Tuesday, August 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Professor Miliband (1977)

From the March 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Your article in the Socialist Register 1976 entitled "Moving On" asks the question, why none of the organizations which since 1956 have occupied the area you describe as the "left wing stage" "constitute an effective socialist formation"? You claim that "such an organization remains to be created". You go on to give an "explanation" of why "existing organizations cannot fill the gap". But the "gap" your article reveals is in your own knowledge — yawning chasm would be a better description. Your contribution is merely ignorance confounded by confusion; first your analysis of the present "left wing" misunderstanding of the nature of revolutionary activity and second, your exclusion of the SPGB reveals either ignorance or political dishonesty.

Let me begin with your discussion of the current "left wing". (I won't use the inverted commas any more for that term, but when you reply, please explain what that term means.) "Inevitably one must start with the Labour Party" you say. You claim that the Labour Party is the "party of the working class and there is no alternative to it." The only reason for "starting" with the Labour Party is to finish with it. There was never any doubt from its formation that the Labour Party was simply a reformist party. The activities of the Labour Party have confirmed this ever since. However, you still appear to think that the Labour Party has something to do with Socialism. You write: "There cannot now be many socialists in the Labour Party (and even fewer outside) who believe that most of its leaders are concerned with the task of effecting the fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people . . . But there are many socialists in the Labour Party who do believe very firmly that they can eventually . . . compel their leaders to adopt left-wing policies."

You say: "There are socialists who work in the Labour Party." The Labour Party represents a certain section of the capitalist class and runs capitalism in the interests of capital. Like all other parties of capitalism, the Labour Party will dress up what they are doing in borrowed phrases in an attempt (successful to date) at misleading the working. But there never have been Socialists in the Labour Party.

Socialism is a world society which will take the place of capitalism; it will abolish all property and existing production relationships and establish in its place a free society where each person voluntarily contributes to the wealth of society and takes from it what the individual requires. There are no governments (with their attendant armies and coercive powers), no wages system, and no production for profit. (For a fuller account, see our Object and Declaration of Principles, and also our pamphlet Object and Declaration of Principles — Socialist Principles Explained.) Could you explain what someone who wants that society would be doing in the Labour Party? You say that "a socialist party is needed in Britain and the Labour Party is not it." In that case, how can there be Socialists in it? There may be some within the Labour Party who call themselves Socialists, but are they who you mean?

Turning your professorial attention to the Communist Party, you claim that "It is a Marxist Party" and add "of a sort"! But a party is either a Marxist party, standing for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with Socialism, or it isn't. The Communist Party has always and inevitably stood for capitalism. Its history has been taken up with defending the contradictory activities and statements of the Russian ruling class which it supports. You rightly point out that since 1956 and more particularly since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. the fawning adoration of the Russian monstrosity has lessened, and you say that the Communist Party has "a blandly complacent view of the Soviet system." In other words, the Communist Party is not Marxist but anti-democratic and reformist. As you put it, it has been in "pursuit of the politics of illusion . . . for more than forty years." The main illusion (other than the Soviet delusion) is its adherence to the coat-tails of the Labour quackery. Charitably you say that the Communist Party is not "to be reproached for seeking to put pressure on the Labour Party or on a Labour Government or for trying to influence the Labour Left or any other part of the labour movement." The politics of illusion indeed.

