Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Robert Tressell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (2003)

From the December 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most readers of the Socialist Standard will have at least heard about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell.

Now there's a book about the book: Tressell, the Real Story of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Dave Harker, just published by Zed Books.

Tressell was the pen-name of Robert Noonan, a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in the English South coast town of Hastings before the first world war from 1905 to 1910. His book is the story covering a period of just over a year of a group of painters and decorators, one of whom is a Socialist but who is continually frustrated by the indifference and support for capitalism of his fellow workers. It has appealed to generations of working-class activists, including members of the Socialist Party, but of course people of different political persuasions have read different things into it.

Harker himself writes as a thinly disguised SWPer, though he seems fascinated by the attitude of the old Communist Party towards the book. Basically, they didn't like it too much since, as a member of the SDF (from which the SPGB sprang in 1904), Tressell/Noonan's approach was considered too "sectarian", too "abstract propagandist". This was because he was trying to convince his fellow workers by reasoned argument rather than "giving them a lead" in the trade union struggle or in the struggle for reforms. In short, because he wasn't a Leninist. But they could not dismiss the book entirely as it was genuinely popular amongst workers, especially those who found themselves in the same position and meeting the same response as Owen, the book's Socialist. And Tressell was assumed to be a working man, so that the book could be seen as an example of "proletarian literature" (actually, although he had to work as a painter and decorator and died in poverty, he was not from a working-class background but the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish knight).

Before WW2 some CP actors did perform a stage version, but changed the book's basic message into a plea for mere trade-unionism. It was not until after the war that the CP decided to fully appropriate the book's heritage, after being instructed by Moscow to present the case for Russian-style state capitalism in national(istic) terms. Tressell was praised for being an English Socialist (as at the same time, and for the same reason, was William Morris). Still, perhaps we shouldn't look a gift-horse in the mouth since one result was the publication of an unexpurgated edition in 1955 (previous editions had been of the severely truncated original 1914 version). Even so, as Harker records, Harry Pollitt, in an article on the new edition, critised Owen as "sectarian", i. e., issued a warning that CP members were not to accept the political views expressed in the book.

Because of the CP's earlier reluctence, the inter-war editions of the book were sponsored by the "Labour Movement", in particular by the building workers' unions. In 1927 an edition appeared with a preface by George Hicks, then General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers and TUC President for that year. Hicks, as Harker reminds readers more than once, had been a member of the SPGB (he had in fact been one of the founder members but left after a few years to pursue a trade union career: he ended up a Labour MP and a junior minister in the war-time coalition government). Another name that frequently crops up in Harker's book is CP full-timer and the party's "proletarian philosopher", TA Jackson, who was in fact more pro the book than most CPers. He was also, as Harker again reminds readers more than once, a former SPGB member. Harker refers to him as "former SPGB General Secretary", as indeed he was if only for a short time and in an acting capacity -- not that the general secretary of the SPGB is anything like the General Secretary of the CP, ie a Leader.

During WW2 Penguins produced a cheap edition for the forces and it is one of the books credited with helping to win over people to vote Labour in 1945. The book itself is not pro-Labour (the Labour Party existed when the book was written but in it Tressel/Noonan talks of sending "revolutionary socialists" not Labourites to parliament). By the 1970s, however, the Labour Party did try to latch on to the book in a serious way. Kinnock wrote a preface to a new edition, but the text itself could not be changed. When converted into a play, however, it could be. One such "adaptation" was made by Stephen Lowe in 1978.

In the book, there is an election in which the two candidates are Sir Graball D'Encloseland (Tory) and Mr Adam Sweater (Liberal); Owen urges his fellow-workers to abstain and vote for neither, just as the SPGB would have done. In the play there is also an election, but this time there is no Liberal candidate only Sir Graball and a possible Labour candidate. Here's how Harker describes the ending of Lowe's play:

"Towards the end he [Harlow] announces: 'We're 'aving that public meeting, now, top o' the hill. 'Cos if we get enough support, London say they may put up a Labour man. There's still time'. Owen demurs: 'It's a dead end'. 'If we go into their game, if we enter the House of Parliament on the back of the Unions, they'll just buy us off. We've got to hold out for the works, not go for the crumbs. Even if we force capitalism to eliminate poverty completely, the cancer will still be in the air. Dog will eat dog. We've got to tear it out by the roots, and build a new world'. Harlow persists: 'Are you coming with us or what?" 'Owen raises the banner, on which is written Workers Unite'. 'They hold the tableau as the light builds to full. Blackout.'"

When members of our West London branch went to see this play (it's not the only stage version) in 1991, we were outraged at this ending, depicting as it did Owen as urging a Labour vote as the lesser evil to the Tories. We couldn't protest at this travesty in the auditorium, but two members ensured that anyone within earshot heard what they, as revolutionary socialists, thought about this as the audience left. Poetic justice was done when Labour didn't win the 1992 election.

Interestingly enough, Noonan's daughter, who was discovered in the mid-1960s to be still alive, stated, Harker records, that "her father's socialism was not that of the Labour Party, or that of Russian communism. 'Neither is the real thing'".

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was also popular amongst SPGB members and recommended by members to each other. Our criticism of its politics was the opposite to that of the CP: that it was a bit reformist (particularly objected to was the support of the SDF's policy of a Citizen Army). A review of the 1955 edition in the Socialist Standard of December that year commented:

"[Noonan's] Socialism was the hopeful reformism of the Social Democratic Federation. It would, however in this writer's view, at any rate be churlish to make that a major criticism. Here was a man who lived, suffered and was angry, would that there were many, many more."


As befits a member of the SWP, Harker has it in for the SPGB. Commenting on our formation, he says: "In 1904 another 140 dissidents were squeezed out of the SDF, but, sadly, rather than join the SLP they formed the even more sectarian Socialist Party of Great Britain". (Actually, by the SWP's criterion of "sectarian", the SLP was the more sectarian in that it did not allow its members to hold trade union office whereas the SPGB did.)

While he mentions (as noted, more than once) that Hicks and Jackson were ex-SPGBers he appears to be unaware that the Robert Barltrop he accuses of being one of a number of "UK intellectuals" who "patronised" The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is also an ex-SPGBer, and was in fact a party member at the time he wrote the passage Harker criticises. In his book on Jack London (1978), Barltrop, after describing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as "the most remarkable of all books about working-class life", had merely commented that Tressell was not a good writer. Hardly enough to merit the insult of being called an "intellectual".

While Harker reproduces all sorts of comments and reviews, he failed to track down the above review in the December 1955 Socialist Standard (by Barltrop in fact) nor an earlier one in November 1953. This is strange, as in an earlier statement announcing his book, Harker had criticised Noonan's policies for being too similar to the SPGB's:

"He drew on real Hastings stories, but left out or marginalized trade unions, radical traditions and socialist organisations—hope, in fact—in order to focus on the key problem, as he saw it, inside workers' heads. Such abstract propagandism was in the SDF, SLP and SPGB traditions if you change the ideas in workers' heads by reasoning, they will (somehow) change the world".

In view of this, he might have been expected to be interested in what the SPGB and SPGB members over the years thought about the book. Apparently not. Instead we are told that Tony Cliff (who probably never read the book) once indicated that he thought it was a useful way of getting to talk (down) to building workers. At one point, he criticises Eric Heffer (who later became a Labour MP) for staying with Labour in 1962--without seeming to realise that Cliff too remained a member of the Labour Party for a further six years (and urged workers to vote Labour until the 1990s).

Having said this, the book, for all its faults, will have to be read by anyone interested in Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Adam Buick

Monday, February 27, 2006

Sylvia Pankhurst and Socialism (2003)

From the July 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Pankhurst name is mainly associated with the Suffragette Movement, as Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline ("Mrs Pankhurst") were the most prominent leaders of the Votes for Women movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Christabel's younger sister, Sylvia (born 1882), was also involved in the suffrage campaigns, but in addition she came to adopt ideas and aims which are of more interest to those who advocate a socialist world.

The Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903, supported votes for women on the same basis as that which obtained for men at the time, i.e. based on a property qualification. Whatever its intention, given the situation where most property was held in the name of husbands rather than wives, this would have had the effect of enfranchising only a relatively small number of women, and clearly only rich women. Sylvia Pankhurst, however, came to support the more democratic position of general adult suffrage. Along with other suffragettes, she met many women from London's East End while serving time in prison for suffragette activities, and was impressed by the courage these women showed in enduring the appalling prison conditions.

In 1912 she moved to the East End herself and became an early practitioner of a kind of "community politics". Most men living there did not have the vote either, so the standard WSPU demand was of little local relevance. The East London Federation of the WSPU took on wider social concerns than just the vote, but Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister, who could not tolerate any other source of power in the organisation. In 1914 she set up the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, with its paper the Woman's Dreadnought, which she edited.

