Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestly
Analysis of themes

Socialism vs. Capitalism | Women's rights | Class discrimination | Old Generation vs. Young Generation

This page is part of the Education Umbrella Guide to An Inspector Calls. Free to download or store in our Education Cloud, the guide features a summary of the play, character profiles and classroom activities. 

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

Socialism vs. Capitalism

'He was prejudiced from the start. Probably a Socialist or some sort of crank – he talked like one.'

In order to understand and appreciate An Inspector Calls you must comprehend one concept above all. That concept is socialism

Socialism is political and economic theory that, in some ways, is the opposite of capitalism. It is based on the empowerment of a society's workers – the people who make and manufacture goods – and the idea that the community as a whole owns and regulates the means of production, distribution and exchange. Eva Smith, a worker, is mistreated first by her capitalist boss (Arthur Birling) in a classic 'Capital versus Labour' dispute ('Labour' in this context meaning work, not the Labour party). From there, she suffers four further injustices that give a very negative impression of capitalism. In his final speech, the Inspector warns that it is only through socialism ('one body') that mankind can hope to prevent such tragedies in the future.  

(Right: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has long campaigned for socialist policies in Britain.)

Jeremy CorbynLet us first briefly explore the history of the 'Capital versus Labour' dispute that is so integral to An Inspector Calls before examining where each character's sympathies lie.

In 1944, when J.B. Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls, socialism was still a fresh and very popular – even fashionable – movement. Like many writers of his time (including Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, whom Mr Birling refers to insultingly in act one), Priestley was broadly socialist in his political views. In the UK general election of 1945, held two months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, he took advantage of his fame as a writer and broadcaster to campaign for the Labour Party. Formed in 1900 to represent the interest of the proletariat (working class), Labour beat Winston Churchill's Conservatives, winning a majority of seats for the first time in British election history. (Somewhat confusingly, though, Priestly actually stood unsuccessfully as an Independent for the Cambridge University seat, and, like his father, never joined Labour as an official member.)

attlee_churchill.jpg

(Right: In the UK general election of 1945, the Labour party, led by Clement Attlee (right), defeated the Conservative party, led by Winston Churchill (left)).

It may seem staggering that Britain should vote out the party of the Prime Minister who had been so inspiring in the fight against Germany. Churchill was still very popular, but, with the war against Germany over, most Britons were concerned with social issues, particularly housing, employment and healthcare, rather than international affairs. Labour promised to create a welfare state of full employment, affordable housing and a national health service.

To someone living in Britain in 1912, when An Inspector Calls is set, such a state would have been unimaginable. In act one of the play, Arthur Birling says as much: 'In twenty or thirty years' time... you'll be living in a world that'll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations... There'll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere - except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand naturally.'

The insult of Russia is important. When he finished writing An Inspector Calls in 1944 Priestley sent the script to Moscow, where the play was staged two years later. He did this not just because the Russian capital had a vibrant theatre scene, but because he knew that a play that praised socialism and attacked capitalism would be very popular in the world's first and largest – and at that time only – communist state.

SovietflagBoth communism and socialism stem from the works of the German economic theorists Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. In 1848 they published a book called The Communist Manifesto, which concludes with the famous line, 'Workers of the world unite!' Their theories, known collectively as Marxism, inspired a number of labour movements in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In Marxist theory, socialism is a stepping stone to communism. The main difference is that in a communist state there is no private property; everything is owned and regulated by the community, and workers give and receive according to their ability and needs. This theory achieved global prominence in 1917 when a small group of communists seized power in Petrograd, the capital of what was then the Russian Empire.

(Above: the flag of the USSR: the hammer represents the industrial workers; the sickle represents the farmers; the five-pointed star is the symbol of international socialism; and red is the traditional colour of the workers. To describe someone as 'red' became an insult. Priestly always described himself as pink, 'and a pleasant healthy colour it is too'.)

In February 1917, the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia in an absolute monarchy since 1613, collapsed when the emperor abdicated in the face of numerous strikes and protests by workers and citizens angry at economic and social conditions and the on-going war (World War I, in which Priestly fought) against Germany and Austria-Hungary. A provisional government was established, but this too proved  ineffective and unpopular. In October that year, a man named Vladimir Lenin led a group known as the Bolsheviks in a coup against the provisional government and, over the course of the next few years, established the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, from the Russian word 'soviet', meaning a council of workers. This huge country, comprised of 15 republics (among them Russia and Ukraine) and dozens of ethnic groups, would become the heart of the global communist movement and one of the world's superpowers.

