Sunday, September 25, 2016

Japan and socialism (1988)

Book Review from the November 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Kilt and the Kimono by Ian S. Williamson (The Book Guild, £10.50)

How deceptive appearances can be! This book, with its banal title and dust jacket, looks extremely unpromising yet is packed with valuable information about Japan as well as containing more socialist arguments than any book published for years.

Ian Williamson is a Scot who has lived and taught in Japan. He is an ex-member and longtime supporter of the Socialist Party and what he has set out to do in this book is to explain Japanese society, with its unique culture and customs, through its history and to dispel the myths and prejudices which most people in the west have about Japan.

Ever since the end of the second world war many western writers and commentators, particularly American, have been trying to explain the complexities of Japanese society by using western standards as their guide They have assumed that the lifestyle, morality, values and even physical appearance of people in the west are the correct ones and criticise the Japanese for not measuring up. Williamson rejects this idealistic approach and easily demolishes the claims made by the "experts" that the Japanese are especially militaristic, conformist and subservient by pointing to the existence at one time or another of all of these traits in the west.

Nevertheless many Japanese attitudes do differ greatly from those held in the west. According to Williamson there is a much greater emphasis placed on the importance of group activity and decision making as opposed to western individualism; there is little or no interest in the concept of life after death or any metaphysical thought, and there is not the clear-cut distinction which most western people make between work and leisure or art and nature, but Williamson shows how all these differences and more can be understood through looking at Japan's history Why, for instance, is politeness such a feature of Japanese life?
In old Japan people were required to sit, sleep, eat, dress and greet each other in a certain manner according to their social position In fact what they ate and how they dressed was severely laid down by law. Anyone who violated the law or rules of etiquette in the days of the Samurai was severely dealt with. To touch a superior, or even to sit in any other than the prescribed way in his presence resulted in a painful reminder that proper behaviour must be observed.
So observing the correct form of behaviour has become an ingrained characteristic of the Japanese which has persisted to this day.

History also explains why Japanese workers apparently show such loyalty to their employers. Because aspects of feudal relations have persisted into modem capitalism in Japan a paternalistic, hierarchical system is still strongly entrenched. This means that besides the guarantee of a job for life for many workers, seniority is very important for promotion prospects. Workers who have invested a number of years in a company know they would have to start at the bottom again if they were to leave and get a job elsewhere, so they tend to stay put and make a virtue out of necessity by being loyal to "their" company.

No opportunity is missed by the author to put across socialist ideas. Our views on class, leadership, war, crime, human nature, nationalism, etc. are featured throughout the book. So besides giving workers here the opportunity to learn about Japan. Ian Williamson has, more importantly, provided Japanese workers with an excellent introduction to socialism. They just might be able to read elsewhere as sound a condemnation of capitalism as the one he provides but where else will they see this description of socialism?
A classless system, where goods are produced for use. not for sale, and because there will be no buying or selling so there will be no need for money, banks, insurance companies, salesmen, ticket collectors, cash-register operators, stock brokers and all the rest of the cumbersome junk and paraphernalia which involves people in soul destroying, non-productive, non-creative activity so necessary in capitalist society. 
And to round things off the Socialist Party and its companion parties are mentioned as the advocates of such a system of society!
Vic Vanni

Poorest of the poor? (1988)

Book Review from the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

James Painter. Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom. Latin American Bureau (London 1987)

In his preface to this volume Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan peasant leader, writes about the majority of Guatemalan people not having "the opportunity to develop and live like human beings". This study examines the reasons that opportunity does not exist and suggests ways in which it might be achieved. To exist in Guatemala is to live in a country of violent repression, hunger and poverty. The country is a stark contrast between a minority living in luxury amid widespread destitution. The armed forces exist to defend wealth and privilege and aid in the repression which ensures their continuation. The emergence of a democratic government under the presidency of Vinicio Cerezo would appear to offer little comfort to any but the privileged minority.

Painter confronts the failure of the Christian Democratic Party, elected in January 1986. to offer any possibility of change. In a country rich in fertile land, oil and mineral deposits it must be questioned why "only a very small percentage of the Guatemalan population does not suffer from the ravages of poverty". The present government may have inherited a dire set of circumstances in which, according to the Government State Planning Council at the end of 1985, as many as 86 per cent of families lived below the official poverty line, yet not even a modest programme of reforms has been suggested. Guatemala has the worst infant mortality rate in Central America with intestinal infections, influenza, pneumonia, measles and whooping cough being major killers; adequate nutrition, vaccination. a proper sewerage and water system would greatly reduce those figures. That may give little comfort in a nation in which 25 per cent of male deaths occurred as a result of political or common violence in the early 1980s. Guatemala's priorities lie elsewhere with spending on health at a minimum but with ever-increasing spending on defence, security and, more recently, debt repayments. The author sees Guatemala's problems as a
direct result of an unbridled "free market" economic system that puts wealth into the hands of a powerful and privileged few and increases the poverty of the many.
To understand Guatemala's poverty it is necessary to examine the economic system which is its creator. This is a country in which, according to the Ministry of the Economy in the early 1980s, 83 per cent of the rural population received 35 per cent of rural income while two per cent received 40 per cent of it. Agricultural wages are desperately low. Labourers are not the consumers of an agriculture whose products arc exported to the rich industrial nations. Food products for the Guatemalan diet have tended to stagnate causing greater reliance on expensive imported food stuffs. According to USAID there are as many as three million acres of idle land, found mostly in the large private estates: 
Decisions about what to grow were made on the basis of private gain, and enough food was only granted to those who had sufficient income or land to afford it.
At the same time any attempt to organise trade unions or co-operatives among workers and peasants has been met by violent repression.

The author suggests a programme of reforms to combat Guatemala's poverty. These include agrarian reform, nationalisation and a more "equitable" reproportioning of the tax burden. Such reforms would merely tamper with a system which exists to perpetuate privilege at the expense of the majority. Reforms are a limited reaction, nevertheless even a suggestion of reform invites the label of "communist subversive" and risks disappearance or death.

Political and economic control of Guatemala lies in the hands of the Guatemalan elite, the security forces and a number of mainly US transnationals and banks. The involvement of the armed forces as an integral component of the economy has escalated since the 1960s. The army has interests in as many as 40 semi-autonomous state enterprises. It controls the ironically named Military Social Welfare Institute which owns its own bank, El Banco de Ejercito. Painter points out that while army involvement in the economy is not unusual in Central America, in Guatemala the officers have "acquired an unparalleled notoriety for . . . corruption, voracity and entrepreneurial zeal". The military has effective economic and managerial control of AVIATECA. the national airline, TAM, military air transport, the main Aurora international airport, GUATEL, the public telecommunications system INDE, the state-owned electricity company, its own television stations as well as such institutions as BANVI (National Housing Bank). DIGESA (Agricultural Services Agency) and INTECAP (Technical Training Institute).

The Christian Democratic Party advocates a policy of "communitarianism" in which, theoretically. individuals are fulfilled through "personalism and the common good". In practice the party has operated in the interests of the dominant power groups with little consideration for the needs of the majority: the rights of private property are sacred and not to be tampered with. Cerezo is on record as saying that the party would not pursue reforms as this would be "disastrous for the economy and provoke capital flight" and so the Christian Democratic Party maintains the status quo. The party endorses the rights of the dominant trinity of interests, private business, the military and US transnationals and. equally as important, is accepted and tolerated by those interests. This adds poignancy to Eduardo Galeano’s observation that in Guatemala elections are "a joke on the people who have nothing and decide nothing" Repression still continues and during 1986 the Guatemalan Commission for Human Rights based in Mexico said that there were 126 politically related disappearances and 463 extra-judicial assassinations.

Cerezo's policies are not untypical of the 1980s. He has sought to reduce inflation by printing less money. He has sought economic growth through offering incentives to the private sector and stimulating foreign capital investment. He has also sought foreign aid to supplement the need for foreign exchange and to regularise the balance of payments crisis. In this he is consistent with IMF thinking. Meanwhile, wages were cut by 16.7 per cent between January and September of Cerezo's first year in office.
For the majority the future offers little: 
the removal of the structural causes that create the gross inequalities, the wrenching poverty and the horrendous human rights violations seems even more remote.
Painter argues for a programme of giving land to the peasants and reforming the tax system but the call for reforms fails to recognise that the structural causes of poverty must themselves be removed if the majority are to have access to the wealth they have created. Painter argues that what minor reforms have been applied "can be nothing more than palliatives" but does not recognise that his large scale reforms are themselves at best palliatives. This may seem a bleak vision but it is a direct consequence of a nation committed to a system in which the profits of the few are pursued regardless of the consequences for the majority.
Philip Bentley

A Tale of Two Parties (1964)

From the February 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once upon a time there were two Communist Parties. One was in Great Britain and was called the Communist Party of Great Britain: CPGB for short. The other was in New Zealand and was called the Communist Party of New Zealand: CPNZ for short. Ordinary simple people could see no difference between the two parties. But one day while they were watching their flocks they saw three wise men coming from the East, from Peking. The wise men said there was a difference. One was “revisionist” or bad; the other was “revolutionary” or good. So the simple people tried to guess what this could be. They knew the CPGB was nationalistic for they had read in a pamphlet on the Common Market:
Members of Parliament should be told in no uncertain terms that they were not elected to sell out British trade interests and British independence.
But they knew that the CPNZ was nationalistic, too, for it said it stood for “New Zealand Socialism.” One of its pamphlets, What Will Socialist New Zealand be like? said.
In every way our Socialism will start on a one hundred per cent. New Zealand basis. It will bear the trade mark of our very adaptable and resourceful people— “Well Made, New Zealand! ’’ 
and the simple people laughed when they read:
We have produced athletes like Lovelock, Halberg and Snell, who can take on the world's best and beat them hollow. Our All Blacks are feared throughout the Rugby world.
For a moment they thought that a “revolutionary” Party supported the All Blacks while a “revisionist” Party supported the British Lions. But the wise men said no.

Then they remembered that the CPGB wanted a Labour Party government and a few Communist Party M.P.’s. Perhaps this was the difference, they thought, perhaps the CPNZ is against its Labour Party. When they remembered that the leader of the Labour Party in New Zealand had once said, “there is no place today for what used to be known as the class struggle," they were certain. The CPNZ must be “revolutionary” because it opposed the Labour Party. But they were wrong. For someone told them that in People's Voice, the CPNZ’s journal, they had read:
Our policy is to work for the return of Communist M.P.’s to Parliament and in electorates where no Communists arc standing we will support the return of the Labour candidate to defeat the National candidate. (6.11.63).
Now they were at a loss. What could this difference be? And then they notice something. They noticed that whenever there was a recession the CPGB used to say that trade with Russia was the answer while the CPNZ used to say that trade with China was. At first they thought that there was nothing here. After all, they said, Great Britain is nearer to Russia than to China and New Zealand is nearer to China than to Russia. But then they found that Russia and China were quarreling and that the CPNZ again thought that China was best. Then they understood. What makes a Party “revolutionary" or “revisionist" is not whether it is internationalist or nationalist, not whether it opposes or supports the Labour Parties, but whether it supports China or not. How wise these wise men were, they thought. And the wise men agreed.

The Chairman of the wise men then said, “Yes, we are wise. We don't care what the home policy of a Communist Party is so long as it backs our foreign policy. You see, we don't really care about theory. We are just using it to win support for our foreign policy in Communist Parties which are hostile to us. I will be frank. Our dispute with Russia is not one of ‘revolutionaries' and ‘revisionists.’ It is a sordid and cynical struggle between two States." (Thunderous applause and cheers. Standing ovation).

The simple people went away a little wiser.
Adam Buick

Cappuccino, Skiffle and Spaghetti (1957)

From the May 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty or sixty years ago this writer’s grandfather spent six out of seven evenings a week in a public house. And most working men did the same. Today, many pubs, are almost empty from Monday to Saturday. This is partly due to the fact that more men stay at home, watching the T.V., listening to the radio or reading, and partly due to a change in drinking habits.

What, then, do we drink today when we don’t drink beer? And where do we go?

Coffee Bars
Millions of gallons of tea are drunk in restaurants and roadside cafés. And soft drinks like “coke” and milk shakes are sold in the now declining milk bars. But neither the roadside caff nor the milk bar can take the place of the pub. The public house was—and to a lesser extent still is—a meeting place for working men, and women, after a day’s work. But neither the café nor the milk bar can be that, though many milk bars and some restaurants boast of a juke box. The milk bar, with its high chrome stools and numerous mirrors, is no place for social drinking.

But during the last few years a new kind of place— with “ atmosphere’’—has come into being. It is the Espresso coffee bar.

About five years ago an Italian dentist who came to Britain, so we are told, to sell mouth-mirrors, so hated British coffee that he introduced Espresso coffee machines, which, by steam pressure, pump water through ground coffee to make a fresh cup of coffee for each cup. When the coffee is topped with the foam of milk heated by steam, it is called Cappuccino. Within a year, hundreds of Espresso coffee bars had sprung up in London arid elsewhere.

In most coffee bars the lights are low—very low; the walls are covered with Piccasso-like murals, and the waitresses lode like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield! And all for ninepence a cup! This was the place that a fellow and his girl friend could sit in for hours on end— for a few shillings. But the coffee house proprietors soon found that coffee on its own or with the occasional gateau did not bring in the profits that they expected. Groups of working-class teenagers drinking possibly two or three cups of Cappuccino in an evening was of little use to them.

New and different clients had to be catered for. Coffee and gateau was not enough.

Spaghetti and Steak
A number of Espresso coffee bars began to add spaghetti to their menus; some came into existence as restaurants and coffee bars. Some are now licensed, and sell both coffee and spirits.

Another coffee bar “gimmick" is the skiffle group—three, four or more “musicians,” playing guitars, homemade string basses, etc., and singing, with pseudo-American accents, folk songs of Tennessee and the Deep South. A cover charge is made for such entertainment.

At present, Espresso coffee bars—plus spaghetti, steak, brandy and skiffle—are booming, but to a large extent they are changing. At first the Bloomsbury “intellectuals"and the Bohemians with their sandals and corduroy trousers frequented them, and then later the more typical working-class youngsters, but now many coffee bars cater exclusively for the upper-income types; others are squeezing the poorer group out with their three cups of coffee per evening.

Espresso is becoming bourgeois. Earls Court moves into Mayfair.
Peter E. Newell

The cult of leadership (1999)

Editorial from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The cult of leadership
In 1997 Britain emerged from the dark days of Tory rule, liberated by the Labour Party—their path to victory illuminated by the dazzling smile and radiant glow of sincerity from Tony Blair, who promised "Things Can Only Get Better!" If only the People would trust him to lead them. It was He, and He alone, with his charm and iron-willed leadership, that brought victory to the Labour Party. It was He, and He alone, who could save Britain. It was He, and He alone, who was fit to give us leadership.
The Cult of Tony was born!
And the members of the Labour Party, from the knockers-on-doors to the MPs in Westminster, to the people who owed their very jobs to Tony, saw how He and He alone brought them victory. And they believed. They believed it was Tony what won it, they believed that Tony could do it, they believed they owed it all to Leadership. And they looked out into the darkness in the world, the places where Tony's light—alas!—did not and could not shine, and they knew what was the one thing needful.

The Cult of Leadership was born!
MORE LEADERS! More leaders was the answer. Wherever the darkness of poverty, inefficiency, despair and degradation existed in the Land, leaders were the solution. Things can get better, things must get better, but only if the resolute will of a Leader can be brought to them. But, how to find these great leaders? How to bring the resolute will to bear? Then, the London Bells spoke, and all became clear: new elections were needed.

The Cult of Elected Mayors was born!
Don't quite buy it? Well, neither do we. It seems a nice idea—everything running smoothly, no hassles, no delays, no backroom haggling or party politicking, simply One Man charging through the wilderness solving problems at a stroke. It is, though, just a fantasy. Leaders spend a lot of time, money and effort, trying to persuade us that someone, someone at least, is in control, and that we have some real control in our own lives, through (of course) them.

The truth is that no elected politician can control the market—which operates for the private gain of a tiny number of owners. As long as the market exists we cannot have control of our own lives, run things in our own, and our own communities' interests, because that would threaten the profits of the tiny few. Leaders can't change that. Only we can, by acting together, without leaders, to end the whole profit-driven, market system.

Questions—and the answer (1992)

From the May 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the last issue of the Socialist Standard, in an article directed at people who are too young to have a vote, we raised three questions that we thought our young readers might like to consider. We also suggested that they might like to pass the questions on to their teachers or clergymen, their Member of Parliament, leaders of the political parties, and others of that respectable fraternity who give credence to the idea that there’s not a lot wrong with our world that can not be put right with a dollop of sensible planning.

We also advised our young readers that we would contribute answers to our questions in this issue.

The questions were:

1. Governments of different political parties, Tory, Liberal or Labour, governments of the Right, the Left and the Centre, come and go in different countries. But all the basic problems remain despite the fact that political parties achieve power on the basis of their electoral claims to be able to solve these problems. Why is this?

2. In this country—indeed throughout all countries—homelessness and slum dwelling is a permanent feature of life. At the same time, there are vast numbers of workers, skilled in the various aspects of building construction unemployed. Why are building and construction workers idle when millions of people desperately need decent homes?

3. In every country, poverty, in one or more of its forms, exists. Some 15 million children (averaging about 42,000 every single day) die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. At the same time, massive amounts of foodstuffs are dumped or stored— much of it until it goes rotten—and governments deliberately restrict food production. Why do you think this is?

Why politicians fail
The answer to Question 1 is that all political parties, with the exception of those within the World Socialist Movement, contest election on the grounds that they are able to run the existing system better than all the others. Such a claim must be underpinned by the arrogant notion that they have got something that none of the others have, or ever had! They are elected on this basis, because the electorate believe that they have the skills, the honesty, sincerity or whatever other quality is required to put things right. As the question states, they always fail.

It is not the fault of the politicians and their parties that they fail; on the contrary, it is the fault of the capitalist system, the buying-and-selling system, which the parties, whatever they call themselves, choose to organise and administer. Capitalism is firmly rooted in the exploitation of the working majority by a parasitic minority. Its function is not to produce goods and services for the use of society as a whole but only to produce these things if, and when, they ensure a profit for the capitalists.

The basic problems that the politicians fail to solve arise inevitably out of the contradictions of capitalism. They are problems peculiar to capitalism and, as such, are ineradicable while that system lasts. That is why the World Socialist Movement does not campaign on its ability to solve problems like poverty, unemployment, crime etc but, uniquely, calls on the working class to organise for the democratic overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.

Why needs are not met
The answers to Questions 2 and 3 are implied in the foregoing but to demonstrate our point we will take a brief look at the socialist alternative to capitalism, where not only would the problems set out in 2 and 3 not exist but where, along with the other myriad problems of capitalism, they could not exist. Socialism, as proposed by the World Socialist Movement, is defined in our Object as:
a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the. whole community.
In the world envisaged in this definition. every human being on Earth would have the opportunity to co-operate in the production and distribution of wealth and, again, every human being would have free and equal access to the means to satisfy their needs whether or not they had co-operated in production. Obviously, if enough people declined to partake in the productive processes it would be impossible for everyone to avail themselves of the things they need. That is why socialism can only be built upon the conscious democratic decision of a majority of socialists and why the fullest democratic control would have to prevail in a socialist society.

All people engaged in the wasteful functions that now exist in the world of capitalism, functions like selling, banking, insurance, armed forces, advertising and marketing, together with the unemployed, on the dole and on the stock exchange, would be available to help in the task of producing and distributing. Obviously, in such circumstances, where things like “investment” and “cost” would no longer exist, problems such as slums and homelessness could be quickly corrected.

Whereas today the purpose of food production is the maximization of profits without regard to the damage caused to the land and the prospects for future generations, in socialism the primary consideration will be producing enough food for ail in a manner consistent with the preservation of the land. The concept of socialism is wholly inconsistent with the idea of poverty or hunger for any minority on Earth however small that minority might be.

Today, it is a relatively small number of human beings who perform the work of providing essential goods and services; the rest of the working class, as we have noted, are engaged in functions that are meaningless outside the wasteful world of capitalism. It follows that, in socialism, the task of producing all the goods and services required by humanity can be accomplished with comparatively little effort. That which we now call employment—workers working for wages—will have ended with the abolition of capitalism so, effectively, there can be no unemployment.

Obviously, in a wageless, moneyless world where people freely avail themselves of their needs and are not required to work long hours for protracted periods of their lives, there will be much time for leisure. Speculating on how human beings might use that leisure, in a frontierless world where transport and accommodation, like everything else is free, might well be a further question worth discussing.
Richard Montague

Friday, September 23, 2016

Lack of Momentum (2016)

From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Labour leadership election between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is a battle for the heart and soul of the Party; we examine what is really at stake.
A few years ago the idea that Jeremy Corbyn might be leader of the Labour Party would have been as likely as Lord Lucan appearing in Kensington High Street riding Shergar. But such is the disillusionment with much of what the Blair and Brown governments stood for – including the Iraq War – that the Labour Party seems to be a rather different place these days.
There are, of course, positives to this. Large numbers of Labour members and affiliated supporters are questioning the received wisdom of Labour’s role as one of being a more effective management team for UK PLC than the Conservatives – an effectiveness, it was argued, that would enable Labour governments to be more caring and generous to the poor. After 13 years of Labour government people rightly began questioning why this transparently didn’t happen, with inequality in Britain being at least as bad now on most measures than it was when the Blair landslide happened in 1997. Then there was the Iraq War and attempts at a potentially similar intervention in Syria, which left people disgusted with evidently spurious justifications of warmongering.
That people are questioning these things (and have been now for some time) is undoubtedly good. That many have now rallied around a hitherto highly marginal, left-wing Labour politician as the antidote to what has gone on before is rather more questionable, and herein lies much of Labour’s current woe.
Trade unions
Since its formation in 1906 out of the trade-union inspired Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party has had one, clear overarching aim. This is to secure political office – by contesting elections for parliament and local councils – so that it can enact reform measures that are in the interest of wage and salary earners (‘labour’ in the broadest sense). As such it has largely been the political arm of the trade union movement and the trade unions have been historically its main financial backers, as well as providing a proportion of its elected MPs. In terms of its entire ethos and ideology (reflected in its internal constitution) Labour as a political party has no other purpose than this.
The main charge against Corbyn and his supporters from those challenging his leadership is precisely that this purpose is being disregarded. Corbyn has spent his entire political life as a serial rebel against successive Labour leaderships, mainly with a penchant for supporting single issue protest groups (CND, anti-apartheid, environmentalism, etc). The charge is that he is turning the Labour Party from being a potential government that can enact reforms to being a cheerleader for grassroots single-issue campaigns, drawing large numbers of members into the Party from these types of single-issue interest groups.
Corbyn denies this and claims – however unlikely it may sound – that his goal is to be the next Prime Minister. But if he really believes this, what we can say is that the evidence is not on his side.
Weathercocks and signposts
Corbyn’s political mentor, Tony Benn, always claimed that the main choice in politics is over whether you are a weathercock blowing with the political wind, or a signpost pointing towards a new direction. Genuine socialists, being interested in securing a fundamental change in the way society is organised, are obviously in the signpost category. The equally obvious problem is that this is a signpost most people cannot see and when on occasion they do see it, it points down a path they are not usually inclined to explore that far. This has been the dilemma at the heart of the broader labour movement in the UK and elsewhere for well over a century – what became known originally as the disagreement between the ‘possibilists’ and ‘impossibilists’. The possibilists argued that you can only put forward ideas and policies that are likely to be broadly acceptable to the working class given their current ideology, while the so-called impossibilists have advocated the maximum programme of ‘socialism and nothing but’ as a way to change people’s minds towards the need for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.
The Labour Party is the ultimate possibilist political organisation and what Corbyn and his supporters are certainly not doing is advocating a turn instead to what the Labour Party has always derided as impossibilism (of the sort, for instance, advocated by us). They just want to advocate a form of possibilism through reform-campaigning that seems historically less likely to attract support and hence political power than the more conventional form advocated by more mainstream Labour – if you like, a form of utopian possibilism, a phrase which sounds like it should be a contradiction in terms.
Momentum
The pro-Corbyn activist organisation set up a month or so after his initial leadership victory in 2015 seems to grasp little of this. Momentum appears to be an amalgam of supporters of a variety of single-issue causes and is largely full of people who have joined Labour in only recent times – swelling the Party membership to over half a million. This is a significant increase on recent years but well below the peak of over a million Labour members achieved in 1952-3 and which was followed by two heavy successive election defeats (which just goes to illustrate that activist political membership and the wider popular vote are very different things).
Persistent rumours of Trotskyist infiltration notwithstanding, at Momentum’s core are a number of people (such as its main driving force, Jon Lansman) who have long been known on the hard-left Bennite wing of the Party. Some of them like Lansman himself had been part of the left-wing core of activists who set up the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and other groups in the 1980s supportive of Benn and his key positions – such as a massive programme of nationalisation of industry, radical Keynesian economics, import controls, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and opposition to membership of the then EEC. They had a significant influence on Labour policy under Michael Foot, culminating in the Alternative Economic Strategy that was at the heart of the Labour manifesto for the 1983 General Election (dubbed by then Shadow Cabinet member Gerald Kaufman as the ‘longest suicide note in political history’). This led to a 1983 Labour vote share of 28 percent, still the worst Labour performance in the post-war period, even worse than those since achieved by Brown and Miliband.
The electoral lessons learnt from this disastrous defeat in 1983 led over a period of years from Neil Kinnock and John Smith through to Tony Blair. This drift to the political centre was also in broad alignment with the significant economic changes that occurred over these decades that rendered the 1983 manifesto obsolete, including the free movement of capital across borders, the internationalisation of industry (which rendered direct state ownership of business difficult if not impossible), the collapse of Soviet Russia’s empire and the end of the Cold War, and so on.
What Corbyn and Momentum now want to do is effectively turn the tide back to the inglorious days of 1983 in the hope that the ‘anti-establishment’ feeling among sections of the electorate at present can give them the type of radical surge that failed to happen in the 80s. But there is little if any evidence that this is likely to happen.
Examining the record
To some, Corbyn has done better than expected in his electoral tests so far. This is actually true, though only because most people’s expectations have been so low to start with. In the local government elections this May the Labour lead over the Conservatives was 1 percent, the same as it was in 2011 one year into Miliband’s leadership, with the Labour share of the vote only slightly up on the 2015 General Election. In the parliamentary by-elections that have occurred under Corbyn’s leadership, where more volatile swings occur with often low turnouts, the average swings have tended to be around 8 percent to Labour, almost identical to those achieved by Miliband. This perhaps suggests that the ‘Corbyn effect’ is actually less than either his supporters or detractors maintain.
Either way, it is not indicative of a radical upsurge and there is no indication that the increase in Labour Party membership is mirrored by an increase in popular support for their ideas more generally. Labour is trailing badly in the opinion polls again too, despite recent turmoil in the governing Tory Party. And as Cowley and Kavanagh have recently pointed out in The British General Election of 2015 ‘Almost all psephological analysis of Labour’s support between 2010 and 2015, as well as what we know of non-voters, the UKIP vote or indeed the nature of support for the SNP, would indicate that the Corbyn strategy is a route to an electoral brick wall’ (p.384). It is for these reasons that the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – arguably more in touch with the wider electorate and their views than they are with the Party’s activist base – have said ‘enough is enough’ and are supporting Owen Smith in his leadership campaign.
Splitters
If Owen Smith doesn’t defeat Corbyn (or at least come close enough to justify another push next time) there is a real possibility of the Labour Party splitting. This is partly because the attitude to reforming capitalism from the PLP and much of the more long-standing membership is a rather different one to that of Corbyn and Momentum. It is also because – and this is partly the attraction of Corbyn to Momentum supporters – he is not a traditional political leader in either his utterances or demeanour (almost what marketing geeks would call a self-consciously ‘non-brand’ brand). To extend the analogy with 1983, the same could have been said of Michael Foot.
The Labour Party has split before of course, in 1981 when elements of the right-wing in the Party decamped under pressure from the left-wing activists then in the ascendancy, and founded the Social Democratic Party. This is what partly led to Labour achieving its lowest post-war vote in 1983, though today the portents are worse. The Labour vote in 1979 was 37 percent and then fell to 28 per cent. In 2015 it was under 32 percent and so is already at a lower base. And this time in terms of splitters it is unlikely to be as few as the 29 MPs who eventually threw in their lot with the SDP. On that occasion, the vast majority of the right and centre of the Party stayed (including heavyweights like Healey and Kaufman) whereas this time the vast bulk of the PLP is in rebellion, not a small minority of it.
If a split of this type occurs, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party in its current form can survive or what its purpose would be even if it did. People can join all sorts of single-issue groups and advocate particular reforms, but unless there is an electable political vehicle to put these reforms into action, it becomes a sterile and narrow form of campaigning around individual hobby-horses. And people can do this (and have done for decades) irrespective of whether they are in the Labour Party or not.
Socialist standards
This current confusion and division in the Labour Party – as well as a general political climate that seems more sceptical about political leaders – should be an opportunity for socialists. While there are concerned, decent and genuine people in all sections of the Labour Party (and other parties too for that matter) Labour as an organisation has repeatedly failed to defend the interests of wage and salary earners – hence the reason it repeatedly disappoints and gets kicked out of office. In truth, the ‘possibilism’ that has long characterised the Labour approach is really not so possibilist or realist at all in the sense that capitalism has never been fundamentally changed by reformist Labour governments elected into office (if anything, it has been changes within capitalism over decades that has helped change Labour instead).
Labour in government has sent troops in to break strikes, backed all of the major wars engaged in by the UK this last century (and has initiated a few of them), and has repeatedly attacked working class living standards to ensure the profitability of British industry. There is nothing to suggest that either Corbyn or Smith, despite their radical phrases, would behave any differently in office – all national governments are there to administer their particular section of world capitalism, and as Syriza in Greece found out soon enough, have very little control over the market economy as events unfold.
Momentum activists will no doubt argue that Corbyn is a decent man with a track record of opposing war. But this misses the point about how capitalism entraps those who seek to administer it. And while Corbyn may have opposed the senseless butchery of the Iraq War, he is a man (along with John McDonnell) who has sought to apologise repeatedly for the nationalism and terrorism of organisations like the Provisional IRA and Hamas. Men like these who commemorated IRA terrorists and who refused to condemn some of the most anti-working class atrocities in UK history (such as the Birmingham pub bombings and Enniskillen) are men whose peaceful and socialist credentials deserve to be viewed with quite some scepticism.
What is of importance now is that people who may identify with wanting to create a genuinely socialist society of common ownership, democratic control and free access to wealth, don’t get suckered in by a radical-sounding, ‘populist’ reform movement that has yet to prove its popularity anywhere beyond the already like-minded. The attempt to reform capitalism by so-called benevolent governments has always been a disaster and there’s nothing to suggest it would be any different next time under either Corbyn or Smith. Socialists have always been content to leave the Labour Party to the reformists – and the more we think about it, the more they are welcome to it.
Dave Perrin

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Between the Lines: Death, hypocrisy and videotape (1992)

The Between the Lines column from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

DEATH, HYPOCRISY AND VIDEOTAPE
Has nobody told Stormin' Norman about East Timor? Were we not told by the trigger-happy hypocrites who gave us the Gulf War that the invasion of one country by another was intolerable and must be defeated by force? First Tuesday (BBC2, 7 January, 10.45pm) told the hitherto unexposed story of the ruthless butchery of the Timorese people which has gone on for sixteen years.

In 1975 East Timor became independent from Portuguese control and elected its own government. That year Indonesia took over East Timor, outlawed the elected government and began a process of imposing control by means of brutal coercion. It is estimated that one in three of the population have been killed since the Indonesian take-over. In sixteen years as many as 250,000 Timorese workers are said to have been done away with. This is legalised terrorism on a mass scale. It is virtual genocide.

So, where are "our boys" whose task is to defend "the good" against "the evil”? (Remember all that "Free Kuwait" rubbish? The Kuwaiti dictatorship now presides over torture and mass deportations of its subjects.) The answer is that the only American and British arms being sent into the area are being sold to Indonesia.

The governments which claimed to have fought a war in the Gulf against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait are selling to Indonesia the means to unlawfully colonise East Timor. The alleged atrocities committed by Iraqis against Kuwaitis are being committed by Indonesian state thugs against the Timorese workers as a matter of course, but, despite several detailed reports by Amnesty International, the governments of Britain, the USA or Australia (the latter being a major trading partner with Indonesia) just stand by. Of course, hypocrisy is as attached to capitalist politics as fleas are to a dirty dog. How else can the cynical, anti-human policies of defending profit and damning need be justified?

The well-made First Tuesday documentary contained shocking footage of the 12 December 1991 funeral demonstration where Timorese workers were burying a man killed by the Indonesian army. At the funeral Indonesian troops fired on the crowd, killing one hundred mourners, others died on their way to and in hospital.

Indonesian brutality has given rise to an ill-equipped campaign of military resistance by desperate Timorese workers. Such counter-violence is futile: semi-armed guerrilla fighters will be no match for American-backed Indonesian state thugs, and anyway, killing Indonesian workers in uniform will not make anyone free, just a few more graves full.

The tragedy of East Timor reflects vividly the crass hypocrisy of Western celebrations about the coming of "Freedom" and the decency of King Capital's New World Order. It shows just how much the Gulf War was fought for oil profits and just how true it is that if Kuwait would have been as relatively poor as East Timor and if Iraq had been Indonesia things would have been different.


AAH, FREEDOM
The government has deregulated the law relating to TV, so now we are "free" - if we pay for it (in short, capitalist freedom) - to watch two new pom channels: After Midnight and Adult Channel. Behind the Headlines (BBC2, 8 January. 10.55pm) had a discussion on what such "freedom" will mean. In future viewers will be sold little plastic cards which they can slot into their TVs in order to watch sleazy movies made for sleazy men.

The programme also discussed the new 0898 sex lines on which consumers with such desires can pay 45p a minute listening to out-of-work actresses pretending to be naughty schoolgirls or busty nurses. There is even an 0898 number on which a genuine rape victim has been paid £3,000 to give a recorded account of her rape ordeal. Sweet freedom, eh? The poor woman is "free" to sell her pathetic story and men who are excited by rape (the stealing of the sexual commodity) can listen to her for just over a quid an orgasm.

Meanwhile Decca has announced that in February it is to release a video of the most salacious bits of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial - yours to enjoy in complete "freedom" for £10.99 a copy.

If this is freedom, then it is a lunatic's conception of what it is to be free. It is the freedom to sell, to exploit, to degrade, to abuse, to drag humanity through the dirt. Perhaps someone could market an 0898 number with recordings of children being tortured in East Timor; there might be a few bob to be made out of the screwballs who will get off on that.
Steve Coleman

Moscow Gold (1992)

Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
From the January 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

The late and unlamented British Communist Party— now renamed since its last Congress in November the "Democratic Left”—has recently opened its archives and revealed the extent of its subservience to Russia. George Matthews, a former Assistant General Secretary, wrote in the now defunct party’s now defunct journal Changes (14- 27 September 1991) that in June 1950 Pollitt was summoned by Stalin to draft a new programme for the British Party.

On 15 June 1950 Pollitt's report of his discussions with Stalin was put before the Party’s National Executive Committee who were reluctant to accept all of Stalin’s proposals because they were too controversial. During the next three months three drafts of a programme were prepared and on 20 October Pollitt took a few days’ holiday which in fact was a trip to Russia for further consultation with Stalin. A fourth draft was produced in December, and in January 1951 Pollitt paid another secret visit to Russia. After further consultations with Stalin The British Road to Socialism was published shortly after his return to London.

Secrecy was considered essential in the cold-war conditions of the early 1950s because of the risk of being linked too closely with Russian foreign policy or accused of being financed and manipulated by Stalin. George Matthews has shown moral courage in admitting his part in the secret negotiations between Pollitt and Stalin which occurred forty years ago:
The concealment of the role of Stalin by the party leadership, of which I was part, for so many years was indefensible.
Matthews takes the view that the Communist Party should have insisted that Stalin’s advice was acceptable only if it was public advice.

But he states:
It was inconceivable that in the conditions of 1950 the British party would have taken such a stand, and fruitless to speculate on what Stalin would have done if it had.
He who pays the piper calls the tune and the British Communist Party was too financially dependent on Russian money to resist Stalins demands. According to another former Assistant General Secretary, Rueben Falber, writing in the last issue of Changes (16/29 November 1991), the British Party continued to receive cash from Moscow right up until his retirement in 1979.

In stating "1 can only speak for myself in saying that 1 am not proud of the part I played in this affair". Matthews has publicly confessed his regret for being a party to the secret negotiations between Pollitt and Stalin and to relegating the Communist Party to a mere tool of Russian policy. But there seems to be little regret at the undemocratic and secret decisions made by the Communist Party on other occasions.

In 1947 a major policy change occurred with Pollitt’s pamphlet Looking Ahead in which he stated that it “is possible to see how the people will move towards Socialism without further revolution, without the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This change in Communist Party rules was made without debate of any kind. It is really beside the point whether this was all Pollitt’s own work of if, like The British Road to Socialism, it was dictated by Stalin. It revealed the sort of society the Communist Party wanted to see established in Britain: one where leaders would decide in secret the way it should be run.

Secret meetings
After Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin in 1956 Pollitt stated that "in condemning errors and abuses we must not forget that they occurred within the framework of socialist advance". But the rank and file were not to be given details of the “errors and abuses” because they were only discussed at a secret session of the British Communist Party in April 1956.

The history of the Communist Party was one that was dominated by secrecy; twists and turns of policy; decisions made by individuals or unrepresentative cliques; manipulation and financial control by Stalin; and a complete lack of understanding of socialist principles.

The rump of the old Communist Party may regret their past secrecy and subservience to Russia but they have yet to apologise for misleading workers or perverting socialist principles. And their recent pronouncements show that they still lack socialist understanding.
Carl Pinel

Decisions (1985)

A Short Story from the October 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The race is on for the Labour nomination at Northloft, a safe seat where the present MP, Fred Parcel, stands down at the next election. Northloft lies athwart a main line railway which in the nineteenth century changed it into a blackened industrial suburb. Some famous Victorian capitalists set down factories there, with terraced streets with workers' homes in red brick and grey slate. Between the wars council estates were laid out and then came wedges of speculatively-built, cherry-blossomed semis whence clerks set out each day to ride on the railway to the office.

Another effect of the railway was to bring a continuous stream of immigrants — the Welsh and Irish before the war, the Asians and West Indians afterwards. Always they went through the same ritual, living at first in the terraces and then, as they became more established, moving out to the semis, provoking panic about "falling property values" among the "owner-occupiers". The constituency joined the Labour landslide of 1945. then the Tories won it back again until 1964 when Fred Parcel, feverish with Wilson’s campaign about the white-hot technological revolution, was elected. Fred was always sure that this result came about through his own brilliance.

But brilliant is by no means the first adjective to spring to the lips when describing Fred. A child when his father was out during the General Strike, his political notions were thenceforth based on his comprehensive Theory of the Betrayal of the True Soul of the Labour Movement. Just before the war, this theory led him to join the Communist Party, under the impression that the secret police, labour camps and political massacres of Stalinist Russia offered democracy's doughtiest defenders against Nazism. Agilely, he followed the party line over the war, the Russo-German Pact and all other inconvenient issues.

Naively, he looked forward to a great Communist triumph in the 1945 election. The arithmetic of the actual result filled Fred with panic; he joined the Labour Party and eventually, through union sponsorship (he was a shunter on the railway) and a local councillorship, he got into parliament as the Honourable Member for Northloft.

His original policy was to transform the House with his brilliance into a humming workshop of revolution. What actually happened was that he found he enjoyed an MP's life — the congratulatory back-slaps from Tories after a speech, the saluting policeman, the photographs on the Terrace with Miss World contestants, entertaining (his word for what was really a painfully boring experience for them) constituents to tea in the Members' Common Room.

He became, in a word, doddery and more recently he has been plagued with the guilt-protective hallucinations of senility. He was a sitting target for the reselection zealots and when they became active Fred quickly and meekly surrendered. After months of lobbying, intriguing and personality assassination which have enlivened Northlofts ward meetings to an unprecedented degree, the short list has shaken down to just four hopefuls: 

Roosevelt Bustamente Alexander calls himself the Token Black, which is intended to shame people into supporting him; "positive discrimination" is a phrase never far from his lips. If that fails he will probably rely on packing the membership and for some time his supporters have been energetically recruiting blacks into the party regardless of their political ideas, on the offer of a cut-price subscription. Roosevelt's tactics have won him support among the more confused lefties, who refuse to recognise a black racist when they see one; in the rest of the party he is called a black bastard. He refers to socialism as "black and white living in harmony together", which may some day force him to ask himself why he is a member of the Labour Party.

Julian Chatwynd-Speke is a barrister, the effectiveness of whose advocacy may be measured by his numerous clients who. to the surprise of the police, have spent much time behind bars. On the proceeds of his family’s interests in the East Anglian retail trade Julian went to public school and then to Oxford. After a brief undergraduate dalliance with the Liberals, when "community politics" seemed to be the way to power, he chose the Labour Party. While industriously taking himself around many constituency selection meetings he was liable to make speeches in which he slowly enunciated the sacred names of dead Labour heroes — Cripps, Bevan, Gaitskell — but this won him neither the hoped-for rapturous applause nor the candidature. He lives in an expensively refurbished Regency house in Islington, where the word socialism is occasionally mentioned over the sherry glass.

Les Horn, because he is the trade union man, considers himself the favourite for the nomination. Les prides himself on his humble origins and the self-education which taught him negotiating phrases like "let us draw back from the edge of the precipice and see whether there is light at the end of the tunnel" (trade union code for "I am about to sell the workers down the river") but which did not prevent him becoming the crudest kind of racist. His great hero is Ernie Bevin, in whose memory he pedantically drops his aitches. Les toadies endlessly to anyone he considers his betters (mostly outside the Labour Party) and has been rewarded by appointment as a local magistrate, with a reputation as the harshest sentencer on the bench. His dearest, secret ambition is to become Earl Horn of Northloft; meanwhile his version of socialism is a sort of national factory where the state takes care of you (which, in Les' mouth, has more than one meaning) whether you like it or not.

Fiona Strang represents what she calls the Wimmin's Voice of Northloft. After two marriages and divorces, four children and countless affairs she is now a committed, castrating female. No protest, no demonstration, is safe from her presence; creches, nurseries, abortion clinics, are fertilised by the energy in which she seeks to hide her shameful (to her) past as a Roedean schoolgirl. She surges around Northloft s bewildered streets dressed in enormous tents of expensively tatty clothes and her poor children are kept deliberately scruffy and sticky-faced. Her socialism, whenever she has time to think about it, she describes as chipping away at capitalism when in fact she is only the smoother type of sandpaper to the system. Fred Parcel is openly terrified of her and so, when she verbally bludgeons them on their doorsteps, are the defenceless voters of Northloft.

The choice between these candidates will involve the output of much physical and mental energy, which will be gladly given by their supporters in the conviction that the end result is vital. Constituency activists would, however, do well to consider one curious fact. During the 1979 election a team of earnest sociology students descended on Northloft, as a typical English constituency, to assess the voters' attitudes. They asked questions about strikes, nationalisation, immigration and the like and concluded that, on the basis of their replies, Labour supporters should more logically have voted Tory and vice versa. Northloft. in other words, should have sent a Conservative, and not Fred Parcel, to Westminster. The students were puzzled by their findings and even now, after many learned papers and lengthy seminars back at the university, they have not been able to explain it all.

But they know only the half of it. After all, they are mere commentators on the great, deceiving game of politics; theirs is not to reason why nor to ask who really wins and who, most importantly, always loses.
Ivan

Mitterand organises poverty (1985)

The Letter from Europe column from the January 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

SOCIALISM = NEW POVERTY reads a poster stuck up all over Paris by a conservative students' association. Of course this has nothing to do with genuine socialism but concerns rather the false variety represented by Mitterrand and his "socialist party" who have been governing French capitalism since 1981. Since the number of destitute people has increased in France since Mitterrand came to power, and partly as a result of measures which running capitalism has obliged him and his government to adopt, this slogan is not entirely unjustified. Reformists masquerading as socialists have once again dragged the name of socialism through the mud.

One of the main electoral promises made by Mitterrand and the PS in 1981 was to reduce unemployment. In a televised debate Mitterrand declared that there would be two-and-a-half million unemployed by 1985 if the policy of the outgoing conservative President. Giscard. continued (Le Monde, 7 May 1981). Well, Mitterrand beat Giscard but unemployment continued to rise. The peak of 2.5 million was in fact reached in October 1984 . . . under Mitterrand. The only thing that the Mitterrand government has reduced has been unemployment benefit and the number of unemployed entitled to it.

Unemployment benefit was only introduced in France in 1959. Before then the unemployed had to rely on hand-outs from local councils. The scheme introduced in 1959 was not a state scheme but took the form of an agreement between the employers' organisation and the unions; both employers and workers paid contributions and the scheme (known as UNEDIC) was jointly administered by representatives of both sides of industry. The state also paid a subsidy to the scheme and a small allowance to some of those who exhausted their benefit rights under it.

In 1979 (under Giscard) this scheme was reformed. Basically the contributory scheme and the state dole were amalgamated under a single administration and both benefits and contributions were increased; in addition, a formula providing for an automatic state subsidy was agreed. By 1981. however, with the deepening of the economic crisis this new scheme turned out to be too generous by capitalism's standards. The task of rectifying this fell to the newly-elected Mitterrand government.

Their tactic was to try to push this unpopular task onto the employers and the unions who had negotiated the original agreement and the subsequent reforms. The employers were willing enough and they even went so far as to repudiate the 1958 agreement setting out the scheme but the unions, understandably, were more reluctant. In the event the government itself had to take a decision, by decree in November 1982. The effect of this decree was to worsen, except for certain cases of long-term unemployment, both benefits and the conditions for obtaining them while at the same time increasing contributions.

The employers and the unions subsequently negotiated a new scheme within the framework of this decree, which came into force in March 1984. Under double pressure from both the employers and the government the unions were compelled to accept a regression to the pre-1979 position — a reflection of their weakened bargaining position with two million unemployed. In addition to longer waiting periods, shorter benefit periods, harsher benefit conditions and reduced benefits, the previous dual system of contributory benefits followed by a means- tested state dole for some of those who had exhausted their contributory benefits was re-introduced.

The main way in which the November 1982 decree saved money for the government was by reducing the number of the unemployed in receipt of benefit. A surprisingly high number of the unemployed in France receive no unemployment benefit at all. According to a survey carried out by UNEDIC and released to the press last November, some 40 per cent of job-seekers in France receive no benefit. This represents nearly a million people. Some of these will be married women with husbands in work or young people still living at home so they won't be completely destitute (though the standard of living of the families concerned is of course drastically reduced). However a large proportion of them must rely on charities or, as before 1959, on any hand-outs they can get from their local council.

Clearly, if you have no job and receive no unemployment benefit of any kind then, unless someone else in your family is working or is in receipt of some other state benefit, you soon become completely destitute. Which is precisely what has happened: the ranks of the traditionally destitute — the handicapped, single mothers, ex-prisoners, ex-mental patients, old age pensioners - have been swelled by the benefitless unemployed, the "new poor”.

According to the UNEDIC study, of the 600,000 ejected from the contributory scheme since the November 1982 decree came into force "one out of three are today without resources" (Liberation, 6 November 1984); that is. some 200.000. To this must be added a similar, or perhaps larger, proportion of the 600,000 or so whose application for unemployment benefit was rejected over the previous 12 months. At least 400,000 people reduced to complete destitution and dependence on charity — a fine achievement for a caring, reforming government such as Mitterrand's claimed to be!

The appearance of these "new poor" has been highly embarrassing for the Mitterrand government which came to power on promises to improve workers' living standards rather than preside over the growth of destitution among the working class. In October last year they did announce a pathetic attempt to alleviate this problem, the main feature of which was to increase the wealth tax on the very rich to buy "surplus" food to give to the poor and to subsidise various charities operating in this field.

This appearance of the "new poor” represents not just a failure of the Mitterrand government to humanise capitalism for the workers but is even a direct consequence of measures they themselves took to cut back on the cost of the unemployment benefit scheme. Admittedly this was something forced on them by the logic of capitalism, but then resisting the logic of capitalism was one of the things they claimed to be able to do if they were elected to power.

We have consistently argued that this is not possible, at least not for any length of time. Any government of capitalism, whatever the intentions or background of its members, is sooner or later forced to apply the logic of capitalism. The growth of primary poverty in France is yet another proof of this.
Adam Buick

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Floating To Nowhere - The currency chaos (1973)

From the August 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

The cynic who said that the only lesson of history is that men never learn from history was knowingly exaggerating, but he also had it wrong, at least in regard to the history of capitalism. A few people have learned from past crises what kind of system it is and the economic laws on which it operates. And if the crisis is big enough memory of it will last for years among capitalists and workers alike as something they would like to avoid happening again.

However, two things undermine their fears in course of time. As, in the main, neither capitalists nor workers fully understand how capitalism works they are always ready to accept new quack remedies for capitalism’s ills. And governments, always with an eye on solving the immediate problem and winning the next election, will time and time again flout past experience and simply hope that something will turn up to save them. (The Daily Mail, 10th July, which solidly backs the Government over the currency crisis, frankly admits that the Tories are simply “gambling on prosperity”.)

An interesting case in point is the German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Like others of his generation he was for years committed to avoiding a recurrence of the great German inflation of the nineteen-twenties and similar events after the second world war, but has recently declared that he would "rather have inflation than unemployment”. He need only look up the records to see that he may get both. In the ’twenties, when inflation got out of hand, nearly 30 per cent, of the workers were unemployed.

Creating Weakness
Marx, the economist whom modern economists do not want to know, pointed out certain basic facts about capitalism. The capitalist, having acquired surplus value in the form of commodities, through the exploitation of his workers, needs to turn these commodities into money. Through long and hard experience it was appreciated that in the interests of capitalists as a whole there is great advantage in having it in a stable form — either gold or its equivalent, a paper currency convertible into gold at a fixed rate.

This was how the pound became a world-accepted currency in the nineteenth century, and the dollar in this century. The purpose of the gold link was to prevent the depreciation of the pound or the dollar, and consequent rise of prices, through the excess issue of an inconvertible currency. That is now all in the past. First the pound and then the dollar became inconvertible currencies issued in increasing quantities and losing their purchasing power month by month.

It is not speculators who make a currency "weak”, but its continuing loss of purchasing power which gives speculators their opportunity. And it is not only speculators. Capitalists all over the world who have sold goods for pounds or dollars do not want to hold them because their purchasing power goes on falling. The Chairman of the Arab countries’ Economic and Social Development Fund put the point in the course of a protest against the American Government’s refusal to allow dollars paid to the Arab countries for oil, to be converted into other currencies: "Why should we produce more and then be stuck with dollars we cannot make use of? It would be better to leave the oil underground.” (Financial Times, 10th July 1973).

Cheap Makes Dear
If of course the dollars were convertible into gold at $35 an ounce as they used to be, nobody would fear to hold dollars. At present the dollar and pound are described as “floating”. All this means is that instead of being devalued and immediately fixed at the lower level they were devalued and allowed to fluctuate about the lower level.