The ELFS supported adult suffrage, but also organised nurseries and cheap restaurants during the First World War, as well as defending workers of German origin who were attacked by jingoistic mobs. It was renamed the Workers' Suffrage Federation in 1916, though this new name still failed to reflect its true range of interests, and the following year its paper became the Workers' Dreadnought. The paper's anti-war stance and its coverage of strikes earned it an influence far beyond the East End.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had an enormous impact on Pankhurst and the WSF (as on the Left in general), and much of their energy was redirected towards defending the new state and opposing Allied intervention against it. The WSF name was modified to Workers' Socialist Federation, and soviets or councils were now seen as the preferred means of organisation. Pankhurst proposed household soviets, so that "mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community" should be represented—a useful reminder that not everyone would be included in work-based bodies.

The WSF has been praised in fulsome terms:
"From 1918 to 1921, the Workers' Socialist Federation was a unique revolutionary organization. It challenged the male domination of socialist politics, for even though its all-female membership changed over time to admit men, women continued to be the major leaders and activists. The WSF campaigned on a whole range of women's issues (such as women's and children's health care, schooling and domestic work) and also participated in workers' struggles in the East End, as well as in struggles nationally and internationally" (Barbara Winslow: Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism).
As the examples show, though, these activities were reformist, not revolutionary.

Along with the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party, the WSF was one of the groups involved in the unity talks to set up the Communist Party of Great Britain. Having gone over to full-scale admiration for soviets, Pankhurst opposed the pro-parliamentary sections in the unity talks. She argued not just that parliament could not be used for "revolutionary" purposes (which was generally agreed), but that it could not be used by revolutionaries for any purpose. Accordingly, the WSF withdrew from the unity talks to form the strangely-named Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920. The aim of this move – widely condemned at the time as jumping the gun – was to persuade the British Left to adopt anti-parliamentarism and reject affiliation to the Labour Party.

Pankhurst's stance was attacked by Lenin in the chapter on Britain in his "Left-Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder. He quoted Pankhurst as saying that the Communist Party must not compromise. Not so, said Lenin: it was essential to help the Labour leaders defeat the Tories and Liberals, so that workers should see the results of a Labour government. The cause of Communism, he went on, would be furthered, not betrayed, by calls for workers to vote Labour, as a Labour government would soon lead to disillusion. These ideas are purely opportunist and dishonest and, of course, the events foreseen by Lenin failed to materialise. But his views did foreshadow the compromises and lies that have been typical of Bolshevik groups.

Pankhurst and the CP(BSTI) were, however, convinced by Lenin's arguments, and most of the organisation's branches joined the new CPGB soon after it was founded, though she continued to produce the Workers' Dreadnought as a separate paper. The "unified" CP, however, was anything but unified, and when the Dreadnought began publishing the views of oppositionists within Russia as well as arguing the anti-parliamentary line, the CPGB and their Moscow masters objected. In September 1921, once she had been released from a prison sentence for sedition, and had refused to hand the paper over to CP control, Pankhurst was expelled. She now set up the Communist Workers' Party, which had the aim of abolishing the wages system, but this never amounted to anything much and it collapsed by 1924, when the Workers' Dreadnought also ceased publication. Her later career is of little moment – she joined the Labour Party in 1948, and died in Ethiopia in 1960, after exposing Italy's invasion of the country and becoming an admirer of Emperor Haile Selassie.

However, Pankhurst's views for a time during the early twenties were of great interest. She could never be accused of consistency, but she did propagate the view that Socialism/Communism meant a moneyless, classless community, and that what was being built in Russia was capitalism, not any variety of socialism. She explicitly described the New Economic Policy, introduced there in 1921, as "reversion to capitalism". And consider these extracts from her writings:
"Our aim is Communism. Communism is not an affair of party. It is a theory of life and social organisation. It is a life in which property is held in common; in which the community produces, by conscious aim, sufficient to supply the needs of all its members; in which there is no trading, money, wages, or any direct reward for services rendered" (1923).
"The Russian workers remain wage slaves, and very poor ones, working, not from free will, but under compulsion of economic need, and kept in their subordinate position by a State coercion which is more pronounced than in the countries where the workers have not recently shown their capacity to rebel with effect" (1924).
(See also the Socialist Standard for November 1999.)

To the extent that the Left pay attention to Sylvia Pankhurst today, she is usually derided as a sectarian "ultra-leftist" who placed inflexibility and loyalty to her own organisation above the idea of unity. But she is better seen as someone who saw through the unprincipled and dishonest tactics of the Bolsheviks and their British followers, and who realised that Russia was not undergoing a transformation to Socialism. Her opposition to using parliament for revolutionary purposes was a mistake, caused by her overwhelming enthusiasm for the supposed successes of the soviets in Russia. She deserves, however, to be remembered as more than just an object of Lenin's criticism.
Paul Bennett

Are We All Zapatistas? (2005)

From the September 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

"We are all Zapatistas" has been painted on banners, walls and shouted at demonstrations in recent years. The slogan has been used by leftists, anarchists, advocates of fair-trade schemes and even for commercial gain. But who are the Zapatistas?

The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata who led the Ejrcito Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South) during the Mexican Revolutionary war from 1910 until his assassination in 1919. During the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which preceded the revolution much of the land farmed by the indigenous people was enclosed to form haciendas or ranches for the production of food for export markets forcing peasants into, both wage- and debt-slavery to the often cruel ranch owners. Zapata's army sought to institute the Plan of Ayala for the repossession of the haciendas for landless peasants where pre-enclosure legal titles existed and partial expropriation of land, with compensation, where legal titles didn't exist. The Liberation Army of the South initially fought the federal forces who sought to uphold the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Zapata's army also fought the constitutionalist forces which eventually replaced Diaz as well as the intervening military dictatorship.

Despite the defeat of Zapata's army, the 1917 Mexican Constitution contained a provision for the return of communal lands appropriated by the haciendas and to provide new lands called ejidos to landless peasants. Communal lands and ejidos are owned by the people of a village and plots within the designated areas are divided amongst individual families to work. However, this article of the constitution was never fully implemented, or yielded only small or unproductive land areas to the peasants. In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari revoked the constitutional commitment protecting communal land from private ownership in preparation for implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The NAFTA would also remove agricultural price support affecting peasants who were increasingly reliant on small scale cash crop production.

On the day the NAFTA came into force the Ejrcito Zapatista de Liberacin Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberation) officially declared war on the Mexican government and invaded six main population centres and many ranches in the Chiapas region of south eastern Mexico. It is the EZLN and their supporters that are referred to as Zapatistas.

Open conflict in Chiapas lasted twelve bloody days in which hundreds lost their lives mainly due to aerial bombardment of EZLN-held towns by the Mexican army. By 1995, tens of thousands of troops were stationed in the region. There has been little open combat since, but a network of checkpoints, army patrols, military incursions and alliances with local paramilitary groups have been used to intimidate and wear down the EZLN. The EZLN signed an accord with the Mexican Government in 1996 to institute peace and political rights for the people of Chiapas, though the government later reneged on many of the provisions. Paramilitaries, who have subsequently been linked to local landowners and ruling party officials, assassinated 45 Zapatistas in the town of Acteal in December 1997.

Chiapas is about the same size (area and population) as the Republic of Ireland. The area has a long history of conflict over land. Peasants have been forced onto the thin, rocky soils and steep slopes of the highlands with the encroachment of cattle ranching, coffee and sugar plantations from the more fertile lowland regions. Land availability has also been reduced by forestry and mineral, gas and oil extraction operations. Migration from neighbouring Guatemala, migration of those fleeing poverty in Mexico and the return of many of those who had migrated to urban areas for employment after crisis of capitalism in the early 1980s caused rapid population increase and eventual retreat into the inhospitable Lacandon jungle where the Zapatista rebellion is centred.

The EZLN was formed in the early 1980s by Leninists who had migrated into the Chiapas jungle to lead the peasantry to revolution. One of those who joined the EZLN was the man now known as Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatista's military leader and most famous spokesman. The EZLN found that many of the peasants there could not support the idea of the revolutionary vanguard and language of 'Marxism'. What followed was what Marcos calls a period of "indianization". The Leninist founders of the EZLN steeped themselves in native Mayan culture. In the words of Marcos, quoted by Yvon Le Bot (El Sueno Zapatista, 1997):
"Suddenly the revolution transformed itself into something essentially moral. Ethical. More than the redistribution of wealth or the expropriation of the means of production, the revolution began to be the possibility for a human being to have a space for dignity."
The "indianization" of the EZLN seemed to infuse the organisation with the local traditions of direct and decentralised democracy. However, in material terms the EZLN retained much of the previous reformist ideology. The Declaration of War, written in 1993, stated that the EZLN was acting legitimately to overthrow the ruling government because of their unconstitutional actions. The statement also says that the EZLN proudly carry the national flag into battle.

