Fifty Men of Brum

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Fifty Men of Brum

Despite (or perhaps because of), the horrors of war, some felt that it engendered a sense of community. Following the war, people worked together to rebuild their communities. It was a time of optimism, hopes for a better future with opportunities for everyone.

After the war, a Labour government set about developing the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education, and an intensive building programme of hundereds of thousands of homes. A decent home is one of life’s necessities to which every one is entitled. Later, Thatcher’s Right to Buy Policy led to the depletion of social housing stock, which eventually fell into the hands of unscrupulous landlords, and to contributors to the Tory party. The immorality of Buy-to-Let mortgages forced up the price of housing out of reach of many ordinary people,  and Housing Benefit paid to rich landlords is now necessary so people become trapped by the system.

After the war,  fifty men of Birmingham set about building their own homes, after a day’s work. This inspired more self-build schemes to be set up around the country, demonstrating it is possible to take the system on, if people get together, and organize. How could this be done today? What could people-power achieve?

Article 1: Reproduced from Illustrated magazine – October  1949

FIFTY MEN OF BRUM

Published in ILLUSTRATED, October 8, 1949

WILLI FRISCHAUER

 

Housing experts all over the country are watching the progress of a team of pioneers who are building their own homes 

 

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Where they sit their homes will be. These men are two who are putting up their own bungalows at Sheldon, Birmingham. They are having a fish and chip lunch on the site. Nearest the camera is Frank Hobbs, number seven on the list for a home. His mate is Tom Young, who number eight Both are telephone mechanics working in Birmingham’s Post Office Factory, two of a team of fifty who have banded together to work on their projects in their free time. They go to the site after leaving their regular jobs, in the evenings and at weekends.

Bright new roofs push upwards in the suburbs of those cities made dusty grey as the homes of the people crumbled under Hitler’s bombs. Clean brick walls show their friendly redness against the trees and grass of the countryside. In town and village there is a great movement as those who lived for so many years in single, crowded rooms or shared discomfort with parents and relatives in houses built for one family, pack up their belongings and find peace in homes of their own.

Since the end of the war, say the latest figures, 541,531 permanent houses have been provided to shelter those who enjoy it so much with so great a patience, while

157,146 temporary roofs cover those families who hoped for something better in the future.

But up and down the country there are those who get restless with waiting. They want to see their houses growing brick by brick. They do not want to hear about official priorities. And so they set to work.

There are fifty such pioneers in the city of Birmingham……..fifty among the population of 1,104,000. They are men who work in Birmingham Post Office Factory and all are members of the British Legion. When they came back from the war they joined in the moaning and groaning at the delay and frustration over getting a home again. Birmingham was building fast – by now 3,395 permanent and 4,625 temporary houses have been put up by the local authority and 1,665 by private concerns but not swift enough for the fifty ex-Servicemen.

It is now that ex-paratrouper George Lavender drops into the story. What was the good of moaning and groaning, he asked.   “Why not build our own homes? The best way to get things done is to roll up your sleeves and start to work.”

And that is what George and his friends did. They studied the rules and regulations. They applied for licences and were lucky in getting some expert advice and assistance from a well-known local architect. This scheme was based on voluntary labour. Trade union men themselves, they wanted to be sure not to cross the path of the professionals among the builders.

Since their plan relieved the hard-pressed building trade, all obstacles were soon removed. George Lavender selected forty-nine of his comrades and devised a scheme by which each of them contributed £20 for essential preliminaries. They bought a lorry, a concrete mixer, and other equipment and obtain the support of the building society.

Then began a training period of more than six months during which the men spent their leisure hours – every evening and every weekend – building walls and pulling them down, mixing concrete, handling trowels; doing every kind of job that goes into the making of a house. At last they were ready to start.

That was last May. Today is the first home is ready and grace a pleasant site at Sheldon, not more than half an hour bus ride from the centre of Birmingham.

No. 1 bungalow goes to Tommy Morris, thirty-one, married, with two children. When I saw him he was sorting out bricks at the far end of the busy building site. He was smiling and humming away. His equally cheerful companion was young Murry Smith, who handled a concrete mixer as if he had done so all his life.

