Monday, December 23, 2013

Ecology and Science (1996)

From the February 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

We conclude our criticism, began last month, of Sandy Irvine's pamphlet "Red Sails in the Sunset? An Ecopolitical critique of the Socialist Inheritance"
As a science — the study of the inter-relationships between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment, ecology has no particular political or ethical lesson to teach. Its essential role is to explain and predict. It is true that implications for human behaviour can be drawn from its findings. Humans are living organisms and as such are part of particular ecological systems and of the whole biosphere; so human behaviour does have ecological implications. In fact ecology as a science has identified particular forms of human behaviour (without going into their causes, which fall outside its field of study) as the major disturbing force upsetting ecological balances, the result of which is pollution and environmental destruction.

The implication that can be drawn from this is that, if pollution and environmental destruction are to be minimised then human behaviour — human productive activity, to be precise — must change, in such a way that what humans take from nature, the amount and the pace at which we do so, as well as the way we use these substances and dispose of them after use, should be done in such a way as to leave the rest of nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing them.

It's a tall order, but it is also a very general statement that leaves open the question of what specifically should be done. It can't be otherwise since ecology as a science is concerned with analysing the effects of particular forms of human behaviour on ecosystems without going into what causes those forms of behaviour. That is a matter for other fields of scientific research, such as sociology and economics.

Here Socialists have their point of view and people like Irvine theirs. We say that the ecologically-unbalanced behaviour that humans at present engage in is due to the socio-economic system under which we live, namely the profit system, or capitalism. He attributes it to something else: human greed or permissiveness or a wrong attitude to nature or an unreasonable desire to have too many children. We call for a change of social system. He calls for "changes to human values and lifestyles", without a change of social system. (Actually, it's not quite as simple as this, as the predominant values in society tend to reflect the needs of the socio-economic system, so a change of system will involve a change of values too.) But ecology has nothing to say on this particular argument. Which is why Irvine's appeal to it to back his view is as invalid as would be an appeal to it by us to back our view.

Socialism is human-centred
Irvine goes further and, again accuses Socialists of a human-centred approach as opposed to an Earth-centred one which he claims derives from ecology:

Socialist theory has been deeply embedded in a thoroughly cornucopian and human-centred view of life. It has never got to grip with the realities of 'limits-to-growth ', believing instead in the existence of Aladdin's Lamp which, if rubbed by the right people, can release a cornucopia of goods and services. Indeed, in some classic socialist texts, notably Robert Tressell 's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it is suggested that under socialism, people would simply take whatever they wanted from gigantic warehouses. Amongst the radical groups that blossomed in the wake of the May '68 events in France, a popular slogan was: 'What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!' The Marxist tradition has been little different promising an open cheque marked 'to each according to his needs'.

We plead guilty to this charge of being human-centred We do have a human-centred approach: we want a socialist society primarily because it will be good for human beings. It will also be good for the biosphere but, then, what is good for the biosphere is also good for humans. Oddly, since it is a human-centred argument, Irvine also makes this last point, arguing that unless humans take into account the good of the biosphere things will be bad for them too ("the Earth must come first for, without the planet's life-sustaining eco¬systems, all human aspirations and goals are doomed").

We have indeed spoken of socialism in terms of abundance, less so today perhaps than in the past. Irvine — influenced no doubt by the falsehood taught by conventional economics that human wants are "infinite" — interprets this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more food, to take more and more holidays, and to acquire more and more material goods.

If humans wants were "infinite" then this would be the result of a society based on free access and geared to meeting human needs, but human wants are socially-determined and limited. Humans can only consume so much food, for instance, and only seek to accumulate more and more material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In a society, such as socialism would be, where people could be sure that what they required to satisfy their needs would always be available in the "warehouses" then we would soon settle down to only taking what we needed and no more.

This is all we meant by talking of socialism as a "society of abundance": that enough food, clothing and other material goods can be produced to allow every man, woman and child in society to satisfy their likely material needs. It was not a reference to some orgy of consumption, but simply to the fact that it is technically possible to produce (more than) enough to satisfy everyone's material needs, thanks, we might add, to industrialisation. Despite Irvine's claim to the contrary, industrial processes of production are not in themselves the cause of pollution and environmental destruction; it is their application under capitalism in the pursuit by separate, competing firms and states of relatively short-term monetary profit that
is the cause.

Increased consumption
Meeting everybody's likely material needs will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the one-in-five of the population of Britain who need state handouts to bring them up to the poverty line; it will also be the case for about the same number who live without state handouts not far above the poverty line; and it will obviously be the case for the millions and millions of people in the so-called Third World who are suffering from horrendous problems of starvation, disease and housing.

So, yes, Socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for three-quarters or more of the world's population. Impossible, says Irvine, this would exceed the Earth's carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse. Not necessarily so, we reply.

Irvine's mistake is to confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total electricity or oil consumption or whatever and then divide it by the total population. But this doesn't give a figure for what people consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is in fact compatible with an increase in personal consumption.

This in effect is what Socialists (real Socialists that is) propose: to eliminate the waste of capitalism, not just of arms and armies but of all the overhead costs involved in buying and selling. It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce are engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity (some estimates go higher). In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head.

This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who need it to be increased to a decent level. Diverting resources to do this — and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a decent standard of living will be the primary, initial aim of socialism — will put up consumption per head again, but to nowhere near the level now obtaining under capitalism.

