Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fascism in Britain (2005)

Book Reviews from the August 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Martin Pugh: Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. Jonathan Cape.£20.00.

Nigel Copsey and David Renton, eds: British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. Palgrave Macmillan. £50.00.

These two books are not recommended for the various views expressed by the authors and contributors, but for the wealth of information, much of it new, on British Fascism.

The first fascisti, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, was founded in Italy in 1919; Britain’s first Fascist organisation emerged in May, 1925, six months after Mussolini’s coup. It, too called itself Fascisti, but the following year changed its name to the British Fascists. Most of its leaders were aristocrats or men from military or naval backgrounds. They were militantly anti-Jewish and, through endorsement by such newspapers as the Times, Morning Post and the Daily Mail, believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy as portrayed by the infamous forgery, The Proctocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The British fascists soon, however, split into even more extreme sects such as the National Fascisti and Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League.

Martin Pugh demonstrates in considerable detail the close connections between the Fascist groups and parties and rightwing, and even “mainstream”, conservative politicians. The Fascists were often looked upon as more decisive Tories who. wanted a more powerful, corporate state which would, hopefully, keep the “lower orders” in control and stop “alien” immigration. Many members of the Conservative Party would also be members of one of the fascist groups at the same time. Both could be depended upon to defend the Nation and the Empire. Indeed, between the two world wars, not a few members of the Royal family, including the then Prince of Wales, were sympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascism  and later Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill expressed admiration for Mussolini, and the Prince of Wales had Nazi friends.

Of course the Fascists opposed the General Strike of 1926. In fact, as Pugh notes, they were particularly enthusiastic anti-strike volunteers, enrolling in the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, and as Special Constables. Chief constables welcomed the Fascists, but only as individuals and not as uniformed members of Fascist parties as these had hoped.

In 1920, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Oswald Mosley, crossed the floor to sit as an independent; in 1924, he joined the Labour Party. His views were already interventionist, corporatist, almost Fascist, but he was enthusiastically welcomed into the Labour Party. By 1929, Mosley was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but he soon resigned, and in February 1931 he launched his New Party.Then in 1932, after visiting Rome, he founded the British Union of Fascists. The BUF adopted the Corporate State, with the abolition of political parties, as its official policy. At this stage, Mosley and the BUF looked to Italy for their model, and it was not until 1936 that the BUF became pro-Nazi. Pugh notes that Mosley regularly visited Italy, and was rewarded with funding by Mussolini for several years. Mosley did not meet Hitler until 1935. During this period, the British Union of Fascists, which added the phrase “and National Socialists” to its title, became increasingly anti-Jewish. The BUF was organised militarily, complete with uniforms until these were banned in 1936. For a number of years, the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Northcliffe, supported the BUF and promoted Fascism.

Besides the BUF, there were still a number of small Fascist parties, as well as various “front” groups such as the January Club and Anglo-German Fellowship and, later, the Link. As in the 1920s, such groups had many Tories, rightwing and mainstream, as members. Indeed, most Conservatives, in Parliament and the country at large, were either pro-Fascist Italy, pro-Nazi Germany or, like Neville Chamberlain, appeasers, as Martin Pugh demonstrates in some detail. Many of them continued to hold similar ideas even after Britain had declared war on Germany, on 3 September, 1939. In 1940, Oswald Mosley, as well as about 800 Fascists and others considered to be pro-German, were arrested and imprisoned. But by 1942, most had been released. Mosley was conditionally released from prison in 1944. The BUF had been banned in June, 1940.

British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State is a collection of fairly short and diverse essays by various authors. Richard Maguire discusses the use of Fascists by the Conservative Government in defence of what Stanley Baldwin called the “community” in defeating the miners, and during the General Strike of 1926. And, as noted in Pugh’s book, the authorities were more than prepared to use Fascists as strike-breakers, their views being that the Fascists could be depended upon as Special Constables and the like.

Richard Thurlow outlines the formation of the Security Service (MI5), and its collaboration with Special Branch in surveillance of the Communist Party, and Comintern agents in Britain, particularly during the 1920s and  1930s. After about 1933, MI5 and Special Branch began to interest themselves in the British Union of Fascists, which hitherto they had not done. Interestingly, Thurlow points out that Maxwell Knight of MI5 had himself been the British Fascists’ Director of Intelligence in 1927. Graham Macklin discusses the attitude of the police and magistrates towards the Fascists in their confrontations with the Communists, and shows that in general they were more sympathetic towards the Fascists than the Communists. Not surprisingly, Oswald Mosley was particularly effusive in his support for the police, many of whom were anti-Jewish. Philip Coupland outlines what he calls “left-wing fascism”, in which the BUF use leftwing terminology to attract workers and disillusioned Labourites and Communists. In parts of the country this was quite successful.

David Renton discusses the so-called anti-Fascism, during the 1974-79 period, by such organisations as the Anti-Nazi League, the Trade Unions and the SWP, all of which from a socialist viewpoint achieved nothing in defeating fascist ideas and activities. Indeed, a party like the BNP today probably has as much support as did the BUF in 1935. Possibly more.
Peter E. Newell

A brief history of Public Relations (2011)

From the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Are workers brainwashed by capitalism?

If you want to know the truth, you cannot rely on newspapers. We have that on good authority – in fact, on the authority of the more honest newspapers. (The more honest papers are those that are read mainly by capitalists who need reliable information about the world in order to make investment decisions, as opposed to those that are read mainly by workers.)

In a startlingly frank appraisal of the history and practice of the public relations (PR) industry, The Economist (18 December 2010) admits that PR was invented in the early 20th century to counter working-class struggles, and rising popular resentment against capitalism, by getting newspapers and journalists, until then sympathetic to the workers, on the side of the business class. American business was at the time worried by the rise of a new phenomenon: public opinion. The business élite feared this, especially as it was developing in an anti-capitalist direction, and were determined to take control of it and manipulate it for their own ends. PR’s founding father, Edward Bernays, was quite explicit about the aim: ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised opinions and habits of the masses’.

That all this is true, and that the century-long and ongoing pro-capitalist PR campaign was and is a great success, to the extent that there are today no mainstream media outlets that are not pro-capitalist, is pretty much indisputable. This means that, today, newspapers and news programmes (those read and watched by the working class) are not what they appear and claim to be. Their role is not to enlighten and inform, but to mould public opinion so that it reflects the interests of the capitalist class and the state. ‘News’ is propaganda, not genuine journalism.

The truth of this has, however, led to a logical but erroneous conclusion among many radical thinkers – that the working class accepts capitalism because it has been brainwashed into it by clever capitalist PR. The argument can even take a Marxian-sounding form: capitalist society, say some Marxists, maintains and reproduces itself through the dissemination of the ‘ruling ideology’ – i.e., the ideas, beliefs and values of the ruling capitalist class – and its acceptance by the working class. The working class, in accepting these ideas, as they learn them from newspapers and so on, is thereby integrated into capitalism and comes to accept its own subordination. This theory has the added appeal, for Marxists, of seeming to explain something that stands rather in need of explanation in Marxian theory – the failure of the class struggle to materialise into the revolution predicted by Marx.

The argument is compelling but mostly false, as shown in an excellent essay by Conrad Lodziak in the journal Radical Philosophy (‘Dull Compulsion of the Economic: The Dominant Ideology and Social Reproduction.’ No. 49, Summer 1988). The essay, and the empirical data and ethnographic studies it draws upon, is obviously now dated in some respects. But its arguments are still strikingly relevant and persuasive. This article will reprise Lodziak’s argument and briefly consider its implications for socialist politics.

Dull compulsion versus brainwashing
The idea that working-class acceptance of capitalism can be ascribed to the workers’ ‘false consciousness’, Lodziak calls ‘the dominant ideology thesis’, and it is, he says, ‘taken as a self-evident truth amongst a majority of the left’. But is it true? It is, after all, a proposition capable of empirical proof or disproof. Do workers in fact believe and accept the ideas that make up the ‘ruling ideology’? The answer, says Lodziak, is yes – and no.

It is true that most workers accept certain key ideas that are essential to the continuation of capitalism – for example, they accept the justness of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’, they accept meritocracy (the idea that it’s OK for people to rise above them in the social hierarchy if the rise is based on merit and talent), they accept that most people should get a job or career and strive to ‘get ahead’, and so on. They do not, however, universally accept or agree with other aspects of the ruling ideology, such as property and inheritance rights, principles of capital accumulation and the right to a profit, state neutrality, occupational structure, distribution of incomes, the right to manage, and so on.

