Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Marx (2012)

Book Review from the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners by Michael Wayne; Illustrations by Sungyoon Choi. US $16.99. 138pp.

This little book is on the whole an excellent and handy introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx. Most of it is quite readable and fairly easy to follow, and pretty accurate in its summary of Marx’s Das Kapital. It also touches on a number of his other books in passing. Its main virtue is that it succeeds in showing some of the ways in which Marx’s ideas are in fact as relevant as ever today, despite the widespread myth that he was discredited by the events of the twentieth century.

Marx analysed the social and economic system he lived under in studious, methodical detail by starting from the very categories used by the bourgeois economists themselves: the commodity, the exchange of commodities and then, most important, the buying and selling of labour power, which is at the core of the system of wage-slavery, a system we still live under in 2012 throughout the world. Marx solved the paradox of the origin of profit created in the production process. He did so, as explained very well by Wayne, by distinguishing labour from labour power. The latter is the worker’s ability to work for a given number of days, whereas simple labour is the work performed during this time. If you pay someone a wage of £500 per week, that is what they need to live on and carry on being fit for work. You have bought their labour power for the week. But they will be able to generate £500’s worth of value well before the week is over, and the surplus belongs not to them but to the employer.

The chapter on ‘Reproduction And Crises’ is both the weakest and most problematic, as Wayne allows himself to get bogged down in the tortuous debate as to exactly how it is that capitalism runs periodically into crisis, and whether there is an underlying tendency for such crises to get worse over time. Within the Socialist Party we have sometimes debated among ourselves about the precise mechanics of this. Wayne leans, at times, toward an ‘underconsumptionist’ description of capitalism, which is flawed as it neglects to take account of the “purchasing power” of capital itself. He also gets lost in some dubious mathematics and loses track of how little some of this matters as against the urgent need to end capitalism, however its crises are caused. He redeems himself, however, by the well-chosen summary that “the overall anarchy of the market” is the ultimate cause of crises.

Given the gross distortions and misrepresentations of Marx’s ideas sustained through the twentieth century Russian experience of Bolshevism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism, it might have been apt to devote at least a page or two to noting how Lenin twisted Marx’s ideas for socialist revolution into his manifesto for minority-led insurrection to establish industrial capitalism in Russia in the early twentieth century. This laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship which followed and did incalculable damage to the progress of genuine socialism in the world today because it was done under the banner of “socialism” and “Marxism” rather than being named more honestly as the capitalist revolution that it was.

Instead, Wayne devotes a disproportionate six pages of his 138-page book to extolling the virtues of the Italian intellectual Gramsci as a kind of missing link. This, like Wayne’s pessimism about the transformation to socialism (see below), arises from a lack of conviction that ‘ordinary’ members of the working class can have the ability to reach socialist consciousness themselves, as a simple and direct result of their own experience of capitalism. He shares with Gramsci the arrogant assumption that a special category of ‘intellectuals’ (including presumably Wayne as well as Gramsci) have the historical role of teaching the workers about the exploitation they are experiencing.

Perhaps the best and most thought-provoking chapter here is that on ‘Commodity Fetishism And Ideology’. Wayne explores Marx’s fascinating insights about the way in which social relationships in capitalism are skewed by the power given to objects and the force of economic imperatives. This is a very rich seam which Marx opened, and is still worthy of much further research and exploration. This is about the ways in which our present social system increasingly causes personal misery, alienation, depression and cultural implosion, all of which are becoming more and more pressing issues in our present era.

There is a grave disappointment in the final pages of Wayne’s book. Having usefully outlined some of the positive ways in which socialism will liberate humanity from the limitations of the market system, he then abandons the revolutionary agenda to state that once production for need and collective control of production arrives, ‘various forms of collective ownership and control would grow, while both the state and the market for labor power would diminish. This could only take place over what presumably would be a long period of transition, spanning many generations’ (page 135).

In support of this ‘gradualism’ he quotes Marx (page 132) saying that
“the time which society is bound to devote to material production is proportion as the work is more and more evenly divided among all the able-bodied members of society, and as a particular class is more and more deprived of the power to shift the natural burden of labor from its own shoulders to those of another layer of society...”
Looking at the original German and the French translations of this passage (at the end of chapter 17 of Volume I of Capital), however, it appears most likely that Marx was not using the phrase “more and more” to imply a gradual change over generations, but simply to make a mathematical point about proportions. In much the same way it might be explained that the more you remove the air from a fragile container the lower its pressure, and the more and more likely it is to smash. This does not mean you are proposing that such a container might have a half-an-half vacuum for generations.

In fact, once we have a majority who understand that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, the change from capitalism to socialism will be enacted, pure and simple. You just cannot have the co-existence of socialist and capitalist relations of production in the world for any significant period of time, and certainly not for generations. This should be clear to Wayne and his readers from every observation throughout the rest of his book about the all-encompassing global nature of capitalism and, by extension, of the very different system which must replace it.
Clifford Slapper

"Communist Kids" (1997)

Book Review from the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Children of the Revolution: Communist Childhood in Cold War Britain by Phil Cohen, Lawrence & Wishart. £12.99.

