Friday, January 3, 2014

It Wasn’t Socialism

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Commenting on multi-millionaire and Tory backwoodsman Adrian Beecroft’s description of LibDem Cabinet Minister Vince Cable as a “socialist”for criticising his proposal to make it easier for employers to sack workers, Owen Jones asked “How did ‘socialist’ turn into an insult?”(I newspaper, 25 May).

It’s a question we ourselves have often asked. Our answer has been that it’s because the word became associated with the Labour Party and the state capitalist dictatorship in the old USSR.

Although we consistently opposed both, we were unable to keep to the fore the original meaning of ‘socialism’ as a co-operative commonwealth based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, with production for use, not the market or profit, and the end of having to work for wages.  Both Labour and the Russian dictatorship failed and people were encouraged to see this as the failure of socialism.

The early Labour Party’s claim was that, by a series of nationalisations and social reforms, a Labour government would be able to gradually improve workers’ living standards and progress towards socialism (which some of them understood in the same, original sense as us). It didn’t work out that way. In office, Labour had to govern capitalism on capitalism’s terms, as a profit-making system. This inevitably brought them into conflict with workers and to introduce wage restraint and restrictions on union activity.

The post-war Labour government did nationalise coal, the railways, gas, water and electricity but mainly in order to ensure that the rest of private industry got these provided in a more efficient (and subsidised) way. It also introduced a nation-wide social insurance system and health service, once again mainly to benefit employers by providing them with a relatively healthy and more productive workforce.

Although working conditions in the industries that were nationalised did improve, the basic conflict of interest between workers and employers that is built-in to capitalism continued, and so, therefore, did strikes. An economic crisis (and the need to finance a war in Korea) forced the post-war Labour government itself to begin the whittling away of some of the social reforms it had introduced. The same happened with the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s.

Instead of Labour gradually transforming capitalism, it was capitalism that gradually transformed Labour, from a party that talked of socialism even if only as a vague and long-term aspiration into an alternative management team for British Capitalism plc.

Jones noted that the word ‘socialism’“hasn’t made an appearance in a Labour manifesto since 1987.”But he doesn’t want to return to the original meaning but only to what the Labour Party used to mean by it years ago. “If socialists really were running the show in Britain”, he wrote, the banks “would be taken under genuine democratic control, forcing them to operate in the interests of society as a whole”; the rich would be forced to pay more tax; the railways and energy companies would be taken into “social ownership”and run by workers and consumers; more social housing would be built, and a “living wage”introduced.

This is Old Labour stuff –the dream of a democratically-run wages and profits system (which, ironically, Vince Cable shared when he was a Labour councillor in Glasgow in the 1970s before following the Gang of Four into the SDP and then the Liberals).

There was nothing wrong with the sentiment behind this of wanting to provide workers with a decent and improving standard of living. It’s just that, given capitalism, this is not possible. Capitalism simply cannot be made to work in the interest of workers.

Please Don’t Feed the Drones (2014)

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

The announcement in December that Amazon planned to start delivering goods by helicopter microdrones prompted a flurry of media excitement prematurely extinguished by the two-faced hagiographic orgy following Nelson Mandela’s demise shortly afterwards. But still the story buzzed round the pubs and offices like whirring rotor blades. What if someone nicks your delivery after the drone has dropped it off? What if someone shoots it down with an air rifle or radio pulse? What if there’s a mid-air collision? What happens to all the plastic delivery boxes afterwards? And what of civil aviation control systems? Will all these drones flock in droves to Trafalgar Square looking for someone to feed them?

Some po-faced commentators were quick to identify the story as a piece of misdirection from a company already under fire for its working practices, including poor pay, punishing targets and round the clock surveillance, but this was merely journalistic contrariness.  Amazon can scarcely be worried given that such bad publicity is old and dog-eared news (see for instance ‘UK workforce attacks Amazon’, Guardian, 14 April 2001). Besides, shock revelations about Foxconn workers jumping in desperation off factory rooftops in China have not raised an eyebrow among Apple’s loyal devotees in the west, and Nike and Primark shoppers don’t pause for guilty reflection either, so why should Amazon lose sleep?