At this point, a Marxist might say, OK, the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ is then justified: the working class does accept the most important aspect of the ruling ideology, which is the acceptance of the inevitability of working for wages. But this is not so, says Lodziak. To prove the ‘dominant ideology thesis’, you must show not just that workers accept certain ideas, but that those ideas are sufficiently important to them for them to commit to the ideas and act upon them. And this is where the thesis falls down: ‘the required degree of ideological motivation appears to be absent amongst a majority of the populations of advanced capitalist societies’. Instead, what you find is ‘an absence of belief’: passivity, resignation, bewilderment, confusion, disorientation and marginalisation are all more important in determining working-class actions than so-called ‘false consciousness’. And the explanation for this passivity is easier to find in ‘largely publicly identifiable features of the social environment’ than in ‘some mysterious process of class brainwashing or collective hypnosis’. 

The ideas which do dominate working-class thinking tend to be those ‘directly relevant to the practical and immediate demands of the everyday life-world as experienced’ – ideas related to things over which workers do have some control, such as deciding whether to resign and look for a new job, or wait for a promotion; whether to get married, or divorced; how to organise home life and what to do with free time, and so on. Workers’ thinking is, quite understandably and sensibly, focused on finding security, and avoiding insecurity. This is impossible without building relations of dependence and subordination with an employer, the state, or a breadwinner. Workers are materially, not ideologically, subordinated; economic necessity and state coercion are more important than ideology. Workers do what they do because they must – not because they’ve been tricked into thinking it’s a good idea.

This also goes some way to explaining why Marx’s prediction of revolution was premature, and why workers often eschew ‘oppositional’ politics. ‘Workers rightly believe that opposition may lead to redundancies or closures, and that it may be impossible to get another job.’ And the more intolerable the alternatives are, the worse the prospect of unemployment is, the worse pay and conditions workers will be prepared to accept – explaining the present government’s determination to push through punitive benefit reform, even though unemployment is on the rise.

In short, the consciousness of the working class is best understood not in terms of ideology, but in terms of ‘needs-based motivations’. By talking in terms of indoctrination, the left displays an ‘insensitivity to the lived experience’ of the working class.

Political conclusions
We in the Socialist Party are often accused by our opponents, and even sometimes by our supporters, of not having made any progress in our 100-year history. What the foregoing arguments should have made clear is that it is not within our power to make the kind of progress demanded of us. The working class generally is ideologically indifferent, and accepts capitalism because it must. The only thing that can disrupt this to the advantage of socialists is, says Lodziak, ‘effective oppositional practices inscribed with oppositional viewpoints’ – in other words, the development of the class struggle. We can contribute to the development of this struggle, and we do, but it is not within the power of a small party such as ours to determine its course. The failure of sufficiently large and powerful oppositions to arise is down not to a lack of energy or dedication on the part of socialists, nor the absence of a sufficiently clever socialist advertising campaign, but to the power of economic necessity and state coercion.

This article may seem to have argued itself into a corner. If all this is true, what can be done? The answer may not satisfy socialists who understand the urgent need for radical change, but it is inevitable all the same: we just keep struggling.

Lodziak has three other main concluding points of advice for any socialist opposition. (The commentary that follows the advice is of course ours, not Lodziak’s.)

First, participation in organised politics must be made sufficiently attractive to entice people out of their privatised worlds. This means that the boring treadmill of reformist politics and the ridiculous sectarianism, authoritarianism and leadership-dominated activity of Leninist sects is out. Of course, the Socialist Party has not been wildly successful at attracting people, but it is a commonplace on the left that we have at least managed to be human and charming, make our meetings places of free and open discussion, and our activity the result of freely arrived at decisions and voluntary activity. Our members tend to join and remain members for life; most rival leftist outfits operate a ‘revolving door’ policy.

Second, ‘effective opposition is, amongst other things, always an effective ideological opposition’, which means engaging in a ‘vigorous and continuous ideological contestation in the public sphere, not only in challenging the dominant, but also in the advocacy of oppositional alternatives’. Again, we cannot claim sufficient success in this area, but we have at least taken the challenge seriously, unlike the left generally, which is content to pander to prejudice rather than challenge it, propagate the ruling ideology rather than contest it, and mock the advocacy of alternatives as utopian. Credibility for socialism, says Lodziak, can only come from ‘the relentless public display of commitment to oppositional alternatives, and from the unwillingness of agents of opposition to compromise principles’. Yet again, the Socialist Party, unlike the left, can lay claim to a proud history of doing just that.

Third, we need to demonstrate the relevance of socialism to the needs of the vast majority. Most people will not struggle or even vote for abstract things or ideas, says Lodziak, but will fight to win material benefits to improve the quality of their lives and guarantee the future of their children. This might seem to argue against the Socialist Party’s case. Indeed, we are often accused by our leftwing opponents of doing nothing but try to win support for abstract ideas. This is not true: what we have tried to do is show that many of the material benefits people are fighting for are only possible of realisation in a socialist society. If what you want is a pay rise, then you can join a union. If you want to fill the lonely, empty nights, you can join an evening class or the local darts team. And so on – workers will need no advice from socialists on these counts. But what if you want a full and satisfying life for you and your children – with meaningful and enjoyable work, plenty of free time to spend with your family, friends and loved ones, and to pursue your interests and passions, a life free of stress and anxiety and boredom (if you’re lucky), and of extreme poverty and violence and war and environmental catastrophe (if you’re not)? In that case, you will have to think carefully about what socialists say. What we say is that this is a laudable aim – indeed, our rightful inheritance as human beings – but is impossible to achieve under capitalism.

This is clearly a difficult argument to make, especially to ‘ideologically indifferent’ workers. But we live in interesting times – capitalist crisis is to a large extent making our argument for us, and making it more strongly and reaching more people than we have ever been able to. As the foregoing arguments should have made clear, crisis can have the effect of making workers feel even more insecure and therefore even less likely to become socialist. But it also calls into question the viability of the system, and makes it more obvious than ever that it cannot satisfy our needs as human beings. This crisis has a dual potential: it makes aspects of the socialist case for us, even as it threatens to drive the working class further into the welcoming arms of capitalist domination and exploitation. Which way it goes is down at least in part to what socialists and workers think and do over the next decade. Our work as socialists is therefore more urgent than ever.

Stuart Watkins

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Loud-Mouthed Upstarts

Book Review from the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who runs Britain? How the Super-Rich are changing our lives. By Robert Peston, Hodder & Stroughton. 2008.

According to Peston, currently the BBC’s business editor, it’s the new super-rich of private-equity and hedge-fund capitalists. They run the country in the sense that the present Labour government feels the need to kow-tow to them for fear of them taking their businesses elsewhere:
“Much of this book is about how New Labour in Government has never flinched from the view that economic disaster for the UK and electoral disaster for Labour would be inevitable if the super-wealthy ever felt their interests were under attack in the UK. Blair and Brown are true believers in one of the main commandments of the Book of Globalization: ‘Thou shalt not be seen to use the tax system to take from the well-heeled, for fear of driving them and all their valuable capital into exile’”.
A number of these capitalists have been given knighthoods and peerages and – this came first of course – have made very generous contributions to the Labour Party amounting in total to millions of pounds. In fact, they – rather than the trade unions – funded Labour’s last three successful election campaigns. Peston’s chapter on the dealings between Blair, Brown, Lord Levy and those he call’s Labour’s “plutocratic benefactors” can only confirm disgust and contempt for the leaders of the Labour Party for the lengths they are prepared to go just to stay in power.

The new super-rich come across as a bunch of loud-mouthed upstarts who buy companies, “rationalise” them at the expense of the workforce, and then sell them, pocketing a huge personal profit for themselves. Their profit is personal because they own their own companies outright and so have a much freer hand to do what they want, not having to comply with the normal company law that applies to “public”, shareholder-owned companies.

Although he criticises them for not paying their fair share of taxes and as a potential threat to political democracy, Peston cannot disguise his admiration for them, seeing them as fulfilling an essential role within capitalism of channelling capital into the most profitable lines of activity (instead of it stagnating in long-established businesses run by stuffy ex-Etonians). He wants the managers of pension funds to behave in the same ruthless way towards the companies they’ve invested the funds in, so as to bring in more money for present and future pensioners.

