Saturday, November 30, 2013

Karl Marx: Anthropologist (2013)

From the November 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Text of a talk given by guest speaker Brian Morris at a Socialist Party meeting in London on 21 April this year

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski began his well-known history of Marxism with the words ‘Karl Marx was a German philosopher’. True: Marx studied philosophy at the University of Berlin in his early twenties, and had a passion for German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, but it hardly needs saying that Marx cannot be understood simply as a philosophical thinker. Better known, perhaps, as a political journalist, an erudite economist, and a revolutionary socialist, Marx was also, in an important sense, an anthropologist, for he always repudiated scholastic metaphysics. He can indeed be described as one of the founding ancestors of anthropology.

But what also has to be recognized is that Marx was an absolutely voracious reader, endlessly taking notes on everything that he read. He was therefore well versed not only in philosophy, economics, history and the natural sciences, but also in literature, being particularly fond of the poetry of Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Goethe. Marx had a truly encyclopaedic mind, a restless and inquiring intellect, and was interested, as an anthropologist, in understanding all aspects of life.

The German Enlightenment scholar Immanuel Kant – like Marx Kant was more than simply a philosopher – famously defined anthropology as the study of what it means to be human. Marx's anthropology, as Thomas Patterson affirmed, was largely derived from the Enlightenment. It was a kind of anthropology, however, that was critical, dialectical and historical, and it involved the embrace of some of the key tenets of the Enlightenment legacy: the importance of rationality, and the use of reason, along with that of empirical knowledge; the acknowledgement of the existence of the natural world independent of human cognition and representation; the fundamental importance of human freedom; the denial of all knowledge claims based on authority or mystical intuition; and a recognition of the historicity not only of nature but of human beings and human social life and culture.

Scholars within the Enlightenment tradition, scholars as different as Erich Fromm and Bruce Trigger, have long recognized that there is an essential ‘paradox’, or basic contradiction at the heart of human life, an inherent duality in social existence. On the one hand humans are fundamental organic beings, and intrinsically a part of nature. On the other hand, through their self-consciousness, sociality and symbolic culture they are in a sense unique and separate from nature. They have what Cicero called a ‘second nature’. The social ecologist Lewis Mumford suggested that humans have a ‘twofold’ life. Anthropology, as Marx envisaged it, firmly embraced this paradox, putting an equal emphasis on our organic life and our shared humanity (as with Kant) and on the social and cultural diversity of human life (as with Herder). As Marx expressed it in his definition of communism, anthropology entailed a combination of naturalism and humanism.

Drawing on the Enlightenment legacy, Marx's anthropology, as a study of what it means to be human, is focussed around four key concepts – namely, nature, society, history and science - concepts which some contemporary anthropologists treat with unwarranted scepticism, if not with derision. We may explore Marx's own conception of anthropology and the human subject in relation to these four fundamental concepts.

Although Marx was an ontological realist, affirming the existence of a physical world independent of humans, this, of course, did not imply a dualistic metaphysic (as Karl Popper implied), or the idea that humans were independent of nature. To the contrary, Marx, in contrast to most sociologists and contemporary postmodernist anthropologists, strongly emphasized that humans were natural beings, and intrinsically a part of nature. As he put it: ‘nature is man's inorganic body’. For Marx, humans were natural beings. They were active, living beings, embodied, sensuous, conscious, with feelings and emotions, and with inherent dispositions and capacities, as well as being, like other animals, limited, conditioned and suffering beings. The relationship between humans and nature was thus essentially dialectical, not simply relational.

This meant, of course, for Marx, that any understanding of human social life (or history) must begin with one basic premise: namely, the existence of human individuals, and the fact of their inter-relationship with the rest of nature. It was through their productive relations, their creative interactions with nature to meet then-basic needs, that humans produced their material life, or what Marx described as their ‘modes of life’. Forms of consciousness, specifically culture or ideology, emerged, he felt, from within these ‘real-life processes’. As Marx famously put it: ‘life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life’.

Whether or not this implies a form of economic determinism has long been debated by scholars from right across the political spectrum. Given that Marx was essentially a dialectical thinker, the material aspects of human life must be seen as the basis or anchorage for cultural configurations, or what Ernst Cassirer described as symbolic forms (art, religion, philosophy, science) rather than involving any direct causal relationship.

Yet it is important to recognize that Marx fervently rejected the idea of a fixed human nature or essence, for in being a part of nature, rather than the creation of some divine agent, humans had evolved historically. Marx saw no antithesis between nature and human history, and like Darwin, stressed the historicity of human nature. His lifelong associate and friend, Friedrich Engels, wrote a famous essay entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition From Ape to Man, stressing the importance of labour – human productive inter-actions with nature – in the emergence of ‘modern’ humans. Along with erect posture, the expansion and re-organisation of the human brain, the dexterity of the human hand, tool-making, language and symbolic culture, and the emergence of a more complex society, labour is seen by Engels (and Marx) as the key factor in the emergence of Homo sapiens.

The important point, of course, is that humans are not only natural beings, but also, Marx insisted, human natural beings, species-beings, with sociality and self-consciousness. Humans, therefore, as Marx continually stressed, are social beings, always enmeshed in a complex web of social relations. Our relationship with nature is therefore always intrinsically social, and even our perceptions of nature are socially and culturally mediated, though not wholly determined by our culture.

Importantly, as with later sociologists, Marx emphasized that human perceptions, thoughts and actions, are shaped to an important degree by the patterns of social relations, and the cultures into which humans are born, and which they help to actualize, maintain or transform. Marx famously remarked that humans make their own history but they do not make it just as they please, for past traditions always influence living humans. Marx was, therefore, one of the first social scientists to explore what later became known as the ‘duality’ between social structures (relations) and human agency, and, for Marx, this relationship between social forms and the human individual was always interdependent and dialectical.

Marx was therefore always critical of the two extremes in approaching this ‘duality’. The first extreme, as reflected later in Durkheimian sociology and culture theory (in its various guises) virtually oblates human agency, viewing human thought and action as largely determined or an ‘effect’ of either symbolic culture (as with Leslie White and many postmodernists) or ideology (Althusser) or power (Foucault). Marx was critical of such sociological determinism, and (again) famously remarked:
‘History (that is, social life) does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles! It is real living men who do all this .. .History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends’.
On the other hand, Marx was equally critical of the other extreme, which tended to put a fundamental emphasis on the individual, and to downplay or ignore the importance of history, and of social relations and culture. He was therefore always critical of the ‘abstract’ individual of the classical philosophers, who seemingly posited the human individual as outside nature and society. He thus made some trenchant criticisms of Feuerbach's humanism, Stirner's radical individualism, which in its emphasis on the unique ‘ego’ dismissed humanity as a ‘spook’, and the asocial possessive individualism of Hobbes and the bourgeois political economists. The political economists (Ricardo and Adam Smith) Marx famously dismissed as ‘Robinsonades’ (after Robinson Crusoe), for they began their analysis with the notion of a rational isolated individual, detached from social bonds, and assumed that this was a reflection of human nature.

In terms of contemporary social theory, Marx rejected both ‘sociological collectivism’ (or holism, mystical or otherwise) and methodological individualism (Popper and rational choice theorists).

Many scholars have stressed that Marx viewed the human subject as a dialectical unity, as intrinsically and simultaneously both a natural and a social being. But as a revolutionary socialist Marx also emphasised that all humans have a unique personal identity – a sense of self with moral and social agency. And he was centrally concerned not with autonomy, but rather with social freedom, and the self-expression of the human individual. Marx thus expressed an understanding of the human subject in terms of a triadic ontology.

