Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A nail in the coffin (1995)

Letter to the Editors from the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Comrades,

I was born in 1900 and am four years older than the party. I became a socialist after hearing Alec Shaw destroy Peter Kerrigan [of the Communist Party] at an outdoor debate in Clydebank in 1928. Since then I have voted by writing Socialism across my ballot paper, although in recent years through old age I have not bothered. But recently I was able to vote for a socialist for the first time in my life. Although I had to be taken in a wheelchair and the effort may well have killed me, I feel as if I have finally hammered a nail into the coffin of Capitalism. I feel as if the ice age is over and the next century will be ours.

By voting and reading a comment in the Standard by Steve Coleman "we are a movement not a monument" I feel rejuvenated. Some time ago I was given a book called The Monument which claims to be a history of the SPGB. The author says this is not an official history as he did not have access to the party's records. The book is therefore anecdotal and relies heavily on the writer's memory (or imagination). An example of the dubious nature of this information is the tale of Glasgow branch voting to expel John Higgins for bringing a gas mask to a branch meeting during the war.

This statement caricatures the men and women who were stalwarts in the struggle for socialism in those days. There is no other comment in the book about Glasgow comrades which leads me to think that Mr Barltrop has never been there.

Jimmy Brodie was a joiner, like myself, and he used to give history and economics classes during the lunch hour on whichever boat we were working on. The steel bulkhead was the blackboard (the location was changed daily to avoid the gestapo) and the socialist message remained on the walls for weeks. These classes were attended by hundreds of workers and the debates engendered carried on into worktime much to the consternation of foremen and managers. Not to speak of the Commie second fronters.

It took a lot of guts to advocate the socialist case in the emotional climate of the 1940s. Tommy Mulheron was prominent in the dock strike. Alec Shaw in Howdens. Joe Richmond an apprentice where I worked organised a strike in 1943 which brought the firm to its knees. In spite of Union opposition the apprentices won.

My branch of the union had lots of socialists, Willie Travers, Joe Richmond, Jimmy Craig, Eddie Hughes, John Fitton, Jimmy McGowan, Willie Henderson, so that it became known as the Socialist Sixth. These men were indefatigable exponents of the Socialist case, some of them were speakers for the party, but all of them were influential in the Union. The Socialist Party has never had leaders, it has no need of them. But it has had its heroes and been all the stronger and richer for them. This book, The Monument, diminishes these men whose worth is greater than all the Maxtons, Bevans, Pollitts and Gallachers, whose names are still revered by many workers today.

The present Socialist Party stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before and should give credit to the breadth and depth of those shoulders. Surely, approaching its centenary, the party can write an official history, not only of the party but the whole world wide Socialist movement.

Do not leave it to the Barltrops of this world. Do not let our heroes die without trace if left to word of mouth they will become as myth and legend, more fantasy than fact, and spawn books like The Monument which does the Movement a disservice.

I am now 94 years old and must be one of the last of my generation. I grieve that my old comrades have died unsung although they were heroes all.

Yours for the Revolution,
Paddy Small, Glasgow

Reply:
Thanks for your comments. And thanks also to all the other Socialists - supporters and sympathisers as well as Socialist Party members - who contributed the money (£22,286, to be precise) that enabled us to put up a Socialist candidate in Glasgow and three other seats in last year's Euro-elections and to get a socialist leaflet distributed to one million households.
Editors.

Old Fallacies—a look at International Communist Current (1977)

From the October 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

The organization called International Communist Current is a mixture of perceptiveness towards some aspects of capitalism, blindness to others, and a belief in long-exposed fallacies. It recognizes that nationalization is state capitalism, that the so-called national liberation movements are anti-socialist and that Russia, China, Cuba, etc. are "just so many capitalist bastions" — "There are no socialist countries on this planet".

ICC claims to be Marxist but shows no appreciation of Marx's analysis of capitalism's economic laws. Politically it belongs to the early 19th-century world of Louis Blanqui (originator of ICC's slogan "Dictatorship of the Proletariat") and the young and inexperienced Marx and Engels. It rejects the mature Marx's view of the necessity to gain control of "the machinery of government, including the armed forces", and offers instead confrontation with the state power and "world civil war" to be waged by "armed workers' councils" (see ICC pamphlet Nation or Class). 