His chapter on pensions – and the run-down of final-salary company pension schemes – is instructive. Employers originally set these up to retain the loyalty of their salaried employees, but over the years governments have imposed so many obligations on them (frozen pensions, pension transfers, taxes, etc) that it has become no longer worth their while keeping them going. So they have been disposing of them to, among others, private-equity capitalists who hope to make a profit out of investing their funds.

In other words, reforms aimed at protecting people’s pension rights have had the opposite effect. Employers have walked away, leaving workers without the desired protection. Another lesson in the futility of reformism.
Adam Buick

Carry on Campaigning (2012)

From the February 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Single issue campaigners ignore the root cause of the problems they highlight and continue along the road of calling for a reform here and there.
Looking back is enormously important to understanding what must be done to avoid repeating earlier mistakes. Unless deliberate steps are taken to change the ultimate direction of politics and economics then people’s needs and welfare will continue to be treated as of lesser import to the overall system. The challenge is more than overcoming an unending string of 'single issues.' It is recognising the overriding necessity for a coherent, viable system which finally serves the people –a truly social system.
As individuals, it's possible or even likely that certain 'single issues' strike a chord which are more personal or pertinent than others. However, until the realisation hits home that they are all the result of capitalist norms and that it is the cause that has to be dealt with, not the effects, we, as 'the 99%' will continue along the road of calling for a reform here and there, and inviting for ourselves and future generations more of the torture we vowed to end.
The shortfalls of capitalism, in the news big time last year, have been expressed loud and clear around the world.  Numerous items for serious discussion which are generally labelled political, economic or social have been raised but which can rarely be considered in one of these areas in isolation. The links between these three areas and between the separate issues are more of a tangled web than isolated connections.
Consider the connections here in matters which would be seen by activists as environmental problems: mountain top removal for coal, deforestation for monocrops, localised industrial pollution of water, air and ground, depleted uranium contamination from wars, nuclear waste from energy production, etc. All are primarily urgent social problems for reasons of serious risk to the short- and long-term health of workers and their communities but which have been subsumed by the imperative of business and 'the market' to continue making profits - economic considerations come first. Politics being so intricately bound to capitalist economics, politicians are required to make decisions to uphold the system and keep it running as efficiently and profitably as possible. Whichever single issue is selected for scrutiny a similar pattern appears –when it comes to the crunch, decision time, however, the vast majority of politicians smothers it with platitudes and toes the economics line.
When problems related to work are considered it is found that what concerns the worker is different from what concerns the employer. Everything, every angle, every detail, every aspect is decided according to economics. Hourly pay; sick benefits; overtime; final pension; holiday, and paternity or maternity leave, and contracts are for the employer to break or change –not the employee. Time for breaks and lunch, penalties for late arrival, sudden lay-offs, unexpected redundancies, late meetings –you name it, they decide. Trades unions may manage to fight off some of the worst pay cuts, reduce some of the workforce losses and maybe claw back some previously lost advantage, but overall they are fighting an endless, losing battle. A brief scan at statistics clearly shows which side is winning. A social system would approach the work situation from a different perspective: what work is needed to be done by and for cooperating communities, how it can be shared out, satisfaction at work, full participation in decision making and common ownership of all the means of living.
Identifying the cause
When broken down, it can be seen that the stand-alone 'single issues' all spring from a common root, that of the world capitalist system which places the economy and politics above social considerations. One of the more noticeable factors common to popular demands being made around the world is that individuals within the occupations and uprisings have taken note of the indisputable position of the vast majority –'the 99%' –and are protesting and rejecting it.
It is unacceptable to them to be without a voice or proper representation; to be denied free speech within supposed democracies; to have banks and too-big-to-fail companies bailed out whilst witnessing record numbers of house repossessions, unemployed, and children in poverty; to witness increased spending on the military, and huge hikes in the cost of further education; to see social services and public sector personnel hammered; to have all kinds of deals and social contracts reneged on as political and corporate interests refuse to grapple with the problems of climate change; and on and on ad infinitum.
End not mend
Anyone who has tried to remake a garment, repair a complicated bit of carpentry, refashion an item from mismatched pieces or in any way attempted to put something back together so that it works well when it didn't fulfill its function properly to begin with will know that it's far simpler to start from scratch and create a new item. So it is with capitalism and reformism –bin the idea of trying over and over to reform something that has never worked for the vast majority, tweaking it a bit here and there and then having to have another go at it a few months or years down the road when it comes apart again. Far better to use the combined energies of all those seeking a better way of living and working, one based on people as social beings, to organise together according to real democratic principles to bring in a new social system altogether.
If we are seeking an end to the current structure of relations which puts economic matters at the forefront of each and every issue and which is supported wholeheartedly by the current political system then it follows that we are determined to pursue a system organised for the benefit of all –one where social need is the guiding principle. Many social movements and activists go a long way to pointing out just such failings as have been written about here but most fall at the last hurdle. They will reveal the reasons for failure clearly enough; the capitalist economic system that doesn't work for the mass of the people, the logic of which sets out deliberately to fail many. They talk about, suggest, even demand actions to socialise, to redistribute or more fairly distribute assets, jobs, wages, access to land and the means of living but fail to see they are calling for something from a system that can't respond to their demands because of its innate logic.
Making any significant changes calls for a thorough understanding by the majority of a different kind of politics. A raising of awareness of how participatory democracy can really change the status quo to a democracy that is actually, noticeably, determinedly and deliberately organised to reinforce the social aspect by placing the satisfaction of human needs, not economics, at the forefront of all decision-making. This can only be achieved by first removing the primary cause of previous failures, that is, by removing the capitalist system itself. The system of socialism, by its very principles, is a whole lot simpler than that which has had to be endured daily within the capitalist system. Removing the prime motivation of continuous accumulation by ending all incentives or inducements for pecuniary advantage in favour of free access for all empowers the majority. This broad democratic shift to revolutionise the political and end the economic will complete the transformation to the new social system.
Janet Surman

Monday, November 24, 2014

Marx was righter than this (2011)

Book Review from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why Marx Was Right. By Terry Eagleton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) £16.99

Was Marx right? As Terry Eagleton points out in the preface to this book, of course he wasn’t. No thinker gets everything right, nor can any reasonable person expect them to. But was Marx “right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description”? In this sense, Eagleton says the answer is yes. And Eagleton is right.

As Eagleton puts it, you can tell capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism – people become aware of capitalism in crisis, just as an illness or injury makes you newly aware of the body you always took for granted. Thanks to the crisis, people all around the world are talking about capitalism again. How can this discussion become deeper and better-informed? Well, in all kinds of ways, but we can hardly ignore Marx’s body of work, which has “for long [been] the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of that system”, as Eagleton puts it. Marx was the first person to “identify the historical object known as capitalism – to show how it arose, by what laws it worked, and how it might be brought to an end”. That must surely be of interest to those who are wondering whether capitalism has a future.

What, then, could be more welcome and timely than a book that demonstrates why Marx was right, in what ways he was right, and the relevance of his ideas for political action? And who could be more relied upon to write a witty, engaging and accessible account of this than Terry Eagleton, the author of many justly popular books on subjects related to Marxism, and of regular witty essays and polemics pricking the pomposity of many of our culture’s most unjustly respected liberal thinkers? It would seem to be the perfect book for our time, written by the person perfectly placed to do the subject justice. Sadly, Eagleton lets us down.

Marxists reading this book may think twice about just what it is they’ve signed up for. Virulent anti-Marxists will wonder where all (what they consider to be) the most devastating arguments against Marxism are to be found. But most importantly, non-Marxists, politically interested, anti-capitalist or disillusioned working-class readers, are highly unlikely to be convinced by it either. Eagleton makes no effort to carefully define what Marx’s thought was, nor to compare it with the reality of everyday life under capitalism. Marx’s supreme achievement, as Eagleton says at the start of his book, was to identify an historical object known as capitalism, and show how it worked. But in the book’s 258 pages, we do not hear a word about Marx’s thought on that subject. We do not hear once just what capitalism is, or how it works. Instead, we are just exhorted to believe, from various vague pronouncements and polemical swipes, that capitalism is mostly a very bad and unjust thing. Quite why it is bad, or quite why it leads to such results, we are none the wiser.

