Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Capitalism will not collapse (2014)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘NOT EVEN CLIMATE CHANGE WILL KILL OFF CAPITALISM. AS LONG AS THE CONDITIONS FOR INVESTMENT AND PROFIT REMAIN, THE SYSTEM WILL ADAPT. WHICH IS WHY WE NEED A REVOLUTION.’ This is not a headline from the Socialist Standard but the introduction to an article in the Guardian (6 March) by Razmig Keucheyan which does indeed put forward an argument similar to ours about not expecting capitalism to collapse of its own accord, in this case from an ecological rather than an economic crisis.
Keucheyan wrote of ‘ a worryingly widespread belief in left-wing circles that capitalism will not survive the environmental crisis’ and went on:
‘ The system, so the story goes, has reached its absolute limits: without natural resources – oil among them – it can't function, and these resources are fast depleting; the growing number of ecological disasters will increase the cost of maintaining infrastructures to unsustainable levels; and the impact of a changing climate on food prices will induce riots that will make societies ungovernable. The beauty of catastrophism, today as in the past, is that if the system is to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, the weakness of the left ceases to be a problem. The end of capitalism takes the form of suicide rather than murder. So the absence of a murderer – that is, an organised revolutionary movement – doesn't really matter any more.’
We can add that, supposing the environmental catastrophists were right and capitalism did collapse from an ecological crisis, the outcome would not be socialism. In the absence of a strong socialist movement the outcome would be a social regression to the sort of dystopia portrayed in disaster films. So, there would still be a need to build up a movement consciously aiming to replace capitalism with socialism. In fact it would be more urgent than it already is.
Keucheyan counters ecological catastrophism by arguing that capitalism can adapt to the environmental crisis to the extent that this opens up profit-making opportunities, giving as examples ‘militarisation’ (investment in producing arms to defend or acquire diminishing resources) and ‘financialisation’ (in particular insurance against catastrophes). Others, which he didn’t mention, would be investment in technologies to reduce CO2 emissions or in developing alternative energy sources to burning fossil fuels.
This is not to say that capitalism is capable of solving the environmental crisis, but merely that it will be able to adapt to it and make profits from attempts to mitigate it. Saying this can be interpreted as saying that capitalism is not as bad as the ‘catastrophists’ claim. To a certain extent this is true. Capitalist governments have intervened since its inception to prevent the unbridled pursuit of private profit from harming the general capitalist interest. A large section of Marx’s Capital is devoted to describing the struggle for Factory Acts which the government eventually adopted to prevent employers driving workers into the ground and so threatening future generations of wealth- and profit-producing workers.
A modern example would be the Clean Air Act of 1956 which ended London’s notorious smogs. So capitalism is capable of adapting to environmental problems, even if it waits till the last moment (when overall profitability is threatened) and risks doing too little too late. Not that this makes capitalism any more acceptable.
In any event, capitalism will not collapse of its own accord. It will have to be done to death by conscious, majority political action.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Has Bevan Sold the Pass? (1957)

From the November 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

A lot of people who have for years worshipped Aneurin Bevan have now turned against their hero because of his support for the H-Bomb at the Labour Party Conference. Bevan says that he is as strongly against the bomb as ever he was and that his speech and vote at Brighton (decided on "after a lot of agonising thinking"), were only designed to find "the most effective way of getting the damned thing destroyed": but this a bit too subtle for those who have passionately believed that Bevan was hundred per cent against the bomb and now find that he isn't.

But actually the disgruntled Bevanites have little ground for complaint for, as it happens, Bevan has changed his politics hardly at all. If any deception has been carried out it is their own self-deception; an obstinate refusal to take note of that Bevan has for years been saying and doing.

If a few of them are genuine pacifists who resolutely refuse to support armaments or war, they are fully entitled to be opposed to Bevan who supported World War II and the Korean War, and conscription and re-armament, but they cannot pretend that Bevan has deceived them about his record of war-supporting.

With others the revulsion of feeling may appear to be more soundly based, but again it will not stand examination. They take the view (like Bevan) that armaments are necessary and that war is sometimes unavoidable and must be supported no matter what the cost in death and destruction. They reject the Socialist view that war arises from capitalism and can only be got rid of by establishing Socialism. They can stomach it all, the millions of dead and maimed, the trench warfare, machine guns and artillery, the bombing raids, the napalm and even the A-Bomb—but the H-Bomb. No! The H-Bomb, they say is horrible, unthinkable, and on account of it they will destroy their beloved reader, Bevan. But they have no serious ground for indignation with Bevan on this count, for he long ago made it clear that in his view he and others supported the second World War and the Labour Government of 1945-51 have no moral or logical case against the H-Bomb.

Writing in the News Chronicle (9/3/1955) he said :-
"Those of us who concurred in the making of the atom bomb and tolerated the saturation bombing of the last war have no moral or logical case against the hydrogen bomb. All three are methods and weapons of imprecision, that is, it is known they will destroy the civilian population and all the civil installations of the enemy."
He went on to admit that the addition of the H-Bomb to the weapons of war would only be "carrying the logic of our past behaviour to its furthermost extremities" but put his own view that on practical grounds every effort should be made to get international agreement against the bomb. It is hard to see how those of his followers who swallowed all the other horrors of war making can justifiably wax indignant now because of a minute shift in Bevan's policy. Yet an irate reader of Tribune can write that Bevan's action has left "a gaping hole" in all the principles of the Socialist rank and file: "The tender, compassionate heart of our Socialism has been torn out and replaced with a dessicated calculating machine." (Tribune, 11/10/57).

Socialists, of course, never had any confidence in Bevan, or believed for one moment that he adhered to or ever had any understanding of Socialist principles; and, nobody with Socialist principles would have supported him or the Labour Government or the wars of capitalism that that government had a hand in.

But then Socialists do not believe in leadership, the danger and uselessness of which are well shown by the Bevanite movement. If the Bevanites had been Socialists they would have had their own clean clear conviction that Socialists do not take on the administration of capitalism, and they would, therefore, never have supported the Labour Government. They would have known that the government that runs capitalism has all to do all the obnoxious things that capitalism requires of them, including the waging of war. They would have seen the absurdity of putting a Labour Government in charge of British capitalism and of its war-machine with a mandate to keep it going and of then demanding of them that they behave as Socialists.

But the Bevanites were not and are not Socialists, they were everything and nothing, a motley collection of individuals united only by the leader's spell-bending oratory:-
"The Communist, the pacifist, the believer in the innate virtue of the Soviet State, the hater of American 'capitalism,' the general do-gooder," all see something of themselves reflected in the glowing rhetoric of Mr. Bevan." - (Manchester Guardian, 17/3/55.)    
Well, they have got what they asked for; they laboured to feed his vanity and build his reputation, and now he doesn't much mind what they do. Will it cure them? That remains to be seen, but there is no evidence yet that they have learned the uselessness of  leadership for the establishment of Socialism.

