Memories of Development By William Bowles

12 September 2004

Being raised in a world of socialist ideas and culture is both a blessing and a curse, the curse being one’s conscience. Some socialists I have known have no problem reconciling their philosophy with their jobs (aside from the occasional ‘twinge’), reasoning that one has to make a living somehow and I would never pass judgement on their choice, it’s just not something that I have been able to do and live with. Once selected, the worst thing one can do is feel endless guilt about it and worse still, do nothing to assuage the guilt.

I have to admit that my folks were probably the most unrealistic people I’ve known, they did little to prepare me for the realities of life. Money for example although always in short supply was never an issue, perhaps because we never had any. What we did have were comrades and friends one of whom supplied us with the best cuts of meat (he was a master butcher for a company that supplied the best hotels in London), so even if broke we always ate well.

As a kid, the weekly trip into town to visit the butcher shop where he worked was something I really looked forward to; the sawdust on the floor and the giant wooden trapdoor that led down to the cold room where my mum would select a leg of lamb or a cut of beef that Alf would then wrap for us in crisp white paper in a single motion that I can still see, his strong fingers stained with blood. At Christmas, we had roast pork; delicious brisket of beef, tongue as well as a turkey and for three days stuffed our faces along with a gaggle of people who had no other place to go at the loneliest time of the year.

My father was a musician, a skilled engineer/toolmaker and a professional trade union organiser for the Musicians Union who died in ‘harness’ as they say and far too young (he was 47) when I was ten years old. It was through my folks that I got introduced to the world of music, especially jazz, although my dad was into classical music, my mum, a chorus girl in the Tiller Girls was a jazz fan and a few of the 78s that she collected had survived, including Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ recorded some time in the 1930s.

In the 1930s my dad had worked on ships as a musician travelling to Latin America and Africa, a job that enabled him to work for the Communist International as a courier, a connection that in some strange and convoluted way must have contributed to me ending up working for the ANC some fifty years later. I know nothing about what he actually did and no doubt anyone who did has long gone. All I have are a few photos from that time and fragments of memories of conversations.

But there is no doubt that my folks ‘lifestyle’ meant that our tiny flat in Balham was always full of people from every part of the world, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, people who often ended up looking after me whilst my dad did his rounds of the theatres and clubs (making sure that the musicians were union members) and mum was at a Party-related function of one kind of another.

To say that my upbringing in Balham, a typical South London neighbourhood was somewhat unconventional, is to say the least, an understatement because although my childhood friends lived on the same street as me, their lives and that of their families might as well have been on another planet, so far removed were they from the world I grew up in. A world of political activism, demonstrations, meetings, and of course the people I met who introduced me to the great big world out there and no doubt were instrumental in feeding my endless curiosity about the world and its ways.

Readers of my essays are probably wondering by now what all of this has to do with our current reality but the truth is that the single difference between that long vanished world of my youth and the world of today is important because ultimately it had less to do with politics than with the culture of the Left, a culture that embraced the cutting edge in writing, music, theatre, science, history, in fact the ‘avant garde’ was synonymous with the Left in those days. We swam in an ocean of ideas that although ostensibly out of step with everyday life gave every one of us a solid foundation upon which to build not only our ideas but our lives. In our own, small way, we were ‘networked’ via trade unions, the Co-op, theatre, writing, political parties and all the cultural expressions that inevitably resulted from a world of ideas and activism. Internationalism was the central theme borne as it was out of the anti-colonial struggles of the peoples of the former Empire and if not the reality then at least the idea of solidarity based not on the nation but on a shared vision of a possible future freed from want and oppression that embraced all the poor and disenfranchised of the planet.

By way of contrast, the culture of dominant class then, as it is today, has its roots in the elite schools and universities that trained the rulers and managers of the capitalist state. ‘High culture’ as it was called belonged almost exclusively to the ruling class and the ruling political class exactly reflected the dominant economic class especially through the media and education. Britain is I think, unique in the way the mass media has been controlled almost exclusively through a single, monolithic mass communicator, the BBC, an institution that has since its founding in the 1920s, determined not only the content but also the ‘rules’ governing the nature of the discourse.

Looking back to those times, although obviously a minority, we nevertheless had a significant impact on society for not only were we viewed (and presented) as a ‘threat’ to the status quo (whether real or imagined), collectively we contributed to a discourse on the nature and direction of society, a discourse that although demeaned and dismissed by the dominant organs of propaganda and the state, the very fact that we were considered a threat to the status quo was a grudging admission of our influence on society, why else the barrage of propaganda directed at such a small and, according to the ruling elite, ineffectual group of malcontents?