When socialism reaches cruising speed, after clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, then both consumption and production can be expected to level off and something approaching a "steady-state economy" reached. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more.

It is true that this assumes that population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption, and is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, in the most developed capitalist parts of the world of Europe, North America and now Japan. Population growth is a feature of the poorer parts of the world, suggesting a link between it and poverty and the insecurity that goes with it (the more children you have the more chance there is of someone to care for you in your old age). If this is so, the way to end population growth is to eliminate poverty and economic insecurity, which in practice can only be done by socialism.

Irvine vigorously disagrees with this analysis. But he himself has no answer to the problem since he is against increasing personal consumption levels as in his view this would overload the Earth's carrying capacity. But, unless the personal consumption of the people in the poorer parts of the world is increased, then population growth there won't slow down. If you reject socialism all that is left is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation or letting starvation, disease and wars take their course (as Malthus advocated).

Socialists emphatically reject such an anti-human approach. If that's what an "Earth-centred ethics" teaches then we want nothing to do with it. We'll stick to our human-centred approach, which embraces the view that the balanced functioning of the biosphere is something that humans should try to achieve since, as part of the biosphere, it is in our interest that it should function properly. There is in fact no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the biosphere.

In adopting an anti-humanist stand (Irvine calls it "post-humanism"; it used to be called misanthropy) people like him are in fact doing damage to the cause of finding a solution to the current ecological crisis. They are undermining any good work they might be doing in drawing people's attention to the need for a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest ofthe biosphere. They put people off and they give ecology a bad name. And they impede the growth of the understanding of what social and economic changes are needed to create the framework in which the mess can be cleaned up and a sustainable balance with the rest of nature created.
Adam Buick


Ecology & Socialism (1996)

From the January 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to a recent pamphlet the only reaction socialists have ever had to green issues is to jump on the bandwagon of popular concern for the environment for our own ends. This article is the first of our two-part reply.

There is a yawning chasm between a politics of ecology and that of all major traditions of socialist theory and practice. This is the case both at the level of values — anthropocentrism versus an Earth-centred ethics — and of policy — especially limits-to-growth versus expansionism.
So writes Sandy Irvine in a recent polemical pamphlet Red Sails in the Sunset - An Ecopolitical critique of the Socialist Inheritance.Published by the Campaign for Political Ecology, a conservative-minded group that has broken away from the Green Party on the grounds that it has become too left-wing by advocating social improvements that the Earth can't afford. Irvine is also editor of a magazine called Real World, a title chosen to convey that all those who think in terms of improving people's standard of living, whether by reform or by revolution, are hopeless Utopians because the Earth can't sustain this; in the real world only sacrifices, cuts and belt-tightening are on the agenda.

Socialism and Socialism
Irvine has his definition of socialism: "what was said and done by the majority of those who have called themselves socialists ". That's a possible definition, but in that case we're not socialists since in Britain the majority of those who have called themselves socialists have been supporters and members either of the Labour Party or of the Communist Party and the various Trotskyist groups. For these people socialism has meant state ownership (nationalisation) and/or state intervention, what we would call state capitalism, and it is essentially against these policies as a way of solving the current ecological crisis that Irvine is arguing. Since we have never advocated or supported nationalisation and state control we would appear not to be involved. However, Irvine specifically lumps us in with the rest of them since "for a taste of British socialist politics" he specifically recommends people to read the Socialist Standard — we can agree with that of course — alongside, among others, Socialist WorkerMilitantNew Left ReviewMarxism Today (a bit difficult, since it no longer exists) and Living Marxism. He also mentions that he once debated against us.

Naturally, we object to being lumped in with these advocates of state capitalism, but Irvine attempts to deal with this objection in advance by saying that "there always will be, of course, those whose response to any criticism of socialist theory or practice, is the mantra 'but that's not true socialism '. At this point, words become meaningless ".

We do indeed say "but that's not true socialism" since, in our view, socialism does have a definite logical and historical meaning. But this doesn't mean that words become meaningless. The word "socialism" rather becomes meaningless if everyone who calls themself a socialist is accepted as being a socialist. Irvine doesn't quite go that far, but only argues that socialism is whatever a majority of those call themselves socialists have stood for. But he can't have it both ways: he can't include us in his criticism of socialism when we are not part of that majority.

Maybe the definition of socialism we adhere to has become (thanks largely to the 70-year period of rule of Leninist State capitalism in Russia) a minority one, but up until the first world war it was probably the majority view: that socialism is a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, where the state and government over people will give way to democratic self-administration and where the money-market-profit economy, will give way to production solely and directly to satisfy human needs without buying and selling. They certainly had differences about how to get there but this was what Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, William Morris, Bebel, Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and even Lenin and Stalin (before 1917) and Keir Hardie (some of the time) meant by the term.

Irvine is mistaken in another of his references to us. One of his points is that those who call themselves socialists have had three types of reaction to the issue of environmental destruction: (1) disinterest (continuing to shout "the right to work", "no cuts", and "kick out the Tories"); (2) opportunistic exploitation (jumping on the bandwagon started by the Greens) and (3) denunciation of environmentalists (for being Not-In-My-Backyarders and people with a comfortable standard of living who urge poorer people not to increase their consumption, etc.).