It might help them on their way to getting a better understanding if they noted that Bevan, whom they think has played them false, had his own ideas on leadership. The leader of the Labour Party ought to be, he said, not someone from "the top drawer of society" (meaning, presumably, Attlee and Gaitskell), but should be drawn "from those who had spent their lives in the Labour and Trade Union movement, and who not only understood Socialism with their heads, but knew it with their hearts." (Manchester Guardian, 18/6/51). And it all ends with the heart of Bevan and the head of Gaitskell and Attlee, uniting as one on the Labour Party's H-bomb policy. So little difference does the kind of leader make, and so necessary is it that the workers should learn to think for themselves and not leave their thinking to leaders. 
Edgar Hardcastle


Embarrassing Marx (2005)

Book Review from the January 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx and Anglo-Russian Relations and Other Writings.  By D. B. Riazanov. Francis Boutle Publishers, 2003, £10.

Marx’s views on the Russia of his day have, to be frank, always been a bit of an embarrassment. Not that they cannot be explained, and even to a certain extent understood, in their historical context, but it is still rather hard to take from the pen of Marx arguments about Russian Tsarism wanting, like Genghis Khan, to conquer the world and that it had been plotting to do so for centuries or talk of a threat to Europe of “Mongol rule” and “Eastern barbarism”, let alone constant calls for war against Russia. This was unacceptable even in Marx’s day, and we have said so on many occasions.

The historical context was that, for most of the 19th century, capitalist economic and particularly political forms were not all that securely established in continental Europe where the army of Tsarist Russia was a constant threat to them. This led Marx and other revolutionary democrats to regard Russia as the main enemy, to be contained and countered. In the 1850s when Marx was earning a precarious living as a journalist, some of the articles for the New York Tribune putting an anti-Russia position came to the attention of David Urquhart, a former Tory MP and Russophobe. Urquhart encouraged Marx to write more in the same vein published them in his papers which in 1857 he republished as a pamphlet entitled Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century, republished in 1899 as The Secretary  Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century. In these Marx tried to show how British foreign policy under the Whigs had always been pro-Russia. He also ventured some ideas on the origin of Tsarism and on Russian history.

In a special supplement to Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the German Social Democratic Party, in 1909, the Russian Social-Democrat David Riazanov analysed in detail Marx’s theories of Russian history and of British foreign policy towards Russia and, respectfully, argued that they were largely mistaken. This lengthy article makes up three-quarters of this 200-page book (the rest being two other pre-WWI articles by Riazanov, on Marx and Engels on the Polish Question - they wanted an independent Poland so there would be a buffer between Russia and Europe - and on the Balkans). It is well worth reading as an application of the materialist conception of history to Anglo-Russian relations from the 16th century onwards.

Riazanov in fact applies this better than Marx did in this instance, bringing out the importance of changing trade conditions which Marx had neglected in favour of purely political considerations. Riazanov’s article reflected a growing understanding amongst second-generation Marxists that the situation regarding Russia had changed since Marx’s day in that Tsarist Russia was no longer capable of being “the gendarme of Europe” but was now itself threatened by overthrow by internal forces; and that therefore it was no longer the main enemy. Even so, those members of the German Social Democratic Party who backed their government in WWI still quoted Marx’s anti-Russia stand as a justification for their position.

At the time Riazanov wrote this work he was not a member of  Lenin’s Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democrats but he did join the Bolshevik Party in July 1917. He became the leading Marx-scholar of his day, setting up the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1921 to track down and publish the collective works of Marx and Engels. He was dismissed from this by Stalin in 1931 and sent into internal exile. During the purges he was arrested and shot in 1938. 
Adam Buick

All Things Bright and Beautiful? (2014)

The Halo Halo! Column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The rich man in his castle the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate’.

Remember having to sing that during school assemblies? It was before schools discreetly dropped the verse because, to those of us whose estate was more likely to have been a council one than an ancestral mansion with a few hundred acres of land, it pointed out where God’s political sympathies lie just a bit too bluntly.
Ah, the good old days. The Church of England wasn’t known as ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’ for nothing and they could be honest about their views on the place of the working class. 
But things change. These days, just as in any other business, the old firm of Church of England Ltd has stiff competition, and to retain its share of the market has had to update and improve its public image. And the competition to recruit gullible believers has never been fiercer. While the C of E now attract smaller and smaller congregations, and thus smaller collection plates, the ‘happy-clappy’ born-again, and the born-yesterday brands are recruiting hard and forging ahead. And they frequently need plastic buckets for their collections.
So once the rumours that poverty and food banks do actually exist in working class Britain finally penetrated Lambeth Palace, and it dawned on them that unlike other banks, these don’t pay out millions in bonuses to their bosses every year, the bishops have swooped into action. Prodded on perhaps by stories in the press such as ‘Woman in coma told to find work by DWP’ (Independent, 28 February) and ‘Vulnerable man starved to death after cut to benefits’ (Guardian, 1 March) they have come flying to the rescue of the poor like a heavenly host of dog-collared Batman and Robins.
They’re quite cross too, and have told David Cameron that ‘We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefits system’. And to show they mean business they’ve launched an ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign. This involves asking volunteers to join them for a ‘National Day of Fasting’ on 4 April and, as an added attraction, includes a couple of vicars announcing that they would only be taking fruit juice and water for 40 days. That will certainly give Cameron and Co something to think about.
Is the Halo Halo column being a bit churlish here perhaps, do you think? This attack by the government on the poorest in society is one of the most vicious for some time and, as the bishops point out, the fact that in the world’s seventh richest country thousands are forced to rely on food banks, 5,500 have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition since last Easter, and numerous single mothers are skipping meals to enable them to feed their children is nothing short of scandalous.
The problem is that religious do-gooder events are no answer to the problem. Thousands are already fasting full time – because they don’t have any choice. Instead of stunts where vicars pretend to go hungry, or Tory MPs pretend to live (for a couple of days) on fifty quid a week to show that it can be done, the only solution is conscious class action against the system which causes the problem.
The bishops may be outraged by unemployment and poverty, and rant on about loan sharks, but what the hell do they expect? That’s capitalism for you. And the Church of England itself holds investments of about £5.2 billion in capitalist ventures – which included, as came to light last July, a hefty sum invested in Wonga, the payday loan outfit. Political virgins they may be, but how do they think the profits on their investments are generated?
Patronising the poor with charity stunts is insulting and useless. Instead of skipping your corn flakes for Jesus, we urge all members of the working class get involved in the class struggle to end this degrading and unnecessary nightmare.

