Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Out of Feudalism (2012)

Theatre Review from the May 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death, by Edward Bond.

This play, written in 1973 and put on recently at the Young Vic in London, is set in early seventeenth-century England at the end of the feudal social order and the beginnings of capitalism, a time of social unrest involving the Enclosure and Poor Law Acts and the rise of the Protestant religion. The play is loosely based on the true story of the ageing Shakespeare’s part in siding with local landlords against the peasantry.

Bond shows how the feudal open arable field system of common land was preventing the development of capitalism. His character, landowner William Combe, wants profits by enclosing land and thereby dispossessing the former serfs of their strips of land. Bond dramatises the antagonisms between the capitalist and the peasantry who tear down hedges and fill in ditches in their struggle with the bourgeois landowners. The capitalist mode of production will simplify the class antagonisms. The peasants become landless proletarians, subject to the severe Poor Laws and forced to move into the towns to seek employment in capitalist manufacturing enterprises where their surplus labour value will be robbed by the capitalist. Bond exemplifies the stringent working of the Poor Law in the treatment meted out to the vagrant young woman from another parish who, after whippings, engages in arson attacks on private property and, in the shocking opening to Scene Three, ends up hanged on a gibbet.

The new Protestantism and its hell-fire and damnation doctrines are espoused by the son of Shakespeare's servant. The son is also a peasant landholder who will lose his holding with the enclosures. We first see the son as he launches a tirade at his gardener father who has been found in libidinous embrace with the vagrant young woman, thereby demonstrating his puritanical view of the flesh. This anti-sensuality contrasts with the bawdy revelry of Shakespeare which grows out of Chaucerian merriment and the more relaxed feudal social order. Along with his Puritanism, the son is opposed to the enclosures, but he is really an aspirant small capitalist who realises the anti-enclosures rebellion will fail and dreams of a place where a man can have land. The implied reference here is to the New World of the Americas, since the Mayflower set sail at this exact moment in history.

Following the Marxian approach of the materialist interpretation of history Bond plays down the importance of the new Protestantism as an agent in the transition to capitalism. Marx pointed out that it was the “bloody legislation” of the Enclosures and Poor Law legislation that forced the landless proletariat into the centres of manufacturing. This interpretation came under attack with the petit-bourgeois ideology of Max Weber's Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which asserted that the protestant belief of Calvinism caused the development of capitalism. Later, Henryk Grossman and his The Beginnings of Capitalism and the New Mass Morality (1934) refuted Weber and reaffirmed the materialist interpretation of history. He reiterated Marx’s point about “bloody legislation”, showing that the emergence of capitalism lies much further back than Calvinism and the Reformation, since merchant capitalism had existed within a feudal framework since the 12th century. Meanwhile Calvinism tended to be associated with petit-bourgeois elements rather than the emerging big capitalist owners, and Protestantism was a result of developing capitalism and was its ideological justification. The landless proletariat were physically forced into wage labour by the “bloody legislation” of enclosures and poor law.

Edward Bond's Bingo is a Marxist political drama that is set at a pivotal point in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Feudalism had existed in England for around 700 years, from 1066 until the beginnings of industrial capitalism at about 1760. A serf in medieval England would have seen the feudal system as eternal, in much the same way as today the ruling capitalist class tell us that capitalism is eternal. But they would both be wrong.
Steve Clayton




Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Spidergate Chronicles (2012)

Editorial from the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Future heads of state on both sides of the Atlantic have been hitting the headlines this month. In the US, the presidential election is forging ahead, full of fanfare, hoopla, moral combat, insincere promises and, of course, ‘economic analysis’. The whole shebang is well on its way to an underwhelming denouement in the inauguration of the 45th caretaker of US capitalism.

Less feverishly, Charles Windsor, future head of both British and (bizarrely) Canadian states, has been caught in the media’s headlights (again). Charles, of course, needs no Big Top and election razzmatazz to invest him with power and privilege, only the family circus and his mum’s approval, signalled by the popping of her royal clogs. Recent journalistic digging, though, has unearthed just how much power and privilege the dusty corridors of Clarence House still retain. The noble prince, it seems, has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar rifling the ‘estates’ of Cornish commoners who die without heirs - as is his perfect right, apparently. Silver spoons are not enough to satisfy the controversial princeling. Nor even cookies, it seems. Now we have Spidergate, the prince’s dark attempts to influence power by writing to the PM – forbidden fruit for the monarchy. And we learn, too, of his ability to veto legislation through the royal prerogative, an institution as potent and mysterious as the orb and sceptre themselves.
Meanwhile, down in the sink estates, ghettoes and no-go areas of the urban poor, where lurk dangerous ne’er-do-wells and benefit fraudsters waiting to mug the economy and deprive well-fed, citizens of their hard-earned privileges (how could we doubt you, Mr Pickles?) – in these mean streets, few cookie jars can be seen gleaming in the lamplight. In the depths of depression and austerity, belts are tightening, homelessness is rising and pay-day loan sharks are on the prowl for desperate families trying to keep the kids warm and fed.
And why? The owners of capital are on an investment strike: too few cookies are available to tempt them back into making profits, and even fewer crumbs than usual are falling from their tables for the rest of us. What to do? In a moment of distraction, Captain Cameron and George, his loyal bursar, have been seen rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Not that British Capitalism is going under – far from it. The ship may be holed and sitting low in the water, but she’s a sturdy vessel. And her buoyancy chambers are soundly maintained by workers loyal to the owners’ interests. Like the Titanic disaster, though, this latest plunge into recession is claiming victims in steerage as several thousand pensioners are calculated to die of hypothermia this winter in the UK as surely as the Titanic’s passengers perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic.
So, in place of a socially responsible and fulfilling life, it’s more bread and circuses for the rest of us: we can drown out our worries with the noisy clatter of Mitt and Barack in the gladiatorial arena or the sight of Charles sneaking down to the kitchen at midnight, looking for the Jaffa cakes. Bring on the clowns.

A Nobel Prize for Non-Economics

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2012 Socialist Standard

The Nobel Prize for economics is not a real Nobel Prize in that it was not set up by Albert Nobel himself but only by the Bank of Sweden in 1968. It usually goes to some economist who has done research on some obscure aspect of the market economy or on some government economic policy in vogue at the time. If you read the Swedish Academy of Sciences’ reason for awarding this year’s prize to Lloyd Shapley and Alvin Roth you could be excused for thinking that this year was no different. According to the citation it was for having ‘generated a flourishing field of research and improved the performance of many markets’ and ‘for the practical design of market institutions’.

Actually, this just shows up how ignorant or, worse, how deliberately misleading (to create the impression that markets are eternal) is the Academy’s understanding of economics. A position shared by the (London) Times (16 October) when it said that the winners’ ‘studies helped to improve efficiency in markets where price was not an issue.’ But a market where price is not involved is not a market. It’s an oxymoron.

What Shapley and Roth had in fact worked on was how to allocate resources to needs in a non-market context. As the (London) Times went on to say, they worked out in theory (Shapley) and practice (Roth) how to match ‘doctors to hospitals, students to dorm rooms and organs to transplant patients,’ adding ‘such matching arrangements are essential in most Western countries where organ-selling is illegal, and the free market cannot do the normal work of resource allocation’ (like allocating organs to those who can pay the most).

Shapley is a mathematician not an economist and so not concerned with markets, while:

‘Professor Roth is regarded as an authority on a field known colloquially as “repugnance economics” – in essence, the study of transactions where the application of the price mechanism is regarded as morally repugnant, such as the sale of body parts, sperm and eggs, prostitution and even dwarf-throwing.’

