Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

A Dream of Fair Marshalls

(April 1960)

From The Newsletter, 23 April 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

‘NOW look here, madam’, said the marshal to the Quaker, ‘you can’t carry that placard in this march – it isn’t campaign policy;’ And he pointed to the poster she was carrying, which said: ‘Quakers say no to all war’. ‘This is a march against nuclear bombs’, he went on. ‘We are not against ordinary bombs, you know. In fact, we say nothing against conventional means of war – or war itself. I’m told that there are some Tories here, supporters of the Suez affair, including the raid on Port Said when so many women and children were killed. You mustn’t antagonize them, you know.’

At this point another marshal noticed the placard carried by another member of the Quaker contingent. ‘What’s that? “For Christ’s sake, disarm! “ Oh, I say, apart from this not being a march for general disarmament, don’t you realise we have Moslems, Hindus, Jews and people of no religion at all taking part in this march? How can you make a sectarian issue out of this great human problem? How would you like it if somebody came carrying a placard: “For Anti-Christ’s sake, disarm?”’

And then I woke up.

What Is Poverty For?

During the Aldermaston march I had a talk with an earnest New-Left type who felt that we of the Socialist Labour League still failed to realize how much capitalist society – in Britain at any rate – has changed for the better since the war. When I quoted to him the appalling cases of poverty discussed by Audrey Harvey in her pamphlet Casualties of the Welfare State (Fabian, Society, 2s. 6d.), his reply was that such cases were marginal – deplorable, of course, but affecting, after all, only a minority, and therefore hot typical.

This argument reminded me a little of the argument which used to go on among Soviet writers about what sort of people were ‘typical’ Soviet citizens. Obviously the inmate of a concentration camp was not typical in the sense of being representative. Equally obviously, however, his presence in the camp was not without potent influence on the behaviour of people not so situated.

The same is true of the destitute in our society. Why has the government allowed the real value of insurance benefits to lag and lag behind the rising cost of living, so that National Assistance now plays such a big role in so many people’s lives when they fall sick, lose their jobs or reach old age? The money needed to make up the benefits to subsistence level would be very little by comparison with many items of State expenditure which are never questioned. Is it meanness that explains why they don’t do this? No, I think it is not. During the 1920s and 1930s it was often pointed out that the amounts saved by keeping the dole down to starvation level were comparatively trivial – but the answer always came that that was not the point, the important thing was social discipline.

Capitalist society, like Christianity, needs a hell. There may not be terribly many people in it at any given moment; but the mere danger of falling into it can help to keep the masses on the straight and narrow path prescribed for them by their pastors and masters. If social insurance is in practice inadequate to safeguard the workers from the effects of misfortune he will (it is hoped) be all the more careful to live his life in a way that will enable him to save money against a rainy day. The poverty of a few is to ensure the docility of the many.

Professor R.M. Titmuss, in another recent half-crown Fabian Tract, The Irresponsible Society, shows how, parallel with the increasing inadequacy of the provisions of the ‘Welfare State’, a whole system of private pension and benefit schemes have developed, whereby the social security of the individual worker is conditioned by his loyalty to the firm which employs him, in a way that recalls one aspect of the feudal order. There’s a chastening thought for our history-repudiating friends of the New Left!

Ghosts Walk in Carron’s Castle

A recent episode at the London headquarters of the Amalgamated Engineering Union has led to inquiries about the historic ‘siege of Peckham Road’ shortly before the first world war.

That was a period when technical changes in industry were altering rapidly and fundamentally the position of skilled engineers, and changes in the union (then the ASE) were needed to meet the new problems. The executive council showing itself unwilling to make these changes, a delegate meeting called upon them to resign and face a fresh election in January, 1913. When it became evident that the executive meant to defy the members and hold on to office, the delegates appointed a provisional executive council to take over.

James Jefferys, in the official union history ‘The Story of the engineers’ (1945), tells how ‘the executive council locked themselves in with provisions at the new head office in Peckham Road, London, and refused admission to the provisional executive. The wall of an adjoining house was broken through and after an undignified skirmish the executive council were ejected into the street.’ They took legal proceedings against their ejectors, but failed – after their efforts had brought a lot of unpleasant publicity upon the society.

Are We Red Teds?

‘The Socialist Labour League was the worst thing which came out of the reforming of the “Left”.’ Thus Tom Jackson, who is, I believe, a member of the executive of the Union of Post Office Workers, writing in that union’s journal The Post for March 26. His subject is: The New Left; An Important Development, and he discusses developments in the Left in Britain since 1957.

Fortunately, he points out, ‘at the same time that juvenile delinquents of politics were coming together in the SLL, another far more important group was developing’. This was the so-called New Left, now gathered round the journal New Left Review, to which he proceeds to give a puff. No analysis of our own Labour Review, of course – or even so much as a mention of it in the course of several paragraphs of generalized abuse of our doings.

This may not be juvenile but it seems to me pretty delinquent as a political method. The ‘New Left’ are welcome to their patron and fellow-humanist.

Last updated on 15.10.2011