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On Sundays, Sheldon becomes the spot for a family outing. Wives and children of the men who are building their own homes review the progress made during weekday evenings and offer advice. Then menfolk have another 18 months before last of bungalows is finished and fifty families in the ex-servicemen’s scheme accommodated.

The fifty pioneers agreed among themselves on the system of priority, which took into account the living conditions of each. Every quarter-hour of work lost on the site means dropping in the priority scale. There have been a few changes in the original list, which had Morris as No. 1 and Smith as No. 50. The only professional on the job is Fred Moss, and builders’ foreman who seems to have walked into Sheldon straight from an American pioneering film. Tattooed, his bare backed tanned and glistening in the sun, Fred is always on the job and has inspired the amateur builders of Birmingham. “Never before have I enjoyed working as much as I am doing now!” he says.

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Only professional on the job is Fred Moss, a builders’ foreman, who reviews his team on a Saturday afternoon. Four of the fifty are missing through sickness or work. On the extreme right is Murry Smith who is last on the list for a bungalow, but he is no less enthusiastic about the job. Absentees are few; it means losing points in priority.

Each bungalow will have a lounge, a kitchen, three bedrooms, and will be worth £600. Outgoings for each of fifty will be 24 shillings a week.   Wives have had their say in such details as the position of sinks, fireplaces and cupboards. There have, of course, been hitches. George Lavender, Fred Moss and their team have laughed them away and clerks, engineers and mechanics have gone on digging drainage ditches, putting in window frames, plumbing and welding with great zest. On Saturdays, at lunchtime, a fish-and-chips van calls at Sheldon. When the hooter goes, the men who are building their own homes hurry to form a queue for their midday meal. Only a few who live nearby go home during the half-hour break. It is difficult to appreciate that these men are doing a full hard full day’s hard work at their own job. But then, work done, instead of going to the pub, the club, the football match or the cinema, they get together on the building site.

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While his wife makes tea on the site, George Handley gets on with the brickwork. George is working furthest from the camera. The Handley family is number 32 on the list, but both husband and wife declared that the waiting is worthwhile.

 

And it is significant that their efficiency at their regular work has increased since they started on their own scheme. Life seems to have acquired a new purpose. To see their own homes going up has stimulated every one of them.

The Birmingham scheme has echoed throughout the country, and building experts have journeyed to Sheldon to see how the men who are working on it are achieving their purpose. It has been declared that housing is no longer a subject of acute political controversy and that a fairly even level of progress is in sight. When you are among the fifty pioneers of Birmingham, you discover that their talk is not  of politics, but rather of The Plan and their method of putting it into practice. They are never tired of talking about it and explaining their motives, although they grudge even that time away from their bricklaying and trench digging.

Now the first unit is ready. Steady progress is being made with the remainder. George Lavender, Fred Moss and the others will go on working until the last of the fifty homes is built. Then there will be fifty more happy families who have carved out for themselves a home life which had been stolen by the tragic years of war.

 

 

The First Six Neighbours in Tallington Road

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1. When the first bungalow is finished , Tommy Morris, his wife Margaret and their two children will move in. Tommy is 31, like all his mates an ex-serviceman.

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2. Mother washes tea things, with daughter urging her to come and play. Mrs. Elvie Lewis comes second on the list, and likes to spend what spare time she has on site.

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3. Third family will be that of William Spencer who is at the background end of tape. George Lavender who started the scheme, studies planned with Foreman Fred Moss.

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4. Soon Jack Ward, his wife and two-year-old Susan will be the fourth family to move in. If all plans progress to schedule their bungalow should be ready in November.

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5. Floodlights play on Eric Meigh (right) who, with his wife and child, will be fifth occupiers of Tallington Road. After-dark work keeps builders up to schedule.

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6. Beam measuring is a pleasure to Bert Jones, the sixth occupier. He is living at in-laws with his wife and child. He hasn’t long to wait for his bungalow.

