Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hopping on moving cars (1995)

Book Review from the May 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dialectical Investigations by Bertell Ollman (Routledge, 1993)

Bertell Ollman, an American Marxist theorist, whose earlier works on Marx's theory of alienation, and the relationship between social and sexual liberation (as well as his invention of the fascinating board game "Class Struggle") have marked him out as one of the finest radical scholars in North America, has written a book which makes the concept of dialectical thinking both accessible and inspiring. Consider this opening to chapter 1 on "The Meaning of Dialectics" as an illustration of both of these charcteristics:
"Have you ever tried to hop on a car while it was still moving? How different was it from entering a car that was stationary? Would you have been able to get into the moving car if you were blindfolded? Would you have been able to do it if you were not only blindfolded but didn't know in which direction it was moving or even how fast it was moving?"
Society is just such a vehicle, says Ollman, and there is no point in trying to understand or change it without a method of thinking about where we are and where we're going.

Much of the book is academically challenging and points here and there could be challenged, but first read the book. Chapter 9 on "How To Study Class Consciousness" is a worthwhile essay in itself. 

Incidentally, Ollman's use of dialectical thought is not a mere paper commitment. Some time ago the present writer attended a conference in Chicago at which the fad amongst left-wing theorists was the oxymoronic "market socialism". The few of us who challenged this political absurdity (now the official credo of Blair's Tory Reserve Team, of course) were dismissed as anachronistically "unreconstructed" Marxists. Speaking on a panel with Ollman it was good to see the latter make a far better job than the present writer of explaining with striking dialectical force the utter incompatibility between socialist freedom and the continuation of any form of the money relationship. Anyone put off for life from the term "dialectics" after reading some of those atrociously devious defences of the indefensible by old-time Leninist dialecticians (practitioners of what one old comrade called "diabolical materialism") should read Ollman and restore their confidence in the historical highway code.
Steve Coleman

Letter from Europe: France's presidential election (1981)

From the May 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is said that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Well, history will repeat itself for a second time on 10 May when Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterrand face each other in the second round of the French presidential elections, just as they did seven years ago.

If the first time wasn't a tragedy—it was more of an irrelevance really—the second time is certainly a farce, played out at the expense of the French working class. Both Giscard and Mitterrand stand for the same thing - the continuation of capitalism. The early stages of the campaign were enlivened by the intervention of a professional comic, Michel Colucci (Coluche), whose mocking of the professional politicians struck a chord in public opinion. But even he turned out to be as bad as the others when, after failing to get the 500 signatures needed for his candidature, he urged people to vote for Mitterrand, the candidate of La Gauche (The Left). As indeed - and of course - did the Trotskyists.

Giscard, the outgoing President, was born with several silver spoons in his mouth, even though he is not a "real" aristocrat (his father, a jumped up businessman who made a fortune out of exploiting the natives in the French colonies, bought the name d'Estaing in the 1920s). He, to use the confusing language of conventional politics, is the candidate of La Droite (The Right). To be their standard-bearer in the second round, he had to beat his former prime minister, Jacques Chirac, and ambitious and slimy politician who controls the Gaullist party. The rivalry between Giscard and Chirac was a purely personal one, their parties being nothing more than rival gangs of place-hunters (the French President has considerable powers of patronage).

De Gaulle, when he came back to power in 1958, wanted to encourage the emergence of a two-party system in place of the changing, multi-party system which had been a feature of the notorious political instability that France had known. His first Prime Minister, Michel Debre (also, incidentally, a candidate in the first round of these elections but polling a derisory percentage of the votes) thus devised the two-round election system in which, if no one gets an absolute majority in the first round, two candidates (normally the top two) go through to a second round run-off held a week or so later. When the President came to be elected by universal suffrage in 1962 the same system was applied.

This has more or less had the desired effect: there are now two broad political families competing for power, La Droite et La Gauche, the Majority and the Opposition, the Ins and the Outs, Tweedledum and Tweedledee as in other capitalist parliamentary democracies like Britain, America and West Germany. But—and De Gaulle and Debre had probably not bargained for this—it has also led, in the first round of elections, to intense rivalry within these families. On the Right, between Giscard's place-men (the UDF party) and the followers of Chirac (the RPR party). On the Left, between the so-called Socialist Party (led by Mitterrand) and the so-called Communist Party (PCF).

In 1974 Mitterrand was the only candidate of the Left and was supported by the PCF, even in the first round. Then, in the Autumn of 1977, the PCF suddenly changed its line - the first PC change of line not decided in Moscow, by the way - and broke its alliance with the PS. Ever since, the rivalry between these two parties has become more and more virulent, although the PC is supporting Mitterrand on 10 May and is demanding to have ministers in the government he may form.

