Recently there has been a good deal of looking back, recalling the events and atmospheres of the past quarter-century. Most people find pleasure in it because of personal associations — friends and places which have vanished now. In the clutch of present-day inflation it is remembered that everything was laughably cheap twenty-five years ago (without remembering that wages were correspondingly lower and bought no more). Society is the sum of relationships within a given structure. Has it altered? Did many hopes of 1952 come true? What kinds of fruit were borne by changes of government, technical advances, reorganizations, plans? We make our own brief survey.
War and Peace
Although only a few years old the United Nations was looking a little tarnished in the early 50’s. Formed after the devastation of the 1939-45 war, much lip- service was given to the concept of peace. But good intentions and pious talk are not enough it seems, for during its existence war has never ceased in parts of the globe. Korea, Malaysia, Aden, Hungary, Cuba, Congo. Israel, Egypt, Nigeria, Chile, Cyprus, Angola, Vietnam. Lebanon—that list is still not complete. The world is divided into three power blocks all armed to the hilt, and each possessing the ultimate weapon—the H-bomb. Many of these struggles have been civil wars with a rising capitalist class striving for power against the entrenched rulers, or between rival groups of capitalists for control. They have thought it worthwhile to expend their labour force to gain their ends, notwithstanding the terrible modern weapons that industry and science have produced. Sadly, they have been able to persuade deluded peasants and members of the working class to fight for them. The USA and her allies, Russia and satellites, China and SE Asian block stand by, interfering with arms or men in order to gain influence as each new flare-up occurs. The thought should not be overlooked that one of these could ignite another global war.
British troops, like others, have not been retained just for ceremonial purposes. By 1952 they had seen service in Palestine and Korea and were being used in Malaysia. They have since been involved in several of the conflicts as parts of the former Empire have broken loose, including the role they are performing in Ulster at the present time.
In 1952 the National Health Service was in its infancy but there were already rumblings of discord. The alleged object of this reform was that treatment would be available to all on the basis of need only. It was assumed that under those circumstances health standards would so improve that in the course of time expenditure on the service would decrease. The image of a “free health service” was sacred to certain Labour Party notables. Aneurin Bevan resigned in protest at a shilling prescription charge.
By now charges for dentistry, spectacles, and prescriptions are well established. While waiting lists for hospital treatment grow these establishments are being asked to reduce the length of stay of patients, hospitals are being closed as “uneconomic”, and there are cutbacks in building and modernization. The largest group of sick people are those whose malady can be loosely termed as mental illness—suffering from stress, anxiety, depression. Every year there are 20 million prescriptions (not pills) for barbiturates issued, and 6 million Phenothiazine tranquillizer tablets swallowed (Sunday Times 30th Jan. 1977). Relative health standards generally have not improved. The better-off still have better health, live longer, and spend more time in consultation with doctors than the poorer social groups. Medical research is hampered by lack of funds, and some of the advances made involve equipment and methods that are costly in money terms. Doctors have the harrowing decision of whether or not to give expensive treatment to patients. Some people die because the NHS cannot afford to save them.
By 1952 the 1944 Education Act was coming into full swing. One of the catch-phrases of this Act, which was regarded as a great step forward, was “secondary education for all”. It was argued that this would lead to better realization of abilities among the working class. The Act was enforced by raising the school-leaving age to 15 after the war, and by literally rubbing out the word “elementary” on the existing schools and painting in the word “secondary”. The type of education offered, and the status of the new secondary school, hardly differed from what had existed before. An 11-plus selection procedure was used, and it did not take long for the idea to develop that those “selected” for the Secondary Modern school had failed. It is interesting to note that the number of children thought suitable for a grammar-school education always exactly tallied with the number of places available, and whether or not a child passed the 11-plus depended on the area in which that child lived.
Comprehensive education was then devised to avoid the 11-plus selection, although whatever label it receives there is usually streaming inside the Comprehensive school. The school-leaving age has now been raised to 16, but learning skills have not risen in proportion to those extra years spent in school. Educationalists, unable to see further than the ends of their noses, have cast around for reasons, tinkering with different teaching methods.
Nobody is happy about education today, teachers, parents, or pupils. The false hopes of the early 1950s are gone. Now there are protests from some large employers about the educational standards of young people approaching them for jobs. Here they are contributing hundreds of millions a year to prepare their future work-force and their reason for education is being overlooked!
There are two changes which are of some significance. Teachers have become “militant”. One did not expect to see teachers going on strike twenty-five years ago. Once the conventional, respectable pillars of the establishment, they have learned that their position as salaried employees in “safe” jobs is no more sacrosanct than that of other workers. They are being forced to acknowledge their part in the class struggle. Secondly, their pupils have become more difficult to handle. Young people are no longer submissive, they are reflecting the pace and turmoil of life today.
This perennial problem was flourishing in the 1950s. It had been increased by the destruction in the war. Squatting had taken place in the late 1940s. when homeless families took over army nissen huts that were scattered about parks and open spaces. There were long waiting lists for council housing, and in 1951 the Conservative Party came to power with a promise to build 6 million new houses and solve the housing problem.
Their success can be measured by looking around today. Prefabs erected in the early 1950s with an estimated life of ten years have done stalwart service. Some are still in use! The foundations were laid for today’s detested tower-blocks. Council housing lists are longer than ever. Rent legislation has succeeded in drying up the supply of private rented accommodation. Workers who have managed to become owner-occupiers have crippling mortgages and high interest rates. According to the latest Shelter report the number of homeless people has trebled in the last ten years.
Everywhere you look
Other aspects are unemployment — there were those who claimed that the problem had been solved in the 1950s — industrial strife, pollution, inflation, racial tensions, crime. Not only have the measures taken by successive governments failed, many of their attempted remedies have thrown up further problems.
Is it then a catalogue of woe and nothing else? No. All through, there runs the desire of the great majority of working people to make as decent a life as they can despite the odds. The disharmony and mess are not their choice. On the contrary, they seek almost universally to make unpromising surroundings agreeable, to be good neighbours, to provide the best possible future for their children. It is precisely this desire for something better that makes them vulnerable to promises and enticements: only give me your vote today, says the Honest Man or the Strong Man or the Amazingly Clever Man of capitalism, and you shall have jam tomorrow.
The gap in realization is very small. Workers are not fools. Often they more than half know they are about to be sold again; but — it is thought and said — what else is there to do but take the least of three or four evils? Often too they are aware that an alternative does exist, but hang back from going against what appear to be stronger forces of opinion. Only a little more understanding and a little more will are required: and the next twenty-five years can bring a life altogether different.
The problems of society lie in its structure. While ownership of the means of life remain in the hands of one class it means the consequent enslavement of the non-owning class. There is a continual conflict of interests between those who produce wealth and those who possess that wealth. The solution to that conflict can only come by converting the means of production and distribution to the common ownership and democratic control of the whole of society. The understanding required to abolish capitalism and institute Socialism is within the capability of all workers; and the working class who run society from the top to bottom for the capitalist class now, are more than capable of running Socialism for themselves. The quickest way is the only way to Socialism, and that is by a majority of the working class understanding and wanting that change in society, organizing politically for the capture of the powers of government, and using that instrument for its own emancipation.
Turn your backs on despair and disillusion; and join with the world’s Socialist Movement to sweep capitalism from the face of the earth!