Build-our-own-home families move in

Article 2: Reproduced from John Bull magazine – December 1951

“They didn’t wait to get on any housing list. They decided what they wanted, leased the land, borrowed some money, bought the materials and went to work.”

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Published in JOHN BULL, December 1, 1951

By KEITH ELLIS

When Sergeant George Lavender was demobbed from Airborne Signals after six years fighting in the Middle East, he had, like most ex-servicemen, definite ideas about the sort of home he wanted. It was to be a bungalow with combined dining room and lounge, kitchen, bathroom, three bedrooms, a large garden and space at the side for a garage. He preferred it in the country but not too far from Birmingham, where he worked as a Post Office engineer.

Lavender and his wife Eileen and their four and a half old Barry now have just such a home. Though only half an hour’s bus ride from the centre of Birmingham, their large back garden adjoins King George V Memorial Park, a National Trust property that will never be built on. They did not achieve it through waiting patiently on a housing list or paying a fancy price on the open market. Their good fortune is entirely due to an idea put forward four years ago at the Birmingham Post Office Factory branch of the British Legion.

 

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Lavender and his wife in the garden of their bungalow. With free labour, the cost is less than £1000 but market value is more than £2000.

 Wives could not be left

At that time Lavender was assistant secretary. When he asked members why they did not turn up for meetings, they almost invariably said: “We’d like to come but we can’t leave the wife alone in rooms. It would be different if we had a house.” Bill Spencer, the chairman, had a commonsense answer: “Let’s build some houses, then.” They took him literally and, as a result, twenty-one of the fifty members are settled in semi-detached bungalows. The rest are looking forward to similar accommodation in the next eighteen months.

 

For more than two years, after a full day’s work, members of the Post Office Branch, British Legion Housing Association, have worked for three nights a week as bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and plumbers from six-fifteen, when a line is drawn across the signing-in-book, to nine-fifteen, when Foreman Ray Walton blows the final whistle.

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T. Young and R. Everett, two of the amateur builders, operate a concrete mixer. For two years, they have worked weekends and three nights a week

 

They work all day Saturday and all day Sunday. In winter the site is floodlit so that work can go on after dark.

 

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Saturday lunchtime on the self-help building site: the wives make tea and look over the work

 

Their only relief is once a year at Christmas and when rain, snow or frost make work impossible. Since there are no labour costs, they are building for under £1,000 bungalows whose market value is well over £2,000.

At 53, Lavender is a six-footer with receding hair and a strong jawline – a jovial hustler, known to his fellow-builders as the Big White Chief. His stock answer to all queries about his health is “over-worked and under-paid,” which is probably half-true, as he is now full-time free adviser to any self-help building scheme that comes along. No longer a Post Office engineer, he has an office (with dictaphone) provided by the estate agent who handles a large part of the self-help builders’ negotiations. He also holds several agencies and draws commissions on orders for various supplies. “Without these, I couldn’t give my full time,” he says, “and, after all, it costs the boys nothing.” His office is the headquarters of a truly national movement. More than 2000 amateur builders organized in forty groups scattered all over the country now take his service.

 

Bicycle search for a site

Lavender’s qualifications for giving advice date solely from his election to the secretaryship of the Post Office scheme. He and Bill Spencer knew only that they wanted houses: they had no idea how to start building them. “It was just a matter of common sense and tackling each problem as it came along,” says Lavender. For instance, they knew their first need was land so “we just tootled about the countryside on our bikes until we found some.” After taking a fancy to the Memorial Park site, Lavender enquired from a nearby tenant the name of the freeholder and found that lots were available on 99 year leases.

 

A few days later, he was describing his idea to Lockersley Hare, a well-known Birmingham architect. “Well,” said Hare, “I’ve heard of similar schemes in Sweden, but can you get the licenses?” Lavender, who had not yet tried, assured him that he could. “And what sort of bungalows do you want?” That stumped Lavender. Finally, they arranged for him to attend a meeting of members and their wives to discuss the design. “He just drew a rectangle on the board,” says Lavender, “and the womenfolk filled it in.”

