Between the Lines: The Duty to be Free?

A few months ago I watched one of the most saddening documentaries to be shown on TV this year. It was not about starving children or concentration camps or inner-city deprivation. All of those are far more hugely tragic than the theme of this documentary, but this was the most depressing. It was about the coverage by New York TV stations of the sensational public trial of a prosperous lawyer called Joel Steinberg who had systematically degraded and beaten up his partner, Hedda Nussbaum.

When she first met him she was an attractive. talented designer of children’s books; as the relationship developed she lost everything—her looks, which were battered out of her; her dignity, which she lost sight of; and her freedom to do or think anything without the permission of the man whom she imagined had superhuman power. The court case came about because Steinberg ended up by beating to death the couple’s (illegally) adopted infant daughter. Lisa. He was charged with manslaughter. The question which became a talking-point for the New York TV viewers was. how responsible was Nussbaum for the death of the child? Her defence was that her lover had virtually brainwashed her and that she was physically frightened to disobey him. She claimed that she wanted to stop him beating the child, but knew that if she did she might be killed. She was afraid to leave because she had become totally dependent upon her lover, and he had convinced her that everyone outside of him was conspiring to destroy her. Under his orders, so she testified, she began to smoke cocaine (crack) which she used both to please her partner and to relieve her fear.

The Oprah Winfrey Show (C4, 1 September. 10.30pm) had a studio discussion about the questions posed by the Hedda Nussbaum trial. Battered wives explained how it is that repeated physical violence and personal humiliation knocks out of them the will to defend themselves. They submit to anything, even endangering the safety of their children. Nussbaum’s closest friend was on the programme and she argued that there came a point at which Nussbaum could no longer be expected to do anything for herself. The author of a novel about the case also appeared, arguing that everyone, under whatever adverse circumstances, has a responsibility to defend themselves, and. especially, to defend those under their care who are too young to defend themselves. She contended that Nussbaum should have been charged as well as her lover.

For a socialist, the matters of legality are not at issue. It is not for the US state to determine the guilt or innocence of child abusers when they, through their perpetration of poverty and their cultivation of the war machine, are willing to make suffer and to kill millions of children. The question of the state, as usual, is an interference in human affairs. Neither need socialists spend time entering into the finer debates of individual ethics. The fact is that capitalism deprives vast numbers of workers of the chance to make the best decisions about their lives. Are we to force the parents of the 15 million children under the age of five who starved to death last year to repent for their immorality? What else could they do? It was the hopeless cultural rut in which so many people under capitalism find themselves (even economically affluent workers like Steinberg and Nussbaum) which was one of the most depressing things about the documentary and subsequent discussion.

What was more depressing was the wider question raised. Do humans have a duty to free themselves from oppression? In relation to the profit system, is the working class irresponsible for supporting the system? There are two Marxist answers on this: one is to say that capitalism imposes an ideology upon workers which can only be broken out of when the working class is historically ripe for escape from capitalism—until that moment it is foolish to blame the workers for all of the problems from which they suffer. The second answer is to say that humans are always able to muster within themselves a certain amount of intelligent response to their conditions and to fail to reach out for this is irresponsible.

In the month after the BBC’s distasteful celebrations of the beginning of the war which killed millions of European workers, we could well think about this whole question. On the one hand, the Nazis were “seduced” by Hitler and his pernicious ideology; they were victims. Similarly, workers of the Russian Empire were victims of Stalin. But if they were captured ideologically, could they be held responsible for the atrocities committed in their name? Could the worker who voted for Thatcher in 1979 be held responsible for the deaths of the men whose lives were wasted in the Falklands War? And not only those who voted for Thatcher, but those who refused to actively oppose what she stood for by becoming socialists? To say that deluded workers are irresponsible seems to be the same as saying that a baby who burns herself is irresponsible for not knowing better. On the other hand, if there is to be no question of irresponsibility in history. then not only has nobody any right to say that Hedda Nussbaum should have defended her child from her lover’s beatings, but also we cannot suggest that workers who think that nuclear bombs make them secure are irresponsible in their support for what might well kill all of us.

One solution to the dilemma presented itself while watching Oprah Winfrey and her guests: some of the women on the programme had been battered and they did get out of the situation they were in. If they did. then resistance becomes a possibility and failure to resist needs to be explained. Similarly with the fight against capitalism and all that it is doing to the workers of the world. If some can escape from the ideology which we were taught since the cradle, then we have a right to expect others to respond historically in the same way.

If we can understand the duty to emancipate ourselves from capitalism, why should we excuse our fellow workers on the grounds that they have been conditioned to accept what we have managed to reject? Is the black South African who has been bought for the armed service of his racist masters to be blamed as an accomplice of racism? Are the teenaged Chinese soldiers who were almost brainwashed into slaughtering other Chinese soldiers irresponsible? Difficult questions—and extremely depressing.

Steve Coleman