A basic difficulty about establishing Socialism is that such a social system, involving as it does the disappearance of buying and selling, wages and prices, and the coercive state, could only be operated if the mass of the population understood and wanted it and were ready to accept all the new responsibilities of voluntary co-operation that would rest on them. If the working class as they are at present, most of them attached to capitalism, preoccupied with wages and prices, wage differentials and trade-union demarcation lines, and dependent on management direction and trade-union leadership, were suddenly faced with Socialism there would be chaos and no alternative but to return to capitalism.

Two solutions were offered. One was the Blanquist and early Marxist view—a transition period during which the mass of the population would be "educated to Socialism". This is the ICC policy. The other, the mature Marxist, view was stated by Engels in his 1895 Introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France:
“The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us.”
And again, referring to France:
“Socialists realize more and more that no durable success is possible unless they win over in advance the great mass of the people, which, in this case, means the peasants. The slow work of propaganda and parliamentary activity are here also recognised as the next task of the party.”
ICC rejects the Marxist idea of socialists gaining control of Parliament on the ground that Parliament is nothing but "mystification of the working class". Of course defenders of capitalism use Parliament to mislead the working class, just as they use religion, sport and the bogus economic theories of J. M. Keynes. They can do this only because the workers lack socialist understanding—which fact ICC fails to see. It thinks that if non-socialist workers spontaneously throw up workers' councils these can't be "mystified". Experience has shown how wrong ICC is. Lenin, in State and Revolution, complained that his political opponents had

“managed to pollute even the Soviets, after the model of the most despicable middle-class parliamentarians, by turning them into hollow talking shops.”

ICC greatly admire the Workers' Councils set up in Germany after the first world war. At the Workers' Councils National Congress in 1918, and again in 1919, they were bamboozled by Social Democratic politicians into voting their support for the Social Democrat Government, which government then sidetracked the Councils and used state forces to crush resistance.

The argument that because the franchise has been used to trick the workers they should not use it was sensibly answered by Marx in the preamble he wrote for the French Workers' Party. In it, he commended transforming the vote "from a means of duping, which it has been hitherto, into an instrument of emancipation".

As ICC are not going to wait until there is a socialist majority, they have to find some other spur to working-class action. Like the young Marx and Engels, and like the British Communist Party in the 1930s, they find it in capitalism's periodic crises and depressions which stir up discontent about unemployment and falling living standards. But, as Engels pointed out in a letter to Bernstein (25th January 1882), when the depression passes and production and employment expand again "returning prosperity also breaks the revolution and lays the basis for the victory of reaction".

Are depressions permanent?
ICC think they have an answer to this. They say that the present depression is permanent, that it throws up problems the capitalists are impotent to deal with, and that capitalism cannot afford any more concessions to the workers. The great changeover is supposed to have happened in 1914, after which capitalism became "decadent", ICC evidently does not know that all these themes are almost as old as capitalism itself.

In every one of capitalism's depressions there have been people, capitalists as well as workers, who have been convinced that it would be permanent. In the "Great Depression" of the last quarter of the 19th century, which lasted for twenty years, it was widely believed. Lord Randolph Churchill, shortly before he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared in 1884: "We are suffering from a depression of trade extending as far back as 1874, ten years of trade depression, and the most hopeful either among our capitalists or our artisans can discover no signs of a revival . . . Turn your eyes where you will, survey any branch of British industry you like, you will find signs of mortal disease."

Even Engels in 1886 temporarily abandoned Marx's view of crises and announced a theory of "permanent and chronic depression". Marx's own view was tersely summed up in his statement: "There are no permanent crises."

ICC's example of the supposed impotence of the capitalists to deal with a problem relates to inflation. In International Review No. 10 (page 10) ICC says that “the bourgeoisie" is equally terrified of more inflation and of ending inflation by "restriction of credit". From which it is evident that ICC does not understand the cause and purpose of inflation, rejects Marx's demonstration that inflation is the result of excess issue of inconvertible paper currency, and has—like the Labour Party—fallen for the Keynesian nonsense about the supposed consequence of expanding or contracting credit. Inflation, like free trade, is just a way of operating capitalism. It suits some capitalists and not others. Inflation serves the interests of borrowers, including industrial capitalists, who take up loans and repay them later in depreciated currency.

