Saturday, November 2, 2013

Landed with Tony Blair! (1996)

Book Review from the September 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Impossibilists: Selections from the Press of The Socialist Party of Canada And One Big Union, 1906-38. edited by L Gambone (Red Lion Press £4).

It is easy to forget that before the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in June 1904 there had already been in existence the Socialist Party of British Columbia, founded in 1901, but having an organised existence going back to 1895. The early history of this, our companion party in canada, is brought to life by the re-publications of a volume of reprinted articles from the Western Clarion, the SPC's first journal, as well as other journals of the period which came out of this broadly impossibilist tradition.

A few words are in order about this term "impossibilist". It emerged, of course, as a term of political abuse. Socialists who stood for the end of capitalism and no compromises along the way were seen to be demanding the impossible. Interestingly, before anyone ever used that word there was another term which was popular: possibilism. The so-called possibilists emerged in France in the early 1880s, and they were the reformists, tired of trying to bring about socialism and nothing less, who imagined that the best possible option would be to chip away at the edifice of capitalism bit-by-bit, reforming it until it looked like socialism. Over a century has passed since these undoubtedly sincere people embarked upon their futile course and everywhere reformist gradualism has ended in the most abject failure. A hundred years of demanding "the possible" or "something now" has landed the Labour Party with Tory Blair! So, if we who refuse to settle for anything less then real real socialists are impossibilists, perhaps it is time for our fellow workers to be rather more practical and demand "the impossible".

The articles which are reprinted give modern readers a good flavour of the clarity of analysis and vision of our early North American comrades. Warren Atkinson's Western Clarion article of 1906 exhibits prescient recognition of the capitalist nature of so-called public (i.e. state) ownership; Rab's 1918 article on dialectical thought is as relevant today as ever it was; John Tyler's 1919 Red Flag article deals with the myth of the Bolsheviks' "socialist revolution" (as do others in the volume), and there is also material written by Charlie Lestor during his "One Big Union" period—before he joined the SPGB. Article after after in this volume leaves the reader saying "they were right all along". And there is no shame in consistency when it is attached to validity and honest principles.

Gambone provides a useful, though incomplete, bibliography at the back, and there is a basically sound introduction, only marred by the biased sulkiness in the brief reference to the current Socialist Party of Canada. Small though it may be, at least it still exists as a relatively active party, which is more than can be said for the other movements mentioned which have expired in the course of the century. Has it ever occurred to Gambone, and those like him who celebrate the revolutionary past of the SPC/SPGB tradition while deriding its present existence, that history is of little use unless it teaches you what you should be doing now? For anyone who has come into contact with our ideas in recent years (or recent decades, for that matter) this is an invaluable guide to a hitherto under-publicised part of our past.
Steve Coleman






Sincerity is not enough (1968)

Book Review from the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Frank Cousins, A Study by Margaret Stewart (Hutchinson, 35s.)

Margaret Stewart, as a Fleet Street industrial correspondent, is in an admirable position to study a trade union chief. It is a pity that she confuses her study of Frank Cousins by the continuous use of those popular but vague terms, "the left" and "the right".

In the introduction to her study Stewart poses three questions. First, why did the Transport and General Workers' Union swing from the right under Arthur Deakin to the left under Frank Cousins? Them what has been the effect of Cousins' campaign against wage restraint? Finally, is Cousins big in his own right or because he is the leader of one-and-a-half million trade unionists? The answer to these questions is to be found, mainly between the lines, in her following chapters.

Stewart shows that the great majority of union members are apathetic and do not influence union policy. Full time officers are constitutionally debarred from opposition and lay members in high office are inhibited from expressing opposing views to those of their chief. The delegates to the union's policy making conferences are influenced by an autocrat like Deakin, to whom they listened in sullen silence, or by their hero worship of Cousins, whose speeches they greet with vociferous applause. For decades past they have accepted the views of their current General Secretary and voted accordingly. When Cousins came on the stage with a new policy the delegates remained loyal and supported him. The mass of the membership did not swing left or right. It noticed no change.

The members of the TGWU, like all workers, aspire to achieve the highest possible wage. Their aspirations were held in check by a government policy of wage restraint as expounded by Deakin and are equally held in check by the same policy as opposed by Cousins. Deakin proposed it, Cousins opposes it, but it is still there.

Stewart points to the series of accidents and incidents that catapulted Cousins into the union secretary's seat in 1956. Such accidents or incidents could easily have left him in a junior office and he would have been as little heard of today as he was in 1955. He is big because he is the leader of a million and a half workers who follow him enthusiastically, mistaking his verbal fireworks and his sincerity for sound sense.

We accept Stewart's assessment that Cousins is sincere and honest but, she says, even after writing her book, she still finds him an enigma. The things that make him enigmatic are his dual loyalties. As a trade union chief his job is to promote the interests of his members. As a member of the Labour Party he feels obliged to support the Labour government even while protesting against its anti-working class policies.

