Friday, September 16, 2011

The riots: not the way to help ourselves (2011)

From the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Self-regarding and typically under-employed, those exotically nominated experts in human behaviour have offered many wordless thanks for the unheralded events that enlivened the streets during those August nights. Suddenly they found the immediate future looking decidedly rosy with the prospect of well-paid sessions of unexciting analysis from TV sofas responding to badgering by equally tedious chat-show figureheads. Then there was the blossoming market for anaesthetic contributions to the newspapers, offering the seamier among them some help in recovering from the consequences of their exposed habit of phone-tapping. All of which sprang from the reassuring assumption that there was an easily accessible explanation, handily encapsulated in a slogan or even a single word, for the mobs with their rioting, looting and violence. This was a process to be helped in accordance with the weight of the qualifications of the “expert”. Even more so if their theories or explanations could be presented as original but neglected.

There is, as usual, no lack of precedent offered by those same experts and commentators. For example from London's recent history there were the events in Brixton in 1981 and the disturbance in Broadwater Farm Estate in 1985 in which a policeman was killed, for which a black man was sentenced to life imprisonment only to be exonerated in 1991. Inevitably, there were official enquiries after the disturbances, yielding the assurance that “lessons will be learned” – a phrase which has been worked to exhaustion in response to the present crisis, demonstrating how futile and misleading it is. Because the “lessons” have often revealed faults – shortcomings, errors or deliberate provocations such as racist bigotry on the part of the police – which have persisted to the present. So when it comes to the inevitable probing of this year's disturbances the starting point should be the police killing of Mark Duggan on 4 August and the attempt to dismiss the family's concern until, on 6 August, the threat of serious demonstrations on the streets burst out, spreading across London and to other cities.

In their response – or perhaps lack of it – the police seemed to be following an established procedure. This was not the first such case in which the official version, coming immediately after the event, was quickly shown to have a worryingly tenuous relationship with the truth. It brought back memories of the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 demonstrations in 2009. It then required some years of probing before the facts of Tomlinson's death were established and, however reluctantly, accepted by the police. One result is that a police officer, condemned by the inquest, is now due to stand trial for manslaughter.

In the case of Mark Duggan the police said initially that they had been forced to shoot him after he fired the first shot at a police officer, whose life was saved only because the bullet struck his radio. It did not take long for this version to be blown away, when the Independent Police Complaints Commission stated that there was no evidence to prove that Duggan had fired a gun. But beyond this confusion – if that is an adequate word for it – there is the hard reality of the actual social situation, of unyielding divisions, of inequality, poverty, sickness, despair... The police can deny any obligations arising from this, except to act as the enforcers of the essential principles of capitalist society, whatever misery they cause.

We have not seen the last of the verbal strategies used to conceal the nastiest facts about those recent public disorders. For example there was a newly minted vocabulary to denounce the looters, which had them as “opportunistic” offenders against property. This paid no heed to the fact that we are actively encouraged to accept that very word in admiration of much of what is rapturously accepted within capitalist society. Like the bankers and their infamous bonuses, or hedge traders gambling on a forecast movement in share prices. Like the exploitation of any and every development for whatever advantage it can allow a political party. Like the flood of lies designed to conceal the tragic reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them opportunistic.

Then there was the dismissal of the looters' claim that as things are now they can have little sense of ambition for their future and were merely trying to ease their poverty by helping themselves from the shelves of convenience stores or giants like ASDA. A youth worker from East Ham told the media that young people feel “trapped in the system...disconnected from the system and they just don't care”. This was countered with the argument that young people can hardly complain about poverty when they are wielding the latest models in so-called social networking technology, suggesting that they could cope with their problems as stoically as others such as elderly vulnerable people.