As for what socialism is, we hear much more about that. But anyone who is familiar with Marx’s arguments about what capitalism is will wonder just what the difference between capitalism and the various forms of “socialism” Eagleton champions is supposed to be. Even if you’re not familiar with Marx’s arguments on this, anyone who reads Eagleton’s apologias for the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia and Mao’s China would be quite justified in snapping the book shut and concluding that their prejudices were quite correct after all: that Marx and socialism were things to be avoided at all costs. For Eagleton, these “socialisms” were “botched experiments”, a disgustingly coy way to describe the blood-soaked, anti-working-class tyrannies that imposed state-led, capitalist industrial development on economically backward countries. Whenever Eagleton does bump up against the occasional sensible argument, he quickly dismisses it as “ultra-left”, and veers off to the right – to the rightwing deviation, the senile disorder, of Leninism. Perhaps that’s why Eagleton can find room to mention approvingly or critically just about everything that has ever been dignified with the name of socialism apart from the idea, put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, of the “communistic abolition of buying and selling”. Genuine socialism is just too ultra-left for him.

This book is, then, a bitter disappointment and a wasted opportunity. The capitalist West is just emerging from a long period of illusion. As Eagleton points out, the illusion was not so much a deep belief in capitalism, but a disillusion about the possibility of changing it. “What helped to discredit Marxism above all, then,” says Eagleton, “was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda…” Change is back on the agenda. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains as astute and relevant as ever. But if you want to know why, you’ll have to go to better sources than this book.
Stuart Watkins

Is the 'Manual' Worker the Only 'Producer'? (1930)

From the April 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard
A book recommended by the translators of Marx's "Capital" (E. and C. Paul) is the Marxian Economic Handbook, by W. H. Emmett. This is one of the books supposed to simplify Marx, but it makes Marx more difficult than it is supposed to be. It contains also many errors. The author was prominent at one time in the Socialist Labour Party in Australia, and seems anxious to attack De Leon's explanation of Marx's "theories."
Dealing with that fine chapter of Marx on "Co-operation," Mr. Emmett says :
“In a pamphlet entitled "Marx on Mallock," Daniel de Leon implies that, according to Marx, managers and superintendents, by virtue of their brain work, are productive of wealth." (P.343.)
Mr. Emmett quotes Marx but leaves out the essential quotation. The advantages of division of labour and the necessary cooperation of producers in the modern factory are well brought out by Marx, who explains the necessity of "directive labour" in the following words : —
"Labour that is directly social, community labour on a large scale, always stands more or less in need of guidance, of a management which can establish harmony among the individual activities, and fulfil the general functions that belong to the movement of the unified productive organism as contrasted with the movements of the independent organs out of which the organism is made up. An individual violinist manages his own affairs ; an orchestra needs a conductor. This function of guidance, superintendence, and arrangement devolves upon capital as soon as the labour subordinated to it becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the function of management acquires special characteristics." ("Capital," page 346 Everyman Ed.)
Mr. Emmett makes the following statement :—
"If the increased yield of modern wealth be not the exclusive yield of the manual labour employed, then this will mean that the labourers productive power is not (neither individually nor collectively) increased at all by the co-operation." (Page 343.)
The co-operation of workers does increase the output by means of the cooperative method in production, but does that mean that the work of foremen, superintendents, etc., in directing the division of labour and the co-operation of the various parts of the process, does not play a part in the increased output?
Mr. Emmett fails to take note of Marx's point in the quotation we give.
Marx clearly shows that the functions of guidance, superintendence and arrangement are essential to the co-operative labour process.
Mr. Emmett makes a further point. He. says : —
"If the managers and overlookers were a part of the co-operation (or that "collective power that resides in the manual workers and their direction, collectively ") how could Marx tell us that, "while the work is being done" these managers, etc. "command in the name of the capitalist " (Page 343.)
Naturally, under capitalism the foremen, managers, etc., command in the capitalists' name, but does that mean that they do not perform an essential part of the producing process ? Marx clearly -shows that management acquires "special characteristics" to-day, because of the "twofold nature" of production, "being, on the one hand, a social labour process intended to produce use-values, and, on the other hand, a process for promoting the self-expansion of Capital, a process for making surplus value." ("Capital," page 348.)
That two-fold character of modern production explains why the foremen, superintendents, etc., of industry are essential to the increased production of wealth in social production, and also "command in the name of the capitalist" for the purpose of producing- more surplus value.
Adolph Kohn

Rise and Fall (1967)

Book Review from the January 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Clydesiders by R. K. Middlemas (Hutchinson, 50s.)

In the general election of 1922 twenty Independent Labour Party members were elected from Glasgow and the West of Scotland alone. As a vast, hymn-singing crowd saw the new MPs onto the London train one of them, Emmanuel Shinwell, was aware that "they had a frightening faith is us . . . we had been elected because it was believed we could perform miracles and miracles were needed to relieve the tragedy of Clydeside in 1922." (Conflict Without Malice by E. Shinwell) The miracles, of course, failed to come. Capitalism proved more than a match for the reforms of the Independent Labour Party. Mr. Middlemas traces the gradual decline of that organisation.

The cover announces his book as "an important contribution to contemporary political history." This claim would not be so wide of the mark if he had got a few more of his facts right. Take, for example, his confusion of the founding of the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain with that the British Socialist Party on page 32:
The impossibilists', the hard core of followers of the American Daniel De Leon broke off in Scotland in 1903 to form the extremist Socialist Labour Party (SLP), and two years later in London to form the British Socialist Party.
Let us make it clear that our founder members were opposed to the confused industrial-unionism if De Leon and that the date of formation was 1904, not 1905 as he suggests. He is plainly mixing up the SPGB with the so-called 'British Socialist Party' (BSP), the inaugural meeting of which was held on 30th September, 1911—with Hyndman in the chair. (See H. M. Hyndman and British Socialism by C. Tsuzuki and the Socialist Standard, November 1912). The BSP held negotiations with sections of the SLP and of the ILP, and others, in 1920-21 and it was this reformist cocktail which eventually became the 'Communist' Party.

Despite the unfortunate mistakes, there are some interesting passages in this book. One of these, on page 276, gives a classic example of policy reversal by the Communists. In October 1932 the CP and ILP were co-operating and they organised the first Hunger March. Yet, only a year before, a Communist Party manifesto had referred to "the struggle against the ILP which is an inseparable part of British social fascism." Elsewhere we find that Shinwell gained his 'socialist' education by reading "the German Socialist Bernstein" and that Maxton, with unconscious schizophrenia, claimed to recognise the class struggle and the labour theory of value—but not the materialist conception of history!

Mr. Middlemas has little to say about the present little group, all that remains of the once powerful ILP. He merely reflects that "like the old-time SDF and the contemporary 'Impossibilists', the ILP was on the inverted road of splinter groups for whom it is more important to decide the details of the socialist millenium than the present methods of achieving it." But it is quite wrong to imply that the ILP sacrificed numbers for the sake of socialist understanding. They have been strongly influenced by anarchist ideas and, now that the great days of Maxton, Brockway and Wheatley have gone, feel that "parliamentary action . . . has many limitations, and its members cannot adequately represent the interests of the working class." Their demands include the extension of the "comprehensive system of education and abolition of the Grammar School system: and the introduction of "differential rent schemes", although "only a socialist society will be able to bring down the rents"! Finally, they have pledged themselves "to fight within the capitalist system" so that "commodity production (can) be organised for the benefit of the community." Could confusion go any further.

From the start the ILP followed an opportunist line and sneered at the 'impossibilists' in the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain. Never having Socialist principles, it could at least boast of a fair body of working class support. Now that that is gone, there is nothing left. It should be a lesson to all those who preach reformism.
John Crump

Socialism: a world of free access

Editorial from the Winter 1986-7 issue of the World Socialist

We inhabit a world of potential abundance for all, but it is also the case that we have trapped ourselves within a social system of mass deprivation. Throughout the world millions and millions of our fellow men and women are denied the satisfaction of their basic needs. Millions die each year from starvation (635 million live on or below l,600 calories per day) and millions more are blinded, crippled or made lethargic and socially wasted because they lack food, clean water, any medical care. Even in the so-called rich countries poverty is the lot of the majority: not just official 'poverty' which means that the government concedes that you are proof, but the poverty which characterises the life of every worker who is deprived of access to what society could provide for them, but they cannot afford to buy. The reader of this journal whose needs are fulfilled may be an eccentric millionaire, but more likely such a claim of fulfilment is a self-deception - an attempt to hide one's own poverty from one's own consciousness. Let us be honest as workers: our lives, our parents' lives and the lives of our children, however hard the struggle has been to make them 'decent' or 'prosperous', have been less than satisfactory in relation to the level of need-satisfaction, comfort and happiness which society could allow us to enjoy. The working class are confined by the present social system to cut-price lives.