Capitalist governments in the West dismissed Russia's Bolshevik revolution as ridiculous. However, many were clearly worried about such a revolution taking place in their own countries. In a speech he gave in November 1920, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Air, said:

But if we can do little for Russia, we can do much for Britain. We do not want any of these experiments here. [Cheers.] Any such experiments in this country would be followed by the destruction of the great majority of the persons dwelling in these islands. We can at any rate make sure that in our life and time the deadly disease which has struck down Russia should not be allowed to spring up here and poison us as it is poisoning them.

In every city there are small bands of eager men and women, watching with hungry eyes any chance to make a general overturn in the hopes of profiting themselves in the confusion, and these miscreants are fed by Bolshevist money. [Cheers.] They are ceaselessly endeavouring by propagating the doctrines of communism, by preaching violent revolution, by inflaming discontent, to infect us with their disease...

The danger at the present time does not exist only, or even mainly, in these islands. What of India, Egypt, and Ireland? Do you not think it possible that there is some connection between all the revolutionary and subversive elements by which we are now being assailed? When we see all these movements from so many different quarters springing up simultaneously, does it not look as though there is a dead set being made against the British Empire? Why, for instance, should the Egyptian extremists give money to the Daily Herald? [Cheers.] Why does Lenin send them money, too? Why does he also send money to Sinn Fein? We know that intense efforts are being made to disturb India, and that similar efforts are being made to cause a great breakdown of trade and industry at home in the hopes of creating unemployment and consequently suffering and discontent.

Churchill was similarly critical of socialism as a concept, calling it, ‘a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.’ Unfortunately for him, two decades later, as Prime Minister, he was forced to work with and support the Bolsheviks and their leader, one of history's greatest tyrants, Joseph Stalin.

(Below: a Soviet propaganda poster depicting Joseph Stalin and a child holding the USSR flag.)

StalinpropagandaAfter succeeding Lenin as chairman of the Communist Party in the mid 1920s, Joseph Stalin presided over a period of tumultuous change in the USSR. His policies of forced industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation caused the starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, while his 'Red Terror' campaign against suspected dissidents and those he considered threats to his leadership led to the death, torture and imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens. (These and other events are depicted by George Orwell in his book Animal Farm, in which Stalin is represented by a pig named Napoleon.) By the time he died in 1953, Stalin had turned his country into a nuclear-armed superpower and made the communist movement a major force in world affairs. During the Second World War, though, his country was very nearly annihilated.

World War II began on 1 September, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. A week earlier, representatives of Germany and the Soviet Union signed an economic and defensive pact that allowed Germany the western half of Poland and Russia the eastern half, along with the Baltics and part of eastern Finland. The British government was greatly dismayed by the deal, not least because it had hoped to instigate a war between the Nazis of Germany and the Communists of Russia, the two groups it most distrusted. (Stalin was equally hopeful that in the west the Capitalists would become locked in a bloody stalemate, as they did in WWI.) In June 1941, with much of central and western Europe under German occupation, the British government finally got its wish. On 22 June, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. 

The six months following the German attack were a disaster for the Soviet Union. Germany advanced over a thousand miles into Soviet territory, inflicting more than four million casualties on the Red Army and destroying thousands of Russian planes and tanks. By Christmas that year, the German army had reached the outskirts of Moscow and had encircled the city of Leningrad (today St Petersburg). All appeared lost for the USSR. "Lenin gave us this country," said Stalin in a private meeting in December 1941 as the Germans advanced on Moscow, "and we've f***ed it up."

The USSR was saved by a combination of the fierce Russian winter (for which the German army was unprepared); the enormity of the Russian landmass, population and industrial base; and supplies from Britain, the US and Canada, shipped at great human and financial cost from Britain to Russia, via Iceland.

Initially uneasy to be allied to communist Russia, many Britons developed a grudging respect and even admiration for the Soviet Union as the Red Army first halted and then repelled the seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut. Less than four years after the invasion, Red Army troops swept into Germany and captured Berlin, where Adolf Hitler committed suicide in a bunker on 30 April, 1945. The war in Europe ended two weeks later.Arctic Convoy poster

(Righta British wartime poster about the Arctic convoys. Note the five-pointed red star on the wing of the Russian fighter plane.)