The limits of this case were shown by a social worker in a part of London unaccustomed to social disorder among its leafy green open spaces who was almost speechless with rage on behalf of one of his clients who is housebound, blind and incontinent, and whose (paltry) special laundry allowance has been cut off by the local council. This woman is scared of the rioters in her locality, and the social worker, while not at all likely to join them, has something of an understanding of their motivation. He is not at all impressed by the millionaire ex-Etonian, David Cameron whining about “...sickening scenes... This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated” – which brings us stark memories of Thatcher's opinions about the riots which periodically broke out while she was doing something called putting the Great back into Great Britain: “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened...They were criminal, criminal...”

And in case there is any doubt it should be made clear that she was not referring to the earlier activities of Cameron, Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson who helped themselves ease the boredom of swotting during their time at Oxford by joining the Bullingdon Club which, apart from dressing up in fancy evening suits devoted themselves to wrecking restaurants and other such places, often to the fear and annoyance of other people there. It was Johnson who came back from his very costly recent holiday to join the chorus about the looters' behaviour being “criminal” without recalling those leisure time activities of his younger days; perhaps he had forgotten that in his case there was a rich parent to defuse any resentment and dissuade the Bullingdon's victims from any intention to refer the matter to the courts.

But for anyone caught up in, or suffering from, those recent nocturnal mob activities, there was no such relief; their lot was fear and anxiety about their safety – or even their survival. For them any anger, desire for revenge about the looters would be perfectly understandable, if as futile as the whole machinery of so-called justice and order. The fact is that riots do not emerge from nowhere or nothing. Social disorder, damage to life and home, are part of the daily assumptions about life within capitalism. Even David Cameron has had to acknowledge that these forces are inexorably at work when he referred to “120,000 most troubled families” in this country (he did not mean those with someone in the Bullingdon Club).

The police sent to control this year's outbreaks were stronger in their weaponry and protective clothing than those in the past. This is represented as progress in the verbiage of the politicians and of those experts when what it in fact demonstrates is that the problems persist and show no sign of fading into history. Any meaningful investigation of the origins of the riots and looting cannot disregard their link to the effects of unemployment and the other persistent features of working class life – to poverty whether unemployed or in work, to poor housing and unnecessary disease all adding up to a burden of social deprivation which needs a relatively minor provocation to bring an explosion of anger and violence.
Is this the best we can expect in a world capable of satisfying human needs? Must our society be distorted by the toxicity of social ulcers? The looters deceived themselves that through the shattered shop fronts they were not just helping themselves to material goods but in a sense re-arranging social assumptions. As the enquiries into those events will eventually tell us, there are lessons to be learned here, but we reject the notion that these come best from those who claim the right to teach us, discipline us and punish us. Better to help ourselves by working for a peaceful, co-operative, abundant community.

Marxism and Democracy

Book Review from the February 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard

A useful addition to Socialist Literature

Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy (Gollancz, 1940, 7s. 6d.) was first published, in French, early in 1939 under the title "Marxism in Bankruptcy" (Marxisme en Faillite). It is a useful addition to Socialist literature and cannot fail to be of help to students of Marxism. While the author has decided views on the many controversies he deals with, he states a reasoned case and almost always gives the source of his many pointed quotations from the writings of Marx, Engels and others. He is not a doctrinaire, to whom Marx's writings are a text to be studied word by word and followed as a kind of Bible. As he says: "A Marxist cannot be orthodox unless he continually questions even the truths he has already acquired, including the words of Marx himself " (p. 48). But having considered the theories of the Bolsheviks, as well as the criticisms levelled at Marx from various hostile quarters, he shows once more how well the mature ideas of Marx and Engels accord with the developments and experiences of the years since their death.

The book will be of special interest to those who have read THE SOCIALIST STANDARD for a number of years. While on a few (but important) points his views differ from those of the S.P.G.B., it is remarkable to find him meeting one after another of the many misrepresentations of Marx with precisely the same arguments as those worked out in the ranks of the S.P.G.B. during its 36 years. Stating that one of his aims "is to disentangle the real ideas of Marx and Engels from the incredible confusion caused by their commentators," he summarises his conclusions as follows:—

the ideas of Marx and Engels changed and developed as they learned from historical experience; secondly, that it is false to present them as apostles of violent methods at all costs; and thirdly, that whoever ascribes ideas of non-violence à la Gandhi to them would be equally wrong. In the light of the experience gained in the course of their lives as militant Socialists they decided that under a democratic regime the workers would be able to achieve their aims by peaceful means, providing that Capitalism did not itself destroy that democratic legality without which there could be no question of the successful adoption of peaceful means. (p. 37.)