Today, besotted by its ‘victory’ over socialism, the capitalist class and its advocates now dominate the discourse on the events of our times, relegating the Left (such as it is) to a tiny space on the periphery. Demoralised, we howl at the moon, lacking a cohesive culture of resistance that in a previous era had its roots in the industrial working class and the intellectual voices who gave it expression. A process over one hundred years in the making and tossed away in the blink of an eye.

But nothing is forever as they say. What we lack is a whole bunch of things including (but not necessarily limited to) a new concept of solidarity based on an expanded notion of class struggle that embraces a wider range of alienated peoples that is not limited either by income, education, job title, national boundaries, ‘race’ or gender. Unrealistic? Utopian? But without a vision nothing is possible. For many coming from the ‘traditional’ left, it means abandoning many of the shibboleths of a concept of class struggle based upon a class that effectively, no longer exists. This doesn’t mean that class struggle has ended merely that the composition and nature of the struggle has changed, broadened and deepened.

Many on the traditional left pour scorn on the idea of the formation of a transnational left, arguing that the logistics, national variations and so forth, preclude such a thing from happening. Yet global capital is inexorably erasing national variations, ironing out differences of wages and working conditions, let alone the nature of the work process itself. Global communications are compressing space and time and forging an international culture that is both local and universal. It’s why the free movement of labour is in my opinion, central to any progressive agenda, a position that most on the ‘left’ have a hard time accepting, perhaps because they’re afraid of alienating the bigots and racists, in other words for purely opportunistic reasons. For let’s face it, talk of an ‘ideal’ population size anywhere on the planet is a nonsense. How many is too many? It’s over 150 years since Malthus proposed the idea of ‘over-population’, yet we have yet to see any country on the planet where the idea has an expression in reality.

There is only one reason for the extreme demand on resources and that is consumer capitalism, not only energy expensive consumer products but for example the insane ‘beef culture’ that has destroyed many economies in developing countries, and not only do hamburgers make us all fat and ill, raising beef is an extremely wasteful method for converting sunlight into food.

Ironically it is perhaps the fact that many millions now live off the fat of the land, if you’ll excuse the pun, that we may well find a new alliance of constituents composed of people who a generation ago would not have been caught marching together.

The vast outpouring of people who marched against the invasion of Iraq was important not just because of its size but because of the diverse cross-section of people who came together and walked side by side, united by their opposition to an immoral and illegal war and by the realisation that their leaders had lied to them and by the exposure of the anti-democratic nature of their government. Are these the first stirrings of a new alliance of classes? In America you have the bizarre experience of Ralph Nader’s appeal to American conservatives who although there are many things that they and the left would never agree on there are certain fundamental principles that unite both left and right under these new and unique conditions.

Ultimately, it’s still early days to envision what new alliance of forces will emerge yet again to challenge the iron grip of capital as it enters yet another period where its ruling class, driven mad by its own uncontrollable impulses, dumps us all in the shit. That it’s all ultimately the responsibility of just one country, the United States, is a situation that has only occurred once before, at the peak of the British Empire’s power, during the last quarter of the 19th century. But by 1914 that hegemony was over, a period of less than forty years.

The emergence of a truly global expression such as happened before the invasion of Iraq is something that has never happened before, reflecting the fact that it is mediated by the global communications network, virtually in real time, competing with the corporate and state media that in turn is forced to recognise and hence report on the existence, the nature and size of this new type of opposition even as it attempts to diminish its size and effect on events.

In turn, global opposition to the imperium’s actions is slowly becoming aware of its own potential to effect change as sees its (distorted) reflection in the media’s mirror.

But this a learning experience for a new kind of emerging Left, one that probably started with the 2nd Gulf War, then there was the success of the US and Britain in selling the dismemberment of Yugoslavia to its populations. In other words, the class struggle has entered a new phase that is being played out in the arena of mass communications in the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’.

Degenerate capitalism is impacting on ever wider swathes of society no longer limited to largely economic issues. Health, the environment, loss of faith in the state and increasing alienation. The challenge then is to produce a coherent strategy that can encompass such a diverse cross-section whilst moving toward the complete transformation of society.


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