To illustrate the second type of reaction he writes in a footnote:

"After the success of the Greens in the 1989 Euroelections, there was a sudden flurry of meetings up and down the country with titles like 'Environmental Crisis —the Socialist Answer'. I took part in one such debate with the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Newcastle at that time."

The facts are otherwise. The debate took place on 1 June 1987, the title was "Green Revolution or Socialist Revolution?", and we had our own candidate standing against, among others, the Green Party in Newcastle in the 1989 Euro-elections. In any event, someone who, like Irvine, was a Trotskyist in the 1960s and 70s (as he himself reveals) and a Green in the 1980s and 90s is not in any position to lecture others about swaying with the wind or following the herd.

Who's a bandwagoner?
Long before environmentalism began to become a big issue in the 1960s, members of the Socialist Party had been aware of the problems of pollution. One reason for this is that we are materialists and recognise that humans are material beings who depend entirely for their survival on what they get from their material environment, particularly food. Without being so simplistic as those 19th century German materialists who declared "man ist wass man isst", ("one is what one eats") and who attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of what people ate — of course, it is social factors that are the most important ones involved in human behaviour — many Socialist Party members realised that what you ate was bound to have some effect on your health, and so were concerned about the chemical pollution of food. Many became vegetarians or food reformers of one kind or another. One (Horace Jarvis) wrote a book Food Faking Exposed that was published in 1958.

When the writings on ecology of the American anarcho-communist (and another ex-Trotskyist) Murray Bookchin became easily available in Britain in the late 1960s, we immediately recognised the importance of what he was saying. He then wrote under the name of Lewis Herber (we had already noticed his article "The Problem of Chemicals in Food" that appeared in 1952 in the Contemporary Issues, a magazine produced by some former German Trotskyists who had come to reject Leninism). Two of his articles, "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" and "Towards A Liberatory Technology", both written in 1965 (but not published in Britain until 1966 and 1967 respectively) circulated amongst Socialist Party members with the second being commented on favourably (both are included in Bookchin's book Post-Scarcity Anarchism).

Here was someone who was expressing much of what we thought ourselves about the matter. That not only was pollution and environmental destruction caused by the profit system but also that it was the science of ecology that explained the processes by which pollution and environmental destruction resulted from releasing waste substances into the rest of nature at a rate and in amounts that it could not cope with; that science and technology, far from causing the problem, provided the knowledge and techniques that could be used to solve it given the right social framework; and, last but not least, that this framework was a less centralised society that produced to meet human needs not for profit, which could only be done in a stateless, moneyless communist society. Naturally, Bookchin being an anarchist, we had major disagreements with how he envisaged the establishment of such a society. (He wrote another article, criticising the vanguardists, called "Listen Marxist!", but which should have been called "Listen Leninist!". Our reply, "Listen Anarchist!", appeared in the March 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard.)

In June 1971 we published an article "Ecology: the First Decade" which ended:
Why does pollution occur? A small amount is due to ignorance or miscalculation. A small amount is unavoidable given present technology and population. But the immense majority is due to the economic network. People pollute because it is in their economic interests to do so.


It is sometimes claimed, though, that the problem arises from a wrong attitude to nature. This has some truth, though it will not do as a complete explanation. The attitude to nature, and the economic system, are interlinked. The present growth of ecological awareness is full of hope, for it encourages a mentality which considers total processes rather than isolated fragments.
So, if we jumped on any bandwagon (which we didn't), it would have to have been at the very latest towards the end of the 1960s — well before the Ecology Party (now the Green Party) was formed in 1973 and at a time when Irvine himself was going around shouting "no cuts" and "kick out the Tories" and even "Labour to power on a socialist programme."

Ecology is a science — the study of the inter-relations between living organisms and between them and their non-living environment — and, as we pointed out in the 1971 quote above, one that emphasises treating the subject matter as a whole and recognising the interdependence and
interconnectedness of the various parts as well as the fact of continuous change. This approach is in fact the best approach for all fields of scientific study. It is known to socialists as the dialectical approach and, as ecology happens to emphasise this more than some other sciences, this was an additional reason as to why it appealed to socialists when knowledge about ecology became more widespread in the 1960s.

But ecology is a science and not a political doctrine. This was why the original name of the Green Party — the Ecology Party — was absurd. They might just as validly, and only slightly less ridiculously, have called themselves the Chemistry Party or the Biology Party. It was also rather arrogant, in claiming that the science of ecology gave exclusive backing to their policies, which after all were only reformist policies to be applied within the profit system (more anti-pollution laws and investment, and other legislative and tax changes).
Adam Buick
(Next month we conclude our reply to Irvine's criticisms.)

The Sterility of Labourism (1954)

From the September 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

To look for any underlying theoretical unity in the Labour Party is like looking for the proverbial black cat in a dark room—that isn't there. From scratch the organisation was opportunistic and eclectic. "we are committed to no one creed or dogma" was one of its earliest dogmas, while its adamant refusal to commit itself to any definite principle was the nearest approximation to a principle.

It was John Ward who said at a Labour conference prior to the Labour Party being formed "they wanted to get their feet planted in the House of Commons and should not be a bit particular the way they did it." While Keir Hardie and others present ostensibly protested at this, nevertheless the election pacts and arrangements between the Labour Party and Liberals, on whose support they relied, showed it was Ward's view which prevailed.

