Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Basement Timewasters

From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

A former Socialist Party member (S. Coleman) used to bemoan the documentaries about socialism/communism in his monthly Socialist Standard TV column "Between the Lines." The June 1989 issue is a typical example:
"Somewhere int the basement of Channel Four there is an office in which is to be found a team of timewasters whose lifelong project is to make lengthy documentaries about "socialism" or "Marxism". Over the years the C4 audience has been subjected to numerous programmes of this kind. We wait excitedly, expecting a serious analysis of the subjects so seductively advertised in the titles - and with regularity we are left feeling frustrated, cheated and wondering when the case for socialism would at least be mentioned in passing.

"Utopias" [(C4, 10.45 pm, 1 May) was the broadcast time, [funnily enough on the Workers' International Day of Struggle - gray] was a classical production of the basement timewasters. The programme lasted for over an hour. It was clearly produced with enormous technical care, using props and recordings of speakers which looked like they were going to serve as a backdrop for something more than superficial. The title was intriguing. Socialists are often called utopians . . . Within the first few minutes that sinking feeling began.

I understand Coleman's frustration. Recently, Danish TV (DR 2 precisely) had an evening of programmes and discussion under the umbrella title of "Utopia." (20 January.)

I didn't understand why three quarters' of the programmes were shown as they were manifestly out of place in relation to the subject under discussion; e.g. the tediously boring documentary about some New Agers who have built a temple in a mountain.

The best part of the entire evening was the (all too brief) studio discussion related to Thomas More, his book and the other utopias of his age. (Utopia derives from Greek and has the meanings: 1)"no place" or "a place that does not exist" ; 2) or "the Good Place." Different from the usage common today, whereby utopia is envisaged as an impossible, unrealistic society.

People write utopias because of injustices they see around them and from a fundamental belief in the equality of all members of humanity. Quite common for the Utopias and their writers was the abolition of private property and money, and the establishment of common ownership of societal wealth. The argument was very straight forward - where there was property, there could exist a minority exercising control over others simply due to that ownership. The Utopians argued that a society of common ownership, where all the wealth of society is owned by the members of society or, put in a different way, where no-one owns property, would provide the basis on which to build a fair, egalitarian society that would meet the needs of its populace.

This lovely bit of honest telly was then utterly ruined by the studio "expert", a Philosopher, going on to tell the host Utopia is impossible because human nature militates against it - we want to accrue property for our own, individual ends - and that the utopias have been banished now anyway because everyone is rich (sic) and that we live in the best of all worlds. (Whether e.g. the 39 million people living in official poverty in the USA, or the parents who helplessly see their children die of starvation each year, would agree with that was not touched upon.)

Predictably, the absolute worst contribution of the evening was about Soviet Russia, Lenin and the Bolsheviks. (Speaking of bad contributions, the DR 2 studio presenter claimed Marx and Lenin were comrades!) It was a French documentary, well an episode at least, from 1999 called La Foi du Siecle. Literally "The Mistake of the Century."

The writers proposed to understand the attraction of "communism". What that meant was they were prepared to call anybody and any society "communist" without needing to indulge in such trivial academic procedures such as definition and rigorous, logical analysis. The long standing socialist analysis of these lands and leaders being state capitalist dictatorships and non=socialists wasn't mentioned.

So it was the programme opened with footage of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, etc and a voiceover asking how people could be attracted by the ideals of "communism" despite the brutalities it perpetrated. The narrator asked how it could be that the "communist" lie could continue, despite the fact that the ideals of communism were betrayed and that this had been pointed out quite early on.

Why left-wingers support the myth of Bolshevism is an interesting question for sure. The SWP et al continue to attract youngsters who hate capitalism yet abandon verifiable history and facts for the make belief of the discredited, anti-socialism of Leninism. (A partial explanation is that Trotskyism allows the Left to support the Leninist theory of party and revolution whilst distancing themselves from the Stalinist legacy which clearly developed from it.)

The documentary made some points, not followed up in depth if at all, which I must paraphrase from the scribbles I made as I watched (going from French to Danish to English obviously means things would get lost in translation!):
- the Bolshevik takeover was like a beacon to the workers after the brutalities of the War
- the storming of the Winter Palace as portrayed by e.g. film maker Eisenstein was far from historical reality, yet that sort of disparity between fact and mythology appeared often and impacted on unquestioning Western Parties, who went on to push the mythology to workers
- a fiction was that the Soviets held power, and people believed it, when in reality power was held by Lenin and the Bolsheviks; revolutionary institutions were emptied of influence
- whilst the workers of the world dreamt of a classless society, the party eliminated opposition, held power alone and created a secret police
- visitors to Russia from the Western left-wing intelligentsia developed an almost myopic love affair with the Bolsheviks and what they were allowed to see
- Comintern established 21 points for inclusion, one basic point being those prospective parties had to be Bolshevik in outlook and practice
- Bolshevism was declared to be not only correct but also of universal application
- Stalin deified Lenin and created the religion of "Leninism" with the latter's passing in 1924
- "Communism" and the Party become a religion where all doubt is extinguished, for the good cannot do any wrong
- "The revolutionaries without a revolution mimic the Soviet model"

At one point in the documentary, we are treated to the spectacle of a small group of men dancing on the head of a Czar statue on the roof of a Moscow building. These men, at the 1920 meeting of Comintern, had declared themselves the leaders of the working class. The authoritarian and leadership based nature of the Leninist Party is not compared to that quintessential Marxian idea of the working class acting consciously, politically and through democratic self-organisation for the abolition of capitalism.

As a documentary about the supposed failure of communism "La Foi du Siecle" is miserably dishonest TV. The points it raises about Leninist political psychology are pertinent and depressingly familiar to this writer who has met, talked with and debated numerous Lefties down the years.

Coleman remarked in his article: "We can only hope that the men in the basement (or wherever they are) take a long time before they produce their next intellectual tease."
Graham C. Taylor

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


From the World Socialist Party of the United States MySpace Page

Is it possible to imagine a world without resistance, oppression and poverty?  What would this world be like?

Can we imagine a world in which resistance would be unnecessary since there'd be nothing to resist - a world without oppression or poverty? Why not? The Earth already possesses enough resources to properly feed, clothe and house every single man, woman and child on the planet. There's no need for anybody anywhere to go without adequate food, drinking water, health care, housing or education. What, then, might be the features of this new and different world?

First, it would have to be a world in the literal sense. The answer to "global" warming and "world" poverty and the other problems caused by "global" capitalism can only be found within a world framework. So we are talking about a united world without frontiers, no longer divided into separate and competing states. This will save the enormous amount of resources currently wasted on armed forces and arms, that could be redirected into satisfying the basic human needs that are now so scandalously neglected.

Second, all the productive resources of the world should become the common heritage of all the people of the world. They must no longer be owned by corporations, rich private individuals or states. There are already treaties saying that Antartica and the Moon cannot be appropriated by individuals or states. The same principle should apply to the whole planet, not just to its natural resources but also to the industrial plants and means of transport and communication that humans have built up by their collective labour over the centuries.

Third, appropriate democratic institutions will need to be set up to control the use of this common heritage. World bodies to deal with inherently global questions such as the state of the biosphere and energy supply (as well as, initially, the urgent temporary problems such as world hunger, disease and lack of education that will be inherited from global capitalism). Regional bodies (replacing existing states and respecting cultural and linguistic differences) to organise industrial production. Local bodies to arrange access for people to the things they need for everyday living. Starting with democracy at local level, people will be able to create and maintain a genuinely people-based society.

Fourth, goods will have to be produced, whether globally, regionally or locally, solely and directly to satisfy people's needs, not as at present to make a profit or for sale on a market. In fact, the whole market system of buying and selling, and the whole wasteful structure of financial and commercial institutions that arise on its basis, must go. As long as the market exists we will be dominated by its uncontrollable economic laws. As long as money exists financial and commercial, not human, values will prevail. So, we're talking about a moneyless society in which, instead, people would contribute according to their abilities and take, freely as their right, from the common store what they need to live and enjoy life.

A world without frontiers or separate states, a world based on its resources being the common heritage of all humanity, a democratic world governed by what people decide they want and need not by money, profit and market forces, that's the alternative to global capitalism that would render resistance unnecessary.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Racists Can't Define Race (2007)

From the forthcoming February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Race is a completely unscientific concept, as is shown by the fact that racists have been unable to define what a race is other than in completely arbitrary ways.

Most people are aware of the treatment meted out to Jews by the Nazis, the discrimination and violence, the forced emigration, leading up to the obscenity of the extermination camps in the so-called Final Solution. Anti-semitic propaganda had prepared the way for these policies, with Jews being blamed for almost all the ills suffered by German workers in the twenties and thirties.

