive the unemployed of even the pitifully small dole. The Twenties were a time of brutal Capitalist reality. Who can be surprised that people were bewildered and cynical?

As the years turned into the Thirties there opened the long list of international conflicts—the invasion of China, the attack on Abyssinia, the German expansion in Europe—which led up to the Second World War. And the Thirties had the supreme example of cynicism and despair.

It is difficult adequately to explain why Fascism was so popular in Germany and not in other countries in which conditions were broadly the same. Whatever the explanation for this, there is one thing which can be said. Fascism, with its reliance upon the strong man leader theory and its extreme racialism, is the desperate product of despair. An unemployed man, or a man who cannot find a home for this family, is easy prey for the first rabble rouser who will point a finger at the Negro and say that he is filling all the jobs and living in all the houses. Or perhaps the Jew comes under the lash because, says the racialist, he owns the country and so controls what goes on in it. This is so obviously a doctrine of ignorance and despair that simply to state it is to expose its weaknesses. But when ignorant workers are having Capitalism’s problems thrown in their faces, and when they are shocked and bewildered and desperate, it is just the sort of theory that can find favour with them. That is part, at any rate, of the explanation for the rise of Fascism in Europe and of the astounding, dreadful things that it did there.

It is not wonderful, then, that some people recall the years between the wars with a shudder, as rather like a bad illness which came to its crisis in 1939. Many political commentators—and the Labour Party, naturally—like to write off those years as the devilish work of That Man Baldwin who, they say, was content to suck his pipe and gaze at his pigs in Worcestershire while the rest of the world decayed around him. Baldwin was certainly an unflappable Prime Minister, a long time before the word got pinned on to Supermac. He was an astute politician who played the game as dirtily as he had to. But to blame him for a whole period of brutality is to side step the facts. Because when Baldwin wits gone, hated and derided, the world went on the same merry way.

The Second World War may not have shocked, in the social sense, as harshly as its predecessor did. But it lacked nothing in barbarity. There has, for example, recently been published the details of the great wartime bombing controversy between Tizard and Lindemann. These men were highly trained scientists who hardly seemed able to avoid arguing. One of their bitterest clashes was over the question of whether the Royal Air Force should have bombed German civilians. Neither of them argued that it would be callous, even by their lights, to deliberately attack a civilian population. They fought over whether the air force was capable of doing the job and whether, if it was done, it would have any considerable effect on the German war effort. There is no need to suppose that either man had an emotional case; both of them went into it armed with cold calculations in terror and destruction.

While this was going on, the politicians were soothing us with their promises, some of which are supposed to have been fulfilled in the so-called Affluent Society. ”Affluence” means that workers, apart from a few million in the USA and Canada and a few hundred thousand in this and other countries, are fairly secure in their jobs. Some can buy a car—sometimes even a new one. They can take on the lifetime burden of a mortgage on a house—because they have given up hope of getting one by any other method. How affluent can poverty get?

And do not let us forget the shadow under which the Affluent Society has. grown up. Almost since the end of the last war, the world has been split into two great armed camps in dispute over the exploitation of markets and the possession of raw materials. The politicians have made countless threatening speeches. The Russians have let off their massive bombs and promised us that we have only seen a half of it. The American Secretary of Defence has replied that his country’s military power is virtually irresistible. The Affluent Society eats its food and breathes its air only after they have been soiled by the fallout. The world is as full of fear as ever.

There are plenty of organisations to complain about this. At a recent conference of the World Parliament Association. the organisation’s secretary-general drew some tempting pictures of the benefits which he thinks would result if some of the £1,600 million a year being spent on armaments by the British government were diverted to other uses. For £150 million every family in the country could be decently housed within twenty years. For £200 million the roads could be improved, possibly to save 20,000 lives a year. Anybody can do this sort of arithmetic. The point is, why don’t governments divert their country’s money into houses, roads, and so on?

We all know the politicians’ answer to that one. Of course, they murmur, it is all very regrettable. Nothing would please us more if we could pack up making all those beastly guns and bombs and build houses instead. The trouble is we have got to live with the Russians (or the Americans, depending upon who is answering the question) and they’ve got a big army. If we don’t watch out, they’ll start moving into parts of the world where we are boss at the moment. We must have armies and weapons, you know, to stop that sort of thing.

What this means is that Capitalism is bound to throw up its disputes because it splits the world into competing economic groups. The armies, the guns, the aircraft and the bombs are there to influence the dispute and if need be to fight it out. The late Aneurin Bevan summed it up when he appealed to a Labour Party Conference some years ago not to vote to ban nuclear weapons. Such a vote, he said, would mean that if he were to become Foreign Secretary he would have to go “naked” into the conference chamber.

The nations of Capitalism must arm themselves, must coldly work out the damage and death potential of their weapons, must perpetrate some of the most barbaric acts the human race has ever experienced. Sometimes human credulity breaks under the strain of it all and we are swept into the crazy, hard- boiled Twenties. Or bewilderment fertilises ignorance and breeds the maniacal savagery of racialism. The desperate, bloody story goes on, period after period, changing perhaps its form, but never its miserable content. The Twenties and Thirties may have been bad times, but nothing that has happened since has made them look worse by comparison. Capitalism Past is no better than Capitalism Present.


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