Because the political accommodation of the Labour Movement was broad it was able to house diverse and divergent ideas. Little wonder it spoke with many tongues. There were those preaching violent revolution. Others were the most gentle of evolutionaries regarding even the concept of class struggle as "bestial Darwinism" smuggled into "Socialist politics." Many were internationalists whose slogan was, "Workers of the World, Unite." Some were "Little Englanders" advocating "Britain for the British." There were militant atheists denouncing religion as the real enemy of Socialism, and devout Christians seeing "The New Testament" as the revealed and authorised Socialist catechism and Jesus the Socialist prototype.

Then there were the Fabians who subscribed, one might almost say, oversubscribed, to Harcourt's dictum, "We are all Socialists now." It was the Fabians who made State activity and Socialism, synonymous terms. In the howling desert of capitalism they discovered "Socialist" oases in the form of parks, playing fields, cemeteries, municipal baths, washhouses, and public conveniences, etc. Even the War Office and Scotland Yard had the character of Socialist institutions. Just as Liberal and Tory Governments might regard themselves as anti-Socialist but in so far as they carried on extensive and ever extending State activities were willy nilly instruments for Socialism. The Fabian policy of permeation or "boring from within, " of various political parties was the political tactic to influence, "building up Socialism in one country."

Because the Fabians believed in "the silent revolution going on every day in our midst," some regarded the arrival of the Socialist party, i.e., the Labour Party, a little doubtfully. They thought that if this new party shouted Socialism at the top of its voice its revolutionary overtones might not only penetrate the ears of Liberals and Tories but into the fashionable drawing rooms of distinguished members of the Fabian Society with disturbing effects. To some Fabians it seemed that the thing most likely to retard Socialism, was Socialists. It was this "creeping Socialism" which, from the early battle of ideas, finally emerged victorious. It became the "official Socialism" of the Labour Party.

This Socialism is not a definite conception capable of actual realisation but an ideal to which there is only an imperceptible approximation. On the road to "Socialism" we shall meet many milestones which will tell us how far we have come. We shall not, however, meet any milestone which informs us how far we have to go before the Socialist goal is reached. Like the pilgrims on The Golden Road to Samarkand " . . . we shall go always a little further."

Nevertheless many pioneers of the Labour movement did not view Socialism as a merely recurring decimal of State activity. Many might have mistakenly believed that Nationalisation and various forms of State activity might serve as a means to an end but they did not believe that these things were an end in itself. Thus, Keir Hardie in accepting as he said "State Socialism," despite all its drawbacks, as an evolutionary stage in social development nevertheless held that it was "a preparation for free Communism in which the rule of life would be, from each according to his capacity to each according to his needs." (From Serfdom to Socialism, p. 89).

In fact a cursory glance at Labour literature prior to 1914 reveals sharp differences in outlook between present day Labourites and those of the past. At least many of the earlier ones had a sounder grasp of the essentials of capitalism and saw the alternative to present society as a social whole and not like the present ones as a thing of shreds and patches. One feels that many of the old stalwarts would have been astonished to learn that the Socialist objective is a mixed economy with its "Socialist" sectors and "private enterprise" sectors. Or that the theoretical basis of the new society is that piece of plagiarised Rousseauism, " The Managerial Revolution," preened of its sinister implications in order to fit in to current political requirements.

We may even note the exuberant vitality of the Fabian Fathers as compared with the indecisive and faded outlook of the Fabians unto the second and third generation. In the first Fabian Essays, perhaps the most radical of Fabian writing, the authors not only had very definite ideas about capitalism but a sublime faith in the way they were going to alter it. In the New Fabian Essays (1952) its authors are not only uncertain as to what capitalism actually is but even more uncertain what it is going to turn out to be. According to one of its authors, Mr. R. H. S. Crossman, the Labour Party has lost its way and it seems is not certain of finding it again. Thus the "official and authorised Fabian guide to British capitalism" turns out to be an uncharted voyage of discovery. Having no real knowledge of social navigation the New Fabians are fortified with the belief that this strange and experimental journey will if they go on and on finally get them somewhere—it will, but where?

It is not suggested that some basic change has taken place in the Labour Movement's outlook. In fact old views with new views have been so curiously mixed that it is impossible to separate one from t'other. The significant differences are to be found in the change of mood and sentiment. In the past many in the Labour Movement had at least a vision of an international organised working class transcending national barriers. They believed this was  bound up with the growth of the movement. The advent of a Labour Party to power has had a totally opposite effect. The Labour Governments were inevitably enmeshed in power politics with its concomitant power group notions and its idealogical division of good countries and bad countries. In such circumstances it not only had to nullify the old international views but use its political and industrial influence among workers to actively suppress it. In far off days the Labour Party claimed that its accession to political strength would raise the standard of internationalism to a higher level. Today it lies in the political gutter.

In the past there existed in the Labour Movement a genuine militant sentiment. For many Pacifism was an article of "Labour" faith. By a supreme irony it was "Labour" as the governmental power who not only initiated peace time conscription but the greatest of all peace time rearmament drives. One can be a Pacifist Labour M.P. today advocating total disarmament but it is almost as anachronistic as an atheistic Republican on the Conservative front bench.

