Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Socialist Party (2000)

Book Review from the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard


The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party by David A. Perrin. Bridge Books, Wrexham, 2000.

By any standards, a key publication in the long history of the Socialist Party. It attempts to correct some of the “glaring errors [made] by serious analysts”, to illuminate the SPGB's “unique analysis of events in the 20th century¸ and to record the development of “distinctive arguments on a wide range of subjects”. It succeeds quite admirably in all these enterprises.

The focus is not so much a history of the SPGB, as “a history of ideas which members used to debate and orate”. The book's elegantly written 200-odd pages are thus not a record of the SPGB as a political organisation, nor yet are they about party members per se. Rather Perrin has written about the key ideas that underpinned the Party's formation in 1904, and the way these ideas have been elaborated and extended in the light of Marxian theory across the best part of 100 years. The book is also written from the perspective of a professional political scientist who is also a Party member. Not surprisingly therefore the assembled evidence which is quoted in support of its analysis is impressive, and this lends persuasive weight and authority to its conclusions. As someone who recently found himself writing a modest project on the history of the Second World War, I can confirm that historians have, for whatever reason, largely ignored the Party's distinctive contribution to ideas. This book will help to put the record straight.

All but one of the chapters examine the “genesis of eight specific contributions that it [the SPGB] has made to the development of Marxian theory”. There are chapters on: Reform or Revolution?; The First World War; Russia and State Capitalism; Economic Crises and the “Collapse of Capitalism”; Fascism, Democracy and the Second World War; The Welfare State; Keynes and Inflation; and Socialist Planning.

Each chapter follows the same essential, easy-to-follow format. The nature of the challenge is described, the SPGB's position is established and compared with that of other conflicting political positions, and the development of the Party's position over time in the light of Marxian theory is described. The writing is informed, as all good history writing should be, with the feeling that the author was present at the time and as such is able to describe events sensitively and accurately. I found the narrative thread always easy to follow, the nature of the discourse persuasive, and the conclusions reached compelling. But the text is demanding. This is not the kind of book you can skip through. On the contrary its seriousness and attention to detail demand the kind of close scrutiny which is, necessarily, typical of an academic text. I found myself reading only one chapter at a sitting, and then spending a lot of time afterwards reflecting about what I had read. But the rewards are immense, and they are also profound. Some, at least, deserve elaboration.

First, although familiar with the Party's position on reformism, war, state capitalism, the Welfare State, and so on, I wasn't as clear as I now am about how these positions had been established. I now see more comprehensively how, through time, the Party's unique stance has been slowly refined and extended in the light of experience, and by reference to Marxian theory. Reading the book has been a powerful and enriching educational experience.

Second, it is a hugely reassuring experience. At the end of each chapter I was left with the warm and comfortable feeling that the position taken by the Party was in a very substantial sense “right”. True, the rightness might not be absolute,. It might—as perhaps the Party's attitude as to why post-war governments resorted to currency inflation seems to suggest—be in need of further refining. But then this is in the nature of things. Scientific explanations, as someone once put it, are like Ford Model Ts. In time they wear out, and need updating.

Third, I am filled with admiration for the writers and speakers, the Conference delegates and the membership generally, who have collectively demonstrated that Marx provided us with more than just a body of material evidence and theoretical propositions. That, crucially, he also left us with a methodology—a methodology which allows us to go on refining our knowledge of the world in the light of new evidence, and adjusting our explanations accordingly. Each of the eight chapters demonstrates the extent of the Party's admirable responsiveness to change, and the way it has, in general, successfully used Marxian theory to develop intellectual and practical positions which were not anticipated by Marx, and occasionally—as, for example, in its attitude to “progressive” wars—actually ran counter to Marx's beliefs. This is not a picture—as some of the Party's opponents would have people believe—of a political party whose stance is dated and set in stone, but quite the reverse. The evidence shows that the SPGB has remained for the most part dynamic and alive, and true to its materialist, scientific lights, across the best part of 100 years. As I read the book I found myself feeling proud to belong to an organisation whose members have remained—in spite of all the many disappointments and difficulties, to say nothing of the personal dangers and social disadvantages—so dedicated to the continuing cause of socialism. I suspect that nothing is likely to fire younger members of the Party with resolve and personal commitment than this inspiring testament to the hard work, wit and wisdom of comrades, most long since dead.

Fourth, I was struck by the many occasions when the Party's position was articulated in authoritative articles in the Socialist Standard, and the way in which the Party's internal democracy, albeit frequently based upon no more than informal contacts and discussion, ensured that only very rarely were such statements out of kilter with what the membership as a whole thought and believed. For example “the first detailed analysis of the Russian situation appeared in the August 1918 Socialist Standard under the heading “The Revolution in Russia, Where it Fails”. Imagine. A considered response which the whole Party found acceptable in but a year. And again, in an elegant article in August 1933 Hardy showed that the “Collapse of Capitalism” theory was based on a failure to differentiate between markets for “consumer” and “producer” goods, although this distinction had not previously been the subject of public comment by the Party.

The last chapter is different. In it Perrin offers a series of measured conclusions about the Party's present stance, and details some “potential difficulties looming for the SPGB and its revolutionary strategy”. The style at this point, as elsewhere, is critical in the best Marxist tradition. The author is a member of the Socialist Party but he is not going to compromise his historical insights with an unquestioning loyalty to the Party. He concludes that:
"The main purpose of this work has been to demonstrate what became ever more apparent during the research, that far from being a moribund sect obsessed with political minutiae, bygone theories and traditions, the SPGB is rather more of a living organism than many of its detractors have assumed. Above all, it has proved capable of responding to events in an imaginative and distinctive measure while still holding true to its fundamental principles, derived in large part from classical Marxism of the nineteenth century."

Few members of the Socialist Party would probably criticise this, even if some might want to celebrate the Party's achievements more fulsomely, but the rest of the chapter is, of its nature, potentially much more contentious. In it Perrin notes that after a hundred years the Party seems “no nearer achieving socialism that it was in 1904”. He wonders why this is so, and he then enumerates some of the challenges which the Party is likely to have to face in the future if it is to be successful. He mentions:

  1. Problems arising from the conflict between “scrupulous democracy” and leadership.
  2. The effect of the absence of leaders on the Party's ability “to respond to the demands of the media”.
  3. The failure of the Party to address “why the working class hasn't yet mustered under its banner in any great numbers, or the related issue of what real incentive there is for them to do so”.
  4. The fact that the “SPGB often seems unsure about the precise role of the material interests of the working class in promoting a revolutionary outlook amongst workers”.
  5. The belief that the Party has work to do “on how future socialist society could be organised”. He mentions three matters of major concern: the problem of distribution; socialism and models of democracy; and “social compliance within socialism and how socialist society could deal with anti-social minorities in a fair and democratic manner”.

Some may find all this overly threatening. I find it richly stimulating. I don't see the challenges that face the Party entirely as Perrin does, and I also think he has neglected others that are arguably relevant. But I think it is quite marvellous that he should finish the book in this kind of open, discursive way. It seems entirely true to the traditions of the SPGB. The future calls and we must respond to it openly, honestly and seriously, using those insights and perspectives which the author has shown have served the Party so well over nearly a century.
Michael Gill

America land of the unfree (1987)

From the September 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The drive from the White House to radio station WAMU takes about 20 minutes and passes from the mansion provided as the presidential residence of a retired millionaire B-movie actor through some of the worst slums I have ever seen. It is hard to believe that human beings inhabit some of the squalid dwellings of downtown Washington DC. There are not supposed to be poor people in America: it said nothing about them in the brochure. This is the land of the affluent workers, isn't it? Richard Montague from Belfast, a city notorious for its slum areas sighed, "Now, this is what I call a ghetto," he said. "Worse than the slums we have at home". Eighty per cent of the population of the US capital city are black workers, mainly employed in the low-wage service industries, mainly housed in the kind of rotten conditions which the tourists do not go to see.