The Labour Party has not failed as such — it set out to run capitalism. The more important part of your article is the criticisms of the left-wing parties other than the Labour Party and the Communist: Party. You think that these other parties are not suitable for "Moving on". It is necessary, you argue, to create a new party because those that exist are inadequate. You ask "why these groupings of the 'ultra left' have not fared better" than they have done and give one answer which you say these groups themselves frequently give — the ruling class's control of ideas. This you say is inadequate since it: fails to explain why "left" groups have made progress (though this is merely asserted, it is not explained). You then examine a collection of other reasons such as "narrow doctrinaire sectarianism ... a marked tendency to believe that the final crisis of capitalism is imminent, to which is naturally added . . . adventurist sloganeering; and an internal rigidity of organization." What you fail to point out is that none of these reasons can apply to the SPGB. The SPGB is dedicated to the establishment of Socialism. In no sense is our case "narrow doctrinaire sectarianism." If you were to attend any of our propaganda meetings or any one of our branches you would find a range of views being expressed on a variety of topics, "the SPGB university" as it has been called. We have never said that capitalism's final crisis is at hand. We have always agreed with Marx, that crisis is a part of the normal workings of capitalism. Capitalism will not have a "final" crisis in the sense that this will cause its downfall. We have consistently pointed out that capitalism will continue until it is brought to an end by the working class. (See in particular our pamphlet Why capitalism will not collapse published in 1932.) So far as internal rigidity of organization is concerned, examine the workings of the SPGB; its flexible democratic method is a model for organization in a Socialist society. As for "sloganeering" — read some of our literature and attend our meetings; you would find nothing that resembles sloganeering.

Your conclusion is that the main cause for the failure of left-wing organizations is "their basic perceptions as to the ways of socialist advance in Britain." The explanation you give for this is twofold; the first is that "All these organizations have a common perception of socialist change in terms of a revolutionary seizure of power on the Bolshevik model of October 1917". In other words, you point out that all these parties have no intention of being "mass" parties at all — they are all in favour of minority coups. But, Professor, where or when did the SPGB put forward such a view? Right from the start of the Bolsheviks' takeover of power, we pointed out that it was not possible for Russia to establish Socialism. The material conditions in Russia — highly developed productive forces and working-class understanding — were not present. The second condition is not there today.

Your second criticism of left-wing groups is that they have succumbed to what you call "anti-parliamentary cretinism." In other words the left-wing parties have nearly always been anti-parliament and very often, anti-democratic. But the SPGB has insistently pointed out that the working class can and must use Parliament as part of the process of establishing Socialism. Historically, every ruling class has had to capture political power. The capitalist class, for example, had to obtain control of parliament and did so after a long struggle. The working class, when it takes over society in its own interests must also take political power in order to abolish both power and classes. That is why we have always said that Parliament and the electoral system must be used by the working class in the establishment of Socialism.

Your critique of left-wing organizations does not apply to the SPGB. In one sense it is a tribute to us that we are not included in your tattered list. We are not a part of the left wing at all. We are opposed to those parties that you refer to as the left wing (including IS, WRP etc.) All these parties stand for capitalism — the SPGB does not. Yet you do not mention in your article that the SPGB exists or that there is a party which does not suffer from the defects you highlight. How can a Professor of Politics ("a leading intellectual of the New Left" as one of your books describes you) have failed to notice a party formed two years prior to the Labour Party as an uncompromisingly Socialist party, which has worked for Socialist understanding since its formation, which has continually published literature, held meetings, contested elections and so on? On reflection the omission cannot be due to sheer ignorance — it must be deliberate. No doubt like the other political ostriches you folded your left and right wing and just hoped that by putting your head in the academic sandpit we could just be ignored.

Your reply is awaited.

Socialism Made Simple (1992)

From the March 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Existing society is based on class ownership. This means that the main resources of society are owned by the few and not the many.

In Britain today the poorest half of the population own only 6 percent of marketable wealth. The richest 10 percent own over half of all the wealth.

Society is not like this because it has to be. The rich are not at the top because they do more or know more than the rest of us. On the contrary, we, the vast majority, produce all wealth.

The capitalists do not need to work. If they want to they can go off to the Bahamas or the South of France for months on end, sure in the knowledge that their millions of pounds per week, month or year will still be pouring into their accounts. The capitalist minority live by accumulating rent, interest and profit. Who gives it to them? The Working Class.