So, we really are talking about a non-market way of allocating resources. As socialism will be a non-market society where the price mechanism won’t apply to anything, the winners’ research will be able to be used for certain purposes even after the end of capitalism; which is not something that can be said of the work of most winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics.

No doubt it would continue to be used to allocate organs to transplant patients and students to rooms. In fact, this last could be extended to allocating housing to people living in a particular area. While they may not get their first choice, people would get something for which they had expressed some preference and that corresponded to their needs and circumstances. It might even help answer Bernard Shaw’s question, ‘Who will live on Richmond Hill in socialism?’ Since socialism will be a non-market society the answer can’t be, as it is under capitalism today, ‘those who want to and who can afford to.’ This would not only be ‘repugnant’ but impossible.




'On the Road' (2012)

Film Review from the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Jack Kerouac's seminal 'beat' novel On the Road was first published in 1957. It has finally made it to the silver screen in a faithful adaptation by Walter Salles (director of The Motorcycle Diaries about the young Che Guevara). Salles captures the excitement of youth in search of ‘kicks’ in the shape of sex, drugs, jazz and travel in the early years of the ‘beat’ generation. The story is autobiographical and concerns the adventures of would-be writers and poets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, their involvement with Neal Cassady in the years 1947-50 in New York City, Denver, New Orleans, Mexico and their transcontinental journeys.

Kerouac is sensitively portrayed by Mancunian actor Sam Riley who was excellent as Ian Curtis in the Joy Division film, Control, while Cassady is played to the hilt by Garrett Hedlund who was Patroculus in Troy.

Cassady represents for Kerouac the lust for life which he described as ‘the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’.

In the film Cassady is reading Proust's Swann's Way which is given him by Kerouac. Proust and Joyce were major influences on Kerouac as a writer, while Blake, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground were literary influences on all the ‘beat’ writers. Philosophically, they were influenced by Nietzsche and Spengler's Decline of the West, and advocated Rimbaud's ‘New Vision’ for their writings and his ‘derangement of the senses’ through drugs. Salles film includes scenes of marijuana smoking and ‘speeding’ on Benzedrine plus straight and gay sex scenes.

The outstanding performance is by Kristen Stewart as Mary-Lou, and her performance in this film is in stark contrast to her role in the right-wing teen vampire films of the Twilight series. Viggo Mortensen as Burroughs has only a brief cameo performance, but watch for Joan Burroughs sweeping the lizards out of the tree!

Jazz, particularly the be-bop revolution of the 1940's as personified by Charlie Parker, was an influence on the ‘beats’. In the film there is a ‘scat’ jazz vocal performance by Slim Gaillard portrayed by Coati Mundi.

The ‘beat’ generation was a reaction against the consumerism and materialism of post-war American capitalism, the puritanism of bourgeois morality, the conformity of middle-class life, the fear endemic in a post-Hiroshima world of the military-industrial complex, the racism and prejudice in society, and the general lack of spirituality. The ‘beats’ advocated a ‘second religiousness’ and pursued alternatives to Judeo-Christianity in eastern religions such as Buddhism.

In On the Road, Salles and Kerouac's sensitive portrayal of the Mexican fellaheen is fundamental to Kerouac's statement about land and indigenous peoples: ‘The Earth is an Indian Thing.’ 
Steve Clayton

Monday, December 3, 2012

Time to Tap the Human Resource

Editorial from the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard


As long as human life persists we will be faced with a simple, unalterable fact. We are material beings in a material world. Our lives, our thoughts, our feelings and desires, everything we value and hope to accomplish, no matter how solid or intangible are all made possible only because we have a material relationship with the Earth. Everything we have (and will ever have) to support our lives, we have created by applying our labour to the natural resources around us: the land, its minerals, its watercourses, its produce and its sources of energy. We do all this collectively – we always have: it’s who we are. Our mutual dependence has never been more total than it is today: it now takes the work of millions of people to put a single cup of coffee on a breakfast table every morning.

In our present world, though, the Earth’s resources, which should be the foundation of our material and social wellbeing, turn out to be the source of untold human misery. The cause lies not in the resources themselves, nor even in our relationship with them, but in the relationships we form among ourselves in human society. Private property divides us and forces us into competition with each other for the resources that nature gives freely. The demand for profits puts urgency into that competition and drives it to conflict, open or covert, local or global. It is seen everywhere: in the Brazilian rainforest where indigenous people and activists are killed, maimed and driven from their homes by loggers and mineral prospectors; in the Philippines where the killers are claimed to be the police, the military or the private security forces of the mineral companies themselves; in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose untold mineral wealth has been a source of local conflict for over seventy years, a conflict funded by multinational companies, happy to supply access to arms in return for the vast mineral wealth of the country. We’ve seen it in the huge global conflicts of two world wars, more recently in the oil wars of the Middle East, and now in mounting struggles over the world’s dwindling water supplies. Everywhere!

We find ourselves in a trap. Despite our mutual dependence and our social labour, the world’s resources pass not into collective ownership but into the ownership of a few who have acquired a monopoly over them and over the means needed to work them into the things we need. Competition and the mechanics of private ownership direct those few along the path of private profit and not of social need. So, now, most of us go insecure among great natural and created wealth; we spend our days at work but with no hope of controlling the work we do. We see a potential abundance all about us, but we have to make do with much, much less than we see. To all these things we give a single name: capitalism. None of this is any longer necessary. Isn’t it time we made a change?

Friday, November 9, 2012

"It will never work because . . . " (1985)

Editorial from the December 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Numerous undesirable social condition have been and still are explained away or justified by the glib remark that "you can't change human nature". Yet the science of anthropology shows these conditions to be cultural acquisitions, subject to change, and not the inevitable result of something inherent in people. Let us try to see, then, the particular ways in which human nature is supposed to be unchangeable, and what follows from thinking in this way.

Human nature is held by opponents of socialism, to be unalterable in certain respects that effectively prevent any conscious improvement in social conditions. Human beings, it is said, will go on acting in the same old ways, and so inevitably bring the same problems that have "always" faced them. Of course, if this were the case then it would be useless even to try to improve things, we might as well face the "inevitable" now. But those who hold this view obstinately refuse to have the courage of their convictions, and they are often found taking very active measures to avoid a fate, such as grinding poverty, that they forecast for others.

What are the reasons for holding and propagating the idea that "you can't change human nature"? From the point of view of those seeking to justify capitalism, there are many reasons. People are unemployed because they are "naturally lazy"; fight wars because they are "naturally belligerent"; cheat, injure and bankrupt each other because they "naturally act on the profit motive".

There are many variants of these arguments, and not all are put as directly as the examples quoted. Sometimes the objector to social change will try to coat the bitter pill that he forces himself to swallow. "Of course, it would be a good thing if people could always live in peace, but until we get a new race of human beings I am afraid this will be impossible". He wants social change, but only provided that certain impossible conditions can be fulfilled - which amounts to not wanting social change at all.

We can now see where all these arguments lead. It is toward the prevention of future change through the spread of a philosophy that justifies present evils. If people can be persuaded that what they want is impossible to achieve then they will give up struggling for it. Instead, they will content themselves with whatever crumbs they can pick up within the present set-up, in the knowledge that all social evils from which they suffer are "natural", and therefore unavoidable.

"Incurably selfish"
There are two main ways in which human nature is said to be unalterable. One is that we are supposed to be universally and incurably selfish, and the other is that mankind is mostly stupid and unteachable, and that intelligence is the prerogative of a few "born" leaders.

