Friday, November 8, 2013

In the kingdom of the blind (1995)

Book Review from the May 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour's Utopias: Bolshevism, Fabianism, Social Democracy by Peter Beilharz (Routledge, 1993.)

If one tenth of the energy used during the last hundred years to pursue reformist dead-ends had been committed to the cause of genuine socialism our movement would today number tens of thousands. The frustration for socialists has not been simply that workers have failed to listen to us, but that all too often they have been diverted towards those who have proclaimed the cause of socialism whilst committing themselves to no more than the radical re-organisation of capitalism. Intentionally or otherwise, this is the main message of Beilharz's book: the utopians (in the philosophically idealist sense of that term) have not been those of us seeking a classless, propertyless, moneyless world where all can have free access to available resources, but the schemers and dreamers of a reformed and sanitised profit system.

The introductory chapter is disappointing in its theoretical vacuity, but there are illuminating chapters on the statist utopias envisaged by both Fabians and Bolsheviks. From Webb's London Programme to Trotsky's Literature and Revolution a vast array of extravagant hopes have been aroused for what were essentially state-capitalist visions of the future. For an account of these this book is of worth. As an account of the Socialist Party within the history of socialist thought Beilharz follows a long tradition of scholarly precedent in completely ignoring Britain's oldest existing and most politically impressive workers' party. The Lenin Award for Historical One-Eyed Blindness is presumably in the post.
Steve Coleman


Do they take us for fools? (1996)

Editorial from the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Politicians ask for our votes and promise to make things better but you know, from your own experience, that they can't. Every government running the present system will put profits before needs. This is a system of production for sale and profit, where goods and services are not produced mainly for need.

That's why so many of us, and those around us, are feeling discontented and deprived.

Problems abound: unemployment, mortgage repossessions and homelessness, destruction of the environment, cuts in the care services, escapism in a drug epidemic, families too poor to feed their kids properly . . . and a million other ghastly problems which are socially, not naturally caused.

All because the current social system puts profits before needs.

So what do we propose that a majority of men and women unite to put in place of this rotten system?

We call it Socialism, but don't be put off by the word. Look what it means:
  • Common Ownership: no individuals or groups of individuals having property rights over the natural and industrial resources needed for production.
  • Democratic control: everybody having an equal say in the way things are run including work, not just the limited and distorted political democracy we have today.
  • Production for use: goods and services produced directly to meet people's needs, not for sale on a market or for profit.
  • Free Access: all of us having access to what we require to satisfy our needs, not rationed as today by the size of our wage packet or giro cheque.

Of course, nothing will change unless a majority wants it to. Socialist change calls for understanding and democratic organisation. It means not being taken in by leaders, but following your own social interest.

All quiet on campus (1986)

From the April 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Good news if you missed the "Swinging Sixties": a revival is underway. However, while the music and fashions might be making a comeback, one of the most popular products of that period is not. The long haired, tee-shirt wearing, slogan chanting, banner waving student appears to be dead and buried.

Most undergraduates today are too  young to remember the Sixties, when a wave of student upheavals swept across America and Europe. In Berkeley, Berlin, Madrid and Paris, young men and women turned against the very institutions that had nurtured them. The student leader, Cohn-Bendit, mimicking Marx, wrote: "A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of student revolt." In Britain, too, higher education became a battleground with anti-war demonstrations, marches, sit-downs, sit-ins, rent strikes, days of action and grant campaigns. Hornsey College of Art was occupied and declared a "Student's Republic". Inevitably, there were casualties as students clashed with the police. At the London School of Economics, a porter died of a heart attack when students occupied the building. Today the slogan, "Essex, Oxford, Kent, Unite. One Struggle One Fight" must sound rather strange to students.