In a socialist society the means of wealth production (the factories, land, offices, mines, transport, media and all the resources required to satisfy human needs) will belong to the entire human community, all of us owning and all of us controlling what will be our world. Production will no longer be for sale and profit; no longer will needs be ignored if there is no money to convert them into 'purchasing power'. In a socialist system of worldwide production the only reason for producing goods and services will be to satisfy needs. Production will be solely for use.

Having scrapped the present system of only producing goods and services if there is an expectation of profit for the parasitical minority who monopolise the earth's resources, socialism will forget the old rules of the buying and selling game (the market) and will distribute what is needed on the basis of free and equal access. Money will be abolished: you cannot buy from yourself what you commonly own. The satisfaction of human needs will involve people giving according to their abilities and taking according to their needs.

Free access means that no human being will need to buy anything. Anything that society can produce will be there for the taking. Decent food; the best houses possible to build; gas, electricity, water; TVs, radios, entertainment; all medical and educational services - all completely free and available for all.

Socialists do not have a narrow conception of need. We would not wish to give the impression that socialism will do no more than satisfy basic living requirements - although doing that alone will be a momentous step forward for the millions of workers now denied the satisfaction of their most elementary needs. More than that, socialism will allow humans to be creative and to explore our wider needs. For too long our needs have been over-influenced by the selling process and the crude mind manipulation of the advertisers: in a socialist society we can begin to think about what we really require to be happy human beings and we shall set about supplying ourselves with the resources needed to live as fully as we can. In answer to the opponent of socialist ideas who asks, 'But will you be able to provide a colour TV for every man and woman in a socialist society?' we answer 'Yes, indeed: a world which can provide enough weapons to murder every person alive could be transformed into one which will provide a colour TV for every person alive, but we feel somehow that once such a new system is established the desire to see ultimate luxury in an escape into technicolour fantasy will not be the ultimate goal which men and women will express.' In short, socialism will not only be able to satisfy our existing needs, but it will enable us to question and challenge those needs - to escape from the poverty of capitalist-determined needs.

Needs are social. We are only free to have goods and services to use if it is technically possible to produce them and if there are people ready to do so. In a socialist society there is not going to be a sudden, utopian-like abundance of everything: the skies will not rain with goodies. Socialism will release from the constraints of profit the abundant resources of the planet and these will be used to allow us to live decently and well. There can be no socialism without socialists, and conscious socialists will have to realise that living in a world of cooperation entails giving as well as taking. Under capitalism most of us do plenty of giving (to the profits of our bosses) and an impoverished degree of taking. In a world of free access it will be a pleasure to fulfill the necessity of working to produce goods and services, sure in the knowledge that one is not doing so to make a boss rich, but to make all of our fellow inhabitants of the global village rich in life. In a worldwide human family there will be no shortage of willing volunteers to ensure that those who cannot work are cared for; there will be no problem of people refusing to do what cooperation demands of their humanity. To be sure, no person will be made to do anything as a matter of compulsion in a socialist society: if they refuse to work and insist upon the glorious right to sleep all day they will be regarded as very odd, perverse sorts. The last thing an intelligent social animal of the human species will do once he or she is free to live in cooperative equality will be to sleep as a form of luxury - indeed, what a perverse system capitalism is when it regards the man or woman who enjoys the freedom to sleep all day as having made a success of life.

Socialism will be a stateless society. No government will be present to tell people what they may or may not have. Free access means precisely what it says: people will be quite free to decide for themselves what they want and to take it. Production will be totally geared to that objective. If people want what cannot yet be produced - what is beyond social resources as developed at that stage - then they cannot have that particular need satisfied. But that will be a very different situation from the kind of mass denial of basic needs which characterises the profit system.

A world of production solely for use and free access for all is there for the making. All it requires is a majority of workers who understand and want it to join together for the purpose of bringing it about. For years a minority of workers have argued the case for such an exciting social alternative. For how much longer we will remain a minority is up to our fellow workers. Will they accept a world of misery and insecurity and poverty in the midst of potential plenty, or will they unite for the creation of a system where never again will the pained cry of a hungry child whose parents lack the money to feed it be heard on our planet?

What Goes Up Must Come Down (2002)

Editorial from the August 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
It's funny how often people only believe what they want to believe. For instance, it might suit their interests for property prices to go up, so they convince themselves that, over the long run, they always do. It's the same with shares. Individual shares may go up and down, so the thinking goes, but across the board – as an investment – they're a fairly safe bet if you're lucky enough to have some cash to spare and can play at being a capitalist for a day.
However, recent events have served to shatter some of these illusions. Stock markets across the world have tumbled and a fully-fledged “bear market“ has been pushing shares steadily lower week after week. The series of financial scandals that have been unfolding in the United States (such as at WorldCom) have dented the confidence of investors and the capitalists are now taking flight from the stock market casino. The recent symbolic decision by one investor to spend £50 million buying a lost Rubens masterpiece says it all – fine paintings and antiques are now seen as safer investments than shares.
In reality, the stock market falls are not just a recent phenomenon and they haven't just developed since the catastrophic events of 11 September either. The bear market has been in existence for the best part of three years as financial reality has triumphed (as eventually it always does) over the baseless optimism engendered by a speculative boom. But why should this always be the case?
As legendary Wall Street investor Warren Buffett once said, in the short-term the stock market is like a voting machine – but in the long-run it acts more like a weighing machine. The growth in the paper value of shares (and property too) tends in the long-term to reflect the slow growth, over time, of the real economy, where goods and services are produced and distributed and not just bought and sold. However, two factors serve to complicate matters.
One is that the capitalist economy does not grow in a steady fashion but is periodically beset by economic convulsions which lead to notable periods of decline. The capitalist economy is not on a smooth upward curve but is a roller-coaster ride of booms and slumps. Slumps follow when companies over-invest because of their competitive drive to acquire more profits, a phenomenon which leads them to produce more than the markets they are selling to can absorb. This does not initially happen across the board, but in key sectors that have typically seen huge growth during the boom and in which, for a time, expansion seems limitless. The knock-on effect from this over-expansion can be enough to produce a slump, with falling output, rising unemployment and wage cuts for those still in work.
The second factor working against the steady growth of stock markets is that they can in some ways become de-coupled from the workings of the real economy for short periods. This can occur for all sorts of reasons, such as when shares seem a particularly risky option in an unstable economic environment (e.g. the 1930s and 1970s) or, conversely and most notably, when they become a vehicle for speculation as the act of successfully buying and selling them becomes a more profitable means of investment than long-term investment in the real economy itself.
As an example of the former situation – when share prices seem artificially low for long periods – an investor in the US share market buying their shares just before the Great Depression of the early 1930s would have had to wait well over over twenty years to see them reach their former value despite the big increases in production during that period overall as the US economy recovered from the slump. Similarly, while US Gross National Product rose by 373 percent between 1964 and 1981 the Dow Jones Index of US stocks stood at 875 – less than one point higher than 17 years earlier (Sunday Times, 15 July).
Conversely, however, in the 17 years after 1981 the US economy grew by less than half as much while at the same time the Dow Jones ballooned more than tenfold to over 9,000 points. What happened over this period in particular (not only in the US but in most other markets) is that there was a flight towards speculation, especially in the once-booming hi-tech “dotcom” and telecommunications sectors, which pushed share prices to levels where they bore no relationship whatsoever to the real underlying values of the companies involved. That speculative bubble – based on over-confidence – has now been shattered by the realisation that the profits of these companies were an ephemera. And the situation has since made worse by the discovery that many of them have been cooking the books to buy themselves a bit of time before the inevitable happened.
The fall in world stock markets is already significant (in Britain the FTSE 100 has lost over 40 percent of its value as we write, wiping tens of billions off paper share values). However, past experience from similar speculative bubbles suggest that the markets may have some way to go yet before they start to recover, prompting a serious slump in production as investors save or hoard their cash. Historically, it is not unusual for shares to fall between 70-80 per cent from their peak. That is what they did after the Wall Street Crash, it is what happened in the early 1970s during the last really sustained bear market in countries like Britain (when the FTSE fell 73 percent) and it is what has happened in Japan in recent years as the Nikkei Dow has fallen from its peak at over 39,000 points to around the 10,000 mark.
Surreal as the capitalist system may appear to be, its ridiculous speculative bubbles are always burst sooner or later – and the larger the bubble, the greater the correction that usually follows. And unfortunately, the consequences are typically worst for the most vulnerable section of society – the wage and salary earners who have nothing of real worth to sell except their ability to work for the employers. In truth, we can pretty much leave the capitalists to look after themselves – but for the workers there is only one solution to the economic crises and slumps of capitalism: a socialist revolution that will sweep away the fetters of the market economy for good.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Labour's head-banging exercise (1989)

From the July 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Popular working class politics is in a state of great confusion. There is uncertainty, disillusion, a prevailing sense of failure and, above all, a lack of clear direction.