But it was one thing to rant about Jewish conspiracies and other nonsense, and it was quite another to legislate and implement specific instances of discrimination. For, once there were laws forbidding Jews from holding certain jobs or attending certain schools, the question inevitably arose of how 'Jew' was defined. How could law-abiding German officials know who to discriminate against? Jews did not resemble the lurid caricatures of Nazi posters, so it was hard to tell who counted as a Jew. It was not a matter of religion, since conversion to Christianity was not enough to save anyone who had been categorised as Jewish, so how could the demonised group be defined?

The same problem has haunted every attempt at race-based politics. For though racists see race as the driving force of human history, as being behind what makes people behave in certain ways, in practice it is a difficult, if not impossible, concept to define. Human beings have wandered over the Earth for thousands of years, fighting and cooperating and mating, so that we are all mixtures in various ways, with different inheritances, resulting in a myriad permutations of skull shape, hair type, skin colour, build, and so on. Any attempt to draw firm distinctions within the human family is doomed to failure.

Governments often have to set up arbitrary criteria for nationality, with regard to such matters as entitlement to a passport or eligibility for conscription. Sporting organisations may well have regulations along similar lines, for instance that to play for a country you must have a parent or grandparent from there - a mere great-grandparent will not do. Or you can play for the country if you've lived there for so many years. Now, nationality is something that can be changed, but race is a supposed integral part of a person, not to be altered by the mere act of filling in a form and providing satisfactory answers in an interview. The racist, however, needs to have a definition of race, or at least of a particular racial group, in order to put their vile ideas into practice.

The problem that racists encounter is described well by Richard Evans (The Third Reich in Power):
"An insoluble ideological dilemma faced Nazi legislators: was the poison they thought Jewish blood carried with it into the bloodstream of the German race so virulent that only a small admixture would be enough to turn a person into a Jew, or was German blood so strong and healthy that it would overcome all but the most powerful admixture of Jewishness in a person's hereditary constitution? To such questions there was no rational answer, because there was from the beginning no rational basis to the assumptions on which they rested."

In the absence of a rational answer, racists have adopted different responses in different times and places.

The Nazis' Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made 'mixed marriages', and indeed extra-marital relationships, between Jews and Aryans illegal. The Reich Citizenship Law defined an Aryan as anyone who lacked 'Jewish blood', and a 'full Jew' had to have at least three grandparents who professed Judaism (so there was a religious dimension after all). Various 'half-breeds' with one or two Jewish grandparents, were also defined. In one 1937 case, a man escaped being found guilty of 'race defilement' on the grounds that he was only half-Jewish, his biological father being an Aryan rather than his mother's husband. Or someone's racial classification might be based on the gossip and prejudices of neighbours. Many people needed help from experts in deciding how others should be characterised: one judge had to point out that a woman's blue eyes and blonde hair 'obscure her Jewish racial characteristics'.

It was eventually decided that half-Jews would not be counted as fully Jewish and thus subject to the harshest discrimination, unless they practised Judaism or were married to a full Jew (neither of which criteria of course relates to their ethnic origins). And even then Hitler had to be given the final word and the power to grant exemptions as he wished. In practice, to quote Richard Evans again, "all the authorities had to go on in establishing Jewish ancestry was whether or not someone's grandparents had practised the Judaic religion, a fact which rather made a nonsense of scientific claims about the importance of race and blood in determining Jewish or German identity."

But Jews were not the only group persecuted by the Nazis on racial grounds. Gypsies were also subject to vicious discrimination, but the basis for their treatment was slightly different from that of Jews. Pure Gypsies were seen as an inferior race but not as a threat to Aryan purity. It was those who had a mix of Gypsy and Aryan ancestry that were problematic, as the supposed inherent criminality of Gypsies had thereby infiltrated and begun to undermine the Aryan race. The distinct attitudes to Jews and Gypsies again reveals the arbitrary basis of racist policies.

Apartheid-era South Africa also faced the problem of classifying people as white, black (referred to as 'Bantu'), coloured or Indian. Some felt that god had ordained the existence of different races; unfortunately the almighty had failed to make the distinctions clearly enough. The 'coloured' group was acknowledged to be a mixture, originating in the use of slave labour in the 17th century. The Population Registration Act of 1950 contained such definitions as: 'A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white - and not generally accepted as Coloured - or who is generally accepted as White - and is not obviously Non-White, provided that a person shall not be classified as a White person if one of his natural parents has been classified as a Coloured person or a Bantu'. So appearance and general acceptance were the main criteria used, but with family membership introduced in order to avoid too many embarrassing inconsistencies (you couldn't count as white if you had a black or coloured parent). Equally, 'A Bantu is a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa.' In practice, people were often classified on the basis of how flat their noses were or whether a comb could be run through their hair. The references to 'generally accepted' give the game away, of course: race is a subjective and arbitrary matter of how people are labelled by others, not a matter of biological inheritance.

Slavery in the American South was, in theory, confined to black people only. 'Black' here meant having no European ancestry at all - anyone who could show they were of European descent even partially was assumed to be free (i.e. free to work as a wage slave rather than as the legal property of another). The ending of slavery led to an effective reversal of this position: anyone with just 'one drop' of non-white blood could not be regarded as white. In other words, you could not be part-black, just black or not. This was partly intended to limit mixed marriages and so keep the white blood line 'pure', since in the racist view anyone with one black and one white parent was black. It's been pointed out that this means that 'a white mother can have a black child but a black mother cannot have a white child.' The one-drop criterion was made illegal in 1967, and the US census of 2000 allowed respondents to choose more than one racial identity, so people could describe themselves as both black and white - but they would then count as black for the purposes of equal employment legislation. The American examples show again that notions like 'black' and 'white' are not given in nature but are socially defined, dependent on the attitudes adopted by particular societies at particular periods.

The British National Party, in striving for a form of respectability, tries to downplay emphasis on race (in public, at least). Its website refers to 'the indigenous peoples of these islands', which it defines as "the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe". This is pretty woolly language, though we can assume that to be regarded as having a black or brown skin would disqualify a person from counting as indigenous. But how far back would a BNP government trace people's ancestry, and what would they do with those who have just one indigenous parent or grandparent? Like the Nazis and the National Party in South Africa, the BNP would be forced back on arbitrary distinctions and subjective rulings to decide who would be allowed to stay in their racial utopia.

Race, then, is not a scientific concept. Even those who see it as the linchpin of their politics cannot offer manageable definitions of it or workable guidelines as to how particular people should be categorised. The fact is that we are all human beings, with broadly similar abilities and characteristics, distinguished in various superficial ways such as eye colour and blood group, and divided now along the destructive lines of class and nationality. In the future Socialist commonwealth, questions of race and ancestry will be a thing of the past, like money, passports and national anthems.
Paul Bennett

Further Reading:
Socialist Party of Great Britain's 1988 pamphlet Racism.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Terrorism: means to a dead end (2007)

From the forthcoming February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Terrorism is now associated with Islamic extremists, but in the early 1970s there were terrorist groups on what is commonly known as the "far-left." Taking the Red Army Faction in Japan as an example, this article looks at the half-baked "socialist" notions from the New Left that these terrorists took and then burned to a crisp.

Far-left terrorist groups, such as the Weathermen in the United States and the Red Brigades in Italy generally emerged at the tail end of the 1960s with the beginning of the disintegration of the various New Left movements. The members of these groups acquired some of their ideas, such as they were, from this movement. This is not suggest, of course, that the two sides are identical, which would be as absurd as the right-wingers today who are convinced Islam is inherently terroristic. The vast majority of the Left clearly rejected the tactic of terrorism.

At the same time, the terrorist groups did not arise fully-formed from the fertile soil of pure eeevil, either, nor can they be written off as some sort of government conspiracy (although police infiltration is always a sub-plot with such conspirational groups). Understanding the "logic" of the terrorists who advertised themselves as revolutionaries requires us to consider the weak aspects of the New Left movement (which included some rather old ideas). Instead of speaking in such generalities, though, I want to take the example of the New Left movement in Japan, which spawned a lethal group called the Red Army. Before looking at the characteristics of the Japanese New Left, here is a short rundown of the rap sheet of the Red Army. The group was formed in 1969 by a faction of the (second) Communist League who wanted to move beyond the street fights against riot police to utilize bombs and other weapons. Various defeats at the hands of the police, including the forced expulsion early that year of the radical students occupying Tokyo University, convinced some that the problem was insufficient firepower. The Red Army Faction of the Communists League, as the new group was officially known, argued that the task was to foment an armed uprising in Japan as the first stage in what would be a worldwide revolutionary war led by an international Red Army. The new organization immediately set about putting this idea, such as it was, into practice, beginning a campaign of attacking police boxes in urban areas with Molotov cocktails and exploding pipe bombs at train stations, under bombastic or bloodcurdling slogans such as "War in Tokyo! War in Osaka!" Military training was also conducted in a mountainous area in preparation for an attack on the Prime Minister's Residence. This attack was never carried out because the police arrested over 50 of the group's members, which took the wind out of the group's sails. The Red Army bounced back in 1970 when it became the first Japanese group to hijack a plane, which was forced to fly to North Korea. This was apparently part of a grandiose plan to set up bases overseas for waging revolution. From this point on the group caused more trouble outside of Japan than within it, including a number of other hijack incidents. Some members allied themselves with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. On behalf of that group, the Red Army committed its most heinous crime, when three members used automatic weapons to kill 24 people who had the misfortune to be at the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv on May 30, 1972.