Sitting in the radio studio was Fred Fiske, presenter of Washington's most prestigious phone-in programme. A man given to talking a lot about "the genius of American capitalism", a bully with a reputation for putting callers straight - a bigot with a microphone. For two hours Montague and I debated the case for world socialism, repeatedly confronting the confusion and distortion of our host's capitalist tunnel-vision intellect. It was a good two hours: the man who was going to put us reds in our place was put in his place. At the end of the show, as we were leaving, the news came on: four people dead, 15 injured after a tenement building in the South Bronx of New York collapsed. Ah, the genius of American capitalism.

On the road from Washington to Charlottesville Virginia are dozens of caravans. Holiday homes for American workers seeking a break in the countryside? Not at all. These were the homes of families too poor to live anywhere but in run-down vans on the side of the road. As the recession hits the USA harder and unemployment rises in the cities, this is the fate of many an American worker.

Slums in America? Homeless in America? Can this be possible in the land of the free? Not according to Professor Bornhofen, an economist whom I had the pleasure of debating against in Michigan on the question, "Capitalism versus Socialism". In stating the case against capitalism I referred to workers too poor to afford shelter: 100,000 officially homeless in Britain and who knows how many more in the USA? With all the eloquence and erudition which one would expect from high-salaried apologist for the profit system, Bornhofen responded, "That's a lot of crap. Why, I doubt if there are more than a 1,000 homeless people in America." Well, if ignorance is bliss, Professor Bornhofen should have been one of the happiest men in Michigan that day.

No homeless workers in America —1,000 at the most? Let us turn to the rich oil state of Texas. According to figures published by the National Coalition for the Homeless there are 25,000 homeless people in Houston alone. The city devotes not a single dollar of taxes to building houses or providing for the homeless, the state of Texas is second only to Mississippi at the bottom of the league tables for state provision of social services. One newspaper reports the situation in the following terms:
In the chapel of downtown Houston's Star of Hope Mission sits a Saturday night congregation that is a cross-section of the city's hardcore homeless. Tired old men are here in mix-and-match clothing from the mission closet. While the physically disabled set their sights on lower bunks, the mentally disabled engage in long conversations with no one in particular. Here, too, are groups of lean young men only a few days out of the Texas Department of Corrections maximum security facility . . . A few men in their 30s—new to the streets and ill at ease—talk to no one. All need a meal and a place to sleep . . . The mission director reads from his list of randomly ordered numbers, and those remaining show their numbered bed-tickets and file out towards the 500-bed dorm. It's a place to sleep until breakfast call at 4.30a.m. In the huge converted warehouse the roof leaks and it's cold. Every man sleeps fully dressed. All of this, three meals and a bunk—offered by what is arguably the most generous men's shelter in the state—is provided without the expenditure of a single tax dollar. In Texas the homeless live off the kindness of strangers, not taxpayers. (In These Times, 8 April, 1987)
In Dallas, the city known in this country from the the TV soap opera in which everyone is either rich or very rich, there are 15,000 homeless people out of a population of one million. According to John Fullenwinder, the Dallas chairperson of the National Coalition for the Homeless, there were just under 43,000 forced-entry evictions in Dallas last year: a rate of 165 each working day. And that is just in two cities in one of the 50 states of the USA.

All of the other obscenities of working class poverty exist in the illusory land of the free, Even the so-called affluent American workers are now caught in the trap of unemployment. The US Department of Education has reported that 51 per cent of high school graduates not entering university are without a full-time job three years after graduation. Among 18-24 year-olds, the US Census Bureau has recorded a 50 per cent increase of those living in official poverty in the five years between 1979 and 1984. Not only are the poor becoming poorer but young workers who have been regarded as economically secure are moving ever more rapidly into the ranks of the officially poor.

Poverty in the USA breeds its own problems, not least of which is racism. When workers are being squeezed extra-hard so that the rich can get richer they soon turn on one another. Violence against American blacks has been on the increase, at the beginning of this year a gang of racists beat up three black men in the white suburb of New York called Howard Beach —one of the victims was murdered. In one area of New Orleans a sheriff has become a popular racist hero for threatening to arrest any blacks caught walking or riding through the white folks' town over which he presides. ("A New Racism", The Nation, 10 January 1987).

In the USA one per cent of the population own 40 per cent of all marketable wealth. That is 20 per cent more than they owned 20 years ago. In short, the super-rich are owning and controlling more and more and more. What they possess the overwhelming majority of Americans are excluded from possessing. The power of the capitalist majority is at the expense of the freedom of the wealth-producing majority to own and control the wealth which surrounds them. That is what capitalist freedom means: they own; we don't —they are few, we are many —they have privilege, we work like horses producing profits to feed that privilege. That is the freedom offered by "the land of the free".
Steve Coleman

Whatever happened to . . . the Socialist Workers' Republic? (1995)

From the January 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Up until a few years ago the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein placed considerable emphasis on the achievement of a "Socialist Workers' Republic", which nonsensical contradiction-in-terms they claimed as their objective. In Eira Nua (New Ireland), their policy document of 1971, they showed a remarkable ignorance of simple arithmetic by adding one form of capitalism to another form of capitalism and concluding that the answer was Socialism. Thus:

"In the drafting of this programme our aim has been to outline a social and economic system which would strike a balance between Western individualistic capitalism with its poor and hungry amid plenty on the right and Eastern Soviet state capitalism (or any of its variations) with its denial of freedom and human rights on the left." (Eira Nua, 1971, p4)

The reader of this nonsense, which was to be based on "Christian principles" of course, might construe it to mean that Sinn Fein/IRA, if it was victorious, intended to reward the working class of Ireland with a continuation of the "poor and hungry amid plenty" welded to a "denial of freedom and human rights'". Whatever it was supposed to mean, it had no association whatsoever  with Socialism.

In fact the republicans simply misused the term "socialist" as an emotive expression of their alleged concern for the working class - in imitation, it could said, of their hero, James Connolly, who while phrase-mongering about "socialism" became a military leader, a "General" no less, and led three hundred deprived and deceived workers out to fight for Irish capitalism.

The gun, the bomb and the "Socialist Workers' Republic" was ideological milk and honey to the armchair revolutionaries of the Left, especially in Britain. To the disparate groups of revolutionary romantics the IRA were "doers". The fact the volunteers were slaughtering other members of the working class and outdoing the Unionists in driving a wedge between workers - and all to reinforce the miserable capitalism we have including its eastern state form - was just another of the things that never occurred to the Left.

Enter Hume, the darling of the clergy and beloved of reactionary American capitalist politicians, bring in Reynolds and the southern gombeens. Even with bad arithmetic it is easy to see that this genteel gathering wields influence and power. New vistas! New drawing rooms where even the misuse of the term "socialist" would be somewhat . . . well . . . out of place.

With the same mental dexterity as the Armalite was abandoned in favour of politicking, so, too, has the nonsense about Socialism been abandoned in the interests of new friendships. The Left might feel betrayed - it's a cause hazard with them - but the feeling will not be as acute as it will be for those unfortunates who hoped that the Republican movement might do something to alleviate their working-class problems.
Richard Montague


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What makes you angry? (1996)

Editorial from the July 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Do television pictures of starving children make you angry? Would it make you more angry to learn that up to 20 million people die every year of starvation whilst tens of millions of tons of food are destroyed to keep prices high, and that farmers are paid vast sums not to produce food?

Are you astounded that an estimated 220 million people will be expected to have perished in wars fought during the 20th century? Could you believe that in almost every instance these conflicts broke out over trade routes, foreign markets and mineral resources - sources of present-day profit?

Are you concerned that tens of millions are unemployed around the world while factories are closed, and that countless thousands sleep rough in the world's major cities, whilst ten times as many houses stand vacant?