It is not a case of uncertainty arising from a question of what to do next, after making great progress in the solution of problems. No-one would say that. Indeed, the great social contradictions which beset society are still with us. We have millions of unemployed; there is poverty and homelessness; in every modern state there is a vast arsenal of weaponry which threatens our annihilation. We have the obscene waste where vast resources are allocated to the military when people are starving and then the human priorities should be demanding that we build houses, improve our medical services, clean up our environment, and undertake many other lines of social action to serve needs.

Irrational Politics
If we look at the present times in which these problems are being expressed we find that this is in the language of what might appear to be madmen. You've only got to listen to the news on any day and hear the talk about the trade deficit . . . interest rates . . . productivity . . . wage settlements in relation to increased prices  . . . the strength of the currency . . . the level of government spending.

Most people don't understand any of it but the professional politicians who run the system are permanently trapped in this economic gibberish which is totally irrelevant to what has to be done in terms of solving the social problems we face. To see its irrelevance you've only got to look at the record. For the past hundred years this has been the language of those who run the system, yet it has never helped to clarify the nature of our problems. Nor has it ever led to any practical action which could solve them. Yet it goes on being repeated, year after year.

One of the reasons for this political irrationality is because politics has become dissociated from experience. The kind of arguments which went on at the last Labour Party Conference all too place as if the past never existed. The rational way to begin an understanding of our problems should be to examine what did happen in the past and to ask important questions about it: What were we hoping to achieve in the past? What action did we think would be effective? What happened as a result of that action? What were the reasons why we failed? What lessons should be learned from that failure?

Neil Kinnock's Ambition
That doesn't happen and the example of the Labour Party can suggest some reason why. The professional politicians who are in the main controlling positions in the Labour Party and who get their living by being MPs don't want to face up to the past because it only brings out their failures. They've got a vested interest in forgetting it: they want to go on being professional politicians in positions of power. They want to form a government.

They are desperate to form a government. You've only got to see Neil Kinnock on television and in other places. He will say and do anything to form a government. He'll run the market system better than the Tories—those are his own words—just to be Prime Minister of a Labour government. He can't afford to think about the past. He wants to forget it and pretend that it doesn't exist. He needs to create the illusion that he has a unique opportunity to solve our problems which no other politician has ever had before. But we can't just blame him. He is only one of those who are trapped in the prevailing state of political neurosis where action is dissociated from experience.

Even the ordinary constituency workers at what they call the grass roots level whose time and energy keep the Labour Party going want to forget the past. They don't want to face up to the fact that their hours of campaigning to get Labour MPs elected in the past all came to nothing. Indeed, if they looked at it honestly and objectively, they would have to confront the fact that it didn't just come to nothing: the Labour government between 1974 and 1979 did all the things which were the opposite of what they said they would do.

The Facts
What are the facts? Have a look at the 1974 Labour Party manifesto.

They said they would solve the problem of unemployment. What happened? Under the Labour government unemployment doubled. It went from 630,000 to over 1,300,000. This was the opposite to what they said they'd do.

They said they would increase the proportion of national resources allocated to the health service, education, welfare, pensions and other benefits. What happened? Under Callaghan as Prime Minister and Healey as Chancellor they cut spending on all these services.

They said that with an expanding economy industrial relations would be improved. What happened? The country was beset with the chaos of strikes—the notorious winter of discontent which actually led to the Tories under Thatcher being voted into power.

They said they would defend the poor against the rich. What happened? When they took office, wages and salaries accounted for 72 per cent of all distributed income. Profits took 28 per cent. When they left office, wages and salaries accounted for 68 per cent and profits took 32 per cent. This again was the opposite of what they said would happen.

So, on all these counts—unemployment, government spending, industrial strife, and the distribution of income—things were worse when they left office in the 1979 election.

The Problem is Capitalism
There is now supposed to be a great debate taking place in the Labour Party since they don't know what they stand for any more. In any rational response, the first thing you would expect is that they confront the reasons for their past failures. But they're not doing that. Their so-called policy review is a public relations exercise. All that's come out of it is the same old failed methods. It's another phase in the same old process of political head-banging, with Neil Kinnock as their leading head-banger. Not that he cares. All he wants is to be Prime Minister, as he's made abundantly clear.

For workers, the problem is capitalism. We produce all the wealth—in fact we run the useful parts of society from top to bottom—but we don't get all the benefits of our production of goods and our running of services and we don't have direct control of the society we run. Our economic function under capitalism is to produce wealth for an exploiting and parasitical class, the capitalist class.

Since the beginning of the century, when the Labour Party was formed, these basic facts haven't changed. We had capitalism then and we've got capitalism now. Workers were exploited them we're exploited now. The rich had luxury then and they've got it now. Workers had the problems of housing, making ends meet, and economic insecurity then and we've got the same problems now. This is in spite of the fact that we produce every bit of useful wealth that becomes available and run all the useful services that people need.

Capitalism produced for profit then and it produces for profit now. When there was no prospect of profit then, workers became unemployed. It is exactly the same now. At the turn of the century the privileges of the rich were based on their ownership of the means of production and all natural resources and on their control over workers through the state machine. It is exactly the same now.

The Socialist Solution
It isn't enough just to have a clear understanding of what causes the problems of the working class; we must also have a very clear understanding of how they could be solved. That solution is socialism.

Socialism means a society based on common ownership, democratic control, and production solely for human need.

By common ownership we mean a society where all means of production and all natural resources will be held in common by the whole community. In socialism there will be no individuals or groups in society exercising ownership rights of any kind over manufacturing industry, energy supply, transport or communications, nor over land, oil, metal or mineral deposits. All these will be available for use by society for providing for people's needs.

By democratic control we mean a system of administration where social policy and action will be decided by the democratic decisions of the community. Communities will be free to make their decisions about what needs to be done and, within the limitations of what is practicable, will organise social resources so as to achieve the objectives of those democratic decisions. This will entail the conversion of the present state machinery, which represents the power of the capitalists to maintain their monopoly of the means of life, into the required democratic institutions.

Production solely for human needs will replace the present capitalist system of exploitation where workers sell their mental and physical abilities for wages or salaries and produce commodities for sale on markets. Production solely for human need on the basis of common ownership will mean people cooperating to produce goods and maintain services directly for needs and in line with democratic decisions. This will be a practical and straightforward system of useful work producing useful goods free from the economic constraints of production for profit, without any exchange of any kind and without therefore the use of money.

Production will be humanised in the sense that human beings won't have a price put on either their ability to work or the product of their work. Jobs won't have a price on them, nor will goods, nor will needs. Instead of working for wages people will cooperate, and this will bring work under the control of those who carry it out. It will be the self-determined activity of individuals responding to the needs of the community of which they form a part and who have the responsibility and the real power of decision-making and action.

That is the sane system we must establish and it is the only sensible definition of socialism.
Pieter Lawrence

Socialists confront Mr Tony Benn (1980)

From the January 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tony Benn may be the next Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain. Almost alone among the Labour leaders, sunk in a gloom as they are after their party's defeat last May, he offers a plan for Labour's future, with an optimism that they will one day once again get power over British capitalism. 