Inflation and Credit
Inflation, at least for a considerable period, also enables many employers to get away with paying reduced real wages. Deflation, on the other hand, suits financial interests and lenders. If and when inflation reaches dangerous levels, or when those who favour deflation get their way, inflation will be curbed or ended as it has been on scores of occasions in the past, in this and other countries.

Marx showed what he thought of the people who held ICC's superficial view about credit.

“They looked upon the expansion and contraction of credit, which is a mere symptom of the periodic changes in the industrial cycle, as their cause.” (Capital Vol. 1, p. 695, Kerr edn.)

To show that capitalism is not what it used to be before 1914, ICC points to recent falling production and living standards, and rising unemployment, but this is what has taken place at the beginning of every depression for nearly two hundred years.

Capitalism did indeed change in 1914. As Professor E. H. Carr puts it, up to 1914: "Britain was the pre-eminent Great Power, and the directing centre of the worldwide capitalist economy." Now the industrial and military centres of power have shifted to New York, Moscow and Brussels; but this has not altered capitalism's economic laws or introduced a new "decadence".

ICC's belief that since 1914 capitalism cannot afford to make concessions to the workers is belied by the facts, and betrays a failure to understand the economics of capitalism. The capitalists (supported by ignorant or servile academics) have always "proved" that they could not afford to concede anything, as for example giving up the twelve-hour working day and the employment of small children: but the concessions have continued since 1914 as before, and particularly since the second world war.

As output per head of the workers increases (a process speeded-up during the present depression) of course the capitalists can afford to let the workers have some of the increase—as ICC will discover when the depression lifts and in the programmes at the next General Election.

Regarding "the Dictatorship of the Proletariat", ICC admit that during their prolonged "transition period" the dictatorship will be operating capitalism all over the world (see Nation or Class). They have, however, not seen its implications. How will the dictatorship deal with the next normal capitalist crisis and the strikes that will accompany it? Will they have an "incomes policy"? or suppress the unions?

The peasants are not to be allowed to share in governmental power. What if they seize the land? And what will the ICC dictatorship do when workers, discontented with the effects of capitalism, carry on ICC policy and set up "armed workers' councils" to fight the dictatorship?

All of ICC's assumptions about capitalism are wrong; but let us suppose that they are right. Suppose that a minority of workers sets up armed councils all over the world, and suppose (absurd as it is) that they could win against the massive combined armed forces of all the world's governments, and suppose they succeeded in setting up their world dictatorship—what would have been gained? The problem of winning over the mass of the population before Socialism could be established would still be there, its completion put back a few more years by ICC's unnecessary and useless war.

Edgar Hardcastle


A Cassette tape recording of the recent debate between I.C.C. and the SPGB is available from H.O. price £1.60 or 50p to hire.

A Lack of Imagination

From the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

We look at what a capitalist corporation imagines 2050 could be like. But will it if capitalism continues?

‘Imagine 2050’ is the title of a joint report recently dreamt up by the environmental services multinational Veolia, and partnered by a group of economists ensconced in the British citadel of capitalist ideology – the London School of Economics. Veolia’s vision of the future describes ‘one future city in which system-level planning has created a dense, resource-efficient society characterised by collaborative consumption, shared ownership and local self-reliance’. Vague; but sounds kind of nice.

Telescoping the reader’s imagination the storyline continues: ‘The 2050 home includes a kitchen where waste is sorted by nanoscopic robots and food packaging that is designed to degrade in line with sell-by dates. Waste from the bin-less home will be collected via a pneumatic network, by an underground network, and transferred to treatment facilities. This 24/7 waste collection service will reduce the presence of vehicles in the city, helping to cut greenhouse gas emissions.’

And it doesn’t end there for these lucky urbanites as their homes will also feature, ‘ultrasonic baths, self-cleaning surfaces and water purification based on systems found in plants and bacteria’. And they’ll also enjoy, ‘3D printers and new paints and materials optimising natural light and improving energy conservation’ (edie.net).

Enter the LSE economists and their unwavering quest for a ‘better capitalism’. One that is civilised, caring; even cuddly. Slightly shrewder now since Her Majesty’s 2010 visit to the citadel when they were at a collective loss to explain her probing question on why the prevailing depression had occurred, and why were they unable to predict it? A tad wiser now? Perhaps they’d flicked through a history book of the last century or two which would reveal that slumps and depressions are endemic to capitalism. As are wars, mass starvation amidst plenty, and gross social deprivation. So ‘Imagine 2050’ adds a one sentence rider that, ‘models a scenario in which disparate and unregulated development has led to a resource-hungry urban sprawl where private consumption and ownership is prioritised over long-term communal thinking’. Sounds familiar? Yes, that’s right; it’s where city-dwellers the world over live right now.