"Socialism" and "revolution"
The Red Army Faction justified its actions as necessary steps towards revolution, but like New Left as a whole the stated goal of socialism was poorly understood. The New Left activists imagined that they were making a quantum leap beyond the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) by calling for socialism and rejecting the "two-stage" strategy of first seeking a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution. But here their understanding of "socialism" was not half as new as they imagined, as it was largely taken from the tenets of the "old" left (Stalinism and Trotskyism).

The two organizations formed at the end of the 1950s which became the nucleus of the new left movement - the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League (JRCL) and the Communist League (or "Bund") - believed that the Soviet Union, for all its flaws, was at the very least a post-capitalist society. Trotsky famously coined the term "degenerated worker's state" to describe the Soviet Union, and the Japanese New Left advanced similar ideas, using different terminology, describing it for instance as an "alienated form of a transitional society." The socialist society they envisaged and sought to achieve would similarly have an economic foundation of nationalized industry and a "planned economy," but with a leadership wiser and more benevolent than the Stalinist bureaucrats.

There were a few on the New Left who argued that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist society, such as the theory developed by Tadayuki Tsushima in the fifties. But the actual content of this theory was not radically different than Trotsky's idea of a revolution "betrayed." That is, Tsushima believed that a socialist revolution created a post-capitalist workers' state in Russia, but the country later reverted to capitalism by foolishly failing to implement a proper system of labour vouchers and a Paris Commune-style state.

In short, the New Left activists took it for granted that the Soviet Union provided an example of a society that was at least post-capitalist, and they considered the Russian Revolution a model for their own revolution in Japan. The expectation was that a Japanese revolution would similarly arise out of some social crisis - whether an economic collapse or war - and in such a situation a small but determined vanguard party could literally push the radicalised working class in the direction of socialism at the critical moment. They had no patience for, or even awareness of, the idea that a socialist revolution would require most of the members of society to desire that change. So naturally they did not view their task as propagating socialist ideas to convince as many people as possible of the desirability and feasibility of a socialist society while exposing the futility of reforming capitalism. On the whole, the working class was viewed as an unthinking mass that the force of events, guided or even accelerated by the hand of the vanguard party, would propel in the direction of fundamental social change.

The Red Army's strategy was an extension of this mistaken understanding of both the ultimate end and the means of getting there. They also believed revolution would arise naturally out of a crisis, and more specifically a revolutionary war, with their own task being to foment the crisis and lead the workers on to victory in a global battle for socialism. It must be said, though, that the ultimate victory interested them far less than the heroic combat itself, which was pictured along the lines of the cartoonish scenes of bloody class war in Jack London's Iron Heel.

Reforms painted red
With all of their talk of socialism and revolution, one might think that the New Left activists would have shunned reformism. But in fact they viewed struggles over reforms as a springboard to revolution. And since no economic crisis was on the horizon in 1960s Japan, where capitalism was in fact developing as rapidly as in China today, the revolutionaries felt they would have to manufacture a political crisis themselves to awaken the working class by sabotaging government policies. Here they had a view of how a "revolutionary situation" could be brought about that was every bit as mechanical as the "domino theory" used to justify the US military action in Vietnam. The activists felt that if this or that reformist political struggle were to succeed, it would help to create a crisis and would thus be the first step on the revolutionary road.

This approach was evident in the movement against the 1960 revision in the US-Japan Security Treaty, which was the first major political struggle for the New Left to engage in. The student radicals who played a key role in that movement imagined that if they blocked the Treaty they would create a crisis for US and Japanese imperialism. It is interesting that the JCP also participated in this movement, but opposed the Treaty on the equally fictitious grounds that it would strengthen Japan's status as a "semi-colony" of the United States.

Perhaps because they were often taking part in the same reformist movements that the JCP was involved in, the New Left groups placed an emphasis on the tactics employed, particularly the use of physical force to confront the riot police or occupy buildings. They felt such confrontational tactics were inherently revolutionary, or at least preferable to the more legalistic approach of the JCP. This was also connected to the idea that socialist ideas would emerge out of such action, rather than there being a necessity to work out a political program first. This action uber alles attitude was expressed in the founding document of the Communist League, which said that the "programme for the emancipation of the proletariat can only emerge in the midst the trial by fire of praxis involving a response to the tasks of the class struggle that emerge every day." Ironically, in practice (or "praxis") this is a fiery rewording of arch-revisionist Eduard Bernstein's belief that, "The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything."

One psychological side-effect of mechanically linking reformism to revolution was that the activists exhibited symptoms of manic depression. Pinning so many hopes on reformist battles that in most cases were doomed to failure, and at any rate would always ultimately fail to open up a revolutionary situation, their initial euphoria inevitably turned to despair and bitter reflections on what should have been done. The desperate and doomed attempt to manufacture a political or social crisis is taken to its absurd extreme with the criminal acts of the Red Army.

Crossing the line
Violence was a general characteristic of the New Left in Japan. The street battles with the riot police, just mentioned, were considered an integral part of the revolutionary movement and raised nearly to an art form, with activists donning construction helmets (featuring painted logos of their organization), wielding long wooden staffs or steel pipes as weapons, and engaging in winding "snake dances." The sight of this entranced more than a few outside observers, such as French literary critic Roland Barthes who described student riots as a "writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being," adding that, "there is a paradigm of colours - red-white-blue helmets - but these colours contrary to ours, refer to nothing historical: there is a syntax of actions (overturn, uproot, drag, pile), performed like a prosaic sentence, not like an inspired ejaculation." (Empire of Signs)

Setting aside the question of what Barthes was smoking, such observers might have been less ejaculatory themselves had they witnessed the violent clashes between new left organizations. In part the internecine violence was a result of overblown organizational egos, with each group convinced it was the true vanguard. But there were other issues at stake that any yakuza gangster could understand. University campuses were the primary operational base for most groups, and each had a vital interest in controlling university student governments, which offered access to buildings and funds. In the struggles to hold on to strongholds or take over the bases of other groups, student activists did not hesitate to rely on brute force.

In his engrossing memoir Toppamono (Kotan Publishing, 2005), Manabu Miyazaki, a student activist who later returned to the criminal underworld he grew up in, describes how he and his comrades attacked a member of a rival group which had seized a student union room at their university: "We lifted him on our shoulders and banged him against the wall of the student union room a few times to quiet him down. We also took him to the hut in Ome, where we beat him until he fainted. But after that, all we did was force Suntory Red whiskey down his throat and then, when he was good and drunk, strip him of his clothes and set him loose." Considering that the author was a member of the JCP's student group, which was considered less violent than many of the new left groups, one can get a rough idea of the atmosphere. And in relating this incident, Miyazaki emphasizes that this was a mere prank compared to the violence a few years later because activists had yet to even consider killing their adversaries.

The line separating beating to a pulp and murder was frequently crossed in the early 1970s. Typically students were kidnapped, as in the tale above, tortured to extract a "self-criticism," and killed in the process, whether intentionally or not. Even more chilling than the senseless murders themselves, were the statements sometimes issued in justification of such acts, invariably claiming that a "tool of the state" or "spy" had been necessarily eliminated. Here is precisely the demented mindset of the Red Army fanatics as well.

(Just I was finishing this article a Greek outfit calling itself "Revolutionary Struggle" took it upon itself to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade at the US Embassy in Athens. An article in the New York Times informed me that this is a Marxist group, but their journalist should have heeded Marx's own advice about how it is best to not "judge an individual by what he thinks of himself.")
Michael Schauerte

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Blair is Right!

From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back:

Former Labour Cabinet Minister, Claire Short, describes Tony Blair as "delusional". We don't know about that, but he does seem to think that he too, like his buddy George Bush, is the commander in chief of his country's armed forces.

Last Friday he was televised making a speech on board a warship in the Plymouth naval base surrounded by khaki-clad soldiers and camouflaged armoured cars. Exactly the sort of background Bush chooses to make his pro-war pronouncements, but he has an excuse in that, constitutionally, he is the commander-in-chief. Blair is just the Queen's first minister.

Blair told the assembled military personnel that he wanted them and the rest of Britain's armed forces to be "warfighters" and not mere "peacekeepers" and pledged, to prepare for the future wars he foresees, "increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of ourarmed forces".

It was an extraordinary display of gung-ho militarism from the head of a Labour government whose first Foreign Secretary declared that Labour, unlike the Tories, would pursue "an ethical foreign policy" and from the leader of a party that once used to pride itself on being the peace party. But, given world capitalism, his argument has a ruthless logic.

Blair drew a distinction between "hard power" (military might) and "soft power" (diplomacy) and argued that if Britain "retreated" into maintaining its armed forces merely for peace keeping then "inexorably" its "soft power" would be weakened too. According to the Financial Times (12 January), he said that "the main risk for the future was not gung-ho leaders too keen to embark on military adventure - but those who concluded that military engagement was too difficult and thereby fall into a passivedis engagement"; in which case "the result would be 'Britain's reach, effect and influence qualitatively reduced'".

It's an argument that can't be faulted. Capitalism is a world-wide system involving a competitive struggle for profits in which all states vie with each other to influence the course of events in favour of profit-seeking enterprises from within their borders. Normally this takes the form of diplomatic initiatives and manoeuvrings but the weight other states attach to these depends on whether they think the state in question has the means - and the determination - to back them up.The means can be - still in the realm of Blair's "soft power" - economic retaliation or sabre-rattling, but to be credible a state must ultimatelybe prepared to do more than merely have big sabres or just rattle them. Blair's model, Mrs Thatcher, understood this well (even if at the time he himself didn't, sporting as he then did a CND badge). Which is why when third-rate power Argentina took over the Falkland Islands she sent out the"task force" to recover them. If she hadn't, Britain's credibility and standing in the international pecking order would have gone down.

So Blair is right. Without armed forces trained and equipped for "warfighting" (and killing and dying) beyond its frontiers, Britain's "reach, effect and influence" to further the interests of its capitalist class in the international arena will be weakened. The terrifying fact is that it is not him who is deluding himself (at least not on this point) but those who believe that an ethical foreign policy is possible. The international state-system that world capitalism has engendered is not one where there are any rules. It's every state for itself, no favours given and woe to the weak. If Britain's rivals on the world stage thought that its government had moral scruples about going all the way in employing its armed forces they would give less weight to its diplomatic initiatives in defence of its capitalist class.

So, what are we to conclude? By all means let those who want a world without war denounce every war that takes place but without the illusion that we can get states within capitalism to renounce war as a policy option. This will never happen as it goes against the whole logic of the capitalist state-system. Once again, it is quite literally true that world-wide socialism is the only framework within which a lasting peace can exist. Let us, therefore, work for it as the priority of priorities.
Adam Buick

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Book Review from the WSM Website

Zapata of Mexico. Peter E. Newell. Freedom Press, London.

The Mexican Revolutionary War which began in 1910 saw political power transferred from a reactionary military dictatorship allied to foreign capital to the liberal constitutionalists of the rising national bourgeoisie.

Zapata supported the overthrow of dictatorship but once this was achieved his Liberation Army of the South refused to disband his until their primary objective had been fulfilled. That objective was the return of communal lands that had been appropriated by plantation owners during theperiod of dictatorship. The new government refused to redistribute landand so fighting continued for the rest of the decade until Zapata's peasant forces, a people in arms, could no longer maintain a guerrilla war against the larger and better armed government forces.

Zapata resisted entering the politics of the national government, though he encouraged the tradition of direct democracy in the communities he fought for. At the height of Zapatista military success they conquered the country's capital. When Zapata was invited to sit in the presidential chair in the National Palace, he is quoted as saying 'It would be better to burn it, for I have seen that everybody who has sat in this chair has become an enemy of the people'. Despite opportunity and popular support Zapata refused to install himself as national president.

Though Zapata's political writings and speeches are restricted to the aims of the revolutionary peasant army it is thought that he was influenced by the ideas of Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican anarchist whowas then publishing a newspaper from the USA. The Zapatista slogan oftierra y libertad - land and liberty - was taken from Magon. However, the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of World Workers), an anarcho-syndicalist industrial union founded originally by Magon considered Zapatismo to be reactionary. They politically and militarily opposed the peasants until increasing industrial action led to the new liberal government proscribing the union. Many members subsequently switched sides. Zapata did use the examples of the new governments repression of industrial workers as evidence of the counter-revolutionar ynature of Mexico's new political leadership.

Zapata is not thought to have been religious, in fact he is said to have written " . . . ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny . . .", but deplored the anti-clerical violence of the new liberal government which aimed to reduce the power of the churches. The banner of his 'Death Legion' depicted 'Our Lady of Guadalupe', a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary, above a skull and crossed bones.

Since the revolutionary war, inspired by the popular image of Zapata's heroism and virtue as a leader, rhetoric from anarchists to governments promising reforms have invoked the name of Zapata. Zapata has even appeared on banknotes. Newell's respected biography does not dwell on personality traits, military aptitude or leadership skills but describes the material history that produced Zapata, the revolutionary war and its outcome.

This republication of Newell's book of 1979 begins with a new introduction which relates Zapata to the contemporary Zapatista movement, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional. The book contains a list of sources, references, bibliography and internet links and an appendix which discusses the land question in greater detail.

Further Reading:
From the February 1994 Socialist Standard 'Class War in Mexico'
From the November 2005 Socialist Standard 'Are We All Zapatistas?'

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Road To Hell

From the Socialist Courier blog

Michael Moore, American TV programme and movie maker, is a compassionate guy who hates what capitalism does to people and strives to right what he sees as wrongs. Sadly, he hasn't a clue about how capitalism works and is a prime example of the idealist who fights effects but leaves causes untouched.

He thinks that corporations and the filthy-rich should be content with less wealth and should share profits with their workers. What a hope, but here in Scotland we have our own version of Michael Moore the showbiz personality of Elaine C. Smith.

In her column in the Sunday Mail (December 31st) Elaine, having applauded "the risk-takers" and endorsed the capital-labour relationship, lambasts business fat cats who pocket huge sums of money and asks, "Do they really need all that money? Couldn't they have just put a couple of hundred quid in the pay packets of their workers?"

What Elaine doesn't realise that those fat cats get their wealth by trying to ensure that their business maximise their profits and keep shareholders happy. What investors want is not smaller but bigger profits and dividends.

It's not just fat cats and shareholders who want more: everybody does, even working class savers with, say, building societies look for the highest rate of interest. That's what capitalism is all about.

Michael Moore and Elaine C. Smith want a caring, sharing capitalism and although they mean well they should remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Vic Vanni

Sunday, January 7, 2007

SSP Tames Capitalism!

From the Socialist Courier blog

Reformist political parties in opposition always claim how much better everything would be if only they were in power and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is no exception.

One of their policy documents tells us they would provide free public transport and that this, on it's own, would bring fabulous benefits in just about every area of life.

Everything would be better: the NHS, the environment, the economy, business efficiency, productivity, road safety, more tourists, etc. On top of all this there would be savings of many millions, even billions, of pounds, giving us all more spending power as well as big savings for businesses.

And how is all this to be achieved? By two old leftist illusions; taxing the rich and nationalisation (disguised as public or social ownership). Apparently, nationalisation would be more efficient and cheaper, despite the evidence of past experience, and taxing the rich must mean that we'll still have them. The source of their riches is the surplus value wrung from the working class but the SSP seem not to have noticed this.

We are grateful that the word "socialism" isn't mentioned once in this document because its contents have nothing whatever to do with socialism. The SSP's aim is really just the same as all the other reformist parties - they try to solve capitalism's problems by merely re-organising it. If all their proposed reforms were adopted - nationalisation, the multitude of changes in the tax system, defence budget cuts, etc., we'd still be living in a money-driven, buying and selling economy, still working for wages and salaries, still insecure, being hired and fired, in short, in capitalism.

Free transport for all can really only be achieved in a worldwide, moneyless, production for use society in which ALL goods and services would be freely available to everyone. That's what genuine socialists campaign for and what the SSP NEVER does.
Vic Vanni

A Socialist Looks At Unions

The following article is from the archives of the socialist press, and is an example of the revolutionary socialist movement's longstanding commitment to class struggle politics both in the workplace and on the political field. It can be read in conjunction with the more recent Q & A article, 'Class Politics in the USA: interview with a WSPUS and Union Activist'

From the June 1947 issue of the Western Socialist

What should be the attitude of socialists toward trade unions? This not a mere academic question. There are well-informed Marxists who contend that unionism should regarded in much the same light as reforms, since unions, like reforms, cannot abolish the ills of capitalism. Regarding unionism, the following proposition was posed by a socialist recently:
"The evils which exist within present society. Be they war, crime, poverty. Or exploitation, have no solution other than the abolition of private property relationships. To fight anyone specific evil is not only a losing battle in itself, but a divergence from the real fight. Hence the only job of a socialist organization is to make possible the speedy introduction of socialism and destroy with one fell swoop the cause of war, crime, poverty and exploitation."

According to this proposition, the emphasis put by Marx on union activity was misplaced, in as much as such activity was "a divergence from the real fight." it is not the purpose of this article rationalize the position taken by Marx. His position on unions may have been wholly incorrect. Or, again, his position may have been valid in the nineteenth century and yet he completely untenable today. Marx's formulations were not infallible. They must be tested in the light of reality, do the present economic and social conditions warrant that socialists look at unions in the same perspective that Marx did?

What were Marx's views on unionism?
The workers have discovered that the union is the only way for them to withstand the overpowering pressure of capital - Karl Marx

Everyone who is acquainted with the life of Marx and with his writings knows that he took a keen interest in developments of the trade union movement in almost every country, coming out openly with letters on the actions taken by unions when engaged in strikes, making suggestions, correcting mistakes. It was Marx's idea that trade unions should be affiliated with the first international and he made it his business to keep in dose contact with locals of the british unions. So important did Marx deem union activity that he felt it urgent to clear away any theories likely to inhibit the struggle of workers on the economic field. Minutes of the first international record that Marx took up the cudgels against that "fine old scout" and old "Owenite named Weston" who propagated the paralyzing doctrine that strikes for higher wages are futile since any increase in wages will of necessity be offset by a corresponding increase in prices -- a doctrine, by the way, which is still heard so much today, out of the Weston controversy came the pamphlet Value, Price and Profit. An incisive brochure whose theoretical and practical conclusions apply today as much as they did when they were written. In this pamphlet Marx phrased his stand on unionism in succinct language. After pointing out that "trade unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital" he warned
"At the same time and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects. But not with the causes of these effects; they are retarding the downward. Movement but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights increasingly springing up from The never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms. Necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto. A fair days wage for a fair days work! They ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword abolition of the wages system!"

Why did Marx place so much value on union activity, not withstanding the fact that he was au too aware of the limitations of such activity? The answer, obviously, is that unions function at the focal paint of the economic phase of the class struggle - at the paint where the fight occurs over the division of the labor product. Unions are the workers most effective means of defense under capitalism. In the absence of unions, the workers have no way of braking the downward pressure on their living standards and their working conditions. Only by means of their combined numbers in labor unions are the workers able to put up same form of resistance against the insatiable drive of capital for mare land mare surplus value. Only through unions can the workers ease the strain on their nerves and mussels in the factories, mills, and mines. Since surplus value is produced at the paint of production, the most violent manifestations of the class struggle break out at that point.* At that point the organized resistance of labor meets the combined onslaught of capital. So important is organization that in a letter to Bebel, dated March 18, 1875, Engels wrote in reference to the Gotha Program:
"Nothing is said about the organization of the working class, as a class. By means of trade unions. This is a very important point, because these, as a matter of fact, are the real class organizations of the proletariat, in which the latter wages its day to day struggle against capital; in which it schools itself, and which even today, under the most ruthless reaction (as now in Paris) simply can no longer be knocked to pieces."

The history of the American movement is rich with examples of the importance of unions to Workers. The struggles waged and the gains won by workers in the auto, steel and needle trades industries afford excellent case studies of improvements through organizing on the economic field. Before the united automobile workers union was formed, conditions in the auto industries were far worse than are today. The speed-up notorious and the slogan "too old at forty" was a guiding policy of Supervision. When a worker approached that age and could no longer keep up with the fierce pace an the production line, he was usually laid off and his place taken by a younger man. Health hazards in the industry took a alarming toll. Many workers in the metal body departments became afflicted with lead poisoning, a disease which the patient never wholly recovers. Respiratory diseases and speed-up neurosis fetched a larger percentage of victims than is the case today, it must not be assumed that the union succeeded completely eliminating industrial hazards. As long as profits are given priority rating over human welfare, industrial health and safety hazards will remain to menace workers.

Before the union, wages were substandard levels, since unemployment ran into the tens of thousands and manufacturers could hold wages dawn by taking advantage of the desperate competition for jobs. In the absence of, any kind of seniority, a worker could be fired at the slightest whim of the foreman. Consequently boss favoritism was rampant. To ingratiate themselves with supervision, a considerable number of workers would their foreman drinks or repair his garage, or perform other services gratis, the auto workers toiled under conditions characterized by no check on their exploitation save the natural limitations of their endurance. It was under such circumstances that they spontaneously rebelled, and by strength of their organized numbers formed a union, compelling one corporation after another to engage in collective bargaining and to sign contracts which netted substantial wage increases, a measure of security through seniority, amelioration of the speed-up and the end of "red-apple polishing" or boss favoritism.

Lessons of the class struggle
The history of the labor movement proves the Marxian contention that wages are not regulated by any "iron law" but can be modified by organized militant action on the part of the workers, the value of the workers labor-power is not only determined by biological limitations of the human organism, but also by what Marx calls historical and social factors. One of the most weighty of these factors is the relationship of the class forces, the interplay of social conflict. A comparison of the living standards of organized to those unorganized workers tells the story in a nutshell. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics issues statistics showing a breakdown of figures proving that wages are lowest in those occupations in which the workers are not organized or are at best only partly organized.

Those socialists who argue that unions are only institutions of capitalism are correct, but they miss a salient point. Unions are class struggle institutions, and a s such serve as a fertile field for socialist education and propaganda. To a self-styled middle class citizen living in a typical american community, the police are guardians of law and order. But organized workers who have been victims of police brutality on the picket line have no illusions as to whose side the police are on. School teachers may believe the text books which say the interests of labor and capital are identical but the workers of general motors, us steel and even american telephone and telegraph company know from their struggles that their interests conflict with those of their employer. Editorial writers may rhapsodize on the subject of individualism, but the men and women in the auto plants know that as individuals they would be as helpless before the mighty corporation that hire them as a canoe in the path of a battle ship. Abstract preachments about the desirability of labor unity regardless of race or nationality seldom impress anyone. But the necessity of native born whites and foreign workers, negroes and whites, to march together on picket lines, work together in strike committees and hold out together until their demands are won - all this constitutes an object lesson in class solidarity.

To be sure, participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious. And this brings us to the question of the role of the socialist in the trade unions. As a union member the socialist can participate in union affairs and in the course of doing so he can clarify events for his fellow workers in the light of socialist knowledge. No matter what issue happens to be under consideration, the socialist can explain it from the standpoint workers of class interests. Is the union engaged in negotiating with management for a wage increase? Then the socialist can make clear that wages represent only a portion of what workers produce, and that the unpaid portion is surplus value appropriated by the employing class.

Is seniority next on the agenda? Then here is an appropriate occasion for the alert socialist to take the floor and explain that seniority is at best a necessary evil in an economic system that breeds job insecurity and unemployment. After laying bare the roots of the trouble the socialist can indicate the cure. Or perhaps a union brother rises to bring to the attention of the union membership the existence of a grave case of discrimination in his department. This ought to provide the socialist an occasion to show how racial discrimination arises out of economic conditions, out of the struggle to get jobs and to hold them after they have been obtained.

And when the top ranking union bureaucrats seek to line up the members in support of the democratic party - or any other political party dedicated to perpetuating capitalism - the socialist can expose that party, pointing out to the workers that their only real hope lies in joining and working for the abolition of the wage system. "Unions fail partly from the injudicious use of their powers" wrote Marx, and the socialist can and should warn their fellow unionists what pitfalls are in store for them and their class if they give their time, money and votes to a party which can only work in the interests of their masters.

Oppose bureaucracy
Another duty of socialists in the union is to wage an unceasing fight against the trend towards bureaucracy, urging the workers to be eternally vigilant in the defense of their democratic rights, opposing high salaries for the officials, proposing limited tenure of office, insisting that all major decisions be ratified by the membership - in a Word demanding that the the unions be conducted of, for and by its members in fact as well as theory. To the extent that a union gets settled with dictatorship, free expression is restricted, the rights of the membership are treated with contempt, major policies are formed at the top, and the bureaucracy tends to increasingly to act as a disciplinary agents for the employers, using such devices as the check-off and no-strike provisions to hold the workers in line. Socialists should consistently impress upon the workers the urgency of restoring the union to the membership, in whose democratic control it belongs.

The leadership fetishism propagated by certain so-called left wing groups who would have the workers believe that everything depends on the "right kind of leaders" must be vigorously combatted. Blaming union officials and yelling "labor fakirs" when incorrect policies are followed will solve nothing, a union is no better than the members who form it. The character of the leadership is to a large degree a reflection of the maturity or lack of maturity of the rank and file. For this reason socialists should seek to raise the understanding of the rank and file, to imbue them with an awareness that their elected representatives should be the servants, not the masters, of the membership.

There is one thing that socialists should avoid like the plague in their union activity, namely, the unfortunate practice practiced resorted to by avoid bolshevik groups of maneuvering and conniving to use unions as their vehicle for carrying out their political "line". Unions are first last and all the time economic organizations operating within the framework of capitalism. Attempts to use them for purposes other than this can only react to the detriment of the unions and their members. The tragic consequence that follows when communists gain control of a union is a matter of sorry record. The unions should belong to the members, and not be dominated by any clique, political or otherwise. Sometimes such cliques rationalize their drive to worm their way into key union posts on the grounds that once in top positions they will be better able to advance the cause of socialism. Actually the only thing they advance is their party "line" or else themselves. Such "vanguard" outfits care not a whit about educating the workers, but are only interested in indoctrinating them and mobilizing them in accordance with the latest party shibboleths. They are not concerned wit making the workers class conscious but only slogan conscious.

The socialist does not sloganize workers, nor do we use the union simply as a soapbox from which to harangue the membership. We participate in the union, seek to give good account of our actions, and when issues arise we offer a class conscious interpretation of them. Fortified by the socialist outlook, we do not succumb to opportunism, and never cease to do what we can to make socialists out of trade unionists, instead of allowing the union to water down our socialism. By keeping clear of underhanded deals and political shenanigans, by taking a principled stand on controversial questions, however unpopular such a stand may be at the moment, by fearlessly opposing proposals inimical to the workers interests, and, finally, by judiciously presenting the socialist analysis of day-to-day problems confronting labor - this constitutes socialist activity in the union.

When workers are lock in combat with their employer, through strike action, socialists as an organized group should assist their fellow workers in whatever way they can, such as writing articles and leaflets from the workers point of view, speaking on pertinent working class issues when invited to do so at union meetings; offering the party headquarters to strike committees, etc.

The suppression of labor unions in any country usually signifies the suppression of all organized working class resistance. This fact should make apparent how deserving unions are of socialist support.This is the answer to the question what attitude should a socialist take towards unions.
R. Parker
*However, the exploitive nature of capitalism gives rise to the need for unions wherever workers labor for wages.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Marxian Economics in the Modern World (1973)

From the September 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Economists claim that they can get behind surface appearances and tell us what really determines such things as prices, wages, profits, foreign exchanges, market demand, unemployment and so on, and what will be the consequences of developments in industry, or of government measures in the field of taxation, currency, and wage and price controls. The test for any economic theory is a practical one. Was Marx right, for example, in denying the proposition that wage increases are useless because they put up prices? Or was Keynes right in claiming that if governments take certain action they can ensure continuous full employment? With this practical consideration in mind the question presents itself: have Marx's economic doctrines, elaborated a hundred years ago, any relevance today, or was Keynes right when he described Marxian economics as "not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world"?

Before answering the question it is useful to note how and why the study of Marxian economics has changed with the passage of time.

In Britain and other countries in the "Western" world interest in Marx's philosophical and political writings has never been so great as it is now, as is shown by the flood of reprints and of new works about Marx. Partly this is a sympathetic interest but partly also a by-product of the "Cold War". In the nineteen-sixties influential American politicians (among them Richard Nixon when Vice-President, and Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) were urging the need for schools to include the study of Marx in their curriculum so that there would be a better understanding of the then "enemy", Soviet Russia, its leaders and their policies. But interest in Marxian economics has followed a different course from that of other Marxist studies. The twenty-year "Great Depression" of the last quarter of the nineteenth century forced governments, economists and business men to look for an explanation of the seeming universal "overproduction", an explanation they could not find in the works of older economists, and Marx came in for a great deal of attention if only to combat the growing interest in him shown by dissatisfied workers and their organisations. This continued right into the years of the next acute depression in the nineteen-thirties. Then the scene was drastically changed by Keynes' rise to fame, based on his confident demonstration that governments need no longer put up with idle factories, falling profits and mass unemployment, with all their devastating economic and political consequences.

Keynes ousts Marx
The effect of the Keynesian upsurge on the study of and interest in Marxian economics was striking, not only in the universities but also in the political parties and trade unions. At the universities further study of Marx became irrelevant - why waste time on reading difficult works such as Capital, that "obsolete textbook" as Keynes called it? What happened was that Marx came to be regarded as an example of discarded error. As Professor Robert Freedman put it in 1961: "Most students of Marxian economics rarely read the master, but are content to let his critics speak for him".

In Britain the Tory, Labour and Liberal Parties found common ground as disciplines of Keynes, or of what they (sometimes mistakenly) believed to be Keynesian doctrine. The official Labour Party version in 1944 was in the following terms:
If bad trade and general unemployment threatens, this means that total purchasing power is falling too low. Therefore we should at once increase expenditure, both on consumption and on development, i.e. both on consumer goods and capital goods. We should give people more money and not less, to spend.

The trade unions were delighted to welcome the prospect that a future Labour government (or even a Tory one) would encourage them to press for higher wages. How much more pleasing this was to them than the customary action of employers (backed by the 19th-century economists) of seeking to restore profit margins in a depression by reducing wages; or than the teachings of Marx that capitalism's periodic crises and depressions happen anyway and neither higher nor lower wages will prevent them. The trade union enthusiasts for Keynes failed to notice that what he was proposing to meet such a situation was to reduce the workers' real wages by putting up prices instead of reducing their money wages.

One effect of the Keynesian cult was that a number of people who had called themselves Marxists recanted (John Strachey, for example, who took office in the Attlee Labour government) and the group of trade union officials and Labour MPs who had studied Marxian economics became silent. The Communist Party of Great Britain, which continued to urge the study of Marxian economics by its members, had no difficulty in simultaneously supporting the incompatible Keynesian doctrines of the Unions and the Labour Party.

But now the scene is changing again and there is the beginning of a revival of interest in Marxian economics. Two happenings have brought this about, the growing recognition of the failure of full-employment policy and the unprecedented and uncomprehended rise of prices.

Because, for other reasons, unemployment happened to be very low in Britain and many other countries in the first decade after the second world war, it was easy to represent this as a proof that Keynes was right, but in Britain the steady climb of the peaks of unemployment since 1955 back at least to pre-1914 levels, has induced re-examination of the problem. The rise of registered unemployed to over a million in 1972 with probably another half-million not registered could not be disregarded, and some who had written Marx off are now wondering whether perhaps he was right and that capitalism inevitably creates unemployment; low in boom times and rising in depressions to peak levels.

Keynes and Marx confront each other about the problem of unemployment and, in an indirect way, about the problem of inflation. When Keynes formulated his theories in the nineteen-thirties unemployment was in the region of two million, but prices had been falling for most of twenty years, so not high prices but high unemployment was the preoccupation of governments and economists.

In 1944 when the three parties in the wartime coalition government issued their joint Keynesian statement on post-war policy it held out the prospect of full employment, steady growth of production and more or less stable prices. The one they were then most apprehensive about was unemployment but now successive governments feverishly grapple with all three problems together. As prices are more than five times what they were in 1938 and rising fast, inflation is declared to be enemy No. 1 in 1973. It finds most of the politicians and economists completely baffled, so that they offer such childish explanations as that the general price rise is caused by wage claims or by the greed of the bankers, manufacturers and retailers - as if trade unions were not doing their utmost to push up wages and employers doing their utmost to push up prices in the nineteen-twenties when prices and wages were falling fast in spite of all their wishes to the contrary.

Marx in Capital provided a comprehensive explanation of the factors which govern prices, including general rises of the price level caused by an excess issue of an inconvertible note issue. It was an application of his labour theory of value. Most economists not only reject it but see no need for any theory of value, yet ironically Keynes accepted it completely. His exposition of inflation in his Tract on Monetary Reform reads like a paraphrase of Marx, as indeed perhaps it was. Although Keynes advocated a short-term deliberate increase of prices in certain circumstances he was not a crude inflationist and if he had lived into the post-war inflation it is probably that he would have disowned what was being done in his name. Yet the responsibility was largely his because it was he who influenced economists and through them governments to take off all formal restrictions on the note issue in the belief that it is not necessary.

To complete the comparison between Marx and Keynes it must be remembered that while Keynes concluded from his studies that capitalism can be controlled and managed in such a way as to avoid booms and slumps and secure continuous full employment, Marx held no such view. Keynes said that capitalism could and should be saved, Marx held that it had outlived its role in human society and should be replaced by Socialism.

Marx made many other valuable contributions to economic theory. His explanation of the cycle of booms and depressions removes the mystery from the superficial appearance that the population sometimes seems to be too small and at other times too large; and that in one phase there appears to be "too much money" and at others "too little", the reality being that in a boom the capitalist wants to turn his cash into means of production and in a slump wants urgently to turn his commodities into cash.