If the Sixties were characterised by "student unrest", the late seventies and eighties have seen a general decline in protest. This is not surprising given the bleak climate of cuts, competition, and record levels of unemployment. Much student energy today is taken up with grades, jobs and overdrafts, which leads to a number of problems. In an article called "When Finals are the Final Straw". (New Society, 30 June 1983), the writer states:
. . . all the counsellors I spoke to agreed that the economic climate is greatly increasing the stress on students. Their grants are worth less than ever, and many have overdrafts. Academic staff, facing redundancy themselves cannot always give them support they need. And they risk not finding a job after they've finally achieved that degree.
Two recent government papers have angered students into organising limited demonstrations at Southampton, Portsmouth and Oxford. Firstly, the Green Paper, Higher Education into the 1990s, described by P. Flather (New Statesman, 11 October 1985 "The Sack of Academe") as "perhaps the greatest peace time threat to higher education". This paper will not surprise socialists as it sets out in plain terms the purpose of education under capitalism - to meet the needs of the economy. Vocationalism is the new "in" word. Subjects in the arts and social sciences which do not directly contribute to the economy are to be severely cut and the cuts presently hitting higher education are to be extended. Libraries are closed in the evening, research is shelved and universities are losing one in seven of their staff. Secondly, the White Paper on Social Security proposes proposes to exclude students from claiming Supplementary and Unemployment Benefits in the short vacations and intends to withdraw the right of students to claim Housing Benefit if living in halls of residence. The National Union of Students believe that the combined cuts will cost individual students up to £1,100 a year.

There have been mixed fortunes for those organisations involved in student politics. Left Wing groups have been on the decline for several years now; their heyday was in the late Sixties when students were "in struggle" - demonstrating against the Vietnam war and campaigning against bad housing, social services cuts, rent increases, the wage freeze, unemployment and racist government policies.

This provided groups like the International Socialists (now the SWP) and the Workers' Revolutionary Party with the opportunity to recruit concerned students. The activity of these groups is at best silly and at worst undemocratic and anti-socialist. The fact that marching up and down and chanting reformist slogans is considered "exciting", says a great deal about college life. Far more serious is the undemocratic behaviour of groups like the SWP who, acting as a self-appointed vanguard, decide which views can and cannot be heard by other students. When the SWP organised a mass picket to prevent Patrick Harrington entering North London Poly, not only were they suppressing free speech in the name of "socialism", but they were also giving the dwindling NF valuable publicity. Similarly, in January, the SWP broke up a meeting at Southampton University because it was being addressed by the Right Wing MP, Harvey Proctor. Fascist ideas need to be exposed and defeated, along with all anti-working class ideas, but this is not achieved by disconnecting the microphone.

If the new economic climate in higher education has led to the general decline of the Left, the Right have fared much better. Indeed, the balance of intellectual and academic thought has shifted as professors, departments and students have realigned themselves with the new Right. In the past, Keynes dominated university economics; today, free market economics is taught in the departments of York, Bath, Exeter, Liverpool, Southampton and the LSE and the so-called "Libertarians" have become increasingly active on campus. They even have their very own guru. Professor Roger Scruton, a sort of intellectual Rambo whose task in life is to remove Left Wing academics from their privileged position. He sets about this task in his recently published book, Thinkers of the New Left. Conservative student organisations are also flourishing. The Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) which is dominated by a libertarian faction, made the headlines last April when its members were involved in acts of hooliganism during their conference at Loughborough University. Then then Chairman of the Conservative Party, John Gummer, set up an investigation into the FCS, but the intended crackdown never came. David Rose, writing in the Guardian, (15 November 1985) comments:
The grip of the hard Right on the Federation of Conservative Students was strengthened last night by the internal party inquiry originally supposed to curb it.
This change of style among Conservative  students was commented on by the Tory MP, Michael Brown, in the Guardian (31 May 1985):
Traditionally, in the 1960s, the FCS was no more than a mouthpiece for the Party to disseminate party literature for that small band of short back and sides, sports jacket and tie brigade.
The tactics and new found enthusiasm of the Right mirrors the Left. Some members of the FCS wear provocative tee-shirts which read, "Hang Nelson Mandela". Opponents' meetings are boycotted or disrupted. Slogans are chanted, such as "The Right united will never be defeated!" The ideas of the libertarians include extreme market economics, leading some members to advocate the legalisation of heroin and paedophilia, loans for the unemployed and students, and no doubt the right of prisoners to buy their own cells. They are generally pro-South Africa and anti-Soviet. At the annual societies' fair at Cambridge, a poster of the Cambridge University Right read, "Apartheid OK, Apartheid UK". The FCS also supports Ulster Unionism and is firmly opposed to the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement; indeed, some of its members are said to hold Loyalist and Protestant views which make Ian Paisley look positively middle-of-the-road.

