Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Principles of The Socialist Party (1926)

From the November 1926 issue of the Socialist Standard

A few weeks ago a member of this organisation attended a meeting of the I.L.P., with the object of selling some literature. While engaged in this nefarious project, he was accosted by the secretary of the branch holding the meeting, to whom he had previously sold a copy of our pamphlet on "Socialism."

"Ah," exclaimed the independent labourer. "I've been reading your pamphlet and I take it that it represents the official views of your party."

Our comrade admitted that this was the case.

"Well," continued the humble follower of Ramsay Mac., "It appears that between us lies the cloven hoof. We are a constitutional body, whereas you have no hope, except in violence."

The Socialist thereupon produced a copy of the pamphlet, and asked for proof of the statement. (You may have noticed that this is a nasty dogmatic habit which Socialists have.) His critic hesitated, and then admitted that he was unable to lay his finger on any particular statement, but that he had gathered the general impression by reading between the lines. The next move, however, was decisive.

Turning the inside of the cover, the hardened revolutionist pointed out that the sixth clause of our Declaration, and asked what impression that conveyed. The answer was that it was a clear statement of the Socialist position.

Incidents like the above illustrate the value of the Declaration for the critic referred to went on to express the wish that the Labour Party had a similar pronouncement, and actually let fall the damning admission that if it had it would lose a large percentage of its members!

The Declaration forms the basis of membership of the Party. Only those who accept and conform in political practice thereto become and remain members. Thus is the Socialist character of the Party preserved, and a weapon provided with which to flay any rash opponent who endeavours to misrepresent its object or policy.

Let us then turn our attention to its clauses seriatim in the hope that the reader may appreciate their accuracy, and throw in his lot with us in the task of spreading the knowledge they express.

Heading the Declaration is a definition of Socialism, the object of the Party: —A system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of wealth production, etc. This raises in the mind of the reader the question, is it possible to change the basis of society in the manner proposed and, if possible, is it necessary?

In spite of the wide-spread acceptance of the theory of evolution, many people still retain a belief in "eternal truth" where social institutions are concerned. "What is, always has been, and always will be," is their creed in reference to the relationship between rich and poor. Yet a study of history reveals the fact that here, as elsewhere, constant change obtains.

This failure to see the facts arises largely from the interested propaganda of the present ruling-class, but is also due to the circumstance that the workers have not yet consciously grasped the basic importance of the instruments of labour and their evolution.

If one could transplant an African savage to the heart of London, he would be, not merely bewildered, but terrified at the population and the mechanical contrivances by which he was surrounded. Similarly, a Cockney in the heart of the bush, experiences dismay at the desolation and crudity of savage in the existence. Yet it is a matter of history that these two states of human life have been bridged in the course of centuries.

Two thousand years ago, our ancestors struggled for life in barbaric obscurity. Their means of obtaining food, shelter and clothing were of the most primitive description when contrasted with those in use at present yet even they represented thousands of years of painful experience and development.

This development can be divided into several fairly well-defined stages. Thus the discovery of fire, the invention of smelting and pottery-making, the domestication of animals and plants, the invention of the plough and the substitution of slavery for cannibalism, mark epochs in social growth. The changes in the mode of life resulted in the expansion and internal development of the social groups which, until the dawn of history, were small and narrowly exclusive in their customs and outlook.

Up till them kinship, rather than property, was the basis of the group and its institutions were communal in character. A crude instinctive equality couple with hostility to strangers marked the relationship between the kinsfolk. Yet the very conception of kinship was itself the product of ages of experiment in trying to control the sexual aspect of human life. So long as sexual relations were promiscuous, descent could not be definitely determined.  Among such primitive beings as the Australian blacks, however, intercourse is restricted to the members of certain groups, and the narrowing of the group up to the point where the clan (or gens) emerges, forms the general tendency of social development in pre-historic races. (The reader cannot do better than consult Morgan's "Ancient Society," and Engel's "Origin of the Family," for details on this point.)

The driving force behind this change was the gradual division of labour, first as between the sexes, secondly as between members of the same sex and tribe. As mankind forsook their primitive homes, the forests, and spread over the plains and along the rivers, hunting and fishing, a more regular social discipline became necessary than had hitherto obtained. Men became the breadwinners, women the homemakers. With the adoption of a pastoral mode of life, and the use of metals for the protection of the flocks and the herds against wild beasts, special crafts, such as that of the smith, arose. Finally, with the beginning of agriculture, the establishment of slavery completed the foundation of the complex hierarchy of occupations on which arose the first class-society, the City-Empires of ancient history.