Are you frightened at the prospect of rising sea levels, deforestation and the depletion of the ozone layer? And do you despair at the threat to our planet from oil and chemical spills and nuclear accidents?

Undoubtedly you can answer yes to all the above. We could go on and fill many pages with similar questions. We are not morbid, but bring such catastrophic problems to your attention to prove that the society we live in —capitalism— is not fit for human beings to thrive in.

Production under capitalism is controlled by a small élite who also control distribution and communication networks. All wealth however, from a pin to an oil-rig is produced by workers—the majority, who sell their physical and mental energies to the owning capitalist class for a wage or salary.

Production under capitalism is primarily undertaken with a view to making profit for the capitalist class. This means that workers are employed and goods and services provided only when it is profitable to do so.

Socialists believe that such a social system is absurd and that the only way forward for humanity and planet Earth is the establishment of a world socialist system.

Socialism does not yet exist and never has. Some people believe socialism is associated with old USSR and China, but the evidence suggests that these countries have run their affairs no differently from, say, Britain and the USA.

Capitalism is a world-wide social system, and so must be its alternative—Socialism. It cannot exist in one country.

Socialism means that the resources for producing and distributing wealth (land, mines, factories, railways, shipping etc.) will be commonly owned and democratically controlled by the world's people.

For the first time, the people of the world will have a say in the running of their world.

Decomposing capitalism (1996)

Film Review from the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle)

If you have a weak stomach don't go anywhere near a cinema when this is on. The story of a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts it is brutal, horrific, gruesome and violent—hence the no doubt welcome publicity it has received in the tabloids. If it were a mere glorification of drug culture it would be repellent, but it is actually far from being this. It is instead a gripping account of life on the "sink" housing estates of British capitalism—a life of giros and empty days, of meandering aimlessly amongst the rubble and decay until the next "hit". It depicts a society where for an increasing number "life" is no life at all. A whole stratum of the working class, sunk down into the level of absolute poverty, exist like a collective living dead, and Trainspotting is truly their story. If it can be criticised, it is on the grounds that the only alternative apparently offered to this life of drugs and destitution is the bourgeois consumerism that afflicts other strata of the working class—the ones more used to Valium and Prozac than heroin. But in truth this is the only alternative offered by the capitalist system itself, and is therefore no real alternative at all. To this end the film closes with the main character cheating on his friends after a drugs deal and using the profits to develop a new life for himself in the sun, though with definite hints that mindless consumerism is in no way an answer to the problems of society, and is in itself often a product of a kind of poverty—this time relative poverty.

One of the most stomach-churning episodes in the film is where the lead character delves into a full toilet bowl searching for drugs, and this proves an interesting metaphor for the entire film. Life in the market economy is indeed heading down the pan at a fast rate, and illusory flights into drugs and nihilism on the one hand, and mindless consumerism on the other, as reflections of that process. Trainspotting reminds us that decomposing capitalism cannot sustain real community or social solidarity and is rotting on its feet under relentless pressure from the dictates of the profit system. Watch it and weep, but always be mindful that there is a real alternative to the mayhem of the market.
DAP


It's a good idea, but what now? (1996)

Editorial from the February 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is not just an ideal—a pleasant dream—a philosophy to keep in the back of your mind. If the ideas you read in this journal or have heard from a Socialist Party speaker have made you think that something can and should be done to change the world, then you owe it to yourself to do something about making socialism not just a great idea but also social reality.

There can be no Socialism without socialists. Liberation cannot be imposed upon people who are prepared to tolerate oppression and wage slavery. Until the vast majority of us realise the collective power that we have to transform society all of the sickening problems of world capitalism will persist—new ones will emerge—and eventually we might all be destroyed in the terrific explosion of one mass-murdering bomb. We must choose either to abolish the present social system or to be damaged and destroyed by it. The building of a movement of conscious socialists is a race against the destructive tendencies of the world-wide profit system. It is an urgent task.

"I don't want to be involved in politics." This is a common enough response from people who see the logic of what socialists are saying but are doubtful about the possibility of political change. You are right to have doubts. Only followers, marching to nowhere behind Major, Blair, Clinton, Yeltsin and the other professional mis-leaders, have blind faith in politics and politicians.

Socialists do not ask you to believe—we urge you to do your own thinking—to see how the present system is denying you so much and how the socialist alternative offers you so much more. Nobody in the Socialist Party poses as a leader. For Socialism to be achieved there is no need to politicians and followers, but conscious socialists knowing what they want and why they want it.

Le Capital (2013)

Film Review from the October 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Le Capital (dir. Costa-Gavras)

Le Capital is a European financial thriller made in France by Greek director Costa-Gavras that had its première at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012, was nominated for the 2012 Special Jury Prize at the San Sebastian International Film Festival but to date has not been released in Britain. Costa-Gavras is notable for his Academy Award winning film Z (1969), Missing (1982) which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and Music Box (1989) winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin.

Costa-Gavras based his film on the 2004 novel Le Capital by French banker Stephane Osmont but was also inspired by the book Totalitarian Capitalism by Jean Peyrelvade. The film stars Moroccan actor Gad Elmaleh and also Gabriel Byrne, the Irish actor memorable in the 1995 noir film The Usual Suspects.

Le Capital is a fast-paced film set in the closed world of investment banking full of cunning boardroom politics, billion-dollar banking takeovers, supermodels, corporate suits in jets globe-trotting from Paris to London, New York, Tokyo and Miami. The main protagonist played with a reptilian self-awareness by Elmaleh occasionally breaks the fourth wall and gives 'Brechtian' asides to the audience. Elmaleh has the best lines such as 'money makes people respect you, money is the master, money never sleeps'.

The film is dominated by memories of the global financial capitalist meltdown of 2008 caused by overproduction in the housing sub-prime market, deregulation of commercial bank securities such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the use of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other derivatives described as 'financial weapons of mass destruction' by Warren Buffett. The crisis was such that Ben Bernanke, head of the US Federal Reserve, feared the end of capitalism and said of the $700 billion emergency bailout of banks: 'if we don't do this, we may not have an economy on Monday'. According to Roger C Altman in The Great Crash 2008 losses totalled $8.3 trillion.

Costa-Gavras makes reference to the 'cowboy capitalism' of a 'brutal hedge fund' who are 'preachers of instant profit'. Elmaleh delivers lines such as 'I am a modern Robin Hood who takes from the poor to give to the rich'. There is also a possible allusion to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF who in May 2011was subject to allegations of sexual assault. The working class represented by one character accuses the bankers: 'You are bleeding the world thrice, the markets want blood, you fuck people with lay-offs, you fuck them with loans and debt, money rots everything'. A female English banker with a 'conscience' delivers an indictment near the end of the film: 'Banks in the claws of predatory stockholders, the dictatorship of the markets, speculation, the rating agencies that run the economy for politicos that threaten society, democratic states that can no longer govern or get rid of banks who stifle them'.

Costa-Gavras concludes in Le Capital that the bankers 'have fun and will go on having fun until everything is blown up in pieces'.
Steve Clayton



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Building a future (1994)

From the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

I am one of the many tens of thousands of construction workers who are currently unemployed. Disunited, we must be patient and wait. Surviving on the State prescribed pittance as pliant trapeze artistes on the unravelling "safety net" which so enchants reformers. Turning useful people into beggars is a historical, and inevitable,principle of the capitalist system. Perhaps this time, we have got to be extremely patient before capitalist investors decide that the opportunity of making profits from our labour power is a distinct possibility. Until then we must needlessly hang on, suffer quietly, await our masters' call.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I started working as a hod-carrier on the buildings, the economic circumstances were quite different from today. The demand for labour was high, consequently wages and degrees of freedom had been rising. Capitalism was in the boom phase of its cycle, and the construction industry anticipating even larger profits was in the process of restructuring itself. The design of buildings was slowly beginning to change, as were materials. Every aspect of what is a labour-intensive industry had to be cost effective.