Communists and socialists in Britain and elsewhere pointed to the USSR's victory as proof of the superiority of communism. This was partly true, though not in the way it was implied. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died in the Second World War, and more than 3000 towns and villages were wiped off the map. That the USSR emerged from this ordeal a global superpower owed more to state power than to the virtues of or commitment to communist ideology: men were forcibly conscripted into the Red Army, given no leave time, and executed if they retreated or surrendered. As the historian Sir Max Hastings writes in All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945'It was probably true that only Russians could have borne and achieved what they did in the face of the 1941 catastrophe. It was less plausible to attribute this to the nobility of communist society.'

(Belowa Red Army soldier waves the Soviet Union flag on top of the Reichstag, the German parliament, Berlin, May 1945.)

Battle of Berlin Soviet flagDespite these huge losses, far from being 'behindhand', as Arthur Birling says, Russia ended the Second World War an industrial power that controlled eastern Europe (an area that included half of Germany and one half of the German capital, Berlin). To an audience in 1945, Birling's prediction about Russia would have brought a wry smile, as would his unwavering support for capitalism and his disdain for socialism.

However, the post-war belief in the supremacy of communism was an illusion based largely on media manipulation in both Britain and Russia. The USSR was such an important ally that the British government stifled all criticism of it. This was the main reason why in 1944 George Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher for Animal Farma story that sums up the hypocrisy of the USSR with the line, 'All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.' In 1945, in an article titled 'Freedom of the Press', Orwell wrote:

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable.

After years of economic stagnation and political unrest, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Each of the 15 republics became independent nations. Those in Europe, and those in the communist bloc (e.g., Poland and Hungary), have tried to free themselves of Russian influence, and have even banned the five-pointed star and other communist symbols. Globally, International Socialism has lost much of its power and appeal. Capitalist countries now dominate world affairs. Even China, a one-party Communist state, encourages free markets and consumerism. Does this mean that capitalism is superior? An Inspector Calls is Priestley's attempt to answer this question.

Arthur Birling is an enthusiastic capitalist, living in a capitalist country, at a time when socialist practices were new and largely untested: he owns his factory; he controls the salaries, working hours and other working conditions; and he receives a much higher salary than his workers. He regards socialism with disdain, and says of the Inspector (after he has left) that he was 'Probably a Socialist or some sort of crank – he talked like one.' When Eva Smith leads a strike to demand higher wages, Mr Birling is able to sack her and the ringleaders, and force the other employees back to work on the same wages. Gerald, a fellow factory-owner, condones the move:

Gerald: You couldn't have done anything else.

Eric: He could. He could have kept her on instead of throwing her out. I call it tough luck.

Birling: Rubbish! If you don't come down sharply on some of these people, they'd soon be asking for the earth.

Gerald: I should say so!

Inspector: They might. But after all it's better to ask for the earth than to take it.

Treating a worker this way would be very difficult if not impossible in a socialist country. First and foremost, the workers would already be on a decent wage, one that accurately reflects the difficulty of their work. They would also have the right to join a union, an organisation that protects workers' rights and negotiates with the management on questions of salary and working conditions.

Likewise, in a socialist system the boss at Milwards would not be able to sack Eva simply because an important customer had filed a spurious complaint, or, if he did, Eva would have been able to sue for unfair dismissal; and when in a socialist system an employee is sacked or made redundant, he or she is entitled to a portion of her salary over a period of weeks or months.

All of this would be possible because in a socialist system the goal is people, not profit: 'But these girls aren't cheap labour,' says Sheila in act one,  'they're people.'

The Inspector plainly favours such a system. In the course of his interrogation, he suggests Britain's capitalist society is a place of greed and nastiness, where the upper class (or bourgeoisie) figuratively and literally (in the case of Eric) rapes the poor.

Even when the full horror of Eva's story has been revealed, Mr Birling, the arch capitalist, cares only about his reputation and his business. Rather than seek to apologise to the Inspector, he tries to offer him a bribe, saying, 'Look, Inspector - I'd give thousands – yes, thousands – ', which proves him hypocritical, as well as absurd: he has money to spare for a bribe, but won't pay his workers a penny more. Similarly, despite his son Eric’s evident distress at what has happened, he offers no sympathy, ordering him to work for nothing until the money he stole has been repaid.

