ONE blogs – JOHN CALDER – Man for Monday: WHAT’S IN AN ‘ISM’?

At One Magazine’s public day on ‘Lying’, based on Oscar Wilde’s amusing little book on its decay, I pointed out my definition of what a society based on greater equality and fair distribution of wealth might be like, one lady, assuming that I was describing socialism, said that she had passed half of her life under communism in Russia and had firsthand experience of the failure of socialism. I told her that Russia, although it had been under Lenin through a period of violent Bolshevism had never had socialism. She could not have been a particularly competent reader of Marx, because very quickly Stalin had changed a Tsarist dictatorship into a totalitarian dictatorship (of the proletariat only in name), which in a country that was at the time composed almost exclusively of peasants, was very little different. She did not get my point because, as with most people, they connect a name with a situation which might, in reality, have very little to do with its original meaning.

This set me thinking about the way words become distorted from what they are meant to mean, and about the shallow thinking of political language in general. Russia and United States are seen as opposites, but in reality they are both peasant countries. Both permit a small educated elite to exist independently, but both are also always in considerable danger from a fundamentalist, ignorant and often violently reactionary majority that when aroused by reforms of a progressive nature imposed by that very elite, can quickly become ugly. The present extreme right-wing attacks on President Barack Obama bring to mind the hysteria caused by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and, perhaps more recently, the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachov in the USSR by the Communist party Old Guard.

The lady who provoked my thinking did not know that the Scandinavian countries have, for many years, thrived under a democratic socialism, while tolerating responsible private endeavour, and that it was Clement Attlee’s Socialism that gradually enabled the British economy to recover from the last world war and, in the sixties, bring in a host of progressive reforms under Harold Wilson. In each case what lay behind those last periods of successful socialism was a greater public awareness of what was happening in society and interest in politics and government activity. And the reason for that was a massive increase in higher education, in quality as well as quantity. A very high level of superior education is also the cause of the success of those countries, like Sweden and Finland, that have a consistently high standard of living and a society that is more egalitarian than those where Global Capitalism, dominated by a culture of greed always seeks to cut social services with lower taxation, is prevalent.

In recent years- and the rot began with Margaret Thatcher- there has been a declining interest in the political, a fact which is patently obvious when one considers the ever decreasing vote at elections, a massive reduction of education at every level, to ever lower standards, a greed culture totally out of control that a so called ‘Labour’ government is so afraid of offending that it has poured taxpayers’ money into private hands to reimburse what the financial world has lost through thoughtlessness and blind faith based on greed. Money taken from ordinary working people, on the assurance of a complacent group of uneducated and overpaid politicians that everything will always go up, and never come down. The recession, and in reality it is far worse than that, started nearly two years ago and will certainly continue for many years to come.

Somehow, if democracy is to work in the real interest of all the people, and not remain something that can be manipulated by spin through the motivated Press, special interests and irresponsible politicians, matters of State Policy and what actions can lead to reform must be understood and constantly discussed by all those with the right to vote. Demagoguery, nearly always based on attempts to build and exploit prejudice whether the issue concerns narrow radicalism, nationalism or some sectarian divide, must be exposed and stopped. This relies not just on awareness and understanding, but on a nation-wide system of education, starting with reforms at the bottom and going up to higher University education being available to all, but achieved by something like eighty percent of the population. This means that both the status and rewards of those who teach must go up drastically. Those who manipulate the financial world for personal gain without any desire to better society as a whole should be stopped and replaced by trained administrators, working for the state and drastically punished for any deliberate wrong-doing. In brief, our entire financial system should be regulated by professionals in the service of the state; representing the common interest, where there are equal opportunities for those with the ability and talent, willing to make the effort to rise in the structure. To quote the old adage: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his (or ‘hers’ in both cases) means.

One can read political philosophers, economic thinkers and modern commentators and above all historians to grasp the full facts of our current predicament. Nothing, however, can replace individual reflection and puzzling out for oneself the meaning of what one observes in a society that constantly is evolving and changing- most of the time, unfortunately, for the worst. Not only do we have a duty to think, but to discuss, argue with others, be open-minded enough to see where one might have been wrong, something no politician seems to be capable of doing. One must never trust what someone else has said, or writes, without reasoning it out for oneself. There is no expert except what one aspires to be oneself; a self convinced thinking person, always open to new argument and to thinking better. Democracy, so prone to corruption, manipulation and prejudice, can only succeed in creating a civilised society if enough voters are educated or self-educated to a level of total independence of thinking. It is only then that the many ‘isms’ that exist will no longer be the line that divides different forms of prejudice.

John Calder 05/10/09