We. the workers, run society from top to bottom. We are paid wages or salaries. Whatever we are paid is less than the value of what we produce. The difference between what we are paid and what we produce is taken by the capitalist as profit. The basis of all profit is the legalised robbery of the workers.

We do not choose to be legally robbed or exploited. We do not choose to be wage (or salary) slaves rather than capitalists. We are workers because we do not own enough resources to live without selling our labour power (our mental and physical energies) for a price.

So. we work in order to make enough money in order to pay to live so that we can go back to work and make profits so that the capitalist does not have to work. The capitalists live off our backs.

We do not need to carry the capitalists on our backs. We do so because we have agreed to live this way. We have agreed because we are conditioned to accept capitalism. We are conditioned because the capitalists pay to condition us. If we are properly conditioned we vote for leaders who will continue to run capitalism. Workers vote for their own exploitation.

The workers are many, the capitalists few. We have only to refuse to support capitalism and the whole system could not go on. This is a matter of political consciousness. At present most workers are politically ignorant. This is not intended as an insult. What we are saying is that our fellow workers have yet to realise their strength. When they do they will understand that it is not necessary to live second-class lives, enjoying less than the best that can be produced. The best of everything is available for everyone, not just the rich few. What we have to do is take it.

The movement for socialism is a movement to end minority power and establish the power of the whole community. Socialism will mean that everything in and on the planet will belong to everyone who lives on the planet. In short, common ownership and democratic control.

Another way of putting it is to say that in a socialist society nobody will monopolise the means of producing and distributing wealth. Social resources will be owned by everyone — and by no-one.

Once we workers have taken the world's wealth into our own hands by means of democratic political action there will be no need for money, wages or other features of property society. Instead of wage slavery, people will work according to their abilities and take according to their needs. They will not work under compulsion, but because they will understand that to live we must co-operate to produce what we need. Access to available goods and services will not be rationed by money. Buying and selling will be abolished. Instead, everyone will have free access to what they need. Nobody will tell them what they need. The state will be abolished. Socialism is based upon the understanding that humans are intelligent, conscious, co-operative beings who do not need leaders or governments to force them to act decently.

On the contrary, it is the present capitalist system, which puts profits before needs and money before life, which forces humans to become uncooperative and indecent. Capitalism is anti-social.

The aim of socialism is not just to ensure that everyone has access to material wealth and that poverty is ended. Socialists want people to be free to co-operate. There will be no more class and no economic basis for prejudice based upon race or sex. Socialism will be a society of free, human equality.

The well-conditioned wage slave will regard the prospect of world socialism as a Utopian ideal. The prospect of homes heated and lit by electricity was dismissed as a dream by inhabitants of a pre-scientific age.

The working class needs to do some serious thinking about society—how it is and how it could be. Millions of politically conscious workers will be a threat to capitalism. We will educate and organise with more and more workers. Once we are a majority there will be no stopping us. The result will be social revolution.

The Socialist Party works to bring about the political consciousness and organisation that will make a revolution possible. In other countries companion parties work to the same end. Right now we are in a small minority. Our efforts are limited. But our analysis cannot be faulted and our principles are never compromised. We will continue to advocate the sanity of the case for a revolutionary transformation of society. We have nothing to lose but our chains: we have a world to win.
Steve Coleman

Debating: A Lost Art? (2013)

From the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The volume of correspondence in the world is greater now than ever. The internet provides us with the ability to contribute to many debates on an infinite variety of subjects on various platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. One can’t fail to notice that many of these ‘debates’ are characterised by anger and insult. Resolution or a ‘meeting of minds’ seems to be very rare. Anonymity allows people to vent their frustration and anger on complete strangers. Such diatribes do not, of course, represent any attempt at communication. Instead they are a record of people’s alienation and despair which is focused on the ‘other’.