Priestley suggests that a socialist system is not only fairer, but also makes people behave better. Mr Birling, the first to wrong Eva, shows no remorse for his actions and tries to buy his way out of trouble. Eva, by contrast, though she has nothing, behaves admirably in every unjust episode.

By the end of the play the four Birlings and Gerald have contrasting views of the Inspector’s socialist principles. Mr and Mrs Birling, with so much to lose from a potential socialist revolution, dismiss the Inspector's warnings, convince themselves that they are not to blame for Eva's suicide, and try desperately to clear their names. Mr Birling even mocks his children’s apparent arrogance and delusion.

Gerald is somewhere in between: he expresses remorse for having used Eva and played a role in her decline, but once he discovers that Inspector Goole is not a real police inspector he reverts to his old self, even going so far as to encourage Sheila to renew their engagement (an offer she rejects).

Eric and Sheila, though, firmly believe that they and the others have behaved abominably. They regret their actions and wish that the others would heed the Inspector’s words.

Thus, at least two-fifths of the household – tellingly, those of the younger generation – have converted to socialism, a ratio that would be reflected in the general election held the year An Inspector Calls was first staged in Britain, and in subsequent elections up to the present day.

Questions

  1. What is socialism?
  2. How is socialism different from capitalism?
  3. How and when did socialism come to prominence in Great Britain? What role did J.B. Priestly play in this event?
  4. What was the world’s first communist state?
  5. In Britain how did WWII influence public opinion about communism and socialism?
  6. What evidence is there that Arthur Birling is a capitalist?
  7. What evidence is there that Inspector Goole is a socialist?

Debate

  1. In An Inspector Calls J.B. Priestly unfairly caricatures capitalism while portraying socialism too favourably.
  2. If she’d lived in a socialist system Eva Smith could not have been driven to suicide.
  3. The Inspector is right when he says ‘We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’

The Legacy of Socialism

Cuba

The zenith of socialism in the 20th century: Cuba, the Ministry of the Interior building in Plaza de la Revolución in the capital Havana. The image on the right is of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, an Argentine socialist revolutionary who played a prominent role in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The words read 'Hasta la victoria siempre' – 'Until victory, always!'

Mao poster

Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China in 1949 after two decades of civil war. During 27 years as Chairman of the Communist Party (which still rules China), he oversaw China's rapid rise from a largely agrarian society into a modern world power, though at the cost of millions of lives. Despite his controversial legacy, he is still officially venerated in China, as in this giant portrait in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. (See also: Guide to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie: overview, activities and important themes)

Lenin's tomb

Lenin's Tomb, Red Square, Moscow. Inside (where photography is forbidden) on public display lies the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary who in 1917 launched the October Revolution and founded the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the forerunner to the USSR.

Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Once known as Saigon, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 in honour of the communist revolutionary of the same name who led North Vietnam to victory over South Vietnam in the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. From the early 1960s to 1973, the United States fought an increasingly destructive, costly and controversial war on the side of South Vietnam in an attempt to stop a communist takeover of the country. The war cost the lives of 58,220 US soldiers and nearly three million North Vietnamese. Today, Vietnam, like neighbouring China, is a communist state that allows limited forms of free market capitalism, a curious mixture that is captured in the photo above: the national flag – red with the communist five-pointed star in the centre – flies atop the Hall while the logo of HSBC shines in the background.

Solidarity

A pro-Solidarity march in Poland, September 1988. Solidarity ('Solidarnosc' in Polish) is a non-communist trade union federation that was formed in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980. After first suppressing the movement, the Polish government eventually allowed Solidarity to field candidates in elections. In 1989 the group won a resounding victory in legislative elections, precipitating the fall of communism in Poland and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, Solidarity represents 722,000 workers in Poland.

Socialistparty UK

Members of the Socialist Party of England and Wales during a pro-NHS demonstration in London in 2011. The NHS, National Health Service, was created by the Labour government of Clement Attlee in 1948, in response to the recommendations of the Beveridge Report of 1942. The concept of an NHS that is 'free at the point of delivery' is being challenged by the current government.

Strikingworkers

Labour disputes like that between Eva and Mr Birling still take place in many countries, even the United States. Recently, American fast food restaurant workers (above) went on strike demanding that the minimum wage be raised from the current hourly rate of $7.25 (£4.30) to $15 (£9), and that they be free to engage in union activities without intimidation. 

Read the rest of our analysis of the play's themes, as well as a summary, character profiles and classroom activities, by downloading our free guide

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com