To illustrate this we may turn to the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, the engaging ethnographer of the Navaho. Kluckhohn once suggested that there were three distinctive ways of conceiving the human person; firstly that in some respects every person is like every other human being – as a species-being; secondly that they are like no other human being in having a unique personality (or self); and, finally, that they have affinities with some other humans in being social and cultural beings. These three aspects of the human subject are an essential expression of the fact that humans are always embedded in three historical processes, namely, the phylogenetic, pertaining to the evolution of humans as a species-being (humanity); the ontogenetic, which relates to the individual as a unique, embodied and psychological being (self); and, finally, the socio-historical, which situates the human individual as a person, in a specific historical and ecological context.

Like Kant and Marcel Mauss, Marx therefore always recognized that the human being had, always and simultaneously, three distinct ‘natures’; a) as a species-being, a human nature (or identity) with essential needs, powers, capacities, and a history; b) as a ‘communal being’ or ‘an ensemble of social relations’ (as Marx put it), a person who enacted specific social roles and expressed certain social identities; and c) as an individual being, a self with a unique personality and subjective and moral agency. Marx was a humanist, in that he always emphasised the ‘individuality’ of the human person, and the fundamental importance of human freedom, viewed in terms of the self-determination and the self-expression of the individual. But like the social anarchists, Marx recognized and stressed that such freedom could only be achieved by the creation, through collective practice and struggle, of a truly socialist society, for humans were fundamentally social beings. Freedom, for Marx, was social not metaphysical.

Within the Marxist tradition there has long been an on-going debate, and at times harsh polemical exchanges, between two contrasting interpretations of Marx.

On the one hand, there are those who are usually described as critical theorists or Hegelian Marxists, who stress the continuity between Marx and German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel. They focus on Marx's early writings on philosophical anthropology, situate themselves in the more literary and philosophical traditions of European culture, and adopt a more ‘historicist’ and ‘humanistic’ interpretation of Marx. The emphasis is on ‘dialectics’, ‘humanism’ and history, and they often express an aversion to science. A classic example is Erich Fromm, who described Marx as an existentialist humanist, centrally concerned with human dignity and freedom.

On the other hand, there are those Marxists who focus on Marx's later writings, particularly his profound analysis of modern capitalism Das Kapital (1867), which is essentially a work of empirical anthropology, replete with a welter of ethnographic data on industrial production and human life under capitalism. Such Marxists suggest that Marx made a clean break with Hegel's historicist philosophy, along with dialectics, and had pioneered a new scientific way of understanding human history. Louis Althusser is a key exemplar of the tendency to interpret Marx's anthropology as a ‘science of history’. But in being stridently ‘anti-humanist’ and derisory towards history, Althusser tended to express a rather abstract and synchronic form of scientific understanding.

What many scholars have suggested, however, is that Marx's anthropology is best understood as a unique attempt to establish a dialectical social science. Marx thus envisaged anthropology as a historical science, one that would combine dialectics and science, historicism (humanism) and materialism (naturalism). It involved a rejection of both cultural idealism and positivism and all forms of reductive materialism. As Marx put it: ‘the abstract materialism of a natural science that excludes the historical process is defective’, for the only viable approach to the understanding of social life is one that is both materialist and historical. Such scientific understanding, therefore, involves going beyond phenomenological description by exploring – explaining – how social and cultural phenomena ‘came into being’. The anthropologist Franz Boas put this succinctly ‘To understand a phenomenon we have to know not only what it is, but also how it came into being. Our problem is historical’.

Marx's anthropology can therefore be described in summary as at once dialectical, historical, materialist and scientific, as well as reflecting the ‘critical spirit’ of the Enlightenment.

Marx, of course, was primarily interested in economics and political theory, and is mainly known for writing the famous Communist Manifesto (1848) (along with Engels), and for his substantial economic treatise Das Kapital. But it has to be recognized that Marx was a world-historical thinker. As a political journalist he wrote extensively on India and colonialism. Always fascinated by the diversity of human societies, both in the past and in his own time, Marx became deeply involved in studying pre- capitalist modes of production - communal (tribal societies), ancient (the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome), Germanic, Asiatic, Slavonic (specifically Russian serfdom) and European feudalism. These formed the socio-historical context with regard to the emergence and the expansion of the capitalist world economy. While in his last years Marx filled several notebooks – the ethnological notebooks -with observations and reflections on diverse anthropological topics, ranging from ‘primitive communism’ to the family and gender in the Roman Empire – notes derived from extensive reading. Marx was particularly interested in the work of the pioneer American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan who wrote ground-breaking studies on the Iroquois, on kinship systems, and on socio-cultural evolution. Morgan's Ancient Society (1877) was a landmark text in the development of anthropology. Significantly, Engel's seminal study The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) is largely based on Morgan's work and on Marx's own notebooks.

Although Marx is invariably interpreted as a social evolutionist, who, like Morgan and Edward Tylor, viewed human history in terms of rigid unilinear ‘stages’, it is evident, as Patterson contends, that Marx had a much more complex conception of human history, one that implied multilineal ‘pathways’.

Though an exemplary and pioneer anthropologist, Marx continues to be dismissed by contemporary liberal scholars as an intellectual ‘relic’, and held responsible for the authoritarian politics and tyranny of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the Chinese state under Mao Zedong. Both, of course, were forms of state capitalism under a party dictatorship, and far removed from Marx's own embrace of democratic politics and his conception of a communist society. Perhaps, as a last word, we can quote from the pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook, before he became an apologist for the American empire:
‘Marx was a democratic socialist, a secular humanist, and a fighter for human freedom. His words and actions breathe a commitment to a way of life and a critical independence completely at odds with the absolute rule of the one-party dictatorship of the Soviet Union’– or that of any other political dictatorship’.
Marx was also an anthropologist and the advocate of anthropology as a humanistic science.
Brian Morris


Boas, F. (1940) Race, Language and Culture (1982 edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hook, S. (1971) From Hegel to Marx (original 1962). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Marx, K. (1967) Capital. Vol One. Introd : G.D.H. Cole. London: Dent.

Marx, K. (1975) Early Writings. Introd: : L. Colletti. London: Penguin Books .

Marx, K. and F .Engels (1956) The Holy Family (original 1845). London: Lawrence and Wishart

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1965) The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart

Patterson, T. C. (2009) Karl Marx : Anthropologist. Oxford: Berg.

Who are the Socialist Alliance? (2001)

From the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Yet another set of dishonest politicians will be after your vote at the general election. However, in this case they are calling themselves 'socialist'. But they are anything but.

The Socialist Alliance intends to field up to a hundred candidates in the forthcoming election, specifically targeting disaffected Labour voters who feel 'betrayed' by Tony Blair and may want a 'socialist alternative'.

Rag bag
So who are the Socialist Alliance? They are an eclectic rag bag of Trotskyists, former Stalinists, various other groupings and assorted individuals. The main organisations involved include: Socialist Workers Party, Militant (now calling itself Socialist Party of England and Wales, or SPEW), Alliance for Workers Liberty, Communist Party of Great Britain, International Socialist Organisation and Workers Power. The SA are also supporting the 72 (former-Militant) Scottish Socialist Party candidates. Previously, the SA have stood in the 1998 Euro elections and last year's Greater London Assembly elections, with limited success. The general election will be their most ambitious adventure to date. So, unfortunately, we will undoubtedly be hearing more about them.

