Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why I Joined the S.P.G.B. (1938)

From the September 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like most of you, I was always interested in politics to a certain extent. My first object of affection was the Labour Party, and whilst I never joined, I always gave them my vote and between elections occasionally went to meetings and applauded Labour speakers. That was before 1929—when the Labour Party took office for the second time. I had not thought deeply about the issues involved, it was just a matter of instinct and sentiment with me—just as it is with millions of working-men and women.

After a year of Labour Government my enthusiasm for the Labour Party had vanished. but, unlike others, I never got it back again. Instead I began to look for something different, something more "extreme." I found it in the speeches of Harry Pollitt. Perhaps you, too, remember some of them, when, in 1930 and 1931, Mr. Pollitt contested Whitechapel and St. George's as Communist candidate for Parliament? By his fiery outbursts against the Labour Party and wholesome condemnation of working-class poverty I was won over. But, had I been asked whether I wanted Communism, or whether I understood it, I could not have given a satisfactory answer. No doubt I could have read the works of Marx and Engels had I wanted to, but the issues around which the Communist Party was arousing attention, and the general impression given by their propaganda, did not stimulate an interest in works on Socialism.

Yesterday's Problems—and To-day's
Then I came across an S.P.G.B. meeting. I immediately noticed the fundamental difference in approach used by the speaker. Everything he dealt with—political parties, topical events—looked so much different in the light of his reasoning. Of course the issues were not of "the day-to-day struggle," or so it seemed. For I have discovered this fact: capitalism can find something new every day, some problem which can occupy your time until another comes along to take its place in your mind. That is the trap which capitalism sets and into which reformist parties are continually falling. They said then, just as they are saying to-day: "This problem can't wait until we have Socialism, so we must deal with it first." And capitalism continues to produce problems of apparent immediate urgency; so that somehow they never get to Socialism—and, in the MEANTIME, CAPITALISM REMAINS.

Socialism Demands Knowledge
When I first listened to those S.P.G.B. meetings I did not understood this much. I've learnt it since, and it's about time some of you who are always asking us to do this, that, and the other, found it also.

Perhaps the most important fact that speaker brought home to me right at the beginning was the impossibility of Socialism without a majority of Socialists. Socialism, he pointed out, meant such a revolutionary social change, that to achieve it was out of the question unless most of the people understood what it was all about and wanted it. That's heart-breaking for those who are looking for a short cut. But has anyone found that short cut so many were talking about ten, twenty and thirty years ago? I didn't argue with that speaker about the impossibility of the workers ever learning what Socialism really meant. I set to work learning it! Perhaps some of our hecklers will take a tip from that and, instead of continually interrupting our speakers with that bogey question, keep quiet and give themselves a chance to learn!

The Importance of Numbers
Another matter. It simply did not occur to me to ask how many members the S.P.G.B. had got. That was the problem to tackle when I was inside the organisation. It has certainly nothing to do with the merits of the S.P.G.B.'s policy, except as a measure of its popularity with the working class (and, remember, the Labour Party's popularity was at its height at the very time when that Party became an instrument of attack on working-class wages and conditions!). So when you hear or read about the smallness of the S.P.G.B., try to be logical. If our policy is right, and you are convinced of that, then it's your job to help us put it across; and if you don't agree with us, then remember our size does not alter the merits of our policy in any way whatever. I would assert, moreover, that there is not another organisation which is as active as the S.P.G.B., considering that all the work of speaking, writing, literature-selling, and the hundred-and-one other jobs, are all done voluntarily in members' spare time without payment. How would some parties look if they had to carry on under similar circumstances?

Are We Sectarian?
Another factor that added to my resolve to join up was the way in which all kinds of objections to Socialism were dealt with by the S.P.G.B. (It is amazing how many so-called "advanced" people oppose Socialism!)

Those who argue that all we need do to-day is get rid of the National Government and replace it by a Labour-Liberal Coalition (euphemistically called a "Popular Front") in order to "keep open the door to Socialism," are begging the question. That "door" (Democracy) has been open for a long time. Why hasn't it been used? Why isn't it used to-day? There is only one answer: the workers don't want to use it to establish Socialism, because they're not Socialists. If you don't believe me, come to some of our meetings and hear their protests when Socialism is explained. That is why I endorse the S.P.G.B.'s attitude when they insist that, when joining the Party, applicants should know what Socialism stands for. Otherwise they would be a hinderance to the work of making Socialists. And that, after all, is the only justification for the existence of a Socialist Party.