Undoubtedly the dynamic of the early Labour Movement was its political faith and vitality. A faith and vitality which succeeded in weaning the political allegiance of millions of workers from the old and powerful political parties of capitalism. Its weakness was rooted in its dualistic attitude. On the one hand it strove to be different from the older parties by its emphasis on social aims whose goal was the suppression of the existing order. On the other it might, and did, become a mass party dedicated to social reforms and was thus irrevocably committed to the assumption that capitalism was capable of indefinite and progressive improvement. From this it followed that their criticism of society took on an ethical rather than economic evaluation. If capitalism was capable of indefinite improvement then the failure of the old parties to have made any worthwhile progress lie in the fact it was administered "by hard faced politicians."—bad men—whereas it would be administered by good men—the Labour Party. Although if the pioneers were able to view present day capitalism they might, in spite of two Labour Governments, still think it was being run by bad men.

In short the Labour Movement failed to see the real nature of the social problem. They failed to see that British capitalism was an interlocked world system with no independent momentum of its own, or that the only way for a profit making system to act consistently is to make profit. In short they saw capitalism from the parochialism of a closed economy without seriously taking into account the internal distortions set up by external stresses and strains. Thus by abstracting from capitalism the concrete features which make it capitalism they proposed to administrate a capitalism which wasn't capitalism.

Moreover the Labour Party in seeking mass support had to attract people who did not want capitalism changed but merely changes in capitalism. From that moment their ideals were not merely hampered but hamstrung. The need for popular support came into conflict with their avowed aims. The Labour Party by thus accepting this society was forced to work for it, not against it. So it repeats the age long story of social reformism the bartering of its beliefs and ideals for votes. It begins by declaring it will not play the game of capitalist politics. It ends by coming to power and accepting all the rules of the game and its youthful dreams become "the insubstantial pageant faded." If in this crazy world, haunted by uncertainty and fear and a neurotic  impulse to self destruction, the Labour Party still has its dreams, then they are of the order of nightmares.
E. W.

Selling the Standard (1982)

From the February 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the three of us turned up on that Saturday afternoon, our usual spot in the pedestrian precinct was taken by two Rubic cube sellers. They'd been there other Saturdays too. They seemed to do quite well but kept having to dodge the police. We never have that trouble. The police seem to go out of their way to turn a blind eye to us, having perhaps decided that selling the Socialist Standard for twenty pence doesn't make us street traders. They couldn't claim we cause an obstruction either. Crowds never gather round us.

Moving a bit further along, we leaned our placards against the wall of the flower bed in the middle of the precinct. "LEFT WING, NO! - RIGHT WING, NO! - SOCIALISM, YES! - READ THE SOCIALIST STANDARD", one of the placards says. "SOCIALISM: WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO GET IT", reads another. They're a bit crude but they do catch people's eye. Some stop for a closer look. Our calls of "Socialist Standard", "The Case for World Socialism" and "Find out about Socialism" also attract people's attention. But, after an instant's curiosity, most of them quickly look away or suddenly become absorbed in thought in case you're going to approach them.

We stand for ten minutes without selling a single one or having a word with a soul. Then we each have a buyer or two. An enquirer wants to know what it's all about. He puts all the usual objections (what about human nature; is there enough to go round; how are you going to convince people?) and, to be quite frank, gets all the usual answers. He looks half convinced, but not enough to part with twenty pence. He agrees to take a back copy for free. A small inoffensive looking man, probably in his late sixties, has also been showing an interest, but then he takes us by surprise. "Commie bastards", he shouts. "I was with Mosley in the thirties. Hitler had the right idea. When we get to power, there won't be enough wood for gallows for bastards like you." A bit chilling, but let him rave.

Another fifteen-minute lull with the odd Standard sold, the odd friendly exchange with passing wits, and then I see a neighbour. We're not close enough ever to have talked politics. I'm a bit embarassed, but hope he'll stop, have a chat and buy one. He doesn't. He pretends not to see me. Hurries by. He's more embarrassed than I am. It's not the first time it's happened. 

Then drama. A heavily made up girl of indeterminate age approaches Bill and looks closely at the front cover of the Standards he's displaying ("AGAINST ALL WAR", it says in big letters). She snatches one out of his hand. "Against war. I'll show you who's against war", she yells and crumples it up. Bill recovers from being startled, snatches it back but doesn't know what to do next. "Peace man", she says putting up her hand and walks off. "You'll have to forgive me", she shouts looking back. "I'm a 35-year-old hippie." Bill says she smelt strongly of drink. Whatever the case, she's got problems, even more than most of capitalism's wage slaves.

The afternoon wears on. Sales aren't going too badly. We're told to get back to Russia a few times - as usual. After an hour, we go for our usual cup of tea. Our pitch is right outside the Co-op and they've got a cafeteria in the basement. When we get back twenty minutes later, a Christian group has started up further along. They've got guitars, placards and a man on a platform, and they've gathered quite a crowd. They're definitely obstructing, but they know they won't be moved on. Religion is still very much a "respectable" thing to be selling.

We get the Standards out again and right away an enthusiastic young fellow buys one from Jack. "You're the ones who want to get rid of money, aren't you?", he says briskly, "I'll say one thing for you. You are different." It's nice for once not to be confused with so many other so-called "socialists". I turn round and get handed twenty pence by a young woman. "I'll have one", she says, "I'm already converted". "Converted", I plead. "Please don't use that word. It makes us sound religious. Say 'convinced' or something", why doesn't she join? Still, "converted" workers make a change from hostile or indifferent ones.

