1980s >> 1989 >> no-1018-june-1989

Between the Lines: ‘Utopias’ and ‘First Tuesday’

The Myopic Visionaries

Somewhere in the basement of Channel Four there is an office in which is to be found a team of timewasters whose lifelong project is to make lengthy documentaries about “socialism” or “Marxism”. Over the years the C4 audience has been subjected to numerous programmes of this kind. We wait excitedly, expecting a serious analysis of the subjects so seductively advertised in the titles — and with regularity we are left feeling frustrated, cheated and wondering when the case for socialism would at least be mentioned in passing.

Utopias (C4, 10.45 pm, 1 May) was a classical production of the basement timewasters. The programme lasted for over an hour. It was clearly produced with enormous technical care, using props and recordings of speakers which looked like they were going to serve as a backdrop for something more than superficial. The title was intriguing. Socialists are often called utopians, and here was a programme offering eight “socialists” the chance to discuss their visions of what socialism means. Within the first few minutes that sinking feeling began: the declaration was made that this would not be a programme about definitions. Which meant, more precisely, that it would be a programme in which anyone who felt like it could call themselves socialists without being under the least pressure to explain themselves.

Then the visions commenced. Eight miserable bloody visions of capitalism run better than it is now, with the occasional reference to such limited dreams as being elements of socialism. Jack Jones, the first lofty dreamer, who as head of the TGWU advocated the so-called Social Contract whereby trade unions would agree to take lower wages in order to assist a Labour government to manage the capitalist economy, offered the vision of “fair pensions” and an incomes policy as his taste of utopia. Then came a “socialist” economist who talked a bit about the need for morality and the impossibility of doing away with market forces altogether; followed by some ex-strikers from Silentnight who had set up a furniture-making co-operative business and saw this little dot on the market map as their own piece of socialism in practice; Sheila Rowbotham’s utopia had been and gone. It was the GLC, and if that was utopia, then Birmingham’s a tropical holiday resort.

Rarely has so much valuable TV time been wasted upon such vague and limited visions of what could be. Here was a chance for a socialist to really show what life could be like in a world set free from the bondage of the profit system. A world of abundant resources in which people could give according to their abilities and have free access to the goods and services that they desire. This would have been something to make them sit up, make them now that there is something more that we could have if only capitalism was not here.

Instead of that we are offered neither socialism nor utopia, but the stale reformist outlooks of capitalism’s tame leftwing. As is often the case, the worst contribution of the evening was provided by the SWP. David Widgery, who is an SWP Leninist, a GP and a very pleasant fellow, trotted out the usual line that workers must organise to get reforms out of capitalism. As he put it, “In these times, to be a revolutionary means to try to hang on to reforms”. So, the total destruction of the capitalist system is to be postponed a while; there are prescription charges to be fought over. We can only hope that the men in the basement (or wherever they are) take a long time before producing their next intellectual tease.

The Practitioners of Genocide

First Tuesday (ITV, 10.40 pm, 2 May) contrasted strikingly with Utopias. It did not claim to deal with any grand intellectual theme; its subject was the My Lai massacre carried out by the US army twenty years ago. It was the most forceful and moving documentary to be shown on British TV for a long time. It should be seen by anybody who has illusions about the glory of war.

The documentary concentrated upon the way that military training brutalised a group of American workers, whose average age was twenty, into Nazi-like sadistic thugs. One of the few survivors in My Lai was interviewed. Like most villagers, her entire family had been killed in the massacre: “The more I think about it, the more I want to cry” she said, two decades after the atrocity had been committed. She had been thrown into a ditch with scores of dead villagers piled in on top of her. She explained how the soldiers had indiscriminately shot old men and women and infants and babies, how they had raped the women and done worse to young girls, how they had tortured the villagers and then lined them up in rows to be shot. Nearly every one of them was murdered in what the US press called the ‘Pinkville’ massacre.

The interviews with the screwed up soldiers who are still around to tell the tale demonstrated just how much both killer and killed are the brutalised victims of war. To be sure, the uniformed murderers survive, but with what memories? Psychologically, these men were wrecked; Vietnam had taken their minds and left them badly injured. One black ex-GI sat shaking and twitching. He is on major tranquilisers. He cries a lot. He looks over and over again at press cuttings of the massacre. He recalls, self-torturingly, how he personally shot dead about twenty-five villagers. including several little children. He sits next to a photo of his own son who was murdered in a street attack — and he explains that this must have happened as a punishment for his action in Vietnam.

But, as the documentary clearly showed, these men did not decide to go to Vietnam and slaughter innocent people. They did not act upon a whim. They were driven into a frenzy of violent hatred against the unknown enemy as part of their preparation for the job of being good soldiers.

The documentary ended with pictures of the modern US army being trained, explaining that what is happening to the soldiers is not different from the brutalising process which had turned those of twenty years ago into the practitioners of genocide. No doubt there will be some who will have seen this powerful documentary and concluded that this only demonstrates the awfulness of human nature. That would be a false conclusion; these soldiers were not born thugs, it was the system which required them to be that way. It is capitalism which makes killers out of decent men and women. These men should not feel self-guilt about what they have done, but angry about what they were made to become.

Steve Coleman

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