In June this year the EZLN announced a new political initiative in the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona. They suggest a national campaign, "which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people, in order to demand that we make a new Constitution, new laws which take into account the demands of the Mexican people, which are: housing, land, work, food, health, education, information, culture, independence, democracy, justice, liberty and peace. We are also letting you know that the EZLN will establish a policy of alliances with non-electoral organizations and movements which define themselves, in theory and practice, as being of the left, . . "

The stipulations for organisations wishing to join the national campaign are a democratic structure and a "clear commitment for joint and co-ordinated defence of national sovereignty, with intransigent opposition to privatization attempts of electricity, oil, water and natural resources." In addition, the Zapatistas offered food aid to Cuba for their resistance to the USA's embargo, express admiration for Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar and offered to send handicrafts, coffee or soup to activists in Europe to help with the struggle against neo-liberalism. The Zapatistas clearly think that capitalism can be run in the interests of the workers through state possession of industry and with the absence of the intervention by foreign capital.

The EZLN stopped making demands for constitutional rights from the Mexican government in 2001 and began to form a state within a state. This is described by Marcos in Chiapas: The Thirteenth Stele as involving the withdrawal of the EZLN from civil matters and establishment of self-governing villages or Autonomous Municipalities, with recallable and rotated functionaries. In August 2003, the 'Juntas of Good Government' were formed. These are regional councils which take the functions of administering justice, taxation, healthcare, education, housing, land, work, food, commerce, information and culture, and local movement from the EZLN. Marcos states that there have been improvements in living conditions as well as improvements in gender equality in the notoriously patriarchal peasant societies since the formation of 'Juntas of Good Government'.

However, the war is not over as EZLN recruitment and guerilla warfare training continues. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report for 2004 highlights instances of state and local police involvement in kidnappings and extortion, torture, unlawful killings, narcotics-related crime and the trafficking of illegal migrants in Chiapas. The report also states that there were numerous allegations of the use of excessive force and the violation of international humanitarian law against the Mexican Army as well as continued violence by paramilitary groups.

There is also US involvement in the Chiapas rebellion which is perhaps of no surprise given the proximity and the fact that Mexico has the third-largest proven crude oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere and is the third-largest foreign supplier of petroleum to the United States, behind Canada and Saudi Arabia. PEMEX, the state-owned oil corporation, is a vital source of revenue for the Mexican state which is heavily indebted to the banks in the USA. Oil fields with one billion barrel potential have recently been discovered in Chiapas.

According to the Federation of American Scientists' Arms Sales Monitoring Project direct commercial sales of defence articles (e.g. machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenade launchers and ammunition) and defence services (e.g. missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines and tanks) amounted to $112million and $436million, respectively, in 2003. The US military also spent $1.25million on training the Mexican Army in 2003. The US training programmes are officially for counter-narcotic operations, however the Mexican Army have been observed using techniques learnt from the US military against the EZLN in Chiapas.

From the initial uprising the EZLN has publicised their struggle using the printed media and the internet. The writings of Subcommandante Marcos are available in many different editions and languages. The Chiapas conflict has become a celebrated cause for many activists across the world and has, in part, been shaped by the involvement of activists. The Mexican Army's ceasefire has been attributed to the protests in Mexico's urban centres far away from the Chiapas. The presence of peace observers mostly drawn from Zapatista support groups in the USA and Europe, as well as Mexico itself, is thought to have prevented excessive violence and intimidation by the Mexican army in Chiapas.

So well-known across the world is the name and image of the Zapatista that co-operatives in the Zapatista communities are producing and marketing their own brand of coffee which is distributed in Europe through various ethical shopping outlets. In 1994 The Independent (1 March) reported that Zapatista t-shirts, dolls and even condoms bearing an image of Marcos and the word 'uprising' have been marketed. In 2001, workers of a trendy clothing shop in Covent Garden selling Zapatista-inspired merchandise spray-painted Zapatista imagery and slogans on walls around major shopping areas in central London as well as dressing up as Zapatista guerrillas to hand out advertising material.
For socialists there are several encouraging things about the Zapatista movement: their apparent reliance on direct democracy and the solidarity shown to them by workers across the world. However, it is clear that the Zapatistas think their rallying cry of 'democracy, liberty and justice' can be fulfilled whilst the greatest amount of wealth, all it commands, and that we all depend upon remains in the hands of a minority.

So are we all Zapatistas? The workers and peasants of Chiapas have experienced some of the worst poverty and violence that humans have inflicted on each other. Workers across the world experience poverty and violence to some extent on a daily basis it is the common bond that transcends national boundaries. This feature of our class-based society, an inevitable result of the social relation of worker to capital, has never been abolished by national liberation, state capitalism or 'good' government. The Zapatistas' desire for real democracy is commendable, however, this should not be limited to defence of perceived or actual gains within capitalist society but for the abolition of capitalism and establishment of world socialism.
Piers Hobson

Why Read Marx Today? (2004)

Book Review from the February 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why Read Marx Today? By Jonathan Wolff, Oxford University Press paperback, 2003.

There are many introductory books of this type, although this is much better than most. It accurately summarizes Marx's thought for university students. But why read Marx today, other than for academic interest? Wolff does a good job of locating Marx's thought in the context of the nineteenth century, but is less successful when dealing with Marx's relevance to the twenty-first century. For example, Wolff's assessment - and dismissal - of Marx's theory of history relies heavily on GA Cohen's functionalist interpretation in his book Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (1978). If, instead of Cohen's determinist interpretation, Wolff had located the class struggle as the motor of history, he might have reached a different assessment.

Was the Russian revolution of November 1917 in any sense Marxist? Wolff doubts it and refers to us: "Certainly this was the view of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who now boast that they condemned the Russian revolution as 'non-Marxist' within its first 24 hours."

Wolff provides no evidence for this allegation. Perhaps he is thinking of the jibe by the SWPer David Widgery in his 1976 book The Left in Britain 1956-1968 which makes a similarly daft claim about the Socialist Party. For the record, the Socialist Party did not reject the Russian revolution "within its first 24 hours". Our initial reaction was supportive of the Bolshevik decision to withdraw from the futile carnage of World War One. Our first analysis of the November 1917 revolution appeared in the Socialist Standard in August 1918. Hardly a rush to judgement. Nevertheless, the conclusion was unambiguous: "What justification is there, then, for terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution? None whatever beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claim to be Marxian Socialists". (See our archives).

On a more general point, it should be noted that over the past few decades it has become increasingly common to find books on Marx and Marxism which take our side of the argument, unless they have a Leninist axe to grind. Here is the example of another "What Marx really meant" book which discusses Marx's concept of socialism in ways which could easily have come from the pages of the Socialist Standard, only the author does it purely on the basis of what Marx actually said. Of course time has moved on and the Socialist Party has stated its own differences with Marx and developed his thought further, and made its own contributions to socialist theory. Yet we can agree with Wolff that "we can safely conclude that the world has not (yet?) seen a Marxist revolution."
Lew Higgins

What is Class

Book Review from the January 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Industrial Nation. Work, Culture and Society in Scotland, 1800-present. By W. W. Knox. Edinburgh University Press.


This is a history of the working class in Scotland - or, more accurately, as the title suggests, of the "traditional" working class, i.e. manual, in fact essentially skilled manual, workers in mining and heavy industry - by a professional historian.


These days there are plenty of people who say that class is irrelevant and that in fact it never was. Knox is not amongst these (after all, he is a former member of the Socialist Party). Clearly, since 1800 a section of society has seen itself as constituting "the working class(es)" and in the 20th century this found expression on the political field in the Labour Party (literally, the party of Labour). It is true that the Labour Party never was a revolutionary, socialist party but merely sought a better deal for the working class within capitalism. In this, however, it accurately reflected the views of those who voted for it and otherwise generally supported it.


This may not have been how Marx envisaged things developinghe expected the working class to develop from a mere economic category (a "class in itself") into a revolutionary political actor (a "class for itself")but at least the process started even if it did get stuck on route as it were. A "class consciousness" did develop among particular sections of the working class but this did not develop into a revolutionary socialist consciousness. It stopped at trade-unionism and Labourism, the idea and practice of the working class as a class within capitalism but which wanted a better deal within this system, not to replace it with a classless and exploitation-free society. Indeed, there is a school of thought which argues that thisincorporation of the working class into the political structures of capitalist societyhas been the historic role, even the conscious aim, of trade unions and the Labour Party.


So, even if a working class "for itself" has never developed, a class consciousness of a lesser sort did, and it is this that Knox studies in relation to Scotland. In contrast to England, a number of differences stand out. First, partly as a result of the Highland clearances, anti-landlordism was more widespread in Scotland, reflected in the domination of the Liberal Party there up to 1914. Second, emigration of both Protestants and Catholics from Ireland kept alive religious sectarianism. Third, there was the ILP, the Independent Labour Party.


