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International Socialism, Winter 1960/61


Ioan Davies

Talking about socialism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.3, Winter 1960/61, pp.30-31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Arnold Wesker
Cape. 21s.

The first and the last of these plays are a continuity dealing with a Jewish family’s place in the Socialist movement; the second is an exercise in working-class alienation and the problems of communication. Arnold Wesker has set out to trace the history of Socialism in Britain from 1936 to 1959 through the lives of a politically active community, making the vicissitudes of labour their own personal issues, and breaking off half-way to show the lack of impact all this has had on a working-class family. The personal loyalties among the Khans are used to stress the frequent crises, their high-gear temperaments exploding to underline the conflicts, and their international consciousness through World Jewry emphasising their disillusionment with the USSR.

But the plays are hardly a study in the history of the British working-class movement, in the problems of a small Jewish community, or the reasoned activity of individuals in politics. Rather, in Chicken Soup and Jerusalem Wesker prolongs his theme by dragging out the Khan’s protest, action and disillusionment merely against the background of politics. The cries of anger and pity might as easily be in a religious or commercial framework, and the oft-repeated ‘you must care’ and ‘politics is life’ are about as profound as the common cliché ‘it all works out in the end.’ For although the Khans, and particularity Ronnie and Sarah, are conscious of the betrayal of the working-classes by the Stalinists, the British Labour Party, and the Affluent Society, their Socialism is a creed that has not looked at the base of protest, and has not entered the factories and the workshops nor worked for a rationally revolutionary society. The two plays may be summed up in Monty’s jibe at Sarah: “Someone told her Socialism was happiness so she joined the party.” I might be fairer to Wesker if I thought that his own basic attitude was different, but as Jerusalem shows, his Socialism is an emotional protest and the vague William Morris talk is associated with all that is romantic and non-rational in Socialism.

Perhaps this is why Roots is a better play. It is a play of the shopfloor. Beginning with the prejudice and false consciousness of the farm workers, it attempts a new kind of affirmation. Beatie tries to press her relations to make their own protest and take action, and she herself is trying to break out of the romance of Socialism, borrowed from the Khans. It needs the shock that Ronnie (who, fortunately, never appears) is not going to marry her, for her to assume her own protest. The play grows in strength because the conflict is based on problems of labour conditions and political understanding, the author uses greater economy of words, and the characters, are carefully and firmly drawn.

Wesker is an important writer because he has placed on the stage people who are living in the middle of Socialist issues, who have seen most of the major crises of the Labour movement and have personally felt affected by all, and who are somehow determined to carry through with humanist objectives. But these plays, beside their verbosity and erratic characterization, contain a hotch-potch of political ideas which imply that somehow Socialism will survive, and that the stuff of politics is merely personal involvement and a warm, philanthropic sympathy. Mr Gaitskell could not ask for more.

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Last updated on 14 February 2010