 

Lavender next explained the idea to a solicitor who was interested but uncertain of the procedure. “Let’s take the counsel’s opinion,” he suggested. After a local barrister who specialized in conveyancing had considered the matter for a fortnight, Lavender and the solicitor went to see him in his chambers. “At first he just couldn’t grasp that we wanted to do it all without making a profit.” Then he advised them to form an association under a Trust Deed, thus avoiding the stamp duties and Schedule ”A” income tax payable if they registered under the Companies Act.

 

Such an association could arrange mortgages, lease land and get permission to build. Because individual members would never own houses but rent them from the Association of which they formed part, they could get a government subsidy of £16 10s. a year for each house for 60 years. Also, the self-help bungalows could be built out of the local authority’s housing allocation instead of by private license. So Lavender’s group became the Post Office Branch, British Legion Housing Association.

They were now in a position to borrow money. After fruitlessly trying one or two small building societies, Lavender finally arranged a mortgage of £1,000 for each house, repayable over thirty years at four per cent. “We chose thirty years because of most of us are about thirty years old now and in thirty years time we should be thinking about retiring.” Though he knew the Association could borrow money from the Public Works Department on even more favourable terms, he reckoned there would be less delay if he dealt with a building society.

 

 

Bricklaying classes begin

Next followed the most difficult period of all. They had arranged the mortgages and taken a lease on their land. With a subscription of £20 from each member, they had bought a lorry, concrete mixer and three Nissen huts. A weekly subscription of 3s 6d had been arranged to defray current expenses such as petrol, stationery and telephone bills. But they were unable to start building until all plans had been approved by Birmingham Corporation and the Regional and National offices of the Ministry of Health. “The authorities went out of their way to help other advisors, but a week or fortnight doesn’t mean much to them.”

The delay wasn’t wasted. W. A. Olsson, father of one of the members, was a clerk of works and agreed to take bricklaying classes for two nights a week. They hired a church hall for lectures with an adjoining patch of land for practical work. Meanwhile, as secretary, Lavender was ordering building materials.

So far, most of the people who had heard of the scheme were dubious of its success. When they heard that the building was actually to start, however, offers of help came from all sides. Lavender particularly welcomed the assistance of a friend who had formerly been a surveyor with an official body. Only when he had completely pegged out the first site did Olsson discover that it was four feet out of true. After that, we politely but firmly turned down outside offers of help.”

 

 

How homes are allocated

To make sure that everyone does his share, the Association has devised an ingenious system of deterrents. A points scheme based on time married, number of children and immediate circumstances decides in what order houses are to be allotted. The list of names is written on graph paper with five squares between each. For every quarter of an hour he loses, a member drops back one square. If he loses an hour and a half, he thus goes down one place on the list. “In this way we get the wife’s support. It has worked admirably.” When a member has a house, he is charged three shillings extra rent for every quarter of an hour he loses.

Life is mostly bed and work, but there is fun in it, too. One of the members said: this is the only place where I can have a good cuss.” Then that was the time a Government film crew arrived to take scenes for a feature entitled Commandos of the Concrete.  ( link to clip)

 

Wanting a shot of someone painting, the cameraman shouted to a man not normally a painter: “Grab a brush, will you? I want a shot of you painting that window.” The man obeyed. “Look happy,” said the cameraman, “talk while you’re doing it and FACE THE CAMERA.” When the shot had been taken did the member find that he had been painting the glass.

 

In the early days there were all sorts of difficulties. “We thought putting a roof on a house was as easy as putting one on a shed. Actually it needs a pretty competent carpenter to get the angles right. Though Mr. Olsson insists that he is really a master of one trade only, he was able to show us the way. Before the roof could be tiled it had to be felted and for this we have to be like cats. We rolled out the felt and fixed it to the joists with laths, using the lower ones to stand on as we worked higher up. Unfortunately our toes tipped forward and tore the felt, making the roof look like it had been hit by load of shrapnel. Mr. Olsson then showed us how to stand on the laths sideways.”

