The first chapter of our recently republished book 'The ABC of Socialism' by John Rees
John Rees, The ABC of Socialism (Counterfire 2014)
Imagine that a grand parade is about to pass before us. It is a parade of the entire population of Britain and it will last one hour. But there is something strange about this parade, something that will tell us a great deal about the society we live in. The height of the people in the parade is determined by their income—the poor are short, the rich are tall. Imagine that we, the spectators, are the average height—that is the average income for the economy as a whole. Here is what we would witness.
First we see minuscule characters pass by, no taller than a matchstick. They are housewives who have worked for a short time and who have nothing like an annual income. There are school kids with a part time job, FE students still living at home. It takes five minutes for them to pass.
In the next five or six minutes the people passing before us become noticeably taller, but they are still the size of elves, perhaps two or three feet high. They are young people on social security, the unemployed, very many old age pensioners and owners of small shops doing poor trade. Next come a wide range of low paid workers: young nurses, lower grade civil servants, refuse collectors. The unskilled white collar workers march in front of the unskilled manual workers. A sizeable proportion of Britain’s black and Asian population is passing before us now.
It takes 15 minutes for the marchers to reach a height much over four feet. For us this is a disturbing sight. Fifteen minutes is a long time to see people march by who barely reach our waist. Nor is there much relief in sight. Another 10 minutes goes by before small people who reach our collar bone arrive on the scene—skilled manual workers, office workers with considerable training. We know the parade will last an hour and perhaps we expected that after half an hour we would be able to look the marchers in the eye, but we are still looking down on the top of their heads and even in the far distance there is no sign of improvement. The height is growing terribly slowly. A full three quarters of an hour has passed before we see people our own size arriving.
But in the last ten minutes, with the arrival of the top 10 percent, the parade becomes sensational. At first they are modestly tall, perhaps six feet six inches: headmasters, department heads—people who never thought they were in the top 10 percent. Then things become really bizarre.
Giants loom over us: a not particularly successful lawyer—18 feet tall. The first doctors come into view— 24 feet high. The first accountants, taller even than the doctors. There is still a minute to go. Now we see figures far bigger than houses: a university professor 27 feet high, senior managers in large firms 30 feet high, a permanent secretary in Whitehall 40 feet tall and even taller high court judges. Top accountants and surgeons go past at a height of 60 feet or more.
Even this is not the end of it. Now the sun is blotted out by figures the size of tower blocks. Most of them are businessmen, managers of large firms and holders of many directorships, some are film stars or members of the royal family. Prince Philip is 180 feet high. John Paul Getty’s height is incalculable—at least ten miles high, perhaps twice that.
This description is now more than 40 years old. It comes from a book by economist Jan Pen. I was at school when I first read it. If the parade were to march again today, the poor would be very considerably smaller, the rich even taller.
Thinking about what caused such inequality, and knowing that my parents would be near the start of that parade, was one thing that first set me wondering about socialism. But it was only one part of a mosaic, fragments of which came from books while others came from my own experience.
I remember trying to get the school authorities to agree to a school council. I couldn’t see, and still can’t, why the people who are being educated, the people for whom the school is supposed to exist, shouldn’t have a say in its running. I remember walking to a youth club in the pitch black caused by the power cuts during the 1974 miners’ strike. And I can still remember the disappointment of reading, not long after, that Tony Benn had been replaced as industry minister by right winger Eric Varley, ending what I saw as experiments in workers’ control.
I searched for something that would get me a little further than that passage in Jan Pen’s text book. I tried Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. I have read and re-read it many times since and each time get more out of it. But back then it was the wrong book at the wrong time, written in a language with which I could not get to grips. Eventually, I read George Orwell’s magnificent book about the 1936 Spanish Revolution, Homage to Catalonia. His description of revolutionary Barcelona convinced me that workers could make a revolution:
'It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties... Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the eye and treated you as an equal... In outward existence it was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist. Practically everyone wore rough working class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There is much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.'
So now I knew what I was for and what I was against. But there was so much more I still didn’t know. Was the Labour Party socialist? If it wasn’t, what kind of organisation should socialists join? What about the unions, or women’s liberation? What kind of arguments could you use against racism?
Most working class people become socialists in this way. A bit of direct experience, a bit of general experience added to a bit of reading about politics, class and socialist history. I wish that at some point during those years someone had pushed a little book into my hand to speed up the whole process, make things clearer and suggest a course of action. This book is designed to do that for a new generation of socialists.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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