Of course, this means that our membership is limited—to Socialists only. Our opponents say this question makes us a sect. It depends on the way the question is looked at. For instance, the New Leader has been featuring some letters from people who recently joined the I.L.P. In several cases the writers as good as stated they were not quite satisfied with the I.L.P., but joined because they could find nothing better. One writer went further. He actually disagreed completely with the I.L.P. on a fundamental question.

Well, that's perhaps one way of showing that the I.L.P. does not intend to be a sect. But then, a Socialist Party cannot be built up that way. Labourites, Pacifists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, and others banded together in an organisation might give themselves a Socialist label, but they cannot work for Socialism. That much is evident when you know what the I.L.P. is and has been. Such a situation could not arise in the S.P.G.B. We are a small organisation because membership is recruited on the basis of a clear understanding of Socialism and how to obtain it. Those who accuse us of being a "sect" produce no evidence except that we are small.

Many people who appreciate the quality of S.P.G.B. propaganda say: "You should be in the movement" . . . "get inside the Labour Party and put your Socialism across in there."

It is difficult to believe that anyone really thinks that that is possible. Would we be allowed to join as an organisation? And, having joined, what could we do there? Get busy telling the members that the Labour policy is completely wrong, anti-Socialist, and that their leaders are simply politicians depending upon mass political ignorance? That would be the truth, but we would certainly not be allowed to say it.

The I.L.P. was never Socialist. They left the Labour Party when they found it too awkward to defend what the Labour Government had done during their two years of office in 1929 to 1931. To-day, when the memory of that fiasco has dimmed, the I.L.P. is trying to crawl back again into the Labour fold. So little do they differ from the Labour Party that a welcome should be certain!

Fellow-workers, the Socialist Party has to stand on its own feet, even if it means that, for the time being, we can't make a big noise. Big demonstrations are excellent things, we would like to indulge in them, but we want demonstrations of working-class understanding, not political dupes whose flags are beginning to look very much like the Union Jack!

Pity—or Power?
And the pity of it all is that the workers really feel that they are doing something useful when they march in demonstrations and attend huge meetings. They really believe they are contributing towards the alleviation of the terrible distress that exists the world over. Many come to our meetings and ask: "What is the S.P.G.B. doing about China, Spain, Abyssinia, Germany, Austria?"—and we could add many other countries to that list ourselves: Palestine, Jamaica, Trinidad, India—why, the whole world is a crying indictment against the system and the class responsible for it. Do we not feel the horror of it all, too?

The brutal truth us that these demonstrating masses can do nothing to end the real trouble. They are frequently merely the playthings of politicians. Posing as the Messiahs of the world, so-called leaders cannot even find a solution for the problems on their own doorstep.

So that is another lesson the S.P.G.B. has taught me. In the words of Marx: "In every country the workers must settle matters with their own ruling-class first."

Our job here is to win power for Socialism; then, and not before, will we be able to help others.

Now I put the question to you: Are my reasons for joining the S.P.G.B. sound? Do they tell the truth? Without exaggeration, I honestly assert that, on the answer the working-class gives, the fate of the world depends.
Sid Rubin


The First of May (1955)

From the May 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

Then turn, and be not alarm’d O Libertad
– turn your undying face,
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.”
WALT WHITMAN