Now it's the turn of the Left. Four lads. They sell their stuff round about the same place on Saturday mornings. I always wonder whether they sell more papers than we do. I stood watching them once and was pleased to see that they didn't seem to be selling any. Mind you, the ferocious headlines they go in for ("Police Liars", "Union Traitors", "Bash the Bosses",) must be a terrific off-putter. They stop and give us the usual left-wing stuff about "getting in among the workers" and "supporting progressive forces". You ask them whether they support the abolition of the wage system and they say yes -  they've got to. But when you ask them why that demand never appears in their newspaper, they call you "sectarian", refuse a free back copy and walk off. 

It's getting near four o'clock. We decide to pack up. We've sold a few more than usual - probably because of the good front cover. It's the inside that counts of course, but a lot of people will never see what's inside unless there's something to persuade them to buy the journal in the first place. The Rubic cube men are still there. They've been quite a nuisance because they shout louder than we do. But with a bit of luck we won't see much more of them. With the cube craze nearly over they've already knocked their prices down from £3 to £1. I suppose they'd argue that their need is greater than ours. They actually got arrested a couple of weeks ago and taken to court. Fined £110, the local paper said. They pleaded they were unemployed and had families to support. You've certainly got to be pretty desperate to try doing that for a living. And then getting arrested on top of it!

I suppose our selling the Standard must seem undignified to a lot of people. I don't find it so. Oddly enough, I quite enjoy it. That's probably because it's not to earn money. But it's also because I find helping to spread socialist ideas as a genuinely worthwhile thing to do. And if more people did it, the more socialist ideas would spread.
Howard Moss


Should the Left consider Socialism? (2005)

From the February 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The question arises through a controversy in my local newspaper which started with a letter headed “Ireland breeds strange brand of socialists”.  The writer alludes to Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, both of whom claim socialist credentials, and argues that both are sectarian organisations – in the politico-religious sense of that term. As evidence, the anonymous writer cites the fact that the two organisations concerned are overwhelmingly Catholic in membership and, thus, “unlike other socialists throughout the world” and leftist parties and governments, they are unable to make pronouncements and formulate policies concerning abortion, IVF screening, stem cell research and euthanasia.

Whatever might be said about the accuracy or otherwise of this view, it reflects the fact that ‘the Left’ in its multifarious facets is usually associated with ubiquitously ‘progressive’ causes, which, whatever their merits, do not amount to socialism. Factually, both ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ attitudes to social or ethical issues are focused on the question of how the existing form of society, capitalism, should deal with such questions.  What is more, support for and opposition to such issues is rarely the preserve of a particular political tendency.

That of course is not true of the Left’s claim on socialism. Here there is general approbation within the diverse organisations of the Left: their common objective is “socialism”. The problem is that socialism has become simply an indivisible but undefined catchword. Ask the question, “What is socialism?” and you get a multiplicity of answers. As far as the public-at-large is concerned, it is probably true to say that it really does accept the idea that socialism is what the Labour Party does when in office. 

That raises more questions than it answers. Currently, what Labour is doing in office is breaking the sacred tenets of what earlier Labour governments did, much to the ire of Old Labour supporters. Back at its roots, when the Labour Representation Committee became the British Labour Party, in 1906, Labour was truly “a broad church”. Its backbone was the Trade Unions seeking political clout for workers then, as now, living within capitalism.  Additionally, there were the myriad interests of supporters of many commonly regarded ‘progressive’ causes. These, probably the numerically superior members of the new party, saw in Labour the means to redress problems or advance causes within the framework of capitalist society.

To suggest today to a member of New or Old Labour that socialism involves the abolition of the wages system, and the production of goods and services solely for use in a world of common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production, would surely invite derision. But, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries such a definition would not have raised an eyebrow within the ranks of those who regarded themselves as socialists.  What did divide them was the means by which socialism could be obtained. 

On one side of that division were those who claimed that, because socialism could only be established on a foundation of human co-operation, its achievement necessitated democratic political action to bring about a conscious majority dedicated to its achievement.  Given that majority, delegates could then be elected to parliament mandated to abolishing the legal structures of capitalism and formally empowering the establishment of socialism.

But others long-fingered socialism on the grounds that the achievement of a majority would take too long.  Instead, this element opted for a policy of immediate demands aimed at the amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism and gradually changing that system by a process of piecemeal reforms until over a period capitalism would evolve into socialism. How has this policy fared?

There have been nine Labour governments, covering seven periods of Labour rule, since the party emerged out of the Labour Representation Committee. Central to Labour’s programme from the beginning up to the mid-1960’s was a programme of nationalisation of basic industries. But it wasn’t until the period of the all-party government of WW2 that aspirations of general social reform directly affecting the citizen were firmed up in the all-party report drafted by the Liberal peer, Lord Beveridge. It was another Liberal, John Maynard Keynes, who gifted Labour what it perceived to be a certain economic formula for successfully underwriting Beveridge’s “Welfare State”.
          
It fell to Attlee’s Labour government in the aftermath of the war to introduce the legislation establishing the various schemes of social welfare agreed by the wartime coalition government.  In each instance the case for the various reforms was argued on the logic of capitalist efficiency and control. Indeed, rather than presenting a case for the abolition of poverty, the new schemes of social welfare were effectively structured to deal with the in-built and permanent nature of poverty within capitalism.