In any case, it is interesting to learn how such a disparate collection of former enemies could have come together in the first place. It does not seem so long ago that the AWL were accusing the SWP of 'violent thuggery' against some of their own members (see AWL pamphlet Why the SWP Beats Up Its Socialist Critics), and surely the former Stalinists of the CPGB would have balked at the prospect of talking to Trotskyists, let alone organising with them. But whatever particular ism each of these leftist sects subscribe to, they all represent the left-wing of capitalism's political apparatus, and thus are the enemy of the working class.

Left opens up
But with New Labour's victory in May 1997 and flirtations with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party notwithstanding, these leftist group's orientation to Labourist policies had to be re-evaluated. Many of these groups have been hoisted with their own petard: telling workers to vote Labour only to scream 'betrayed' when they discovered Blair and Co were anti working class. We didn't vote for this! screamed Socialist Worker. Oh yes you did! is our response.

Subsequently, a rightwards shift into the area vacated by Labour has become the order of the day. Just how far this shift should be and, moreover, the very content of the cynical reform package being offered to the working class has tested the very foundations of the alliance and caused much acrimony among the groups themselves. The SA is very much a marriage of convenience.

Leninist duplicity
All Leninist/Trotskyist organisations start from the premise that workers are too stupid to understand or want socialism by their own volition. Therefore, revolutionary ideas have to be introduced from outside the working class by all-knowing 'professional revolutionaries' who will lead workers to the promised land. It's worth pointing out that the Leninists themselves do not want socialism because they do not know what it is. For Leninists and Trotskyists, socialism is what you get when they run the government and nationalise the commanding heights of the economy in a pathetic attempt to centrally plan production. This is not socialism, it is capitalism. Or, more precisely, state capitalism—whether the Leninists consciously realise it or not.

For this end, a minimum—or transitional—programme is adopted. Since workers are unlikely to be turned on to what the Leninists really stand for, a plethora of unworkable reforms is served up for the working class's edification. For instance, here are some of the SA's 'priority pledges' from their website:

  • Tax the rich to pay for the welfare state
  • Raise the minimum wage to £7 an hour
  • Cancel third world debt
  • For the right to work -- 35 hour week now
  • Raise pensions and restore the link with earnings
  • Fully funded comprehensive education and NHS

Commenting upon the SA's 'tax the rich and spend' budget proposals, Dave Nellist, the SA leader, said:
“If you tried to enter our budget into the Treasury computer model of the UK economy, it would reject it. It breaks all the rules.” (SA press release, 4/3/01)
As Nellist admits, the SA's capitalist reform proposals would not work as capitalism is based upon capital accumulation and production for profit. So, Mr Nellist, why the need to lie?

Within the SA, groups such as the SWP, Militant and the AWL have been 'out-lefted' by the likes of the CPGB and WP who argue that the former are 'economistic' and 'centrist'—Leninist speak for lacking revolutionary vision. The others have retorted by accusing the CPGB and WP of 'ultra-leftist posturing'. According to Weekly Worker, the journal of the CPGB, reporting on the recent National Policy Conference of the SA:
“The SWP consciously and openly argued that in order to make a real impact in the election and attract non-revolutionary workers and Labourites, we must not stand on 'too radical' [sic] a platform. The most important thing is to form a pole of attraction one step to the left of New Labour—in effect, the old Labour model is the safest and most viable.”
“Amendments from the CPGB and WP called for opposition to the standing army and police and their replacement by working class militia and 'community self-defence organisation' [sic]. The SWP's Kambiz Boomla strode to the microphone to admonish the left for wanting to 'put off' [sic] people such as 'Sister Christine', a catholic nun who was on the point of being recruited into the alliance in east London.” (Weekly Worker, 15 March)
Yes, this is real revolutionary politics: do we demand a 'workers militia' or will that frighten off the nuns? It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Even our Leninist friends have been forced to admit that this charade is based upon a tissue of lies. Here's one member of the International Socialist Group:
“Do we want a revolutionary programme or a programme that challenges capitalism and can reach out to significant forces to our right? We 'don't always have to tell the truth' [sic] about our revolutionism.” (Weekly Worker, 15 March)
SWP's about turn
Our old friends in the SWP, which is infamous for changing its line, or 'bending the stick', whenever it suits them, have done exactly this in the case of the SA. For years, the SWP has proclaimed itself as the de facto revolutionary party and denigrated the efforts of other left groups that it is now in partnership with. It has always been fiercely against standing in elections, as such activity was considered tantamount to reformism. This, of course, never prevented them from telling workers to vote Labour at every election or from jumping on every reformist bandwagon in town. Indeed, its 'Where We Stand' column, printed in every issue of Socialist Worker, clearly states:
“There is no parliamentary road. At most parliamentary activity can be used to make propaganda against the present system. Only the mass action of workers themselves can destroy the system.”
“The present system cannot be patched up or reformed as the established labour and trade union leaders say. It has to be overthrown.”
Rest assured that none of the above will appear in bold print in the SA election manifesto. After all, think of the nuns! It is reasonable to assume that the core of the SWP remains the same although its auto-Labourism has been thrown into confusion since the victory of new Labour. In 1998, the SWP produced an action programme of minimalist reformist demands which signalled a rightwards shift. Despite criticisms from the more left-leaning CPGB and WP that the SWP has become too reformist, this has been the logical political trajectory of all the groups comprising the SA.

In particular, the CPGB and the AWL appear to be interested in taking the SA to its logical conclusion—the formation of a new party. Of course, a prerequisite for such a development would be an SA paper, and, as leading CPGB theoretician Jack Conrad has argued:
“such a political paper represents the starting point, the first step towards creating a genuinely socialist party in Britain . . . is the overriding goal to which everything else should be subordinated." (Weekly Worker, 25 January)
However, it is unlikely that the largest organisations in the SA—the SWP and Militant—would ever countenance such a development. As things stand, the alliance project has deeply divided Militant, leaving themselves with one foot in and one foot out with a possible split on the cards. Experience tells us that the SWP would only ever be interested in anything they could completely dominate, and such behaviour has already been implicitly noted in the pages of Weekly Worker.

Our analysis of the SA is not based upon some narrow sectarianism—it's based upon principle. We do not, nor have we ever, supported capitalist parties, especially those that dress up in revolutionary garb in order to hoodwink the workers. The SA is an expression of all the political mistakes made by the working class last century—from the Labour Party to the Soviet Union. We do not doubt that well-meaning individuals get caught up in such chicanery for no other reason than a desire to see a better world. However, sentiment can never be a substitute for the class struggle.
Dave Flynn

Running Commentary: Take cover (1980)

The Running Commentary column from the September 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Take cover
Hiroshima and Nagasaki disappeared into the atomic dust just over thirty five years ago so it is clearly time for the government to give some serious thought to protecting the population in the event of a nuclear attack.
One way of doing this would be to build enough shelters for everyone to be able to take cover but that would cost between £60 and £80 billion. While a government will readily spend that sort of money on weapons they are not likely to be so free when it comes to protection from the weapons' effects. Rich people, of course, can always afford to build their own shelters; the rest of must do the best we can with the blanket of official propaganda and advice, which is about all the government are prepared to offer.

The essence of this advice will be to keep faith, the government's airy assumption is that about 15 million people will be left in Britain after the attack (although most of them will be a bit deaf and probably bronzed, as if they had just come back from a holiday near a tropical jet airport) and that will be enough to eventually rebuild towns, roads, factories and so on and in general get the machinery of capitalist exploitation going again.

To ensure this, the government's plans give priority to their survival. There will then be money available for the construction of adequate shelters for our rulers, be there ever so little for them to rule over. Rather lower—in fact at the bottom—of their priorities comes the safety and welfare of the working class. Perhaps there is an unconscious, ironical justice in this; after all, the working class don't have to keep capitalism in existence, don't have to make its weapons, fight its wars . . . 