I was once accused of calling someone stupid because I believed them to be wrong. The possibility of being wrong and intelligent simultaneously is something the ego finds difficult to accept. A disagreement (inherent in any debate) is interpreted as a conflict of egos. This represents the end of communication. Is there a way to ameliorate this phenomena? For a socialist this is a vital question since communication is the only way forward and always being ‘right’ will tend to alienate the opponent. If a debate focuses only on determining who is right and who is wrong then a dialectical resolution is impossible. What is meant by dialectical is a specific form of rhetoric that seeks to create a ‘synthesis’ between opposing views. In this way the polemic can be moved forward productively instead of stalling in egoism. All such disagreementsrepresent the dialectical forces inherent within the cultural context of the debate. What’s more –this historical context allows only one real politicaldebate that always lies beneath what ever is being discussed! I will now attempt to defend such a seemingly incredible position.

Superficially the multiplicity of debates on Facebook appear unconnected with an endless variation of subject matter. Everything from musical taste to politics and religion is hotly contested. Someone has said that there is a certain inevitability of the mention of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis terminating many emotionally charged political debates. The reason for this is not just the desire to demonise the opponent and their perspective but it also reflects an underlying fundamental confrontation between those who want and need authoritarian social structures and those who cannot stomach them. The latter see all kinds of conspiracies by the ‘establishment’ to keep their power while reactionaries long for a leader with simple political answers.

And so the debate rages on impotently, sometimes even provoking an online petition with thousands of signatures. Of course nothing changes and another ‘single issue’ takes up the energies of liberals and reactionaries inspired, usually, by the latest disaster created by capitalism. Some years ago when the infamous tsunami hit Sri Lanka I thought, at least this time, we could not blame capitalism for this ‘natural’ disaster. As it happens the early warning system had been abandoned because of ‘cost’ concerns so yet again the system was at the root of destruction. Another example is that of the hypotheses of global warming. Given the title of the theory one would expect it to be the ultimate debate of our time. But again it is the economic imperative of profit that underlies this catastrophe – no worker (indigenous or otherwise) would willingly destroy the environment if they could get other employment to feed themselves and their families. It is the height of hypocrisy for ‘middle-class’ environmentalists in advanced industrial societies to criticise just this one element of capitalism while they enjoy a comfortable life style which is dependent on the system. Economics, or at least, market economics has become a godhead for reactionaries in that it must be worshipped and cannot be denied.

It is a different story when those indulging in this religion of Mammon are directly affected adversely – then it’s the fault of rogue bankers, etc. In debates people congratulate themselves for being realistic in contrast to their opponents – when, in reality, they are both being equally idealistic. One ideology in all its permutations reflects the economic needs of the ruling class and the other, debased and confused with the single issue problematic, represents the needs of the immense majority of humanity. A true dialectic can only be achieved when this is recognised –a result of the historical forces that have left just two social classes.

I’m aware that this perspective sounds suspiciously dualistic – not unlike Christianity’s Armageddon (last battle between good and evil) and the Viking Ragnarok, etc. It may be that it’s the other way around and that these mythologies represent a deep social need to return to the communism of pre private property societies – as Rastafarians believe: I and I becomes the One again in Zion. So what constitutes the socialist synthesis? Revolution, my comrade. As long as capitalism lasts with all its travails then so does the same solution. The coalition of Whigs and Tories seem intent on taking us back to the 1800s. No re-branding can change capitalism and we call upon all those well-intentioned people obsessed with single issue politics to join us in dealing with the disease and not just the symptoms. It is purely self-indulgence to involve yourself in reformism because you ‘can’t wait for the revolution’. It is you that keeps the rest of us waiting. As to what Facebook will be debating after the revolution there’s always: ‘who was the most authentic roots reggae artist – Bob Marley or Burning Spear?’ But don’t get me started, that’s a whole other debate – the synthesis of which still eludes me.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Egypt: Why Did the Generals Depose Morsi? (2013)

From the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

For most of the year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, government in Egypt was based on an understanding between the generals (represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and the leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood. The understanding seems to have been in place well before the elections, which the generals helped the Moslem Brotherhood to win – for instance, by tolerating numerous reported irregularities.