So we were surprised when he agreed to be interviewed by the Socialist Standard about his policies and attitudes as he expresses them in his recent book Arguments for Socialism. Defenders of capitalism are notoriously difficult to persuade to match their case against ours. The interview (which Tony Benn preferred to call a debate) lasted an hour and our published account of it has needed to be abridged.

In truth, Benn's plan for Labour's revival is little more than a paper thin assumption that, with a few constitutional changes, his party will be able basically to alter its nature. It will, he hopes, be able to throw off its past as a party which has run capitalism firmly in the interests of the capitalist class and begin to run society in the interests of the majority. There is no evidence to support this assumption; indeed after every electoral failure Labour tries to bolster its confidence by telling itself, and us, that it can and will change.

Benn's political ideas are basically that if there are enough small reforms imposed upon capitalism the system will, in a way which has yet to be explained, suddenly stop being capitalism and become socialism. In the case of Benn, even this shaky argument might have been a little stronger if he had been able to give any idea of what socialism is or even to know whether the Labour Party stood for socialism.

He claims that reforming capitalism is "doing something", as opposed to socialists who are "pure" and "impotent". This is a familiar, not to say exhausted, argument - one which continues to exist only because those. like Benn, who put it forward do so by ignoring reality and experience.

The working class have had plenty of time to become familiar with Labour governments and with Labour politicians who - no matter what the effect of their anti-working class policies, no matter how obvious their failures to eliminate capitalism 's problems tirelessly assure us that a vote for Labour is a vote for a better society. This, again, flies in the face of reality.

One final point. Benn, as we have said, is a leading politician But his justifications for capitalism, and his objections to the principles of revolutionary socialism which are uncompromisingly put forward by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, were exactly the same as those we confront all the time, wherever we are and whenever we state the case for the new society of common ownership.

Socialist Standard: You claim to be a socialist and to stand for something which you describe in your book Arguments for Socialism as democratic socialism. Now the Socialist Party of Great Britain also claims to stand for socialism and because of this we are hostile to the Labour Party. So it is clear that we and the Labour Party differ about socialism and what it is. Could you tell us how you define socialism?

Tony Benn: I suppose there are many schools of socialism in this country. There is the Labour Party, which is not particularly ideologically united; there is the Communist Party, there is the New Communist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party, the International Marxist Group. There are an enormous number of schools of socialist thought and I suppose that discussing socialism is like discussing religion. I think that if you look at British socialism you have to see it in two ways: first of all you have to see those sects of socialist thought, all of which are very valuable, as a means of illuminating what is happening. Then you have to ask yourself a second question: how does the working class movement in Britain mobilise itself for social change by defending its interests against those hostile to it, and how does it secure advances on limited fronts or major fronts? The Labour Party comes in the second category. It is the instrument of the British working class movement but there is no ideological test in the Labour Party. There are people in the Labour Party who in other countries would be Christian Democrats and there are others who in other countries might be communists I suppose — or anything in between and beyond. So the Labour Party has never purported to stand for a particular school of thought and to that extent it lacks the purity the SPGB would like to see. It's an instrument.

Socialist Standard: That doesn't answer our question of how you define socialism: you don't define socialism in terms of a basic change in society.

Tony Benn: In the preface to the book I identify some of the influences in my life that brought me to a view that I describe as socialist and only I can decide how I'm to be classified. But the influences that were present in my life have driven me to conclusions that the structure of society needs to be changed in such a way as to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families. If you want to put it in the classic language: "To secure for the workers by hand and by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof as may be obtainable on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange."

Socialist Standard: Could we move on from there and ask you about a specific feature about society which is drawn from your book. The actual statement is: "Investors there will always be." You follow this up by saying " . . . but there is no valid reason why the investors' money should give them first claim to control over those who invest their lives." Now socialists would argue about the detail of that statement at some length but for the moment we would like to ask you how you would reconcile the existence of investors — which necessarily means other people who work to produce the yield on the investments, in other words exploitation, profit producing — with a system of society which, in any rate in part, is defined in Clause Four as "common ownership"?

Tony Benn: Well, if you have savings in the Post Office Savings Bank are you an investor? If you have money put aside in a pension fund are you an investor? If you are a borrower for the purpose of buying your own house, is there anything wrong in borrowing money that you may yourself have invested in a Building Society? I don't think that raises the question of socialism at all: the right of people to put aside from their current earnings money that they wish to invest. What really matters is whether that gives them command over the livelihood of others and that is the key difference, as I understand it. I've never heard the argument put forward by socialists that it's wrong for somebody to put aside money from their earnings to provide for their holiday or their retirement. It seems to me to be perfectly compatible with socialism.

Socialist Standard: We don't think, when you were talking about "investors", you mean people with small amounts of savings in something like the Post Office. You have to draw a distinction between people in pension funds and the sort of people you're referring to in your book when you say you came to the realisation that banks and the big financial institutions actually controlled what you did, rather than the other way round. Does your answer mean that you do envisage a socialist society as having investors?

Tony Benn: I think the question really would entirely depend, in this context, upon whether the financial institutions were publicly owned, which I think they ought to be, or not. If you have the pension funds in public ownership and those pension funds then put their money into a publicly owned industry like Leyland for the purpose of expanding motor car production they are investors. What I am saying is that neither the state investor, nor the private investor should have the power to determine matters of industrial policy that are properly the concern of those who work in those firms. I've never heard the argument used that socialism would abolish the concept of investment, because investment is the transfer of surplus into future production or into some other socially desirable purpose. The question is, who does it and what are the consequences of it?

Socialist Standard: Socialists—members of the SPGB—would say that your vision, which you call socialism, looks very much like capitalism. In your book you indicate that you think that governments, including Labour governments, failed to affect problems like poverty; in fact you mention something like "we aim to eliminate poverty" and you say a couple of lines later "This is a very old aim." So if you're arguing that Labour governments have failed to eliminate poverty and other problems like unemployment which you draw attention to in your book, do you not think this is a basic failure, something to do with the capitalist system of society rather than with personalities in the Labour Party?

Tony Benn: Oh, yes. I don't think it's got anything to do with personalities in the Labour Party. In 1959 the Labour Party was persuaded to abandon socialism on the basis that capitalism would always give you growth and welfare, full employment and so on. That was one of the features which explained the failure. Other features you could go into in greater detail, but the main one was that we abandoned the attempt to make fundamental changes. But that no more shakes my confidence in the Labour movement, as the instrument of social change, than a defeat in a general election shakes my confidence in the validity of the ballot as means of determining who should be in power.

Socialist Standard: The argument, surely, is that the Labour Party has been in government roughly half the time since World War II and by your own arguments this "fundamental and irreversible shift in power" has not happened. We can try and put it a bit further; it won't with a Labour government, whichever Labour government, whether it's your brand or Callaghan's brand or whatever. You're not actually trying to affect the fundamental basis on which society works. For example, nationalisation is one of the things the Labour Party has always taken Clause Four to mean — it was intended to shift the balance of power and it hasn't done so in the industries which have so far been nationalised. You've got to be responsible for the Labour Party; your record since 1945 is one of, on your own definition, somewhat large failures.

Tony Benn: If we are asked to justify our record, as we are, then I must ask the SPGB what it has got to show for its record of great purity and but little influence and political impotence. However we make changes it will take time and we have to be both impatient and patient at the same time. These changes cannot be carried through overnight.

Socialist Standard: Could we take you up on the point of unemployment? In your book the conclusion you come to, having outlined the problem pretty adequately, is to say that we should not lay the blame for what has happened at the door of any individual or any group of individuals. A couple of sentences later you say "These contradictions are fundamental to the economic system under which we operate." Now that's what socialists are talking about. We are saying that problems like unemployment are not susceptible to being reformed out of existence. We argue that a basic change in society is needed.

Tony Benn: It's not due to personalities but it is due to something being fundamentally wrong. If you say that reform had never secured change, how do you explain, for example, the very substantial change that did occur when the Combination Acts were repealed viz-a-viz the role of the trade unions—or the impact upon society, which has been very profound, through the extension of the franchise? I think that to say that reform is always wrong because what is needed is fundamental change entirely misses the point that, to be effective, reform has to be fundamental and this becomes a semantic argument.