Let us examine these statements to see what truth they contain. If we were really incurably selfish, then there could never have been any sort of stable society, because no one would have co-operated with anyone else. If people were really so stupid by nature, then they could never have overcome previous obstacles to the development of their productive forces, and capitalism could never have grown out of feudalism.

When we take a closer look at the "incurably selfish" argument, we see that it rests on the assumption that everything that we do involves loss or sacrifice for other people. Now there is no question that some of the things people do have that effect. But there is equally no question that society depends for its very existence on the fact that there is co-operative behaviour, and that people do work at things which are of no immediate benefit to themselves.

We may infer from this that behaviour which benefits other people is at least as consistent with human nature as that which harms other people. Nevertheless, granting all this, it might still be true that selfishness exists in human nature side by side with social-mindedness, and that therefore it cannot be eradicated. Or, to put it more concretely, there are some things which we need so badly that we will injure other people in order to get them.

The answer to this is that, though such behaviour exists and may even be the general rule in property society, it is not natural to human beings. The fact that there is unselfish behaviour means that selfishness is not inherent in us. People only act selfishly or anti-socially when they can see no other way of obtaining what they desire (by co-operation, for instance) then there is no reason to suppose that they will not choose it when they see that it is better to do so.

Justification for behaviour
It is important not to confuse selfishness with self-interest. Self-interest is the satisfaction of one's desires at the expense of someone else. Self-interest is an integral part of human nature, but selfishness is not - unless it is assumed that everything we do is at someone else's expense. But we continually do things without detriment to other people, and the satisfaction of some of our desires, such as companionship and love, involves the satisfaction of other people's. Any selfish, anti-social behaviour that is present cannot therefore exist in the desires themselves, but only in the way they are sometimes satisfied.

Having seen that there is nothing to human nature that necessitates injuring one another, we must conclude that there is nothing in human nature that necessitates war. War can occur under certain conditions, but as far as human nature is concerned these conditions need not exist.

There is one contradiction in the argument of "selfish human nature" that we must point out. If it really is selfish then we all must share an equal guilt, and it is a case of one sinner condemning another. But those who use the argument give the lie to it themselves, because they impute incurable selfishness only to others and never to themselves. We have never the objector to socialism who seriously maintains that if an article were freely available he would still fight someone for his share.

The real reason for the doctrine of human selfishness is not hard to discover. It is a justification for the anti-social behaviour that a highly competitive society produces. The employer blandly counters the accusation of "selfish profiteering" with "selfish wage demand", and the worker who is not class-conscious falls for the trick. In reality, all the antagonisms result from the nature of the system that all except socialists support, and not from the selfish natures of either capitalists or workers.

"Stupid and unteachable"
The other way in which human nature is commonly said to be unalterable is that people are, on the whole, stupid and unteachable. Human intelligence is supposed to be too weak to enable people to solve the complex problems that face them - they must fight a losing battle with ignorance. The particular form in which we usually meet this argument is that most people are incapable of understanding socialism. Allied to this is the assertion that ordinary people would never be able to run society in their own interest.

It must be noted that, although most people are supposed to be incapable of understanding what are sometimes called the abstruse principles of socialism, the understanding of such complicated matters as the balance of payments or the American electoral system is assumed to be quite within their power. Propagandists for capitalism never tell us that we are too stupid to understand the tortuous arguments used, for instance, to prove that the way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. The point is not that arguments either way are too complicated and therefore beyond universal comprehension, but that the will to learn is actively discouraged when its threat to the continuation of capitalism becomes apparent.

From the unwarranted assertion that most people are stupid flows the equally unwarranted assertion that therefore they must always have leaders. And why must they have leaders? Because those who are in the position of having a following do not wish to lose their privileged position. The existence of leaders and "the led" implies that the former have the power to make decisions, whereas the latter have not. In co-operative enterprises the concept of leadership is foreign, since all the participants have a common purpose. When you know what you are doing you do not need somebody else to "lead" you to do it. The leader is thus the reflection of "the led", and the measure of their ignorance (not stupidity), and both disappear when people know what they want and how to get it.

Human nature is strictly what is common to the natures of the vast mass of all human beings. It has nothing to do with possession or non-possession of knowledge, which is governed by environmental factors, such as whether the particular knowledge is available to people.

The varying capacity for acquisition of knowledge means nothing more than that some people learn certain things quicker than others, and does not prove that some are incapable of learning.  Language - the expression for all communicable experience - is the possession of humanity as a whole, and it is the crassest prejudice to suppose that its fruits are beyond the reach of any individual or section of society.

Demanding the Impossible (1996)

Editorial from the March 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the Socialist Party was formed in 1904 our opponents called us "impossibilists", revolutionaries who took little notice of the practicalities of life, simply content to "demand the impossible" - the working-class conquest of political power for the immediate establishment of socialism, instead of reforms of the present system.

Over 90 years later, socialism still hasn't been achieved and is still considered a dream, mainly because the so-called "possibilists" - with their immediate demands and promises of reform - have diverted the attention of the working class away from fundamental social change. The modern day "possibilists" of Tony Blair's New Labour and Scargill's SLP still plough the reformist furrow, offering variations on an interventionist theme, but disillusion with their so-called "practical politics" is rife.

And why shouldn't it be? The twentieth century has been the century of reform par excellence, yet the problems of the capitalist system remain, with new ones emerging by the day. War, unemployment, stress, insecurity of life, environmental abuse, crime and many other evils haunt the working class and are impervious to the efforts of the reformers. In countries like Britain the rich get richer while the poorest get poorer still, and on a world scale the gap between the rich and poor is probably greater than at any other time in history. Most people on this planet are living in varying degrees of misery and yet the fundamental cause of the problems and misery - the market economy - remains unchallenged.

A principal contention of the Socialist Party at our foundation was that the market economy, having brought about a situation of potential abundance, could never be made to harness its productive potential in the interests of the wage- and salary-earning working class. As the century draws towards its close, we stand by that contention.

In truth, we were not really "impossibilists" in demanding socialism and nothing but for the working class at all - history has demonstrated that the real impossibilists were those who thought it worthwhile attempting to patch up capitalism. In demanding a humanised capitalism they have been demanding the impossible for decades. It is about time they took stock of the situation and admitted they have been wrong. They can then join with real socialists everywhere in building a society capable of solving social problems rather than only creating them.

Capitalist values rejected (1996)

Theatre Review from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Skylight by David Hare

Some moments in the theatre last forever. I remember in 1959 being overwhelmed by Beattie Bryant's dramatic and revelatory act of self-discovery at the end of Wesker's Roots -  a play which will always carry its inspiring message for socialists that people can change; that they can learn, individually and collectively, to take charge of their own lives and transform the world in which they live. Skylight by David Hare, now transferred from the National Theatre to Wyndham's Theatre, has much the same power to remain resolutely part of the memory.

I first saw Skylight soon after it opened last May. Months later when its impact continued to resonate I bought a copy of the script, the better to understand the nature of its claims on my memory. And now I am clear that here is a minor classic; a play of its time, full of insights about the mean-minded, miserable nineties, yet also full of optimism about the possibilites of desirable change.

A chamber play for three players - Skylight follows the meeting of two ex-lovers - Tom a successful entrepeneurial restaurateur in his early fifties, and Kyra a struggling teacher in her early thirties. Hare writes captivating dialogue of great weight - witty, honest and revealing. He is much helped by two amazing performances from Michael Gambon and Lea Williams, and by Richard Eyre's impeccable direction. Tom and Kyra stand as emblems of their respective classes: he is a thrustful money-maker; she a put-upon employee. But Hare doesn't make the mistake of making Tom a pantomime villain and Kyra only the course of goodness and light. Tom is insensitive, dogmatic and macho, but he is also lyrical, amusing and compassionate. Kyra is principled, steadfast and courageous; but she is also acerbic, self-righteous and stubborn.

What remains for me are memories of an enthralling evening and the almost epic quality of Kyra's daily struggle to teach deprived, poverty-stricken children. "You care for them. You offer them an environment where they feel they can grow. But also you make bloody sure you challenge them." Kyra has a first class honours degree in maths and Tom cannot understand her motivation. He accuses her of throwing her talents away "teaching kids at the bottom of the heap", and of doing "anything rather than achieve".

The last page of script begins with Kyra offering this ringing defence: "I have to eat quickly. There's a boy I'm late for. I'm teaching him off my own bat. Extra lessons. Early, so early! I sometimes think I must be going insane. I wake at five-fifteen, five-thirty. The alarm goes off. I think what am I doing? What is this all about? But then I think no, this boy has the spark. It's when you see the spark in someone  . . . This boy is fourteen, fifteen. His parents are split. He lives in this place I cannot describe to you. It's so appalling he has to the bloody common to work . . .  And that is it, that's being a teacher. One really good pupil. That's enough."

To those who would have us believe, mistakenly, that human nature is intrinsically fixed and selfish, Kyra's behaviour is inexplicable. Yet there are many thousands of teachers whose benevolent behaviour mirrors precisely that of Kyra. Even in this rotten catch-as-catch-can world such people reject the egocentric selfishness of capitalism. They seek satisfactions in ways which help others. Imagine the explosion of concerned, caring behaviour when strife and competition are replaced by sympathy and co-operation. The struggle to create such a world is given substance by Skylight.
Michael Gill

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm: Historian and Leninist (2012)

From the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death of Eric Hobsbawm on 1 October marked the end of a generation of left-wing historians who, while advancing historical materialism, rejected Marxian politics by embracing Leninism.

Prominent amongst this group were E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, but the list also includes Maurice Dobb, A.L. Morton, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Victor Kiernan, Raphael Samuel and George Rudé. They entered the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and were active in the Communist Party Historians Group. Despite their political shortcomings, in the decades following the Second World War their work was part of a challenge to the arid, high-political history of ‘great men' that had previously dominated the academic study of history. Some went on to be active in the founding of the Society for the Study of Labour History and were part of the rise of social history ‘from below’ as an established academic subject. They produced works of historical scholarship which sometimes received a warm welcome from Socialists eager to absorb scholarship with a historical materialist perspective. Some of the work of this group of historians will continue to be a rich resource for socialists. If only they could have applied their historical materialism as rigorously to their own times as to their respective periods of study, perhaps they would not have politically affiliated to Leninism.

Hobsbawm, like many of the Communist Party historians who later rose to prominence, was radicalised during the inter-war years, pinning his hopes for the future on the Soviet Union. Nonetheless most of them left the Communist Party after the Russian repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, already disillusioned by the dawning realisation of the horrors of Stalin’s Russia and ongoing state repression. Hobsbawm was unusual in that he did not leave the Communist Party but remained a member until its collapse and to some extent continued as an apologist for Bolshevism until his death.

Hobsbawm was no unrepentant Stalinist, being an advocate of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and a supporter of Neil Kinnock’s reform of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but he retained a sense of the Soviet Union having been a worthy experiment gone awry. In his memoirs he wrote that the “dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me . . . I have abandoned, nay, rejected it, but it has not been obliterated. To this day, I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.” (Interesting Times, p.56) In an article in the Guardian (14 September 2002) Hobsbawm said, “In the early days we knew a new world was being born amid blood and tears and horror: revolution, civil war, famine … Thanks to the breakdown of the west, we had the illusion that even this brutal, experimental, system was going to work better than the West. It was that or nothing.”

But it wasn’t that or nothing. As a member of the CPGB Hobsbawm supported the Soviet Union because it represented the hopes of those who mistakenly believed that a brutal form state capitalism could transform itself into a genuinely socialist society. As such he was an opponent of the Socialist Party, which then as now, seeks to establish socialism on the basis of real common ownership and democratic control of the means of living without a ‘transition period’ involving state capitalism. In one of his articles, originally published in New Left Review, Hobsbawm wrote on the subject of H. M. Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and referred to the Socialist Party of Great Britain as a “wholly irrelevant conventicle”. For a historian known for his grasp of detail, however, he wrongly stated the date of the formation of the party as 1906 instead of 1904. Doubtless this is because, like most historians who dismiss the Socialist Party out of hand, he had never taken the time to seriously examine its historical background or record.

The article went on to call for a reassessment of the SDF which had previously been scoffed at by left-wing historians. The SDF, argued Hobsbawm, had demonstrated longevity, had a proletarian character and had many left-wing workers that passed through it. It was characterised not by sectarianism but by an understandable intransigence (although, as a good Bolshevik, Hobsbawm remarks that the SDF was “quite unable to envisage … the problems of revolt or the taking of power.”). Hobsbawm’s qualified acknowledgments of the achievements of the SDF are all equally applicable to the historical place of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in British working-class political life. But one thing rules it out of contention for inclusion in the historical record of socialism in Britain for left-wing historians – it did not feed into the formation of the CPGB in 1920 but opposed it. For Hobsbawm, the SDF had historical credentials as part of a political exercise of looking for British native antecedents of the CPGB. The Socialist Party has stood for socialism as understood by Marx – non-market and non-state – and was therefore anti-Bolshevik. Because of this, the Socialist Party has been ignored or summarily dismissed by historians of communism and the labour movement who have generally been Leninist, Trotskyist or Labourite.

Disappointment with the realities of the Soviet Union led many of Hobsbawm’s contemporaries in the CPGB to ultimate political disillusionment and subsequent trajectories into other variants of left-wing politics. Whilst that generation of historians has itself become history, the Socialist Party still carries on the political task ignored by them – that of trying to begin to make the Socialist revolution that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia could never have achieved. That task necessarily involves an understanding and rejection of the strategy of the insurrectionary seizure of the state and the establishment of state capitalism as a route to Socialism. Today Socialists still have much work to do to recover the words socialism and communism from their association with state capitalism and the brutality of the political strategy supported by Hobsbawm.
CSK

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Presidential follies: the Reagan landslide

From the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

You have entered a movie theater after the beginning of the story so you sit through the brief intermission between showings in order that you might piece together the parts. Ultimately, the tale begins to come together; you have now seen it all and the story is complete in your mind so, generally, you will turn to your companion and say: "This is where we came in, let's go."

Well, after observing US Presidential elections with varying degrees of comprehension since the race between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith back in 1928, this writer can certify that the sole reason he has been unable to walk out on any of them is that, short of marooning himself on an uncharted desert island, there has been nowhere that he could take himself to escape. One cannot turn it off - one can only suffer through the periodic re-runs. The only changes worth noting are the occasional substitutions.

After more than a half century of involvement to lesser or greater degree in the ranting, raving, fuming and spluttering that are seemingly the essence of the politics of American capitalism he can understand why it has been that such a large percentage of the eligible voting population - being unaware of any alternative type of political activity (the politics of revolutionary socialism) - have so frequently passed up the opportunity to cast a ballot. For whatever reason, the 1984 Presidential election in which the old-time Democratic approach as represented by Walter Mondale was ostensibly buried in a Reagan landslide victory (525 Electoral College votes to 13 - 49 out of 50 states) brought out an unusually high voter turnout - some '55%. Analysis of all of the results, however, indicates strongly that the gut feeling remains high that there is little, if any, difference between the "philosophy" of the contending Parties. How else can one explain the fact that the same voters who rejected the "liberal" Walter Mondale for the "right-wing" conservative Ronald Reagan denied the conservative Republican Party enough seats in the House of Representatives to afford them any sort of control in that important body? Indeed, the fact that voters seem traditionally to cross party lines in elections would seem to indicate that they perceive no important ideological differences among the parties of capitalism.

One all-important lesson to be learned from the 1984 election is the fact that, as President Reagan himself put it: "The people are in charge." And that explains why politicians of capitalism - even Ronald Reagan and his ilk - strive to keep their ears to the ground in order to detect majority attitudes that must determine their degree of liberalism or conservatism. The politicians with the keenest ears are the ones who usually win elections. It also explains why socialists maintain that once "the people" (a majority of whom constitute the working class) grasp the concept that enlightened self-interest determines a need for a sane, classless, social system, old-line politicians will either be compelled to go along with popular conception or be buried in a revolutionary political landslide.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY: A NON-ISSUE
But let us get down to brass tacks on at least some of the issues that have shaken up the American electorate in this year. Issues? You bet there were issue - a plethora of them. The propagandists of airwaves, press and pulpit have cajoled, scribbled, and thundered on the subjects of the national deficit and whether or not taxes will have to be raised in order to lower it; the right of the expectant mother to abort vs the right of the fetus to mature and be born; prayer in the schools vs separation of church and state; "star wars" in the skies (missiles that would be designed to destroy enemy missiles en route to us) and new, improved nuclear weapons as opposed to up-to-date conventional fire bombs and block-busters capable of inflicting mass murder and mayhem in a somewhat more confined area and with fewer potential side effects; women's rights and minority (ethnic) rights and so on and on. You name it - America's capitalist politicians have it; issues all based on the assumption that there is no other system of society possible than what is now extant in the world.

One of the main issues in the campaign was the state of the economy, but is this really a matter that should be of concern to the working class? To a limited extent, perhaps. In the sense that a healthy economy indicates a better opportunity for jobs it is, but in no way does that indicate that wage rates and living standards will necessarily be better for those who perform the jobs. In fact, in a significant number of cases workers with jobs are worse off than when they were unemployed since they will be cut off from welfare benefits that they may have had - services and other benefits that are frequently unaffordable on low and even on moderate salaried income.

The all-importnat fact to bear in mind, though, is that the economy of a nation is the business of the capitalist class or, in the case of "communist" dictatorships, of the state capitalist bureaucrats and other highly privileged strata of surplus value eaters. To put this matter in a homely and understandable way, a popular concept, even among radicals, is a huge pie which represents the sum total of a nation's production. The working class, according to this philosophy, receives for its share a relatively small segment of the pie because, being compelled to live on wages, workers can only buy back the equivalent of their pay in tangible goods and services. But upon reflection, this just does not make sense because it would seem to be in the capitalists' interests to force increases of pay on their employees, thereby enabling them to buy more and increasing the total of production and profits.

Of course the constant pressure is entirely different: rather than increased production via higher wages the eternal outcry is for increased productivity and lower wage costs. Since labor power is a commodity, what increased productivity means to the worker is that he is required to give more of his commodity without a corresponding increase in pay. It also means that his life-store of commodity labor power is used up at a younger age and anyone who believes that old saw: "hard work never hurt anybody" should look more closely at the condition of the working class.

The workers do not share the "pie" that they produce. They have been paid in wages/salaries, and whatever the amenities that have been granted - grudgingly or otherwise - to "bake" it and the whole damed shell, with all of the fillings, is the property of the capitalist class. Ironically, they have been paid out of previously produced capital which is the fruit of their previous toil. In other words, they must even produce the wages that the capitalists pay them: a con game (albeit and honorable) if ever there was one.

So the lesson that workers must learn is simple enough. As long as capitalism exists they must resign themselves to the indignity of exploitation. But they are not compelled to swallow the cock-and-bull story that makes of them "partners" in capitalism's industries, in capitalism's economy.

THE PARTIES OF AMERICAN CAPITALISM
One of the more exasperating responses a socialist can get to his pitch for a sane society goes something like this: "Of course, I agree with you that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, is a menace to the very existence of our planet, and should be abolished lock, stock and barrel - and the sooner the better. But you know as well as I that the working class is not ripe for such action so, in the meantime, I am going to vote for the lesser of two evils. Walter Mondale (or whomever) would be better as President than Ronald Reagan (or whomever) . . . "

Most of those who make such a choice seem not to realize the significance of their action: they are avowing their perception of which party best serves the interests of American capitalism. And the truth is that when one gets down to the kernel of what the politicians of both sides have to say, and their published platforms, the difference between them is akin to the difference between two rotten eggs, one prepared "sunnyside up", the other flipped. Strong condiments might disguise the odor and even the flavor but the effect on one's gastro-intestinal system would be similar if not identical.

So true is this, in fact, that we have the spectacle of President Reagan, Vice-President Bush and others of the Republican Party extolling the virtues of those late Democratic Party heroes - Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy, to the dismay and horror of the Democrats. When these Republican orators are called to task for it by Democratic bigwigs, they reply, simply, that the present Democratic Party has abandoned the tenets and principles of their forebears.

If Reagan is allegedly trying his best to manipulate US into a war in Central America, didn't F.D. Roosevelt allegedly manipulate Japan into making the first military strike at US back in 1941? And if Reagan's foreign policies threaten a drift toward nuclear war, how about Roosevelt, Truman, and the A-bombs dropped on Japanese cities during WWII? Or Truman with his Korean "Police Action"? Bringing it a bit closer to our present times, how about Kennedy all but scaring the wits out of the world with that Cuban missile crisis? And all of those Democratic Party heroes and their pursuance of the Vietnamese War?

Even on the domestic front Reagan can look back admiringly to actions by those Democratic Party knights-in-armor. If he (President Reagan) busted the Air Controller's Union and fired the entire membership for striking against the Government, didn't F.D.R. federalize the National Guard to break a strike against North American Aircraft in Los Angeles shortly before America entered WWII? And a number of years prior he had informed Works Project Administration (WPA) workers that "You can't strike against the government." And didn't Harry S. Truman use Federal troops to break a railroad strike after the War? The list that justifies Reagan's extolling those great Democratic Party Presidents is long. So what are the leaders of the Democratic Party beefing about?

LAME DUCK REAGAN
Finally, if there have been cuts in social welfare programs under Reagan - which there have been - they were not accomplished against Democratic Party opposition. There was some compromise on the degree but there was definite collaboration between the parties. There is no such thing in America's political machinery of government as a President with anything approaching dictatorial powers. Nor, for that matter, are either of the two political parties in control of US capitalism monolithic in make-up. The Democratic Party has a bloc of Southerners, known as "Boll Weevils" who frequently will unite with conservative Republicans on critical votes while within the Republican Party there are always a number of "moderate" and liberal types who will support the "liberal" Democrats to the discomfiture of their fellow Republicans of conservative bent.

An all-out Donnybrook is expected to materialize before the 1988 Presidential elections in both parties between "liberals" and "conservatives" for control and the opportunity to capture the White House. For this Presidential Follies of 1984 has been Ronald Reagan's  "Last Hurrah." He is now - in the parlance of American political English - a Lame Duck.
Harry Morrison


Friday, November 2, 2012

Previous convictions

From the Spring 1985 issue of the World Socialist

I was fifteen before it dawned on me that the pain I had been getting between the eyes was not a malignant tumour which would quickly grow to the size of a melon, invading every lobe, capillary and ventricle of my brain until I was blind, deaf and dumb and reducing me to a dribbling, mewling vegetable until I died in excruciating agony - but only a bad case of boredom with school.

I cut down at once on my aspirin intake and my sense of recovery was complete when I realised that my boredom was not entirely due to my being a loutish, spotty adolescent but was also something to do with how I was treated in the classroom. My school masters were bringing me to a state bordering on sensory deprivation by "teaching" me stuff which was patently incorrect. It was too much, to expect them to make it interesting.

In any case I was feeling dissatisfied with society at large - although pretty satisfied with myself - because of my recent addiction to politics. My theories were startlingly simple and illuminating false. Before 1939 there had been all sorts of problems - slump, unemployment, extreme poverty, strikes, culminating in the war itself. The governing party for those years had been the Conservatives. Therefore, those problems had been preconceived, designed and implemented by the Tories. Therefore, the way to a happier, abundant, peaceful society was through ditching the Tories and electing a Labour government.

I was in favour of nationalising everything; the state machine was potentially the overall benefactor of us all and must be given the chance to operate in this way. I propounded this idea with an arrogance which bewildered my parents and irritated my schoolmates. Any event in the entire history of the human race could be quickly explained by me in a few illuminating words, leading to the conclusion that Clement Attlee should be Prime Minister. This made things rather difficult for me at school but I was saved from the inevitable crisis confrontation by a bout of food poisoning, the symptoms of which lingered for months, until I could reproduce them almost at will. Eventually, a kindly but gullible doctor diagnosed me as a case of neurasthenia and in need of a long rest. I had, he surmised, suffered emotional damage through the stresses of the war - the air raids, the rationing, the worry of the king having to be evacuated to Balmoral when a stray German bomb fell in the capacious grounds of Buckingham Palace. The timing of this diagnosis was lucky for me; with suspicious speed the school accepted the suggestion that I leave early and I was allowed to step through the gates for the last time, into an agreeable year of reading, dreaming and political activity.

I blush now to recall what that activity amounted to. I had spent much of that early summer working frenziedly for the return of the 1945 Labour government. Each evening, instead of crouching over my homework, I had gone to the local Labour committee rooms, gathered up literature and canvassing cards and sallied out to harangue countless bemused voters on the evils of pre-war Toryism. My special devils were Baldwin and Chamberlain; if anyone was unkind enough to remind me of Macdonald and Snowden I contemptuously dismissed them as under-cover Tories who had been exposed just in time to save the soul of the Labour Party, which was now safe with Attlee, Bevin, Morrison . . . 

The constituency I campaigned in had been traditionally a safe Conservative seat, which a blue-rosetted monkey could have won but which was held by a titled fop who could hardly put together a coherent speech and who had insurmountable problems in answering the simplest of questions. At his public meetings my seething outrage would erupt into shrill schoolboy heckling. Even worse to me, the MP had been an admirer of the Third Reich and had posed for photographs beside Hitler at big Nazi rallies. In the 1945 delusions about Labour's brave new world that was the sort of constituency which fell in droves to the Labour Party but in this case the fop held on by his manicured finger nails, keeping a little patch of blue on the constituency map amid an ocean of red. My chagrin at our failure to humiliate the Nazi baronet was mollified by my pleasure at the overwhelming return of the Labour government. As the committee rooms shut down I began to spend my time at numerous ward, committee and Labour League of Youth meetings. I now had the party members to harass instead of the voters on their doorsteps and I was not overwhelmingly popular but I justified it by saying that there was a lot to prepare for; the workers of Britain, after almost fifty years of travail, was about to arrive at the Promised Land.

The rest is a history which did not reassure me in the making. Right at the beginning, Clement Attlee went to Buckingham Palace not, as I had dreamed, to inform the king that the revolution had come and that henceforth the royal homes would be taken over as shelter for homeless workers who, after all, had won the war and then put Labour in power. Instead, he went to kiss hands, swear loyalty and agree to form a government which would keep the class represented by the royals secure in their wealth and privilege. Then the Russian workers became abruptly transformed from our staunch allies in the fight against fascism into our mortal enemies. We could not, it seemed, expect to arrive at the Promised Land until we had dealt with the threat from Moscow and with other enemies as well - unofficial strikes, the Greek Communists, the Communist Party over here, the East Germans, the North Koreans, the Chinese. The list seemed endless; it even included the Americans, whose dominant economy had undermined the Imperial Preference system, which was supposed to bring such benefits to us from the British Empire. It was all very confusing and frustrating to a recent survivor of brain cancer and adolescent acne and I resolved to look elsewhere for the soul of true socialism.

I began, daringly, to attend public meetings addressed by dissident Labour MPs like Konni Zilliacus and John Platt-Mills who, in spite of their membership of the party, seemed to oppose almost everything the government did. In particular they were clear that the Russian ruling class, headed by the remote and sinister Joseph Stalin, was devoted to PEACE while the American rulers, represented by bland, diminutive Harry Truman, was intent on WAR. These dupes of the Communist Party - which itself was a collection of unwavering dupes of Russian capitalism - appealed to my sense of outrage and bewilderment at the compliance of the Attlee government with so many of the things I wanted to see abolished from human society. The Communist Party began to look very attractive to me. Of course there were a few problems in arguing away a great deal of recent history and experience -  the show trials of the '30s, the Russo-German pact, the murders and repressions of Stalin's pitiless rule - but I managed it. My time in the Labour Party had obviously taught me something.

And that is about when I met Charlie who, wherever he is now, is probably unaware of his vital, unintentional, formative influence on my political ideas. Charlie was an old friend of the family; in the army during the war he had been through some nasty battles and had been demobilised to a homeless wife and child. He at once joined the local squatters movement, which was taking over disused military buildings under the encouragement of the Communist Party. Once his family was housed, Charlie joined the CP; he also got himself a job as a bus conductor and it was on his bus that I met him again, one morning in the dreadful winter of 1946/7, as I hunched miserably against the cold in a workbound trolley-bus. I was startled to feel my proffered fare pressed firmly back into my hand and looked up as Charlie grinned an invitation to "have this ride for nothing, Comrade".

I began to see a lot of Charlie after that and we always argued about politics, with me too ready to accept his Stalinist chop-logic, if only because it always led me to the conclusion that what really mattered was the "education of the workers" - with people like us, of course, as the educators. This encourage Charlie to believe that he had persuaded me into joining the CP and indeed that may have come about, had we not arranged to meet one Saturday evening at the local common, where all sorts of political and religious groups held outdoor meetings. I really went along in the hope of getting in a bit of Tory-bashing (in spite of all my doubts and confusion, they were still the final enemy). I moved from one platform to another until I came to one where a young guy with daringly long hair was speaking about a world without classes, money, war.

A few weeks later, trembling with anxiety, I applied to join my local Socialist Party of Great Britain branch. Charlie was furious: "Armchair bleeding theorists," he snarled, "Better than actually doing anything though, ennit?" He just did not know what a relief it was to be free of those political agonies of my schooldays, not to have to chop and twist in order to survive in a discussion, to have an explanation of society and an arguable reason, instead of an emotional spasm, as the basis of working for a new world order. It still worried my parents but with my previous convictions in the past, I became a reformed character.
IVAN

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On the Right-Wing (2012)

Book Review from the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hate. By Matthew Collins, Biteback Publishing, 2011. £14.99.