Protecting military interests

As president, Morsi made a great effort to return the favour and protect military interests:

- The new constitution sponsored by the Moslem Brotherhood enshrined the position of the armed forces as ‘a state within the state’ by entrusting military affairs to a council dominated by officers and unaccountable to parliament.  

- Morsi gave the military and the police legal immunity. After a presidential commission implicated senior officers in the killing and torture of demonstrators, he described the claims as ‘insults’ and rewarded those concerned with promotions.

- Morsi did nothing that might threaten the interests of the armed forces as a capitalist corporation. This corporation owns an estimated 25-40 per cent of the country’s economy, including vast tracts of land, and exploits conscripts as slave labour. The privatisation of state industry never extended to military property. (For more on these points, see Hesham Sallam and Zeinab Abul-Magd at www.jadaliyya.com.)

However, Morsi did not wholly support the generals’ policy of maintaining the flow of US military aid by fully cooperating with Israel and the United States. According to Brigadier General Ayman Salama of the Cairo Military Academy, the army thought that Morsi was being too helpful to his fellow Islamists in the Hamas regime in Gaza, thereby undermining security in the Sinai (BBC World Service, 5 July). Indeed, no sooner was Morsi deposed than the border with Gaza was sealed off.

Another complaint of the generals against Morsi was that his government was spending $1.5 billion a month too much, rapidly depleting the country’s financial reserves (Guardian Weekly, 12 July).

A means to a goal

Finally, the military were highly dissatisfied with the growing isolation of Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood-dominated government from all other political forces. The understanding with the Moslem Brotherhood was not an end in itself for the generals. It was a means to their goal of stabilising the social and political situation in Egypt in such a way as to safeguard military interests.

In order to optimise the chance of achieving this goal, they seek to co-opt ‘realistic’ politicians from both the secular and Islamist camps who are prepared to accept military privileges while marginalising political forces committed to ‘continuing the revolution’ until full democratic rights are won for all citizens. But Morsi was alienating the very politicians whom the generals would like to co-opt.

One process that alienated many people was the so-called ‘ikhwanisation’ of government institutions – the replacement of incumbent officials by Moslem Brotherhood activists (‘ikhwan’ means ‘brothers’ in Arabic). This was a way to reward ‘brothers’ for selfless service to the organisation through the long years of persecution, but aroused the resentment of those displaced.

In fact, under different leadership the Moslem Brotherhood might have proven more flexible and managed to stay in government. One leading ‘brother’ – the physician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – was forced out of the Moslem Brotherhood together with his followers in 2011, but stood as an independent candidate in the presidential elections. He did quite well, coming fourth in the first round with 17.5 per cent of the vote. In July 2012 he founded the Strong Egypt Party. Fotouh represented a ‘left-liberal’ trend within the Moslem Brotherhood – he is more conciliatory toward the secular section of society and talks about ‘social justice’.

Cross-cutting divisions

The presence of cross-cutting divisions within society makes the political situation in Egypt hard to understand, let alone predict. A ‘left-right’ division on economic issues exists, but – for the time being at least – it is overshadowed by the split between Islamists and secularists.

In 2012 over 35 secularist groups came together to form the National Front for Salvation of the Revolution (also known as the National Salvation Front or National Rescue Front), coordinated by Mohamed El Baradei. These groups include pro-business ‘liberal’ parties as well as a profusion of ‘socialist’ organisations. This apparently strange alliance is held together by fear of the Islamists – not just the Moslem Brotherhood but especially the even more intolerant ‘salafis’ (fundamentalists) who seek immediate implementation of Islamic law.

Trade union activists tend to align themselves with the secularist camp, as do people concerned with the emancipation of women, cultural and intellectual freedom and human rights in general, and also non-Moslem minorities, the largest being the 10 per cent of the population who are Coptic Christians.