Knox argues that the ILP inherited the programme of radical Liberalism (anti-landlordism, Scottish Home Rule, republicanism, pacifism, teetotalism, and municipal "socialism") and was largely an expression of the views of the apprentice-trained skilled craft workers, who were male and, due to discrimination against Catholics, Protestant. They were respectable workers who didn't drink or swear or beat their wife (or so we are told) and considered themselves a cut above the rest of the working class who lived in slums and worked as labourers or depended on the poor law. Until 1932 the ILP was to all intents and purposes the Labour Party in Scotland, but in that year it committed political suicide by disaffiliating from Labour and trying to go it alone.


Knox sees the disaffiliation of the ILP as a key event in the history of Labour in Scotland because it meant thatin a sense, provided the opportunity forthe Labour Party to reconstitute itself on a new and different basis, as a party which rejected pacifism, Home Rule and republicanism and which embraced state intervention, including nationalisation at UK level, as the way forward; in other words, a state capitalism run by remote planners and bureaucrats such as was implemented by the post-war Attlee Labour government and which has now come to be known as Old Labourism.


While many workers in England deserted Labour for Thatcher in the 1980s, workers in Scotland continued to support Labour. Knox explains this by the fact that many more workers in Scotland than in England are dependent on the state for jobs, housing and income and also by a continuing acceptance of the "core values of democracy, fairness and social justice" inherited from the radical Liberalism of the 19th century. In his view, this is why free-market Toryism will never get a look-in in Scotland and why, as Blair continues Thatcher's campaign against the "nanny State", the workers in Scotland may choose to express these underlying core values in some kind of radical nationalism.


One criticism of the book would be that it is a history only of one section of Marx's "working class in itself", i.e. the class of those forced by economic necessity to sell their ability to work in order to live, in that it ignores non-manual workers. Towards the end the amorphous term "middle class" even creeps in. These now even constitute a majority of the working class in itself. Indeed, it could be said that the reality behind the claim that "we're all middle class now" could be more accurately expressed by saying "we're all working class now".


Finally, a quibble perhaps, but surely Knox knows that the British Socialist Party (the reformist party which eventually provided the bulk of the members of the British Communist Party in 1921) was not, like the British Socialist Labour Party, a "splinter group" from the SDF. It was the name adopted by the SDF when in 1911 it merged with a breakaway from the ILP. Could it be that his proof-reader confused (as Lenin once did) the BSP with the SPGB (which could indeed be described as a "splinter group" from the SDF)?


Adam Buick

People's Capitalism

A short story from the January 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was that bloody advert in the Observer that started the discussion - well, more an argument. I confess that my ability for abstract thought is zero; my thoughts ascend like a ladder, each rung building on the last. Whatever Harry's ability in this area, I will never know because as soon as something occurs to him he blurts it out and, when he has said it, he sticks to it.

He called around early for me on Sunday. Because he likes to please Madge, he accepted her offer of a cup of tea - though, I'm convinced, she just offers him tea to punish him. At any rate, I was reading the Sports and he took up the Business section.

"How much were you earning in 1945?" he asked obtusely when I was no longer aware of him. My look having answered his question, he amended, "I mean what sort of wages do you think they would have paid a fitter in your place in 1945?"

"That was twenty years before my time. 1965 . . . time served . . . If I remember right, about fifteen, sixteen quid a week. Forty-five...? Inflation wasn't as bad as it was in the next twenty years. I would say a fitter would have been getting about a tenner in 1945. Why do you want to know?"

He heard me but now he was mentally absent and when I saw him taking his pen from his inside pocket I knew he was calculating another great discovery. I had learnt that there were only four points seperating Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier when he said, "I reckon that over the last fifty years a skilled craftsman would have earned, top nick, if he was never unemployed during that time a total of about £250,000". He spoke without commas, which proved I was right about the great discovery.

"Good! About twice the hours and half the annual wage of a decent company director. You should have been a statistician; you're a mine of useless information. You can be pretty sure of one thing: if your skilled tradesman is still living he's an impoverished old-age pensioner."

"That's what I'm talking about", he said mysteriously. It was no good, I put the paper down and laid bare my attention. "I mean, if in 1945 our man had invested £1,000, according to this here ad", he indicated the paper in his hand, "he'd be almost a bloody millionaire now!"

Rising, he placed the newspaper on my knee, folded to show the advertisement around which he had penned a number of calculations. "H'm", I said, probably a few times for I am slow at figures, but it seemed straightforward enough. I knew I was avoiding the main thrust of his argument when I said, "And where the hell was a tradesman earning a tenner a week and - if he was married - needing twenty - going to get a thousand quid in 1945?"

His brow puckered, troubled. "All the same . . . " he limped verbally. The idea lurked beneath the surface, cheating his ability to express it. "Just think, if my oul fella had stuck a couple of grand in that scheme for me, when I was born in 1954, I'd be walkin' in roses now. Jesus! Ma said he had to borrow twenty quid to get married! Just a couple of grand and I'd be telling you how smart I was in my selection of an oul fella!"

Later, when we left for the pub, Harry was still unusually quiet. I say "later" because after the last reported speech he had dried up and I knew that the great discovery was incubating in his head. When we got to the pub, Robert was there; we knew he would be and that should have made us go to the Golden Hind. Robert is truly a pretentious bastard - but old habits . . . Harry remained in quietude and Robert regaled me with exciting snippets from his world of insurance.

"Jim, just listen to this". I knew the prototype of the great idea was emerging and I knew, too, that Robert was not being invited to consider it. "I have been thinking . . . "

"Always dangerous the first time!'" quipped Robert. Despite being nasty he always tried to be friendly and he just laughed when Harry feigned surprise at his continued presence.

"The Labour Party was wrong to establish the Welfare State in 1945 and nationalise all them industries."

I said, "That discovery wouldn't have got you through the Eleven-Plus!"

Robert said, "Still, some marks for twenty-twenty hindsight".

I doubt if Harry heard us. "No, funnily enough, it was that ad in the Observer today that made me think of it. If the Labour crowd had left things alone and, instead of giving billions to all them rich bastards for their run-down industries, had invested a thousand pounds for every new baby born, from 1945, say, in that scheme that was advertised, within twenty-five years they, - I mean the government - could have started extracting the ongoing baby subsidy from the profits of the scheme, Not only would the government get its money back but, today, all the over-fifties would have enough money not only to live very comfortably but to ensure that their off-spring was looked after".

Robert's face flashed his intentions but his comments were stilled by Harry; he raised his arm impatiently: "Oh, aye, and as well . . ." the idea in its unfolding was expanding; "the people as they grew old and died off would be leaving millions to their heirs. Everybody would be a capitalist and none of us would have to work".

It seemed as though the noises off conspired with our silence to create a requiem for Harry's confidence. He looked quizzically at Robert and me for a few seconds then he said, lamely, "Well, what's wrong with it? It couldn't have been worse than it is now".

Robert said, "But it could", and the simplicity of his rebuttal was devastating. "You know what would have happened, Harry?" he continued, "You'd be standing there now with a big box containing thousand pound notes - part of the millions your dad and your uncle left you and - allowing that a pub still existed - when the barman asked you to pay for the drink you'd have to use a ruler to measure the number of notes you had to give him".

As I said, I don't think that well away from the ordinary but someone had to ask and Harry wasn't going to make a greater fool of himself. I looked knowingly from one to the other, "You'd better tell him why, Robert".

He seemed to accept that I knew and turned to Harry. "Because if everybody was a capitalist there wouldn't be a working class to produce all the goods and services we need. You don't seriously think that money produces wealth, Harry? Take the racket I'm in, insurance - or finance, banking, the stock exchange, even most of the other functions that millions of workers have to do to keep capitalism ticking over - these activities don't produce any real wealth. All the money shuffling business is simply associated with diverting wealth from those who produce it into the hands - or the bank accounts - of a parasite class of non-wealth producing capitalists".

"But you need capitalists to . . . well, to . . . everybody knows you need capital". Harry couldn't find his reasons; he looked desperately at me for support but I was having flashes of insight. Cleverly, I said, "A box of bloody capital on a coal mine wouldn't bring up much coal".

Robert, more animated than usual, added, "Bloody right! Anyway, stocks, shares, bonds and all the other paper crap is about winners and losers and if the horses weren't running there would be no betting".

Harry was still discomfited. Robert looked knowingly at me and I felt close to him. Funny how wrong you can be about people.

Richard Montague

Sylvia Pankhurst on Future Society (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

This article, "The Future Society", was originally published in the IWW journal, One Big Union Bulletin on the 2 August 1923.

The words Socialism and Communism have the same meaning. They indicate a condition of society in which the wealth of the community: the land and the means of production, distribution and transport are held in common, production being for use and not for profit.

