Monday, 3 February 2014

Visions of European socialism:

Bob Crow & George Orwell!

IN the July-August 1947 issue of the Partisan Review, George Orwell wrote a long essay entitled 'Toward European Unity' in which he made a strong case for a European based Democratic Socialism as a future model for society.  On Tuesday the 11th, February at the Waldolf Hotel in Manchester, Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union and others, will be arguing for among other things British withdrawal from the European Union.  It is not clear what kind of society Mr. Crow envisages for Britain, except for some kind of retro-public ownership model, a siege economy perhaps rather like that of General Franco's in Spain of the 1960s with precarious links to the EU and Nafta.  Maybe using this 'little-England' strategy Bob Crow would be able to do a deal with Putin and get some preferential Russian oil or gas deal like President Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukraine, or perhaps his recent cruise to Brazil was really part of an attempt to fit up a deal with the Brick countries.

It should come as no surprise to the English socialist that last Saturday's Daily Mail sported photos of Bob Crow  and his girlfriend on Copacabana beach in Brazil 'soaking up the sun' as the culmination of a cruise from Barbados.  The Daily Mail's journalists imply that Bob is a hypocritical socialist sampling the 'Champagne lifestyle', but this kind of lifestyle is the one that most Daily Mail readers, as well as Bob and his girl, would consider to be the desirable good life:  a kind of glorified Benidorm would be their idea of an ideal holiday.  Sadly Bob Crow's sun-burnt concept of utopia explains why Orwell, in 1947, wrote:
'A Socialist today is in the position of a doctor treating an all but hopeless case.'
The case is 'hopeless' because many English people who profess 'socialism' have a rather vulgar vision rather like that of Bob Crow sipping coconut juice from a straw on a Brazilian beach; in the same way as the typical Daily Mail reader in dreaming about the 'good life' is fantasising about the tropics and cruises in the Caribbean.  That's why we can't trust Bob Crow's 'Little Englander' politics because deep down his tastes and instincts are the same as the Daily Mail reader and Ukip voter.

Orwell had a clearer view of the international difficulties when he wrote his essay encouraging European socialists to unite in 1947, writing:
'... democratic Socialism must be made to work throughout some large area.  But the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work, in any near future, is western Europe.  Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the tradition of democratic Socialism can only be said to exist - and even there it exists precariously - in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France, Britain, Spain, and Italy.  Only in those countries are there still large numbers of people to whom the word "Socialism" has some appeal and for whom it is bound up with liberty, equality, and internationalism.  Elsewhere it either has no foothold or means something different.  In North America the masses are content with capitalism, and one cannot tell what turn they will take when capitalism begins to collapse.  In the U.S.S.R. there prevails a sort of oligarchical collectivism which could only develop into democratic Socialism against the will of the ruling minority.  Into Asia even the word 'Socialism' has barely penetrated.  The Asiatic nationalist movements are either Fascist in character, or look to Moscow, or manage to combine both attitudes...  In South America the position is essentially similar, so it is in Africa and the Middle East.  Socialism does not exist everywhere, but even as an idea it is at present valid only in Europe.'

Our hopes recently with regard to the Arab Spring have been dashed, and it makes one wonder if with regard to democratic socialism that there may well be a case to be argued for European exceptionalism with regard to the kind of society George Orwell was arguing for.  Orwell always believed he had experienced a form of democratic socialism in action in Barcelona in 1936, when he claimed that the people there had made great strides and achievements through their trade unions, especially the CNT.  In his essay Orwell wrote:
'But there are also active malignant forces working against European unity, and there are existing economic relationships on which the European peoples depend for their standard of life and which are not compatible with true Socialism.'

In 1947, George Orwell listed 'Russian hostility' as one of the threats because they would be against a Europe that was not under Russia's control - witness the current problem in Ukraine; he listed 'American hostility' because of the 'special relationship' and the cultivation of Britain as an 'extra-European power'; and he thought that the history of imperialism that had benefited Britain in the past in particular would work against the concept of a united European Socialism.  He was right about his sense of the parochial distrust of Europe among the British people; Ukip, Bob Crow and some elements of the British left are all examples of this narrow tendency.  And yet, by any reasonable standards, the idea of a democratic socialist tradition is still more likely in a unified Europe than anywhere else it seems to me.

No comments: