Sunday, December 31, 2006

Professional Revolutionaries (1987)

Editorial from the October 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

A recurrent criticism levelled at leftist politicians and parties is that their philosophies - or what pass for them - are rooted in a conviction that they know better what is good for the workers that the workers do themselves; indeed, the electoral success of the Conservatives since 1979 is said to be the fruit of a populist appeal to "set the people free", to let the punters sink or swim in a juice of their own making. Whether or not we accept the good intentions of the left, it is undeniable that the carefully constructed, major projects of modern reformists have everywhere been crushed by the sobering realities of capitalism, to a point where cynicism and caution are as widespread as seaside sewage.

The damage done by piecemeal improvers to the movement for a truly free society has been more than matched by the programmes of self-styled vanguards, who share with them a belief in strong leadership and its unstated corollary, a contempt for the passive and malleable prole. Utterly discredited as their doctrines are, they still draw support from those impatient with argument and democracy and attracted by theories that purport to offer a short cut to the new society by placing organisation above the battle of ideas. For what, after all, could be more thoroughly twentieth-century than revolution to order, eruption by instalment and instruction, and the transfer of the power of decision to a brain outside the body to be moved? As somebody famous should once have said, the worst torture is to have your head filled with ideas that may never be applied in your lifetime.

The idea that an intellectual elite could lead a politically ignorant majority into a new society was inimical to the founders of the socialist movement, who always advocated an extreme form of democracy. They wanted the revolution made in the fullness of time by an immense and politically organised class, and their programme would have made violence unnecessary in the capture of political power. When Marx called the communists "the advanced section of the proletariat", he had nothing in mind like the bolshevik doctrine about the proper relation between "the party of the proletariat" and the class. He was wanting, rather, to emphasise the importance of theory, to show that the workers could not, until they understood the society they lived in, create any real alternative. The victory of the idea is the effect of its persuasive power and its relevance to workers' experience; it is won in open competition with other theories; it can never be imposed from above.

The intellectual vanguard is modelled on the structure of the army, and borrows some of its characteristic and typical features: strict discipline, subordination, hierarchy, unity of command. The most active elements, the special instruments of historic change, are militarised and in command of an obedient majority. The working class is replaced by the party; the party is replaced by party organisation; the party organisation is replaced by the general staff. Ostensibly a triumph of the working class, in reality it confirms their impotence.

Bolshevism is the doctrine, not of a working class party in highly industrialised society, but of a specifically Russian group of intellectuals, professionally trained and working in perfect harmony; an exclusive and irresponsible elite. Most of the workers who gave them support did so because their promises were attractive, and not out of shared ambition. Having taken power in the name of the proletariat, they quickly discovered that the class whose vanguard they claimed to be would not always follow them; and seeing the class were ignorant of the obvious, did not hesitate to drive where they could not lead.

Professional revolutionaries of our time have not, then been the midwives of a new world but incompetent and bloody surgeons who have not been able to foretell the results of their operations. Their apologists - including those who ended up with scalpels in their heads - place after the revolution what should come before it. This simple inversion, which makes nonsense of historical materialism, is the essence of an ideology as relevant to the socialist task as ballroom dancing.

All the enemies of freedom are repulsive, but few more so than those who destroy it for the sake of an objective they have themselves distorted and debased. As the big dipper of capitalism hurtles on in the dark, there is still no shortage of self-appointed champions of the people offering to lead us all to securer ground, but with no guarantee that it won't be below the surface. Political education, on a wide scale and of sufficient depth and continuity, may be utopian to the left; it is the only course for socialists.

Shelley: a socialist poet

From the World Socialist Movement website

I became acquainted with Shelley in 1944. At the time I was eighteen years of age and a Republican remand prisoner in Belfast jail. I liked poetry and, searching for something readable in the prison library - a cupboard which they opened twice weekly to the accompaniment of bawling screws, who could see no justification for delay in lifting one of the books - I found a treasure: The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Eventually I got my own copy of Shelley and, over many, many years, I have prized it as the first real socialist literature I ever read. It is, I think, fitting that, on the bi-centenary of his birth, an appreciation of his life's work should appear in a socialist journal.

Poets, with their abstract notions of freedom and justice, can momentarily help a prisoner transcend the ignominy and degradation that the prison system imposes. But Shelley's ideas of freedom and justice were no way abstract; his was no mere solace for the soul. Yes, there were the odes To The West Wind, To A Skylark, To A Cloud; beautiful word music in the classical tradition of English metrical composition.

But, more importantly, there was the wisdom that stripped to its essential ugliness a system of society that dissipates, wastes and destroys wealth in order to make its rich richer while mentally and physically impoverishing the producers of that wealth. There was the vision of a new world, a world of dignity and equality where cash would not be the measure of human need. And there was the indignation, the anguish, even the pain - sometimes written in a spontaneity of anger that defied the discipline of well-marshalled prosody. Here was a text book of revolutionary thought that showed the futility of the cause for which I was imprisoned and extended my vision beyond the empty rhetoric of nationalism.

During his lifetime Shelley had come to Ireland to protest at the misery of the peasantry. Some Irish nationalists have equated this with sympathy for Irish nationalism but Shelley, whose constituency was the toiling masses everywhere, did not subscribe to the myth that the English working class were the beneficiaries of English imperialism. Thus, after hearing of the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy in which he describes the contemporary condition of the working class in England:

Asses, swine have litter spread

And with fitting food are fed;

All things have a home but one -
Thou, Oh Englishman, hast none!

This is Slavery—savage men, Or wild beasts within a den Would endure not as ye do—But such ills they never knew.

This poem, consisting of some ninety one short stanzas of varying lengths was written at Leghorn in Italy. According to his wife, Mary, when Shelley heard how the military murderers had waded into a peaceful reform protest "it… aroused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion". According to some purists, that anger adversely affected the quality of the poem.

Whatever its poetic qualities, Shelley's Masque of Anarchy must rank, from a working class standpoint, as the most chdactic of English poetical works. His verse castigates every rotten facet of capitalism: its law, its judiciary, its priests, its parasite class and the foulness of its oppression. His words bear the reader along the path of anger and frustration seeking, it would seem, retribution, revenge. But Shelley, in an age when violence was the tool of revolution, was too deeply perceptive of the need for democratic action if the revolution which he craved was to realise his vision. True, he makes us angry, makes us loathe this evil that murders people for profit but, on the crest of our anger, he stops us:

Then it is to feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood -and wrong for wrong -

Do not thus when ye are strong.

What then? What should we do when "we are strong"? Shelley, the democratic socialist says we should use the unassailable power of our numbers. Poetically, he says we should think . . . decide:

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest, close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

(… )

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many - they are few.

In 1888 Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling published an appreciation of Shelley under the title Shelley's Socialism. The justification for their assumption is abundant throughout Shelley's poems and prose writings. In one of his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley quotes Godwin with approval: "there is no real wealth but the labour of man".

Prometheus Unbound, The Masque of Anarchy, Queen Mab, The Ode to Liberty, these, with his prose writings, his prologues, his sonnets and his songs chronicle the misery of the peasant and the wage slave but always, there is the optimism of the true revolutionary; the clarity of vision, as here in Prometheus Unbound, of a future where:

The Loathsome mask has fallen the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribless and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king,

Over himself, just, gentle, wise.

Queen Mab is a vision of the past, present and future of mankind. In it Shelley attacks kings, war, commerce and, in particular, priests and religion. In fact the criticism of christianity, in the poem as well as in prose notes attached to it was so hard-hitting that when it was republished in the 1820s the publisher was sent to prison for blasphemy. Queen Mab became the work that publishers used in defiance of the restrictive press laws of the time. Each time they were convicted of blasphemy. But as a result Queen Mab, and thus Godwin's social ideas, came to be widely read in Chartist and radical circless.

In this passage from Queen Mab he criticises the way money contaminates all human relationships:

All things are sold: the very light of Heaven Is venal;

Earth's unsparing gifts of love,

The smallest and most despicable things

That lurk in the abysses of the deep,

All objects of our life, even life itself,

And the poor pittance which the laws allow

Of liberty, the fellowship of man,

Those duties which his heart of human love

Should urge him to perform instinctively,

Are bought and sold as in a public mart

Of undisguising selfishness, that sets

On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.

He saw money, "paper coin - that forgery of the title deeds", as capitalism's instrument of theft; he saw slavery as a natural result of property society; he saw the poverty and alienation of the masses and, especially, did he decry the intellectual poverty and deception which capitalism inflicted on its wage slaves.

In part V of Queen Mab Shelley attacks commerce which he sees as a product of selfishness in the sense of people wanting to sell their surplus for money rather than give it to others to satisfy their needs:

Commerce! Beneath whose poison-breathing shade

No solitary virtue dares to spring,

But Poverty and Wealth with equal handScatter their withering curses, and unfold

The doors of premature and violent death,

To pining famine and full-fed disease,

To all that shares the lot of human life,

Which poisoned, body and soul, scarce dragsthe chain,

That lengthens as it goes and clanks behind.

It is quite clear that Shelley was expressing Godwin's idea that, in a just society, producers would give away their surplus produce free rather than sell it for money. Hence his opening description of commerce as "the venal interchange of all that human art or nature yield; which wealth should purchase not, but want demand, and natural kindness hasten to supply". When he later describes what will happen when people are motivated by the "consciousness of good" he naturally states that they will have no need of "mediative signs of selfishness" - of money - and that "every transfer of the earth's natural gifts shall be a commerce of good words and works".

This commerce of sincerest virtue needs

No mediative signs of selfishness,

No jealous intercourse of wretched gain,

No balancings of prudence, cold and long;

In just and equal measure all is weighed, One scale contains the sum of human weal, And one, the good man's heart.

Part V of Queen Mab ends as follows:

But hoary-headed Selfishness has felt

Its death-blow, and is tottering to the grave:

A brighter morn awaits the human day, When every transfer of earth's natural gifts Shall be a commerce of good words and works;

When poverty and wealth, the thirst of fame,

The fear of infamy, disease and woe,

War with its million horrors, and fierce hell Shall live but in the memory of Time,

Who, like a penitent libertine, shall start,

Look back, and shudder at his younger years.

In one sense this argument as to whether or not Godwin and Shelley were socialists is anachronistic since the modern idea of socialism, as the solution to the problems of a majority wage-working class within a capitalist industrial society, had not yet come into being. This is partly why in this article we have used the word "communist" rather than "socialist" to describe the moneyless equal society advocated by critics of the essentially agrarian class society that existed before industrial capitalism developed. It was of course the low level of development of the means of production that accounts for the frugal, even Spartan, character which the pre-industrial communists were obliged to give to the egalitarian society they advocated, but it still remains true that people like (in England) More, Winstanley and Godwin and Shelley and (in France) Morelly, Babeuf and Buonarotti were forerunners of the socialist industrial society of abundance that we modern socialists now advocate.
Richard Montague

Chavism (2007)

Book Review from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. By D. L. Raby. (Pluto Press.)

Though relatively unknown in Europe, Latin America has its own tradition of Marxism or, rather, of "Marxism-Leninism". Descended from the bourgeois-democratic ideology that motivated those who "liberated" Latin America from Spanish rule in the first part of the 19th century, it has been more nationalist and anti-imperialist than pro wage-working class even though committed to trying to improve the lot of "the people".

As this book inadvertently shows, Cuba illustrates this well. The Cuban revolutionaries who overthrew the Batista dictatorship in January 1959 did so in the name of the anti-Spanish Cuban revolutionary tradition and adopted the cry of "Patria o Muerte" (Fatherland or Death). It was only later that the revolution was declared to have been "socialist".

In Venezuela too, Chavez, who was first elected president in 1998, did not declare himself a "socialist" till some years later (in December 2004). But, unlike Castro, Chavez does not claim to be either a Marxist or a Leninist, but a new type of socialist - "a socialist of the 21st century". For leftwingers, after deceived hopes placed in Yugoslavia, then Algeria, then Vietnam, then Nicaragua, Venezuela has become the new Mecca. Raby's book is, in fact, an attempt to defend "Chavism" as a socialist strategy.

Her argument is that the strategy of traditional "Marxism-Leninism", with the indispensable role it attributes to an all-knowing, centralised vanguard directing everything, as exemplified not only by the old pro-Moscow Communist Parties but also by Trotskyists and Maoists, has never worked and never will. Using Cuba and Venezuela as examples, she says that, while a vanguard is still necessary, the main thrust must come from the popular masses having a special relationship with a charismatic leader such as Castro and Chavez have proved to be. According to her, this relationship is not a simple one of leader and followers, but one where the leader somehow interprets and expresses the inchoate wishes of the people (which seems rather mystical).

In what most people wouldn't immediately regard as a flattering comparison, Raby likens Castro and Chavez to other charismatic Latin American leaders such as Peron in Argentina. There may be something in this since Peron, too, praised the workers and enjoyed considerable working class support.

Raby also examines three unsuccessful revolutions - Chile, Portugal and Nicaragua. Of particular interest to us is Chile since what happened to Allende in September 1973, when he was overthrow and died in a coup led by General Pinochet, is always being used as an argument against the possibility of establishing socialism through peaceful, democratic means. Raby confirms the analysis we made at the time: that (quite apart from having state capitalism rather than socialism as its aim) a key factor was that Allende had become president in 1970 with only 36 percent of the popular vote and that he never enjoyed majority popular support:

"with a president voted in by only 36 per cent of the electorate and a coalition which only briefly achieved a little more than 50 per cent (in April 1971), there was no real mandate for revolutionary change."

So it wasn't an example of a successful coup in the face of a determined majority such as would exist before socialism could be established.

Venezuela, being a leading oil-producing country, enjoys considerable income as rent, which the Chavez government has redirected from the luxury consumption of the rich towards improving education and health provision for the mass of the people. We don't want to belittle this but it's not socialism. Raby agrees but says that, as "an eventual worldwide defeat of capitalism" is "an ideal which may or may not be realisable some time in the future", this is the best socialists can hope for at the present time. Socialists should therefore, she says, lower their sights and not go for socialism but only for what one of the writers she quotes, Antonio Carmona Baez, calls a "state-led economy run by socialists". We don't agree. Surely, one of the lessons of the 20th century has been that national state capitalism is not a step to socialism and is in fact unsustainable in the long run.

Adam Buick

Further Reading:
Cuba: No Workers' Paradise (October 2003 Socialist Standard)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Origins of Christianity (1925)

Book Review from the July 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

Foundations of Christianity, by Karl Kautsky. (Alien & Unwin)

Social movements and organisations are often claimed to be due to the power or personality of some individual or "great" man. In religious circles, due to the fear or ignorance of those following these movements, this view of a "great" or "good" man is carried to the point where the supposed founder is claimed as a saint or even a God. Buddhism and Mohammedanism are examples of the "saint" view, while Christianity is the great example where the supposed founder is claimed by large numbers of his followers as being God.

Since the days when Marx and Engels established their joint discovery - later independently formulated by L. H. Morgan - that the methods of wealth production formed the bases of human societies, while the development of the tools and technical processes furnished the source of the changes in those Societies, the "great man" theory has been steadily losing ground. Even in Psychology orthodox Professors, like McDougal, following in the footsteps of Maudsley and Spencer (though in a manner far inferior to these writers) now include social forces as important factors in the building up of the Mind.

Kautsky's volume is an examination of conditions that gave rise to the birth and early development of Christianity, using the Marxian discovery, generally known as Materialist Conception of History, as a tool in his researches and studies. Kautsky does not set out to condemn Christianity but to explain it, and the result is a brilliant piece of work, calm, dignified and full of information. He accepts the case presented by Bruno Bauer to show that the Christ of Christianity never existed. But, more startling still, Kautsky claims that there is no need for Christ to have existed in order to explain the birth and rise of Christianity! Christianity without Christ will seem either rank blasphemy, or at least a contradiction in terms to the orthodox. Undeterred by such seemings, Kautsky patiently builds up a powerful case in support of his proposition. His presentation is so compact that it is difficult to make a summary of it. We will therefore content ourselves with giving one or two of the main points and refer our readers to the book itself for the arguments and evidence in support of Kautsky's case.

In the period immediately preceding the rise of Christianity degeneration had already begun in the Western world. The peasant producer - the backbone of the early Roman power - had been steadily crushed out by the growth of large estates worked by slave labour - the latifundia. Contrary to the view of some historians, the latifundia was not a progressive but a retrograde movement. It marks not an advance, but a decline in the career of a society. The peasant has a personal interest in his land, crops, tools, etc., and, within the narrow limits in which he moved, would use any technical improvement that came his way. The slave not only has no interest in these things but, on the contrary, develops an antagonism that results in his doing all the injury he can to the master he hates. The slave would take "revenge" for the whippings he received by ill-treating the animals in his charge, breaking the tools and instruments he used, and neglecting to take simple precautions in the crops, etc. The only thing that made the slave worth while was his cheapness. Hence the constant wars of Rome in the search for new sources of cheap slaves as the old sources were exhausted.

Along with this growth of the latifundia there developed the concentration of power into the hands of an individual - the Caesar - which not only killed political life and thought for the mass of the people, but led to decay of the social sentiment and turned people's thoughts to individual matters. These facts prepared the soil that, later on, was to accept the Christian notion of the individual being solely concerned with his own "salvation" and intent on making his peace with God.

Christianity arose among the Jews. Kautsky traces the history of this famous race in the period preceding Christianity and shows how the defeat and Exile of the Jews developed both their religion and Monotheism. The religion formed a common bond between the various tribes, while the fact that the various tribal Gods had been unable to avert defeat and disgrace led to the idea, already vaguely existing in Egypt, Babylonia and Persia, of a single all-powerful God who allowed this disgrace to fall upon his chosen people because they offended against his laws. When - the legend ran - they had passed through a sufficient period of repentance God would lead them to victory over all other nations.

When the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem the class divisions already existing became accentuated. The wealthy class wished for peace to allow of them enriching themselves further, while the exploited class looked to the fulfilment of God's promise (to set the chosen people over other nations) for the release from their miseries. Both classes realised that they were too weak numerically to conquer such a power, for example, as Rome. But God would send a Messiah to lead them to victory. Hence the continual revolts in Jerusalem and the religious character of the rebels. The rich people were denounced as traitors for not supporting these revolts. Each rising brought forth its "Messiah," who was the true elect of God - till he was defeated, when he was condemned as an imposter. In course of time these "Messiahs" became numerous and if Christ ever lived at all, it must have been as a rebel at the head of one of these conspiracies. His execution, if it took place, is only explainable on this ground.

The word "Christus" is the Greek for "Messiah." Hence, in translation into Greek, all those who had proclaimed themselves Messiahs were called "Christs." The rebel and, of course, religious organisation that was formed shortly before the fall of Jerusalem would, because of the conditions mentioned above, be proletarian in character, and portions of the early Gospels reflect this position. Originally the Jews had been an agricultural race but on the return from Exile their lack of land and other factors left them with trade as their chief occupation. But the old land routes for commerce had been superseded, to a great extent, by the development of sea travel through the Greeks and Phoenicians, and this was a basic factor in the dispersal of the Jews. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews dispersed, the above-mentioned religious organisation became a congregation that started making converts outside the Jews. At first it retained its proletarian character, but as the priesthood developed and became established, it began to angle for the favour, and funds, of rich people. To entice rich people into such a congregation, however, it was necessary to modify its rebellious teachings. So first the various legends and later the Gospel writings were "edited" both for the purpose of cutting out objectionable statements and interpolating ones flattering to the rich. According to the legend, Christ had promised to return to earth to lead his Apostles to Heaven, during their own lives. His failure to keep his promise enabled the editors to vary phrases and sentences to suit themselves. Moreover, the civil wars in Rome had died down and the ruling power was not only more free to deal with rebellious bodies, but to show, by the huge forces at their disposal, the utter hopelessness of any revolt. Thus, due to the changed conditions, the teachings of Christianity turned from that of a rebellious character into one that was servile and cringing.

These developments, as well as several later ones, are worked out with a wealth of evidence by Kautsky and the book can be strongly recommended to every serious student as a sound and scientific explanation of the rise of a social phenomenon that is usually hidden under a heap of religious rubbish.
Jack Fitzgerald

A Jack Fitzgerald page has just been opened on the Marxists Internet Archive. The above article, plus others articles and reviews from the pages of the Socialist Standard by Fitzgerald , will appear on the page in due course.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (2007)

From the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Tony Blair" and "apologise" are not words which, silkily together, slip off the tongue. So there was a tremor of excitement at the prospect that he was about to mark the bicentenary of the legal abolition of the slave trade in this country by offering a full, constructive apology for Britain's part in that trade. A number of organisations and individuals who had been campaigning for such an apology held their breath, probably in realistic cynicism rather than hopeful expectation. And this is what Blair said:

"It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time . . . Personally, I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition - but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today".

This prime example of the subtle arts of New Labour's speech writers was a long way short of a proper apology as it expresses sorrow that slavery ever happened rather than that Britain played such an important part in it, with the consequent enrichment of this country's commerce and industry. Slavery did not just "happen"; it was an important part in the development of British industry and trade, bringing in the wealth which gave rise to cities like Liverpool and Bristol and the establishment of Britain as the dominant power in world capitalism. In that cause, what did it matter that a few million people from places like West Africa suffered and died, through appalling cruelty, neglect and disease.

Slave Ships
The slave trade was made possible when, among the birth pangs of capitalism, the mercantile states developed ships more capable of riding out the most savage of weather together with navigation techniques which, although in their infancy, served to guide ships across the world. As slavery throve it nourished the plantations in the Americas - where the cultivation of cash crops such as tobacco and sugar was labour intensive -  and the industries in Britain which made the goods to be exchanged for the slaves. Also prospering were the African rulers whose part was capturing the slaves and delivering them to the misery and terror awaiting them in the ships. Before 1698 the Royal African Company had a legal monopoly on all trade between Britain and Africa but as the slave trade developed the traders of Bristol, through the Society of Merchant Venturers, moved to get a share of what they foresaw as a highly lucrative business and, with the support of other ports, they eventually succeeded in breaking the Royal African Company's control. It was all done properly, with due regard to the legal processes through Parliament; along the way it was overlooked that the squabbling was all about trading in human beings.

The British merchant navy was ideally positioned for this and at the height of the slave trade thousands of its ships participated, including the fearsome middle passage when the slaves were taken from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Caribbean islands or America. There has been no exact estimate of the numbers of slaves involved; between 1450 and the beginning of the 19th. Century it ran into tens of millions, of which British ships carried more than 300,000 a year, all meticulously documented with cargo manifests and bills of lading. The slaves were shackled and packed tightly into the ships' holds, in conditions such that as the ship approached the end of its journey its smell of combined blood, faeces, vomit and putrescent bodies preceded it like some morbid bow wave. The high death rate during the voyages, while regrettable to the owners, was accepted as a depreciation of their stock, as might happen in any other business. In one case when a ship was badly delayed by fierce headwinds the captain threw 133 of the 440 slaves overboard, then claimed it as an insurable loss. The matter was contested by the insurance company and argued out in court by lawyers in their wigs ands gowns and heard by a judge, who decided in the captain's favour, just as he might have done if the cargo had been cotton goods or weapons or whatever.

The campaign to get Tony Blair to apologise for this atrocious episode in human history was concerned with the significant contribution it made to the rise of the British ruling class to pre-eminence in world capitalism and the historical damage to the slaves' descendants. Esther Stanford, the secretary of Rendezvous of Victory, an Africa-led pressure group, presses for a national commission to examine the resultant injuries in education, family life, culture and economic standing and prospects. "It will cost" was how she summed it up, as if she really is optimistic that the conclusion of the commission would, against all precedent, be other than a cover up. It was apparent that the careful wording of Blair's statement was designed to avoid encouraging any claim for reparation. After all, he may have reasoned, British participation in slavery was abolished two hundred years ago; the British ruling class were enriched over centuries through their wars, colonising and repression. A great deal of blood was been spilt and misery caused in the process. Why should they start thinking about reparation now?

Then what about the other countries which were also enriched by the trade - countries like Holland and Portugal? And those which prospered through accepting and working the slaves - like America and Brazil? And then there were the native rulers in Africa, who fought wars to capture slaves and did not hesitate to sell their own subjects? The journeys of those slaves, from the interior to the ports, were notable for a cruelty which was as savage as they experienced during the voyage. Meanwhile the working people of Britain were not being enriched; some of their suffering was described by Lord Shaftesbury, when he recounted to the House of Lords the condition of children he had seen at the factory gates: " . . . sad, dejected, cadaverous creatures. In Bradford especially the proofs of long and cruel toil were most remarkable. The cripples and distorted forms might be numbered by hundreds, perhaps by thousands". Those people, and thousands of other elsewhere in similar circumstances, were as much victims of the rise of industrial capitalism, as the slaves. In a letter written in 1833, the campaigning poet Robert Southey commented on the condition of the working class in Britain: "The slave trade is mercy compared to it".

No Apology
If Rendezvous of Victory wish to pursue a claim for compensation for the slave trade a likelier defendant would be the descendant class of those who prospered as a result of the trade - including the Church of England and the older universities. The working class were not enriched by the trade and in any case they have nothing with which to compensate the slaves' descendants. A more realistic campaign would be aimed at compelling Blair and his ministers to apologise for the crimes which the ruling class have committed against humanity. And while they are about this mountainous task they might also say a few remorseful words about what their government has been responsible for. No hint of a retraction emerges from Number Ten about the Weapons of Mass Destruction lie, compounded by the Dodgy Dossier. There has been no regret expressed for the tens of thousands killed in Iraq as a direct result of the invasion there and of the chaos into which that country descends, day after day, while the government claim that Iraq is a stable democratic state with an ecstatic future. New Labour mouthpieces continue to rant about their alleviating poverty, in face of evidence to the contrary. A recent study by Shelter revealed that one in seven children in this country are in temporary or unsatisfactory housing - in other words are homeless, which means they are twice as likely to suffer poor health. To put a figure on it, there are 1.6 million children whose standards of housing make them more likely to have respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis.

Capitalism ruthlessly exploits its underclass of workers, without any reason for apology or reparation. It cannot be otherwise. Without apology, we campaign to end the system.

Is The Socialist Party Marxist?

The following piece is a transcript of a talk that was given at the Socialist Party of Great Britain's 1998 Summer School, Marxism Revisited, which was held at Fircroft College in Birmingham, England. It is reproduced from the pamphlet of the same name.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in London on 12th June, 1904. 142 people signed the original document of formation of the party. Of those, not all of them were to remain inside the party. Over the course of more than ninety years, the party has stood for a single object and a set of principles which have made it a unique political organisation. It has been, to answer the question very directly at the outset, guided by a Marxist outlook throughout those nine decades. It is undoubtedly an organisation which, when the history of capitalism comes to be written in those better days when capitalism is a thing of the past, will be seen as the party which has pioneered and stood the ground of Marxist principles throughout its lifetime. But, while we are a Marxist party, we are not bound to Marx as a revolutionary deity, nor to Marxism as a dogmatic, fixed, immutable religion.

The Declaration of Principles of the Party are quintessentially Marxist. The principles start off by declaring that there are two antagonistic classes in society - not a multiplicity of classes, but two classes - those who produce but do not possess and those who possess through their ownership and control of the means of wealth production the power in society but do not have to produce.

The principles argue that only by the self-emancipation of the working class can socialism come about, exactly replicating the words that Marx used in his preamble to the Rules of the First International.

In the analysis of the state, or government, and the armed forces, the Declaration of Principles puts a clearly Marxian position. "They exist," it says, "only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers." And therefore the state itself is a property phenomenon. Once you get rid of property society, then you have the immediate abolition of the state.

One area of the declaration of principles which could conceivably be seen as in conflict with Marx's own outlook about what a revolutionary party should do is the seventh clause of the eight clauses in the Declaration of Principles. "That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party."

In the final principle, The Socialist Party goes on to say, "The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether allegedly labour or avowedly capitalist."

Now, this stands in, at least apparent, contradistinction to Marx's position about the role of communists as stated in the Communist Manifesto, where he said,
"The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They do not set up sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the working class movement."

There are three readings of this apparent contradiction. One of them is that Marx was right and the Socialist Party is wrong; that you cannot, in fact, as a socialist movement stand outside of and, through your principles, distinct from the working class movement as it develops: the trade unions, the democratic changes or reforms, and so on. The other one is that the Socialist Party in its declaration of hostility to all other working class parties has advanced beyond the thinking of Marx in the 1840s, recognising the importance of an independent, uncompromising organisation that stands separate from those parties of the working class which are of but not for the working class.

There is a third reading of this (what I would suggest is a dialectical reading) that whilst Marx is quite right that it is not the job of socialists to set out sectarian principles, to see itself as separate from and superior to everything that is around it, it is also the case that the Socialist Party is right in the course of experience; that whilst one must avoid such sneering sectarianism (and the Socialist Party hasn't always avoided it) you have in fact got to avoid the danger of being incorporated into every wrong-headed movement thrown up by a working class not yet conscious of its historical destiny.

The record of the Socialist Party speaks enormously well for the clarity of its commitment to Marxian thought. From the outset it rejected the Labour Party and, indeed, the social democratic parties that grew up in Europe claiming to have a mixture of socialist ultimate vision with immediate working within capitalism and that endless' sordid quest for power within a system that always sucks the power seeker into the running of the exploitation system.

In relation to allegedly socialist revolutions and rebellions, the Socialist Party has had to take a cool, dispassionate look. As early as the beginning of 1918, in a quite superb and prescient article in the Socialist Standard on the events in Russia, a writer said, "Not unless a mental revolution of a kind never before seen in human history has occurred, could Russia, where the majority of people are illiterate peasants have established a socialist revolution."

The Socialist Party has an honourable position of opposing all wars: not just opposing them when there isn't a war, which is very easy, but opposing them during a war, when it is difficult to do; not just opposing some wars, which are manifestly imperialistic, but opposing all wars, even those which have within them elements of justice for one side and manifest tyranny and lack of principle on the other side, such as, for example, the Spanish Civil War, therefore reflecting that position of Marx that socialists, or communists, as he said, must " . . . point out and bring to the forefront the common interest of the working class independently of all nationalities." The Socialist Party's globalist position in doing that is one of immense pride to those people who study its history.

The Socialist Party has refused to identify itself with reform programmes to adjust the system of wage labour and capital. With Marx, it has said, let us not fight against effects; let us eradicate the cause. So, from the 'Right to Work' campaigns, which are effectively 'right to be exploited' campaigns to constitutional campaigns to set up an assembly here and a new voting system here, an act of parliament there that will release a few documents to people, the Socialist Party has maintained a clear-cut position: that this is not enough. Whether they may benefit sections of the working class or not, it is the working class interest as a whole that lies in one objective and one only, and that is the socialist replacement of society for the capitalist system.

But I want, in the remainder of the time I have available, to suggest to you that the Socialist Party's thought is not rooted solely in Karl Marx. I want to suggest, although it is a hypothesis so historically fanciful that I don't think we want to elaborate upon it very seriously, that if Karl Marx had never existed there would still be a socialist party. It would still have clear-cut socialist ideas, and we would have to - by a much more laborious and painful process - arrive at some of the clarity of theoretical vision that Marx has given us. But within the history of the working class, independent of those great philosophers and that great mind of Karl Marx, there is an embryonic socialist tradition, always there, putatively putting forward this idea of socialist liberation, which cannot be ignored and cannot be reduced to a mere off-shoot of Marxism.

So I am going to deal briefly with the utopian strand, the radical democratic strand, and the early socialist movement. First of all, Utopia. Utopia has a very bad name, not least of all because Marx and Engels in asserting the clear scientificity of their position made a point of emphasising and dismissing and, frankly, sneering at the significance of utopian vision, the mere utopian thinkers who had fanciful thoughts about the future. Having said that, Marx and Engels, in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, gave the respect that was right to those utopian socialists who had influenced them.

But it goes back a lot further than that. You go back to the fourteenth century in England. You had a tradition of utopian vision, the first utopian poem was published, The Land of Cockaygne, a wonderful poem about a society where everybody had free access to food. In fact, the geese fly around ready roasted, shouting out, "Geese, all hot! All hot!" They even ask you if you want a particular kind of sauce poured on them. "Every man takes what he will/ As of right to eat his fill/ All is common to young and old/ To stout and strong, to meek and bold."

It is a tremendous vision of how things could be. Why did it arise? Because, during the course of the fourteenth century you had one of the greatest dislocations of European society that we have ever seen. There were the bubonic plagues of 1349, 1361, 1369, 1375, wiping out more than a third of the population of this country, the largest single devastation of the population that occurred. As a result of the plague, you had the landlord class, the feudal parasites, increasing peasant rent and making the feudal dues that were exacted higher and higher upon those who managed to survive on the land that was now left. In 1380, this culminated in the king introducing a tax of one shilling per head to pay for the cost of his war against France. And there was an uprising, the first peasants' uprising in England of 1381.

Here again, we see primitive socialist ideas starting to form. The peasants' leader, John Ball, advocated the idea of common ownership. From a contemporary account, we have these words:
"My good friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves."

150 years after the peasants' revolt, Thomas More, in his book Utopia (which is, of course, based on a pun. One meaning of the word utopia is 'no place'. Another spelling of the same word 'utopia' means 'the good place'. Perhaps the good place, then, had to be no place at all) envisaged a society where:
"The head of each household looks for what he or his family needs and carries off what he wants without any sort of payment or compensation. Why should anything be refused him? There is plenty of everything and no reason to fear that anyone will claim more than he needs."

A century later, in the revolutionary upheaval of the mid seventeenth century, when the ascendant capitalist robbers were fighting their class war against the declining aristocratic muggers, there you also saw a small voice of the propertyless, expressed through the movement called the Diggers, who attempted to take over areas of land and run them on the basis of communism. And in the work of 1652 by the Diggers' leader, Gerard Winstanley, he says:
"If any want food or victuals, they may either go to the butcher's shop and receive what they want without money or else go to the flocks of sheep or herds of cattle and take and kill what meat is needful for their families without buying or selling."

I want to put in a word for this utopian vision. Utopias, on their own, don't change society. They are imaginative excursions into a possible future. But I also want to suggest that, without such imaginative excursions, the future will always seem remote, unknowable, perhaps even unappealing to travel to.

The second strand of rootedness for The Socialist Party is the working class movement itself because, where there is a working class, which is the dispossessed majority, it is quite understandable that workers will seek to have the right to assemble, the right to combine. The very first concern, of course, is the right to be able to sell your labour power at a negotiated price on an organised basis. Up until 1824 trade unions were illegal; but as early as 1710 the English miners up in the north-east went out on their first strike. In 1771 they burned the stocks of coal. All of this was a movement towards the creation of a trade union movement that could show working class people uniting together, combining as a force, showing that, through numbers, they were at least a force to be reckoned with.

More importantly, perhaps, than this economic battle, this incessant fight for the crumbs of capitalism, there was the embryonic political movement for the radical, democratic transformation of capitalism; and there are those who may say seeking democratic changes is something that capitalism will bring about anyway: that capitalism inherently has a logic that will make this happen and make that happen. This is not so: historical change comes through struggle. On 25th January, 1792, the London Corresponding Society was set up by just eight men. We, by comparison, are a mass movement in this room today. They met in The Bell Tavern in London and they stood for the apparently utopian aim of winning votes for everyone, and most of their fellow workers laughed at them. By the end of 1792 the London Corresponding Society had three thousand members, mainly working class men, not many women, and they demanded the vote. They argued for the alternative to a system where they were completely cast out from an influence upon political power, and at his trial for sedition up in the city of Sheffield, one of them described the objectives of the London Corresponding Society as being:
"To enlighten the people; to show the people the reason, the ground of all their complaints and sufferings, when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours a day the week through and is not able to maintain his family. That is what I understand of it: to show the people the ground of this: why they are not able."

And then, in the early 1830s, there was the movement of the Chartists, and the Chartists stood for the vote at least for all men. They had not advanced enough to speak about the vote for women. On three occasions the Chartists had mass petitions and they took them to parliament in 1839 and 1842 and, finally, in 1848. When they went to parliament in 1842, Macaulay, the Liberal, Whig, expressed the fear of the ruling class towards this democratic vision within the working class. He said:
"I am opposed to universal suffrage. I can see that civilisation rests on the security of property. Therefore we can never, with our absolute danger, entrust the supreme government of the country to any class which would, to a moral certainty, commit great and systematic inroads against the security of property."

In short, capital and democracy were seen from the outset to be incompatible, just as capital and the freedom of communication is seen to be incompatible within the monopolistic media system of today.

Out of the failure of the Chartist movement at the end of the 1840s there came another movement, not as big a movement but, in embryonic form, a very important one for laying down the roots of the tradition of which socialists today are a part. This was the movement known as The Charter and Something More. And there were (and this is a very important point, I suggest) a number of very significant individual activists who gave huge amounts of time to this movement: Bronterre O'Brien, Julian Harney, Ernest Jones - working class men, people who didn't have huge fortunes to spend on any of this, gave time, thought, an enormous amount of intelligence to the proposal that democracy and, indeed, the widest form of democracy was necessary.

Julian Harney, who edited a journal called The Red Republican, wrote, on 12th October, 1850:
"It is not any amelioration of the conditions of the most miserable that will satisfy us; it is justice to all that we demand. It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek; but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling of the present system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of the system and the substitution, in its stead, of an order of things in which all shall labour and all shall enjoy, and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community."

What is important is that those words which, in many respects, sum up what the Socialist Party today stands for, were written before the works of Marx were at all available in most cases, and certainly widely circulated in this country. They came from within working class experience. In his Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth, William Thompson - never read Marx; never heard of Marx - wrote:
"The idle possessor of the inanimate instruments of production not only secures to himself by their possession as much enjoyment as the most diligent and skilful of the real efficient producers but in proportion to the amount of his accumulation, by whatever means acquired, he procures ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times as much of the articles of wealth, the products of labour, the means of enjoyment as the utmost labour of such efficient producers can procure for them."

So you see (and this is all I want to say about this): it was there; the thoughts were growing; the seeds were planted - not by Marx, not by great thinkers on their own, but by capitalism itself. That was the soil in which these revolutionary ideas were bound to develop.

Thirdly and finally, I want to move on to the socialist movement as it originated in this country, in Britain. At the beginning of the last quarter of the last century, it would be very hard to suggest that there were more than a couple of dozen people in the whole of Britain who would call themselves socialists. In 1874 there were two main radical clubs in London where socialism was talked about. One of them met in Rupert Street, and it consisted of about two hundred non-socialist radicals, the majority of whom were refugees, mainly from Germany, some from the Paris Commune.

The other, which met in the Blue Post pub in Newman Street, was made up entirely of German refugees. About forty of them would attend on a good night, and most of them would claim to be socialists. They met - no doubt a very curious sight, these refugee Germans, speaking in a foreign tongue - about the need for socialist revolution, while all around them the workers of London not only could not understand their ideas but even the language in which they spoke.

A few British workers started to join these clubs and started to obtain a socialist education from some of the regulars, such as Herman Jung, who introduced Belfort Bax to Marx's writings; and Bax was to become the first person in Britain to publish an exposition of Marx's works. There were people like Frederick Lesner who liaised with the few English trade unionists who had anything to do with The First International and who was subsequently to become an active member of the Hammersmith Branch of William Morris's Socialist League.

In general, the refugees sitting in their pubs didn't make a lot of difference and, as Engels - rather sour, very often, towards small groups of people struggling against difficult forces - wrote to Becker on 1st April, 1880:
"So far as the course of the world is concerned it is more or less indifferent whether a hundred German workers in London declare themselves for one side or the other."

The first socialist organisation in Britain to consist of workers was formed, in Birmingham, by John Sketchley, so it is appropriate that we are in Birmingham to talk about it. He was a worker who had been taught about socialism as a young boy by advocates of The Charter and Something More campaign. He had met Bronterre O'Brien; he had read the works of Julian Harney.

He first came across the Communist Manifesto in The Red Republican. The opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, which some of you will recall were translated in a very odd way in The Red Republican. Instead of "A spectre is haunting Europe . . ." it said, "A giant hobgoblin is stalking all over Europe" (If only we had stuck to those words, perhaps more people would have read it), and in 1878 Sketchley founded the Midland Social Democratic Association.

It existed as an organisation with socialist ideas mixed with all kinds of other radical ideas before 1878; but it was in 1878 that it was to develop a socialist programme. And there were a number of other organisations - some of them in London, some of them in parts of the country that were really quite accidentally affected by all of this - that grew up in the course of the 1870s.

Sketchley not only founded the first socialist organisation in Britain, but he wrote the first book in English by a member of the working class which advocated the case for socialism. It is called The Principles of Social Democracy published in 1879 and, although it might owe a certain amount to the land nationalisation ideas of Henry George, it owes a great deal to the kind of ideas which have subsequently lived on in the thinking of The Socialist Party.

In 1881, the first organisation to call itself socialist, which had more than a dozen members, was formed. It was the Labour Emancipation League, founded by Joseph Lane. And in 1880 Henry Myers Hyndman read Das Kapital by Marx, agreed with its analysis of the system, decided to write his own version called England For All, in which he did not mention Karl Marx because he said the English would not listen to someone who was a German, less still a Jew, and said that they should look at his Marxist version first. And Hyndman was responsible, in 1883, for the adoption of a socialist programme, Socialism Made Plain, by the Social Democratic Federation, a federation of clubs that had got together, first of all in 1881.

In June 1884 the SDF launched a journal called Justice, which was the first Marxist journal in British history. The Social Democratic Federation existed on the basis of a queer mixture between, on the one hand, clear-cut socialist ideas no different in their terminology and certainly in their vision of an alternative society from those propagated by The Socialist Party and, at the same time, a list of immediate reforms of capitalism, what were called 'stepping stones' to socialism.

The SDF attracted hundreds of workers to its side; but this rift between the revolutionary objective of socialism and the reform programme tore it apart, as did the profound arrogance and leadership ambitions of Hyndman, who, essentially, saw himself as the new socialist prime minister. In fact, he described himself as a future socialist prime minister of a revolutionary Britain.

The movement against these contradictions in the SDF was pushed for by a number of people who, at the end of 1884 - in fact, on New Year's Eve, 1884 - split away from the SDF and formed their own organisation, the Socialist League. Amongst these people, William Morris, arguably the greatest of socialist thinkers to have been produced in this country, Marx's daughter, Eleanor, her husband, Edward Aveling, and a number of others who left the SDF formed the Socialist League.

The Socialist League, I would suggest, was the nearest thing, the nearest model you can find, to a party that was doing the kind of thing that The Socialist Party does today: making socialists, as William Morris put it. As Morris rightly argued, on the issue of reformism:
"The palliatives, or reforms over which many worthy people are busying themselves now, are useless because they are but organised, partial revolts against a vast, widespreading organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the condition of the people with an attack on a fresh side."

Morris was saying that in the 1880s. Over a hundred years later, how right he was! Every effort, every huge organisation for reform, for amelioration, for greater humanisation of capitalism, and how the system has fought back, making two new problems for every one that appears to have gone away. Well, the Socialist League initially prospered. It started off with a membership in July, 1885 of 230. By October, it had nearly 400 members. At the beginning of 1886, 500. Six hundred, by the summer of 1886, and 700 at its peak in 1887. It was, undoubtedly, an embryonic socialist movement.

What happened to those socialists who stayed in the SDF was that the contradictions between its reformist, minimum programme and its lip-service to socialism became more and more apparent. Hyndman accepted money from the Tory party in order to stand against Liberal MPs. The SDF was manifestly undemocratic in its behaviour. The reading and teaching of works by Karl Marx within the SDF was actually forbidden by one of its rules. And then one of its members, Jack Fitzgerald, started to run education classes based upon the teachings of Marx. He decided to defy the rules, and at the conference of the SDF in 1904 Fitzgerald and another socialist called Hawkins were called upon to apologise for disobeying the leadership of the party. They refused to apologise. Instead, they and a number of others produced a document—and I suspect most of you won't have seen this document so, as I move rapidly to a conclusion, I will show it to you. This was the circular that was produced inside the Social Democratic Federation by 'the Impossiblists', as they were called, the true revolutionaries, who sought, still, to try to turn the SDF into a real Marxist, socialist organisation. It is interesting to see what they were advocating:
"We advocate the only policy which we believe to be consistent with our principles: that is the adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party or of those supporting any section of the capitalist party nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present capitalist system. In advocating this policy, we recognise that, in the political field, there are only two parties: one, for the retention of the present system; and the other, the social democratic, organised for its overthrow. Therefore, all entering into political action must join either one side or the other."

They were thrown out of the SDF; and still, all entering into political action have to join either one side or the other: the capitalist party - be it New Labour, old Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Communist - or The Socialist Party.

And so, in June 1904, The Socialist Party was formed. I have completed the circle. Is it a Marxist Party? Yes, it is, but perhaps a Marxist Party and something more.
Steve Coleman

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Class Politics in the USA - Interview with WSPUS and Union Activist

From the World Socialist Party of the United States MySpace page

The following is an interview conducted in May, 2006 with a WSP member - "W" - who is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the US.

R. What is the condition of the working class today? How do you see the status of people who work for a living?

W. Speaking very generally, in the early 21st Century, it's true that certain luxuries are more easily available: it seems that everybody has television, running water, electricity. Certain consumer goods are very available. Food is also widely accessible in the United States as well, unlike in other parts of the world. In some ways, particularly the American working class is in some respects, I think, sheltered from some of the more horrible aspects of global capitalism.

At the same time, plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that people are working harder and harder, the productivity of the working class continues to rise, measured by the number of goods produced and the value of services rendered, and yet real, monetary income -- the material reward for that work -- has gone down, relative to what is produced. Workers today earn less in real dollars than they did 20-30 years ago. The other thing we have seen happen, particularly in the last 50 years (not that capitalism was ever a stable system for working people anyway), is some economic shifts in North America that have led to now-familiar practices like "downsizing" and the outsourcing of higher paid, higher skilled manufacturing jobs along with a definite rise in low-income service-sector jobs in retail and wholesale. Even in healthcare, for instance, non-professional jobs like certified nursing assistant have grown much faster than registered nurse (which is a skilled, high-paying job).

So there's definitely been a lot of downward pressure on workers, and it's become more difficult, I believe, for workers in this country to organize themselves in a fashion that allows them to effectively change their conditions for the better. Simply put, in the political sphere the choices that most people feel they have are between two political parties that certainly represent the interests of the elite. I guess one could argue that the Democrats are maybe slightly better than the Republicans, but if you look at the Clinton Administration or the Congress, where for many years we had Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, things weren't really better because of that. The same pressures of capitalism came down on people: people worked harder; it became more difficult to make ends meet.

Part of what's happened, too, as a result of this, at least in the political sphere, is that many Americans have become cynical (and very rightfully so) about the political system, because fewer than half of the people in this country who could vote do vote. And then, among the people who do vote, it's very polarized between the two parties, even though the choices aren't all that clear. For instance, in the last election voters had to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry: two elite white men who by and large are going to pursue the same economic policies with the same ramifications for everyday people.

So I think the political system's not a very useful remedy for most people. It's not that we're getting a choice at the ballot box between capitalism and socialism or anything like that -- only between capitalism one way and capitalism a very slightly different way.

R. It's more a matter of philosophy than a real difference.

W. Part of my job has been to meet with a lot of people, talk to a lot of workers, and I've also found that somebody's voting habits don't necessarily translate into any kind of specific class consciousness. I've worked in the so-called "red" states -- such as Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia -- and some of the workers there who on the one hand are probably very conservative socially and still go to church and do things like that, at the same time had a pretty decent understanding of their jobs and the position of their jobs, and were pretty enthusiastic about supporting a union organization. They were trying to do something to positively affect themselves economically; they weren't trying to form a union purely for ideological reasons. They kind of got it economically that this would be a way for them to have more power. So I don't really know that there's that much of a correlation necessarily between whether or not somebody votes Democratic or Republican and the likelihood they'll have good understanding of the way the economic system is working on them (or working down on them).

R. Is it your impression that our fellow members of the working class see beyond the bread and butter stuff, or are they looking right at the immediate gains and not thinking about broader, bigger questions?

W. It depends. One thing to understand in labor and labor organizing: you're dealing with capitalism on a very daily basis. The term "daily struggle" gets tossed around a lot in journals like the Socialist Standard and the World Socialist Review. In the daily struggle you've got to worry about daily things -- how much money do I have to buy food for my family and pay my rent, and that stuff. So a lot of union efforts do go towards trying to remedy economic problems that are immediate. At the same time, I think people are more and more starting to turn around and embrace a progressive outlook. I wouldn't necessarily call it radical -- it's probably a more reformist thing. Although you will meet radical-minded people who do work in the labor movement and who have a better sense of this stuff. Some unions are embracing an agenda that's more social than socialist. People are becoming more conscious of long-term problems like healthcare, and unions are starting to endorse universal coverage and living-wage campaigns that affect workers beyond the ranks of particular unions.

Major unions, too, both inside the AFL-CIO and outside it, have developed a better stance in the debate now going on about immigration. If you go back a while, even Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers was having the union call immigration officials to get illegal immigrants kicked off agricultural fields in California 30 to 40 years ago. The argument would be that the illegal immigrants are destabilizing the work [opportunities for union farm workers], and so the reaction is to get rid of 'em. But I think now, particularly in the Service Employees International Union, there's more of a tendency to embrace workers in spite of their legal status, to recognize that all workers deserve rights and the ability to fight for their rights. We represent a lot of people who work in building services and non-professional lower-income service jobs in healthcare and public services. (Many of these jobs are done by illegal immigrants, who are just as active when it comes to fighting for better wages and benefits.) We shouldn't keep splitting hairs over who's illegal and who isn't, about who gets to take part in the labor movement and who doesn't.

It's good in a way to think beyond that, to realize that capital doesn't have borders, so labor shouldn't have borders either. It doesn't really serve our interests in the long term to take a narrow, jingoistic approach like "Buy American" or "Work American." I think it's probably untenable right now, but it's very exclusive and not very open. If organized labor is in any way going to be part of a socialist movement in the future, then we need to be more open than restrictive about who takes part in it.

R. What would you say is the critical mass there? What do you think it would take in the world of capitalism at large to spark workers to think about either keeping the system or replacing it?

W. I've thought about that a lot, and at the end of all my thinking, I have a pretty ambivalent answer, in that I don't really know. It's hard to tell now because I think we're a long way off from that, practically speaking. I know it's going to take more people. More people are going to have to get organized, with an understanding that they're going to want to change the system. I think, too, in order to build a socialist movement, it can't only be through the ballot box; there has to be a component about work, about being on the job. That's everybody's experience with capitalism in a nutshell -- their experience at work. Of course, in order for anything to be successful, there has to be a real consensus. There has to be a real, conscious majority of people. That's not to say, if 30 percent of the people went out on strike tomorrow that it wouldn't be significant. It would mess things up. Maybe it might get a lot of other people thinking along [socialist lines].

R. So do you think the socialist slogan, "Workers of the world, unite!" might interest people now more than it might have back in the 60s or the 70s?

W. It may or may not; it's hard to gauge. In some ways our general political discourse has moved further away from the concept of workers uniting. On the one hand, you do have groups of working people who realize there are problems that need to be solved: their pay's going down, they can't get the stuff they need, they want to improve healthcare, they want to improve education, they want jobs to be [available], they want to be able to make a living: embracing a more social outlook on things. But on the other hand, you also have strong economic pressures that push people toward the kind of home-owner's politics, for instance, that centers around lower taxes, gated communities, and so on -- basically getting rid of any sort of social contract between human beings. In some ways it's gotten worse.

But the way to get out of this, I think -- and it's true for labor and for the WSP too -- is that we have to do a better job communicating with people and educating them. It's always frustrating. When I'm out organizing, talking to workers at their door, going into their homes and talking to them about forming a union, I can't come out and say, "Well, this is how you ought to think; this is how you ought to feel; you're getting screwed; this is what you're going to do about it." You've got to start planting the seeds; ask questions like, "Are you satisfied with your job right now? Oh, you're not? What would you like to improve?" You know, try to get people in the process of thinking critically, like, "Hey, wait a minute! My life (job) isn't that great, it should be better; what am I going to do to make it better?" [The point is] getting people to think about that. I think maybe basic union members -- people who are active at all -- because they're part of a union, an organization that's trying to fight for economic rights, think about that more than the rest of the population. You're forced to.

R. Would you say that two of the benefits of being in a union are that there's a better chance of becoming a critical thinker, and at the same time getting a sense that by joining with others you can really do something?

W. Yeah, I think there's definitely more potential for that in a union than without one. Not to say that's always how it works out. Plenty of people never seem to be able to connect the dots. I don't know quite why that is. Part of it's the fault of those of us who are left to run things on a day-to-day basis, because we can't communicate with everybody and we don't necessarily communicate effectively. In some cases, there are obviously people who will take more reactionary views on a lot of things.

The part of being in a union is that you should be actively in a position where you're trying to change stuff -- and change it for the better, and do it in an economic way, not just some ideological or rhetorical way. It's like we're going to take an action to increase our pay, or we're going to file a grievance as a group against our boss who's discriminating against one of our co-workers. It's definitely the idea that as individuals we're not that powerful, but if we're in it together and organized as a group, we can accomplish things we can't accomplish as individuals.

And when you're in a union, of course, you pay dues, and that's not just to pay staffers; that's to have resources available. We live in a capitalist system right now, and the bosses and our employers have a lot of money. And the other thing about a union: unlike other social change organizations that exist, there's a more stable base of revenue that you can use to fight back. I know people who work for reformist organizations out there, who are trying to fight for various [pieces of] legislation, and part of the problem non-profit organizations have is, they don't have any money. And when you're fundraising and concerned to make payroll at the end of the month as an organization, when do you actually have the time for any kind of struggle? The thing about unions is, when you have a stable dues base, you can use your power better, I think, than any other organization can.

That said, American unions in particular have to develop a much more critical analysis of the political system and get away from this idea that we have to support the lesser of two evils. Organized labor's been throwing a lot of support behind Democrats who don't give a shit about workers, and who frankly don't give a shit about organized labor either. We have to think, OK, if we can master some power on the job, how can we use that to make better changes on the job -- or to really change society?

R. What sort of role would you say labor organizing plays, in political and economic terms, in the context of the society that we now have?

W. First of all, on the political side of things, organized labor in this country has very roughly 15 million members. That's only about 13 percent of the working population, of people who would otherwise be eligible to form a union, and that's spread out of course among a variety of unions. You've got some relatively large ones, like the National Education Association (the largest union in the country with about 2.7 million members, most of whom are public school teachers -- overwhelmingly they're public school teachers or other school employees).

The union I work for, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has 1.8 million members. It split from the AFL-CIO last summer and is the fastest-growing union in the country. We try to organize public sector workers, like state employees, healthcare workers, human service workers and janitors. Those are the big sectors of the Union; and in any of those sectors, we probably represent only a very small percentage of the overall population. Of course, in New York City we have a critical mass of healthcare workers: hospital and nursing home employees; in states like Massachusetts and Maine, we represent almost all of the state workers. So we do have density in certain areas, but it's not uniform.

A lot of the rhetoric around our leaving the Labor Federation is that it did not use its resources well enough to do a couple of things: one was to hold politicians more accountable -- and that's a pretty convoluted thing. The second point was that the AFL and most of the unions in the AFL were not doing enough to organize workers. And that's by and large true: the overall density of union workers has declined; the sheer number of union workers has declined. Meanwhile, parts of the job market are expanding, some more rapidly than others; and as we know, the capitalist system is not going to pay workers a suitable amount of money on its own. It's not on its own going to give people the tools they need to live.

And so the Change to Win Coalition -- made up of SEIU, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE (which is the Garment and Hotel Workers Union), the Carpenters Union and the Laborers Union -- said, OK, we're going to do something about it; we're going to take the money we would have given to the AFL-CIO (which comes out to like $30 to $60 million) and we're going to spend that money on organizing, and as organizations ourselves we're going to spend more of our own resources on organizing. What that means in SEIU is that the International Union (the U.S. and Canada) spends more than half of the money it gets from affiliates on organizing the workers, and then every local union throughout the country is expected to spend 20 percent of its resources on organizing.

At the same time, just throwing money at something isn't the end-all and be-all: there needs to be a better mobilization, a better communication among members. It's often said the best organizers are members of the union, and I think that's probably true in most cases. There could be a better use of resources and mobilizing with what we already have. It's going to take time, but hopefully the new members who come in through organizing efforts will be able to participate and really make the decisions. I think if the emphasis is on communication and education, and doing things to create power for working people, then that's something I think workers would want to be a part of -- rather than just saying, OK, it's up to the top leaders of the union to make all the decisions.

The other concern that's been put out there by various people is more scary: the Change To Win Coalition is a highly centralized federation that's very top-down. It has to be careful about not becoming undemocratic. SEIU's President, Andy Stern, is the architect of the Change To Win Coalition and kind of a visionary, frankly. He's also been really instrumental in making sure the union is spending its resources on growth and organizing and winning economic power. But at the same time SEIU has also cut deals with various employers. It's good for a union to be able to make demands on an employer and make them change. But [you've got to ask] could we end up cutting deals with employers that maybe don't meet all the concerns of the workers? That can happen, too.

What all this means is that, in certain contexts with certain employers, where we're well organized, our union -- as well as other unions in the same situation -- can be very effective. It still holds true, in 2006, that a unionized worker makes one-third more money than a non-union worker doing the same type of job. It's also true that 90 percent of union workers have access to healthcare plans, while only 60 percent of non-union workers do. A union worker's much more likely to have access to a defined benefit pension than a non-union worker.

So unions, I think, at least in a purely economic sense, do still play an important role for many, many workers out there. The problem is that, without density, how relevant can organizations be that only represent 13 percent of the working class -- not only nationally, but globally as well? SEIU is in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico -- and that's the extent of our real global reach. We started to expand and work with unions in other parts of the world, because, frankly, some of the employers that exist in the United States exist elsewhere, and if we're going to organize in the U.S. or North America, we need to be able to coordinate our efforts with workers in other parts of the world, like in England or Poland or France -- wherever they may be. We've started working with unions in India and Australia now, as well.

R. Do you think that will prosper, as late as it's coming?

W. Well, I want to hope it's not too late to do something. To give up on organized labor as a whole would be to give up on any kind of potential to change anything. As socialists we know that as long as capitalism continues, the pressure to accumulate capital -- to make profits -- necessarily comes at the expense of workers and their families. And as long as there are pressures coming down on workers, some of them are going to fight back. The problem is that, with such low density, it's hard to fight back. Plus, in the U.S., it's become very difficult (not impossible) for workers to form a union in the traditional way that we've had since the 30s: to come together and petition the National Labor Relations Board (I'm talking about the private sector), using the traditional channels of filing a petition for a union election and then being able to hold it together. The National Labor Relations Board is not fair and does not really give both sides [equal time]; for a group of workers to successfully organize a union, they have to be very well organized amongst one another, they have to trust one another, they have to communicate well with one another, and basically they have to be able to hold it together in order to win just the election. And then of course beyond that, they have to be able to hold it together to win the contract or the improvements they want to win: better pay, better benefits, better working conditions -- whatever.

R. So you think organizing globally is the key to the future?

W. I think so. Capital long ago figured out how to go global. You go to any country in the world and you're going to find a lot of the same brands, the same companies, the same employers. I'm not just saying that's true for manufacturing, like Sony TVs made in Malaysia, or whatever. You've also got service-level employers like Aramark, Sodexho, Securitas, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's. They're everywhere. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of healthcare companies -- hospitals -- went global. Capital is global. And when they can, capitalists are always going to look for other parts of the world to do business in, to open up markets, to find cheaper labor forces. When we talk about organizing workers and trying to help workers have the tools to make their lives better, I don't think we can say, morally/ethically speaking, that this is only for people in North America and not for people in other parts of the world. It's like we say in the WSP: you can't have socialism in one country. By the same token, I don't think we can have a viable labor movement that's restricted to only one part of the world.

Even on a practical level, [isolating ourselves] doesn't make sense. I think [organizing on a global scale] is going to be difficult, too, because systems of labor relations are different in other parts of the world. We've got to be careful, if we want a global movement, about what sort of assumptions we bring to the table as Westerners -- even if we think of ourselves as internationalists and globally-minded, fair-minded people. You can't be totally cultural-imperialist on people, either.

R. How is organized labor taking advantage of the Internet?

W. Most unions have Web sites; not to say that there's full potential out there [yet], but it's good, and there has definitely been a real growth of on-line campaigning. That's good because it allows people to take part in campaigns when we're not all physically in the same location. But at the same time, I must say, for organizing purposes, when it comes to organizing workers, the Internet is not anything. At this point, it's just not a replacement for communication between humans. Talking to workers on the phone is OK, but if you're going to organize your union successfully, I still think you need to have workers meeting, planning and agreeing with one another about how they're going to change things. You can't do it over the phone, and you definitely can't do it through email. At some point, even though this is the 21st Century, people still need to come together and communicate with each other if they want to change things.

R. How would you compare the possibilities of organizing the workplace now with, say, 80 or 90 years ago?

W. Prior to the 1930s, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and some level of Federal enforcement under the Roosevelt Administration, it was very difficult, more difficult [than today] for workers to organize unions. If you go back and read, say, histories of the Industrial Workers of the World at that time, or of the Knights of Labor before them in the 1880s, workers in this country or indeed anywhere in the world had no right to collective bargaining; they had no real right to free speech. But workers constantly tried to organize: whether it was the strike in the Lawrence textile mills in 1912 or in Patterson, or the various struggles that miners got into in the east -- West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania -- or out west in Colorado, Montana and those places, railroad employees, loggers in the IWW, and so on.

If you go back 80 or 90 years ago, on the other hand, from what I've read, I think it's safe to say there was probably a higher level of class consciousness among workers; but at the same time the repercussions of trying to form a union were really severe. You had the National Guards show up; you had the Pinkertons and Baldwin-Phelps agents showing up, shooting people and killing them, burning down their houses. Labor leaders like Big Bill Hayward were deported to the Soviet Union. The repercussions for workers were swift and severe from both the government and employers themselves.

Today, [in contrast], as a union organizer, I must say I've never felt threatened personally with violence; bosses and governments today don't fight workers through violent means so much. Although it's different in some cases: if you look at the struggles that farm workers continue getting into, or illegal immigrants who are here, the stakes are a bit higher, and I think there is more violence used against them in the physical sense than there is against your typical hospital employee.

R. Do you think that if workers were to try to regain the position they had going into the second world war, they would stand to face as much violence from the capitalist class as they had before?

W. Potentially, yeah. I don't know that violence is going to be perpetrated in the same way, though; I don't know if we're going to have National Guardsmen with bayonets out there, but the resistance will be stiff. We could have a crackdown on civil liberties; there could be mass lockouts or layoffs or deportation of immigrants. There are all sorts of potential ways to undermine [a movement].

R. The whole union movement could become "terrorists."

W. They (the capitalist class) have lots of legal tricks. As I've already said, it's already difficult to form a union using the National Labor Relations Board system. They could undermine collective bargaining; there are all sorts of things they could try. And if that didn't work, they could bring out the Army again -- that could happen.

R. There is a point of comparison here with what goes on in comparison with the countries of Latin America. If you read through the histories of the 70s and around that period, it sounds very similar to what used to happen to unions in this country. Not quite as bloody and gory, maybe, but…

W. Right. I'll give you an example of today. On a couple of occasions I've met union activists from Colombia, who are actually here being sponsored by American unions as refugees, essentially, because in Colombia right now, rank and file union activists are routinely getting jailed, beaten or killed. So there is a reality in Colombia and certainly in other parts of the world, where workers are fighting for pretty basic economic rights -- the right to be able to congregate and fight for better conditions, however modest or radical their demands may be. The apparatus of the state and of business does come down hard on people. I don't think we American workers generally see that. But at the same time, maybe not physically, there is a certain violence done to somebody when their economic livelihood is taken away from them for trying to improve it, when they get fired from their jobs or whatever. It happens all the time in this country. That's economic warfare against a person.

R. Capital's weak point is the workplace.

W. Absolutely. There is a weakness, if workers take a notion -- I think there's an old Joe Hill quote, something like: we can stop all the machines and make the world stand still. And that's still true. With low density and stuff, [it's true] we're a long way from making that happen. But there are definitely vulnerabilities out there. There's always that potential, and I think what we've got to be working towards (not just in the unions but in the socialist movement, too) is people figuring out how we're going to get people together to use that power that is potentially there to make revolutionary changes, to get rid of this system that creates divisions between people economically and socially, and try to actually build a new society rather than [just keep patching up the old one all the time].


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