Subtitled ‘My Life in the British Far Right’ this is the story of a former member of the National Front in the late 80s and early 90s who then became close to the leadership of the British National Party in the days when it was more openly Nazi than it is now. Collins also later became a fringe participant in the violent Combat 18 group of Nazis and is in a similar mould to other former far-right activists like Ray Hill and Tim Hepple who became ‘moles’for the anti-fascists associated with Searchlight magazine.


It is an account that is frightening but entertaining in equal measure, giving an insight into the mindset that drives someone from a white, working class background to be involved in fascist politics. It also gives an insight into some of the violent tactics and internal feuding that have characterised the far right in Britain for decades.
The leaders of the so-called ‘master race’are clearly shown up to be the misguided and psychologically unbalanced individuals many of them are. Referring to a particular sortee by Combat 18 thugs in Brick Lane, Collins comments: ‘I looked along our line at the drug dealers, the gangsters, the football hooligans and wife beaters who believed in their tiny minds that they were going to save the white race from drug dealers, wife beaters, gangsters, Jews, blacks and Asians’, and this pretty much sums it up.
The later chapters chronicle Collins’movement away from racist politics over time, his particular function as a ‘mole’for Searchlight and the police interest in his activities, though these don’t perhaps have the depth they might have. The foot soldiers (and ‘political soldiers’) of the BNP, NF, etc have long being considered a potential threat to public order and are therefore closely monitored –and sometimes infiltrated –by the state apparatus, often acting on information gathered by the anti-fascists on the left. This has created much controversy in recent times about the link between the two and Collins doesn’t perhaps address this as clearly as he might.
There are also a few factual errors here and there but nevertheless this is a book worth reading. This is especially so in a political climate where the BNP (despite some recent internal strife) has been garnering significant numbers of working class votes from the politically disaffected since the skinheads, swastikas and jackboots have been less visible to the public eye.
DAP

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Crunch Time for Credit Creationists (2012)

Editorial from the October 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since the Credit Crunch of 2008 and the accompanying depression, a flood of ideas has appeared on the internet and in discussion forums of all kinds claiming that, like a stage magician, high-street banks have been creating credit, money or even wealth out of nothing. This, it is claimed, has led to the continuous enrichment of fat-cat bankers at the expense of everyone else. Anarchists, conspiracy theorists, reformists, academics, professional economists and those simply looking for someone to blame for the economic collapse have all taken up the idea and elaborated it into a number of more-or-less confused theories about the way banks operate. According to one such theory, bankers were guilty of pursuing a lucrative but unsustainable policy of ‘credit creation’ in the knowledge that when the crunch inevitably came they would be seen as ‘too big to fail’ and governments would bail them out.  According to many, ‘credit creation’ by banks is not just the cause of the banking crisis, but the origin of the current slump in the economy as well. Others, taking a wider view, argue that it is the cause of longer-term, unsustainable growth. 

Whatever their differences, all these theorists believe that regulation of the banking system and the suppression of ‘credit creation’ will restore the good times we experienced before the sudden catastrophic plunge into rising unemployment, forgetting in their enthusiasm that those times were far from good for a great number of working people. Most believe that it will restore control of the economy, overlooking the fact that the anarchy of the market has never submitted itself to control by any agency.  

That such ideas should take hold now is perhaps not surprising: similar ideas arose and became popular in the years following the last great financial crisis:  the stock market crash of 1929. They provide an easy but deceptive explanation of what has caused the current chaos in the economy, and suggest an easy remedy. They also point the finger of blame at the hated bankers. But where do they take us - really? By locating the cause of our economic and social ills in a relatively secondary facet of the capitalist economy - the activities of the banking system - they fail to address the real source of our problem, which lies deep in the capitalist system itself. They take us, yet again, down the futile road to reformism. No regulation of banking activity can possibly remove the exploitative nature of capitalism’s system of wage labour or eliminate the conflicts on which the system rests. While capitalism exists, the satisfaction of human need can never be the aim of productive activity. Nor can any progress be made to eliminate the system’s huge differences in wealth or provide social fulfilment for the vast majority of humanity. Credit creation theories can only provide us with more of the same. They are, at most, another diversion from the urgent need to replace the capitalist system with a more genuinely social, free and fulfilling society.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In defense of capitalism (1995)

Book Review from the November 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds. Essays on the Second World War by Raymond Challinor (Bewick Press)

This book lives up to its title, being a collection of articles written for different journals over the years on working class discontent in Britain during the Second World War.

Challinor is under no illusion as to why the war was fought, not to 'defend democracy' and 'defeat fascism' but to defend the conflicting economic and strategic interests of the ruling classes of the countries involved.

He gives a good account of what these interests were but his main theme is about how warring governments also have to take steps to maintain 'the will to fight' amongst the population they rule over. His contention is that, on a number of occasions in Britain, this was in danger of being undermined, but that this was hushed up - and so successfully contained - by the authorities.

Challinor describes how the Labour Party was a loyal defender of the British Empire (one of the key issues at stake in the war) both before and during the war, even ordering the bombing of tribespeople in Iraq to protect British oil interests there. He reminds us too of the ultra-jingoist position adopted by the Communist Party, though only after the German attack on Russia on 21 June 1941. Before that they had loyally supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact, calling for a negotiated peace with Germany, a demand Challinor shows had more widespread support amongst people (and not just Moscow puppets or Nazi sympathisers) than we have been led to believe.

Challinor writes as a Trotskyist (though at the time he was a member of the old ILP, not that the two were incompatible) and so exaggerates not the discontent itself, but the possibilities of exploiting it for anti-war ends. Despite this, this is a book which will be of interest to Socialists. It also contains a number of well-aimed cartoons, one which we reproduce here.
Adam Buick



Who are the ecologists? (1984)

From the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is broadly accepted that acid rain is damaging forestry, fisheries, agriculture, buildings and public health throughout Europe, Eastern Bloc countries, Scandinavia and North America. For example over 18,000 lakes in Sweden are "acidified"; 4,000 of them are "biologically dead". According to information put out by Acid Rain '84, an ecology group, 34 per cent of West Germany's forests are damaged by air pollution and in 1982 almost 1½  million acres of woodland were designated a total damage area. These are but two examples of widespread damage to the environment which is admitted to be a rapidly worsening problem.

It is also accepted, except by the Central Electricity Generating Board, that acid rain begins with the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly from power stations burning fossil fuels and also from industry. From a total of 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released in Europe in 1982, Britain topped the league with emissions of 4.2 million tons.

In the minds of many people this presents itself simply as a practical problem of pollution, but if this were the case then there would be no difficulty in solving it. The means for preventing these emissions of sulphur dioxide are available, so technically speaking there would be no difficulty in stopping it now. But the problem is not what it appears to be. At a conference held on the environment in Munich in June 1984, the British Government delegation refused to agree to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 per cent, stating that in Britain this would cost 1 billion pounds. This is the real reason why pollution is not stopped and therefore the cause of the continuing problem. It is part of the economic constraints imposed on social action by capitalism.

As a pressure group, Acid Rain '84 have their own economic difficulties. Their leaflets ask for donations to their acid rain appeal. One can give £5 or £10 or more, though it is not clear what they do with the money. Doubtless the 1 billion pounds required for a 30 per cent reduction is beyond the scope of their fund raising campaign but they say that the money will fuel their efforts to protect the environment. The group is part of the Friends of the Earth organisation, which shares the outlook of the Ecology Party, which in its turn seeks to form a government to run capitalism. The question arises, where would an Ecology Party government get the 1 billion pounds to finance a reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide, or possibly the 3 billion pounds to stop it altogether? In their intended version of capitalism an Ecology Party government would attempt to control the use and development of industrial methods through taxation. They would penalise destructive methods by taxing them out of existence and use the money raised to finance ecologically benign ones.