For the workers, anti-nuclear defence measures have a special meaning. We shall be encouraged to keep our heads wrapped in a jacket or some other substantial garment and to whitewash our windows which, writes Home Secretary Whitelaw, ". . . can provide very effective protection against fire resulting from the heat-flash from nuclear explosions."

This rather unnerving optimism was echoed, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (23/6/80) from a Dr. Kitty Little of Oxford, on whose operating table we must all fervently hope never to find ourselves. Dr. Little offers us the assurance that "The only serious long-term hazard . . . are the stress disease symptoms caused by apprehension and fear." Her advice is to keep "an open tank of water" on the window sill to stop the heat-flash igniting inflammable material.

So when the Bomb comes there will be rather a lot for us to cram into the four minutes. Whitewash the windows, set out tanks of water, select a durable jacket from the wardrobe, prop the table against the wall, with a sandbag or two to secure its base. Anyone who feels any fear or apprehension coming on may take solace from the thought that, beyond their flimsy defences, their ruling class are keeping the flag of privilege flying—as usual giving themselves the best possible chance in life.

Take it out
There are factories in Japan where the workers are able to give vent to their suppressed anger in a place called the Rumpus Room, where they are able to pummel effigies of the managers. But even this clever idea is not enough to divert all frustrations; in the Tokyo tube and suburban commuter trains, female travellers are becoming increasingly angry at the male hands which too often explore their bodies in the rush hour crush.

At peak travelling times, when the workers are hurrying to their places of exploitation, part of the degradation process is the cramming of three times as many people into those trains as they are designed to carry in comfort. There are, in fact, workers whose job it is to pack in the bodies as skilfully—which means as tightly and as profitably—as possible until, in the words of one railway security guard, " . . . you can't lift your hand to scratch your nose."

These journeys are not enlightened by the added insults of the posters which are aimed at encouraging even more discipline from the sardine-like travellers. Don't leave anything behind you; don't sit with your legs wide apart; don't wear clothes like a peacock's plumage; don't let your head flop onto your neighbour's shoulder. All these undisciplined travel habits take up too much room—and more room means more workers packed into the sweating crush.

After a journey like that (the average commuting time in Tokyo is two hours twenty minutes) and a day on the production line or in the office the Rumpus Rooms must have plenty of customers. And beating a lifeless doll must be a lot cheaper than building more comfortable railways.

Japanese workers are often cited as examples of industrial discipline, people whose hard and uncomplaining work reaps rich rewards for their master class. Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that they rank pretty high among the world working class for the intensity of their exploitation—and for the contempt in which they are held by their capitalist employers.

Little wonder that they experience such tensions. But there is a more useful way of taking out their frustrations, than in any Rumpus Room or in annoying their fellow workers.

Take off
Two episodes in the life of Steve Skingle of Plaistow - skinhead, unemployed, Tube traveller extraordinary.

On Easter Monday Steve, like any self-respecting London skinhead, was in Southend getting a bit of aggro. He was arrested and bailed to appear in court at a later date.

Before he went back to court, Steve was involved in the Tube crash at Holborn and, apparently unlike any self-respecting skinhead, helped to rescue the train driver. This made some lovely headlines for the copy-starved hacks in Fleet Street and eventually so impressed the Southend magistrates that they put Steve on probation.

"You could," commented the chairman of the Bench, "be a useful member of society. It is just a matter of bringing it out."

"Lovely," gasped Steve when he was asked what he thought of his sentence, then went back to Plaistow to work at this being a useful member of society.

He got a job as a labourer on a building site. "I'm enjoying it," he beamed. His father (who is out of work) weighed in with the hope that Steve would soon give up being a skinhead and obligingly defined what a useful member of society should be about" " .  .  . I hope that now he has started to find himself he'll get himself new clothes, a bird and a car."

Being a useful member of society means one thing to people who draw the dole in Plaistow and another to people who draw their dividends in Belgravia. Pompous magistrates judge people like Steve Skingle by their degree of conformity; is he "well dressed", in a steady job, looking forward to a lifetime of marriage and mortgage? Is he a toe-the-line wage worker, giving his all in the process of his own exploitation? Is he normal—by which they mean, does he conform?

How long will the working class assent to their inferior social position? How long will they direct their frustrations in the wrong direction? Steve's shaven head was, he hoped, a badge of rebellion, a mindless reaction against something he does not understand but which he does not like. Perhaps, after all the publicity, he will be relieved that he can drop the pose and fall in with the docile role his conditioning demands of him.

This may satisfy insecure parents or pontificating magistrates—both symbols of capitalist authority—but it has little more to offer than a seaside punch-up.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Split (2012)

Book Review from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Zinoviev & Martov: Head to Head in Halle. With introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih. (November Publications. 2011.)

In October 1920 the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had broken away from the pro-war SPD in 1917 and which numbered amongst its members such pre-WWI Social Democrat tenors as Kautsky, Bernstein and Hilferding, met in Halle to decide whether or not to affiliate to the Russian Bolsheviks’“Comintern”or “Third International”.

The German authorities allowed the head of the Comintern, Gregory Zinoviev, to enter Germany while the Bolshevik authorities allowed the leading Menshevik Julius Martov to leave Russia, both to take part. Zinoviev spoke for over four hours in what Ben Lewis claims was “one of the most significant speeches of the 20th century workers’ movement.”

Lenin had justified the Bolsheviks seizing power in backward Russia on the grounds that this was only the first event in the world socialist revolution. He also justified the Bolsheviks using all means to stay in power –including suppressing opponents, invading Poland and stirring up a holy war against the West amongst Muslims, all of which Zinoviev defended in his speech –until they were rescued by the revolution spreading to Europe and in particular Germany.

In 1920 the leading Bolsheviks were still in this mode. There is no doubting their sincerity, only their judgement. Zinoviev’s main argument was that as the world revolution was under way you were either for or against the government of the one place where it had already triumphed. How divorced from reality he was can be gauged from his claim that in England “the beginning of the proletarian revolution can be clearly seen”.  He added, “I am convinced that in two or three years, it will be said that this was the beginning of a new era. The proletarian revolution has a great chance in England.”

In his contribution Martov argued that the workers in Europe were certainly discontented but that this was not an expression of socialist consciousness but of elemental despair. He accused the Bolsheviks of exploiting this to come to power instead of trying to turn it into the socialist understanding required before socialism could be established, a view which he claimed the USPD was committed to. Hence the title of his talk “May the USPD be preserved”.

Referring to Russia, he said that the Bolshevik party had “conquered state power in a country with a proletariat that was numerically insignificant, a country with an insignificant productivity of labour, with a complete lack of the basic economic and cultural preconditions for the organisation of socialist production - and these objective conditions presented the Bolsheviks with an insurmountable obstacle for the realisation of their ideals.”He went on to point out that “the development of the revolution in the West …is not going as quickly as the Bolshevik party had reckoned when it obtained state power through a fortunate confluence of circumstances and then used this power in an attempt to turn Russia into a socialist country by a radically accelerated path.”

The extent to which the Bolshevik leaders really did believe at this time that they were turning “Russia into a socialist country”can be gauged from a passage in an article included in this book that Zinoviev later wrote on his “Twelve Days in Germany”:
“We are approaching a time when we shall do away with all money. We are paying wages in kind, we are introducing free tramways, we have free schools, a free dinner, perhaps for the time being unsatisfactory free housing, light, etc.”