From that point onward, kinship commenced to wane as a social bond. It survived in a class-form (i.e., aristocracy), based upon property in land. For the mass of the population it had ceased to count. Only the rich had ancestors and were men of family. Patricians, plebs and slaves gave way to nobles, burghers and serfs until with the increase of trade and the response of industrial development, modern society, founded upon wage-labour, arose.

It is not the writer's immediate purpose to describe how each successive change took place; the point to be emphasised is that a variety of social forms have preceded that which exists to-day, that society is no solid crystal, the structure of which only fools would challenge.

The Socialist has all human experience at the back of his statement that a change in the economic basis of society, and consequently in the whole edifice of human life is possible. The necessity for such a change at present remains to be demonstrated in further articles.
E. B.

"Cement.": A Bolshevik Novel (1929)

Book Review from the February 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Cement," by Feodor V. Gladkov (Martin-Lawrence. 7s. 6d. and 3s. 6d.)

This is the much-heralded novel of Bolshevik Russia, translated into English by A.S. Arthur and C. Ashleigh. It has run through many editions in France and Germany and is widely read in Russia itself.

The author takes as his background Russia in 1920-21, and his chief character is a Red Army soldier returned from the Front to find the local cement factory ruined and the workers idling their time away and the children almost starving.

His wife has no longer any time for him, being occupied in Party and Soviet work, besides having turned to other men in his absence. A good deal of the work is occupied with the efforts of the returned Red soldiers to get the Communist bureaucrats to get the factory restarted. This part of the book brings out the shortcomings of a Communist Dictatorship of Intellectuals who dominate with merciless discipline the mass of the workers and their wives, etc.

The more or less vague practice of "free love" running through the story seems unreal and far-fetched under the circumstances of the time, and the fetish of the Red women that they are free to choose new mates at random is poorly worked out by the author.

The sex life of the hero and his wife is continually brought to our attention, but the book finishes without any definite attitude between them.

For a glimpse of Russia at the opening of the era of the New Economic Policy, the book is interesting, but a real novel of life in Russia under Bolshevism is not yet written, or perhaps we should say translated, into English.
A. Kohn

Objections Overruled (1982)

From the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most frequent objections to socialism is "That's all very well in theory, but you can't change human nature".

What exactly is meant by this? That human beings naturally do not want to share, co-operate, to be happy themselves and contribute to the happiness of others? That they must by their very nature snatch and grab, kick each other in the teeth, hate and maim and kill? If human nature is indeed like this, then it has to be said that there is an extraordinary number of freaks about—freaks who by some strange altruistic perversion actually stop at the scene of accidents to offer their help, rally around their neighbours in times of trouble, assist old ladies across roads, take lost children to the police station. It is the way society is based and organised which causes the distortions labelled as "human nature" by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and declaring socialism to be unworkable; or by those brainwashed to believe that the present system is the only system.

Under capitalism, one hundredth of the population own over eighty per cent of shares, while for the remainder it's a case of he who kicks hardest and fights the dirtiest wins most of whatever little is left. The wonder of it is not that perversions of human behaviour exist but that they are not a great deal more widespread. It is surprising, under such a system,  that people still do react pleasantly, decently and caringly towards their fellow human beings. Most men will not rape every woman they see on the streets after midnight, most blacks will not mug old ladies, most gangs of unemployed youths will not smash windows and bash in your head with a brick.

Human beings are not inherently vicious and violent. They become so only under certain conditions-stress, for example. The stress of chronic insecurity and appalling living conditions, of lack of opportunity and self-fulfillment. Where the world's wealth is owned by the few and denied to the many, then an attitude of grab-what-you-can and devil-take-the-hindmost is inculcated. Pleasure, for most people, comes essentially from sharing, be it sharing a good meal, or watching a good football match, or listening to a good concert. Human beings are naturally gregarious, and gregariousness does not square with the sort of antisocial behaviour represented as "human nature".

It now appears quite "natural" for the capitalists to tolerate the spectacle of workers suffering hideous industrial diseases, from pnemonoconiosis to cancer, in order that they might continue to rake in their profits. What could be more hideously inhuman than the manufacture of nuclear weapons? Such weapons would be indefensible even if they protected "us" against "them" (currently the Russians, whose "human nature" is apparently so debased that they are only awaiting their opportunity to massacre us).