Socialist Standard: First of all we don't think that your reforms are actually doing what you claim they are doing. To put it another way, if the Labour Party got all that you claim it would like to do, that would not be fundamental change. Things are changing every day — there's been fantastic changes, some of which the Labour Party has helped, some of which it's held back. You talk about unemployment, say you have got to do something about it but you can't; ultimately unemployment is one of those inevitable problems which keep cycling up and down in this society. This is what's happening now, it happened last winter and the Labour Party, even at its best, is not going to stop that.

Tony Benn: That is a view, which  is very common on the ultra-left, based upon pessimism — that doing anything is a waste of time because you're bound to fail. In some circumstances, as now, we are in a mainly defensive posture, to prevent the destruction of the Welfare State and the rise of unemployment to two or three million. It would be a remarkable achievement for the Labour movement. Our first function, as a representative of the British working class movement, is defensive. At the same time we have then to organise and explain and analyse and mobillise and then win a majority for a change.. Now you can say "If you do all that it's simply not worth doing. It won't do anything you describe." Well that form of pessimism feeds sectarianism because having dismissed the entire Labour movement in which the hopes of the British working class have been put, in one shape or form, for a century, it justifies the view that you should like in a little world of purity and impotence. I'm driven to say that although I don't think you are either pure or impotent.

Socialist Standard: You accuse of being pessimistic; we would say that what you are doing is confusing, creating a fog, because you're building up hopes of all sorts of people who are desperate for a change yet you can't put them in a situation where they can bring about that change.

Tony Benn: What I'm saying is that while the present structure of economic and industrial power remains the problems of our society are inevitable and until we open our minds to a different concept of society we can have Labour governments in office but never Labour governments in power. And we can have Labour governments in power and never have socialism in practise.

Socialist Standard: We urge the working class to learn from their experiences and one thing which is signally clear is that at the moment they are not learning from their experiences. In particular, they don't learn from their experiences of government. You mention the 1945 Labour government; well you know the sort of policy that government carried out. For example they took the working class of this country into the Korean war, they immediately imposed an attack upon working class living standards, they behaved in the accepted way of any capitalist government. And that has been the history of all Labour governments up to now. Now the socialist attitude is that the working class should learn from their mistakes. Could we tie that up with a point about fundamental change needing consent; we argue that in order to change society there has to be a socialist consciousness. Now do you think that when a Labour government does this sort of thing — when it attacks trade unions, for example, when it attacks working class living standards, when it prosecutes the wars of capitalism, when, in other words, it behaves pretty well like any Conservative government — do you not think that to call that socialism, or to say it has something to offer the working class, does anything but raise consciousness? It causes confusion.

Tony Benn: I draw the same distinction as between the organisation of the church and the christian message, which has survived, despite the organisation of the church over a long period. I don't regard any human organisation as being capable by its nature of reflecting in a pure form the socialism the Labour Party professes. What I'm saying is that the Labour Party is the only instrument by which socialism can be introduced. Socialist governments have had some successes and some failures. I've never argued that Labour governments are socialist in themselves but they are the instrument through which socialist ideas can be introduced.

Socialist Standard: It looks to us just the opposite. If you didn't know the names, didn't know who was who, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. If you dropped from Mars at the time of the last Labour government and heard Callaghan last winter, how would you tell that that was supposed to be the instrument for introducing socialism? You are asserting what you want to believe; you've got your eyes closed to what is really going on in the Labour Party.

Tony Benn: Well that's perfectly fair comment and criticism. If I'm asked to justify the Labour Party I will look at the resolutions that have been passed by the party Conferences. Those of them that have been implemented embrace real and fundamental socialist concepts. Nobody is going to persuade me that the National Health Service was not a fundamental change in the opportunity and access the people have to good health. The comprehensive schools do represent a fundamental change in the concept of education. Legislation designed to advance trade unionism has fundamentally altered power relationships at work. Now those are only three examples. But to say that the whole thing is a fraud and has been intended to confuse and divert people is to do less than justice to the common sense of the people who support the Labour Party.

Socialist Standard: Do you think, then, that whatever comes out of the current enquiry into the organisation of the Labour Party, a Labour government would ever respond to a decision by your conference which it saw as being against the interests of British capitalism? For example, if the Conference passed another resolution to abandon unilaterally British nuclear weapons, weapons which a Labour government thought, as all Labour governments have thought up to now, are very necessary to British capitalism — do you really think they would scrap the weapons?

Tony Benn: Well if you're saying that democracy is impotent in the Labour Party, and is destined to be impotent in the Labour Party, you're saying that democracy is impotent everywhere. If the Labour Party, by changing its Constitution so that its leader is accountable, its policy is determined by its members, its MPs can be reselected — if you are saying that all those things are destined to fail, you are saying that there is something inherently wrong about the Labour Party, that even if it adopted your policy en bloc it could never be capable of implementing it. And this again is a form of institutional pessimism which I simply can't accept.

Socialist Standard: If the Labour Party adopted our policy en bloc it wouldn't then be the Labour Party — it would be a different party, that would stand for socialism. You see, the SPGB says — we want socialism. We define it very clearly, we talk about a world common ownership society with free access, voluntary co-operation. That's the society we are after. We are not a "broad church", we are not a broad movement, we are after socialism and nothing else. Now you say you want fundamental change but on the other hand you also say you want what the Labour Party wants. Now a lot of members of the Labour Party, as you know, are not for fundamental change at all. They are for very small reforms because that is the way they see the Labour Party making progress. But we would like you to be specific about what fundamental changes you want.

Tony Benn: Well I'll do the best I can, but I will be referring to policies that have been adopted by the Annual Conference which are: that the crisis of investment has got to be resolved by diverting the nation's savings to re-equip the nation's industry in circumstances that are accompanied by, and indeed promoted by, expansion of public services. We want a society where all those who exercise power are accountable to those over whom they exercise it. Now you might say that's a very generalised phrase but it's no more generalised than saying we want a world full of good people to work with each other because that's the "second coming". In any circumstances I can foresee for the next century or more, any little bits of socialism you create will be operating within a hostile sea of capitalism or fascism or international control of some kind or another. To reject the idea of piecemeal changes because there has not been a total change can become an excuse for not even trying. I'm arguing that socialism is always going to be piecemeal advance towards a change because you do not have it within your capacity to make the big change at once, which could not in any case be made without winning people's hearts and minds to the benefits of little changes, and that has got to be done in other countries as well. I will accept that your dream world is broader than my dream world but my dream world is perfectly capable of encompassing yours. I don't quite understand how your dream world would help me in trying to deal with the day to day problems of the people I try to represent.

Socialist Standard: The case for socialism is not a matter of pessimism or a dream; at the matter it is a matter of diagnosis. In answering the question about fundamental change you promptly started to talk about piecemeal change and that really is the whole kernel of it. There have been centuries of attempts at piecemeal changes — some of them you discuss in your book — and yet capitalism today is as terrible a system to live under as it ever was. The working class still have tremendous problems and there are still people like yourself who are putting forward policies to deal with them. Now our diagnosis of that situation is that capitalism has outlived its usefulness and all organisations — and we include them all in this — are going to fail if they don't recognise that basic fact. So we say, as part of our diagnosis, the remedy comes next: a fundamental change in society, a social revolution, and that is something the Labour Party has never stood for.

Tony Benn: All I'm saying is quite simply that if you are going to make an advance you have got to be prepared to tackle problems on a piecemeal basis, by which I mean discrete areas that you change.

Socialist Standard: I'm glad you're not a doctor. I wouldn't goto a doctor who said that, when I had a problem, tackle that problem just as it comes up. We are saying that the logic of your argument leads, not to socialism but to different forms of capitalism. By establishing socialist society we will not be chasing after all these little problems one after another, which is what you advocate. We will be actually changing the society which causes the problems.

Tony Benn: But you skip the whole problem of how you create a socialist society. You simply say — "If things were different, you would have a better life." It is no good me going to somebody and saying "If things were different you wouldn't be out of work, your mother wouldn't have to wait two years for an operation". They want to know, how do we make it different? And frankly, if I as a minister approached the problems that way, there would have been no interest at all. If people simply went to ministers and heard this interesting lecture about how under socialism it would be different and then were sent away with our problems round our necks, it would be a disaster.

Socialist Standard: You are saying that a socialist can't exist in a Labour government, which is absolutely correct. Or in the Labour Party.

Tony Benn: Well, anyway I've enjoyed it very much. A stern cross-examination.
Ralph Critchfield
Ronnie Warrington