Friday, February 28, 2014

Retrospect - the Socialist Standard 1904 (1979)

From the September 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Seventy-five years ago, the first issue of the Socialist Standard was published—a clear statement of the unique socialist case, of uncompromising opposition to the expediencies of reformism:
The greatest problem awaiting solution in the world to-day is the existence in every commercial country of extreme poverty side by side with extreme wealth . . . It is the producer of wealth who is poor, the non-producer who is rich. How comes it that the men and women who till the soil, who dig the mine, who manipulate the machine, who build the factory and the home, and, in a word, who create the whole of the wealth, receive only sufficient to maintain themselves and their families on the border line of bare physical efficiency, while those who do not aid in production – the employing class – obtain more than is enough to supply their every necessity, comfort, and luxury?
All the attempted improvements and reforms of governments since then—be they Tory, Labour, Liberal or coalition—have not made any difference. Society is still divided into classes, the haves and the have-nots:
. . .  the life condition of the workers is one of penury and of misery. The only saleable commodity they possess  – their power of working – they are compelled to take to the labour market and sell for a bare subsistence wage. The food they eat, the clothing they wear, the houses in which they live are of the shoddiest kind, and these together with the mockery of an education which their children receive, primarily determine the purchasing price of their labour-power.
Today, three-quarters of a century later, these observations are still true. Now we eat soya-bean substitutes in place of meat; we accept that new clothes will fall to bits rapidly or need mending soon after purchase. Some even rely on jumble sales and thrift shops to clothe their children in second-hand reach-me-downs; working-class housing is built on the cheap and nasty principle, heedless of comfort and of a most unappealing ugliness; while the schools our children are compelled by law to attend are no more able to educate them than a battery farm can be said to educate its hens.

That first article went on to demonstrate how profit, interest and rent derive from "the unpaid labour of the working-class".
So long as this lasts – and it will last as long as the capitalist system of society – it will not be possible for the workers by any Trades Union organisation to more than slightly modify their condition, and their power in this direction is becoming every day more limited by the combinations among employers to defeat the aims of the working class.
The socialists of 1904 would find their description of the capitalist system in British applies just as aptly to 1979 as when that sentence first appeared in print. Now the trade unions are opposed by the Confederation of British Industry, Aims of Industry and the Institute of Directors, as well as by combinations of employers within various branches of industry. During these seventy-five years, we have seen and learnt from many bitter experiences just how limited is the power of trade union action. In 1926, all the efforts of the coalminers solidly united in their union and supported by other trade unionists could not prevent a reduction in their wages. In recent years, currency inflation combined with rising levels of unemployment have brought about similar falls in the real purchasing power of workers' wages. Even in 1904, the Socialist Standard reported that "the real wage of the worker as measured by its purchasing power has, since 1900, been reduced by ten per cent." Experience tells us that we cannot expect lasting improvements from trade union action, only temporary gains which are wiped out when market conditions alter.

What, then, can we do? The answer given by the Socialist Party in 1904 is the same as we would give today, not because we are blinkered slaves to tradition but because the conditions and problems we are dealing with are essentially the same. Our task is
. . .  to show the workers that while their organisation in trades will  prove an invaluable aid in the transformation of society by facilitating industrial reorganisation, yet at present they can best help to emancipate themselves from the thraldom of wage-slavery by recognising that in their class struggle with their exploiters they can be most certain of success in the political sphere of action.
Then, as now, socialists had to expose the non-revolutionary parties—whether allegedly labour or avowedly capitalist—as opposed to socialism. That first article proceeds to sum up the Conservatives and the Liberals as parties "interested in maintaining the present class society", which "cannot, therefore, be expected to help in its transformation from capitalism to Socialism."

