Friday, February 24, 2006
The Socialist Party has just republished this classic pamphlet by Paul Lafargue together with some of his other writings. Below is the introduction.
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".
"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).
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.
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.
". . . 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."
"[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 . . ."
From the October 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
The main purpose of the demonstration was to highlight 'unfairness' in WTO rules, perceived as defending the domination of the industrialised countries over the undeveloped countries. The protesters represented a broad spectrum of opinion however; ranging from human rights and pro-democracy groups to environmental, religious and labour activists each having their own agenda and motives for demonstrating. Some decried the inhuman conditions imposed on undeveloped countries by 'structural adjustment packages', others the composition of the WTO with its unelected officials. Certain groups condemned the savage exploitation of child labour while others opposed the dumping of toxic waste in undeveloped countries. Other sections opposed 'free trade' although interestingly it was claimed the majority of protesters were in favour of international trade but critical of the 'unfairness' of the current model of 'free trade'; believing that free trade is beneficial to all if only it can be made 'fair'. Existing trade agreements, they argued, were seriously skewed because only the 'developed' nations have benefited while poverty and social inequality have grown rapidly in developing countries.
Cause and effect
We cannot hope to understand world events unless we view these from a class, rather than national, perspective. We live in a world where the dominant world economic system is capitalism, a system that has organised all people into two opposing classes with conflicting interests. The owning or capitalist class lives on profits by virtue of its ownership of the means of producing and distribution wealth. It is their class interest to depress wages and benefits to increase profits. The working class everywhere has nothing and therefore is forced to sell its labour power for a wage or salary in order to live. But the source of all wealth is the product of labour applied to nature, and the very people who produce this wealth are denied access to it by laws and ultimately the state. Government's function is to protect the capitalist class and its legal 'right' to accumulate the wealth created by ordinary working people. The two classes thus have opposing and conflicting interests.
The central imperative of capitalism is to expand and to seek new ways of extracting more profit from ordinary working people by seeking out raw material and markets and imposing itself on the people of other countries; transforming indigenous self-supporting people into wage and salary workers. People everywhere are compelled to join the ranks of the world's working class to face the same class struggles as their fellow workers in the industrialised countries. We share a common interest.
It cannot be denied that capitalism has entered a particularly pernicious phase in its development – euphemistically called 'globalisation' – in undeveloped countries as large corporations viciously compete globally to secure markets and relentlessly exploit labour in countries where they reputedly earn 75 percent of their profits. But exploitation is not just confined to undeveloped countries. Working people everywhere are on the defensive against the class whose imperative is to maximise its profits and perpetuate their mastery over all working people. There can be little doubt that the wages and salaries of the majority of people in industrialised countries have stagnated or declined, working hours and job insecurity have increased and conditions of life have deteriorated. The correlation between economic growth and improving social welfare has been cut as corporations seek to introduce 'Third World' standards into the established industrialised countries. We share a common interest.
The Seattle protesters did not share this view of the world. The real enemy is class society engendering the domination of ordinary working people by the class who live by making profits. Countries don't dominate or exploit other countries; the capitalist class who own the companies and corporations assisted by their respective governments exploit the working class everywhere, regardless of their geographical location. Working people don't benefit from the ruthless exploitation of undeveloped countries; companies and corporations benefit by maximising their profits for their shareholders. Ordinary workers don't import or export commodities; companies and corporations owned by the capitalist class export commodities in order to release the profit generated for them by the world's working class. Ordinary workers don't make trade rules; governments working to further the interests of companies and corporations draft these rules. Ordinary workers don't invest in other countries or claim 'free trade' is an impetus for global prosperity; companies and corporations invest in order to generate 'super-profits' and it is they as a class who prosper, not ordinary working people. Ordinary working people don't live on profits; instead, they struggle on a wage or salary. We have a conflict of interests.
Workers don't benefit
When the Seattle protesters demanded less corporate investment and exploitation of undeveloped countries they were intimating that the indigenous population would be better placed if left to its own devices. This is a delusion; less interference from 'foreign' capital would simply allow the indigenous capitalist class or even the state to take over the exploitation of the indigenous working people. The same is true of struggles against colonialism, demands for national liberation, independence and the right of national self-determination. These movements are no more than the struggles of an indigenous capitalist class, striving to gain the right to exploit ordinary workers in their own country. Worker support for such movements is based on the misapprehension that it is somehow less painful to be exploited by someone born in the same country than by a foreign corporation. Workers have no country, just a place where we struggle to live, work for a wage or salary and make profits for the owning class. We have a common interest; we are all wage slaves.
The demands of the Seattle demonstrators were misguided. Demonstrators can at best hope to alleviate a problem, but the respite is only temporary. The world cannot be made 'fair' by rewriting trade rules, electing WTO officials or even abolishing the WTO altogether. The WTO together with the IMF and the World Bank and all the other institutions exist only to serve the needs of the companies and corporations owned by the world's capitalist class in their pursuit of profit. Their abolition would not alter the underlying conflict of interests between ordinary working people and their capitalist masters.