In fact, it is not "the Russians" but the Russian ruling class, and it is not to protect "us" but to protect the interests of one ruling class against the depredations of another. Three thousand "top people" are to be rushed out of London to hide themselves in deep shelters "somewhere in Oxfordshire" as soon as a nuclear war threatens. These "top people" are the very ones who have howled loudest for the continuation of nuclear, and indeed of all other kinds, of armaments. They are to be preserved: we, the working class, are the one who are to be sacrificed.

Maybe among the select few who currently organise our lives for us "human nature" has indeed become permanently distorted. No one who heard the recent BBC interview with Master Jacob Rees-Mogg, the precocious schoolboy son of the former editor of The Times, can be in much doubt that the capitalist class are making a pretty thorough job of perverting the "nature" of their progeny. This is a child who, at the tender age of twelve is already dabbling in the Stock Market, has "rather good stockbrokers" and a helpful assistant bank manager, whose main professed interest is in the making of profit (which profit he prudently invests in antique silver) and whose first question on being invited to do a radio interview was "How much will I get paid for it?"

For us, the working class, who do not have the opportunity to share the Rees-Mogg's fascination with exploiting the labour of his fellow human beings, socialism will suit our natures very well. When there is a sufficiency for all, and all have equal access to it, we shall be quite content to take what we need, just as we shall contribute what we can according to our individual and social abilities. Being human beings, and possessing human natures, we shall doubtless still quarrel and still lose our tempers; but this will not be inflamed by the chronic insecurities, the constant fear of loss of livelihood, of degradation and poverty, which are endemic under the capitalist system. Socialism will have no "masters", backed by their accumulations of wealth, to incite us into rising against our fellow workers, to destroy each other with the nuclear bombs and missiles which we have made on their behalf to do their battles for them.

Under capitalism, while there exists the potential for a sufficiency—indeed, for an abundance—the system will not allow the potential ever to be fulfilled. Indeed, if there is the least danger of such a thing happening, then steps are very quickly taken to put a stop to it: sooner burn good food than let the starving get their hands on it. In socialism, where production will be for need rather than for profit, there will be no "market forces" operating to justify such obscenities. There will no longer be some of us condemned to go hungry while others glut, nor some who must remain homeless while others occupy palaces. Socialism, in short, is concerned solely to change the nature of our social organisation, not the "nature"of the human beings who make up that organisation.
Jean Ure

Digging up the Dirt (2013)

The Pathfinders Column from the November 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

New excavations are suggesting that some complex settled societies sprang up thousands of years before agriculture, in a complete reversal of orthodox thinking about the Neolithic revolution. A dig at Wadi Faynan in south Jordan has unearthed what looks like an amphitheatre dated 11,500 years old, some three thousand years before settled farming, while another dig at Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia has revealed the world’s first temple, dated 11,000 years old (New Scientist, 5 October).

According to orthodoxy prehistoric hunter-gatherer (HG) communities, being nomadic due to the need to range for scarce food, were incapable of population expansion, of developing surpluses or ‘wealth’, and of creating sophisticated urban cultures, social stratification, writing and organised religion. This is why the Neolithic or agricultural revolution is called a revolution. An HG community with a theatre is understood to be about as likely as a fossilised rabbit found in a dinosaur’s stomach.

If temples and amphitheatres came first and agriculture came after, could it be that social and not material forces were the driving factor of change – ideology before subsistence? Perhaps HG groups invited a lot of people to ritual raves and then found they needed to develop better ways of producing food on-site. Instead of temples being a product of urban life, perhaps temples gradually grew villages and towns around themselves like particles attracting mass.

But the materialist view, upon which the case for socialism is built, doesn’t insist that settled civilisation depended on agriculture, it only says that settled civilisation depended on a reliable food supply. In most cases that would have meant agriculture, but if it could be provided some other way, eg. by natural abundance or spaceships dropping food parcels, then so be it. Apparently these sites were stocked up food-wise, but pre-agriculture this could hardly have been the norm. A neo-Hegelian counter-attack against materialism, whereby culture determines material conditions, doesn’t seem on the cards quite yet.

Another major boulder was dropped in the anthropological pond recently by Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of our Nature (reviewed on page 20, short interview on page 13).