It is sixty-five years since half a million people poured through London, “an interminable array with multitudinous banners,” on the first International May Day. No celebration, no insubstantial pageant this: column upon threadbare column they came, signifying and expressing labour's strength and labour's aspirations, with an eight-hour day as their rallying call. For sixty-five years it has continued, but the columns are smaller now. And the eight-hour day? They have it and, so generous is life to the working class, work overtime.
May Day is workers' day, the day of our class. However hollow the cries and futile the demonstrations, it remains the anniversary of protest, a continual reminder of exploitation and, subjection. “Class” is the reason and the theme of May Day – class in its fullest, truest sense. The working class is not the labourers or the artisans or the machine-minders: it is all people to whom wages are life. The working class is international: so is its cause. Among the cries and chants and slogans of May Day, only one has meaning: “Workers of all countries unite!”
Class consciousness was never more needed than now. Sixty-five years have seen war, dereliction, fear and disaster; today mankind is under a shadow without precedent. The working people of the world have it in their hands to end poverty, fear, hatred and war. Nationalism is not their interest but their rulers'; submission is taught, not conceived. That is where the tragedy of the May Day processions lies. The hundreds of thousands who paraded their rights in 1890 lined the streets again seven years later, still threadbare, still of one mind – to cheer and wave streamers for their Queen.
To the Socialist, class-consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding. Without it, militancy means nothing. The conflict between the classes is more than a struggle for each to gain from the other: it is the division which reaches across all others. The class-conscious working man knows where he stands in society. His interests are opposed at every point to those of the capitalist class; his cause can only be the cause of revolution for the abolishing of classes. Without that understanding, militancy can mean little. It is not mere preamble that the Socialist Party's principles open by stating the class division in capitalism: it is the all important basis from which the rest must follow.
For nearly fifty-one years the Socialist Party has addressed its case to the working class on May Day, demanding not support but understanding. In those years, it has seen movements rise and fall, heard slogans die away, known panaceas acclaimed and discarded. In 1904, the great working-class party was the I.L.P.; now, the giant is a pantaloon. The Labour Party was not yet formed; now, it is torn by its members' disillusionment. Incredibly, they tell the Socialist he is impractical: impractical, when through their denial of what the Socialist knows they have fallen, and with them the hopes of millions!
The Socialist Party’s proposition is the only practical one. Class-conscious people need no leaders. The single, simple fact which all working people have to learn is that capitalism causes capitalism's problems, so that the remedy – the onlyremedy – is to abolish capitalism. In that knowledge they must take hold of the powers of government – for one purpose only: that the rule of class by class shall end. Socialism is not a benevolently-administered capitalism: it is a different social system.
Can the working class do that? He who doubts needs only look round him. The wonders and the splendours of modern civilization all are made by the working class. The knowledge, the skill, the perception are theirs – often, indeed, unwanted by the capitalist to whom trash is the soul of profit. Often, too, wanted for destruction: see the boy taught mathematics who has fine judgment, that he may drop bombs.
Reform is no answer, even though at times – rare times – it benefits working people. The reformer (he may not know it) has not even set out to change the world; he has agreed that capitalism shall continue, and is merely trying to alleviate its worst effects. Has poverty – extreme, dire poverty – been abolished by the reformers? Ask the old; ask the public assistance cases or the slum dwellers or the sick. Has life been made more satisfying by the Welfare State? Ask the thousands snatching at Billy Graham's promise of peace, joy and contentment.
From the beginning, the Socialist Party has been intractable in its opposition to reformists. Working class action, in fact, must be revolutionary. That is the real message of May Day, for people all over the world. The workers of Britain have common cause with the workers of every other country. They are members of an international class, faced with the same problems, holding the same interests once they are conscious of them. There is only one way of realizing those interests: the immense productive powers of the world must become the common property of every man, woman and child.
“Common ownership” is part of the definition of Socialism, but it is not an end in itself; rather is it a beginning, a condition. Private ownership by the capitalist class of the means of life is the condition of all that is deplored today – the wars, the poverty and the rest; that is why, without abolishing that ownership, there can be no solution to those problems. And in the same way, the common ownership of the means of life is the condition of another sort of world. The system so based would be incapable of causing wars, incapable of producing want.
The need for Socialism grows more urgent each day. It awaits the conscious will of the workers of the world, and nothing more; when they desire it, it can be. In the clamour of rivalry between factions and nations, the voice of the Socialist is a small one, but it must be heard. Exploitation and conflict must be ended; the catastrophe of worker killing worker must be prevented. Fifty-one years ago a small group of working people made plans for a new era in human history – today, more than ever before, it is vital necessity.
May Day has come again. Let it be an occasion of fresh resolve. There are many who are with us but not of us. The struggle for Socialism is a long and arduous one, needing the help of every class-conscious man and woman. On this day, then, we urge the need to work for Socialism within the Socialist Party. To spread Socialist understanding is the great task of our time: every fresh adherent to the Socialist Party Principles is another step towards the emancipation of mankind.
Robert Barltrop