It is only with the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialist society that worker servitude everywhere will end. This is achievable not by demonstrating for reforms to institutions of capitalist society but by a majority of the world's workers understanding the need for socialism and working together to capture political power to abolish capitalism and build a socialist society.
Socialism is a classless society based on common ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth, where production will be used to overcome needs, not to create profit. It will be a society without money and free from conflicting class interests, democratically controlled by ordinary people for and in the interest of all people everywhere. This is our common interest.
The World Trade Organisation, trans-national corporations (TNCs) and the governments of advanced industrial countries all agree that free trade is a jolly good thing. Their representatives, such as Stephen Byers, Britain's Trade and Industry Secretary can be regularly heard spouting the usual dogmatic cant such as: "free trade and open commerce are a bringer of opportunity and not a threat".When the Seattle round of WTO talks stalled in early December, President Bill Clinton announced his intention to "move forward on the path of free trade and economic growth while ensuring a human face is put on the global economy".
No, stop laughing a moment. Clinton really said that. His ilk really believes that global capitalism can have a smiling face and that organisations like the WTO can help bring this about.
The representatives of globo-buck really believe that a levelling of the "playing field" would benefit all, poor country as well as rich. This in spite of the fact that many TNCs have incomes greater than the combined GNP of several of the poorest nations on the planet. This in spite of the protectionism that the USA, Japan and the EU don't like to boast about. And this in spite of the fact that the debt burden and related structural adjustment programmes mean that many a developing country is considerably worse off now than 30 years ago.
The umpire helping oversee this state of play, refusing to cry foul, bending the rules to the advantage of the more skilful and experienced player is the WTO. Its remit is so framed as to allow corporate control over every aspect of our lives, be it patent rules that allow the TNCs to monopolise centuries-old remedies and recipes in the developing world, seeds and human genes, indeed everything from drinking water and health and safety to hospitals and schools. Anything deemed an obstacle to the pursuance of profit can be labelled an illegal barrier to free trade.
The WTO is the supreme court of international commerce, whose constitution reinforces the rule books of the world's corporate elites. It has a Disputes Settlement Committee—a kind of wealthy man's Star Chamber—which has, time after time, considered barriers to fair trade such concerns as the environment, health and labour rights. It allows TNCs to not only control the fate of national currencies—with governments closely tailoring their economic policies to the interests of the giant multi-nationals—but helps ensure little host government opposition when environments are destroyed (witness Shell in Nigeria, Texaco in Ecuador and Union Carbide in India).
Through the establishment of free trade zones between countries, TNCs are enabled to invest where there are tax concessions and exemption from local labour laws, frequently, because of their non-union policies, taking advantage of low-wage economies with poor health and safety standards. At Seattle many commentators sensed that deals could have been struck, but were scuppered for domestic political reasons, not least because Al Gore is anxious for union support in next year's elections. Moreover, while the US argued for concessions in every field, they were unwilling to offer anything in return.
Whereas decisions were supposed to be reached by consensus, and democratically, the powerful countries dominated the talks. With the US desperate to get the deals they wanted, smaller countries were bullied and sidelined, with reports frequently emerging that delegates from the developing world were being physically refused entry to the negotiating tables.
Much has been written as to why the WTO talks in Seattle failed, suffice to say the negotiations crumbled for no other reason than that the myriad representatives of global capitalism failed to reach agreement on how best to proceed with the task of exploiting as many as possible while upsetting as few as possible.
Writing in Red Pepper in November, Katharine Ainger observed that "the only policy objective the two recognises is the expansion of corporate hunting grounds by opening up markets and the universal application of free trade rules. It's rhetoric is that of levelling the playing field in world trade".
Such sentiments are fair criticism and have been echoed much in recent weeks. What is important is to realise that they do not suggest globalisation is a recent trend—it has been gathering momentum since the late 1970s—nor that the global nature of capitalism is relatively new.
Over 150 years ago, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels pointed to the dominance of the world market over individual countries: "The need of a constantly expanding market chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, establish conditions everywhere."
As then, as now, talk about fairer trade and a more democratic "human face" of capitalism is simply ignoring the true nature of capitalism. Capitalism is a decrepit and ruthless social system whose mode of production cries out for a total overhaul. The most far-reaching reform of its major institutions—including the WTO—won't alter one iota its inherent contradictions. Hunger, poverty, homelessness and a thousand other social ills will prevail until, the last cent has been taken out of circulation and production freed from the artificial constraints of profit.
November 30 saw 50,000 protestors on the streets of Seattle lined up against the police and state troopers, more than equipped to repulse a third world army let alone unarmed campaigners (and indeed serving as a reminder to those who believe the state can be forcibly overthrown of the might that would be thrown against them). Whilst their slogans and placards often echoed the language of the genuine socialist, they failed to go further than demanding "alternative social and economic structures based on co-operation, ecological sustainability and grassroot democracy".