The leaders of the PCF evidently calculated, some time in 1977, that if they continued the alliance, they risked losing support to the PS as the larger and stronger partner. This they were not prepared to tolerate as it represented a threat to their livelihood as full-time party bureaucrats. Nothing quite like the PCF exists in Britain: a highly centralised and disciplined party machine controlled from the top downwards by a small group of self-appointed leaders. In September 1977 these leaders shouted "left turn" and the whole machine, from the MPs and Senators to the local branch secretaries and dues collectors, obediently started to mouth militant phrases and to attack the PS as reformist.

The PC places the responsibility for the break-up of the "Union of the Left" on the PS which, it claims, has turned to the "right". But to an independent outside observer it is clear that it is the PC that changed. The PS certainly is reformist and only wants to be an alternative government of capitalism - as the PC says - but this was just as much the case during the period 1972-77 when the PC was its ally. Not that the PC is not itself reformist, even if it wants to go further along the road towards a bureaucratic state capitalism than  does the PS.

Although there exist in France these two rival political families it is not quite accurate to describe them as the Ins and Outs, since the Outs have never yet been in power under the Fifth Republic De Gaulle established (the last time "La Gauche" governed was in 1956 - but that was under the discredited Fourth Republic, and, indeed, helped to discredit it). That is why reformist illusions about what Mitterrand can and will do to solve social problems are so widespread.

To someone who remembers the run-up to the 1964 elections in Britain, this is all deja vu, but not many French workers are that familiar with the British political scene in the 1960s! Mitterrand is behaving like Harold Wilson did then, denouncing the incompetence and tiredness of the "outgoing President", promising to plan production and to divert profits away from the wasteful pleasures of the rich to productive investment and technological innovation. Whether the political gang who have governed France since 1958 (for even longer than Wilson's "Thirteen Years of Tory Misrule") will be voted out in this election remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it will be a close-run thing like the last time when Giscard won merely by 50.8 per cent to Mitterrand's 49.2 per cent.

Not that it will make any material difference to the wage and salary earners of France. If Mitterrand wind, he will govern capitalism just as Giscard did. At the beginning he may (like Harold Wilson) introduce a few reforms but will sooner or later have recourse to the excuse about being "blown off course" and settle down to governing capitalism in the only way it can be: as a profit-making system in the interest of those who live off the profits drawn from their ownership of the means of production.
Adam Buick

Why the communists have failed: parrot disease (1930)

From the June 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard

A malady stalks through Britain—ruthless self-criticism! The serried ranks of the Communist Party have been decimated. From the humblest local official to the most renowned national protagonist, none are safe from its insidious attack. All the tried and trusty slogans, such as "Work or Wages," "Fight like Hell," and "Hands off China," threaten to vanish into obscurity before the parrot-like repetition of this sinister phrase.

Even ten years ago it seemed inevitable that something dreadful would happen to the British recipients of Russian money; and here, at long last, it has. The Slavonic vice of introspection has followed in the wake of the rouble, and displaced the good old Teutonic virtue of which they used to boast—Solidarity!

Ten years ago when carping critics—such as are to be found in the S.P.G.B.—tried to point out to the romantic worshippers of Lenin the obstacles and dangers in the way of any attempt to adopt his policy in this country, they were waived aside as beneath contempt. Was not the German revolution already in progress and would not Britain inevitably follow suit? But now!

Dangers to Right of them, danger to Left of them, dangers all around them, dangers inside them! Such is the state of affairs revealed by "ruthless self-criticism." Pick up almost any copy of the Daily Worker and then ask yourself how any member of the Politbureau manages to get a night's sleep. Take this, for example, from the issue of May 3rd; "Since the 10th Plenum, particularly, the Party leadership has made the grave error of not conducting a relentless struggle against the right elements in the Party who—and this is significant—have been strongest in the mining areas, particularly in South Wales." In other words, even some of their own members evidently realise the absurdity of telling workers to "Fight like hell" on empty bellies.

Further, "The Party's mistake in supporting Cook has materially contributed to the unsatisfactory state of the mining campaign. Cook's whole line, which had the full support of the Party, was to work within the apparatus of the M.F.G.B.; to work wholly from within the narrow circle of the trade union bureaucracy, while he deceived the Party with the illusion that he was preparing for an open break with the bureaucracy."

"He headed the fight at a certain period only to betray it more effectively." We of the S.P.G.B. never credited Cook with so much brains as to be able to think that out, nor have we come across evidence that he was ever more than a weak, emotional "hero" who found the forces of capitalism too strong for him. We did, however, point out at the time the childish futility of this nationalisation - cum - rationalisation campaign (supported by the Communist Party), and the sheer folly of trusting the miners' case to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.

The Communist Party, however, self-styled "leaders off the masses in the daily struggle" discovers its error four years after the event and straightaway puts on sackcloth and ashes. That is "the new line"! A veritable clothes-line upon which the Party's dirty linen is to be publicly hung out to dry. Well may they tell us now that "the Leadership that the Party achieved in the 1926 struggle has been dissipated through lack of understanding of the objective character of the coal situation," and that in the principal industrial areas "the May Day demonstrations cannot be described as other than a complete failure." (Daily Worker, May 17th.)