Cash-in-the-hand wages were starting to become the norm for bricklayers and hoddies in London. No sick pay, holiday money or wet time for us, after all we were screwing the State, weren't we? Being a nomadic trade—I have had well over 100 jobs—where being a realist is forced on you, the majority took full advantage of the economic situation. It was quite usual for men to jack because there was no crack on the job, teabreaks were too short, or, because you couldn't get a sub when you wanted it. The sub was very important, its availability was one indicator of an employer's liquidity. It was a simple case of once bitten twice shy. Nearly everyone who has worked for subcontractors for some time gets bumped, at the first sign the realists abandoned ship before it sank.

The Monday Club was in full swing at this time. If 50 percent of the workforce turned up on a Monday the subbie was in raptures all day about how loyal his "boys" were. Building trades unions at this time were generally recognised as the niche of opportunists, liars, and the bribeable. Consequently, negotiations over wages took the form of "we want another shilling an hour". If it wasn't forthcoming, then the tools were immediately thrown into the bag and the ladder descended. A new start was just a phone call away.

It was fully understood that what we built during a working week was worth more than what we were paid, it was wholly transparent. The remainder being shared by the layers of pimps that thrived through our labours, this too was understood and despised. Creating profits, through the unremitting appropriation of surplus value from its workers, is the sole function of the construction industry. Building homes, etc is purely incidental to the process.

No boom lasts forever. The speculative jamboree of overproduction ended abruptly and inevitably. A few capitalists went bust. The shrewd, and well-connected ones are still there, conniving their way out of their latest short-lived binge. The long boom was over, and those few freedoms have never returned. The barbed-wire around the sites was in the process of being re-erected, and a new reality was beginning, one that over the coming years would increasingly subjugate the realists.

New income tax laws had been imposed, and were strengthening. Tax was being deducted at source which meant a 30% percent reduction in wages for those without exemption certificates. We were now self-employed--small businessmen no less. A great many workers, inspired by media reports of large sums of money to be earned, had travelled to London. These were among the first to taste the dole. Realists understand that they are disposable. Skint, most of the smaller and more liberal subbies were back on the scaffold with their "boys". The illusion that they had been more than just intermediary workers in the production of profits was still obstinately imprinted on their thwarted minds.

A small elite of subbies were now in a position to more effectively exploit for their masters those who were still in work. Afternoon tea-breaks disappeared and have never returned. Apprenticeships, which had been declining rapidly amongst firms since the rise of the subbie in the early sixties, were now just a source for contrite prattle by reformers. The derisively-paid, and deftly-worked improvers became their replacement. The week in hand was introduced, and the sub became extinct.

Competition between workers became more ferocious than ever. It was common practice when starting a new job to be put to work with the fastest bricklayer on the job; if you didn't keep up, you were down the road before breakfast. Few workers now questioned this, and some gained pleasure from it. Guilt, if you thought you hadn't done enough, and fear of what might happen, became as inseparable from your being as the trowel was from your hand.

A brutal system can create brutes, and the surviving subbies seemed to be in agreement on the type of foreman that they needed to run their jobs. Only the thug would do, no knowledge of bricklaying was necessary. A bully with a watch and few scruples replaced the tradesman. The old boys said that they'd seen it all before, no one really believed them.

Semi-literacy, and a knowledge of various state institutions, form the background for many bricklayers and labourers. Alcohol, and latterly drugs, are an integral part of the everyday working life for most. When the sack can arrive at any moment, to anyone, regardless of ability, just "to keep 'em on their toes"; where working conditions can vary from working in shin-high mud, to ramshackle scaffolds; where names and faces over the years become a blur, simply because of their frequency. And forming friendships is fraught with problems, then escapism becomes a necessity. And callousness a shield.

It's an upside-down world under capitalism. Those who are most useful suffer the lowest social esteem. But, laze in a masterfully-built mansion, and devise ways of turning human sweat into profit and you are to be admired, knighted even. After all, how would we cope without them, once the plans had been drawn and the footing dug and concreted, the walls built and then plastered, the joist and trusses nailed into place, and the roof battened and slated. Surely, we would be lost without a parasite to then sell the building?

A common dream, voiced amongst many workers that I came into contact with through the years was to build one's own home. A few achieved it. Some of those have now lost it. The possibility for all to achieve this dream can become a reality. By uniting, together we can begin the work of tearing down the barbed-wire than surrounds our lives, and bring nearer the day when we can establish socialism, and with it our freedom.
Andy Matthews

Egypt: Workers’ Struggles, Trade Unions and the ‘Left’ (2013)

From the September 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Workers’ struggles were an important aspect of the Egyptian upheaval from the start. While the world media focused on the political demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, mass protests and strikes erupted, especially in Alexandria and other provincial cities, over such everyday issues as wages, conditions of employment, managerial corruption, bread supply, shortage of housing and grossly inadequate municipal services. For example, people living in the Al-Wahat oasis in the Western Desert expressed their anger at the contrast between the huge sums being spent on tourist amenities, including a luxury hotel carved into the mountainside, and the neglect of their own needs (New Left Review 68, p. 24).

State of insurgency
This remains the pattern today. The run-up to the military takeover at the end of June saw a wave of strikes and protests. In March six cities – Port Said being worst affected – were ‘in a state of virtual insurgency, paralysed by mass civil disobedience and ongoing battles between protestors and security forces’ (Brian Slocums, thenorthstar.info, 5 March). Altogether there were some 2,000 strikes in 2012. One Egyptian activist, Hossam El-Hamalawy, argues that Morsi’s evident inability to ‘stabilise the street’ was one of the main reasons for his removal (jadaliyya.com).

Although many grievances are specific to a particular firm or locality, certain demands are being pursued across the country:

- a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (£120 or $180) per month

- the right to strike

- the right to organise independent unions to replace the state-controlled unions of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) inherited from the Mubarak regime

- regularisation of contracts for the many workers on insecure short-term contracts

Workers in firms privatised under Mubarak often demand their re-nationalisation. Other demands concern the special problems of workers in the ‘informal sector’ (who get no social benefits) and residents in ‘informal settlements’ – that is, officially unrecognised shanty towns (who get no municipal services). There is widespread opposition to the economic package imposed by the IMF.

Trade unions under successive regimes
There were several attempts to form independent trade unions under the old regime (in 1990 and during the strikes of 2006—2009), but only the current upheaval has made it possible openly and systematically to organise an independent trade union movement. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) was established in January 2011.

In October 2011 a group of activists broke away from the EFITU to form the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress. So there are now two groupings of independent trade unions, claiming three million members between them. The reasons for the split are unclear.

The electoral victory of the Moslem Brotherhood was a setback for this process. The military government that succeeded Mubarak had accepted the right of workers to form independent unions, but Morsi tried to reassert state control of the unions by reviving and reforming the EFTU.

Striking transport workers were accused of ‘treason’; officials of independent unions were prosecuted for ‘inciting to strike’ with five from the port workers’ union sentenced to three years in prison. The independent unions responded by joining the movement to unseat Morsi.

There is some question concerning how independent the EFITU is of the current military regime. El-Hamalawy accuses its leaders of compromising with the generals, suspending strike action and encouraging workers to increase production. He attributes this to the influence of Nasserite ideas, which make them vulnerable to ‘patriotic’ appeals.

Making sense of the Egyptian ‘left’
The last three years have seen a profusion of new and revived political organisations in Egypt. Quite a few of them claim to be ‘left-wing’. Keeping track of these groups and parties is difficult due to the speed with which they change their names, split and merge, and enter and leave alliances. To add to the confusion, in some cases several different English translations of the same Arabic name are in circulation. Moreover, differences inside a single organisation are sometimes at least as significant as differences between organisations.

That said, it seems possible and useful to make a few distinctions.