Veolia: profit from water
It’s wise under capitalism to give some thought to who you enter into partnerships with. The LSE’s partner, Veolia, has an interesting past. Its origins lie in an 1853 royal decree by Napoleon III creating its capitalist foundations in a company called Compagnie Générale des Eaux [CGE]. Turning water into a commodity through the human labour necessary for a network of reservoirs, filtration and piping, CGE initially supplied water to Lyon, and then obtained a 50 year concession to supply water to Parisians. Profits gained through surplus value gushed so that in 1976, a new, ambitious CEO, Guy Dejouany, branched out into other market sectors. Through a succession of takeovers of companies as diverse as waste management through to the media came the creation of Vivendi Universal, Vivendi Environment, and finally the catch-all name, Veolia. And there was a sound reason for the change of name. It’s wise to distance yourself from a bad name, and Vivendi had become synonymous with bribery and fraud.

During 1996, five out of 13 directors on the board of Vivendi were under investigation for corruption. In 1997, Vivendi executives colluded with civil servants to channel illegal commissions of up to $86 million- primarily to Jacque Chirac’s party (the RPR) from public contracts worth $3.3 billion. Italian courts sentenced the Milan City Council president to three years in prison for accepting a $2 million bribe from a Vivendi subsidiary during bidding on a $100 million contract. In 2002 a Vivendi CEO was convicted of fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (corporatewatch.org). There were several other high profile allegations, but when you have allies at the centre of financial and political circles accusations generally evaporate.

In 2003 Veolia Environnement S.A was created and headquartered in Paris. It had grown into the biggest water service company in the world. Waste management, energy and transport are its other interests in a business that in 2012 encompassed 48 countries, employed 318,376 people who provided takings set at €29.4 billion. Veolia’s business model was succinctly revealed when its CEO said, ‘Many of the best performing contracts are those where a private operator assumes the operational and commercial risks, but not the major capital expenditures’ (fwwatch.org). Underlying this is the unspoken, always denied, premise that corporations expect governments to pick up the bill for those capital expenditures. Ideological support from economists and an array of apologists for capitalism underpin the ease with which corporations like Veolia gain profitable contracts in the name of privatisation, market efficiency, and the ubiquitously touted ‘ownership society’. Avoiding major capital investment, leasing assets and simply collecting revenues ensures profits flow like water from a tap.

Like all capitalist enterprises Veolia’s principal goal is to maximise profits to ensure shareholder returns. Veolia’s strategy to attain that goal has a history of imposing, ‘lower wages and reducing retirement, health care and other benefits; break contracts; enforce lower work standards detrimental to workers and the community; and reduce the workplace environment to levels below safety standards’ (workers.org). Not content with that in the name of the ‘ownership society’ Veolia uses, ‘other cost cutting measures (inadequate testing, treatment and maintenance), illegal dumping and processing of toxic material. Problems range from service outages, to illegal sewage discharges, to safety hazards, explosions, neglected equipment, and lower water quality’. There are multiple incidents reported globally concerning Veolia’s corporate strategies. Mismanagement of the water supplies has seen scores of law suits and non-renewal of contracts. Even in Veolia’s own backyard of Paris, after 25 years, the city decided, ‘not to renew its contract with Veolia in order to stabilize water rates and save money – which it has’ (corporatewatch.org).

How many will benefit?
‘Imagine 2050’ ends with a piece of advice from LSE senior research fellow for LSE Cities Dr Savvas Verdis: ‘A circular economy cannot be built piecemeal, a systems-wide approach is essential’. Obviously, given their partnership with Veolia the LSE economists imagine that this nebulous circular economy is possible under capitalism utilising corporations like their partner. To encourage businesses to become involved in this business idea Circular Economy 100 has been founded. Knowledge of who they’re dealing with resonates with their mission statement: ‘The Foundation has created the Circular Economy 100 programme to support business in unlocking this commercial opportunity and to enable them to benefit from subsequent first mover advantages (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org). Which translates as: There are profits to be made, but you have to get in quick before they dry up.