Among the points he deals with on precisely the same lines as the S.P.G.B. are the Bolshevik claim that Marx and Engels advocated dictatorship on the Russian model (pp. 38-43)—in passing he raps the knuckles of Mr. G. D. H. Cole for the same error; the Bolshevik claim that Marx favoured the smashing of the machinery of the capitalist state (p. 44) ; the notion that Marx and Engels preached nationalisation (p. 45); and the claim that Bolshevik organisation and tactics were Marxian. Laurat shows, as did the S.P.G.B., that "the Bolshevist organisational theory . . . although labelled Marxist, in reality represents a lapse into Blanquism, and has its roots in the backward state of Russia in general and of the Russian working classes in particular " (p. 122).

He points out interestingly how the Great War, 1914-1918, had as one of its consequences that it stirred into activity and drove into some of the workers' organisations great masses of workers whose political experience and understanding were not superior to the experience and understanding of workers who had been in such organisations before 1914, but greatly inferior. "Unacquainted with the ideas and methods of Socialism, except for a few ill-digested slogans," these inexperienced raw recruits were the material on which the Communists, with their theory of an intelligent minority leading the unenlightened masses, were able to work successfully. The backwardness inside Russia and the backwardness of these workers outside Russia combined to produce results which have been deplorable for the working class and Socialism.

One of the questions on which Laurat holds a different view from that of the S.P.G.B. is that of Socialists collaborating with capitalist parties. His argument is that in the period of ferment after the last war "the strength of the Socialist parties had very considerably increased. Socialism judged, with very good reason . . . that it was now strong enough to exercise a considerable, if not decisive influence on the Government. However, it was nowhere strong enough to take power alone " (p. 152).

There were three alternatives: (1) To share power with bourgeois parties whilst waiting until they had won over a majority of the electorate ; (2) to entrench themselves in intransigent opposition and decline the responsibilities of power until the situation was ripe; and (3) to try to seize power by force.

The last solution was the Bolshevik solution. It failed to produce Socialism and necessarily failed to do so:—

Even in power alone, ruling by terror, and no longer hampered by the resistance of their bourgeois colleagues, the Socialist ministers, or commissars of the people, would still find themselves face to face with hard economic reality, peremptorily forbidding the immediate establishment of Socialism. (p. 153.)

The second solution he likewise rejects, because "when a Socialist party has between 40 and 45 per cent, of the seats in Parliament it is impossible for it to abstain from participation except at the price of feebly handing over power to a bourgeois coalition in which the extreme Right would have every chance of seizing the principal levers of government and weakening democracy " (pp. 153-4).

Nothing remains in practice but the first solution: Socialist participation in the Government, in spite of all the risks attached to it (p. 154).

Laurat here fails to face up to the fact that his first "solution'' led to the discrediting of the parties that adopted it and in doing so it helped to weaken parliamentary democracy and to turn the workers to Fascist or Communist doctrines of dictatorship. The weakness of his argument should have been obvious to him. He concedes (p. 153) that refusing the responsibility of office (which means in all these instances refusing the responsibility of administering capitalism) is conceivable "in countries where the parliamentary representation of Socialism was still relatively feeble." He also concedes (p. 152) that much of the support on which the "Socialist" parties relied was that of "immature" masses who had declared for "Socialism" "often by instinct rather than by knowledge and reflection." All of which boils down to the simple fact that the "Socialist" parties (by which he means such parties as the Labour Party) had made the fundamental error of building up their membership and fighting elections on a programme which attracted instead of repelling the "immature masses" who did not understand Socialism. In other words, the parties with 40 to 45 per cent. representation in Parliament had it under false pretences.