The pound was devalued in 1967 by the Wilson government and again in 1971 by the Heath Government — on the latter occasion with the enthusiastic support of Tories, Labour and the trade unions on the ground that it would make exports cheaper to foreign buyers and thus encourage production for export. The other side of the coin is that devaluation makes all imports correspondingly dearer. So the Labour Party and trade unions which protest against the higher prices of imported goods are protesting against the inevitable result of an action they approved of.

The governments and capitalists are becoming aware of the fact that while the depreciation of currencies may seem to be of short-term advantage, at least to exporters, the competitive depreciation of currencies such as the dollar and pound creates a chaotic situation which may make all international trading operations more difficult. This is leading some capitalists and economists to see that in the long run capitalism will have to re-learn the need to have stable currencies and that there is no better way than to restore gold convertibility at a fixed rate, in short the end of inflation.

And what does this offer to the workers? In nineteenth-century British capitalism there was no inflation. Prices in 1914 were actually slightly lower than in 1814. In between, prices rose moderately in booms and fell in depressions. And what the workers got was exploitation and poverty all the time, relieved somewhat in booms and worsened in depressions, with unemployment similarly.

Nobody has produced — or will produce — any policy which will change the nature of capitalism. Those who really do learn the lesson of history will concentrate on getting rid of capitalism.
Edgar Hardcastle

Branch News (1963)

Party News from the January 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Excellent work was done during October and November in the Glasgow Woodside By-Election. The campaign commenced with canvassing the Socialist Standard. This produced good results. Some members were disappointed that sales did not reach the results of the Municipal election in Kelvingrove last April. This was probably due to the time of year and bad weather. However, 307 Socialist Standards and 57 pamphlets were sold. When the election campaign really got going 18,500 manifestos were distributed also 500 leaflets introducing the Party. Six indoor meetings were held in addition to outdoor meetings. Glasgow Branch were pleased by the large amount of press publicity, although they regretted that the candidate's remarks were not always correctly reported. Radio and television reportage was good although the time allowed was very restricted. 83 votes were polled for the Socialist Party of Great Britain and a quote on the result from the Glasgow Herald (23/11/62) stated: "With 83 votes to his credit. Mr. Valler of the Socialist Party of Great Britain was not downhearted. 'There are,' he announced proudly '83 politically mature people in Woodside'".

Glasgow Branch learned much from the campaign and their experience will help them when they next contest an election in Glasgow. The Branch are grateful to comrades, other branches and the London members (who went up to help on the spot) for their financial and physical help.

Wembley Branch has continued with its steady and persistent efforts to spread the Socialist case. Regular canvasses of the Socialist Standard are still being conducted and members are kept busy following up the fresh sales.

Three film shows were held during 1962 and more are planned for the New Year. The Branch met the Wembley South Young Socialists (Labour Party Youth Section) on two occasions, and very worthwhile discussions took place. It is hoped to pay them a return visit. On the lighter side, this year's Xmas Social was held again at South Ealing with the usual get-together of members and friends.

Lewisham Branch is continuing with their winter propaganda. So far they have held eight indoor lectures. Literature sales totalled £2 14s. 4d. and collections
£17 2s. 10d., with an average audience of 20.

The challenge to opponents to put their case at Lewisham Town Hall drew an audience of 40. The meeting was well reported in the local press (Kentish Mercury) under the heading "Major parties steer clear of Political Challenge".

Final arrangements are being made for a debate with the Liberal Party on February 15th at Lewisham Town Hall at 8 p.m. A challenge has again been extended to the local CND to debate on January 16th, also at the Lewisham Town Hall, time 7.45 p.m.

The branch has so far made two new members as a direct result of the lectures.
Phyllis Howard



Room At The Top (1959)

Film Review from the March 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton

Those who doubt that contemporary society fails to satisfy the needs of the majority of people should look at the ways in which so many cherish remote hopes of escaping from their position in it. It is natural to want to break away from wage slavery. The chances are slim, but the likelihood that one’s subject position in the present order of things will continue without respite until one’s dying day, is a dismal contemplation. How many dreams, we wonder, are sealed down with the football coupon?

The new film Room at the Top, which is based on the best-selling novel by John Braine, portrays a young man who is fed up with the compromise and blows to his self-respect imposed in holding his Town Hall clerkship. Determined to get out of the rut of the grim northern industrial town he was born into, he goes to settle on the fringe of a world of big houses, spacious gardens, expensive cars. Once there, he pursues his aim of making the right social contacts in order to gain the highest rung of the ladder of success.

Lucky Break Story
“The Top” for him is really that no-man’s land where higher paid members of the working class mingle with the smaller industrialists and the like. But fortunately for our social climber, the daughter of one of the bigger fish is a member of the local dramatic society and this gives him his chance to break in.

This is another cherished notion for those who find it unpleasant to face dreary reality. Known as the "lucky break,” here it takes the form of marrying the boss’s daughter. Stories in popular magazines rely heavily on these situations, but some of today’s best-selling novels, widely acclaimed by the critics, fall back on them, too. The trend in this field is for boys of the working class, who have achieved grammar school education, to be recognised by employers as superior to the pampered products of their own class. Acceptance and promotion to executive positions soon follow and the boy moves up in the social scale.

The storm of praise that greeted Room at the Top when it was published in 1957 revealed the critics agreeing that this was the stuff of which contemporary dreams are made.

Signs of Success
The ambition to “get on” and achieve a higher status in life helps to give stories such as these their wide popularity. It is recognised that only money can bring this status in such an acquisitive world as we live in. The desire for recognition in this sense is reflected in the outward signs necessary to prove to the world and oneself that you are a success. The competitive nature of the Capitalist way of life breeds the feelings of insecurity and isolation that make people strive for this kind of success.

The process is endless. The same forces that make a £10-a-week person believe that he can only be contented on £15, will still make him, once he gets it. dissatisfied on less than £20. Not to mention the sacrifices that might have to be made in order to get it. This does not mean that we should not aim to get as much from Capitalism as we can. It does mean that this approach to the satisfying of human needs is a limited one. It cannot solve the predicament with which human beings are faced in Capitalist society.

Better Human Beings
For the fact is that the working class cannot opt out of the ill effects of Capitalism without deciding to get rid of it. Reformers in spite of good intentions and with the best will in the world and the support of electors, have made plain the futility of trying to obtain beneficial results from a system that is basically harmful. Success for a few at the expense of failure for most is all that this profit-motivated system can offer. In the long run the solution for the individual is the solution for mankind as a whole: to organise the world in accord with the needs of humanity.

What are these needs? To live in harmony and peace in a world where the interest of the individual is aligned to that of society as a whole. Socialists realise that only with a foundation of common ownership can society create the conditions for the betterment of human beings.

Anyone can sympathise with those like the character in the film who want to get away from the squalor of their childhood days. But if they do, let them remember that the system which causes their and other people’s problems will still be there. The economic structure that leads to slumps and wars and sets man against man in the struggle, not only to get to the top, but to avoid being shoved to the bottom, is unaltered. The competition for more things, higher status, greater power, will remain with its ill effects.

A positive alternative
Dreams of success today have their counterparts in the nightmares of failure. The evidence of mental ill- health indicates the high number of people unable to cope with modern modern life. The inability or reluctance to face the facts of life in a class-divided, money-collecting system indicates the failure of the social organisation. Let us see it for what it is and consider the positive alternative that Socialism offers.

It is obvious that room at the top is strictly limited. For the majority of people the lower portion of the social pyramid is where they must remain until society is changed. The important thing for workers is to recognise the need for such a change. To work for that end is the most worthwhile task of our time.
S. D.