Capitalism and Inequality

The Cooking the Books Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Observer (13 April) carried an interview by Andrew Hussey with Thomas Piketty, a French economist whose views on capitalism are, apparently, the talk of the town amongst economists. He is the author of a book Capital in the Twenty-First Century which is said to show that growing inequality is a built-in feature of capitalism.
In the interview Piketty says that, going through the data from the 19th century for Britain and other countries, ‘I saw a pattern beginning to emerge, which is that capital, and the money it produces, accumulates faster than growth in capital societies.’ What he is saying he has discovered is a tendency for a larger and larger proportion of new output to be accumulated as new capital. As a result, over time, the income from capital (property incomes such as profit and interest) grows faster than other incomes (mainly wages and salaries). The rich get richer. He claims, ‘I have proved that under the present circumstances capitalism simply cannot work.’
The key phrase here is not the claim that capitalism cannot work (it clearly can, even if this involves the rich getting richer) but the ‘under the present circumstances’ which suggests that under other circumstances capitalism could work. That this is his view can be seen by his proposal in the interview for ‘a progressive tax, a global tax, based on the taxation of private property.’
However unlikely it might be that any government would adopt what he calls in French a ‘révolution fiscale’ and impose high taxes on property and property incomes – Will Hutton in a comment in the same paper on the interview writes of ‘a top income tax rate of 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax’ – the implication must be that Piketty thinks that, if ever this was done, it would stop the rich getting richer.
It is not clear from the interview how Piketty defines capitalism. He seems to mean what the French call capitalisme sauvage, or unregulated, wildcat capitalism. If so, then his claim to have shown that ‘capitalism simply cannot work’ is reduced to the lesser claim that unregulated capitalism cannot work. This is a powerful refutation of the free marketers but is still suggesting that capitalism can be reformed ‘to work’.
The similarity between Piketty’s view and that of Marx on how capitalism works to make the rich richer is obvious but there is a difference. Piketty is more concerned with the distribution of the income from capital while Marx was concerned with the accumulation of capital itself irrespective of who owns it (whether individuals, corporations or the state) or who benefits personally from it.
Piketty claims in the interview that the data his research uncovered ‘contradicted nearly all of the theories [of inequality] including in Marx and Ricardo.’ He doesn’t say in the interview what he thinks Marx’s theory was, but elsewhere he has made it clear that he is criticising the theory of the long-run tendency for the rate of profit to fall (a position held, in different forms, by both Marx and Ricardo). He doesn’t think that there is any such tendency.
And of course, unlike Piketty, Marx never advocated trying to stop or reverse capital accumulation and/or the rich getting richer through legislation or government action. The distribution of property income amongst the rich can be changed, but that would make no difference to those whose income is derived from working. The way out is to get rid of capitalism.

People not Profits

Editorial from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Things are not produced today to meet people's needs. They are produced to make a profit. And that's the cause of the problems we face.

Under the profit system profits always come first. Before providing basic services like health care and transport, before improving conditions at work, and before protecting the environment.

It’s profits first, people second.

Under the profit system production is in the hands of profit-seeking business enterprises—whether state or privately owned—all competing to maximise the rate of return on the money invested in them. Decisions as to what to produce and how much, and how and where to produce it, are not made in response to people's needs but in response to market forces.

The health and welfare of the workforce and the effects on the environment take second place. This is why at work we suffer speed-up, pain, stress, boredom, overwork and accidents. This is why we have to work long hours, shiftwork and nightwork.

This is why the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe are all polluted. This is why the Earth's non-renewable mineral and energy resources are plundered. This is why natural balances are upset and the environment destroyed.

The profit system can't help doing this. It's the only way it can work. Which is why it must go.

What's the alternative?

One thing is certain. The Tories, LibDems and Labour—and now UKIP—have nothing to offer. They all support the profit system and are only squabbling over which of them should have a go at running it.

If we are going to improve things we are going to have to act for ourselves, without professional politicians or leaders of any kind. We are going to have to organise ourselves democratically to bring about a society geared to serving human needs not profits.

Production to satisfy people's needs. That's the alternative. But this is only going to be possible if we control production and the only basis on which this can be done is common ownership and democratic control. In a word, socialism.

We are talking about a world community without frontiers. Only on this basis can world poverty, hunger and the destruction of the environment be ended.

The socialist alternative to the profit system is:
Common ownership: no individuals or groups of individuals have property rights over the natural and industrial resources needed for production.
Democratic control: everybody has an equal say in the way things are run including work, not just the limited political democracy we have today.
Production for use: goods and services produced directly to meet people's needs, not for sale on a market or for profit.
Free access: all of us have access to what we require to satisfy our needs, not rationed as today by the size of our wage packet or State handout.