Socialism being an ideal towards which we are working, it is natural that there should be some differences of opinion in that future society. Since we are living under Capitalism it is natural that many people's ideas of Socialism should be coloured by their experiences of life under the present system. We must not be surprised that some who recognise the present system is bad should yet lack the imagination to realise the possibility of abolishing all the institutions of Capitalist society. Nevertheless there can be no real advantage in setting up a half-way-house to socialism. A combination of Socialism and Capitalism would produce all sorts of injustice, difficulty and waste. Those who happen to suffer under the anomalies would continually struggle for a return to the old system.

Full and complete Socialism entails the total abolition of money, buying and selling, and the wages system.

It means the community must set itself the task of providing rather more than the people can use of all the things that the people need and desire, and of supplying these when and as the people require them.

Any system by which the buying and selling system is retained means the employment of vast sections of the population in unproductive work. It leaves the productive work to be done by one portion of the people whilst the other portion is spending its energies in keeping shop, banking, making advertisements and all the various developments of commerce which, in fact, employ more than two-thirds of the people today.

Given the money system, the wage system is inevitable. If things needed and desired are obtainable only by payment those who do the work must be paid in order that they may obtain the means of life. The wages system entails such institutions as the old-age pension, sick and unemployment insurance and widow's pensions, or the Poor Law, and probably plus the Poor Law. These involve large numbers of people drawn from productive work to do purely administrative work. Thus useless toil is manufactured, and the burden of non-producers maintained by the productive workers is increased.

Moreover social conditions are preserved which are quite out of harmony with Communist fraternity.

The wage system makes the worker's life precarious. The payment of wages entails the power to dismiss the worker by an official or officials.

So long as the money system remains, each productive enterprise must be run on a paying basis.

Therefore it will tend to aim at employing as few workers as possible, in order to spend less on wages. It will also tend to dismiss the less efficient worker who, becoming unemployed, becomes less efficient. Thus an unemployable class tends to grow up.

The existence of a wage system almost inevitably leads to unequal wages; overtime, bonuses, higher pay for work requiring special qualifications. Class distinctions are purely differences of education, material comfort and environment.

Buying and selling by the Government opens the door to official corruption. To check that, high salaried positions are created in order that those occupying them have too much to lose to make pilfering and jobbery worth while.

Animals For Profit

From the August 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nearly two hundred years ago Percy Bysshe Shelley, famous for powerful, provocative poetry such as Queen Mab, The Masque of Anarchy, The Ode to Liberty, Prometheus Unbound as well as prose writings describing humans' exploitation of their fellows, felt compelled to write of the cruelty inflicted on livestock:

"How unwarrantable is the injustice and barbarity which is exercised towards these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery" (quoted in R D Ryder Animal Revolution).

Shelley was not alone in recognising the plight of other animals, and in the year of his death, 1822, the Animal Protection Act was passed. It was the first such piece of legislation in the world and outlawed cruelty to horses, sheep and cattle. Soon afterwards, in 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, its inspectorate preceding the establishment of the British state police by two years.

Since those distant days, and despite the growth of vegetarianism, at first amongst the bourgeoisie, the explosion of animal rights groups, the passing of reams of related legislation, the cruelty which so shocked Shelley has evolved and today affects billions of animals in ways of which even Mary, his wife and author of Frankenstein, could not possibly have conceived.

The author of Animal Farm, George Orwell, commenting on the genesis of this work, stated: "Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat". But neither he nor the Shelleys envisaged a world in which humans and other animals are harvested for their organs – the plight of the poverty-stricken individual selling one of their kidneys or the transgenic pig. All three authors would have been familiar with the horrors of war and the use of cavalry, but what of specially-trained dolphins and sea lions being sent to the latest scene of mass murder in the Middle East? In Wales, Percy Shelley is reputed to have killed several sheep he found suffering terribly, much to the ire of local shepherds. No doubt he would have been shocked by the modern practice of winter shearing, which has been found to "provide farmers with fatter and, hence, more valuable sheep to take to market, it also allows them to squeeze more animals on the trucks that take them there"(Sunday Times, 6 December 1998).

Ruth Harrison, author of Animal Machines (1964), recognised that sheep and other livestock are raised in ways designed to cut production costs to the bone, with little or no regard for the consequent suffering. Commenting on animal farming methods, Harrison observed:

"The first instinct the farmer frustrates in all animals . . . is that of the newborn animal turning to its mother for protection and comfort and, in some cases, for food. The chick comes out of the incubator and never sees a hen; the calf which is to be fattened for veal or beef is taken from the cow at birth, or very soon after; and even the piglet is weaned far earlier now than it used to be. The factors controlling this are mainly economic" (our emphasis).

Mulesing is just one specific example of a cruel practice carried out for reasons of profit and involves the use of sharp shears to remove the very wrinkled skin from around the anus of Merino sheep. This procedure, the purpose of which is make them less susceptible to fly-strike (maggots like warm, moist and food-rich conditions) is carried out as rapidly as possible. This is not to minimise suffering – an anaesthetic would be employed if that were the case – but because time is money. And let us not forget that Merino sheep have been bred this way on purpose: more wrinkles means more wool. Harrison, who died just three years ago, was a campaigner for animal welfare who exposed the horrors of intensive farming. As the Times (5 July 2002) put it in their obituary of her:


"Harrison drew attention to changes in breeding, feeding and housing that aimed at ever greater production at whatever cost to the animals' well-being. As many as 20,000 broiler chickens could be kept in a shed together. Egg-laying hens were kept five to a cage, each with floorspace smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. Other poor creatures were kept in isolation, unable to turn around in their crates or cages. Furthermore, Harrison described the routine use of farm operations such as castration, tail-docking, beak-trimming and de-horning."

By the time of Orwell's death in 1950, more and more of the small farms in the UK were being consumed by the factory variety. For the animals and workers involved farming became even more unpleasant. Today, in the UK alone over 750 million cattle, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, geese and rabbits are slaughtered annually. Pollution of the environment as a result of farming intensively for profit is massive: millions of tonnes of a potent, noxious cocktail containing nitrites, antibiotics, heavy metals, pesticides and parasites are washed into UK rivers each year. Farm animals are also the second largest source of the greenhouse gas methane. BSE and its human-variant CJD are just two of the diseases attributable to the production of animals as food items produced for sale with a view to profit.

How have the reformists reacted to these issues? Some, like the RSPCA for example, have of late pushed the concept of "freedom foods". Essentially, this is the Orwellesque name for a marketing exercise in which products from certain farms are given the seal of approval if they offer slightly less intolerable conditions for the animals involved. But cut-throat competition does not guarantee animal machines even this basic standard.

Another long-established organisation, the League Against Cruel Sports, hoped Labour would listen to its plea to, as Wilde put it, stop the unspeakable chasing the uneatable. In a letter to the Times (24 May 1997) the Chairman, John Cooper, wrote: "The Labour Government, which has at its heart the development of a moral, caring, compassionate society, instinctively rejects any activity which results in the needless and gratuitous carnage that is the hallmark of the hunt."

This display of breathtaking ignorance was followed more recently by a contribution of just over £1 million from the International Fund for Animal Welfare to Labour Party coffers as an inducement to have more animal-friendly laws. But such legislation is slow to come, rarely enforced and often ineffective. The battery cages which Harrison wrote about will not be banned in Europe before 2012. Veal crates, banned in the UK in 1990, continue elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, for some concerned groups this legal approach is frustratingly slow. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest group of its kind in the world with over 350,000 members and a multi-million dollar yearly budget, has undertaken a variety of propaganda activities that its older cousins would be unlikely to consider – one campaign involved naked women – but it is still on the reformist misery-go-round: writing, for instance, to the Ministry of Defence with the suggestion that the Grenadier Guards use fake fur in their helmets.

More worryingly, PETA's president, Ingrid Newkirk, is on record as stating "mankind is the biggest blight on the face of the earth". Such misanthropy is not uncommon amongst animal "rights" activists. Many would never support giving poultry workers, for example, a few more crumbs or better conditions. One wonders how such misanthropes reacted to the news that in March 1992 twenty-five people, mostly female immigrants, died when a North Carolina chicken "processing plant" burned. The owners of the plant had blocked the fire exits to ensure that the workers did not try to steal any chickens. But twenty-five deaths are nowhere near enough for Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front:

"True animal liberation would mean massive changes in society. You would have to have deindustrialisation. The problem is the extent of the human population together with industrialisation. The impact of those two things together means that other animal species are oppressed. The human population needs to be drastically reduced" (Guardian Weekend, December 5 1998).