It is surprising that Laurat is blind to this, because elsewhere he stresses the importance of real Socialist understanding. As he puts it on page 119, these workers are "in need above all things of a strong dose of Socialist education."

Readers of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD will appreciate Laurat's final plea that the working class "must reject the 'leader' cult more and more categorically. Unfortunately, far too many workers are still addicted to this cult, though it reeks of both Fascism and Bolshevism, and has nothing whatever to do with Marxism (pp. 253-4).

As there are other important points in the book it is hoped to return to them in a further article.

It is a pity that the book costs 7s. 6d., and has no index. The translator, Mr. Edward Fitzgerald, is to be congratulated on his work.

Edgar Hardcastle

Old Labour (2011)

Book Review from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. By Owen Jones (Verso Books 2011)

This well-received book has a snappy title and the subtitle fairly summarises one of its main themes. But a careful reading of its pages, and especially the concluding chapter, suggests a more descriptive title: “Down with middle-class Conservatism and New Labour. Up with the working-class Old Labour.”
Jones writes at the end of the introductory chapter:, “Class prejudice is part and parcel of a society deeply divided by class. Ultimately it is not the prejudice we need to tackle; it is the fountain from which it springs.” Tackling ‘the fountain from which [prejudice] springs’ is open to different interpretations. But the context makes it clear that for Jones the ending of the class system by the substitution of socialism for capitalism is not one of them.

The following chapters range over the inconsistent media treatment of the disappearance of middle-class and working-class children, the horrors of Thatcherism (no argument there), and the blaming of the victims in ‘broken Britain’.

In his concluding chapter – the author develops some of his Old Labour ideals:
“Instead of economic despots ruling over the British economy with nothing to keep them in check, key businesses could be taken into social ownership and democratically managed by workers – and consumers for that matter. It would be a real alternative to the old-style, top-down bureaucratic form of nationalization…”

Nationalisation is not, of course, the same thing as socialism, nor is it a step on the road to socialism. It is one of the two forms of capitalism: state (or officials acting on behalf of the capitalist class – as a whole) and private (ownership by individuals or corporations).
“The new class politics would be a start, to at least build a counterweight to the hegemonic, unchallenged politics of the wealthy… Working-class people have, in the past, organized to defend their interests; they have demanded to be listened to, and forced concessions from the hands of the powerful. Ridiculed or ignored though they may be, they will do so again.”
With those few stirring words Jones introduces his cunning working-class plan designed to achieve the new – improved – status quo. First, step up delivery of the loaves we produce into the ample larders of the rich and the powerful. Then fight them peacefully for crummy concessions. Good luck!
Stan Parker

Why society is falling apart (2011)

Editorial from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1997, as New Labour was first being elected, we carried a series of articles about the future of capitalism. In the light of the London riots, which spead with devastating effects through many other towns and cities across England a few weeks ago, it seems timely to reproduce some of the most salient points this month. They seem even more apposite now than they were then, and are all the more tragic that they were so predictable.
The social and moral codes which developed alongside the rise of the capitalist class during the system’s ascendency have been undermined. The nuclear family, the bourgeois work ethic and the sanctity of private property have all taken a battering under pressure from the rampant and ruthless individualism unleashed by the market itself. For any system of society to survive and prosper it needs its own codes and regulations of behaviour, but those that developed within bourgeois society are now being ceaselessly undermined.