His analysis showed how the periodical big expansions of production depend on the existence of a "reserve army" of unemployed - something being demonstrated at the present time when the short-lived boom is already being threatened by shortage of workers.

One of the failings of many modern economists is their confusion about what constitutes an increase of productivity. The labour theory of value shows that the amount of labour needed to produce a commodity includes the labour at all stages, not merely the final stage of the production process. For a table or chair, for example, this includes the growing and felling of the timber, its processing and transportation as well as the final process in the furniture workshop, and an increase of overall productivity per worker cannot be measured by technical changes in the workshop alone. Appreciation of this would have obviated the common wildly-exaggerated estimates of the effects of mechanisation and automation.

Marx also showed the fallacy of the belief that booms are created by bank lending; the expansions and contractions of credit being not the causes but the symptoms of the trade cycle.

Marxian economics in Russia
Trying to estimate the influence of Marxian economics on the administration of State capitalism in Russia and other Comecon countries in which the study of Marx is official dogma comes up against many difficulties, not the least of which is the difficulty of deciding whether the official reason given for any government policy is the real one: government double-talk is at least as common in Russia as in the rest of the world. In Russia it takes the form that publicly everything the government does has to be presented as "Marxist" and when the policy is reversed that too is "Marxist".

We can take for example the question of depreciation of the currency. As sometime students of Marxian economics Russia's rulers should know that an overissue of inconvertible paper currency causes inflation, and they used to claim that this could only happen elsewhere, not in Russia - until it did happen in Russia and was drastically dealt with in 1947 by the issue of a new currency. What we don't know is whether they blundered into their inflation in ignorance, or whether it was by design as the easiest method of financing government expenditure.

A specific charge that the Russian government has been influenced by, and led astray by, Marxian economics is made by Harry Schwartz in the Introduction to Marxian Economics edited by Robert Freedman (Pelican Books 1961). The charge is that the labour theory of value led the Russian government to suppose that "interest on capital" does not need to be taken into account as a cost. He says that the Russian planners chose hydro-electric power stations in preference to coal or oil-fired stations because the latter need fuel and the former do not and therefore the hydro-electrical stations must produce electricity more cheaply; but they disregarded the much larger amount of capital required for hydro-electric stations.

All this proves, if true, is that the Russian government, like Mr. Schwartz, did not understand the Marxist labour theory of value; for it includes in the value-forming socially-necessary labour required to produce a commodity (in this case electricity) the value transferred from the plant and machinery.
Like any other constituent of constant capital, machinery does not create any value, but yields up its own value to the product it serves to beget. In so far as it has value and therefore transfers value to the product it forms an element in the value of the product. (Capital Vol. 1, Alien & Unwin edition, p.410)

Schwartz also charges that the labour theory of value has not "provided any very useful guidance for the setting of prices by Soviet planners".

This is not surprising and does not support Schwartz's belief that there is something wrong with the theory. Marx was describing a capitalism in which the prices of commodities are determined under the play of market forces, not a state-capitalist form in which the kinds of commodities, their quality and their prices are centrally fixed by the planners. If this has resulted, as recently reported, in there being millions of pairs of shoes in the shops which customers do not want this has nothing to do with Marxian economics.

Marx and the Vulgar Economists
Marx made a distinction between such men as Petty, Adam Smith and Ricardo and their successors. He wrote of the former that they devoted their efforts "to the study of the real interrelations of bourgeois production", while the latter were "content to elucidate the semblance of the interrelations" and to act in effect as apologists for the capitalists (Capital Vol. 1, Alien & Unwin edition p.55). His use of the terms "classical" and "vulgar" to describe them was one of the very few things that Keynes acknowledged having borrowed from Marx.

What of the modern economists, now numbering many hundreds? Few of them even claim to be serious students in the way that Smith, Ricardo, Marx and Keynes were. To quote what Marx wrote of their predecessors, "they spend their time in chewing the cud of materials provided by others", and "proclaiming as eternal verities, the most trivial and self-complacent notions which the agents of bourgeois production entertain with regard to their own best of all possible worlds".

Some who do have a better understanding of capitalist problems complain that they are talking to the deaf ears of politicians. Nothing written by Marx about the vulgar economists of his day was more harsh than criticisms of modern economists recently made by Samuel Brittan, himself an economist, and by The Economist.

Samuel Brittan, contrasting modern economists with Smith and Ricardo, had this to say:
Economists do not exist mainly to promote enlightenment, to discover how the economy works or for other such vague and worthy purposes. Like other producers, economists survive and prosper by studying the market and supplying what it appears to want. (Financial Times, 28th October 1971)

And The Economist (2nd June 1973) in an unsigned editorial, also making comparison with Adam Smith, wrote:
If economists today took more trouble to explain in simple language what they are trying to prove and what relevance it might have, the gulf between theory and practice might be closed somewhat. As it is, more and more economists fill more and more pages of learned journals with an endless stream of ill-written, verbose, half-baked mumbo-jumbo which has as much value to policy makers as the chattering of starlings.

When modern economists dismiss Marxian economics as difficult, unscientific and without application it is fitting to bear in mind who are the people who make the charge.
Edgar Hardcastle

An Edgar Hardcastle page has just been opened on the Marxist Internet Archive.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Some Recent Additions

Part of the purpose of setting up this unofficial page for the Socialist Standard on MySpace was so that it could provide an outlet for publicising old articles from the Socialist Standard on the internet. On a number of occasions, many of these articles have appeared on the net for the first time.

Great minds thinking alike - and all that jazz - has meant that other members of the 'World Socialist' tradition have also been using the internet to dust down old articles from the revolutionary press to bring to a wider audience.

The following links are to articles from the Socialist Standard that are appearing on the internet for the first time. Apologies to the non-British readership for the heavy slant towards British and Irish politics but hopefully, in time, there will be reprints from such old socialist journals as 'The Western Socialist', 'Socialist Clarion' & 'Fulcrum', to name but three journals published in North America down the years.

As a point of information, the International Socialists, the group referred to in the articles from the Socialist Courier blog, are the modern day British Socialist Workers Party.

Hope people find the articles of interest.

Yours for Socialism,

Recent reprinted articles posted on the Mailstrom blog:

  • James Connolly: an Assessment (from the October 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard)

  • Scotch Mist (from the July 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard)

  • Recent reprinted articles posted on the Socialist Courier blog:

  • Inside the Bolshevik Cul-de-Sac (from the April 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard)

  • Report of a debate with the International Socialists (from the July 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard)
  • Tuesday, January 2, 2007

    Class War in Mexico (1994)

    From the February 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Peter Newell, author of a biography "Zapata of Mexico", gives the historical background to the recent peasant uprising in the south of Mexico

    The Mexican government appears to have been taken by surprise at the recent events in the state of Chiapas, three hundred miles east of Acapulco, in southern Mexico. Indeed, as late as October last year the Interior Minister was denying the existence of insurrectos in Chiapas.

    Yet on New Year's day, hundreds of guerrilleros, calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, captured the town of San Cristobal. They carried a variety of mostly old hunting rifles, home-made grenades and machetes. Many were women. On the same day, Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

    The Land Question
    When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, in 1517, the Indians still held the land in common. The idea of private property in land did not exist. The common lands were usually located on the outer edges of the pueblos or settlements. They were called "ejidos", which means exit or "way out".

    New Spain, as Mexico was called, was largely conquered by private adventuruers known as conquistadors, who were firmly controlled by a group of agents of the Spanish Crown known as "gachupines" (Wearers of Spurs), together with the leaders of the Catholic Church. At first, the conquistadors numbered only a few hundred,and even after a generation only a few thousands. The conquistadors soon made the Indians work on their land, which in theory now belonged to the Spanish Crown, whilst the Indians, later called peones (People of the Earth), were expected to live on the produce of their ejidos.

    As time went by, the Spanish Crown granted legal titles of ownership of the land. But since most of the Indian pueblos could not obtain grants, the conquistadors grad ually enlarged the boundaries of their estates, claiming that the land that they were occupying belonged, not to the peones, but to the Spanish Crown:
    "By a slow process of attrition extending through generations, the relatively small holdings of the original conquistadors were gradually enlarged into enormous haciendas which covered most of the fertile lands of Central Mexico." (Henry B. Parkes, A History of Mexico).

    Probably 40 percent of the Indian population were compelled to become labourers on the haciendas and large estates. They became debt-slaves, and their debts were inherited from generation to generation.

    The hacienda owners, or "hacendados", were not generally interested in improving their methods of production. And the Indians were deprived of farm implements and domesticated animals such as oxen. Agriculture, therefore, stagnated. But early in the nineteenth century, a form of "plantation capitalism" slowly began to emerge. Within a still largely feudal economy the haciendas developed, whose aims were purely commercial.

