Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright Socialist Review


The lanquage of reform

Richard Morse argues (Letters, September SR) that, 'The change in the fortunes of Plaid Cymru from a small pressure group to a major political force in some areas of Wales can be linked clearly to the activity of Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) since it was formed in 1962.'
Richard's analysis totally misunderstands why Plaid has grown during certain periods and why it is growing at the moment.
Certainly Plaid is based around a core of people for whom Welsh self government and the defence of the Welsh language are absolutely central issues. But Plaid has pushed out from this narrow base only when it has been able to pose as a left wing alternative to a right wing Labour government. It has grown (and is growing now) by talking the language of reform and social democracy while Labour cuddles up to the bosses.
There were important nationalist issues which boosted Plaid in the late 1950s and 1960s, such as the drowning of the village of Tryweryn to build a reservoir. But these brought Plaid hardly any electoral gains.
Gwynfor Evans's victory for Plaid at the Carmarthen byelection in 1966 was fuelled largely by pit closures in the Gwendraeth and Amman valleys in the east of the constituency, the closure of rural schools and other Labour economic policies. In a by-election in Rhondda West the next year the swing of over 30 percent from Labour to Plaid had almost nothing to do with self government or the language.
At Caerphilly in 1968 the swing of 40 percent to Plaid followed a campaign which centred almost wholly on economic grievances, unemployment and the closure of a major pit at Bargoed. Plaid had 'cracked' the industrial areas, it seemed--but it could not sustain the challenge to Labour once a Tory government returned. This pattern was repeated in the 1970s and is recurring again.
Richard cannot explain why the Scottish National Party grew at the same time as Plaid. Even the most confident Cymdeithas member could hardly claim that they had stirred emotions in Hamilton or Cumbernauld. Plaid's recent success is not a sign of hard nationalism, it is a sign of the disillusion with Labour which socialists should try to give a focus.
Two other brief points. Firstly, Plaid was actually very suspicious of Cymdeithas and for a long period tried to distance itself entirely from it.
Secondly, we should not be quite so starry eyed about Cymdeithas as Richard is. As someone who worked alongside Cymdeithas members during the 1970s I recognise the militancy, determination and defiance which its campaigns involved.
However the politics were always very mixed. Most of us who occupied post office buildings and demanded leaflets in Welsh called ourselves socialists. But Cymdeithas's president was Saunders Lewis, a Nazi sympathiser in the 1930s and a right winger to the end.
Charlie Kimber

Dragon's teeth

Last month one senior Labour councillor left and joined Plaid Cymru and in a by-election another Labour councillor lost a seat to Plaid. Where did this happen? In South Wales, home of the first Labour MP and an area where Welsh is rarely the first language. Since the general election in May 1997 there have been eight council elections in Wales. Labour has lost them all--six of them to Plaid, none in Welsh speaking areas.
The reported response in Blackwood gives a good indication of the reasons for this vote. 'Perhaps it is time that we in Wales consider what is best for ordinary people in Wales and not worry about Middle England, 'the defecting councillor said. 'It's like having the Tories back in power,' said one voter.
Plaid can point to Labour's failures and say that we need a Welsh party to represent the Welsh workers. Soft Welsh nationalism meets bitterness with New Labour and Plaid's vote soars.
All of this points to a mistake in the letter by Richard Morse (September SR). It is nationalism which is the driving force in Plaid and this leads people to focus on the language--it's not the language that leads people to nationalism. One of the ways to 'prove' your Welshness in the south is to learn Welsh. What unites the Welsh speaking businessmen in the north with young left wingers in the south is again their nationalism first--one looking for a way to protect their business, the other for a way to improve society. Plaid offers a nationalist answer to the world recession--to abandon inward investment and instead build up Welsh capital. Again this can appeal to both the left and the right.
This isn't to deny that the Welsh language plays a role. but it alone can't explain the ebbs and flows of support for Plaid.
Pete Jackson

Caring about Welsh culture

Once upon a time, the Labour politician George Brown rolled beerily into Caernarfon to support their candidate. 'Never mind the bloody language,' cried he, 'what about the price of beef?' People, perceiving that he and his party were a bunch of philistine cruds, voted Plaid Cymru in. Richard Morse (September SR) is getting dangerously near to sinking into the same old bog. Tories and social democrats can afford sometimes to be philistine cruds--- socialists can't.
'Nationalism' is a useless term. it can stand for insane notions about race, religion, institutions, language--or anything you like. You can use the same label for Hitler and Connolly, for support for Thatcher's Falklands War and for Basques fighting Franco. 'Nationalist' politics can range from fascist to centrist. The specific is everything here.
'It would take more than a letter to analyse why members of Cymdeithas [the Welsh Language Society] have been so willing to sacrifice personal freedom and often careers for the cause of the language' writes Richard. Let's have a go anyway.
There have been several independent Welsh states, culminating in that established by the national rising of 1400-15. One by one they were smashed by colonialist armies. There was a Welsh legal system, a 'folk law rather than state law... its emphasis... upon ensuring reconciliation between kinship groups rather than keeping order through punishment.' (John Davies, A History of Wales). That was abolished by the Act of Union of 1536, and I can't see this is any great reason for socialists to dance in the streets.
After 1536 the Welsh boss class--and anyone who wanted to 'get on'--adopted the English language and culture, leaving Welsh culture (and especially literature) to small farmers, the petty bourgeoisie and industrial workers such as those who rose in arms at Merthyr in 1831. That culture feels to be 'ours' in a way that English culture can't feel to belong to English workers. Young Welsh speaking people care about it. Do you blame them?
What's more, people don't like being bullied for being themselves, don't like being prevented from speaking their own language in their own country, don't like having the houses they have lived in being bought up by rich foreigners and don't care much for being patronised and marginalised, even by Cwmbran socialists. I can't understand how a language spoken by half a million people (and that number is rising) can be said to be 'more or less alive', but I can hear the lip smacking quislingism inherent in the phrase, and I don't like it.
Hitler's 'nationalism' was based on sick science and aimed at destroying the organisations of the working class--its relation to lived reality was just a big lie. It had to be stopped, and we stopped it. Welsh 'nationalism', however, is about something real in everyday experience--the right to use your own language and the right to preserve it. What politicians make of that is another matter, but so far, the Plaid Cymru MPs seem to be well meaning petty bourgeois who would, born elsewhere, be in the Labour Party, the Greens or even the SWP, and in my experience Plaid Cymru and the SWP attract a very similar membership. There's a bourgeoisie in Wales, of course, but no way is it 'nationai', and it doesn't support Plaid Cymru either: the Tories-and Blair--suit it very well. The greatest danger Welsh nationalism poses, in my opinion, is that some potential SWP members might join Plaid Cymru first. Well, there's a shocking thing, now, isn't it?
Tony Rees

