Tuesday, June 03, 2008

GDH Cole And The Root Of The Matter

This is a copy of the cover of a well-thumbed pamphlet by GDH Cole which I purchased 52 years ago. It is the subject matter of this review.

I initially posted this item on 24 July, 2006. So the first sentence in the second paragraph is now dated. But as I have just returned from my holidays to find New Labour flat on its back, I thought that it was time (as somebody once said) "to return to basics".

The socialist theorist and activist GDH Cole (1889-1959) had a special relationship with the New Statesman. For 40 years he was a regular contributor of signed and unsigned articles and he died only a few hours after chairing a New Statesman Board Meeting.

Exactly 50 years ago the New Statesman published one of his most telling pamphlets, entitled “World Socialism Restated”. His wife Margaret, who shared their life’s work, correctly pointed out that the pamphlet contains “some of his finest and most sincere writing in the post-war years”.

GDH sets off in style, taking us back a further 50 years to his own conversion to socialism, which followed his reading “News from Nowhere” by William Morris.

He wrote “I became a Socialist because, as soon as the case for a society of equals, set free from the twin evils of riches and poverty, mastership and subjection, was put to me, I knew that to be the only kind of society that could be consistent with human decency and fellowship and that in no other society could I have the right to be content.”

The pamphlet covers three of Cole’s persistent themes, which crop up regularly in his volumes of books and articles.

First, socialists should not themselves subvert socialism by building powerful and uncontrollable bureaucratic structures which destroy the very possibility of social equality and democratic participation for everyone. He directed this point forcefully against both Communists and Social Democrats.

Secondly, any effective moves to go beyond the built-in exploitations of capitalism require the wider labour movement to avoid limited reformist programmes which both dampen the will for change and can easily be subverted by capitalist interests.

Finally, socialists need to operate together on an international canvas to ensure that their project is seen as being incompatible with colonialism, racism and the international power of capitalist investors. The international links being essential if capitalism was ever to be transcended.

There are, of course, areas where his pamphlet is very much a creature of its time.

For instance, he seeks the unity of working class movements; at first within individual nations. So he looks for ways of overcoming the rifts between the (then) Communist and Democratic Socialist Parties in countries such as France and Italy. For despite his consistent criticisms of the bureaucratic tendencies of both, he nevertheless wished the two sides to compromise and co-operate so as to strengthen their efforts to transcend capitalism. He vainly hoped that such acts of comradeship would themselves help to nurture his own egalitarian and democratic preferences.

Today; the fall of Communism, the extension of globalisation, the impact of the technological revolution, post-modern politics and the increasing dominance of ethnic and religious divisions throughout the world have made the quest for democratic tolerance and unity even a tougher task than Cole faced.

But he recognised there is nothing new in socialist and labour movements being obliged to act as countervailing forces in trying to reshape political and economic structures which they have seldom themselves originated. It was part of the history of the British Labour Movement which he had recorded in loving detail.

For us, international financial structures, the United Nations, the European Union (which he opposed), globalisation and electronic communications are all avenues where the fight for democracy and equity should now fruitfully be directed.

Cole’s analysis of third world needs is also seriously dated. He advocates support for self-determination as the single key to the emancipation of colonial territories. But things went wrong after the success of many independence movements.

Yet today national self-determination in leading areas such as Iraq can’t just be seen as a struggle against American and British neo-colonialism. It also requires a struggle against ethnic, religious, political and criminal extremisms; with help for bodies such as Iraqi Trade Unions who are trying to cater for over a million* members in terrible circumstances whilst acting in harmony with Cole’s democratic and social vision.

Even if the plight of the third world now seems even more problematic than in Cole’s time, he would at least have been excited by the possibilities of struggling to make poverty history and campaigning for raising mass revenues for the third world by a tax on currency speculation.

Throughout his life, Cole automatically married together his commitment to adult and university education with his involvement in a world of practical politics which was linked into his writings and theorising.

His pamphlet clearly illustrates this approach. It was published as part of a project to stimulate support for the International Society for Socialist Studies (ISSS) which he presided over.

In this country Kingsley Martin (then editor of the New Statesman), Barbara Castle, Fenner Brockway and a young Stuart Hall had involvements.

Cole hoped that the ISSS would be as influential on the international scene as the Fabian Society (which he had Chaired) had been earlier in furthering ideas for the British Labour Movement - although he clearly wanted the ISSS to operate within the horizons of the Coles rather than those of the “reformist” Webbs.

According to Margaret Cole, the ISSS failed because “the objects of those who joined it were wildly incompatible”. No doubt a similar effort today would hit the same problem.

Yet an international framework in which tolerant, but determined socialists involve themselves in the dialectics of debating and propounding socialist ideas is, to use one of Cole’s favourite phrases still “at the root of the matter”.

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