Zinoviev won the debate and a majority of the USPD voted to affiliate to the Comintern and become the Communist Party of Germany (the minority eventually rejoined the SPD). But within a year Martov was proved right about the Bolsheviks’ prospects in Russia. In 1921 they were forced to abandon trying to establish a moneyless society and to introduce the New Economic Policy, described by Lenin as “state capitalism”or the development of capitalism under the control of the “proletarian state”(as he called the Bolshevik regime). Four years later when he broke with Stalin, Zinoviev went further and described Russia’s nationalised industries as “state capitalism”(see Weekly Worker, 8 January, 1926) and was criticised by both Stalin and Trotsky for admitting this.

Lih says that Martov could be seen as a sort of “premature Trotskyist” in that he applied the same arguments to why the Russian Revolution would degenerate (economic backwardness and isolation) “to events and processes that the Trotskyist tradition treats in a more admiring way”- in fact from day one of Bolshevik rule.

Martov, wisely, did not return to Russia and died in exile in Germany in 1923. Zinoviev ended up being shot in 1936 as a “counter-revolutionary”, a victim of the same sort of terror and logic he had defended in Halle in 1920.
Adam Buick

Who needs money? (1995)

From the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to Bob Rowthorn, economics professor at Cambridge University, interviewed in Red Pepper (December 1994), "we are stuck with money". He was answering a question from Hilary Wainwright who had correctly pointed out that "Marx argued that under communism money would be abolished".

In attempting to refute Marx's view, Rowthorn (a former member both of the old "International Socialism" group, the precursor of the SWP, and later of the now-defunct Communist Party) could only do so by projecting into a truly communist (or socialist - the same thing) society such as Marx envisaged, the economic needs and organisational requirements of capitalism.

This is most apparent when he argued that money is needed to enable people and communities "to buy and sell". But as the Communist Manifesto pointed out, socialism would dispense with buying and selling itself (and hence with the need for money). People will have free and unrestricted access to the products of industry (which presupposes a relatively high-level of production and a non-consumerist ethos) while contributing to the production process on an entirely voluntarist basis.

Rowthorn argues that "there has to be a basis on which to claim something in return for providing goods and services". But why? Where there is free access to such goods and services then the "need" to secure an economic return on your labour becomes redundant; you would work because you want to or because you would derive social esteem from such work, there being no other way in which you would derive such esteem. Status based on the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be meaningless. Indeed, Rowthorn's approach converges uncomfortably with the conventional apology for capitalism that "human nature" is essentially indolent, thus justifying economic coercion.

Finally, Rowthorn claims that money is indispensable because "you need a common unit of account to provide a standard of value". This argument was long demolished by Otto Neurath (1919) who pointed out that in a "natural economy" (socialism) there would only be "calculation in kind". The need for a "common unit of account" only makes sense as a yardstick of exchange value in the buying and selling system which socialism will abolish.

To assert that money is needed because the economy today is too complex to be "planned in a rational and coherent way" is to be distracted by the red herring of central planning. Central planning may well be a logistical nightmare but a relatively decentralised socialist society, operating without money and largely dependent on a self-regulating system of stock control using calculation in kind, is entirely feasible. And compared to the chaos and waste of capitalism, highly desirable.
Robin Cox

Mixed Media: 'Dylan Thomas' & 'Dick Gaughan' (2013)

From the November 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dylan Thomas 60th anniversary of his death

On 9 November it is the 60th anniversary of the death of the 'Welsh bard' Dylan Thomas, famous for his prose poem Under Milk Wood, and poems such as Do not go gentle into that good night and And Death shall have no dominion.

In 1934 Thomas wrote 'I take my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men to share, equally and impartially, every production from man and from the sources of production at man's disposal, for only through such an essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art'.

In 1933 Thomas had met ‘communist grocer’ Bert Trick in Swansea who became his mentor. Thomas visited Bert's grocer's shop in Brynmill which Thomas recalled in Return Journey: 'Bert Trick in the kitchen threatened the annihilation of the ruling classes over sandwiches, jelly and blancmange'. In 1933 Thomas writes of 'an outgrown and decaying system in which light is being turned into darkness by the capitalists and industrialists' and that capitalism because it 'seeks only profit for the few is not an efficient mechanism for satisfying the needs of the many'.

Thomas wrote that 'society to adjust itself has to break itself; society has grown up rotten with its capitalist child, and only revolutionary socialism can clean it up'. Later he writes 'If it can be forced home on the consciousness of the people that the present economic system is ethically bad, the seed has been planted that may in time grow into a fine revolutionary flower'. He saw society 'composed of financial careerists and a proletarian army of dispossessed. Out of the negation of the negation must rise the new synthesis'.

During the Second World War Thomas made films for the Ministry of Information such as A City Re-born which looks at Coventry and he says about war-time production that it 'makes you think what a hell of a lot they can produce if it’s for use and not for sale'.

After the war Thomas wrote two film screenplays; The Doctor and the Devils based on the body-snatchers Burke and Hare in which he portrays the class nature of society and Rebecca's Daughters based on the toll gate riots in Wales in 1843 in which he says governments only bring in reforms when they are 'afraid of a revolution'.

In 1952 on tour in America Thomas gave free poetry readings for the Socialist Party of the USA. He died in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City sixty years ago this month.


Dick Gaughan: Exmouth Arms, London

Dick Gaughan, the singer-songwriter recently played at The Cellar Upstairs folk club at the Exmouth Arms, Euston in London. Gaughan, of Irish descent was brought up in the musical traditions and culture of the Gaels; the Scots and Irish in the port of Leith near Edinburgh.

Gaughan began his recording career in 1972 in the Scots-Irish celtic band, The Boys of the Lough, played with Brian McNeill, fiddle player with The Battlefield Band, recorded a tribute album to Ewan MacColl, recorded a tribute album with Bert Jansch to Woody Guthrie, duetted with Billy Bragg on The Red Flag on the album The Internationale, and worked with 7:84, the 'left wing agit prop' theatre group.

Gaughan interspersed his set with anecdotes of his life in music and slices of Scottish radical, nationalist and Irish socialist history. He tells the audience that somebody said he was an 'unreconstructed socialist'. His website lists Karl Marx, Lenin, John Lennon and Groucho Marx as influences, and he supports the Morning Star newspaper. His song Ballad of '84 describes the 1984-85 Miners Strike and salutes Miners leaders Arthur Scargill, Peter Heathfield, and Mick McGahey.

Gaughan performed The Yew Tree by Brian McNeill which describes the 1513 battle of Flodden, and also Calvinist John Knox. He performed Now Westlin Winds by the Scots bard Robert Burns and another Brian McNeill song No Gods (and Precious Few Heroes) which describes the defeat at Culloden. The song Thomas Muir of Huntershill by Adam McNaughton is about the Scots political radical Thomas Muir, supporter of the French Revolution, friend of Tom Paine, and who in 1794 was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia for high treason.

Gaughan performed the elegiac Song for Ireland by Phil & June Colclough, and then speaks of the James Connolly, 'Big Jim' Larkin and the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out which involved 25,000 workers and lasted five months. Connolly was a Scot of Irish descent like Gaughan, for a while a socialist in the Scottish Socialist Federation and later the Socialist Labour Party. Stephen Coleman wrote that Connolly's impossibilist ideas (socialism is impossible until the working class understands what socialism means) were an influence, among others, upon Jack Fitzgerald, a founding member of the SPGB in 1904. Connolly later abandoned this socialism and took up Irish nationalism and the armed struggle in the 1916 Easter Rising for which he was executed by the British.