Students, like all other members of the working class, need to organise themselves within their own organisations to protect their position within capitalism. Although the protestors of the sixties have grown old and, for the most part, disillusioned, the problems are still with us in one form or another. The only effective protest against them is the struggle to abolish capitalism itself.
Brian Rubin

Ed, Ralph and Karl (2013)

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

One result of the nasty attack by the Daily Mail (1 October) on Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, has been a revival of discussion about Marx and Marxism. They described him a ‘lifelong, unreconstructed Marxist who craved a workers’ revolution’ Absurdly, they also claimed that
‘his son’s own Marxist values can be seen all too clearly in his plans for state seizures of private land held by builders and for fixing energy prices by government diktat.’
But there is nothing Marxist or socialist about taxing land values or price controls. The first was a 19th century radical Liberal demand aimed at weakening the landed aristocracy which then still stood in the way of complete capitalist class control of the state, and all sorts of governments have resorted to price controls.

But to what extent could Ralph Miliband be described as a ‘Marxist’? He certainly considered himself to be one and was well versed in Marx’s writings. He was the author of two books which influenced leftwing thinking in Britain, Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and The State in Capitalist Society (1969). In the first he dealt with what he regarded as the Labour Party’s obsession with trying to move beyond capitalism step by step by constitutional, parliamentary means and explained how and why this failed. The second described how the top positions in the state in Britain were occupied by people from the same social background – families rich enough to send their children to the top ‘public’ schools – who controlled it via an Old Boy network whichever party had a majority in parliament.

Both books were used by the Trotskyist groups which mushroomed in the 1970s to argue that there was ‘no parliamentary road’ and that violent revolution was therefore the only way. Actually, this was not Ralph Miliband’s own position as he held the more reasonable view that the road to socialism could and should involve both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.

But what did he mean by socialism? The Daily Mail wrote:
‘Ralph’s Marxism was uncompromising. ‘We want this party to state that it stands unequivocally behind the social ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.’ He declared to the 1955 Labour Party conference as the delegate from Hampstead.’
Here he was defending the Labour Party’s ultimate aim (on paper) as set out in its then Clause Four. But there was nothing Marxist about Clause Four. It had been drafted by the Fabian Sidney Webb and committed the Labour Party to achieving, by gradual and constitutional means, the sort of state capitalism that the Fabians favoured.

We have always pointed out that the common ownership of ‘the means of exchange’ does not make sense. If there is common ownership of the means of production and distribution then there is no ‘exchange’ and so no ‘means of exchange’ (banks, etc.). The concept of ‘common ownership’ of banks only makes sense if common ownership is equated with state ownership. Which is what Ralph Miliband did.

This was confirmed by his attitude to Russia. He didn’t regard it as socialist, but he did regard it as non-capitalist on the grounds that it was based on state ownership rather than private ownership. For him, all that was required for it to become socialist was for its political structure to be made democratic. So, his ‘socialism’ was full-scale state capitalism plus political democracy, a combination that has proved to be illusory.

But state ownership is just another form of class ownership. That was Marx’s view too. Which makes Ralph Miliband an odd sort of Marxist, but at least he understood more about Marx than his son.