Truly a dystopia worthy of Orwell. Little surprise then that such groups are attracting the attention of fascists. But what is the socialist response? Well, in our literature we regularly expose the futility of reformism and counter such nonsense as overpopulation. A huge task indeed, but sometimes help comes from unexpected sources. The Meat and Livestock Commission, in reply to the question of whether eating meat deprives the Third World of grain, stated:


"There is already a world surplus of grain and so if it was simply a matter of availability of grain supplies then there would not be a problem. The problem of hunger lies in poverty and not availability" (their emphasis, quoted in the Socialist Standard, January 1993).

Further, we contend that humans and other animals do not have rights (see "Do Animals Have Rights?", Socialist Standard, April 1995), but this does not stop some socialists responding to the cruelty that the profit system inflicts on the vast majority by becoming vegetarian or vegan. The Socialist Party, however, does not have a position on this but would agree with William Morris that "a man can hardly be a sound Socialist who puts forward vegetarianism as a solution of the difficulties between labour and capital, as some people do" (Commonweal, 25 September 1886).

Those who advocate animal rather than human liberation put the cart before the horse! Marjorie Spiegel in The Dreaded Comparison – Human and Animal Slavery draws many emotive comparisons between the way animals past and present are used and the lives of slaves in, largely, pre-civil war USA. She has nothing to say about wage slavery. In the global capitalist system which robs, slaughters and degrades, we, as socialists, are the Human Defence Society. We say:

"Cruelty to animals will go the way of all forms of cruelty, when a real civilised existence becomes a possibility to everyone" (Socialist Standard, February 1926, in an article on the Animal Defence Society).

Robert Stafford

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dave Zirin: What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.

Book Review from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dave Zirin: What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.  Haymarket Books, US$15.00.

What a refreshing change to read a book about sport that isn't a vapid (auto)biography of some 'star' or a jingoistic celebration of the triumph of some national team! Zirin accepts that sport can be used to stop workers from worrying about things that really matter, but also sees how the passion invested in sport can turn it into a site of resistance, an arena where some of the dominant ideas of society can be challenged. While this is something of an exaggeration, his book is still well worth a read.

Zirin traces various kinds of resistance within American sports, concentrating to begin with on opposition to racism. Professional baseball was segregated for decades; not until 1946, when Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, did a black American play in a Major League team. Robinson was subjected to horrendous barracking and threats from opposing players and fans, but his ability eventually got him accepted. His criticism of Paul Robeson and his support for the Republican Party show him as a complex individual who was seen by many later black radicals as a 'white man's Negro', but Zirin argues that Robinson's contribution to opposing racism should be respected.

Of course, integrating baseball did not put an end to racism. While still known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali went into a Kentucky restaurant with his 1960 Olympic boxing gold medal around his neck and was refused service. Zirin examines Ali's career, from reviled and persecuted athlete to his current status as 'a harmless, helpful icon'. The book's title comes from what Ali yelled at ex-champion Floyd Patterson, who fought him as a 'patriotic duty' (Patterson was a Catholic in contrast to Ali as a Black Muslim). He was drafted into the army, and his response was 'I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong', at a time when there was little opposition to the US war in Vietnam. As with Robinson, Ali became a 'safe', almost establishment figure, but his earlier legacy is the one that many remember.

If Ali's remark about the Vietcong is famous, probably the best-known image of this period is from the 1968 Olympics, when medal-winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the rostrum when the US anthem was played. As Zirin notes, they also wore no shoes (to protest against black poverty) and wore beads (to protest against lynching). They were stripped of their medals and sent home. Zirin interviews Carlos, who for some years had problems earning a living (his wife committed suicide in 1977).

Clearly it took some courage for these individuals (and many others less well known) to stand up for their beliefs, especially in the face of the general conformity of American society. The same goes for those who support better treatment for gay and female athletes. Zirin reminds us that people can be bigoted in one way but not another: American footballer Reggie White spoke up against white supremacist groups and worked to help drug addicts and ex-convicts, yet he was appallingly homophobic, equating gays with child molesters.

And what of class? This gets relatively little look-in. Unsurprisingly, most owners of professional clubs are extremely wealthy, including George W Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Professional sport is the tenth largest industry in the US. Aside from a few megabuck-earners, most athletes earn relatively little, and have a shorter life expectancy than average. Baseball players have a strong union, which helped to increase wages and has a reputation for not backing down.

Zirin ends with the reflection that sport could be more cooperative, without the cash incentive and the will to win at all costs, with far less distance between an average person and a star. But, as he says, 'This would require a completely different world.' While his book doesn't elaborate on this alternative, it should at least make you think a bit more about the role of sport under capitalism.
Paul Bennett

Friday, February 24, 2006

Out of the Abyss (1999)

Book from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The People of the Abyss. By Jack London, Pluto Press, 1998.

First published in 1903, this has now been re-issued as a Pluto Classic, with the 1977 introduction by Jack Lindsay. Lindsay hails The People of the Abyss, along with The Iron Heel (1907), as "the two works in which [London] most fully uttered his socialist faith and integrated his vision". There is no doubt of the horror of his descriptions of life amongst the workers of the East End of London and the powerful impact which his experiences had both on him and on generations of his readers. Upton Sinclair described how "for years afterwards the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted [London] beyond all peace".

It is as a record of a society polarised between the "sickly and underfed" and the "riotous and rotten" that London's book acquired the reputation of a "socialist classic". The photographs which accompanied the original publication are particularly striking (some of these are reproduced in The Streets of East London by William J Fishman). But to those with more than a passing knowledge of the East End, it is a partial picture. London's aim in writing this book was to focus on the conditions experienced by the homeless, destitute and unemployed. Members of the "respectable" working class featured only in so far as they lived in the constant shadow of destitution.

The result is a portrayal of such unremitting degradation that London (and his contemporary American readership) were unable to bridge the gulf between themselves and those whose lives he described. These became "a noisome rotten tide of humanity", "a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts". These are not the phrases of empathy with fellow workers, but of fear and loathing of outcast people. Large sections of the population were not mentioned by London at all, such as the Jewish community in Whitechapel (where he undertook most of his investigations) and the Chinese community in Limehouse. This may have had more than a little to do with London's self-declared racism: "I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist". Or not a socialist at all . . .

Furthermore, as an analysis of how to get out of the abyss, the book is on shaky ground. The thread of outrage that runs through the book culminates in a chapter on "The Management" in which London addresses the question of whether "Civilisation bettered the lot of the average man". Despite it having vastly increased "producing power" (the means of generating wealth), civilisation (by which he meant the British Empire) had singularly failed to share this wealth equitably. This was due, he argued, to the criminal mismanagement of the economy by its ruling class. As a consequence, London judged that the slum dwellers of the East End lived in conditions worse than animals, and far worse than did the Inuit people, with whom he was familiar from his travels in Alaska. His conclusion was that "society must be reorganised and a capable management put at its head".

This is weak to say the least, after such a vivid portrait of poverty, and it is certainly not the socialist case. The clearest statement of London's political philosophy emerges from his discussions with the carter and the carpenter. Dismissing their talk of revolution as the talk of "anarchists, fanatics and madmen", he declared an "evolutionary belief in the slow development and metamorphosis of things". And he reserved his greatest praise, not for any socialist orator or trade unionist, but for Dr Barnardo and his work with the children of the poor (or, "the progeny of the gutter folk"). London's anger and his moral outrage on behalf of the poor were genuine and passionately expressed. He understood the relationship which existed (and still exists) between the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor. He also understood the futility of addressing poverty as an individual failing rather than a social condition. But none of this makes The People of the Abyss a socialist vision, for we will not climb out of the abyss of capitalism by changing the management.

Helen Roberts

The Right To Be Lazy (2004)

From the January 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party has just republished this classic pamphlet by Paul Lafargue together with some of his other writings. Below is the introduction.
Paul Lafargue's classic socialist critique of the capitalist work ethic (applicable only to the working class) dates from 1883. This means that some of the bourgeois politicians and ideologues mentioned in the pamphlet have long since been, deservedly, forgotten, but it remains a powerful presentation of the case that what workers should be demanding is not the "right to work" under capitalism but the "right to leisure" in a socialist society, where machines could be used to lighten labour and free people to engage in activities of their choice.