The risk that these drones would be hacked went from likelihood to certainty after news that another drone had suffered a similar fate (‘Parrot drones 'vulnerable to flying hack attack'’, BBC Online, 4 December). We therefore await with baited breath a near future when Black Friday Christmas online shopping extravaganzas are followed by a mass exodus of all UK deliveries to a single offshore pirate tanker registered in Liberia, or else combined into a festive Stuka dive-bombing raid on Westminster.

And what will these little Santas in their micro-sleighs be carrying to your back door in years to come? The answer is ‘wearables’. Not socks or pants, you understand, or at least not in the form you know them, but electronic wearables that ‘do’ things. Several companies are engaged in a high-street battle to corner the smart watch market, but this must surely be a minor skirmish compared to the battle for the smart bra, the smart wig and the mood sweater. The bra will tell you what mood you’re in, the mood sweater will tell everyone else (by lighting up in different colours), and the wig will allegedly let you see in the dark with bat-vision and control computers telepathically. With your Google glasses to complete the look you will be at the electronic leading edge of every fancy dress competition going. Just don’t go out in the rain.

Sound ridiculous? Well, it is. But that’s the future for you. Or at least it’s the future as projected by company sales executives on fire with the possibilities of technology to give an already overstuffed population more of what it’s already got.

There are worrying developments in amongst all this that you have to watch out for. Computer viruses are getting cleverer, and now passing themselves off as free virus-checkers. Spammers are overcoming their bad English and sending phishing emails, supposedly from your bank, that are starting to look convincing. Now the game is ‘ransomware’, a stroke of genius whereby the spammers don’t have to be sly, they can just barge right in, lock up your whole computer and then charge you a fortune in untraceable bitcoins before vanishing into the night – without bothering to release your data. Cue a new term and possibly criminal charge of – ‘dataknapping’. Remember, you read it here first.

But despite the concerns, is the future in capitalism any scarier because of this technology than it would otherwise be? Futurologists like Alvin and Heidi Toffler have made careers since the 1960s out of claiming so. Their influential notion of ‘future-shock’ has just been revisited by Douglas Rushkoff of Cyberia (1994) fame in his latest book Present Shock (2013), the idea being that the future is no longer the future but is smacking us in the face like a wet herring in today’s present. Interesting though these ideas are, socialists tend to take such things with a spoon of salt. For one thing, futurologists like the Tofflers and Ray Kurszweil (long-time predictor of the history-shattering Singularity) tend to overlook class relations as a social dynamic and motor of change. Even Rushkoff, politically more clued-up than them, is in danger of being dazzled by his own hype, coining terms like ‘fractalnoia’ (the construction of arbitrary patterns out of masses of data, leading to conspiracy theories) and ‘digiphrenia’ (the ability to be in multiple places and cyber personalities at once) as if these were fundamentally new human behavioural phenomena. In fact, everyone operates multiple personalities, at home, at work, on the phone, at job interviews, in the pub, and humans are forever building baroque theories out of bare bone facts. The underlying tendencies have always been there, so there’s no reason to get too excited about new manifestations of them.

Socialists are futurologists too, because socialism is a theory of the future, but we live in the present and our feet are on the ground, where workers actually live. The offices may buzz today with the latest talk of drone deliveries as if it was science-fiction come to life, but tomorrow people will be ordering by drone without a second thought. Workers don’t trip over the future and suffer some existential crisis, they simply lengthen their stride. Indeed, the main proof against the futurologist notion of future-shock is the futurologists warning us about it. Forewarned, we forestall any sense of surprise.

Besides, if you look around you and then compare it to any cinema film from the 1960s and 70s, when futurologists were first writing about brave new worlds of the year 2000, what do you see? You see pretty much the same clothes and hair, the same houses, buses, cars and trains. You see the same food, the same language, the same social mannerisms. About the only difference is that the TV cops back then didn’t have computers on their desks and they had to call the station from call-boxes. Oh, and they all smoked like chimneys.

That’s not to say the world hasn’t changed, or that technology has not been instrumental in the changes, but the real differences lie underneath the gadgets, in social attitudes. Far from being paralysed by the blinding speed of change, we are learning to change ideas at blinding speed. Social relationships have been revolutionised, at least in some ways, offering an instant intimacy and membership of identity groups at the touch of a button, thus promoting a new sense of commonality and debate among the young just when old curmudgeons are throwing earth on the grave of supposedly deceased ‘community spirit’. From the once-a-day stuffy announcements of old BBC six o’clock headlines, news now travels at light speed via a million channels, challenging the ability of conventional ‘stop press’ media to keep up, or of governments to keep down, and political movements and trends form literally overnight, challenging regimes from Syria to Ukraine. The future isn’t a shock. What is a shock is the discovery that we can make our own future, and that it doesn’t have to be what our masters tell us it should be. That’s encouraging to anyone who wants progress, and especially to socialists, who can easily feel marginalised and ignored in all the hubbub. The world might not be listening to us today, but give it 24 hours and all bets are off.