Mission Statement (2014)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Interest was pricked recently in socialist circles by a Guardian environmental blog report of a NASA-funded study suggesting that a ‘perfect storm’ of five economic and environmental factors, namely population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy,  were leading to the imminent collapse of industrial civilisation (‘Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?’, Guardian Online, 14 March). According to the Guardian’s Earth Insight blog, the study is funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is the product of a cross-disciplinary team of natural and social scientists based at the University of Maryland (UMD). Their argument is that there is a 5000 year history of civilisation collapses and that they all have two crucial and related factors in common, the ‘stretching of resources due to the strain on the ecological carrying capacity’ (also key in Jared Diamond’s 2005 study Collapse) and, somewhat more controversially to anyone but socialists, the ‘economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or ‘commoners’)[poor]’.
Reading eerily like a Socialist Standard editorial, the study states that ‘... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.’ Technology won’t help, the study says, because net consumption will simply rise to match net increased output. Neither will appeals to those elites themselves be any use, because their monopoly on wealth and resources means that they are protected from the ‘detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners’ with the result that they blindly continue their policy of ‘business as usual’. This I’m-alright-Jack mentality, argues the study, is why ‘historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory.’ But even where elites bother to address these problems at all, they tend to oppose any conclusion requiring fundamental structural change in society and instead ‘point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing.’
It’s worth distinguishing between collapse as envisaged here and two other kinds of collapse as described by ecologists and left-wingers. Ecological collapse, where the world simply dies, is an extreme and largely nonsensical idea. It’s also unlikely that humans could damage the world so badly that it became uninhabitable to humans. The collapse of capitalism through its own internal contradictions,  a kind of Get-out-of-capitalism-free card devoutly wished for by some on the left, is equally unlikely and anyway undesirable (see Cooking the Books, page 18). This study describes scenarios which are more plausible because they are consistent with evidence from historical events. In its view, it is not so much nature which fails but workers, through catastrophic immiseration: ‘the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this [possible scenario] is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.’
The two key solutions in the study, as quoted in the blog article, are as follows: ‘Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.’ Since the study has already identified the fact that all the wealth and power are in the hands of elites who don’t listen to reason, the likelihood of achieving either of these aims through political reform of capitalism stands at zero. That being the case, the logical conclusion to draw is that the global elites must be forcibly dispossessed and overthrown along with the capitalist system which placed them in power.
Is budget-strapped NASA really promoting global socialist revolution? It hardly seems likely. It’s not so far been possible to obtain a copy of the study, and investigation of the sources behind the story has proved frustrating. A search of NASA’s website reveals no trace of any such study. Ditto the Goddard Space Centre. Apart from a brief synopsis of a seminar given by the named lead researcher last October, there is also no report offered by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), based at UMD and supposedly where the study originates. The researcher is a bona fide graduate student whose PhD studies may well be funded in some part by Goddard, and his cross-disciplinary colleagues are mostly respectable Maryland professors of public policy, hydrology, geography, meteorology and a weird hybrid, ‘econophysics’. However the study is set to be published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecological Economics, which has had a rocky history and some credibility issues, as has the field of ecological economics in general. According to its current Wikipedia entry the journal has lost focus on its core field and now ‘seems to accept anything to do with the environment and economics from any field’.
Hard to fathom too is the role of the Guardian journalist behind this scoop, Dr Nafeez Ahmed, whose by-line bills him as executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD). Apart from a member page entry on the Stanford University MAHB website (Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere) which describes IPRD as a London-based ‘voluntary global collective of specialist scholars, scientists, and analysts, working in different fields of the social and physical sciences’, this Institute appears to exist in name only, with a web address that doesn’t work. Dr Ahmed is also the author of a 2011 book, The Crisis of Civilization, whose main thrust seems if not identical to that of the UMD study then along very similar lines (see review of this in Socialist Standard, February 2011). He advocates certain key resources like energy and water being placed in a ‘global Commons’ which is immune from monopolisation by any elite. This is encouraging, but then why not all resources? He argues for ‘more equal access’ but then why not just ‘equal access’? Disappointingly the agent of much of this redistribution is, he proposes, banks, an idea which shows that even would-be revolutionary thinkers just can’t let go of capitalist institutions no matter how hard they try. It turns out that Dr Ahmed also has a day job as chief research officer for the London-based PR company Unitas, which lists among its services ‘media positioning’ and ‘pre-empting negative media coverage’. This prompts a number of wild speculations. One is that the research team have adopted the increasingly common but dubious practice among scientists of engaging a PR firm to ‘spin’ their study in the popular press prior to academic publication, either for simple promotional purposes or to offset anticipated hostile reactions. Another is that the Maryland team and the Institute are in cahoots, or even one and the same, while preferring to appear as objectively independent for purposes of academic credibility. As we go to press enquiries to Dr Ahmed and to the lead researcher of the Maryland team have not met with any response.
It would be good to know for sure whether NASA is genuinely behind this, even indirectly. It certainly ought to be. NASA gives itself a bold strapline: Earth. Your Future. Our Mission. So in among its studies of hurricanes, sinkholes, salt and the anatomy of a raindrop it really ought to find space for any serious study that suggests Earth has no future unless the mission parameters change drastically.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Aussie Rules (2014)

The Material World Column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is ironic that Australia, a nation built on immigration, enforces a strict policy upon newcomers, particularly those from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where it had a direct hand in causing much of the refugee problem. A far different position from a more welcoming attitude when thousands of Vietnamese Boat People were provided a safe haven.

It is equally incongruous that a government should take such pride in the effectiveness of its draconian approach that it declines to even disclose information and would censure the Australian media network ABC for not toeing the line with the appropriate subservience.

A convicted people-smuggler, serving a jail sentence in Indonesia, is in no doubt that he was assisting genuine political refugees and not as the Australian governments would prefer to describe them, economic refugees.
‘Of course they are genuine, of course. There are too many target killings, too many killings in [some countries]. They have no choice but to run. People fear for their lives’ (
Ninety percent of Australia's asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees. The majority of them have experienced trauma from war, violence or the loss of loved ones. Many are victims of gross human rights violations or torture.