That said, it would be churlish not to recognise the merit in, for example, the National Health Service.  True, it was presented as, and intended to be, more efficient than the myriad disorganised group and panel schemes then prevailing but, at the outset especially, when it provided wholly free health care, it undoubtedly proved a boon to many people. Ironically, it was the Labour Party that soon after the establishment of the NHS first legislated for prescription charges. The service has undergone constant erosion and its decline would support the argument that capitalism cannot sustain meaningful reform.

Today, the excitement, the fervour and the hope that the early Labour Party engendered has gone and there can be no challenge to the assertion that it is a party of capitalism.  Factually, Labour’s claim to the support of the working class is based, and can only be based, on the argument that they run the affairs of capitalism better than their opponents.  That may or may not be true but it is a far cry from the early argument that the problems of society arose from the nature of its economic system and not the manner of running that system.

In fact ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are today just points on the administrative spectrum of capitalism, and while the lot of the working class has advanced materially, due to factors unconnected with the policies of the Left, real poverty, mere want and growing insecurity and fear still plague the land.  The rotten values of “yours” and “mine” have advanced social alienation and fuelled crime and violence while the world outside has become immeasurably more frightening and hostile to the values that motivated many in the early Labour Party. The Labour Party has become a fertile field for careerists many of whom share the contempt of their competitor colleagues in the Tory Party and ‘the business community’ for the working class, the real wealth-producers.

And what contribution has Old Labour and the Left in general to the dilemma of a working class robbed now of even hope?  Well... get back to the policies of Old Labour. But the problems of today are the logical result of pursuing the notion that capitalism, a system based on the exploitation of the working class, could by means of political alchemy be made to function in the interests of the working class.

One can understand the thinking of the early Labour reformers; they had what they believed was a good theory, but history has now demonstrated that their theory was built more on hope than a knowledge of the real nature of either capitalism or socialism. The so-called extreme Left might agree: Yes, let’s get back to socialism, they will say.  But it is a political conjuring trick for when they set out their stall they simply offer a plethora of the old, failed reforms.  They will talk about socialism but, as though it was a family skeleton, they will not tell you what socialism is.  Not that they know what it is, for just like the liberal Left they would treat with surprised derision Marx’s advice to the working class to remove from its banners the conservative slogan of a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” and inscribe instead “Abolition of the wages system!”.

Should the Left consider socialism, rather than arguing that reform of some aspect of capitalism will prove attractive to the working class and is worthy of struggle? If so, then how good is the argument for promoting socialism?  Well, for a start, it is the only system of social organisation that can underwrite real democracy; it is the only means by which poverty in all its aspects, from mere want to Third World syndrome, can be banished; it is the only way by  which we can eliminate those awful conflicts of interest that necessitate armaments and cause wars; it is a compelling and urgent answer  to capitalism’s appalling destruction of the ecosphere. 

Finally, it can be the restoration of hope to a sick, visionless humanity and a challenge to the terrifying threat of bourgeois liberal “philosophers” who saw in the squalid demise of authoritarian state-capitalism in Eastern Europe the end of history and the spectre of eternal capitalism.  

Surely that is enough to gain genuine socialism a hearing, to open debate and start the process of consideration.
Richard Montague

The economics of capitalism (1980)

From the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx spent a lifetime studying capitalism, its origins and development, its economic laws and the consequences of its operations. It led him to conclude that capitalism is only a stage in human history and that its replacement by socialism is in the interest of the working class, who are the vast majority of capitalism's population.

Marx's work is ignored or rejected not only by the capitalists but also, so far, by the great majority of the working class. British workers' continued support for capitalism rests on one or other of the two great delusions of the present day—the present Tory delusion that capitalism will work smoothly and for the benefit of all if only government intervention is reduced, and the equally fatuous delusion of the Labour Party and trade unions that prosperity will be achieved by more government intervention.

Both groups proclaim that it is possible under capitalism to abolish unemployment or reduce it permanently to very low levels, and that state capitalism (nationalisation) is significantly different from private capitalism. Indeed both groups falsely describe state capitalism as socialism.

About the basic structure of capitalism some facts are not seriously in doubt. Fifty years ago a supporter of capitalism, Professor Edwin Cannan, outlined it as follows:
"The greater part of industry and property is immediately controlled by persons and institutions whose object is to make a profit on their capital . . . the majority of workers work as they are directed to work by persons and bodies of persons who employ them in order to make a profit by getting more than they pay for all expenses, and they reckon their profit as a percentage of their capital. The greater part of property is also in the hands of such persons and institutions."
On the last aspect, the ownership of property, the government appointed Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth found that in 1976 the richest ten per cent owned 61 per cent of wealth and the poorest 80 per cent only 22 per cent.

When Marx described profit making as "exploitation" he was not using the term in the restricted popular meaning of excessive profit or profit obtained by paying very low wages. For him all profit is  obtained by exploitation. Nearly all the wealth annually produced in this country is the result of the labour of workers. In the view of employers and most workers (and of Professor Cannan) workers are paid for all the work they do in the wages or salary they receive. Marx showed that this is a fallacy. What workers sell to employers is not their labour but their mental and physical energies, their "labour power". The distinction is vital.