The Struggle in U.S.A. (1919)

From the September 1919 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Movement of the Blind.
America badly needs a Socialist party. The deep ignorance of the workers here is reflected in the profound ignorance of the organised labour movement. The American Federation of Labour continues on its capitalist road, exchanging thorough support of the war for the enslaving policy of our masters' peace. The Industrial Workers of the World has been paralysed by anti-Syndicalist laws and persecution of its leaders—mostly now in Federal prisons. The Workers' International Industrial Union—the child of the Socialist Labor Party—does not grow, and is always busy with internal fights, especially with its parent, the S.L.P. It refuses to endorse the S.L.P. as more than half its membership belongs to the rotten Socialist Party of America.

"My Country, 'tis of Thee."
The war found the S.P. leaders pro-Ally and anxious for the popular side, many getting Government jobs and increased publicity. These leaders seceded or were finally expelled, and they formed the Social Democratic League similar to the Hyndman clique in England. To-day the S.D.L. is little heard of and is represented in print by Allan Benson's paper, "Reconstruction." Rose Pastor Stokes returned to the S.P. fold, while her millionaire husband still continues with the jingoes.

A. M. Simons, when not busy misleading Europe, writes lies for the capitalist Press with Chas. E. Russell, William English Walling, Allan Benson and John Spargo. They flourish in the pages of that worst of all papers, the "Appeal to Reason," now known as the "New Appeal," of Girard, Kansas.

The leading writer of that journal is Upton Sinclair, who is trying to explain away  his jingoism in his monthly magazine, "The New Justice," of Los Angeles.

Debs and Debsism.
Eugene V. Debs was enthusiastic for the S.P. anti-war stand at the St. Louis Convention in 1916, but began to wobble when America entered the war. In the pages of the "Social Builder," a social reform Magazine of St. Louis, Debs argued that the anti-war stand should be modified, especially in view of the approaching election. All the capitalist papers reprinted his statements to show that the S.P. was becoming "sane."

When Debs saw that his new attitude was losing him support he wobbled back to his former position, though at his recent trial he reminded the court that he did not agree with the St. Louis platform. Debs sought to hold his democratic following, and received 10 years at Cleveland Federal Court for speaking against the war at Canton, Ohio. He is now in Atlanta prison.

Kate Richards O'Hare, a reformer and leader of the S.P., is also in prison, though her danger to the ruling class is infinitesimal. Victor Berger, one of the most anti-Socialist leaders of the S.P., has also been given 20 years, though he supported the Mexican War and militarism. He was widely known as a pro-German. While Berger wrote the pro-German articles for the "Milwaukee Leader," Simons did the pro-Ally work on the same periodical.

The Lawyer Leaders.
Even after many of the openly pro-war gentry had left the party the great bulk of the leadership and many members refused to take the working-class position on the war. The mass of S.P. membership can be estimated by their continual support of the official clique and by their sticking to such a rotten organisation. Morris Hillquit, the "brains of the S.P.," one of the many lawyers on the National Executive, offered to organise an army of Socialists to help to explain democracy to the Germans overseas. He also admitted that if he had been a member of Congress he would have voted for the war.

Algernon Lee and six other S.P. aldermen voted $80,000 in New York for a "Victory" arch on which the American "victory" at Murmansk in Russia was inscribed. Louis Boudin—another lawyer, and, author of "Theoretical System of Karl Marx"—rallied in support of the League of Nations, and refused to adopt any views on the Russian situation as he would not condemn Plechanoff and his other friends thousands of miles away.