 

The first twelve pairs of bungalows were almost finished when Lavender went to see the freeholder’s agent to arrange the lease of the rest of the land on which they had taken an option by gentleman’s agreement. “You’re too late,” said the agent. Birmingham Corporation had taken out a compulsory purchase order on it. Lavender went to see the chairman of the Housing Committee, who suggested another plot of land quarter of a mile away. The Corporation had tried to requisition this land, too, but the residents had successfully appealed on the grounds that Corporation houses would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. “Perhaps they’ll accept you,” said the chairman. They did, but there was a delay of four and a half months before building could be resumed.

 

Plan for paying the bills

The mortgage which Lavender obtained is a progressive one, which means that the money is advanced in instalments as each house reaches a certain stage of construction – for instance, damp course, plate height, when the roof is complete and when the first fittings have been installed. The materials for each stage are bought on short term credit and paid for out of the money handed over when that stage is finished. John Doble, the estate agent who inspects each stage for the building society, says: “We couldn’t have a sounder proposition. If I make the slightest criticism, the work is pulled down and done it again. They are so sensitive of their high standards that I sometimes have to say ‘that’s not quite right – but don’t pull it down, mind.’ ”

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Architect Lockersley Hare inspects a bungalow with George Lavender bright and Foreman Fred Moss if there is criticism of the work is pulled down and done again

 

The bungalows are also inspected regularly by the local authority and by the architect. Occasionally a tile has to be replaced and sometimes the amateurs fall foul of professional standards. One day, glazing a bull’s eye window, they decided to put in the glazing bars in the form of a diagonal cross. When the architect arrived for inspection, he saw the window from the end of the road, tumbled out of his car and ran to the site. “You ‘ve ruined my reputation,” he puffed. “Get that window out quick. It must be an upright cross.” “But we’ve taken a vote and we prefer a diagonal.” The architect drew himself up. “You can’t have a diagonal cross,” he pronounced. “It just isn’t done.” Reluctantly they reglazed the window.

There have been blunders, of course – someone falling in a trench filled with wet concrete and the electrician falling through the roof just as the plasterers below were admiring their work. “It was heartbreaking at the time, but these incidents have been few and far between.” Lavender believes that the self-help building schemes are the only societies in which one can find the wartime spirit of comradeship revived. “There is not the slightest discrimination among members,” he says, “just as we did in the mob, we work together for a common end.”

 

Keeping the rents down

For the first month tenancy a member pays the full economic rent of 38 shillings permitted by the Ministry, so that if the house later falls vacant, the Association will be able to charge the new tenant, who will not have contributed his labour, the full rent. Once the legal maximum has this been established, the tenant pays thirty shillings and sixpence a week, just sufficient to cover mortgage repayments, ground rent, rates and insurance. When the fifty bungalows are finished, there will remain a plot of land so far used for stores. Present plans are to build a clubhouse on it.

Lavender answers queries from people all over the country who have heard of the scheme and want to try themselves. “All sorts of people come to me,” he says, “some in overalls, others with briefcases. They all ask if there is a vacancy in one of my groups. I tell them that there isn’t, but if they’re the right type, they’ll form a group of their own. Then I can help them.”

Lavender is certain, however, that no building scheme can work without the co-operation of the wives. “After all, it means that they are going to see very little of their husbands three nights a week and at weekends for three whole years. But, then, most of them think a house is worth the sacrifice.”

Brave Politics – Now Labour Must take on The Banks

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We see it, we fear it – the future of our planet, its sustainable resources, and life as we have known it, collapsing, because of the money system. Can we stop it?

HOUSING:

We are invited to buy property,  pay interest to bankers, who have the ability create money, out of thin air, at the click of a mouse. ( What is Money , Positive Money ?) If we all tried that, what do you think would happen? Reckless, unethical bankers are happy to arrange mortgages stretching people to and beyond the limit. Is there such a thing as  ethical banking? Many of us have relied on mutual building societies and  supposedly “ethical banks” such as the Co-op bank. That trust soon evaporated as the headlines in the media reported the takeover of the Co-op bank  this month.