Indonesia's foreign minister has called Australia's policy to tow migrant boats back into Indonesian waters inhumane. Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa spoke after reports of a boat carrying 34 people from four countries was found drifting ashore in West Java.
‘Can such an [Australian Prime Minister Tony] Abbott administration policy be called the policy of a government that upholds human rights and humanity?’ he was quoted as saying (
Australia has established off-shore detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, run by G4S private security. These are token sovereign countries which are economically and politically dependent upon Australia and have little choice but to oblige their powerful neighbour. Instead of finding refuge in Australia, those who arrive by boat are sent to Pacific island detention centres, with little chance of resettlement in Australia. The most recent government figures available put the number of people in immigration detention facilities offshore and in Australia at 6,101, including 900 children. Australia's Human Rights Commission has announced an inquiry into the mandatory detention of children seeking asylum.
‘These are children that, among other things, have been denied freedom of movement, many of whom are spending important developmental years of their lives living behind wire in highly stressful environments.’ AHRC President Professor Gillian Triggs said. Prof Triggs highlighted a lack of co-operation from the immigration department. ‘I think I'd have to say over the last few months, we've had minimal co-operation in relation to the kinds of details that I need to know, particularly mental health, self-harm and the processes for those that are transferred,’ she said (
‘Asylum seekers are being held in extremely cramped compounds in stifling heat, while being denied sufficient water and medical help,’ Amnesty International Australia's spokesperson Graeme McGregor said, adding that they were ‘prison-like conditions.’
Human Rights Watch, in its 2014 report, said Australia had damaged its human rights record by persistently undercutting refugee protections. ‘Successive governments have prioritized domestic politics over Australia's international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. … Too often, the government has attempted to demonise those trying to reach Australia by boat.’

Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa. As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.

Once again we discover the reality that there is no such thing as ‘rights’ when a powerful ruling class decides to abrogate its legal responsibilities. When the victims are the weak, the vulnerable, and the helpless, it is all too easy for a callous government to incite populist prejudice and turn genuine human suffering into a cynical vote-catching ploy.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Orwell in limbo (1956)

Film Review from the April 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

"I observe . . . some lines of an institution which, in its original, might have been tolerable; but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions." Thus the king of Brobdingnag to Gulliver; thus one's thoughts ran, watching the Associated British Studios' film of 1984.

The credits describe it as "freely adapted" from George Orwell's novel. Some alterations were to be expected, and the minor ones obviously have been made with a view to the American market. Goldstein and O'Brien have become Calador and O'Connor, the dollar currency of Britain in 1984 is converted back to sterling, and two of the leading actors are American.

The last may not sound like an alteration but it certainly looks like one, since all the principals are remarkably miscast. Winston Smith is played by Mr. Edmund O'Brien, whose bulky physique speaks well for nutrition in 1984. Wearing a permanent puzzled look, Mr. O'Brien makes Winston an earnest, plodding chap, getting into trouble less through clear-than thick-headedness. Similarly, Miss Jan Sterling conveys languor instead of the sexy vitality from which Julia's rebellion arises, and thus never makes the point at all. O'Connor is played by Mr. Michael Redgrave, for all the world like a Frank Richards schoolmaster; indeed, one half expects him to flourish a birch in the torture-chamber and cry "Upon my word, Bunter! I shall deal with you most severely for this insensate behaviour."

Still, some alterations were expected. What was not expected was the transformation of 1984 into a reaffirmation that Luv Conquers All. True, the ending is not happy in the usual sense: Winston and Julia are shot down, reaching for each other, after finding their love unaltered (like Winston's weight) by the months of torture. The message remains, however. Brains can be washed, but not hearts; thought can be destroyed, but not Luv.

Orwell's is the best, most intelligent of the novels which have tried prognosticating what man will come to: far better, for example, than Brave New World or Ape and Essence, because it gives a more coherent account of human activity. Basically it is a throwing-up of hands: at the growth of central power and its obsessional wielding by the post-war Labour government, at Russia, at the new ground gained for mass suggestion, at the awful thought that this was where "State Socialism" would lead. For all its mistakenness, it has the virtue of being a passionate protest against the regimentation of minds, and the film scarcely touches that. With its torture machines and the plug-ugly police, it makes the 1984 regime dependent on physical suppression far more than inculcated acceptance.

Was Orwell mistaken, then? Of course he was. The assumption on which he founded Big Brother's utopia are that was war can be kept up permanently to sustain a particular economy and that power is an end in itself: neither can be justified. His book describes but never explains a class-divided society without a class struggle. Indeed, 1984 never comes to grips with the question of the proles: they love squalidly, they loll in pubs, their culture is pornography and sentimental songs—but what do they do? Presumably they are productive workers, since Winston, Julia and their Outer Party colleagues are government clerks—but what sort of production? Dictators and all other rulers rule just because of the labour and acquiescence of the great mass of productive workers, and that is the factor which Orwell discounted.

Most people have appeared unsure quite what to make of 1984 (except the Communists, who have danced with blind rage as if some cap had not only fitted but fallen over their ears). A not-uncommon reaction has been that it may be mistaken, but, well, it's a warning. So it is: a warning against prophetic works, especially when they are written with more indignation that understanding. All the same, Orwell's book is sincere and serious enough to have deserved better treatment from the film-makers. Television did much better by it.

The publicity for 1984 says with emphasis: "A Film of To-morrow to SHOCK you To-day." Fair enough.
Robert Barltrop

Miners in the U.S.A. (1963)

Book Review from the August 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Power by Howard Fast (Methuen 21s.)

Howard Fast has added another story to the many dealing with the bitter struggles of the American Trade Union Movement in the 1920's and 30's. His latest novel, Power, deals with a particular section, the mineworkers, and it is a tale of horror and bloodshed.

In those days the mine owners ("mine operators" Fast calls them) were quite prepared to use armed might against union organisers and striking workers. Threats, intimidation, violence and murder, none of these were shunned by the company police in their efforts to remove the threat to their bosses' profit margins. It is not really surprising, then, that mineworkers responded in like measure.

Fast builds his plot around two main figures—Ben Holt, a local mineworkers' leader, and Alvin Cutter, a young New York journalist who is sent to cover a strike which Holt is organising in West Virginia. "All characters . . . are fictitious . . . " says the usual caution at the front of the book, but the background against which the tale is told is certainly far from fiction. Like their British counterparts, the U.S. miners suffered terrible privations in those days. Tattered, hungry and emaciated, it is astonishing that they managed to fight back at all, and many were their defeats before they won even the legal right to organise.