Such a Happy Family!
When Kerensky got control in Russia the S.P. rallied for that capitalist Government, and when Ebert rose to power in Germany they duly celebrated the German "Revolution." Their support of much A. F. of L. officialdom, the sickening reform programme, the lack of party discipline, the general ignorance of Socialism caused a growing revolt in certain centres in the States. More than 50 per cent. of the membership is composed of foreign language federations. These have always been  hotbeds of reform propaganda and general ignorance. The Finnish, Jewish and German federations supported every reactionary policy. Until the Bolshevik uprising in Russia the various Russian federations in the S.P. were small, but they sprang up like mushrooms after the coup of 1917. The Russians wobbled from the defense of Plechanoff to that of Kerensky, and through their ignorance rallied to the policy of S.P. reformism.

The great bulk of Jews in the party read "Forward," the national daily edited by Abe Cahan—the supporter of war and defender of reaction in the party.

Many prominent members of the Socialist Labor Party have climbed back onto the S.P. waggon—Frank Bohn, Louis Fraina, Solon De Leon, Karl Dannenburg, Seidel, Dr. Julius Hammer—and some of them began the contest for leadership in the S.P. They preached Industral Unionism of a kind, and men like Fraina saw in the rising Bolshevik wave in the party a chance to build up a large following.

All Aboard for Bolshevism.
One point should be well noted. The elements here who took front rank in their support of Bolshevism were the very ones who were against revolutionary methods and who ridiculed Socialist education. Their feelings ran high when Allied intervention in Russia welded working-class sentiment against the capitalist international. And the anti-political ideas preached for years were good material for "abolish the State immediately" propaganda. Soviets were formed here but were mere parodies of the Russian example. Some, like in Philadelphia, advocated the armed rising of a minority, whilst most of them degenerated into veterans' reform associations.

The Left Wing and its Feathers.
The Left Wing of the S.P. comprises every variety of fool and freak, just like the Right Wing. There is, however, some good material in the Left Wing, but it is powerless while it remains together with such an army of ignorance. The test question is not whether you understand Socialism and are in favour of it, but whether you are a Bolshevik. And Bolshevism here covers almost every conceivable idea except the scientific principles of Socialism—Mass Action on the streets against machine guns, Minority Rule, To Hell with Democracy, Action not Study, such are some of the ideas of the Left Wing.

The S.P. have suspended seven language federations—Russian, Lithuanian, Lettish, Polish, South Slavic, Ukrainian, and Estonian—on account of their affiliations with the Left Wing party within the party. The State of Massachusetts and many locals in New York were expelled for the same reason, making nearly half the membership. The State of Michigan was expelled for adopting a "no reform" constitution. Michigan was not affiliated with the Left Wing organisation as they objected to the Mass Action, Industrial Unionist, and other confused ideas preached in the Left Wing manifesto and the Left Wing official organ, the "Revolutionary Age." The support of Michigan only existed where study classes had been organised by Michigan's proletarian university, a Marxian study class-promoting body organised by a number of Detroit workers.

The Left Wing is in Pieces
The Socialist Propaganda League was formed in 1916 to preach Industrial Unionism and Mass Action within the S.P. Fraina and S. J. Rutgers (now in Russia), and Bucharin the Bolshevik Commissar, were prominent members. They published the "New International" at Boston, and they eventually merged into the Left Wing group and gave up their paper for the "Revolutionary Age"—a parrot-like edition of Lenin's and Trotsky's speeches. It falsifies Marx and dupes its ignorant following.

All Left Wing branches, locals, and States were invited to send representatives to the Left Wing Convention at New York on June 21st. The Convention was dominated by Jim Larkin, the supporter of Labourism, John Reed, the war correspondent lately returned from Russia, and Louis Fraina, the political gymnast of the S.P., S.L.P., and Socialist Propaganda League. The whole business was a miserable farce, being a sordid struggle for control. The Michigan delegates presented an ultimatum demanding the immediate formation of a Communist party on the basis of a platform adopted by Michigan at its special Convention on June 15th. The Russian federations—the backbone of the Left Wing—also objected to the policy of the Left Wing leaders in trying to capture the rotten S.P. at their coming National Convention on August 30th; the Russians, therefore, wanted to form a Communist party immediately. Thus Michigan found itself withdrawing from the Conference in Company with 30,000 Russian members who would easily dominate Michigan's 6,000. At the time of writing Michigan has been pledged by its delegates to work with the Russian Federations and they have formed the Communist Party. In doing so Michigan has adopted a programme of Mass Action, Industrial Unionism, and "Abolition of the State at Once," but many well-informed members in Detroit are determined to undo this underhand work of the delegates.
Adolph Kohn