People, now happily moving into homes face rising interest on mortgages as the banks will force rate rises, just as energy companies have raised charges.  How will they manage? The Guardian is reporting possible interest rate changes by 2015. Who will the media blame then?

It is essential for that any incoming governments are brave enough to confront bankers and money-lenders  who prey on people. Governments must address the way money is created used and distributed. Money should be serving us, not us serving money.

airmoney

We are The Debt Generation. Money is a tool, not a resource. And it’s a broken tool.  We need Positive Money to be fit for the purpose.

EDUCATION:

We can thank some brave politicians in history that health care and education for all is no longer just the domain of the rich and privilege, but universal. It should be a priority for Labour.  Harold Wilson’s Open University widened the access to education such had never been seen before. The provision of maintenance grants enabled students to concentrate on study.

Doctors, engineers, scientists and lawyers from working class families had access to education  and all of society reaped the benefits. Every person’s life is enriched by high quality education. We need quality training too and we need specialists; engineers, doctors, road builders, teachers, builders and firefighters.

We can all see these benefits, so provision of maintenance grants, and universal access through the Open University is investment in the future. 

But today, the Open University is too costly for many. Students are taking on massive loans, and debt. If they finish their course, and find employment, then it’s a struggle to pay for a home, or for a car. And what next? A loan for health? For childcare? A loan for elderly care?  And so it goes on to the next generation.

Every part of our lives is now at threat because of the banking system. The financial system is so invasive, all consuming, and  like a flawed  parasite, greedy and foolish, and is destroying it all.  The reality is a lifetime of paying for money which magically came from nowhere. It’s a far cry from care from cradle to grave.

So where did all the brave politicians go?

Real-Economy-Syphoning

BANKING AND INTEREST  

Whether it is business, or individuals, the banks are in a win-win situation. The financiers maintain control because the system is so heavily biased in their favour. The money made up from nothing, can grow, like a weed out of control. Debts become unsurmountable…  and all because of interest. 

In this video, Professor Dr. Margrit Kennedy describes how flaws in the money system cost us all about 40% extra for everything – interest costs. Interview by Dimitri Devyatkin. 

youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ixgt4syL9U&w=420&h=315%5D  

Not all loans charge interest. In Islamic Banking, there is no interest charged.

Islamic finance is all about sharing risk between financial institutions and the individuals that use them. To do that, the two parties are tied into a longer-term relationship with each other that is supposed to shift incentives and avoid cut and run financial deals. So how can banks that don’t charge interest survive? It’s a question worth answering, not least because academics have argued that the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened if the global economy was regulated by Islamic finance.

(Guardian)

 

This is an interesting idea, but still retains the control to the banks who hold the money, and not collectively by all, which is how it should be in a democracy.

While Islamic finance addresses the problems caused by interest, I would prefer to see a government owned bank retaining  democratic control.  Power should be returned to the people – and so should the money system. The majority now despise the banking system with suspicion, and want to see real change – not more of the same faux-governments, too weak against the financial institutions.

Like a few in history, future politicians brave enough to present and adopt the proposals of Positive Money will be welcomed. It is time for Labour to be brave, and let the people know where it stands.

Speak up, Ed! Positive Money, Positive Labour.

Support the Labour Assembly against Austerity Campaign

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Labour Assembly Against Austerity

Published by Socialist Economic Bulletin

Labour Assembly Against Austerity

Speakers


9am – 5pm, Saturday 9th November
Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX

Speakers include:

 

Ken Livingstone
Owen Jones
Francesca Martinez
Steve Turner (Unite)
Ann Pettifor

Diane Abbott MP
Katy Clark MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Frank Dobson MP
John McDonnell MP
Michael Meacher MP

Professor Keith Ewing
Tosh McDonald (ASLEF)
Peter Willsman (CLPD)
Adrian Weir (Campaign for Trade Union Freedom)
Catherine West PPC
Cat Smith PPC
Murad Qureshi AM
Heather Wakefield Unison