Mr. Fast tells us all this, and more. Ben Holt endures agony with the rest of his men in the opening stages, but he is quick to realise the possibilities which leadership of the union holds for him. He claws his way to the union presidency, the very top, and ends up with a yearly salary of fifty thousand dollars. The rank and file, meanwhile, are struggling for a national minimum of four dollars an hour. It is, in fact, a familiar story of trade union leadership generally in recent years. Here in Britain, it has gone a stage further and we are quite used to ex-T.U. men are being appointed to lucrative posts by the government, to say nothing of the knighthoods which are dished out from time to time. We know, too, that mineworkers—and others—have had to come out on strike often in the teeth of opposition and even denunciation from their own elected officials.

Power is a hard-hitting book. It does not make its characters any more lovable than they need be. But then the story is hardly a pretty one. The struggling trade unionists of yesterday had to put up with naked and open brutality in their efforts to organise for better pay and conditions. That sort of thing is a rarity now, but we still have to battle with our employers over wages, hours, and the like. So in that sense, nothing has changed, and this is the point we can appreciate in retrospect when reading a book like this. It is a fight which is unceasing so long as it is confined to such a field. It will end only when the issue has broadened to embrace the very ownership of the means of life, and has been won.
E. T. C.

The Keir Hardie myth (1961)

From the March 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

The myth about Keir Hardie's attitude to war is very persistent. At an anti-Polaris rally in Glasgow last December, the Co-operative Movement representative had only to refer to him, ". . . if we could get Keir Hardie here . . ." to have his words drowned by applause. Whatever the sentiments of the audience may have been, it was certainly in error about Hardie's attitude to war.

In 1914, with the Great War drawing near, the Second International called for "Peace demonstrations" throughout Europe. On August 2nd, in Trafalgar Square, Hardie spoke at the "Peace demonstration". Sentimentality and emotionalism were offered in place of the sound education and organisation needed by the workers. Two days later the War began, and the Second International collapsed, its unsound base giving way beneath the strain. In the Labour Leader Hardie proclaimed, "The I.L.P. will at least stand firm. Keep the Red Flag flying!" Brave words indeed, but wholly false. For the I.L.P. turned out to be standing firm on one issue and that was on the question of party unity. To preserve this unity, to retain the greatest number of members within the fold, the most opportunist and unprincipled formulas were applied to justify the conduct of individual party members. The flag hoisted by Hardie and his fellow "Labour Leaders" was a clear and unmistakable Union Jack.

In articles directed at his electorate in Merthyr, Keir Hardie made his position clear. "A nation at war must be united especially when its existence is at stake. In such filibustering expeditions as our own Boer War or the recent Italian war over Tripoli, where no national danger of any kind was involved there were many occasions for diversity of opinion and this was given voice to by the Socialist Party of Italy and the Stop the War Party in this country. Now the situation is different. With the boom of the enemy's guns within earshot, the lads who have gone forth by sea and land to fight their country's battles must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home." (Pioneer, Merthyr 15th Aug., 1914). The man who recoiled from the talk of waging the Class War was quite prepared to have workers serve "their Motherland" in Imperialist War; he wrote that "We must see the war through, but we must also make ourselves so familiar with the facts as to be able to intervene at the earliest possible moment in the interests of peace" (Pioneer 15th Aug., 1914). Let no one be deceived by the mention of the "earliest possible moment" because for Hardie this was a very long way off and he was in fact prepared to support a long, drawn-out conflict in Europe. As he put it on 28th November, 1914, "May I once again revert for the moment to the I.L.P. pamphlets? None of them clamour for immediately stopping the war. That would be foolish in the extreme, until at least the Germans have been driven back across their own frontier, a consummation which, I fear, carries us forward through a long and dismal vista" (Pioneer, Merthyr).

Time after time Hardie fed workers the lie that they were part of a "nation" and as such were bound up in the quarrels of their masters. Not "International Working Class Solidarity", but "Class Collaboration" was his rallying cry, for Hardie was a patriot and proud of it. "I am not a pro-German", he wrote, "and still less am I a pro-Russian. I am a pro-Briton, loving my country and caring for her people. Any war of aggression against the rights and liberties of my country I would resist to the last drop of blood in my veins. But I have not seen, outside the columns of the yellow Jingo Press, any proofs that our interests as a nation were in any way imperilled or threatened by a war in which Austria and Germany and Russia and France were involved" (Pioneer, Merthyr. 22nd Aug 1914).

But although he was a patriot, Hardie would not appear on the official Government recruiting platforms. In the first place he could not stomach the crude jingoism and Imperialism that emerged from these platforms and secondly he wished to remain free to present the I.L.P. version of the events that had led to Britain's involvement in the war. He believed that if the people were told frankly about the "Secret Diplomacy" that had piloted Britain into the war, and were shown how the war, though "unjust," had put the country in peril, the needed volunteers would emerge and there would be no need for jingoistic exhortations or conscription. This in Hardie's view was the "right method" and belief in this method led Hardie to boast that he had been instrumental (together with his colleagues) in securing more recruits for the Armed Forces than his Liberal opponents.

Writing in the Pioneer of November 28th, 1914, Keir Hardie made his claim thus: "I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting; I know too well all there is at stake. But, frankly, were I once more young and anxious to enlist, I would resent more than anything the spectacle of young, strong, flippant upstarts, whether MPs or candidates, who had the audacity to ask me to do for my country what they had not the heart to do themselves. Of all causes, this surely is the one in which actions speak louder than words. If I can get the recruiting figures for Merthyr week by week, which I find a very difficult job, I hope by another week to be able to PROVE that whereas our Rink Meeting gave a stimulus to recruiting, those meetings at the Drill Hall at which the Liberal member or the Liberal candidate spoke, had the exactly opposite effect." Hardie was so determined to prove his point that he tried on a number of occasions to obtain the relevant recruiting figures.

The figures were refused him, but this did not daunt Hardie. In the meantime, his staunch supporter J.B. (John Barr). writing in the Pioneer enthusiastically endorsed Hardie's claim; he wrote. "I am still of the opinion that the Rink meeting gave a fillip to recruiting, and my opinion is based on the belief that the I.L.P. method is the right one. . ."

Two weeks later Hardie was able to proclaim that he had obtained the recruiting figures for his constituency and was able to make good his boast. He set out his claim in this manner: "(1) That for the five weeks before the Rink Meeting. recruiting had been steadily going down week by week; (2) that our I.L.P. meeting was held on Sunday, October 25th, and that for the next three weeks the number of recruits secured in Merthyr kept steadily rising. . . If Mr. Jones challenges this statement I shall produce the figures, though not inclined to do so for very obvious patriotic reasons. Unlike my colleague I am more concerned with aiding the army than with trying to take a mean advantage of a political opponent" (Pioneer, 19th Dec., 1914).