The Labour Representative Committee, which later spawned the Labour Party, was described as 
" also to be avoided . . . [It] has no programme whatsoever, and its members possess no principles in common save the name “Labour." . . . Unity is only possible among those who possess common principles. Unity can not, therefore, be secured for any length of time by the members of the Labour Representation Committee, but even if it could, the body is not based upon Socialist principles and should not receive the adhesion of working men."
History has shown that unity can be achieved in the absence of common principles, but only by those prepared to elevate vote-catching and expediency. The Labour Party today, perpetually threatened with splits, develops its politics mainly with a view to the popularity polls when out of power, and when in government never fails to disappoint its faithful rank and file by its concern for capitalist class interests, under the cover name of the 'national interest'.

What was needed, we said in 1904, was a socialist party. There was then the Independent Labour Party but, being a 'halfway house to socialism', founded on compromise, was doomed: 
Having neither the courage to proclaim themselves Socialists nor to disavow Socialism, they are to-day coquetting with that working-class wing of the Liberal Party – the Labour Representation Committee.
As we have so often seen with the Labour Party, the LRC's reaction to the question of socialism was that "that was neither the time nor the place for such discussion". It is doubtful if the question of socialism—the abolition of the wages system—has ever been thought proper for discussion or been on the agenda at any Labour, ILP or LRC meeting.

The other party claiming to be socialist in 1904 was the Social Democratic Federation, from which the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain had seceded earlier that year. It was following a 'compromising policy' like that of the ILP, so much so that it was "surely developing into a mere reform party, seeking to obtain the provision of Free Maintenance for school children". Like the ILP, the SDF was drawn into the orbit of the Labour Party and is long since defunct. The SPGB, scoffed at as 'Impossibilists', has however survived, and has developed its case in response to historical change. Since 1904 we have stated the socialist attitude on war, on the Russian Revolution, the General Strike, the theory mooted in the Depression that capitalism was about to collapse, and many other issues.

As in 1904, the SPGB is "a party determined to use its every effort in the furtherance of Socialist ideas and Socialist principles". We continue to work "gain the confidence and support of the working-class . . . by consistently advocating . . . a clearly defined body of principles". Then, as now, we assert that "the first duty of The Socialist Party is the teaching of its principles and the organisation of a political party on a Socialist basis". The first message of the first socialist political party to the working class, with an optimism now embarrassing, concluded:
Men and women of the working-class, it is to you we appeal! To-day we are a small party, strong only in the truth of our principles, the sincerity of our motives, and the determination and enthusiasm of our members. To-morrow we shall be strong in our numbers, for the economic development of capitalist society fights for us, and as, through the merging of free competition in monopoly and the simplification of industry, the personal capitalist gives place to the impersonal trust as your employer, you will be forced to see that the welfare of the people can best be guaranteed by the holding of all material wealth in common. 
We ask you, therefore, to study the principles upon which our party is based, to find out for yourselves what Socialism is and how Socialism and Socialism alone can abolish class society and establish in its stead a society based upon social equality. When you have done this we know that you will come with us and, by enrolling yourself a member of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, help to speed the time when we shall herald in for ourselves and for our children, a brighter, a happier and a nobler society than any the world has yet witnessed.
C. Skelton 




Noam Chomsky - Rights and Lefties (1995)

From the August 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists aren't the only people pointing out that it is useless pleading with governments to end the problems which are endemic to capitalism. Noam Chomsky reiterated this during a recent talk - pity his audience didn't appreciate his point!

There was something vaguely comical about the atmosphere in the Central Hall, Westminster on the bright June evening when Prof Noam Chomsky was to deliver his talk on the theme "HUman Rights in the New World Order". All the fashionable stewards wore black T-shirts with the following imperative in small white lower-case letters: "defend diversity". There were scores of people dressed in this uniform.

Chomsky's address was part of a Human Rights convention which had been sponsored by the Observer and the legal campaign group Liberty. This event was attended by a wide range of left-wing lawyers, radical journalists, professional campaigners, and post-post-modern pundits. Most of the famous names were there to lead seminars or workshops.

Noam Chomsky, often dubbed as the world's greatest philosopher, is a man who is steadfastly opposed to icons of any description, to human sheep following political shepherds. He even opposed the superb documentary about the book he c-wrote with Edward S. Herman (Manufacturing Consent) on the grounds that it personalised grand political issues. It was therefore incredible to witness the degree of personal adulation bestowed on this man by many of the people there. The man in front of me kept taking photographs of Chomsky during the talk. At the end of the talk hundreds of people tried to get the philosopher's autograph.