First, there is a divide between an ‘old left’ and a ‘new left’. The old left draw inspiration from the initial period of the post-colonial state, when Egypt was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Under the old left can be placed openly Nasserite groups like the Democratic Arab Nasserite Party and the National Progressive Unionist Party (Al-Tagammu), and also the revived Egyptian Communist Party.

The ‘new left’ groups are really ‘new’ only in the Egyptian context, as they model themselves more or less directly on ‘left-wing’ tendencies that have long existed elsewhere. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Egypt Freedom Party resemble the European social democratic parties – that is, they advocate very mild reforms within capitalism in the name of ‘social justice’. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party (formerly the Socialist Party of Egypt) appears to be a more ‘left-wing’ version of the same thing – that is, the reforms they stand for are a little bolder.

There is also a Trotskyist organisation called the ‘Revolutionary Socialists’, which has close links with the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain.

The Egyptian Popular Current, created after the 2012 presidential elections by the ‘left’ candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, seems to be an attempt to bridge the old and the new left. It too uses ‘social democratic’ language while at the same time appealing to Nasserite nostalgia (Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim is involved with this party).

Allying against the ‘main enemy’
Another important division concerns the strategy that the ‘left’ should adopt in dealing with the other three major forces within Egyptian society:

a) the state and the military institution as its core

b) the Moslem Brotherhood and Islamists in general

c) private business and the parties that represent its interests.

The crucial questions for Egyptian ‘leftists’ are these:

1) Which of these three is our ‘main enemy’?

2) Should we seek to ally with the other forces against the ‘main enemy’?

A few purists insist that the state, the Islamists and private business are all enemies and the ‘left’ should consistently oppose them all. But most Egyptian ‘leftists’ do not consider this a realistic stance.

There is also a view that gives clear primacy to economic issues and asserts that the cultural divide between secularists and Islamists is of secondary significance. The main enemy is therefore private capital and the ‘left’ should not cooperate with pro-business liberals like the Free Egyptians Party. This too seems to be a minority view.

The ‘old left’ and especially the Egyptian Communist Party traditionally follow a line that equates Islamism with fascism. This makes the Islamists into the main enemy. The ‘old left’ is willing to support a military crackdown on the Islamists (Sabbahi publicly expressed his support on 5 July). Part of the explanation may be that the Nasserites as well as the ‘Communists’ fully identify ‘socialism’ with state capitalism. And Nasserism itself, after all, was a movement of army officers.

Much of the ‘new left’ also consider the Islamists the main enemy. However, this approach is rejected by the Trotskyite ‘Revolutionary Socialists’, who identify the state as the main enemy. Their slogan is: ‘Sometimes with the Islamists, never with the state’.

Curiously enough, this stance reflects the influence of Chris Harman of the British SWP. In his book The Prophet and the Proletariat, an Arabic edition of which was distributed in Egypt by the local Trotskyists, Harman argues that ‘socialists can take advantage of contradictions within Islamism’ and ‘on some issues we side with Islamists against imperialism and the state’ – examples of such issues being the Gulf War and the ‘struggle against racism in Britain and France’. In the current Egyptian context this means that so-called socialists must defend the Islamists against the state – and themselves against the Islamists! (Harman’s book is available online at www.marxists.de/religion/harman)
Stefan

Between the Lines: The future of socialism (1986)

The Between the lines column from the April 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The future of socialism
Brian Magee's cosy studio discussions on BBC2 are like Oxford seminars for spectators; listening to Brian and his guest intellectuals toss around a few concepts is like watching darts on telly - it doesn't really matter whether they score a hundred and eighty or miss the board, the important point is that you're not getting a chance to throw the darts. Thinking Aloud (BBC2, 9 March) was supposed to be about whether socialism has a future. Dick Taverne, who should have realised long ago that he does not have one, came out with some predictable old drivel about socialism being outdated: there are no longer classes, the future lies  with the terrific new ideas of the SDP (or was he saying that the future will be terrified by the new lies of the SDP?). Opposing him was Beatrix Campbell, a very trendy Lefty who thinks that Sweden is fairly socialist and the GLC was proof that socialism works. With confusion-mongers like her claiming to speak for it, what future does socialism have as an idea? Fortunately there was a third guest in the studio, Daniel Singer from France who showed more than a slight acquaintance with Marx's ideas. Singer began by daring to suggest that before the subject could be discussed it was necessary to define socialism; it should be made clear that socialism does not mean capitalism run by bogus socialist governments. It was left to him to state that socialism has never been tried, but that "if there is no future for socialism there is no future for the human race". It is a pity that the rest of the discussion was not conducted in such terms. Instead it was a mass of "to a certain extents" and "the trouble with socialism is . . . " Darts were not only missing the board, but being thrown at targets which did not exist. BBC2 calls it philosophy. I preferred Tony Hancock on BBC1 an hour earlier - at least he made a few points.


The future of socialisme
As if one night of nonsense-talking about undefined socialism isn't sufficient, Panorama (BBC1, 10 March) was concerned to show how Mitterand's "socialism" had failed to satisfy the French workers. In a series of articles over the last three years The Socialist Standard predicted that this would happen and has shown how it has happened. Needless to say, the "experts" on Panorama are too dim-witted to recognise that what has failed in France is capitalism in another form - nothing at all to do with socialism failing.

Milne's admission
BBC head, Alistair Milne, was in a studio discussion presented by David Dimbleby (This Week, Next Week, BBC1, 23 February) and was being attacked by Mary Whitehouse who has made it her hobby of late to watch video tapes of the dirty bits of Eastenders. In defence of the BBC's new highly successful soap opera Mine stated that "Eastenders is just a modern version of the old morality plays." So, here we have an admission: one of the functions of soaps is to convey to audiences right and wrong ways of behaving. "Rightful" behaviour is shown to be socially accepted by the characters in the soaps and leads to eventual success, whereas "bad" actions are shown in such a way as to lead viewers to fear committing such moral transgressions themselves. A very good example of the same process at work is in the kids' soap opera, Grange Hill in which the characters are presented very clearly within the context of approved and disapproved behaviour models. Readers with other examples of how TV drama attempts to mould audience behaviour should send in references and we shall publish your observations in a future column.

A question to Mr Churchill
Winston Churchill, the grandson of the man who never objected to plenty of violence in the media but preferred it in real life, has moved a Private Members' Bill in parliament designed to keep obscenity off the TV. Apart from the fact that the BBC and IBA Charters already commit them to self-censorship, Churchill's Bill is daft because it proposes to make illegal TV showings of explicit cruelty to humans and animals. Does that mean that Mr. Churchill wants to ban all pictures of armies going about their legal business of inflicting cruelty against "the enemy" - including pictures of British soldiers in 1945 who went in for some pretty explicit cruelty against humans in Dresden? Does this new Bill mean that the plays of Shakespeare will be banned from TV - we are thinking in particular of such jolly scenes as the pulling out of Gloucester's eyes by his stepson in King Lear? And will it mean that we shall no longer see Crossroads or Wogan - for, let's face it, what can be more explicitly cruel to humans, not to mention animals, than those offerings? Socialists oppose censorship. And we shall certainly not censor Mr. Churchill's response to our questions if he cares to send one.

Capitalist Utopia
"Imagine a factory where there are no strikes." Have you seen the hideous Nissan advert? It would be interesting if the Gdansk shipyards went in for a similar TV-ad campaign in Britain. When is the denial of the freedom to strike something to be boasted about and when is it an infringement of "human rights"?
Steve Coleman




A Common World

Editorial from the April 1984 issue of the World Socialist


Across the entire face of the planet useful labour is held back and subject to domination by world capital. World Socialism will establish the freedom in which it can concentrate its energies solely on human needs.