Ample evidence exists to prove that in supporting the War Hardie in no way acted as a renegade. His actions were in fact in concord with the actions of his colleagues in the party leadership and these actions were never repudiated, but were endorsed and underwritten by the party as a whole.
Melvin Harris

Thursday, April 24, 2014

No One’s in Control (2012)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since World War Two governments have adopted various policies to try to control bank lending. This, to try to make the economy work smoothly without booms and slumps or “stop-go” as it used to be called. They are still trying.

At first they tried fixing a limit on the total amount of bank loans. Then they required banks to hold a given percentage of their assets as cash and hoped to influence  bank lending by increasing or decreasing this (this was known as “fractional reserve banking”, though this term has since taken on a wider meaning). This in turn was eventually abandoned in favour of trying to influence bank lending by manipulating interest rates.

Over time the language changed too. Instead of talking of controlling bank lending, economists began to talk about controlling the “money supply”. This led to a redefinition of money, which had previously meant currency (notes and coins issued by the state), so as to include bank and other loans. There are now at least five official definitions of money (M0, M1, M2, M3 and M4). Even so, economists have still found it necessary to maintain a distinction between “base money” and “bank money”, the former being what is directly controlled by the central bank (notes and coins plus banks’ cash reserves with the central bank, which is what M0 measures).

The failure of all these policies has led to a controversy among economists which is still going on. Some have come to the conclusion that the level of bank lending is linked to the state of the economy and so cannot be controlled by the central bank. This is undoubtedly true.

Banks lend more to businesses (and individuals) when the economy is expanding and less when it is not. This is being confirmed today when, despite government exhortations and incentives, the banks are not keen to lend more; they have calculated that with a depressed economy the risk of them not getting their money back is higher. Nor are established businesses keen to borrow as they know that the market for their products is stagnating.

So, on this point, these economists are right. However, some of them don’t see the banks as merely reacting to the state of the economy but as contributing to it by their lending policies; they attribute to banks an autonomous power to influence the economy. This leads them to offer a purely monetary explanation of the present (and past) economic downturn, in, precisely, the irresponsible use by the banks of their ability to “create money” outside the control of the central bank.

It also leads them to offer a purely monetary solution. Here some of them have crossed the fringe to join the currency cranks in advocating a return to gold-based money (as if there weren’t economic downturns when this applied) or to require banks to lend only what they’ve got (as if this wasn’t the case anyway).

Since the economic cycle is built in to capitalism, and slumps occur when during a boom one sector overproduces in relation to its market, their reforms won’t stop this any more than anything the central bank can do. The capitalist economy can be controlled neither by monetary policy nor by banking reform.

Sounds From the Park: An Oral History of Speakers’ Corner (2014)

From the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sound and some fury

Sounds From the Park – An Oral History of Speakers’ Corner. Bishopsgate Institute exhibition (till 30 April), London, with associated free booklet, website and local radio broadcast.

Partly financed through the Heritage Lottery Fund, this is an attempt to explore and record the open-air speaking and debating forum that arose at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, from the late nineteenth century onwards.  The project makes the point that open-air speaking is something of a dying art, and Speakers’ Corner is arguably the last example of it, certainly in the UK.

The right to meet and speak freely in Hyde Park was enshrined in the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 and it has been a popular venue for political protest and debate ever since. As the booklet explains, ‘between 1885 and 1939 there were around 100 open-air meetings every week in London alone. After the Second World War they gradually disappeared, in parallel with the rise of radio and television, leaving Speakers’ Corner as the sole survivor’.

The project involved interviewing speakers, hecklers and regular visitors past and present. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the project is that there are very few audio or visual clips of the speakers themselves speaking or dealing with hecklers in the Park, and the material relies mainly on the interviews conducted, which gives it a more reflective and passive feel than might have been intended.

Of the four outputs, the website ( is probably the most impressive, with pages on various noteworthy interviewees, including three current members of the Socialist Party. Several other Party members from the past are featured in reminiscences (like well-known orator from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s Tony Turner) and in photographs (such as the wonderfully evocative picture at the exhibition of Steve Ross on the platform in the 1970s). As might also be expected, the Methodist and pacifist speaker Lord Donald Soper – who spoke at the Park tirelessly for decades – features prominently too.

The Socialist Party has long had a noticeable presence at Speakers’ Corner – indeed, we are the one political organization that has maintained a regular presence there for the majority of its existence. Many of the Party’s most well-known orators who featured in an article on open-air speaking in the June 2004 centenary edition of the Socialist Standard cut their teeth in the Park, and for all its faults Barltrop’s The Monument contains as good an analysis of this phenomenon and the Socialist Party’s role in it as can be found. Also Steve Coleman – a former regular Party speaker in the Park himself – contributed usefully to the discussion of this phenomenon in his Stilled Tongues, From Soapbox to Soundbite.

Today, many would argue that Speakers’ Corner is something of a shadow of its former self. The Socialist Party maintains a sporadic pitch there and other political speakers still periodically appear too (such as the anarchist Tony Allen – who wrote a book on the subject called A Summer In the Park a few years ago – and Heiko Khoo from Socialist Appeal). But the crowds are now ever more composed of tourists from the hotels of nearby Park Lane and Bayswater and the speakers are predominately of a religious bent, with as many Muslims as Christians. This tendency towards domination by religious demagogues is a shame, because as a rule they rely much less on an analysis of current events than the political speakers, making instead a timeless appeal to faith that disregards reason and evidence. It can also be argued that the comedic value of some of the contemporary speakers often lies less in their wit and originality (as was previously evidenced in deliberate entertainers like Norman Schlund and Martin Besserman) than in their near-hysterical religious sectarianism and general lack of self-awareness.

The sparks of controversy and repartee generated by Speakers’ Corner are now more often found in other arenas for discussion, including online. But this project has played its part in chronicling something that has been of real use to the working class movement over time and which has served to introduce many to a distinctive socialist viewpoint that can stand out – head and shoulders – in any crowd.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Who are the wealth producers? (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article in the Times (2 May) headlined “This belief in making things is make-believe” and subtitled “It is pure fantasy to argue that the solution to Britain’s economic problems lies in boosting manufacturing”, David Wighton argued:
“The idea of the primacy of manufacturing makes little economic sense. It is the modern equivalent of the 18th-century French physiocrats’ argument that all wealth derived from agriculture and everything else was unproductive. Wealth is created by providing insurance on ships, just as much as by making the vessels.”
The Physiocrats did indeed claim that only agricultural work produced a value, in the form of rent, greater than that of the producers’ subsistence. Marx discussed their views in Part I of Theories of Surplus Value where he credited them with transferring “the inquiry into the origin of surplus-value from the sphere of circulation into the sphere of direct production, and thereby laid the foundation for the analysis of capitalist production.”