We do not underestimate the immeasurable contribution that Noam Chomsky has made, and is making, to radically change the world, but to treat him as a saviour is to misunderstand his arguments. Chomsky was on his feet for two hours. He gave a coruscatingly good analysis of modern capitalism. and showed how the origins of sustained human rights violations can all be traced back to struggles over property rights, land rights, rights of trade and so forth. It was, therefore, utterly dispiriting for socialists in the audience (and probably for Chomsky himself) when his blisteringly articulate condemnation of capitalism drew nothing but fairly dull questions from the audience. Each of the few questions seemed to come from various left-wing, reformist activists, and betrayed an apparent incomprehension of what had been said in the talk.

Chomsky's arguments
Chomsky began by pointing out that in capitalism "politics takes place in the shadow cast by big business". He concentrated on American foreign policy showing how, for example, such policy in Haiti was formed and reformed in accordance with the interests of the super-rich both there and in America. The ordinary population of Haiti was treated as a dispensable element in the process of making a few people very rich. The American government like countries with which it does business to be "stable". The stricter the government, the better. A strong military government is fine, a fascist regime will do nicely. No trade unions to interrupt the wealth-creating process, and a large armed police presence all the time will produce just the sort of disciplined order and reliable "economic miracle" that American investors would be prepared to rely upon.

With fastidious detail, and supporting his every proposition with demonstrably accurate data (often adducing facts and figures released by the American government itself), Chomsky showed how "liberals" like Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton had condoned mass murder, torture, and savagery by the deals they did, in Brazil and Colombia respectively. "If the Nuremberg laws were applied," as Chomsky commented on another occasion, "then every post-war American president would have been hanged."

He then gave a frighteningly grim picture of life today for many Americans. The recession has produced armies of politicians and "experts" who favour social policies of "tough love". This means being cruel to be kind. Taking away the nanny state in order to teach people the virtues of self-dependence. No free school, no free medicine. Win in the rat race or curl up and die. "Tough love is what they call it for a good reason," said Chomsky, "because the rich love it and it's tough on everybody else." The irony is, as he pointed out, that these policies were put forward in the name of "family values" and yet their direct and clearly predictable result has been to assist in the destruction of that institution in America. Fathers who have been conditioned to see themselves as breadwinners have no employment, mothers work long, part-time sessions, and children are supervised by television sets. Fathers get drunk and depressed, wives work themselves into a torpor, and the kids end up as unsocialised, illiterate delinquents. And all this in the cause of promoting God and the family.

Why should workers be afforded the luxury of employment contracts and their associated legal rights? Ask the new economists. We should all become part of a more "flexible economy". Chomsky explained the rationale for this: "the bosses want you anxious as hell when your head touches the pillow each night, worrying whether you'll be at work the day after tomorrow, as there's nothing quite like that worry to get you worrying like mad".

Chomsky's opposition to the wages-system is always clearly put: "I don't think that many people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive", as he once put it. Many of his ideas appear succinctly in a book which is a commentary on the documentary Manufacturing Consent. The book is Noam Chomsky and the Media edited by Mark Achbar (Black Rose Books, Montreal/London) and the "rent" quotation is on page 215. Again, consider his views on the need for government:
"presupposing that there have to be states is like saying, what kind of feudal system should we have that would be the best one? What kind of slavery would be the best kind?" (p. 208)
At the meeting Chomsky revealed two telling figures from a recent opinion poll in the United States. He noted that 82 per cent of the respondents thought that most politicians were in politics for their own gain, and that 83 per cent of respondents thought that "the current economic system is inherently unfair". It could hardly have been plainer that Chomsky's identification of the reasons for human rights violations was the essential nature of capitalism. It was not an unacceptable face of capitalism, something that needs adjusting with a legal instrument, it was the system itself.