This will be world co-operation to produce more food; to provide housing, sanitation and clean water for the hundreds of millions who endure sub-standard conditions or live in squalor; to provide health services; to construct a safe world energy system; to stop the despoliation of the planet and the pollution of its atmosphere, its seas, forests and lands; to provide for education and enjoyment; to provide for movement and communication. These are the urgent needs for which world socialism will release the immense resources of potentially useful labour, now held in check by the insanities of the profit system.

Useful labour must realise its own needs. These are the needs of co-operation, of mutual interest, of free development, and above all, the need of free access to all the productive means and resources which are its own universal inheritance.

Everything that is best in this inheritance has one source and one source alone -  that of useful work in all its variety. The work of arts and crafts; the work of science and applied technique; the work of tool making and providing machinery; the work of building and farming; the work of transport, education and health services. All these are skills which have been accumulated throughout history from the first flint implement to the space vehicles of today. This represents the accumulated power of useful labour.

Wherever we look throughout the world we can see the evidence of the best things that useful labour can do - once it can flourish in freedom for human needs.

But also now wherever we look, we see useful labour confined and in shackles. It suffers the waste of unemployment; the demoralisation of poverty and constricted development. Its use is distorted in a world armaments industry through which has been built the means of human destruction. The work of providing for needs is ignored, whilst hundreds of millions are under arms. Labour is forced into the divisive moulds of nationalism and competition.

Wherever we look labour is isolated from the means of production and resources by the laws of exploitative class relations. In its individual exchange with capital, wage labour works as a meaningless economic function, obeying the blind laws of commodity production and the economic tyranny of capital accumulation. Labour is the source of profit and not the activity of providing for needs.

Yet only useful labour, in co-operation, has the power to build a better world and to become the means of mutual care; to work in harmony with itself, with others and with nature. It is a power which is in common between all humanity, rising above the differences of race, culture and language, and the widely differing routes by which humanity has emerged from history. From this diversity, useful labour can enrich all human experience - in co-operation. This universal, self-realisation of useful labour can only be achieved by the human relations of common ownership, democratic control and production for use. In every world problem, in every common hope which remains unrealised and in every common experience of failure and disillusion, is the voice of useful labour demanding its free expression. World socialism provides its clear and conscious political direction.

World Socialism will operate with one simple and ordinary human ability which is universal - the ability of every individual to co-operate with others in a world wide community of interests.

This World Socialist journal is committed to the work of bringing this to fruition. The co-operation which exists now between the Companion Parties for World Socialism will take this work forward and this has only one direction -  the principled growth of the World Socialist Movement.


Politics of Live Aid (1985)

From the September 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

I confess to being one of the millions of people throughout the world who watched the Live Aid concert, and one of the smaller number of Bob Dylan devotees who sat up half the night and saw it through to the bitter (as it turned out, in view of Dylan's abject performance) end. And I admit to having enjoyed watching all those super-stars strut and stagger, prance and pose on my TV screen. But this was supposed to be more than just entertainment, and to remind us there was, during the sixteen hour concert, repeated showings of a particularly haunting and harrowing film of Ethiopian famine victims. Bob Geldof, the concert's moving force, also continually reminded us that the purpose of the programme was to raise money, and he succeeded. Forty million pounds is a lot of money for a charity to raise in one go.

But Geldof also asked the question: why do people starve on one side of the world while on the other people are paid not to produce food, or "surpluses" are allowed to rot? He said that no-one had yet answered that question for him satisfactorily. I hope reads this article.

On the surface the answer to "what causes famine?" may seem obvious. Shortage of food causes famine, and the present food shortage in Africa is the result of drought. But is this really true? Why, when the world can be turned into a "global village" for the purposes of transmitting pop music , can it not be turned into a "global village" for the purposes of distributing food?

In fact the immediate cause of famine is a combination of events, which includes such things as successive years of drought and crop failures leading to the creation of deserts. But there is no inevitable relationship between even a number of crop failures in successive years and famine. The latter is more likely to be due, not to be an absolute shortage of food, but rather to its unequal distribution both between countries and within a country. So for example:
it is rarely the urban poor who suffer famine (because of access to wage labour) which is usually confined to rural populations which in many under-developed countries have little direct relationship with centres of political power, and therefore little influence (Frances D'Souza and Jeremy Shoham, "The spread of famine in Africa", Third World Quarterly, July, 1985)
And besides the environmental causes of famine there are also political causes such as warfare.

The immediate effect of food scarcity is rapidly rising prices and the movement of men to urban areas in search of paid work that will enable them to buy food for their families. At the same time farmers begin to sell their live-stock like goats and sheep in order to raise money. This leads to a fall in meat prices and hence in the purchasing power of the farmers, who are then forced to sell more valuable assets like plough oxen. When all these options have been exhausted, whole households and villages are forced to move to towns or relief centres in search of food aid:
Mass migration, usually taken as the first sign of a famine, is in fact a terminal sign of distress, and at this stage it is almost impossible to prevent mass deaths, however great the relief effort (D'Souza and Shoham, op, cit).
 The situation in much of Africa is clearly now in this terminal phase. And yet as long ago as December 1982 the Food and Agricultural Organisation said that Ethiopia would need 400,000 tonnes of food aid in 1983; no action was taken and the country needed 1.5 million tonnes by 1985. So why did the world not respond earlier? One answer is politics:
If countries supplying food aid want to ignore famine warnings they will. One reason why the famine was so bad in Ethiopia was that America, which is now supplying half of all Africa's food aid, was sending only a trickle of aid until October 1984. Ethiopia's government has few friends in Washington (The Economist, 20 July, 1985).
 The famine-stricken countries themselves may also, for domestic political reasons, not wish to acknowledge the existence of the problem. In Sudan for example, as late as mid-1984 the government claimed that there was no famine in the country for fear of the political consequences of admitting that people were starving.

But even when the existence of the problem is admitted and a decision is taken to do something about it, politics intrudes. The aid "industry" has vested interests: people who rely on the aid agencies for their jobs may be unwilling to co-operate fully with representatives from other organisations, which leads to pointless duplication of effort. For example, in 1983 Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) received over 300 fact-finding missions from aid donors. They got so fed up with escorting people round the country that they are now refusing all international aid.

Most aid comes from national aid programmes rather than international relief agencies, and much of it is "tied". This means that the recipient government gets money provided it spends it on goods produced in the donor country. Clearly if the motive is to increase exports the interests of the starving in Africa are likely to come a very poor second to those of the rich in the donor country.

Another form of aid is "programme aid" whereby food is given to governments to be sold on the market. About a third of all America's 3.1 million tonnes of food aid and 60 per cent of that given by the EEC takes this form. In theory it enables recipient governments to buy seed and agricultural implements from the proceeds of the food sales; in practice the proceeds are just as likely to be spent on maintaining the armed forces.

Within the recipient country politics frequently affects the distribution of food aid. In Ethiopia the government has tried to prevent food from being distributed in the provinces of Tigre and Eritrea in an attempt to literally starve the rebels in those areas into submission and to force them to leave the region for feeding centres in other areas.

So in entering the aid business Bob Geldof should tread warily: it is a minefield of national and corporate interests, political manipulation and profit-seeking which is likely to destroy the good intentions of the politically naive.

For the sad truth is that despite the razzamatazz that surrounded the Live Aid concert the amount raised, though enormous by the standards of most charitable appeals, was a pittance when compared with the scale of suffering. Workers who gave money to the Live Aid appeal cannot afford to give enough to make a significant impact of the famine, since most of us rely only on a wage, salary or state benefits to provide for ourselves and our children. We do not own the wealth of the world; it is not ours to give.

Aid is in any case a contentious issue: some have argued that it has damaging effects for the recipients since it has the long term effect of weakening the capacity of communities to survive independently. Certainly it has been used for political and economic ends by the international capitalist class to create spheres of influence in the "Third World" and to maintain client states.