Gaughan concluded his set with Geronimo's Cadillac by Michael Martin Murphey which describes how Indian land was taken by the White Man and the Indian people given capitalism in return.
Steve Clayton

Further reading:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Socialism on one planet (2004)

From the June 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

The science fiction writer Ken MacLeod indicated that he had once voted for the Socialist Party. So we  asked him why. The two books referred to at the end, in which he brings in the SPGB, are “The Stone Canal” and “The Cassini Division”.

I had considered myself a socialist for a dozen years before I understood what socialism was, and why on earth anyone should possibly want it. Oddly enough, that wasn’t for lack of opportunity. When I was a student in the early 1970s I took vacation work as a street-sweeper, and used to spend most of my lunchtimes in the reading room of the Greenock public library.  My first encounter with Marxist ideas had come via the International Socialists (the SWP’s more evolved ancestors) and my head was full of a notion of revolution and socialism that was much more excited about process – workers’ councils, workers’ control, general strike, insurrection – than product. Nothing quite so thrilling was on offer in that reading room, but Tribune and the Morning Star and the Socialist Standard were.   For want of anything else I devoured them all. 

When I read the Socialist Standard, however, all I could see was that it advocated a parliamentary road to socialism, and addressed itself to “the workers of this country” at that. Parliamentary socialism? You mean, like Labour? Socialism in one country? You mean, like the Communists? Nobody was there to tell me otherwise, and I didn’t read enough to learn better. The Declaration of Principles struck me as some quaint, gaslit precursor of The British Road to Socialism.

This was a stupid mistake, but hey – I was a left-wing student. What do you expect? As some wag has said: “The experience of every country has shown that the left-wing intelligentsia, solely by its own efforts, can raise itself only to a vanguardist level of consciousness.”

For me, the idea of a classless, moneyless, (etc-less) society was something for the far future, after we’d waded through centuries of workers’ states and workers’ control. These centuries didn’t seem terribly attractive, but they were a sight better than the common ruin of the contending classes, so I reckoned we’d just have to thole it until the automation came on line.

Then, in the 1980s in another library, I came across a little book called Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Rubel and Crump. At the time I (like the rest of the pack) was obsessed with ‘market’ socialism, so I wasn’t hoping for much from it. Actually, it was like finding the map. Perhaps it was because I was now a wage-slave myself, and living in a council flat, travelling to work on the Underground, working for London Electricity, and shopping at the Coop – I knew very well that reforms could ameliorate, but not abolish, that condition. For the first time I could imagine it abolished, and what an emancipation that could be. At last I understood what the SPGB was on about. At last I understood what socialism was and why anyone would actually want it on its merits, and soon; instead of as something better than a nuclear war, and eventually.

Here is what I understood that case to be. From space you can see no borders. We, and previous generations, have built up a productive capacity that is more than sufficient to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and amuse everyone on the planet. The only barrier to its use for that purpose is that it exists as capital. The only basis for its continuing existence as capital is our continuing acceptance of capitalist  and state property rights. From below, at the sharp end, in the worker’s-eye view, these look as obsolete and obscene as property rights in people. Without those rights, capital would just be machinery, that we all together already operate and improve upon every day, every minute, collectively and globally. The only way in which these rights can be permanently abolished is consciously, politically, collectively and globally, at one fell swoop. Not on the same day all over the world of course, but in the space of a few years, in one historical moment. And why not? Slavery and feudalism were in the end abolished, with a stroke of the pen followed if necessary by a stroke of the sword.

Why should we not think, then, of the abolition of capitalism? We can’t reform it out of existence. Long experience, as well as theory and common sense, tell us this.

Neither ‘socialist’ governments nor ‘communist’ regimes have ever brought society a day nearer socialism or communism. There are many reasons why not, but the basic reason is simple. Production for exchange can’t be gradually reformed into production directly for use. Nor, in a world where almost everything is produced as part of a global division of labour, can it be abolished locally in one community, or one country, or one continent. It’s all or nothing.

Closely related to that reason is another. A society of conscious and voluntary co-operation can’t be established unconsciously or unwillingly. It can’t be imposed from above or from outside or from behind our backs. Many will agree, if pressed, that the world cooperative commonwealth can be thus established eventually, but not now. In the meantime, they want something else: a society called socialism which retains wages, price, and profit but keeps them in the hands of the state and the state, they hope, in the hands of the workers, which all too often means the hands of the workers’ party, which all too often means in the hands of the correct leaders of the workers’ party. They want that, or they want steps in that direction. The cooperative commonwealth itself is, they insist, for the distant future.

Why not now? We don’t need to wait for capitalism to increase productive capacity to the point where the co-operative commonwealth is possible, because it’s already done so, and it’s already the greatest barrier to the use and expansion of the productive capacity that exists. Why then should we vote for reforming governments to manage it, or ‘progressive’ regimes to develop it further? Especially when these reforming governments and these ‘progressive’ regimes waste so much of production, and so many of us, in war and slump.

We have to make up our minds, once and for all, that we want rid of this system, for good and all. Let those who want to keep it reform it and improve it and expand it. It’s their job while it lasts. The job of those who want to end it is to give such people not a vote, not a gun, not a penny, not a person, not an inch, not an ounce of support. No political contender who is not a wage slavery abolitionist, nobody who  advocates in word and deed anything less than, and anything other than, the speedy end of this system, and the consequent emancipation of the working class, deserves another minute of our time. To everyone who claims to want such an end eventually, but advocates something other or something less in the meantime, we can say we’ve lived already a long time in that meantime, and we’re still no nearer.

All it would take to do away with this system and establish the world co-operative commonwealth is for most people in the world to agree to do it. It’s no news that most people don’t. The number who understand and want the commonwealth is tiny. The only revolutionary action worth the name is working  to increase that number. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will do.

So, yes, I’ve understood it. I’ve even voted for it, once. And I’ve put the SPGB, and the co-operative commonwealth, in a couple of books. So why am I not in the Socialist Party? One reason is that I don’t entirely understand how non-market socialism could work. And while I agree that the Party’s conception of socialism is the same as that of Marx and Engels, I can’t really square its conception of how to get there with what seem to me their well-founded views on history and politics. But I wish it well.
Ken MacLeod

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Then and now (1986)

From the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

In March, I went along to the Dundee Rep to watch the world premiere of They Farily Mak Ye Work, a play based on the life of Dundee's jute-mill workers from the First World War to the early Thirties. The play covered some of the important events of the period such as the Mill Workers' Strike of 1922 and the Means Test demonstration of 1931 but what impressed most was the quite remarkable resilience displayed by workers enduring quite dire poverty in their day to day lives.

When I left the Rep. I wondered if there were many people who had been left thinking, "Ah great, another fine play about the inter-war depression . . . I'm glad things are very different now". While in some respects life has become more comfortable for working people in the 1980s, it would be mistaken to suggest that there have been fundamental changes since the 1930s.

Today we are again witnessing record levels of unemployment: workers are laid off and those who remain have to work harder as their employers try to retain their share of the market. Commenting on this practice at the newly-opened Eagle Jute Mill in 1930, the Dundee and District Jute and Flax Workers' Guide (June/July 1930), stated that:
. . . a number of women were sent from the Labour Exchange on Monday morning, 30th June, and were told they had to do the work of four women. And as they declined to be "preyed upon", they left.
The large reserve of young unemployed workers proved a useful source of cheap—or even free—labour in the Thirties, as one annual report of the Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers noted:
. . . the Ministry of Labour Trade Boards Divisional Office, Edinburgh, drew attention to two recent cases in which Dundee Jute firms had had juveniles on their premises without paying wages. The matter appeared to have arisen through permitting the juveniles to "look round" for a few days on the understanding that no wages would be paid unless, and until, the juvenile was taken on in a regular capacity. It was stated it was understood the practice was not uncommon in Dundee. (Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Committee, 1933, p. 10)
Is today's YTS a great deal better? Employers may claim that they are taking on youngsters for social reasons, but they cannot deny that young workers are receiving pocket money for a week's exploitation.