That is why, as Stewart tells us, Cousins considers the union rule that precludes "communists" from holding office is silly, yet he panders to the Labourites by aggressively opposing attempts to have the rule rescinded. At a TGWU Rules Revision Conference the present writer opposed political discrimination in the union and moved for the rescindment of the rule. Cousins opened his opposition speech with the words, "Waters says he is carrying a torch for no political party. Well, I am. I am carrying a torch for the Labour Party" (Loud cheers).

When union members are on strike they expect Cousins to lead them. The Labour government wants him to keep them at, or get them back to, work. He advocates opposition to the Prices and Incomes Policy but dodges open conflict with the government by taking the municipal busmen's case to a court.

In capitalist society the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed. In the ensuing struggle the workers organise into trade unions and the government, be it Liberal, Conservative or Labour, is compelled to safeguard the national capitalist interests. No man can serve both masters. If he tries, and he is not a rogue, he must appear an enigma to those who fail to understand the capitalist system.

Cousins accepted the invitation to join the Labour government because he thought he could do better serve the workers. he left it because he did not wish to be identified with policies that were to the workers' detriment. But he remains loyal to the Labour party without apparently realising his invidious position.

Stewart's brief description of the 1958 London bus strike is sound except that the reference to Sir John Elliot's magnanimity is incorrect. He did not give the members of the busmen's negotiating committee an autographed copy of his book. He only promised. No tears were shed.

We do not quarrel with Stewart's narration about Cousins 'ban the bomb' activities, his attitude to the infamous Clause Four or his brief governmental career. We do quarrel with her reference to him as a Socialist. She likens him to Keir Hardie and quotes his old assessment of himself as an "old fashioned socialist". She says his socialism is instinctive and comes from his heart as much as his brain.

At a mass rally of TGWU members in the Central Hall, Westminster in 1966 Cousins launched his "socialist plan". A minimum of £15 for a 40 hour week with three weeks annual holiday for all workers. This plan is now adopted by the TUC. It bears as much resemblance to Socialism as it does to green cheese.
W. Waters

Some Pars From America: Not read at the Peace Conference (1919)

From the March 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

As news of the American labour movement is so scare in these days of censorship and Press laws, perhaps the following notes from the December issue of the New York "Class Struggle," an unofficial organ of the so called left wing of the also so-called Socialist Party of America may be of interest to the reader.

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In a candid article on the recent elections it is admitted that the large vote received by the S.P. of A. at the 1917 election was more of an anti-war vote than one for Socialist principles and that this vote has now gone back to the "old parties." By this means the recent "slump" is accounted for.
Nothing seems to left of the sprinkling of Socialist legislators that were elected in the previous year in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California. Kansas, Idaho, Illinois, and Minnesota are again without Socialist representatives in the legislatures, and Minneopolis lost its Mayor Van Lear, which is hardly to be regretted. This precious "Socialist" who, at the beginning of the war had opposed the "infamous Public Safety Commission" as the new election approached "compromised himself and the party that elected him, by joining hands with the American Alliance of Labour and Democracy, and by speaking from its platform at a so-called Victory Meeting . . . That Van Lear took this stand not so much from a change of conviction as from openly opportunist motives, above all to get re-elected, by no means detracts from this sorry spectacle.
The article declares that the defeat of Meyer London, the late "Socialist" Congressman for New York, is "one thing to be thankful for." After telling the tale of his reactionary, pro-capitalist activity in Congress during the war the writer concludes: "His re-nomination is not to the credit of the membership of New York, even though it was prompted by the consideration that the district would be lost if another candidate were nominated in his place."

Such are the methods of the anti-revolutionary, anti-socialist ideas which permeate the membership of the S.P. of A. Is this the party which is going to overthrow the best entrenched and most unscrupulous capitalist oligarchy in the world? I think not.