But a more important limitation of aid is the effect it has on the donors. Whether it is individuals giving to charities like Live Aid or governments making pious statements about the amount of aid they have provided, a dangerous illusion is created. The illusion, firstly, that something is being done, that we really can "feed the world" through charity and the efforts of a few dynamic and well-intentioned individuals like Bob Geldof. Both have politically disastrous consequences.

Famine is not a temporary upset in an otherwise harmonious world order which can be put right by a quick injection of money and sacks of grain: it is an endemic feature of a world system of society which dictates that those who have money to buy food can eat, and those who have no money must starve; that unsold food produced in one part of the world will not, in general, be transported to where it is needed because no profit would be made. For in our society food is not produced because people need it, but because those who own the farms and the land can make a profit from it. And if it cannot be sold profitably then it is left to rot.

So while it may be comforting to believe that Live Aid has significantly helped those suffering in Africa from the insanity of capitalism, it is dangerous because it ignores the real causes of world hunger. To perpetuate the myth that charity can solve that problem obscures the urgent need for political action to get rid of capitalism. We can eradicate famine: we have the technology, knowledge and productive capacity to produce enough food for everyone and to transport it to wherever in the world it might be needed. There is no need for people to starve but they will continue to do so as long as we produce goods for profit. To remove capitalism requires a much bigger commitment on the part of the working class than it takes to give a fiver to the Live Aid appeal. But whereas giving money to charity might give you a feeling of having "done something" to help the hungry (which lasts until the next awful pictures of unnecessary suffering are flashed onto your TV screen), working for socialism will bring the reward of knowing that you are helping to create a truly humanitarian society in which no-one, wherever they live, will die of hunger. And then we can all listen to pop music without feeling guilty.
Janie Percy-Smith


Monday, October 28, 2013

In or Out - Who Cares? (2013)

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

Socialists sometimes talk of ‘the capitalist class’ doing this or wanting that as if they were a monolithic whole with a single interest. In fact different sections of the capitalist class have different interests. Their attitude to the EU is a case in point.

Cameron has rather foolishly promised an in/out referendum on the issue; rather foolishly because (as the vote in parliament on bombing Syria shows) he cannot be sure that the result will be the one he wants, which will be to stay in with reforms, also the position of the Confederation of British Industry, which represents the biggest capitalist corporations operating in and from Britain.

One of the export-oriented big boys put the case for staying in to the Evening Standard (9 August):

‘Britain should stay in the European Union to safeguard exports to the Continent, the boss of Hitachi’s train operations in the UK urged today.… Mr Dormer… said exporters wanted Britain to have warm and stable relations with Europe. ‘Europe is potentially our biggest market and we would not want anything to happen that would create barriers or damage the relationship,’ he said.’

The previous day, the Times had reported ‘Business leaders press for single market withdrawal’:

‘Business for Britain will call for the nation to downgrade its relationship with the EU and become part of a customs union instead… The plans would allow Britain to avoid tariffs when trading with Europe, while not having to sign up to various rules which harmonise business conditions across the 28 member countries. If a future government managed to negotiate such a change, it would put Britain in a similar trading position to Turkey.’

Business for Britain, the Times explained, ‘claims to have the backing of 500 influential figures, including FTSE 100 directors and the owners of smaller businesses. They include Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Ocado, Richard Burrows, chairman of British American Tobacco, and Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher, parent company of B&Q.’ Other backers are Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next, John Caudwell, founder of Phones4U, Sir Rocco Forte, executive chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, Tim Martin, chairman of pub group JD Wetherspoon, and Charlie Mullins, managing director of Pimlico Plumbers.

It is easy to see what these have in common: they are all bosses of firms producing for the home market. The exception is BAT but they want to push their risky product in developing countries where restrictions on its sale are less than in Europe.

The same relationship to the EU as Turkey? The CBI has already rejected the even less distant relationships of Norway and Switzerland. Its director-general, John Cridland, had an article in the Times (4 July) headed ‘In or out, Britain has to play by Europe’s rules. Norway and Switzerland pay the costs of membership with no say over EU laws. That’s a bad deal for UK businesses.’

This dispute within the British capitalist class has no class interest for workers. Whether British capitalism is in or out of the EU will make no difference to their position as a class forced to work for a wage or a salary and won’t affect the problems they face either way.

So, if the referendum ever comes, you won’t find us joining with the xenophobic right and the xenophobic left to line up behind Ocado, B&Q, Next, Phones4U, Wetherspoons, Pimlico Plumbers and other firms producing for the home market in saying No2EU. We’ll be advising workers who understand their class position to write ‘World Socialism’ across their ballot paper.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Between the Lines: Distorting Marx (1988)

The Between the Lines column from the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Distorting Marx
You will notice that whenever a TV company chooses to make a film about the meaning of Christianity it hires a Christian to do the explaining. Likewise, when we see TV programmes about motor cars they tend to be introduced by car drivers, not by cyclists who are fundamentally opposed to motor transport or pedestrians who have never sat behind a car steering wheel. Not so when it comes to discussing Marx. To speak about this subject on TV requires different qualifications. Marx is usually spoken about by ex-"communists" who used to belong to the non-communist Communist Party, or by anti-Marxists, or by academics who think that Marx might have been right - about some things - but then again - he might have been wrong - perhaps. In short, the one qualification which is certainly not required when it comes to discussing Marx on the telly is agreement with what the man said, less still, commitment to do anything about it.

So, the new Channel Four three-part series, The Faith of Marxism (Saturdays, 6.30-7pm) came as no great surprise. It is presented by Professor David McLellan who is described - wait for it, now - as "the world's leading Marxologue" and a "practising Roman Catholic" who was training to be a Jesuit priest and now serves as advisor to the British Catholic bishops. And who are the guests whose assistance has been solicited by this mixed-up academic to help him make his point? Firstly, Denis Healey, whose claim to be interviewed is that he used to a Marxist in the 1930s when he joined the Stalin-loving Communist Party while at Oxford University. He decided to leave because "Marx said nothing about the arts". Also interviewed in the first programme in the series (4 June) was Sir Alfred Sherman (ex-CPer and now zealous Thatcherite), a Roman Catholic ex-CPer, Ken Gill of Tass who left the CP because it didn't accept the Tass (as in Tass News Agency) line sufficiently, and Bea Campbell who is a member of the Communist Party's Marxism Today-Young Liberals tendency.

McLellan contends that Marxism is a new religion. In common with religion it has elaborate symbols (banners) and rituals (rallies); it has its Bible (the works of Marx); it settles disputes all too often by reference to the doctrinal texts; and it has its heretics, that is, those who interpret Marxism differently from the leaders. This is a fair criticism of most people who claim to stand for Marxism. It is true that Marxism has been turned into a dogmatic religion which has little to do with the intellectually dynamic and doubting approach of Marx himself. But then, as a Roman Catholic, McLellan is in no position to attack those Leftists who have made a secular religion out of fragments of Marxist thinking. Either one is opposed to religion and to dogma - as The Socialist Party is - or none favours it - as McLellan, the supporter of the Catholic catechism does. There is no particular reason why Professor McLellan, together with his invited interviewees, should not use up three programmes spouting their anti-Marxist prejudices. But when such distortion is all that TV puts out about Marx it is time to ask whether there is not a clear policy that Marx will only be represented on TV on condition that his essential ideas are distorted beyond recognition.

A few years ago McLellan was invited to debate with the present writer on the subject of what Marx really meant. He admitted then that he had learnt a lot and that he respected The Socialist Party as the only true Marxists in Britain. Not long after that the same Professor McLellan debated ina large hall in Islington against another member of The Socialist Party on the question of the relationship of religion to Marxism. In that meeting he was presented with a clear explanation of the materialist conception of history, which is the basis of the non-religious outlook of this party. Given that those two events occurred (both tape-recorded), why did McLellan not consult for interview the one political party in the country which he regards as truly Marxist and which he knows is coherently anti-religious? If he failed to call upon The Socialist Party because he knew that, unlike his chosen guests, we would shatter to pieces his thesis that Marxism is a religion, then McLellan is dishonest. If, on the other hand, he did wish to interview us - to hear our side of the argument, as good academics are taught to do before intoxicating themselves with the soundness of their own certainties - and his producers at Channel Four would not allow him to do so, we shall expect him to have the courage to admit that. This column will be sent to Professor McLellan and by his response can our readers judge him.

