The Guardian 14 March, 2007
Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
The day of reckoning
In his short story An Encounter, Alan Marshall’s narrator tells of a visit to a barber’s shop. The question of communism comes up and the barber admits to being ignorant on the subject.
"I’m not for or against it. But I’d like to learn", he says. However, he’d had an unfortunate experience with regard to the topic.
"Two chaps came in here once, and they said … ‘Do you believe in communism?’ and I said, ‘I know nothing about it’, and they both went off the deep end.
"I wouldn’t shave them. … They said I’d get mine when the revolution came. Well, that puts a bloke off."
Set in the 1930s or early ’40s (it was first published in book form in Marshall’s 1946 collection Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo), the story is today historically interesting, for it demonstrates an attitude that was prevalent at the time within both the Left and the Right: that the Revolution was imminent.
I touched last week on the way the more reactionary elements of big business (and their governments) aided and abetted the rise and development of fascism as a bulwark against that same Red Revolution.
They even contrived to continue providing support to fascism even while they were officially at war with the fascist Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). After the War, not surprisingly, they rehabilitated the capitalists and the corporations that had backed the Nazis and their ilk.
During the same period, the belief persisted among some sectors of the Left that capitalism would up and expire very, very soon. Its continued and unexpected resilience was a baffling blow to some Comrades.
There was one long-time comrade in Sydney, Bruce Bull, a good comrade and a good friend, who in the 1970s was still convinced that capitalism was about to fall in a heap at any moment. He watched eagerly for the signs of this much longed for collapse.
If Wall Street suffered major losses one day, I knew that Bruce would be on the phone later that day or certainly the next day to exuberantly welcome the slump as the harbinger of all-out collapse. He became very despondent when I did not share his vision.
But Wall Street is only one aspect of capitalism, it is not the whole capitalist system. In the second half of the 20th century, capitalism spread it tentacles into every corner of the world.
Even while bigger and bigger corporations went belly up, and productive capacity continued to diminish or be under-utilised, the rate of exploitation kept going up, profits kept climbing and more and more of the world’s resources were appropriated by the big corporations.
This particularly impacted the Third World, whose people were impoverished in the interests of shoring up global capital.
Briefly, capitalism has been able to stave off the day of reckoning so far by soaking up the wealth of former colonial countries, by forcing developed countries to open their markets to products from low wage countries and by forcing workers who want jobs to become migrants, resigned to travelling to other countries in search of work.
There is another old comrade who rings me regularly for a chat. He rails against the skullduggery of both Liberal and Labor politicians, and certainly there’s plenty to get upset about there.
But more recently he also expresses his despondency about the revolutionary movement in the world. He was born into a Communist family and joined the Party as soon as he was old enough.
Now, however, he has difficulty maintaining his optimism about the future. This despondency is not just the result of the continued ability of capitalism to renew itself at the expense of the bulk of the world’s people.
It is also a matter of perception. It should never be forgotten that capitalism controls the bulk of the mass media, and is thereby able to mould people’s perception of the state of the world, their perception of the nature of the global economy and, perhaps crucially, their perception of what’s possible.
Our perception, here in Australia, of the state of the world revolutionary movement, of the progress of the people’s struggles on a global scale, is, I suggest, vastly different to that of people in South Asia or South America, say.
Huge, successful workers’ movements are winning elections, repelling the attempts of US imperialism to bully them into submission, overthrowing "Royal" autocrats and other would-be dictators, forming economic blocs independent of and in defiance of capitalist corporations.
If our mass media were able to report the actions of the world’s working people honestly and free of the obligatory reactionary bias that warps it now, we would hardly recognise the world that would be revealed.
This is no time for despondency. Rather, it is a time for optimism!