Shelly Asquith
Daniel Blaney
Michael Burke
Mike Hedges (Unite)
Conrad Landin
Cllr Alice Perry
Christine Shawcroft (NEC)
Cllr Kate Taylor
Marsha-Jane Thompson (Defend the Link)

Sessions:

  • The economic alternatives to austerity
  • Housing – solving the crisis
  • No to privatisation – keep health and education public
  • Opposing austerity – defending public services and the welfare state
  • Defend the link – defend trade union rights
  • No scapegoating – immigrants and claimants are not to blame
  • Fund public services not war
  • Ending austerity – Labour policies to win in 2015

£10 full price / £5 concessions
Register now

Visit LabourAssemblyAgainstAusterity.org.uk

Speakers

Labour Assembly Against Austerity –  a forum for Labour Party members to discuss alternatives to austerity and the policies Labour needs to stimulate growth, jobs and rising living standards.

The Labour Assembly Against Austerity is an initiative of Next Generation Labour in support of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity movement and is supported by Unite, UCATT, BECTU, CLPD, Labour Representation Committee, Left Futures, Chartist, Labour Briefing Co-op, Morning Star, Red Labour & Sinistra Ecologia e Liberta UK.

Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

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Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

During Thatcher years, the word socialism was blackened by the press, and it became a dirty word in Britain, and in the US. That is how the propaganda machine works. Indeed the meaning of the word has evolved since its inception.

Socialism’s meaning can be said to go back to early religious sects of the ancient world and was taken up by religious dissidents in mediaeval times. Words attributed to John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 capture its meaning very well: “My friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.” (Socialist Party, Words)

Words are unhelpful if they are ambiguous. What is important is building a fairer society in which people  hold the power and make decisions, share in the wealth derived from their labour and not governments who represent ruling classes. The confusion and  misinformation and miscommunication which is caused by focusing on an ambiguous word to describe our philosophy and our aims, holds back progress as emphasised in Words, from “Socialism or your money back“. While it  inspires unity and solidarity for some of us, others are turned away. So,  ironically, the words socialism and solidarity are dividing us, yet our philosophies are much the same.

In winning the argument – leading to the defeat of  capitalism, and building a better society, clear unambiguous terms, and a shared vocabulary are necessary, as Julijuxtaposed points out in the article, Take Socialism., full article here. Juli emphasises the priority is to transform society, and is appalled that differing vocabularies prevent this.

“.. Few have ever moved away from the emotional knee-jerkery of old, pre-conceived, received and doggedly fixed propaganda. It’s of no more practical help than it ever was, unless you like popping human nature into simple boxes.

Take Socialism. This is described as Anarchism, Communism, Libertarian, Democratic, Marxist, Religious, etc, etc. (Not forgetting, of course, that Anarchy, Libertarianism and Religion function equally well under fascistic systems.) Socialism is touted as a 19th Century concept – by virtue of a bloke adding ism to a previously perfectly understood word. Social: from Middle English which is from Old French, which is from the Latin:socialis, meaning ‘allied’ and socius, meaning ‘friend’. We all know what it means to be ‘social’ – to engage, participate, accommodate, include, share… It is a concept which is at once, both commonly understood and subjectively experienced.”

Opponents to socialism are rabidly irrational in their disdain: to even the most benign and rational form, they having nothing but sneers and smears. They have strongly seeded notions of a totalitarian community in which every one stays at the same level of banality and that the price for this is the sacrifice of a person’s individuality. This is amusing when you think of how the last few decades have shown that socialism is not the culprit in this – unless, of course you count the welfare of self-preservation in the upper tiers but that is a satirical distraction from the world of the masses in spite of its ironic reality. Rabid advocates of markets (free or manipulated) and private money as the answer to all our ills hold the idea of ‘big’ government in contempt and yet, has any government ever been so nannying, moralising and prescriptive as this one? This is something they conveniently overlook as they insult our intelligence.”

The State is us – why the bloody hell should shrinking it be part of the equation? Necessity, efficiency and competency are the instruments by which it should be measured.