They would introduce new taxes such as a natural resources tax aimed at conservation and re-cycling of materials; a progressive turnover tax which would penalise large enterprises; and a tax on advertising aimed at "consumerism", although the mass of the population might be surprised to learn that they are guilty of wanton consumerism. They would stiffen capital transfer tax and capital gains tax, and again corporation tax would penalise the large enterprise.

All these taxes, however, are not to be spent solely on ecologically safe projects: an Ecology Party government would maintain armies and armaments production. This is according to the ecological principle that the use of chemical weed killers must be stopped but the use of guns for killing people can continue. As their 1983 Election Manifesto states, "Having unilaterally renounced all nuclear weapons, Britain should continue to possess conventional weapons suited to a defensive role". They do allow that "Overall spending on defence should be progressively reduced", but presumably this is on condition that the other side does it as well, which is usually the view taken by the other side and the reason why it never happens.

The Ecology Party, then, stands for the continuation of capitalism complete with commodity production, rival nation states, armed forces and an horrendous taxation system. Though they might think it is a new idea, in fact the notion that a controlled redevelopment of capitalism can be politically stage-managed through the taxation system is an old and failed idea. It originated in the Labour Party, which in the past imagined that class differences could be removed and worthy social projects initiated by control of taxes. The Labour Party also took the view that arms expenditure could be progressively reduced; in practice they have been one of the big spenders on arms.

No Labour government has ever been able to implement its policies based on tax measures. It was Sir Stafford Cripps who, as Chancellor in the post war Labour Government, brought his supporters back to reality when he told them firmly that he was not in a position to impose taxes in an arbitrary way. The question arises, why has no Labour government ever been able to do it, and why will the Ecology Party not be able to do it in the future?

The central contradiction in the arguments of the Ecology Party is that they would be seeking massive government funds for what they consider to be desirable objectives. Not just 3 billion pounds for the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions but also for many other measures. Yet at the same time they seek to break up the structure of economic viability in energy supply, use of materials, and industrial and manufacturing production methods from which government funds in the form of taxes are derived. In these circumstances, where do they imagine an Ecology Party government would get the money? The structure of commodity production and the particular production methods taken up is not something determined by free choice about what is socially desirable. These production methods are determined by competition in the market.

It is totally unrealistic to imagine that commodity production, whereby goods are presented for sale in the market, can embrace a section of the world capitalist economy which has adopted production methods which are significantly less competitive than the rest. With lower productivity and higher costs the goods produced simply would not sell for a profit and therefore production would not take place. An Ecology Party government would depend for its funds on the prosperity of the national economy and the inevitable result of imposing higher costs on the capitalist economy, either through high taxes or uneconomic production methods, would be collapse and the rapid demise of such a government. If the Ecology Party government seriously attempted to implement its programme it would not last weeks. It would not only be capitalists who would seek to eject them but workers too would quickly want them out.

Nor is it practical to imagine that all sections of world capitalist producers, either as enterprises or governments, including state capitalist governments, could agree to adopt production methods which were less than the most efficient available. The plain fact has to be faced that commodity production is still using, for the most part, energy sources which began with the industrial revolution over two hundred years ago — the burning of fossil fuels. There can be little doubt that the 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released into the atmosphere in Europe in 1982 represents an increase over what was released in particular years during the nineteenth century. The undoubted reason for this is that this remains the cheapest energy source.

By accepting that capitalist production should continue the Ecology Party has destroyed the credibility of its best aspirations. Like the Labour Party before them they have made a political appointment with failure and disillusion. Worse than this, they are now diverting concern over desperately serious problems into a political dead end which can only have the effect of delaying real solutions.

The resources of the earth do not represent the natural environment in which human life, as part of nature, must find its own equilibrium. They take on an economic form, functioning as the material elements of capital. The economic drive which governs their use is the accumulation of capital, which is itself governed by the economic laws of commodity production. This inevitably results in the inability of society to consciously regulate its relationship with the natural world. The function of the working class is to apply its labour power to natural resources for the object of profit and capital accumulation. Thus oil, coal, natural gas, metals, the land, seas, forests and atmosphere function economically for the object of capital accumulation. This is the system which the so called ecologists want to perpetuate.

With the abolition of capitalism, in which goods take the form of commodities for sale on the market, and the abolition of the wage labour/capital relationship, socialism will establish direct co-operation between producers and goods will be produced directly for need. This will eliminate the economic constraints which at present severely limit the use of production methods. Production for use will consciously regulate production and this will include a choice of methods limited only by available technique and practicality. Socialism will also eliminate a vast amount of waste and at least double the number of people available for useful work.

In these circumstances, production for need will not be solely confined to material consumption. It is a vital need that human activity should interact with the natural environment in non-destructive ways. Socialism would have no difficulty in applying a principle of conservation production which would include working within existing natural systems without altering them. This would be the only safe way to proceed.

Certainly in the field of energy supply the rapid development of safe renewable sources would appear to present the most desirable option. Though these are at present hopelessly uneconomic under capitalism, socialism would have no difficulty in developing and applying this existing technology. Conservation production would mean employing methods that avoid using up and destroying natural resources. For example, standardised machinery could be designed with the minimum number of wearing parts which, with simple maintenance, could be easily replaced and the materials re-cycled and used again. For parts of machinery not subject to wear, durable materials which do not deteriorate could be used. If for some reason such machinery became redundant, the materials involved could be recycled and used again. The principle of conservation production could establish the practice that once materials became socially available after extraction and processing, they would be available for permanent use in one form or another. Thus socialism would bring into use means of production, permanent installations, structures and goods which would last for a long time, and even when redundant could be re-cycled for other uses. With its shoddy goods, built in obsolescence, and the pressure of the market to constantly renew its capacity for sales, capitalism is incapable of applying this production principle.

The kind of world implied by the aspirations of the so called ecologists is one where society could make definite decisions about how best to provide for needs and then be free to implement those decisions outside the economic constraints imposed by capitalism. There can be only one way to achieve this — through the success of the world socialist movement. It is inconceivable that the life of world society can achieve equilibrium with nature unless it first achieves unity and common purpose within its own organisation.

The fatal error of the Ecology Party is in thinking that the mere winning of an election, and the establishment of their own government to run capitalism, will enable their aspirations to be advanced. The problem does not resolve itself solely as a question of who runs capitalism. The fallacy involved in believing this is the one which has brought the Labour Party to failure and disillusion. They would find that capitalism would run them, as it has the successive Labour governments. The Ecology Party has gained membership partly on the basis of the failures of Labour Governments, but in their turn they have adopted exactly the same erroneous position. So much is this the case that we can already anticipate the weak excuses, the shifting of blame and apologies for their inevitable failures. These will be the state of trade in a possible future depression, a balance of payments crisis, the run on the pound, industrial strife, the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund for granting loans, inflation, renewed war . . . What makes the Ecology Party think that if they were to win an election all these features of capitalism would suddenly disappear?

The continuation of capitalism on its blind and uncontrolled course is a gamble on the conditions of life itself. This is surely within the view of anyone with a serious concern for ensuring a stable balance of natural systems in which humanity can enjoy being part of nature. Who are the ecologists? Socialists are the ecologists. Members of the "Ecology" Party should join us now.
Pieter Lawrence