The soup kitchens that were synonymous with the Twenties and Thirties have disappeared. So too have other features of capitalism's charity. Commenting on the dire poverty faced by some workers in Dundee in the 1920s, Mary Brooksbank recalled that:
Even the police had their Bootless Bairns Fund, for bootless bairns were a common enough sight in those days. (No Sae Lang Syne: A Tale of This City, p.29) 
Today you just have to stroll through the centre of any city to be confronted with numerous charities all with their collecting tins hoping that you will donate to the cause of Help the Aged, Shelter, Dr Barnado's and so on. All of them signs that workers suffer a great deal at the hands of this society that asks for payment before human needs are considered.

Since the 1930s, we have witnessed the proliferation of new generations of "luxury" consumer goods among working people. In the 1950s, workers increasingly began to possess televisions, cars and washing-machines—wow, the "affluent society" had really arrived! In the 1970s colour TVs and digital quartz watches went from being status symbols to commonplace items and the video seems to be heading the same way. The question is, can we really say that things have got better just because there are more consumer goods around? Often you will hear people claim that a new car is a sign that, "there must be a lot of money about" when in fact many people are up to their ears in debt as the home, the car and the household items are paid for on the never-never - mortgage or HP payments. The increase in consumer goods should not be related to what workers had in the 1930s, for it should be remembered that they then had more items than workers in, say, the 1850s. If we make comparisons we should be looking at the proportion of wealth the workers received then and receive now, from the total that workers in society have created. Now, as then, workers only receive a tiny fraction of the wealth they produce and while the employers reap the profits of our labour we are expected to be grateful for the tiny slice of the cake that is our wage or salary.

Class division
This, then, is the class divide: a conflict between owners of capital—be they mill-owners, land-owners, or shareholders in private or state-controlled industries—and the rest of us. This is the relationship that compelled our relatives in the 1930s to suffer the treadmill of wage-labour and poverty, to march for the "right to work" and which led to numerous demonstrations and cracked heads in strikes where the police clearly showed that their main function is to protect the capitalists' property rights. Looking back on the Means Test Demonstrations in Dundee on September 24 1931, Sara Craig recalled that:
. . . the policemen came on horseback and they were hittin' folk wi' their batons. They were hittin' the folk wi' their batons and chasin' them and breakin' up the crowds. (Ed. Billy Kay, Odyssey: Voices from Scotland's Recent Past. p. 13)
Only someone who had just crawled out from a hole in the ground, or had been beamed down from outer-space, would suggest that you can have a democratically accountable police force. Yet time and time again, the Labour Party and assorted left-wing romantics advocate precisely that. If anyone believes the myth of Dixon of Dock Green bobbies then they ought to ask themselves why the police's task-force was deployed against striking miners in the recent strike? Did they not defend the interests of the National Coal Board against the miners?

An alternative
The problems of poverty that we face today have led to so called solutions like "Right to Work" marches or voting Labour and expecting nationalisation to solve our problems. These "solutions" have been tried and they have failed and it is a tragedy that they have been repeated decade after decade. The sense of disappointment felt by Labour Party members and voters after 1945 must have been immense, watching the dream of the New Jerusalem fade as the Labour government showed it could not run capitalism any better than the Tories.

It is time we decided to get rid of employment and organise the production and distribution of wealth without the barrier of wages and money and the restrictions that capitalism places on our needs. One by one, this system of society stamps out the dreams, hopes and ambitions that we have at various points in our lives - they are crushed by the need to make ends meet. Common ownership is not some age-old dream of a perfect society but am immediate and realisable means of getting rid of the numerous problems that are our lot as wage-workers. The alternative to organising for socialism is the acceptance of our poverty where employers will continue to "fairly mak us work".
Derek Devine

The Wildcat Strike (1953)

From the July-August 1953 issue of the Western Socialist
(EDITORIAL NOTE: A wildcat strike is a work. stoppage which has taken place in violation of a contract with management, or which has not received official sanction from the authority - usually the International Executive Board - established under the Union's constitution. The author of this article has participated in dozens of wildcats in the automobile industry, and thus writes from first-hand observation.)

The workers mill around in small groups. A buzz goes through them rapidly. The huge steel-cutting machines lapse into silence. The conveyor lines halt as if struck dead by some unseen hand. Everything is at a standstill. A wildcat strike is being born. The workers await its delivery.

A chief steward has been fired. Or perhaps the line has been speeded up, and the workers walk off in protest. Or perhaps . . . rumors . . . facts . . .  confusion . . .  unrest . . . 

A group of men push their way through the workers. These are the committeemen, perhaps accompanied by local union officials. They listen to the workers' complaints. Go back to work. We will settle this through the regular grievance procedure.

Some of the workers nod in agreement. But they are pulled back into the circle by those who voice defiance and protest. We have followed the grievance procedure before and got nothing. This time we are going out.

The officials try another argument. The walkout has not been approved by the International Executive Board of the union. The workers answer: Hell, we voted 98% to strike three months ago, and the International still hasn't authorized the strike. We're hitting the bricks.

The situation is getting beyond the control of the local union officers. They deal one last card. They tell the workers: you will be violating the Taft-Hartley Act. The union will be sued, its treasury wiped out. This has even less effect than the other arguments. Washington is a long way off to these workers. Their immediate grievance looms larger. Suddenly someone cries what are we waiting for. Let's go. Survey the scene as if you were seated in a high crane with a view of the entire shop.

Large knots of workers formed here and there in the various departments begin to break up into small knots. The workers are arguing, discussing. Then they begin to leave the plant.

They merge like so many rivulets into small streams, then into large rivers, until finally all are swept out through the gates in a mighty flow. The company enters the scene. Telegrams are sent out to the workers. Return to work or be considered as having voluntarily quit your jobs. Still the workers remain away, in sullen defiance.

Momentarily the company has lost control of the workers. The union goes into action. A mass meeting is scheduled. The "big guns" from the International union scold the workers. They spend most of the meeting, talking, repeating, talking, and repeating. Very little time is left for the rank and file. When a rank and filer speaks, his limit his five minutes, while each International man speaks for half an hour, often longer.

The International tells the men: you will lose your jobs. The plant will move out of town. Other companies will get the work. The arguments have a telling effect. Thousands of workers have come to this meeting for one purpose only: to vote to go back to work. The motion is made and passed to return to work and "continue negotiations."

The militants who argued in favor of continuing the strike are defeated, the conservatism of the workers prevail. On this the International office had pinned their hopes to end the stoppage.

Wait. All is not over. The men return, but the following week other wildcats take place. The International officers apply a heavy foot. An administrator is placed over the Local union. Bargaining continues with the company, but the administrator has the final words on everything. The democratic right of the workers to make their own decisions has been abolished.

Despite this dictatorship over their affairs, the workers continue to strike. The "instigators" are fired. The union remains silent, in approval of the company's action. Gradually the strikes fade out until the administrator leaves. Then the process begins all over again. . . 

Not all wildcat strikes follow this pattern. The one above - an actual situation which took place in the auto industry recently - enables us to view a wildcat strike from beginning to end.

Some strikes never reach the point where the workers leave the plant. They are in the nature of sit-downs, where the workers stay at their machines without turning a hand, or let jobs go by until a jam piles up at the end, and the line must shut down. Still other actions take the form of slow-downs. The workers let every other job on the line go, or if running a machine reduce the speeds and feeds. They are working, but not producing their quotas. Both the company and the union terms this a strike.