The class of private capitalists is also divided between the two camps, ensuring them both a flow of funds. The ‘liberal’ Free Egyptians Party was set up by Naguib Sawiris, one of the world’s richest individuals, while the Moslem Brotherhood has been financially dependent on the wealthy businessman Khairat El-Shater (furniture and textiles). Only the ‘socialist’ groups are less well provided for.

The division between secularists and Islamists partly overlaps with the division between city and countryside. Secularists and especially ‘leftists’ are concentrated in the larger cities. This enables them to stage bigger demonstrations, creating an exaggerated impression of their preponderance at the national level. In the last presidential election, the ‘left-wing’ (Nasserist) presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi won the metropolitan areas of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez and Giza (Adel Iskandar, Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution, AUC Press 2013, p. 106), while in the country as a whole, however, he finished third with 21.5 per cent of the vote.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Condition of the Working Class (2013)

Film Review from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The SERTUC Film Club at TUC Congress House in London recently screened The Condition of the Working Class, a new documentary film by Michael Wayne and Deirdre O'Neill who had previously worked together on the 2009 documentary film Listen to Venezuela. Over a period of eight weeks, the film follows a group of actors and non-professionals in The Ragged Collective (a homage to Robert Tressell) in Salford and Manchester as they work to put on a theatrical project based on their own working class experiences, and the Friedrich Engels book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.

The actors tell of working class life in Manchester in the age of austerity economics in capitalism where 'working class people are hurt by the cuts, there are attacks on collectivity, the bourgeoisie use divide and rule tactics, and people who have nothing want change'. Engels wrote 'the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared. People regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains'.

Like in Ken Loach's film Spirit of 45, some of the people in this film feel that Thatcher is to blame for everything, as if capitalism was only invented in 1979 but the reality is that she presided over the operation of capitalism during the worst part of the slump phase of its economic cycle, and was the head of an openly pro-capitalist government.

There are many differences between life today in Manchester and life at the time of the Engels book but fundamentally there is no change as the capitalist mode of production grinds relentlessly on. The film participants state that a person has to 'sell my labour or starve' (the working class sell their labour power to the capitalist), that 'society is divided into a bourgeois ruling class and a working class', the BBC is referred to as 'the Bourgeois Broadcasting Corporation', and 'the bourgeoisie are riddled with class prejudice, oppress the working class, and use the power of wealth and the state so that the rich look after the rich'. A reference is made to the gentrification of parts of Manchester such as the Docks where it is pointed out 'the working class built Salford Quays' which recalls Brecht's poem A Worker Reads History: 'who built the seven gates of Thebes?/the books are filled with names of kings/was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?'

The film demonstrates what Engels wrote, that 'the humanity of the workers is constantly manifesting itself pleasantly. They have experienced hard times themselves, and can therefore feel for those in trouble, whence they are more approachable, friendlier, and less greedy for money, though they need it far more than the property-holding class'.

Film International commented 'this is not a film, it's a rehearsal for revolution' which is true in a sense, but unfortunately no one mentions the word 'socialism'.
Steve Clayton

The Decline of Manufacturing - Good or Bad? (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In June the Office for National Statistics published an analysis, entitled 170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales, of how people’s occupations have changed between the 1841 census and the latest one in 2011. One of the key points it drew attention to was:

‘Manufacturing was the most dominant industry in 1841 accounting for 36% of the workforce, followed closely by services at 33%. The expansion of services and decline in manufacturing meant that in 2011, 9% worked in manufacturing and 81% in services.’

The remaining 10 per cent was made up of agriculture 1 per cent (down from 22 per cent in 1841), energy and water (including mining) 1 per cent, and construction 8 per cent.

Services had already overtaken manufacturing as far back as 1881 but it was only from 1961 that the gap between the two began to widen. Until then each accounted for more or less 40 per cent.