Their mistake was to conclude that, as the material basis of all wealth came from nature, only the work of those directly interacting with Nature was productive. But manufacturing as well as agriculture transforms materials that originally come from nature – the definition, in fact, of production – and both are capable of producing a surplus (value) over and above the cost of maintaining the producers.

But what about services? Those providing them certainly produce a service but do they also add a value over and above its cost? Marx answered, no. But it was not as simple as that. He accepted that providing these services could bring a profit to a capitalist who invested in them, but the origin of this lay elsewhere, not in surplus value produced by those they employed but in the sector of the economy producing goods for profit. It was the result of a sort of division of labour amongst the capitalist class to ensure that services essential to capital accumulation were carried out as cheaply as possible.

The example Marx gave (in part IV of Volume 3 Capital) was merchants. He explained that if there were no merchants specialising in selling goods then the capitalist firms producing them would have to tie up some of their capital to do this themselves instead of investing it in their core business. There was a price to pay. The industrialists sold their commodities to the merchants at below their market price, i. e. not to realise themselves all the surplus value embodied in them so as to allow the merchants a share in it. The same applies to other services provided for profit such as banking and Wighton’s shipping insurance. The capital invested in providing them does return a profit but from realising a part of the surplus value created in material production.

So, while Wighton is wrong to claim that “wealth is created by providing insurance on ships, just as much as by making the vessels”, he is right to argue that it does not necessarily make sense for a capitalist country to concentrate just on manufacturing. Profits can be made by selling financial services to outside capitalists, so providing an income which can be taxed to help defray the costs of maintaining the state. This has in fact been the strategy of successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or ConDem, since the 1980s. But the origin of these profits is not new value added by those working in these services, but surplus value produced by the industrial workers of the world.

The “many people” Wighton criticises for almost seeing financial services as “a great Ponzi scheme in which money generated from making things is passed around with everyone else taking a cut” are not all that far off the mark.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Jack London and Socialism' (1932)

From the February 1932 issue of the Socialist Standard

J. W. Keable (Balham) asks if Jack London was a Socialist. He also asks us to explain a note in a previous issue which stated that his wife, Charmian London, misrepresented Jack London's views.

In reply, we would state that Jack London was for some time a member of the Socialist Labor Party in California, and later joined the Socialist Party of America. His letter of resignation from that reformist party shows his resentment of their opportunism.

We can only judge from Jack London's activities and writings. He advocated Socialism for many years, but was never clear as to the means of realising it. "The Iron Heel" is an instance of this.

His wife pictured him as being disgusted with the working class when he was merely expressing his contempt for the compromising S.P. of America. How little this bourgeois lady understood London's ideas can be seen from her so-called Life of him.

The real meaning of the class struggle was never grasped by Jack London. Hence, his support of the World War.
A. Kohn

Intellectual elitism (2014)

From the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Living in Cambridge I encounter many students socially. Like every other section of society they include many individuals exhibiting numerous characteristics. Most of them are less likely to exhibit the ‘I’m entitled to the earth and everything in it’ attitude they once did but there is still an underlying intellectual arrogance. It never fails to amuse me that the graduates of Oxbridge still feel entitled to ‘run the country’ despite the obvious mess they have created over the decades. The ‘old school tie’ cronyism of the city and government continues unabated. Despite giving socialists great evidence for the complete absence of any semblance of a meritocracy within capitalism they seem unconcerned by their continued failures. It sometimes seems that the only success they can claim is their continued ability (with the help of admen and spin doctors) to fool the electorate. I hope this is disingenuous to at least some of them who, one would hope, go into public life with a genuine desire to improve things. Not that this helps, of course, since the knowledge they bring to their work is the result of studying all kinds of political and economic clap trap.
Occasionally socialists can share a seemingly similar arrogance because of the confidence we have in our analysis - but any accusation of elitism must be taken very seriously and hopefully disproved. The establishment of a socialist society depends on mass consciousness and political equality. This is different from saying that we must all be intellectually equal since we all have different talents and many do not have the inclination to study politics, economics, history or philosophy in any depth. Those of us who write for ‘The Standard’ clearly have some intellectual proclivities (strangely I’m still embarrassed by this admission – presumably a residue of cultural conditioning); but does this mean that the majority must have read the three volumes of Das Capital before we can make the revolution?
A graduate once said to me that socialism was impossible because the majority can never attain the intelligence that we ask of them. Clearly a very elitist thing to say – and stranger still that he should say it to me in such a ‘knowingly candid’ fashion since I’m clearly of average intelligence myself. So the question becomes: what level of consciousness (intellectual knowledge and insight) is needed to create a socialist revolution? Clearly there has to be some since compassion and idealism alone has led to disaster in the past. Do we all have to become intellectual elitists to make the revolution?
The socialist revolution will be very different from the preceding bourgeois revolutions because, apart from anything else, it requires the participation of a class conscious majority to bring it about. There can be no leaders since, as discussed above, socialism demands equality and democracy to determine policy and action. Some believe this to be hopelessly idealistic because either they feel themselves to be intellectually incapable of such activity or despair of others political abilities. Most of this derives from cultural conditioning and the almost complete absence of any political education.
Socialists believe that political activity is an essential part of what makes us human and as soon as the dreary media politics of the establishment is undermined and people get a taste of real democracy and the empowerment it provides there will be no stopping us. Once the need for political leaders has ended and people take control of their lives the conditioning that insists on our intellectual political inadequacies dissolves.
I have never doubted the capacity of most people to achieve the requisite intelligence to change the world once their prejudices and self doubt is removed. Political consciousness can strike people quickly (as in that amusing political metaphor with Neo in the movie The Matrix when he awakes and removes his connexion with the machines) or it can be a slower process of the erosion of any confidence in the lies of capitalist propaganda.
One thing you immediately notice about socialists is their self-confidence. Some will tell you that arrogance is an essential characteristic needed by socialists to deal with the never ending criticism they endure but I think that this is just a misinterpretation of the confidence that comes with consciousness and the knowledge that this enables. Of course this comes with a large measure of political frustration and sometimes despair at the suffering of the world but I don’t know of any of us who would like to go back to the darkness of political ignorance. Our confidence helps us ridicule the still widespread prejudice that intellectual labour is somehow superior to other forms of human endeavour – yet another way of creating divisions within the working class. As I write this I’m only too conscious of the many talents that come together to create a computer. But the inventors and programmers are just as dependant on the production lines of alienated labour to produce this technological miracle as vice versa. What neither need , of course, is the capitalist who exploits both!
There seems to be no evidence for, or reason to believe that the majority cannot achieve the knowledge needed to make a socialist revolution. Those who believe otherwise are merely conditioned to think that we always need an elite to guide and lead us. The recent attacks on the education system by the present government illustrates this - the imposition of reactionary syllabuses in history and philosophy are witness to the fear our masters have instinctively of anything that might enable young people to think for themselves. It is one of the oldest tenets of Marxian thought that the need for an intelligent workforce might also enable an anti-capitalist political perspective. This ‘internal contradiction’ within the system haunts the parasite class. They may not all be conscious of why they fear learning and knowledge but hopefully one day we will be in a position to teach them this last lesson.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Letters to the Editors: Crises and collapse & Feasible socialism (2011)