Why do these wildcats take place? What significance do they have toward developing the thinking of the workers?

To some these wildcats are the work of an "irresponsible few," of a "small dissident element," or even of "Communists." This is the attitude, not only of union leaders, but also of many workers.

There is no use denying the facts. In certain isolated cases a few individuals might agitate for a wildcat and succeed in bringing it off, but can a few lead thousands, if the conditions are not present for these thousands to be led? What becomes of the "communist" arguments when wildcats break out in plants where there are no known "communists" and where the participants are all "loyal American workers"?

The point is that the wildcat walkouts, the sit-downs, the slow-downs have their origin in the economic system we have today. To allege the cause of these works stoppages to "leaders," and not to conditions, is to cover up the real nature of capitalism. Labor leaders do it from ignorance or from plan - because of their belief in and collaboration with the capitalist system - but the workers do it out of sheer ignorance of the real conditions.

In a system of society such as we have now where one class works for wages and another class reaps the profits from their labor, a struggle goes on continually between the two classes over the fruits of production.

Socialists call this the class struggle. This struggle embraces a multitude of matters. It takes place over wages and hours at work. It takes place over working conditions, safety, speedup, etc. It takes place over firings, penalties for being late and absent, even over the location of a time clock.

The outlets of this struggle are numerous and varied. Already we have mentioned the wildcat, the sit-down, and the slow-down. Other forms exist. When the worker reaches up and flips the counter on his machine a few dozen times without increasing his production, when he turns in production figures beyond what he actually produced, when he spends half an hour beyond that time necessary to perform his biological functions, he is engaging in a struggle against those who exploit him. When he tightens up a nut, takes it off, and then puts it on again to kill time on the line, he is carrying on a struggle against his capitalist employers.

The wildcat strike is just another manifestation of the class struggle. When workers have grievances over speed-up, these grievances arise out of the fact that a class is seeking to make more profit from them. When workers have grievances for higher wages, these grievances stem from the fact that the workers must struggle for their standard of existence against the class which seeks to keep wages down.

The wildcat takes place when the workers feel that the grievance procedure is too slow, when on-the-spot action is necessary, or when they have no confidence in the ability of their leaders to solve their grievances through the regular procedure.

The labor leaders may clamp down hard, may place one administrator after another over one local union after another, but the conditions of capitalism continuing, wildcats are bound to result. Not a day passes that a wildcat does not take place in some shop throughout the country. Still the union leaders are foolish enough, or ignorant enough, to believe they can suppress the class struggle. Even Hitler could not stop strikes under his dictatorship, nor as recent events in East Germany showed, could the armored tank divisions of the Red Army.

What is the political significance of these wildcat strikes? One school of thought in the working class political movement sees these wildcat strikes as bona fide rebellions, not only against the labor leaders, but against the capitalist system itself. This school views the wildcats as the beginnings of a real rank and file movement which will eventually result in the workers throwing out the union bureaucrats, taking over the factories, establishing workers' councils and ultimately a "workers society" based on these councils.

If one reads the newspapers - and at one time half of Detroit's auto workers were idle because of wildcats - he might gain the impression that a tremendous political movement of the workers was under way. To one directly involved in these struggles, and in daily contact with the workers, another, more accurate, picture enfolds itself.

These wildcats are purely economic struggles on the part of the workers. They have a grievance arising out of the conditions of their work, instinctively they bring to bear their only weapon, withdrawal of their labor.

For a brief period the workers are aroused. They assail their union leaders in no uncertain terms. But they learn nothing of the role of these union leaders in support of capitalism because they do not understand the society under which they live. In a few days, after the wildcat is over, the workers return to their routine thinking.

Another school of thought believes these wildcats can be used as a lever to push the workers along a political road, towards their "emancipation." How is this possible if the workers do not understand the political road, and are only engaging in economic struggles? The answer is that "leaders in-the-know" will direct the workers, much as a Seeing Eye Dog guides a blind person.

But these leaders can also lead the workers in the wrong direction, toward the wrong goals (nationalization and state capitalism), as the workers later find out to their sorrow.

The socialist approach of education -  rather than the non-socialist approach of leadership - is much better.

Through education it can be pointed out to the workers that wildcat strikes arise out of the nature of capitalism, but that they are not the answer to the workers' problems. These economic struggles settle nothing decisively because in the end the workers still wear the chains of wage slavery. It is the political act of the entire working class to eliminate the exploitative relations between workers and capitalists which can furnish a final solution.

Is not this giving leadership to the workers, to point these things out? In a sense it is, but it is a leadership of a different type. It is not the non-socialist leadership of a minority which knows (or thinks it knows) where it is going over a majority which does not know where it is going, and merely follows the minority.

It is the socialist leadership of educating workers to understand the nature of both capitalism and socialism, so that, armed with this understanding, the workers themselves can carry out the political act of their own emancipation.

The non-socialist leadership is based on lack of understanding among the workers. The socialist leadership is based on understanding among the workers.

This is the lesson of the wildcat strike and all other outbursts of class struggle among the workers. These struggles can be used as a means of educating workers to the real political struggle - socialism. They should not be used as a means to gain leadership over the workers, or to lead them along a political path they do not understand.

'Karl Frederick'

Nothing to offer (1968)

Book Review from the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Future for British Socialism? Ed. K. Coates (Centre for Socialist Education. 5s.)

Before the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough last year the Leftwingers organised a teach-in. This book—whose title is an obvious dig at Wilson—is a verbatim report of that meeting. Speeches never read well and these are no exception. Only two or three of the speakers seemed to have grasped what is going on: that the Labour Party government is out to cut living standards and, to this end, has also to hamper the weapons we have to resist such cuts, viz., our trade unions. V. L. Allen, author of Militant Trade Unionism, alleged that Labour was moving toward a Corporate State, and correctly pointed out:
"The Labour government in fact has rescued the capitalist system out of a crisis situation by doing things which the Conservative government were incapable of doing, by buttressing up the system with legislation which the Conservatives couldn't possibly have got through, concerning the unions and the control of incomes . . . In fact, the Labour government has been more loyal than the king in this respect. It's done things which I think even the Conservatives would not try to do to trade unions, and to the freedom to strike, and to the right to organise collectively."
J. Mortimer, of DATA, later said of Labour that "in a manner almost unprecedented in British political history, they have undermined fundamental trade union rights".

New Lefter Blackburn has realised that Labour is not even a gradualist party, that it no longer even pretends to be changing capitalism to Socialism by futile, piecemeal reforms.
"Some pessimists in 1964 said this was a Government which was simply going to solve the problems of British capitalism at the expense of the working class, and at the time that sounded like a somewhat dogmatic, possibly even ultra-Left, assertion. But curiously it wasn't Left enough, we can now see in the year 1967. In fact, the Labour Government, though it may have attempted to solve the crisis in British capitalism at the expense of the working classes, has quite visibly failed to do so." 
But still they are loyal to Labour! Blackburn goes on to raise the important issue of how anybody who stands for the interests of the working class can remain associated with Labour:
"Now it seems to me that in this situation, where there's been a wholesale sacrifice of even the attempt to reform capitalism, that we must ourselves ask what is our role in the Labour Party and in the Labour Movement. We must ask ourselves whether we, by our continued activity within this party, are actually encouraging the illusion that this party is a reforming party."
His answer is, wrongly, no. Of course the so called Leftwing, in staying with Labour, helps to keep that party in power and enable it to continue its attacks on our living standards and trade unions.
Adam Buick