Yet, after two hours of quietly, cogently, and often hilariously, showing that the social system was necessarily slanted against human rights, campaigners stood up at the end of the talk and asked for Chomsky's blessing for a variety of foredoomed crusades. Chomsky had argued that the problem of human rights abuse was just a necessary consequence of having a system run by bankers not by philanthropists or moral philosophers, yet the reformers wanted him to approve of huge human efforts to plead with governments to act more kindly.

To his great credit, Chomsky seemed to treat legal interference with capitalism as an unreliable solution to the problems of human rights violations. Although he spoke for two hours he only came to the matter of law in the final sixty seconds of his talk. He picked up a piece of card and referred to some specific questions involving legal strategies which he had been invited to address by the organisers, said, in effect, that they weren't very important in the context of capitalism, and concluded his opening remarks. Those lawyers who had been manning the expensively-decorated recruiting stall of the Law Society (the solicitors' trade union) in the foyer before the talk must have felt rather let down.

The first questioner, from the audience of 2,000,  introduced himself as a spokesperson for the "Luton Peoples' Collective". He said that some people in Britain had been victimised by the police for illegal drug use. Was this branch of human rights designed to intimidate all deviants from conventional behaviour into conforming to capitalism? Having travelled 3,000 miles to talk about human rights in a world suffering from such enormous problems as starvation somewhere in the world), carnage, ethnic cleansing, forced female circumcision, and the catalogue of crimes exposed by Amnesty International, Chomsky was visibly disappointed with the first question. But the questions did not improve.

The second questioner asked whether Chomsky favoured the London-based campaign to stop the Cuban government buying certain sorts of missiles? A possibly rather gutted Chomsky patiently explained to Private Eye's Dave Spart that, as had been pointed out in the talk, there was no convincing evidence that governments could be persuaded by moralists to run capitalism in accordance with anything but the principles of accounting. And so the questions continued. I wanted to ask Chomsky to comment on the sort of society he wanted to see at the end of the "long road" he had said we would have to travel before becoming civilised; and how we should travel there. Alas, despite 20 minutes of impersonating a flagless semaphorist, I was still not chosen by the steward to ask a question. Perhaps I should been wearing a T-shirt bearing a single demand from capitalism as its slogan.

Many people on the left in politics have an unwarrantedly optimistic view of what can be achieved by using the law to tame and control commerce. The law cannot do that. As a socialist I do not support the campaign for human rights, for two reasons.

First, the whole idea of getting down on your knees and asking someone or something for your "rights" is undiginified. It presupposes that the giver or rights (he, she, they, or it) is superior to the supplicant. I am a human being and I don't want a society where I have to depend upon John Major, the Lord Chancellor, Bill Clinton or the chief judge in Strasbourg to finish a plate of lobster and then tell me whether I have the right to breathe, work, be free, protest, or anything else. Rights are for the meek.

They are also for the unrealistic. The second objection to rights is that history has shown them to be nothing but instantly disposable guarantees. The American constitution in 1776 declared that "all men are born free", yet slavery was still an institution for almost another century, swiftly followed by universal wage-slavery. The left's hapless "right to work" campaign fizzled out in the 1980s when it became apparent to even the most bigoted SWP member that capitalism does not and can never guarantee such rights. Go to any country in the world which boasts a constitution guaranteeing the right to life and you will find the bodies or the statistics to debunk the paper right.

Jeremy Bentham, the nineteenth-century reformer, and the man who wrote that "property and law are born together and die together", had a clear understanding of legal rights. He said that they were "nonsense" and that the idea of basic human rights was "nonsense upon stilts". There's no point in calling them rights if getting them enforced is only a pious hope. A call for rights is a plea to a recognised superior. Let's forget "rights", and get up off our knees.
Gary Jay

Why we are different (1980)

Editorial from the November 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most people complain that all political parties are the same. The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) is different from all parties, movements and sects which from time to time appeal to you for support. Our message is not designed to sell you political leaders at election times, nor does it consist of slogans with more echo than substance. The socialist case is based upon the secure grounding of political logic and material interest.