Marx pointed to the results of the 1861 census to back up his statement in Capital (chapter 15, section 6) that:

‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry, accompanied as it is by both a more extensive and a more intense exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of production, allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working-class.’

After deducting the young, the old, the sick, housewives, rentiers and those he called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes, such as government officials, priests, lawyers, soldiers, &c.’, out of a total England and Wales population of 20 million he arrived at a figure of 8 million in work, of which he listed:

  • Agriculture - 1,098,261

  • Textiles - 642,607

  • Mining - 565,835

  • Metalworking - 396,998

  • ‘The servant class’ - 1, 208,648

And he commented:

‘All the persons employed in textile factories and in mines, taken together, number 1,208,442; those employed in textile factories and metal industries, taken together, number 1,039,605; in both cases less than the number of modern domestic slaves. What a splendid result of the capitalist exploitation of machinery!’

The ONS analysis confirms that ‘in 1841, almost one in five working people (18%) were employed in domestic offices and personal services, roughly half of everyone working in service industries.’

Since Marx’s day ‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry’ has still made possible an increasing proportion of the workforce in services, though more in those Marx called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes’, especially people working in national and local government rather than in ‘the servant class.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the largest service group today is ‘wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motor cycles, with 4.2 million people, 16% of the working population and about one fifth of everyone working in service industries.’

What exactly Marx meant by ‘unproductive employment’ has been widely debated. The ONS defines a ‘service industry’ as ‘where services are provided rather than a good being produced’, which implies that production involves turning out some tangible, material product. Marx himself didn’t go that far as he regarded the work of transporting and storing goods as productive.

We could argue over how much of the ONS service ‘industries’ amount to ‘unproductive employment’ in Marx’s sense, but the overall situation is clear. Increasing productivity has meant that, just as fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the food we eat so fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the material things society needs. It makes the case for production directly for use (to ‘serve’ people’s needs), which socialism will allow, even more relevant.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What Can the Unions Do? (2013)

Editorial from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trade unions are organisations of the working class established to improve and defend their pay and conditions of work in capitalism although they are limited in what they can achieve for their members. Unions arise out of the wage-relation that is at the basis of capitalism where the working class are forced to sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. Unions exert collective pressure on employers to prevent their members’ wages falling below the value of their labour-power. It is a way of ensuring that they are paid the full value of what they have to sell and can ensure that wages are not reduced below the subsistence level.

Strikes are necessary if the working class are to prevent themselves from being driven into the ground by the never-satisfied demands of profit. The strike is one of the working class weapons that can limit the aims of the capitalist class. We should not deceive ourselves into believing that joining a union or going on strike will free us from exploitation. This does not mean that the working class should sit back and do nothing. Within capitalism the trade union struggle over wages and conditions must go on but the real struggle is to take over the means of wealth production and distribution.

Some on the Left expect unions to act in a revolutionary way with non-revolutionary members but members of the working class who will not vote for socialism will not strike for it. The National Shop Stewards Network call for a 24-hour General Strike against the present capitalist austerity: 'If the TUC and the Trade Unions named the date for a 24 hour general strike or co-ordinated strike ballots on the pay freeze alone, it would be hugely popular with all those facing these brutal cuts.' It might be popular but would it be effective? In any event, the unions can’t overthrow capitalism.

To get socialism requires a class conscious working class democratically capturing state power to prevent that power being used against them. We do not criticise the unions for not being revolutionary, but we do criticise them when they depart from the principle of an antagonism of interests between working class and the capitalist class, when they collaborate with the capitalist class, the state or political parties.

The Socialist Party declares that the working class need to capture the political machine and wrest political supremacy from the capitalist class before they can establish socialism. It is our job as socialists to stand with the working class in their necessary battles to defend themselves but we point out at all times that the real victory to be achieved is the abolition of the wages system. 'Instead of the conservative motto: 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: 'Abolition of the wages system!'