    After a long and bitter struggle, Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. Following independence, the Catholic Church was forbidden to own land; but it was paid compensation for its former estates. The Indian peones were unable to purchase the former Church land (which, before the Spanish conquest, was theirs anyway); only the already wealthy landowners could afford to. The result was to increase the concentration of land ownership on a scale hitherto unknown.

    By 1889, twenty-nine landowners obtained 27.5 million hectares, or 14 percent of the total land area of Mexico. By 1900, about 50 haciendas comprised more than 100,000 hectares each. Meanwhile, the Indians continued to lose their common lands; and more and more of them were forced to work on the large estates.

    On November 21, 1876, Porfiro Diaz became President of Mexico. He was to remain virtual dictator until May 1910. Nevertheless, under Diaz, Mexico underwent profound change. He encouraged the flow of foreign capital into the country. Money flowed in from Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Vast sums were invested in the construction of railways, the mining of silver and, after 1900, the production of coffee, sisal and sugar. Between 1880 and 1890, foreign capital outpaced Mexican investment. Public works were undertaken, including harbours, canals, drainage works and telephone and telegraph lines. A new industrial working class was recruited from the former peones dosplaced from the land. Indeed, by 1907, there were 40,000 textile workers and 100,000 miners in Mexico.

    Naturally, this emphasis on industrialization increased the already clearly defined differences between rich and poor.

    Industrial capitalism was very largely imposed upon the hacienda system, under which half the population was bound by debt-peonage. Modern capitalism was developing within the shell of a buereaucratic, corrupt and decadent feudalism. In cooperation with foreign interests, Mexico's economy was tightly controlled by a small group of businessmen and financiers known as "cientificos".

    But by 1904, there were signs, tenuous at first, of economic instability. Between 1907 and 1910, inflation was rampant. Yet there was no ascertainable rise in wages. Trade unions were banned or severely restricted; but in 1906, the first industrial conflict in Mexico broke out at Cananea, in the state of Sonora. The workers of Mexico had begun to move. Other strikers, in the textile industry, followed in 1908 and 1909.

    Without quite realizing it, Porfirio Diaz began to lose support.

    The first to rebel against Diaz was Francisco Madero, the son of rich landowners in northern Mexico. Madero had a passion for education and radical reform. In June 1910 he challenged Diaz for the presidency; but first, he was arrested, then he was said to have received only 196 votes throughout the country. (Later on, in 1913, he was to be murdered by supporters of the by then deposed Diaz.) Madero, however, had begun a movement which would not only overthrow Diaz, and the ancient regime, but would result in a bloody and violent conflict lasting ten years. To the casual observer, the Mexican revolution seemed quite chaotic and purposeless. Small armies and guerrilla bands appeared to be rushing about in all directions; and the whole country seemed to be in a state of disintegration. But by 1911, a distinct pattern began to emerge. Mexico was, in fact, rent into three completely irreconcilable socio-economic classes.

    The first was the deeply-entrenched hacendado, land-owning element, supported by the Catholic Church, a few home-grown financiers, and a powerful coterie of foreign concessionaires, chiefly British and American. Politically, they were Porfiristas; and they were looking for a new and yong dictator. The second was the emergent, rising bourgeoisie - the businessmen and small land-owning class, including a few propserous rancheros. They were generally nationalistic, which meant being anti-British and anti-American. And, like the bourgeoisie of seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century France, they favoured a somewhat limited constitutional democracy that would free them from the fetters of a largely feudal absolutism,and give them a modern administration responsive to their needs.

    The third was the great mass of Mexico's dispossessed - the peones and debt-slaves, the small rancheros, and the new class industrial wage-slaves, such as the miners and railway workers. Among these, there was a distinct, and very independent group, mostly confined to the state of Morelos and a few neighbouring states, who would later be called Zapatistas.

    Morelos lies just over 60 miles south of Mexico City. Since the sixteenth century, sugar plantations have dominated its life. Unlike elsewhere in Mexico, the great hacendados produced sugar-cane for profit and the market, and not for immediate consumption. After 1880, more and more of the Indians were forced off their common lands. Many of the haciendas developed into "company" towns, employing from between 250 and 3,000 workers. Such was the environment into which Emiliano Zapata was born, in San Miguel Anencuilco, in 1879.

    Zapata was not a landless peon; his family owned a modest rancho, and his parents lived in a small adobe-and-stone house (the remains of which still exist, as I discovered when I visited Anencuilco). The Zapata family were poor, but, unlike most of the people in Morelos, not depressed to the verge of want. Emiliano also had a little schooling. And he became an expert horseman. He was a bad orator, but he became a good organizer. And soon came to hate the rich landowners. Nevertheless, he was far more patient than many of his companions, even after he had been elected Supreme Chief of the Liberation Army of the South.

    Emiliano Zapata was, of course, not a socialist. Nor was he an ideologue. He wanted, and fought for, the return of the common lands stolen from the Indians; and, as time went by, he was influenced to some extent by the ideas of the anarcho-communist Ricardo Flores Magon. If anything, Zapata was a rather backward-looking utopian communist. But he could not be bought. He was offered almost anything to give up the struggle against the rich, the powerful and the Mexican state; but he never gave up, even after ten years. In 1919 he was lured into a trap by government agents and murdered.

    By 1920, after ten years of struggle, insurrection and civil war, Mexico was in a very poor way indeed. The power of the hacendados had been largely broken; but the people were exhausted. Even the Zapatistas had had more than enough. But, as recent events have shown, Zapatismo lives on.

    New Mexico
    Between 1920 and 1933, almost eight million hectares of arable land was returned to the peones. But between 1934 and 1940, during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, more than twelve million hectares was distributed. He also organized an "ejidal" bank to give credit to new farmers.

    However, with what was to be the slow, but irreversible, development of industrial capitalism in Mexico, the few existing, as well as newly-created ejidos, tended to become merely cooperative farms, largely financed by the government. Since 1940, more land has been distributed; but, in the main, the plots have been so small that they are economically unviable.

    Feudalism in Mexico has gone. A new, bourgeois, capitalist class has emerged, as well as its opposite, a propertyless, working class. But there are still millions of peones and former peones often living in appalling poverty. Many are, in the words of Franz Fanon, the "Wretched of the Earth", waiting, if they are lucky, to be used as cheap, exploited labour in a increasingly capitalist economy. For decades following the end of the civil war, they had became apathetic, demoralized, even frightened. Meanwhile the Mexican government had become more powerful, efficient and, therefore, more repressive. Then, things began to change. In October 1968, on the eve of the Olympic Games, over 200 student demonstrators were killed by units of the army.

    After 1969, numerous Zapatista-type groups began to operate in various parts of the country. There was considerable unrest in the state of Puebla, following land occupations. In the state of Guerrero, a guerrilla "party of the poor", another Zapatista-type organization, had considerable grassroots support in the vast, almost impenetrable mountain and jungle areas between Acapulco on the Pacific Coast and Morelos.

    Still Active
    Although its leader, Lucio Cabanas, was finally killed by the army in 1974, remnants of the "party of the poor" were still active in Guerrero when I was there in 1980. Throughout the 1970s, there was considerable unrest in at least five states. And hundreds of peones were killed by the Mexiacan army. In 1981, there were violent demonstrations against the state oil company, Pemex - in the state of Chiapas.

    Chiapas is in the extreme south-east of mexico, and borders Guatemala, with which it has more in common than northern and central Mexico. It has the highest percentage of "pure" Indians, largely of Maya origin, in the country. Many of its people do not speak Spanish, the official language of Mexico, but up to 20 local languages.

    Although capitalist relationships prevail in Chiapas, as elsewhere in Mexico, semi-feudal, conditions continue to exist. There are also still vast cattle ranches, controlled by a small clique, with the Indian villages administered by pro-government caciques or village bosses. Only about 65 percent of households have any electricity; and, particularly in the rural areas, there is little main drainage or running water. In a manifesto issued by the Zapatista Liberation Army, they claim" "we possess nothing, absolutely nothing, not land, not work, not education. Today, we say: enough". It is not surprising, therefore, that some at least have rebelled.

    They have claimed up to 2,000 guerrilleros, but this is obviously an exaggeration. Most of their weapons have been stolen from army depots. Originally, they captured about six towns, including San Cristobal de la Casa and Guadalupe Tepayac.

    The army have drafted in up to 15,000 troops. Over 200 people have been killed, much of them from bombing by the Mexican air force.

    Modern State Power
    It is obvious that such a movement will fail against the power of a modern state. Furthermore, it has no positive, forward-looking objective.

    The people know what they are against, but that is about all. Now that, especially with the signing of NAFTA, Mexico is being integrated into the North American capitalist orbit, the workers of Chiapas, and elsewhere in Mexico, have no alternative but to organize with their fellow workers throughout the world, in order to abolish capitalism completely. Violent rebelling can achieve nothing of value, neither in the short nor the long run.
    Peter E. Newell