The SPGB was formed in 1904, two years before the Labour Party. Our Declaration of Principles did not arise out of a Utopian idea, but out of the real problems produced by the way in which society is organised. Modern society operates within the confines of the capitalist system. Capitalism has certain hallmarks: the minority ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution; production for profit; exploitation of the working class (all those who receive wages and salaries as a means of living) by the capitalist class (those who can live by possessing capital without having to produce wealth).

Capitalism is a system of wage slavery for the majority of people; it is impossible to run the wages system in the interest of the wage slaves. Political parties of all types have tried to reform the capitalist system in the interest of the working class, but this is a futile struggle to treat the symptoms and not the disease. Reformism is the political approach which endeavours to run capitalism without recognising the in-built antagonism between the two classes in society. Reformists, however sincerely motivated they may be, are bound to end up running society in the material interest of the ruling class.

At its inception the SPGB rejected the reformist tactics of the Labour Party. Early issues of the Socialist Standard predicted that the new party would fail to solve the problems faced by the working class. Nothing has happened since to persuade us to change our mind and plenty has happened to make us even more resolved in our hostility to the Labour Party. It supported two world wars and was in office when the first British atomic weapons were produced. It has nationalised industries which was simply a move from private to state capitalism—and called it socialism. It has introduced and upheld racist immigration legislation and other divisive acts of nationalism. It has used troops to break strikes. The SPGB is different from the Labour Party simply because we stand at all time for the social interest of the working class, whereas Labour has consistently come to the aid of the class enemy.

The political aim of the SPGB is a response to the futility of reformism. Ours is the politics of revolution. We do not mean bloodshed and barricades when we speak of revolution, but a fundamental change in social relationships. The Socialist Party stands for a totally new system of social organisation in which the means of producing and distributing wealth—the land, factories, mines, docks, hospitals, railways—are commonly owned and democratically controlled by all members of society, without distinction of race or sex. In socialism each member of society will give according to ability and take according to self-determined needs. Money, wages, buying and selling will be things of the past, when wealth is held in common. Clearly, such a system does not operate anywhere in the world today. Neither could it exist in one country; the world system of capitalism can only be replaced by the world system of socialism.

Socialism is a democratic concept and it can only be established by conscious, democratic socialists. Leaders cannot get socialism for the working class. Indeed, the SPGB urges workers to reject all leaders and do your own thinking for yourselves. The emancipation of the working class by the working class itself is what we stand for. When the workers of the world understand and want socialism they must use their political power—in many countries this makes use of the ballot box—to take social power away from the capitalists and their representatives and to place the means of life in the hands of the whole community.

The socialist revolution is not an unattainable ideal. It can and will happen when millions of workers all over the world recognise their class interests, form socialist parties and use the political strength which they have. Once a majority of workers are resolved to establish socialism there is nothing that can effectively stand in their way. That is why the SPGB is solely concerned with the propagation of working class consciousness.

The SPGB is unlike all other parties in its organisation. We have no leaders, as a party of conscious members needs no chiefs to tell us what to do. All of our affairs are open to the scrutiny of the public. We are a political party, concerned with socialist propaganda; we publish literature, dealing both with general and specific matters; we attend opponents' meetings to state the case for social sanity; we put up candidates at election time in as many constituencies as is practical; we organise lectures and outdoor meetings to spread the understanding of socialist ideas. In short, we do whatever is possible to further what we believe to be the only worthwhile cause which is open to the working class. To join the SPGB you must be a committed socialist; applicants for membership are only admitted if they are considered to understand the case that we stand for.

We in the SPGB don't like being unique and different. We don't relish the fact that we are a small party which does not include millions of workers in its membership. We are certainly not complacent or proud about the fact that we are small. But we are proud of the fact that we have been consistently correct about what we have said for over seventy-five years. The Socialist Party of Great Britain is different.