Marketing and PR reports seek to hide the truths beneath the carefully worded gloss. Which is precisely what  ‘Imagine 2050’ does. Globally, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, 2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation. In addition, 2 million children die annually due to easily preventable water borne diseases, andapproximately5000 children die from preventable diarrhoea-related diseases every day.Veolia recently wrote to the Human Rights Council’s independent expert of its efforts to help poor areas of the world and ‘boasted about how it has expanded water access, particularly to those living in remote areas’. However one month later, ‘it told credit analysts on Wall Street that it prioritized ‘financially sound clients’ in dense urban areas’ (corporatewatch.org). And if the urbanite can’t pay Veolia’s bill? ‘An employee at Veolia in France has been sacked for refusing to cut off the water supply to poor families.The man, named in the French media only as Mark, had been employed at Veolia for 20 years but was handed his dismissal letter on April 4th for his refusal to implement the cut-offs following the non-payment of bills’(thelocal.fr/19 April).

UN-Habitats research reveals that the world’s slum population has already grown by 75 million in just three years. And by 2050, expectation is that one in three people will live in urban slums. How many do you believe will benefit from the technology described in Imagine 2050?

PR has another purpose. To create a ‘feel good factor’. To beef up confidence in the future. It doesn’t just try to sell you the commodities, it sells you hope. Fortunately, you can only stack bullshit so high before everyone realises it stinks. Ideologists like the LSE’s economists like to tell us that there is no alternative. Capitalism is eternal and everlasting. They seem incapable of unlocking their own imaginations from the prison of capitalism’s markets. But the technology that they describe in Imagine 2050 is helping to shape people’s thinking and provide the nails for capitalism’s coffin. Those technologies and many others are already in development. A barrier exists for the vast majority to those technologies. And that barrier is capitalism. Jamming its grubby little fingers into the dam are apologists like the LSE’s economists. And the nicest thing that can be said about them is that they lack imagination.
Andy Matthews

Autonomist Leninists (2004)

Book Review from the December 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Storming Heaven. Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous Marxism. Steve Wright. Pluto Press.

“Autonomist Marxism”, what is that? If you can plough through the first hundred pages of the rather abstruse views of some tortured Italian intellectuals, this book will help you discover that it is, or was in Italy in the 1970s, a variety of Leninism rather than Marxism. Its members regarded themselves as a vanguard of intellectuals seeking to relate to the “working class” and to help them in their struggles, but who were trying to work out exactly who the working class were.
   
Starting out from the “workerist” (“operaismo”, their own description) position that the working class were the manual workers in big factories, some of them eventually reached the conclusion that the working class were everybody forced to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary (though still apparently not including themselves). Unfortunately, this correct conclusion was tied to the view that the immediate enemy of the working class was the state as the collective capitalist and that the “class struggle” was therefore a violent struggle against the state.
   
Some took this literally and went in for bombings and shootings. Naturally, the state fought back and a number of them ended up in jail, including some the state didn’t realise were only posturing. Their theory of the state also led them to mistakenly see the way to working class emancipation as being not the abolition of the wages system, i.e. of the buying and selling of labour power and of buying and selling generally, but instead that everybody should be paid a “social” or “political wage”, a variant of the “citizen’s income” advocated by the Green Party and various currency cranks in Britain. Hardly Marx’s view.
   
This said, some interesting, though highly controversial, ideas did emerge from all this. For instance, that the technology and productive methods introduced under capitalism are not just neutral but adapted to facilitate the exploitation of the working class and so cannot simply be used unchanged in socialism; that all workers, including housewives, contributed, collectively, to the production of surplus value so that any distinction between “productive” and “non-productive” workers was impossible; and – what is the distinguishing feature of those, mainly outside Italy these days who call themselves “autonomist Marxists” – that “so-called economic laws had to be rediscovered as political forces, behind which lay the motor of working-class struggle” (p. 84).
   
To deny that there are any objective economic laws of capitalism is of course to go too far, even though working-class struggle is an essential element in, for instance, determining the level of wages. It is in fact to open the way to reformism, to the view that these can be overcome within capitalism if enough political pressure is applied, whether by parliamentary action or, as advocated by the Italian Autonomists, industrial or violent action.
Adam Buick