In this sense the pamphlet is a criticism not just of the capitalist work ethic but also of reformists. Its original subtitle was "Refutation of the Right to Work of 1848", a reference to a demand raised by certain leftwing politicians under the Second French republic set up after the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in 1848. There is of course no such thing as the "right" to work under capitalismthe number of jobs on offer to workers depends on the ups and downs of the capitalist business cycle but, as Lafargue points out, even if there were it would be a "slave's right", the right to be exploited. This has not prevented Trotskyists and other reformists, as in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, launching campaigns demanding the "Right to Work". To which we in the Socialist Party responded, in true Lafargue tradition, by demanding "full unemployment".
To the extent that "Right to Work" campaigns receive the support of some workers this is not so much because they particularly want to work in a capitalist factory or office as because they want the higher income that usually comes from being employed rather than unemployed. It is a reflection of the fact that, in capitalist society, everybody has to have some means of obtaining money as this is required in order to get access to food, clothing, shelter and the other necessities of life. These have to bought, and to buy them you need money; which most of us can only obtain by selling our mental and physical energies to some employer for a wage or a salary, a state of affairs Lafargue did not hesitate to denounce as "wage-slavery".
The alternative, as Lafargue realised, made a practicable possibility thanks to the development of the forces of production, was for the wages system to be abolished and for both production and consumption to be free within the framework of a propertyless, classless, stateless and moneyless society which he called interchangeably communism or socialism.
Lafargue's approach to work in a socialist society - that it should be minimised - is only one of two possible socialist approaches to the question. While Lafargue emphasised the "Right to be Lazy" (or, less provocatively, the "Right to Leisure"), his contemporary fellow Socialist across the Channel, William Morris, was arguing that what workers should be demanding was what might be called the "Right to Attractive Work". As he put it:
"I claim that work in a duly ordered community should be made attractive by the consciousness of usefulness, by its being carried on with intelligent interest, by variety, and by its being exercised amidst pleasurable surroundings" (Useful Work versus Useless Toil, 1884).

The two different approaches suggest two different policies that might be pursued in a socialist society: maximum automatisation so as to minimise working time or making as much work as possible attractive and personally rewarding. Lafargue writes here of reducing the working day to 2 or 3 hours. Morris would not have seen the point of this even if he went on to claim above that "the day's work should not be wearisomely long" : if people were getting some enjoyment out of their work surely, on his view, they would want to engage in it for longer than a couple of hours or so a day. As this is not an issue that can be resolved in the abstract, all we can do is to leave the matter to be settled in socialist society in the light of the preferences of those living in it.
Today, Lafargue is known mainly for this particular pamphlet which enjoyed a huge revival in the 1960s and 70s when the capitalistic work ethic came under attack again. Before the First World War, however, he was more widely known as a Marxist thinker and populariser of Marx's views. When Charles H. Kerr of Chicago published an English translation of the pamphlet in 1907 they did so together with some other articles of his on other, different topics. They also published as separate books his The Evolution of Property and Social and Philosophical Studies. But even before these were published in English Lafargue was known to English-speaking opponents of capitalism as an intransigent revolutionary Socialist on the anti-reformist, anti-Revisionist wing of the international Social Democratic movement. It was as such that a number of articles of his were published at the time in the Socialist Standard, the journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. We are republishing these here as the second part of this pamphlet. All except the one on the Nineteenth Century (which was reprinted from the Socialist Herald of Milwaukee and which also appeared with a different title as one of the other article in the Kerr publication The Right to be Lazy and Other Studies) were original translations by members of the Socialist Party and have up to now not been readily available.
We have used the 1907 translation by Charles Kerr himself but have restored the original subtitle of "Refutation of the Right to Work of 1848" and corrected some of the footnotes. We have also added the letter, translated here into English for the first time, that Lafargue wrote to the L'Egalite where an earlier version of the text of the pamphlet first appeared as a series of articles in 1880.

Copies of the pamphlet can be obtained by sending a cheque for 1 pound 30 pence, made payable to 'The Socialist Party of Great Britain', to: The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High St, London, SW4 7UN.

More Lenin or Less? (2004)

From the January 2004 Socialist Standard

The Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia put the clock back in the sense that before the First World War the radical wing of the international Social Democratic movement was making progress towards positions similar to those of the Socialist Party in Britain but, after 1917, most of those involved were side-tracked into supporting the Bolsheviks. For many this was only a temporary dalliance, but the damage had been done. Crucially, when they were to break with the Bolshevik regime they did not entirely break with the Bolsheviks' ideas, regarding themselves as "leftwing communists" as they called themselves; in particular they accepted that the Russian revolution had been some sort of "working-class" revolution which had gone wrong but which still had some positive lessons for workers in the rest of Europe.

A recent pamphlet by Antagonism Press (c/o BM Makhno, London, WC1N 3XX), Bordiga versus Pannekoek, discusses and contrasts the later views of two pre-1914 Social Democratic radicals who had initially supported the Bolsheviks but fell out with them in the 1920s because they felt they had gone off the rails.

Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) is the more well-known in the English-speaking world, his pamphlet Marxism and Darwinism having been translated and published by Charles H. Kerr and Co before the First World War. He went on to become one of the world's leading astronomers and as such is the author of a History of Astronomy which applies Marx's materialist conception of history to the subject. His analysis of the failure of the Bolsheviks was that they had emasculated the soviets (or workers councils, soviet is just the Russian word for council) and instituted the rule of their party; which resulted in them becoming a new ruling class on the basis of a state capitalism. He later linked this with Lenin's crude materialism in Lenin as Philosopher.

During the Second World War, Pannekoek, who remained in Holland, used the time to write down his views in detail, which were published after as Workers Councils. Pannekoek was the best-known representative of "council communism", or the view that the workers' revolution (and the transition from capitalism to socialism/communism) should be carried out by workers democratically-organised in workers councils. Hence he is known in left-communist circles as a "councilist".

Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970) was the first leader of the Italian Communist Party when it was set up in 1921. His analysis of what went wrong in Russia was quite different from Pannekoek's. He had no criticism of the concept of the rule, even the iron dictatorship, of the party; his complaint was only that the Bolshevik party had ceased to be a genuine communist party. Since he clearly understood that socialism was a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society he never made the mistake of thinking that Russia had ever ceased to be capitalist. According to him, what happened when the Bolshevik party ceased to be a communist party (about 1926 with the eviction of Trotsky, whom he supported) was that Lenin's policy of state capitalism as "the development of capitalism under the control of the proletarian state" became simply the development of capitalism.

Bordiga believed, even more strongly than Lenin, that within capitalism a majority of the working class would never be able to develop a socialist consciousness; only a minority could, whose duty it was to lead the ignorant majority to socialism. Unlike Lenin who at least paid lipservice to the idea, Bordiga had nothing but contempt for the whole principle of democracy, denouncing it in the same terms as those Italian philosophers who justified Mussolini's rule (who, like Bordiga, had been a prominent figure in the leftwing of the pre-war Italian Socialist Party), i. e. as a mere counting of noses, as seeking the irrelevant opinion of the ill-informed and the ignorant, etc. Bordiga frankly advocated the dictatorship of an enlightened minority organised as a strictly centralised and disciplined vanguard party.

Needless to say, those in Pannekoek's tradition and those in Bordiga's have a mutual contempt for each other, the former regarding the latter as partisans of a new state capitalism and the latter regarding the former as muddled democrats and majoritarians standing for workers' self-management of capitalism. (Actually, there's a fair amount of truth in both criticisms).

Programme versus spontaneity?
Antagonism Press's 44-page booklet reproduces a short article by each of them, with their own 30-page introduction, on the question of "party and class", i. e. of whether the workers' revolution should be carried out by a party or by the whole class, or, from another angle, whether revolutionaries, when they are a minority as at present, should put forward a "programme" for adoption by the working class or whether they should rely on the working class "spontaneously" coming to act in its own interests. Antangonism regard this as a false opposition. So do we, though for different reasons (why can't a revolutionary minority organise today around a programme for adoption by the whole class tomorrow?)

But what were the arguments of the two protagonists? Pannekoek takes up an anti-parliamentary, anti-elections position, arguing that workers should ignore the state, elections and parliament and organise democratically in workers' councils based on their workplaces to carry out the revolution; basically, then, a syndicalist position. He rejects the idea both of a parliamentary party and of a vanguard party, seeing these as leadership organisations representing an embryonic new ruling class. However, he is not against the idea of a workers party, or rather of a number of workers parties as groups of "persons with the same fundamental conceptions [who] unite for the discussion of practical steps and seek clarification through discussions and propagandise their conclusions"; these would be "parties in an entirely different sense from those of today"; they would be "organs of the self-enlightenment of the working class by means of which the workers find their way to freedom", "means of propaganda and enlightenment". This is virtually the sense in which we see ourselves as a party at the present time.

Bordiga denounced such views as a variety of syndicalism and defended the idea of a minority, vanguard party which had to be prepared to ignore the ideas and wishes of the majority and push forward to try to seize power in an armed insurrection on behalf of their ignorant fellow-workers. So, Bordiga was not just anti-parliamentary, he was anti-democracy, an "anti-democratist" as might be said.