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Very little news has reached this country about one of the most dastardly outrages among the many which American capital has perpetrated upon its wage-slaves. The sequel, too, is interesting. In Bisbee in Arizona, in 1917,
"four thousand miners went on strike against the Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation for a ten per cent. wage increase and a reduction of the ten-hour workday to nine hours . . .  At that particular time there was an enormous demand for metal ore, and the highest prices were being paid. The Company saw fat profits slipping away between their fingers; the strike was costing them millions of dollars. They were, therefore, prepared to come to terms on the question of wages, and would perhaps have granted a reduction of working hours. But they refused point blank to consider the recognition of the union demanded by the striking miners.
Then on the 17th June the bosses took action:
A great crowd of striking miners that had gathered about the entrance to one of the mines was surrounded by an army of police, deputy sheriffs, and gun-men, were driven, unarmed as they were, before the loaded guns of their captors, to the railroad station. There, all of them, men, women and children, were forced with unbelievable brutality into a waiting freight train, in which they were shipped across the border into New Mexico about seven hundred miles from Bisbee, where they were thrown out of the cars in the midst of an uninhabited desert. In this deserted region of New Mexico, completely cut off from all communication with their families and the world, these unfortunate men, women and children were exposed to the most intense suffering. And only the foodstuffs that were brought them by organised labour at the earliest possible moment saved these thousands of workers from a miserable death.
 It took some time before the energetic protests of labour in the West were finally able to force an investigation. It was disclosed that this dastardly crime had been committed not only with the knowledge, but with the assistance of the management of the mines and the local authorities of Bisbee. The corporation officials had paid the gun-men, while the local authorities had engaged the scoundrels who did this dirty work. Indictments followed, indictments that incriminated the highest officials among the millionaire knaves at the head of the company. Proudly the capitalist press showed that there was no class justice in the United States of America, that rich and poor were measured by the same standards, that not even the richest of the men were responsible for the Bisbee outrage would be able to escape the hand of justice.
That was six months ago. Since then things have been strangely quiet. And now comes the news that the entire matter has been dropped because of a technical error in the indictment.  (Italics mine.)
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A very interesting account of the recent food riots in Japan is given by the well-known Sen Katayama. The immediate cause of the riots was the high price of rice, the staple food of the Japanese workers. Dr. Yokoi, "the agricultural authority of Japan, says in 'Industrial Japan': 'The past five years have produced super-abundant rice crops in Japan. Statistics show that there is no shortage of rice this year.'" The article following the Japanese "Oriental Economist," declares that the high prices were directly due to the policy of the Government in aiding and encouraging export trade. The political machinery of the country functions exclusively in the interests of a few big capitalists, while the interests of the vast majority of the people and the workers are completely disregarded."

The various phases of the riots are described in some detail. They "usually began in a peaceful demonstration that went to the homes of the rice dealers or to the granaries to demand cheaper food. Invariably it was the police who met the demonstrants with drawn sabres that turned these for the most part peaceful demonstrations in furious attacks." The riots were very wide-spread, extending "over three prefectures, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, over thirty provinces, and in Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan. Altogether this rising affected over two-thirds of the Japanese Empire. The 'Oriental Economist' reports that there were destructive riots in 142 different localities; that in 38 places they could be put down only by armed troops. In Osaka (the Manchester of Japan) the rioting continued for three full days and nights, and it is roughly estimated that at its height a force of over thirty thousand soldiers, including cavalry, was necessary to control the infuriated masses."

"In Kure, where the chief Navy Yard of the Empire is located, the marines were called out in full strength to quell the desperate mobs, while all thoroughfares and important crossings were armed with machine guns. But in spite of the rigid military discipline that obtains in the Japanese army, it was found that a number of the marines had made common cause with the rioting masses  . . . In Kobe the populace burnt down stores, offices, and even the residences of the wealthy rice speculators. The rioters were joined in a sympathetic movement of the 8,000 workers in the Mitsubitu shipbuilding yards." It must be remembered that working-class organisations, which might have rendered the movements more effective and less chaotic and violent, are illegal in Japan.

After August 13th the Government, fearing the spread of the disturbances, suppressed all news relating to the riots. "In Osaka the Governor published an edict forbidding more than five persons walking together on the streets. In Yokohama street assemblies were limited to nine persons."

"When the Government saw the magnitude of the movement, it appropriated $5,000 000 with which rice was bought up to be given away to the poor, or to be sold at greatly reduced rates to stem the tide of popular dissatisfaction." This, however, failed to have the desired result, for the movement had developed new characteristics. "Since food riots have ceased there have been labour troubles all  over the country. The 'Oriental Economist' gives a detailed account of seven large strikes that occurred between the 1st and the 19th of August, while the daily newspapers enumerate at least 40 others." The legal machinery, of course, reaped a rich harvest. "According to the latest reports (Sept. 12) over 5,000 persons were arrested and are awaiting trial. It is estimated by the Government that the number of arrests will reach more than 7,000 before the whole matter us settled. Among them are numerous Socialists. Chief among these is Yei Osugi, arrested at Osaka. The Government is particularly desirous of incriminating our comrades as mob leaders."

The article further hints that a contributory cause of the riots was the discontent of the workers with the Government's policy of intervention in Siberia, Whether this is so or not the political sequel to the disturbances was significant, for the Terauchi Government was superseded and the new ministry under Premier Hara reversed the policy of the old ministry in Russian affairs, and openly declares that Japan desires only  a responsible government in Russia, whether it be Bolshevik or not." Of course, this eyewash may satisfy for a time the workers of Japan, but we know that a working-class government can in no circumstances be considered "responsible" by the bourgeoisie.
R. W. Housely