Letters to the Editors from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crises and collapse
Dear Editors,

As a member of the Socialist Labor Party for 43 years I'm convinced that discussion with workers about the intractable calamity global capitalist society is facing can only logically start with the Marxian Law of Value: that commodities exchange value for value in the amount of socially necessary labor time invested in their production. The corollary to this is that human labor power is the source of all value.

As every socialist knows, lurking behind burgeoning unemployment, dire poverty, and a hopeless future is the fact that workers receive in wages only a small and diminishing fraction of the values that they produce. They cannot buy back those values when they appear as commodities in the market in their real value. Global capitalism is writhing in its death throes with this fact in its craw. Every worker needs to get this message before any meaningful discussion of socialism ensues. To discuss social issues that are only subordinate to this without a basic understanding of value, I believe is futile and will never make socialists.

What approach do you encourage socialists to take in initiating discussion of capitalist collapse and the necessity of socialism with workers?

Yours for a socialist society,
Bernard Bortnick, United States

We are glad to hear you are keen to make more socialists but do not agree with your view that capitalism will collapse – either on past evidence or given our understanding of Marxian economics. As long ago as 1932 we published a pamphlet called Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse which pointed out the fallacy of such predictions at the time of the Great Depression. As Marx himself said, there are no permanent crises and every economic downturn creates the conditions for the next boom.

The view you put forward that the workers can’t buy back the entire product of industry is no explanation of economic crises in itself, and certainly doesn’t point in the direction of the collapse of capitalism. It was specifically repudiated by Marx in Volume 2 of Capital in Chapter 20 where he argued that the inability of the working class to buy back the entire product of industry is a permanent condition of capitalism and of itself explains nothing. He also pointed out that if the contention is really that the restricted consumption of the workers causes crises, then this is unconvincing too. Wages as a proportion of national income usually have a tendency to rise during booms so this would otherwise indicate crises should be averted.

The working class of wage and salary earners do not need to buy back the entire product of industry incidentally. (What use would workers have for producer goods like lathes and robotics equipment?) Much of the output of industry is bought by the capitalists i.e. producer goods like those just mentioned, and also those luxury goods that the working class can’t afford to buy.

The ultimate cause of all economic crises within capitalism is the system’s tendency to grow in an anarchic, unbalanced fashion in the relentless pursuit of profit (viz. the housing and construction bubble in large parts of the developed world that laid the basis for the recent financial crisis and recession). Our approach is to point out that crises and other social and economic problems are endemic to the way the market economy works. No reform of the system can ever solve these problems – only socialism represents a positive hope for humanity. – Editors

Feasible socialism

Dear Editors

The article, 'Russia – the myth of socialism', in the October Socialist Standard, well written though it is, does raise a fundamental question. It is claimed, not unreasonably, that in the mid-nineteenth century, capitalism ''had not economically matured to the point where Marx's vision of a classless society where free access to needs (sic) would be the mode of distribution could be realised'', whereas by 1917, this economic maturity had been achieved, albeit not in Russia itself (which begs questions as to what options a bona fide socialist party operating in Russia around this time would have had, and how a world socialist revolution might have played out had it occurred in 1917).

My query is this. On what grounds can such an assertion be made? What objective criteria or economic observations can be cited in support of the proposition that world socialism was feasible in 1917 (and not feasible in 1850)? I don't think it's sufficient simply to generalise that technology had advanced over the intervening 67 years. An empirical case surely needs to be made, though. For example, it might incorporate the notion of a 'tipping point' having been arrived at.

This is not a pedantic issue. If it can be convincingly demonstrated that socialism was feasible way back in 1917, then a fortiori, it is surely the case that it is far more feasible now insofar as technology has surged ahead beyond the wildest dreams of those who were around during  those ill-fated 'ten days that shook the world'. Nevertheless, the case still needs to be made – empirically – that the world could sustain a free access society, and this must mean taking account of current technology, and indeed of a valid representation of human nature (since these aspects are respectively integral to the 'give' and 'take' sides of any economical situation).
Andy Cox (by email)

In the 1910 edition of his Woman and Socialism the German Social Democrat August Bebel produced evidence to show that at that time the world was capable of producing enough food, clothing, shelter and otherwise provide for everybody on the planet. He saw electricity, generated by steam turbines, as being the energy source that made this possible.

“Electricity”, he wrote, “has an advantage over every other form of power in that there is an abundance of it in Nature.” His explanation has a surprisingly modern ring: “Our rivers, the tides of the sea, the wind and sunlight provide untold horse-powers, once we learn how to use them rationally and to the full.”

He summarised Sir Joseph Thompson (winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize for Physics) as saying in 1909 that “the day was not far off when the use of sun-rays would revolutionise our life, would make man independent of the energy of coal and water”  and quoted “how great is the supply the sun lavishes upon us becomes clear when we consider that the heat received by the earth under a high sun and a clear sky is equivalent … to about 7,000 horse-power per acre.” Bebel concluded that “this removes the fear that we shall ever run short of fuel” and that “there is no human activity for which, if necessary, motive power would not be available” (section 4 of chapter XXI).

With regard to food production, Bebel cited the claim of the American economist Henry Carey (who had died in 1879) that “the 360-mile long Orinoco valley alone could supply sufficient food to feed the whole human race” and commented, “Let us halve this estimate and there is still more than enough. In any case, South America alone could feed several times the present world population” (section 4 of chapter XXX).

In 1850, on the other hand, the main sources of energy were coal, coal gas, the steam-piston engine and horses. Some time between then and 1910 a qualitative change in the productive forces at the disposal of humanity occurred which meant that the problem of producing enough for all had in principle been solved. At the same time capitalism came to dominate the whole world, which Marxists and others analysed using the term “imperialism” (today we might say “globalisation”).

So, yes, the wars, famines and general deprivation of the 20th century could have been avoided had world socialism been established a hundred years ago as was technologically feasible. As you say, every new advance in technology makes socialism all the more possible – Editors.