Between the Lines: From the land which gave us Rupert Murdoch . . . (1988)

The Between the Lines TV Review column from the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

1988 is the year when TV discovered Australia in a big way. Firstly, it discovered that Australia was "discovered" two hundred years ago. Complete historical nonsense, of course: Australia was settled by its native Aborigines for about 30,000 years before the white "civilisers" arrived to murder them and leave who remained in apartheid-style reservations.

So TV has celebrated the land which produced Rupert Murdoch, the Bee Gees and Dame Edna. Fortunately, BBC2 offered a chance to avert our eyes from the revolting pictures of Charlie and Di's state visit, with her modelling with a team of beefy surfers while he discovered a whole new variety of plant life to enjoy conversations with. (Most of the latter are believed to be employed in the British Embassy.)

Instead, we could watch John Pilger's quite brilliant three-part documentary, The Last Dream which told, with passion, something of the real history of Australia. Pilger described how the Aborigines were peaceful people who lived at one with nature with respect for the land. And how the land was stolen, leaving them today as the lowest strand of the working class in a nation which cannot cope with a culture of sharing. Unemployment and alcoholism are very high among the Aborigines who survive.

In the second programme—the best of the trilogy for its uncompromising exposure—Pilger tore to pieces the long-standing myth that Australia is a classless society. He not only told us about the millionaire parasites like Kerry Packer, Alan Bond and Rupert Murdoch—he showed us them dining in celebration of their good fortune of being capitalist rulers in a land of illusory equality. Dining with them was Bob Hawke, the Labour Prime Minister of Australia.

Pilger lost no time and spared no detail in exposing the anti-working class attitudes and policies of the Labour government. Nobody could have watched the documentary without seeing through the lies of Hawke, who claims to be a socialist and the workers' friend. John Pilger seems to entertain some illusions about previous Australian Labour governments but he cannot be faulted in his demonstration that the present one is simply an ally of Australian capital against Australian labour.

In the third programme Pilger dealt with the Australian war record, placing special emphasis on its part in Vietnam, where the Australian state acted as an unrespected military servant of US imperialism. Pilger pointed out how Australians have always been sent to die in other people's wars. What he meant was that Australia has been subordinated to the needs of other national capitalist interests. True as this may be, the really important point (not made by Pilger) is that workers in all countries are always fighting wars which are not their own. Some capitalists win and some capitalists lose but it is always the workers who die needlessly.

The series ended fittingly with the singing of what the present writer at least regards as the greatest anti-war song ever written: The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle, himself an Australian. If you have never heard the song you should go out of your way to do so; if you have a chance to see a repeat of the Pilger series it is a must for workers who want to find out the history of what really happened to our class.

On the subject of working-class history and great music, the Channel Four documentary on Woody Guthrie, which was shown in January, was another classic: it would have been good to hear Pete Seeger singing Guthrie's This Land Is My Land (the uncensored version which deals with the iniquity of private property) while Pilger was describing the "discovery" of the Aborigines by the British plunderers.

In addition to TV's celebration of Britain's imperialist past, 1988 has also seen one of Australia's tackiest commodities hit the peak-time screen. Neighbours (BBC1, 5.35pm, Monday-Friday) is the soap opera devised to make Crossroads look like something on the Oxford English Literature syllabus. It is viewed by 14 million people daily. As a depiction of working-class life in Australia it is an unfunny joke.

Where are the unemployed workers? Why do no black Australians ever appear? Do Australians really spend most of their lives incessantly bitching against one another? Is there something in the air in Australia which makes sentimental music appear every time the tension heightens? (Tension-heightening in Neighbours is a euphemism for one of the characters threatening to kill the little girl next door and her parents, or another woman finding out that her grand-daughter—whose existence she didn't know about until the episode before last—is in fact her husband's mistress's child.

If you ever over-indulge on the lager at lunchtime and can't be bothered to stick your finger down your throat, why not make a rush for the telly and watch Neighbours? Personally, I don't give a XXXX what 14 million viewers say—I think the programme is written by the bloke who writes Bob Hawke's speeches: he should be put on the next convict ship to New Zealand and left to die of boredom.
Steve Coleman