Bordiga's argument here is so outlandish as to require recording in more detail lest we be accused of exaggerating:
". . . never as a rule will the exploited, the starved and the underfed be able to convince themselves of the necessity of overthrowing the well-fed satiated exploiter laden with every resource and capacity. This can only be the exception. Bourgeois electoral democracy seeks the consultation of the masses, for it knows that the response of the majority will always be favourable to the privileged class and will readily delegate to that class the right to govern and to perpetuate exploitation . . . The bourgeoisie governs with the majority, not only of all the citizens, but also of the workers taken alone. Therefore if the party called on the whole proletarian mass to judge the actions and initiatives of which the party alone has the responsibility, it would tie itself to a verdict that would almost certainly be favourable to the bourgeoisie . . . The concept of the proletariat's right to command its own class action is only an abstraction devoid of any Marxist sense."
Against anti-democratism
Antagonism tries to combine both points of view, speaking of the need for a party in the broadest sense (similar to Pannekoek's idea of a variety of parties) while at the same time attacking democracy as a principle and defending minority political action (as opposed to minority propaganda and agitation). The impression comes through, however, that they are more favourable to Bordiga. Thus, they write:


"[Pannekoek] still holds to the mechanistic ideal that all workers – or all manual workers – will en masse become socialists, which is nonsense".

". . . a democratic power, even a democratic workers' power would put power in the hands of capital. Communism rejects workers' democracy and workers' power . . ."
When they refer to Bordiga's "tactical failings (e.g. on the question of unions)" and "his strengths (such as the critique of democracy)" they get it the wrong way round. From our point of view, Bordiga was right to say that workers should organise in unions (but wrong to say that his vanguard party should seek to capture and control them) and wrong about democracy.

Political democracy is not, or is not just, a trick whereby the capitalist class get the working class to endorse their rule; it is a potential instrument that the working class can turn into a weapon to use in ending capitalism and class rule. Democracy and majority decision-making must be the basic principle of both the movement to establish socialism and of socialist society itself. If a majority of workers really were as down-trodden and incapable of understanding socialism as Bordiga held, then socialism would be impossible since, by its very nature as a society based on voluntary cooperation, it can only come into being and work with the conscious consent and participation of the majority. Socialism just could not be imposed from above by an elite as envisaged by Bordiga. Democracy is not the mere counting of noses; it is the only principle of organisation compatible with a classless society.

So, if we were forced to choose between Bordiga and Pannekoek (which of course we're not) we would have to prefer Pannekoek with all his faults. He at least recognised that the working class must organise itself democratically, both to end capitalism and to run future society. His mistake was in being inconsistent in not realising that the principles of democratic organisation he recommended for his workers councils (mandated and revocable delegates) could equally applied on the political field, to the workers self-organised politically for socialism, i. e. to the workers' socialist party in the full sense.

But we wouldn't want to be regarded as "council communists". We are commending Pannekoek's "democratism" not his "councilism". Many if not most present-day "council communists" have yet to attain the same degree of understanding as Pannekoek. They really do stand for what Bordiga denounced them for: workers self-management of a market economy, i. e. for workers self-exploitation, and they are guilty (as was Pannekoek) of the charge of syndicalism that Bordiga levelled at them. On the other hand, we wouldn't want to touch Bordiga's super-Leninism with a barge-pole, even though he – and those in his tradition – have generally been much clearer on the non-monetary nature of socialism.

Adam Buick

Pathfinders (2006)

From the February 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard


YOOF CULTURE

Free radicals in mitochondrial DNA, the energy producing parts of cells, may be the cause of ageing (New Scientist, Jan 14, 2006). There is an understandably irresistible imperative to drive back the death horizon, but wouldn't it be better to create a life worth living before trying to extend it any further? For many people, death is the only possible way to beat the system. Eternal life in capitalism does not sound like fun, and we'd have to develop some pretty effective birth control systems too. But just how long would one want to live anyway? Would 300 lifespans create a race of super-educated highly motivated polymaths, or a rag-bag of apathetic and listless slugs too indolent even to wash?

FARTING FLOWERS
It has been discovered that plants emit large amounts of methane (New Scientist, Jan 14, 2006). Now let's wait for the discovery that politicians also emit methane, and embark on a mass cull for the good of our health. Seriously though, this is potentially disastrous, and in one stroke renders all available climate models useless. If the carbon sinks we were relying on are themselves contributing to global warming, the threshold to a runaway feedback effect may be now impossible to prevent. If the capitalist class succeed in destroying the ecology of this planet, the window of opportunity for the human species will close, and socialism or indeed any kind of advanced culture will become impossible. The urgency of revolution is not decreasing with time, but increasing.

FAKING IT
The recent furore in South Korea over the 'faked' results of the stem-cell research team headed by Woo Suk Hwang (New Scientist, Dec 24, 2005), has spiralled down into mutual recrimination amid more intensive probing into the past cloning work of the world famous team. This raises the question: would scientists or their researchers ever be disposed to fake results in socialism? Without the financial and status rewards that are capitalism's strong incentives, it's hard to see how. Who could own science in socialism, and therefore who could buy, sell, steal, corrupt, or profit personally from it? And therefore, what motive would any scientist have to lie? Socialism does not make people 'honest'. It just gives them no particular reason to be 'dishonest'.

THE ROOT OF ALL REASON
Is science the natural enemy of religion, or can they coexist? Religious scientists (they do exist) will obviously answer the latter, but many scientists, reared on evidence-based thinking, could no more tolerate the free-for-all that is 'faith' than they could walk on water. Few scientists however bother to get up and attack superstition in so many words, it being considered beneath them.

Richard Dawkins has never been one to keep his views to himself, and the militant monarch of evolutionary biology has just recently been waging war on 'the religious virus' on UK TV (The Root of all Evil? Jan 9 & 16, Channel 4). This somewhat overambitious project to lay waste the world's religions in two hours flat ended up being frankly underwhelming. Truth is, our Richard suffers the same problem as a lot of socialists he's so rational he doesn't really comprehend the nature of what he's dealing with, and this is a serious disadvantage when the argument goes nose to nose. The religious types, having had a logic-ectomy, are impervious to all the gigantic contradictions in their own world-view, and thus perform well, talk impressively, and look confident. Richard, on the other hand, clearly didn't go into these interviews properly prepared. Too long among real thinking humans who play by the rules of debate, he looked as shocked, baffled and bemused as somebody being addressed by a talking baboon in a dress. The effect, sadly, was that the zealots constantly seemed to get the better of him. It should not have been difficult for a scientist to make a fundamentalist bigot look the fool that he is (even accusing the scientist of arrogance, which was a nice touch), but one had the feeling that Dawkins actually was being a tad arrogant in his approach, imagining that reason and the scientific method were all the weapons he would need. Socialists, who have a lot more experience of this sort of debate, could have told him it wasn't going to be that easy. These people just don't roll over and die when calmly presented with the facts. The only thing to do is go for the jugular, make them squirm, make them angry, and then enjoy the fun. Instead, it was Dawkins who was too angry, and Dawkins who wasn't thinking straight. And in indulging his exquisite loathing of the religious 'meme' he made an even bigger mistake, from a socialist point of view, in imagining that 'for good people to do evil things, it takes religion'. It doesn't, it takes capitalist class society. The Nazis didn't kill for religious reasons, and contrary to what Dawkins supposes, suicide bombing was not invented by religious extremists but by Leninists (the Tamil Tigers). In fact, new research that Dawkins ought to have known about shows that for someone to become a suicide bomber takes no extreme belief-system at all (New Scientist, July 23, 2005).

But why attack religion on TV, and why now? Dawkins does not really explain, but the answer lies in a secondary school in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a celebrated federal court case has made headlines around America for weeks. Dawkins, with many other biologists, was incensed that the school board of governors ruled that Intelligent Design should be taught in science lessons alongside evolution, as if it had equal scientific validity. In America, ID cannot be taught in 'religious lessons' separately because such lessons are outlawed by the First Amendment, which separates Church from State. Thus, religion is smuggled in by other means. However, the parents weren't having it, and sued the school, and in the end the parents won and the governors had to resign, their defence team having made themselves look ridiculous in court, equating ID with astrology. So why wasn't Dawkins himself called as a witness for the prosecution, one wonders? He would have jumped at it. The surprising answer is that the parents didn't want him, for the even more surprising reason that, defenders of evolution though they were, they were Christians themselves. Even among religious people there is clearly only so much unreason they can take.

So should scientists really worry about a new-age fundamentalism wiping out all progress and knowledge, burning the libraries of Alexandria and plunging the world into the long night of ignorance, fear and superstition? Well, they can worry, but there's really no need to be paranoid. Religion has had to do all the hard work of accommodating more and more scientific progress, which is why mature religions tend to become ever vaguer and more metaphorical, and there's no prospect, save nuclear Armageddon, of the world's knowledge being lost again. Progress is progress, and it will stand. Dawkins can vent his spleen, and he is right to do so, but fear of a new order of god-driven moral extremism is probably taking things a little too far. And blaming the ills of the world on sad delusionals merely deflects attention away from the real problem the divisive effect of class and its social relations.