  • This putrefying of capitalism's social basis and codes has taken on a number of forms, all of which are symptomatic of a society which is, to coin a phrase, ‘ill at ease with itself’:
  • The ongoing break-up of community relationships and the atomisation of the individual. This has been particularly characterised by the development of a competitive "every person for themselves" type culture as the dominant one in society, and by the appearance and consolidation of seemingly unbridgeable generation gaps.
  • The massive explosions of crime and drug taking, phenomena which were once peripheral or isolated in pockets, but which are now generalised throughout the market economy.
  • The increases in violence and social disorder, spurred on by the horror and violence infecting the media (especially for children), and the re-appearance – generally for the first time since capitalism's turbulent infancy – of mass rioting on a regular basis, which has turned major cities at the heart of capitalism into uncontrollable war zones.
  • The continuing, if not increasing, political vacuity of the capitalist class which has been mirrored in the rise of a nihilistic ‘no future’ culture among large sections of young dispossessed workers who see no progress and no hope beyond their pint glass or next ‘hit‘.
  • The massive corruption of capitalism's political apparatus, which is particularly evident in Britain, but which is in fact a feature of the modern nation state virtually across the globe.
  • It is in these ways that capitalism is undermining the principles and continued existence of collective life . . . and all the signs are that it will continue and probably deepen, for there are few if any forces or tendencies within capitalism operating in the opposite direction.

    Filling the prisons is no solution on many grounds, not least of which is cost, and no government following this line has yet really succeeded in reversing the process which the market has started. None of the political appeals to "family values" are likely to succeed either as the very continued existence of capitalism and the forces it has unleashed make that near impossible.

    Appealing to some sort of higher morality or set of values within the context of the market is clutching at straws, a long way from a considered and practical response to the problem. If the social decadence infecting society is to be overturned it has to be tackled at source – and that means the abolition of the market and the poisonous relationships which spring from it.

    A Denunciation of Nationalism (1952)

    From the August 1952 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Indian, M. N. Roy, who was at one time prominent in the Communist International, but later broke away and took a line of his own, recently wrote for the Manchester Guardian (21/6/52) an article "Asian Nationalism. Its Roots in Race Hatred."

    In it he puts the case that the Asiatic nationalist movements are not just movements to secure independence from the foreign governments that kept them in colonial subjection, for even after achieving independence they continue to preach the same anti-foreign doctrines as before. He quotes Mr. Nehru, Prime Minister of India, and advocate of Indian nationalism, as having admitted that he does not know what nationalism is:
    "What exactly is nationalism? I do not know, and it is extremely difficult to define. In the case of a country under foreign domination it is easy to define what nationalism is. It is anti-foreign power. But in a free country it is something positive. Even so, I think that a large element of it is negative or anti-, and so sometimes we find that nationalism, which is a healthy force, becomes—maybe after liberation—unhealthy, retrogressive, reactionary, or expansive."
    Yet though Mr. Nehru could not define nationalism he went on to declare that it "warms the heart of every Asian" and that "any other force that may seek to function must define itself in terms of this nationalism."
    Mr. Roy says this is nonsense and that what Mr. Nehru's explanation really means is that nationalism is "race hatred kept alive artificially."
    "Asia nationalism is an unmixed evil. It has not got the saving grace of a cultural and idealist origin as in the case of earlier European nationalism."
    Although Mr. Roy notices that between the wars European nationalism developed into fascism, and quotes the statement of the late Lord Acton that nationality sacrifices everything "to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State," he does not appreciate the simple fact that nationalism has been and is everywhere the form in which each capitalist group tries to carve out a place for itself in the world of warring capitalist states. If he did he would not be at all surprised that the politicians who have used nationalism to gain independence from a colonial power need it just as much afterwards in order to persuade the workers to go on fighting capitalism's battles.
    If it is an illusion to think that nations can be friendly in a capitalist world provided that they are all "independent," it is equally an illusion on the part of Mr. Roy to think that the Powers, great and small could dispense with nationalism.
    At least one thing Mr. Roy has correctly summed up. Discussing the disappointing results of national independence from the worker's point of view, he says that when India and other countries achieved independence, "absolutely nothing changed except the personnel of the State machinery."
    On one thing we can put Mr. Roy right. He says of the "reforming Liberals and the revolutionary Left: in the Western countries" that, disregarding the bitter experience and irony of history which had shown them nationalist movements starting with men like Mazzini and ending with regimes like Mussolini's, they "vied with each other in patronising colonial nationalism." Whatever the Liberals and Labourites did, the S.P.G.B. certainly did not fall into this error but always condemned nationalist propaganda whether at home or abroad, in Europe or in Asia.
    Edgar Hardcastle