Whilst their demands would be realisable in socialism, demanding the same from institutions whose sole function is to serve the interests of profit is like asking a hungry shark to consider a vegetarian diet.
The protestors who took to the streets on 30 November in over 20 countries are without doubt well-meaning with a genuine hatred of the system that impoverishes the lives of billions of their fellow humans. It can only be hoped that they, and workers the world over, will come to realise that a real alternative is up for grabs. It has nothing to do with fairer trade, nor indeed any sort of trade, but free access to the benefits of civilisation. Socialists are not in the business of protesting for a larger slice of the cake the workers bake, but for control of the whole bakery. We argue that we should only settle for free and equal access to all that we produce and all the services we, the working class, provide, in a world without borders or frontiers, states or governments, force or coercion, buying and selling.
The planet we live on has been arbitrarily divided into some two hundred nation states. In all of these states, the very richest and the poorest, there are people who die from the effects of poverty and, conversely, there are those who are immensely rich.
In the UK there is some disagreement about the number of people who die prematurely because they are poor, though the figure of an average of some four thousand per annum for hypothermia is generally accepted. For example, the death certificate may say 'pneumonia' in the case of an elderly person who in fact dies of hypothermia because their income does not allow them a sufficiency of food and heat to keep them alive. Again, there are thousands denied the necessary medication to keep them alive while life-long poverty itself has an incalculable effect on human longevity.
The singer, Elvis Presley, sang:
Then the rich would live and the poor would die."
Same economic regime
In a grotesque way, it is comforting to think of the 'Third World' as a number of far-away geographic locations. It gives people in the developed world a sense of misplaced gratitude to think that, however bad things might be where they are, they are worse in other places. As we have noted, the numbers vary dramatically between the 'poor' nations and the 'rich' ones but the basic problem, the reality of riches and poverty, demonstrates that 'Third World' syndrome is a general economic consequence of capitalism rather than specific parts of the earth.
According to one United Nations Human Development Report, four men between them own more wealth than forty-seven of the poorest nations on earth. The same report claims that a mere four percent of the aggregated wealth of three of these men could provide food, clean water, medication and basic education for all those currently denied these necessities.
The problem, then, seems to be a simple one: there are a number of greedy bastards holding the very lives of millions of people in their hands. The UN Report mentions only four of these but there are hundreds of billionaires – people who have ownership of wealth in excess of one thousand million dollars – in the world.
So a chastising lecture on charity to these 'greedy' people and a whip round with plastic buckets, and the problem of world hunger could be resolved in a flash. That is what the myriad competing charities imply when they seek alms except that most of their donations come from the poor. At another level, that is what reformist political parties traditionally aimed to do by taxation and the argument seems justified when we consider what could be done with a mere four percent of the wealth of three of the billionaires. There are thousands of fabulously rich people who, however extravagantly they live and whether or not they engage in any useful activity, are likely to continue to get richer for the rest of their lives.
But the problem does not reside with greedy bastards nor can it be resolved either by charitable donations or by the action of reforming governments. The problem is caused by the economic system which gives rise to the rich, the millionaires and billionaires, and as a consequence, also gives rise to those who endure mere want or deadly, killing poverty.
Charity is a popular, and we have to say, a cynical pastime for the rich. Lady Layabout's charity ball is an important item on the social calendar, like croquet on the lawn. Sometimes it may take the form of a fashion show where the well-heeled can see the sort of clothes only they can afford. The residual funds from these expensively organised, posh affairs may be donated to the deserving poor where it will no doubt offer momentary, ephemeral relief to some facet of poverty. Nowadays the charity industry – itself a big employer of labour – has proliferated and diversified but so, too, have the problems.
Not so dumb
But they do not face a moral dilemma, nor should they. In a way, indeed, they are like the millions of poor people who dream about winning the lottery, except that in the case of the rich capitalists they have their own moral apologia and the power through their wealth to enforce that apologia on the rest of society.
Investment with a view to profit and capital accumulation is the powerhouse of capitalist society; without investment, production and distribution would stall, workers would have no jobs. This is the reality of capitalism from which springs the justifications that capitalists advance for their system.
Riches and poverty are two sides of the same relationship and can only be ended when that relationship is ended; when society takes over the ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution and institutes a system of social organisation in which production and distribution are democratically administered in the interests of the needs of society as a whole.
As far as blaming 'greedy bastards' is concerned we workers should remember that capitalists are not in a position to effect real change even if they wanted to – which, of course, they don't. Only the majority, the working class, can do that.
"Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx" By Sidney Hook . New York: The John Day Go. $2.50.
With this successful utilisation of the general franchise an entirely new method of the proletarian struggle had come into being and had been quickly built up. It was found that the State institutions, wherein the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, did furnish further opportunities by means of which the working class can oppose these same institutions . . . And so it came, about that bourgeoisie and Government feared far more the legal than the illegal action of the workers' party, more the successes of the elections than those of rebellion.
If we are not so foolish as to please them by allowing ourselves to be led into street fights, there remains nothing for them save to be broken to pieces upon this fatal legality.