The employer, having bought the workers' labour power for an hour, a day or a week sets them to work in order to make a profit out of it. This the employer is able to do because in each period of employment labour power has the unique quality of being able to produce a value greater than its own value. In, say, a five day week workers might be working for three days to produce the equivalent of their wages and working for the two more days producing a surplus, what Marx called surplus value. This is the process of exploitation.

To say that labour power has a value to bring it into line with all other commodities produced by the workers for the capitalists, in accordance with Marx's Labour Theory of Value. If, in given conditions of production, ten hours of labour are needed on average to produce one commodity and twenty hours for another, the value of the latter will be double the value of the former. For this purpose skilled labour counts as a multiple of less skilled labour, "so that a smaller quantity of skilled labour is equal to a larger quantity of simple labour".

The value of labour power, skilled and unskilled, like that of other commodities, is determined by the quantity of labour needed to produce it, that is the labour needed to maintain workers and their families.
"A certain mass of necessities must be consumed for a man to grow up and maintain his life. But the man, like the machine, will wear out and must be replaced by another man. Beside the mass of necessities required for his own maintenance, he wants another amount of necessaries to bring up a certain quota of children that are to replace him in the labour market and to perpetuate the race of labourers. Moreover to develop his labouring power, and acquire a given skill, another amount of values must be spent."
(Marx, Value, Price and Profit, Chapter 7.)
The value of labour power does not have to be the bare physical minimum of existence and it is not a fixed amount. It can rise or fall, depending on whether conditions are relatively favourable or unfavourable for workers, through union organisation, to maintain or improve wages. Employers resist wage claims because at any given time the higher the wage the smaller the profit.

Profit comes out of surplus value but if capitalists rent land from landowners or use borrowed money they have to surrender part of surplus value as rent or interest before arriving at the profit on their capital.

It should be noted that the creation of value and surplus value takes place only in the sphere of the production of commodities. There are millions of workers outside that sphere, in finance, commerce, insurance, administration. The value of their labour power and the wages or salaries they receive are subject to the same conditions as the wages of workers in the sphere of production.

In the continuous struggle over the amount of wages and salaries the outcome "resolves itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants" (Marx, Value, Price and Profit, Chapter 14). An approximate indication of the position for the year 1978 is shown by official figures which gave £83,372m. as the wages and salaries of some 23 million workers and £22,475m. as the gross trading profits of companies and the surpluses of the nationalised industries.

The problems of the capitalists do not end when the workers have produced commodities. The next step is that the commodities have to be sold in order that the profit can be realised. As Marx showed, capitalism goes through "a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, overproduction, crisis and stagnation", and "except in the periods of prosperity, there wages between the capitalists the most furious combat for the share of each in the markets".

The largest share of the market goes to the capitalist with the cheapest product and capitalists therefore are always seeking ways of reducing the amount of labour needed to produce a given commodity, notably by installing labour saving machinery. So capitalism is always creating unemployment, which, in periods of depression rises to peak levels. At these times, as with the present when 1.5 million are unemployed, masses of workers are out of work because the capitalists cannot make a profit by employing them.

All non-Marxist economists treat this as evidence that something has gone wrong and that it could be remedied by a different government policy. Like an editorial in the Financial Weekly (29 February) which says of the Tory government: "Economic policies that have already brought 1½ million unemployed and could push the figure up to 2 million must be wrong". Nothing has "gone wrong": it is simply the way capitalism works, in accordance with its own economic laws, and there is no government policy which could materially alter it.

The last Labour government, with its belief that unemployment can be abolished by increasing government expenditure, vastly increased that expenditure but saw unemployment double to 1,600,000 in 1977.

The Tory government, with its opposite policy of reducing government expenditure is committed also to less government borrowing, less dependence on income tax and more dependence on indirect taxes like VAT, less nationalisation, no recourse to an incomes policy to hold down wages and to weakening the unions by amending trade union law. Every one of these conditions existed in 19th Century capitalism, but it culminated in what was known as the Great Depression, which began in 1874 and lasted for twenty years. (It is ironical that Tory ministers, who have themselves used the argument that whatever validity Marxian economics had in the 19th Century no longer applies because capitalism now is different, should themselves be recreating the conditions of 19th Century capitalism.)

As regards the Labour Party belief that state capitalism (nationalisation) is different from private company capitalism it is only necessary to look at the strikes in those industries and the thousands of redundancies to see how hollow this is. All the nationalisation Acts required the Boards to operate so that, "taking one year with another", they produce a surplus. In recent years Labour and Tory governments have laid down profit rates on capital invested for each nationalised industry (for the Postal Service a profit rate on turnover).

To complete Marx's analysis of capitalism it is necessary to consider briefly his exhaustive treatment of the relation of prices of commodities to their values. He recognised that in developing capitalism commodities rarely sell at their value. Apart from supply and demand fluctuations of prices, and the effect of monopolies, he showed that, as it is put by Kautsky in his Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx (p. 89)
"The prices of most commodities permanently deviate from their values, in as much as the prices of one-half of those commodities are permanently as much below their values as those of the other half are above them."
But the whole of this, including the concept of the tendency to an equal rate of profit on each £1000 of industrial and commercial capital rests fully on Marx's Labour Theory of Value.
Edgar Hardcastle