When I think of socialism, I don’t assume authoritarianism, race to the bottom, death of innovation. Hell, I don’t even think death to the markets. What I envisage is a place where the State is the People; where the people are beneficiaries in common; where the land that should be, infrastructure, public services and resources are of the people, by the people and for the people as much as is practically possible. That’s it. It doesn’t have to negate a free market, private wealth, personal assets, creativity, entrepreneurialism, innovation, culture, progress or individuality. And it certainly doesn’t destroy liberty. On the contrary: it frees us. I can be both an individual and a citizen participant in a socially conscious country and world just as easily as I can be English, British and European. Personally, though I have a big problem with profiteering, I’ve no issue with the profit-seeking private sector, so long as it is incapable of undermining the collectively common and basic good. Both private and public serve a social purpose and so both have their economic places. What we have now, however, is a form of anarchy; economic and social nihilism, even. The consensus is growing that we should collectively own, control and maintain the essentials upon which we all depend, as a matter of economic and social common sense. Let the rest (the capitalist/private sphere) purchase its place in the gaps if it is sufficiently viable to do so. And it will. For that, we need a State which serves our best and vested interests not vested interests which serve themselves best and leave us in a state. Whether this view has a label or even ten labels; whether it is called Socialism or something else, I really do not care.

Yet for some, it remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of co-operation and mutuality, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society. Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, broken out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as “queer” have been wrested from negative senses to have positive meanings, thus can socialism , with all its history and associations be wrested back as well. (Words) .

It suits the ruling classes that the people remain divided, whether it is by words, by fear, or suspicion of one another. Consider the term “working class”. Many are proud of a working class heritage, while others need to separate from the memories and association. In the 1990s many accepted  idea of New Labour, as they were weary from successive Tory governments, and failure General Elections. The Tory press had won the day, and Margaret Thatcher claimed it as her great success. Ironically,  was nothing “new” or “Labour”  about New Labour, and now stands as an example of how the misuse of words leads to confusion. In the aftermath of New Labour, many “socialists” left the party, to look for alternatives. Some looked to the LibeDems, only to find them support a Tory Coalition. Others looked to the Green Party. Undoubtedly, environmental issues are a global priority – or should be – yet the Greens are being torn apart by political polarisation within their ranks.

For the future, we must put aside terms which divide us. We  must not be afraid of change. Where coal was our heritage, green is our future. Coal miners  may have helped  built the Labour movement, but a return to coal mining is not going to save the planet. And we must progress together, as we are ineffectual divided by party titles, and misunderstood words.

Tony Benn describes himself as a socialist, and remained within the Labour Party while many did not. 

In Labour Governments we did our best to make capitalism work in a civilised way. And we failed. It never can work. It will always exploit and oppress the people.’ ‘Whether you win or lose in a campaign is not the point. Were you there? Did you join the fight for justice? Those are the questions to ask.’ ‘Looking to the future, we have to choose between socialism and barbarism. I’ve made my choice.’ ‘My job is to give people hope. Without hope they’ll give up.”

More than once he said, ‘When Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was she answered “New Labour.” Nevertheless, “we should stick with the Labour Party: it’s the only instrument we have for making the world a better place.” No – we should not be disillusioned about parliament: “if we convince the people, the MPs will have to listen.”   

Benn says the  most revolutionary idea is democracy. If you have power, you use it to meet the needs of your community. As Tony Benn explains here  ”People who are poor, demoralised and frightened are easy to control.” This is how the very rich exert control – ensuring people are so downtrodden, so much ridden by debt, misery and pessimism, they have no desire to vote. “If the poor were to turn out and vote for people who represented their interests, that would be a real, democratic revolution.

Revolution is the word of the day,  but  not a violent, bloody destructive change, but organisation of the opponents to neo-liberalist system. Capitalism is clearly flawed, and accepted as such. An organised opposition, non violent civil disobedience and protests, a united Labour Party – it’s time to take  parliament back to the people. This is about a real democracy, about  people governing themselves, leading to a real social democracy, where the land and resources are owned by us, the people and where wealth, opportunities and participation are shared – that is what socialism is to me.