Pinker’s theory can also be seen as ammunition against socialism, for two reasons. First, if capitalism is able to deliver peaceful non-violence, even in theory, a major plank of the socialist case against it is removed, since that case argues that capitalism is intrinsically violent and divisive. Secondly, it upends fondly-held ideas about so-called primitive communism in which Mesolithic hunter-gatherer bands existed in a state of noble grace until mean old property-based society came along to turn free love into Fight Club.

Does Pinker intend his argument to be used this way, as neo-Hobbesian propaganda? Probably he won’t lose sleep if it is, given his own unexamined assumptions about what socialism really is (ie. Stalin, tanks and purges). But the evidence is what it is. If it is damaging to the socialist case, that’s a problem for us.

In the first place, accepting for argument’s sake that the murder rate has declined through history (and guessing about prehistory), we would have to congratulate capitalism on a job well done. Or partly well done. Credit where it’s due. But could it achieve zero-crime and zero-violence in the future? Perhaps, with hyper-surveillance and the utter subjugation of workers, mind and body. It’s hard to see how it could achieve zero-war unless one ruling class were able to destroy all the other ruling classes in a global war and then dominate the smoking ruins that were left. That capitalism has made progress in reducing violence does not mean that it will continue to do so, or that socialism could not do better.

In the second place, it is not supposed that primitive communism was a Garden of Eden, merely that it was unlikely to have been a warzone. Marx and Engels speculated that, in the absence of property relations before agriculture, there would be no material incentive for class society, war, female oppression and all the other features of today’s ‘civilised’ world. And indeed, there’s no sign of prehistoric warfare, weaponry, fortifications and the like, despite the fact that the available evidence is more than enough to reveal such signs if they were there. Such signs tend to be unambiguous and hard to miss. Incidences of conflict prior to 10,000 years ago constitute a ‘tiny handful’ and ‘are very much the exception’. Conversely, the 11,500 year old Abu Hureya settlement near the Euphrates, for example, shows continuous occupation for 4,000 years with no sign of violence whatever (John Horgan, Scientific American blog, 29 June 2010).

Suppose, again for argument’s sake, one were to leap the credibility gap and grant Pinker the best possible case, that violence has been endemic in all human societies, no matter how far back you go, no matter what the material conditions. Even then, would this prove that aggression was written into the genes, as Pinker and others are wont to conclude? No, it wouldn’t. It would only prove that material conditions were not the only factor behind violence. Marx’s argument about materialism was not that it was the sole factor in determining social conditions, but that it was the decisive factor among several. In prehistoric societies there could have been other factors at play.

A recent study of ‘lethal aggression events’ among mobile forager bands seems to bear this out (‘New study of foragers undermines claim that war has deep evolutionary roots’, Scientific American, 18 July). Of the 21 groups observed, three had no lethal events whatsoever, a problematical result for Pinker and other natural violence advocates. Of 148 documented events only two were due to fights over resources, most of the others being ‘miscellaneous personal disputes’ such as insults, jealousy and theft – interestingly suggesting that property concepts cause trouble even in HG bands. Significantly, the most common cause of violence was revenge for previous attacks, showing that violence once established breeds more violence. Almost all the events involving multiple attackers and multiple victims, which the observers categorise as ‘war’, stemmed from just one group.

Not content with arguing for natural human aggression, some enthusiasts want to trace it all the way back to our ape forebears. Notable here is Richard Wrangham with his ‘demonic ape’ thesis. But the evidence for innate ape violence is just as flimsy and opposition to it strong. ‘Chimpicide’ seems to be a cultural artefact, neither universal nor innate. The relatively peaceful bonobo pygmy chimp also stymies such claims. Meanwhile studies of the oldest known human ancestor, the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus ramidus, have caused a ‘tectonic shift’ in anthropological circles recently, according to one researcher: ‘We now know, especially in light of Ardipithecus, that hominids have always been a far less aggressive clade than are chimpanzees or even bonobos’ (Horgan, 2010).

Why Pinker, Wrangham and others are so keen to show that violence is innate can only be guessed at. Were it true, capitalism could be acquitted of all war crimes and socialist revolution represented as  pointless. At stake is the essential Hobbesian question, can we be free or must we always be ruled? Socialists say that we can and should be free, and we work to create a future in which humans make themselves anew and are not bound by supposed primitive behavioural urges, whether these are angelic or demonic.