Not according to Plan

Bernard McBreen (September SR) claims that Tony Cliff`s theory on the nature of the Soviet state should be revised so that Russia should be defined as state capitalist already in 1918 since the working class then did not fully have power.
I would argue that this is a wrong conclusion resulting from a too mechanical way of thinking. We have to be clear on two things: Firstly, what is a capitalist state and secondly, what is a workers' state?
Bernard correctly defined the second by claiming that 'A workers' state is one in which the working class is the ruling class. 'A capitalist state, on the other hand, is a state in which a group of people, the ruling class, as a result of specific historical circumstances, has acquired a position in society which allows it to control wealth and therefore exploit the majority of society.
Now look at Russia in 1918-19. Bernard is correct that it isn't completely a workers' state, but does Russia fit the definition of a capitalist society? No it doesn't. In 1918 there was no group which completely controlled the means of production and distribution. It is true that the workers' councils no longer had control over the economy, but it is wrong to claim that Lenin and the Bolsheviks alone fully controlled all wealth in Russia.
Between 1918 and up to the first Five Year Plan both trade unions and what was left of the workers' councils were important parts of the state and power was balanced between the state bureaucracy and these working class organs.
The more isolated Russia became, the more the decision making fell in favour of the bureaucracy. Finally, in 1928, the workers' power was completely destroyed, the role of the unions annihilated and any critique of the party from inside or outside completely banned.
From that moment on, a small bureaucratic group decided everything about production, distribution and consumption. This marks the transition of the bureaucracy into a ruling class.
Russia in the period of transition from one to the other should be characterised as a 'degenerated workers' state' or, as Lenin wrote in 1921 'a workers' state with bureaucratic distortions'.
Robin Ringer

Women's labour

Lindsey German's review (September SR) of Anna Clark's attempt to 'add' gender to the history of the making of the English working class is correct to underline that the book has a lot of poor history in it. We all have theories about why things happen as they do, but for historians if these do not accord with a careful study of the evidence then the theory needs to be rethought, not just asserted as fact.
In fact Clark's core thesis, that men of all classes entered into a sort of conspiracy after 1848 to force women back into the home, is part of a wider theory about what happened to radical politics in the 1850s and 1860s.
Postmodernist historians like James Vernon have suggested that there was a closure of working class politics after the demise of Chartism and a retreat into smoke filled rooms, entry to which was restricted to skilled male labour aristocrats.
Of course it was true that there was a working class defeat in 1848 and retreat after that. But if history is seen as a process then we need to look not just at what forms are disappearing, but at what new ones are developing.
The 1860s saw the birth of the First International and the TUC and, in May 1867, a huge and illegal demonstration in Hyde Park which won the Second Reform Act (to extend the electoral franchise). Modern socialists might well have a lot to say about the sexual politics of many of the demonstrators of May 1867, but this was the labour movement that within 20 years would find itself headed not just by Tom Mann, but by Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant as well.
Keith Flett

The other Dylan

Huw Pudner (September SR) is absolutely correct when he states that Dylan Thomas was 'one of this century's finest lyrical poets', but he was also much more. Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea in 1914. His first published poem, 'And Death Shall have no Dominion', which was originally for a school magazine, is full of images of the First World War.
His most political poems were written during the height of the London Blitz. 'Ceremony After a Fire Raid', 'Holy Spring' and 'Among those killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred' powerfully spell out the horrors of the war, without ever being anti- German.
During the 1930s Dylan considered joining the Communist Party, but he was repelled by the party's 'embrace of the middle class' during the Popular Front period. In 1951, two years before his death, Dylan said, 'I am a socialist, though I know of no socialist party which I can join'. At the time of his death he was working on a verse drama, 'In Country Heaven', about an atomic war.
Postmodernist critics would have us study an artist's work without any concern for the political beliefs of the writer, or the effect of the outside world on their work. To do this with a poet like Dylan Thomas not only robs the work of its meaning, but also its passion.
There are a number of editions of Dylan's 'selected' or 'collected' poems, but all the erudite notes that have been bolted on to them by editors show not only a poverty of scholarship but also a deep antipathy towards a young man who saw the world heading into an abyss of darkness but who would' not go gently into that good night'. We must all, rage against the dying of the light'.
Phil Knight

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