Mr. J.T. Murphy (see issue of May 19th) has discovered the "necessity of study"!

This, from one of those who told us ten years ago that the time for propaganda even, let alone study, had gone by, and that "now ia the time for action"! "Theoretical study," he says, "is an essential part of practical work, and those who try to set them one against the other have not yet learnt the first lesson of Bolshevism."

Evidently, the state of the Communist Party in this respect leaves much to be desired, for he proceeds: "It is too often assumed the changing of the Executive of the party settled the question of the Right danger. No greater mistake could be made than to encourage this idea. That was only a beginning . . . the transformation of the whole Party into a real Bolshevik Party is a much bigger job, involving not only a complete change in methods of work, but a deep and thorough understanding by the Party of the reasons for the changes and the methods that have to be employed." In short, after telling us for ten years that all we had to do was to fall in and follow them, they confess to not having been a "real Bolshevik Party" at all, and have just awakened to the necessity of having something firm upon which to place their intellectual feet.

Twenty-six years ago the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, drawn from the obscure rank and file of the working class (bricklayers, compositors, cabinet-makers, day labourers and out-of-works) with never an "intellectual," so-called, among them, framed a set of principles. These had been derived from the scientific examination of working class experience. They have always been open for inspection and outside critics have been freely challenged to do their worst. They form the basis of the party's existence.

We do not claim to be infallible. There are mistakes that any Socialist may make, being but human; but there are mistakes which no Socialist does make because he understands the position of the working class. Under this latter heading we place the "mistakes" of the Communist Party. Nothing but blindness to the plain lessons of the workers' history and the everyday facts of the workers' loves can account for them. No eloquent orators nor brilliant dictators can replace the need for learning those lessons and facing those facts—and the leaders of the C.P. in this country are anything but brilliant.

having stifled criticism where possible—as in Russia—and ignored it elsewhere, the would-be dictators have gone from blunder to blunder, piling up disappointments upon one another for their easy followers, until at length even they feel the need for some explanation for the never-ending series of defeats. Democratic criticism is as incompatible with dictatorship as oil is with water. hence the dictators must criticise themselves! Their followers can be trusted to swallow the dope.

Dictatorships are supposed by their admirers to secure unity; but the superficial unity secured by suppression, as practised by the C.P., merely cloaks the ceaseless passing of the dictators from left to right in the endeavour to preserve the balance of their power.

Instead of a consistent policy arising logically from a set of principles intelligible to all the members of the Party, the dictators have as many policies or "lines: as there are days in the week and use them to play off their supporters against each other. Divided, either by material interests or sheer ignorance, these latter are an easy prey. Each change of policy appears either to one section or another to be the long-looked-for resurrection of the Party, the evidence of new-life. By the time this section has spent its force and enthusiasm it is time for another change. And so the game goes on.

In economically backward countries—such as Russia—where the peasantry form such a large proportion of the population, this political fluctuation has some kind of meaning; it is rooted in, and, therefore, explained by the conditions. In this country, where the overwhelming mass of the population are wage-slaves with a common interest in abolishing capitalism, would-be dictators are merely ridiculous.

The remedy in Russia is economic development which proceeds, now with the assistance of the Bolsheviks, and now in spite of them. In Britain the remedy lies in Socialist education. The economic conditions are ripe for Socialism. What the workers lack is knowledge of the fact!
E. B.

Their politics and ours (1996)

Editorial from the September 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism depends on the uncritical acceptance of dishonest politics in order to gain your consent to the legalised robbery of wage-slavery. Caught in the trap of dishonest politics we can only expect the circus of opportunist politicians to bury our ambitions and aspirations under a glut of misery and deprivation with their empty talk of a "stakeholder economy" or a "share-owning democracy". Which in truth means that the fat cats share out the wealth we create whilst we are left to  make the dismal comparison between existence and survival.

Fear comes from insecurity, both emotional and physical; and the insecurity is the inescapable lot of the wage-slave. The constant threat of unemployment, repossession, homelessness, and related problems, are persistent reminders of the instability of the profit system. For the global search for profitable markets totally disregards the victims and the environmental consequences of a quick buck economy.

Le's get one thing clear. This state of affairs will continue unless we are prepared to withdraw our support for the profit system of global exploitation and everything connected with it. This entails putting no trust in leaders, whatever their political colours. It means recognising that capitalism can only benefit the minority owners of wealth, and that the working class majority are expected to scramble over the scraps.

It will mean taking over political control for ourselves and using it to replace the profit system with a system based on need, not greed. It will mean establishing a society of free access globally, with production for use—so resources are conserved and recycled—not wasted in the pursuit of short-term expediencies. It will mean placing all the social and natural resources under the democratic control of society as a whole.