On the same night as McLellan's three-parter commenced, another epic of distortion, Reid About the USSR (C4, 8pm) began a series of three hourly programmes. The presenter is one Jimmy Reid, ex-Communist Party member and hero of those gullible enough to make heroes out of strike leaders. Reid now writes a column in The Sun, Murdoch's scab paper. Most of the first programme showed Reid rushing around the Russian Empire admiring the new entrepreneurial spirit of perestroika. It seems they are soon to be opening private clinics for those who can afford to buy superior health treatment, and the government is giving grants to "co-operative" businesses which are out to make profits. Reid was quite happy to describe all of this as Marxism in practice. Why not? It seems that any old fool with any old illusion is free to stand in front of a camera and describe any old dictatorship as Marxist, as long, of course, as he is an ex- pr a non-Marxist.

War and censorship
In its relelntless urge to emulate the Gestapo, the British state put pressure on the BBC not to show the TV film Tumbledown (Monday, 31 May, 9.30pm, BBC1). The film, written by Charles Wood, was based upon the reminiscences of an army officer who had been disabled in the Falklands war. In the end the BBC succumbed to pressure and censored 12 seconds of the film - a part in which a British officer was shown to act in a reckless and cowardly fashion. Interestingly, the censors did not choose to remove the really offensive moment of the film where the officer is shown beating to death an Argentine soldier, who lay on the ground pleading for his life. This murder did actually place. The British state obviously is not ashamed of such vicious killing: indeed, the Prime Minister invited us at the time to "rejoice" in such actions, and she went on to win the 1983 election on the strength of the corpses of that slaughter.

The point to f the film was to invite sympathy for this killer officer who, after having 40 per cent of his brain blown out and being disabled for life, felt cheated when he returned to Britain was was treated as an embarrassment. Such a murderer will receive no sympathy from these quarters. The film depicted him as a loathsome Hooray Henry when he was in the officer corps before the war began and as a foolishly indoctrinated state thug when he was out there. That he is now treated as a leper by those who paid him to blow people up and beat them to death is his problem. If you don't want to end up as a cripple, you don't join the war forces. Our sorrow is reserved for those wage slaves killed and maimed when they did not choose war, but have had no alternative but to fight as conscripts or fall victims as innocent bystanders. The censors of Whitehall will never succeed in stopping the horrors of war from being shown, as long as the cause of war exists the relics of war will be walking, hobbling and lying in hospital beds as living monuments to the madness of the system which the censors serve.

Neil tried his best
On This Week, Next Week (Sunday, 5 June, 1pm, BBC1) the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, said that there is nothing wrong with the profit motive, that Labour could run capitalism well and that of course Labour is in favour of the market because it's the only possible way to distribute goods. He did not imply these ideas, he stated them, as explicitly as is possible when you are incapable of saying anything simply. He also said - quite explicitly - that there has never been anyone who has seriously advocated the abolition of the market. The Socialist Party stand for precisely that, and has shown why the abolition of the buying and selling system is the only way to achieve socialism in ways so simple that even Kinnock should be able to understand. If he would like to find out about the case for free access he should write to us and we will contribute to the early stages of his socialist education. Kinnock locks increasingly like an apprentice at the Stock Exchange - a working-class kid who's made it to an apprenticeship and is trying to impress his elders and betters that, although he still eats his peas with his knife and only went to a provincial university, he really is just the lad to run their errands and do their bidding. Neil Kinnock really is a pathetic sight - a reformist without even the rhetoric of radicalism; a jabbering repeater of Stock Market slogans. He and his party and its policy review are pathetic, intellectually empty and equipped with principles which give second-hand car dealers a bad name. In fact, has anybody thought of asking him to make a series of programmes about Marxism?
Steve Coleman

Winstanley (2013)

Book Review from the April 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Gerard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy, by John Gurney. Pluto Press, 2013 £12.99

This is an excellent new book providing a brief history of the life and times of Gerard Winstanley, the seventeenth century utopian communist. Enough historical context and biographical detail is provided to get to grips with the subject without becoming too immersed in academic debates and a sense is given of the contested nature of Winstanley’s legacy.

One of the points raised by Gurney is that Winstanley was virtually unheard of for over two centuries after his digger writings. British political radicalism up to the latter half of the nineteenth century emphasized the contribution of the Levellers and the defender of parliament against the crown, John Hampden, to political democracy. Winstanley’s legacy was mainly focused on his possible contribution to Quakerism. This all changed, however, with the rise of Marxian revolutionary socialism which led to an interest in Winstanley’s communism and his rise from historical obscurity. It was the German social democrat, Eduard Bernstein who, in 1895, revived Winstanley’s reputation as an early proponent of ‘communistic utopia’ in his Cromwell and Communism. 

Today the situation is somewhat reversed and Winstanley is probably the most celebrated radical figure of the English Civil War period. In fact, he is probably emphasised beyond his historical importance – the subject of numerous academic studies and celebrated as a ‘forerunner’ of socialism, anarchism, libertarianism and back-to-the-land activism.  Winstanley’s legacy is disputed ground but he cannot with any seriousness be regarded as an early proponent of any of these later social movements. Winstanley responded to the world around him with the intellectual tools available to him. He suffered financial misfortune during the turmoil of the Civil War and his angst was expressed through visionary, millenarian, religious mysticism. The social function of religion was fiercely criticized and future salvation rejected in favour of a religion of conduct on earth. Reason, for Winstanley, was synonymous with God and covetousness, competition and false dealing resulted from private property and money. The solution he proffered was a social transformation based on the abolition of private property and money and their replacement with common ownership and working in common. Remaining a mystic, social and political experience led him to a materialist conclusion cloaked in religious language – material equality would not come from spiritual enlightenment but precisely the reverse; true religion could only emerge from material equality on earth. After the Civil War period Winstanley withdrew from activism and became a settled and respected local landowner, tradesman and Quaker. 

One of his most repeated quotes is: ‘Words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.’ Ironically his actions came to nothing and it is his words and writings that have survived for posterity. His practical efforts, which involved cultivating common land with fellow Diggers near Cobham in Surrey, failed to attract support. Instead of sympathy, the Diggers faced extreme opposition and violence from the local population on two fronts. First, they were attacked several times whilst at a site on St. George’s Hill by locals who used the common to graze cattle and sheep.  Second, when they had moved closer to Cobham, they were attacked by the lackeys of the local gentry and they were again subject to violence, including the destruction of houses built by the Diggers. They were forced after just over a year of strenuous effort in the face of vitriolic hostility to give up their practical activity. Their plight is summed up by another of Winstanley’s oft-quoted writings: ‘For freedom is the man that will turn the world upside downe; therefore no wonder he hath enemies…’

It is possible to see in Winstanley’s writings the rudiments of the Marxian concepts of alienation and the labour theory of value. This is, though, to see him through the lens of future developments. He was not a forerunner of Marxian socialism but the turbulence of the English Revolution did lead him to lay down writings which offered up a communistic utopia as the solution to the social and economic challenges he faced.  The historical turn away from celebrating constitutional political radicalism and towards Winstanley’s communism is interesting and positive. Unfortunately many of the most vocal celebrants of Winstanley, such as The Land is Ours and other land reformers, do not do justice to the depth of the ambition of his communism. A recent interesting development is an annual Digger’s festival in Wigan (Winstanley’s birthplace). This year is the third such event, to be held on 7th September (wigandiggersfestival.org).
Colin Skelly