To begin with I was quite excited at the prospect of reading this book. In a sense I would be returning to my childhood, to a life shared with a Communist Party father, and then later on to a schism in that relationship during the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the revelations about Stalin, and to my subsequent resignation from the Communist Party at the age of twenty-two.

Although it would be true to say that I could identify, politically and emotionally, with some of the experiences of the "children" interviewed, there are nonetheless, major differences. Whilst I lived with a father who possessed a paid-up CP card but was not active within the CP the people portrayed in the book are offspring of parents who were very active within the party and also often held leading positions in the CP and the trade union movement. Despite my father's infatuation with Communist Party ideals, the fact that he met few other party members meant that he did retain some original Marxist thinking, so that although he always supported the Soviet Union he most certainly never claimed they had socialism and he believed implicitly in the abolition of capitalism. Also only two of the people interviewed in the book were born in the thirties (1936 and 1937) others in the forties and fifties and one in the sixties, while I entered this world in 1935 and eventually became a member of both the YCL and the Communist Party where I was to remain for about six years.

But I found much in this book to depress me. When those interviewed use the word "socialism" none of them gives a satisfactory definition of it. Neither does anybody talk about the abolition of the wages system, although all appeared to believe in a fairer distribution of wealth and social justice, apparently this to be achieved by reforms to take place sometime in the future. Most disturbing is that even with the full knowledge of the denunciation of Stalin and the tragedy of the Hungarian uprising the children could still see no reason not to join the YCL and the CP not so long after these very events had become a catalyst for my leaving. But, as Phil Cohen says in his introduction, "Values are partly a question of upbringing affected by what you know will please your parents, and the experience that shape you as a person, which are inevitably bound up with your parents. But the benevolent paternalism of the CP could be stifling to those growing up within it. Teenage rebellion was not easy when you were told that saving from the world from imperialism was the key thing in life." Quite so, but similar pressure did not prevent me from making my exit from the CP in 1957 and what is more I still held to the basic tenet of socialism somewhere in the back of my mind.

But some lessons had been learnt. Another contributor states "We weren't a revolutionary party at all, and I was a member for thirty years, half of its existence. We had the rhetoric, we talked about the class moving this and that but we never saw it in those terms. Even when we analysed our electoral work, which I now look back on as a complete waste of time, we presented the lowest common denominator of the argument: that we were part of the anti-Tory movement and a lot of people who couldn't bring themselves to vote communist would be stimulated to vote Labour, so we were vital to help return Labour candidates. To some extent that was true, my great moment was getting five hundred votes in the East Lewisham constituency and people saying to me there was absolutely no doubt I had helped Labour to get elected. But what is revolutionary about helping to change the complexion of parliament."

To Communist Party parents the education of their children was of vital importance so that as a result most of those interviewed have professional jobs or careers. I had a rather different experience where my father saw nothing wrong with manual work or labouring although he did tentatively suggest I might feel more comfortable in an office. My own experience of being a member of the CP was that those members with well-paid careers or important political administrative posts were much admired. I'm not saying that this was in any way party policy, but doctors, teachers, writers, scientists and so on were regarded with a good deal more respect that, say, factory workers or shop workers. During my time in the party I was very much aware of this, perhaps because I was a factory worker at the time. Another theme running through the book is of the liberality and freedom permeating the children's childhoods. Books, family discussions, and always a feeling of being somehow "different" from other children. My own experience too, but some of the children say their parents exhibited a kind of religious fervour and a streak of puritanism.

This book cost me a couple of sleepless nights; reading it forced me to examine my own political life since 1957. I too joined the Labour Party, but briefly and for infiltration purposes, and I became quite active in the peace movement, whilst always arguing from a working-class standpoint.

This is a fascinating book, well worth reading, but at the end of each and every interview I felt disappointed, let down, as though I had come to expect something "other" from the children, perhaps even fuller analyses of why they had come to join the CP at such an inauspicious time.
Heather Ball

Obituary: Sam Orner (1973)

Obituary from the October 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have to report the sad news that one of the tough old stalwarts of the Socialist Movement — Sam Orner — has passed away at the age of 79. Sam led an active and eventful life and spent nearly the whole of it in the struggle against social oppression.

In 1913, when about 19 years old, he joined the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) which was connected to the Socialist Party of America. Then he was attracted to the excitement of the "Wobbly" movement and became active in the I.W.W. He travelled all over the United States, often riding the rails in the freezing cold or the scorching sun, helping to organize the low-paid workers, particularly those employed seasonally in the fields.

He was at one time a speaker for the S.P. of A. and spoke at meetings all over Brooklyn, at Coney Island, Brownsville and Williamsburg. In 1921 he was conducting classes concerned with Marx's Value, Price and Profit. However, in 1923 Sam came in contact with and joined the Socialist Education Society. This was the fore-runner of the W.S.P. in New York City.

In the early 1930's, he took part in organizing the New York taxi-cab drivers. When they struck in 1934 he was compelled to leave the W.S.P. to concentrate upon the involved affairs of the union. This was the strike that formed the subject of Clifford Odets' play Waiting For Lefty. Our Sam Orner was "Lefty". As he did no fall in line with the views of the gangsters who were seeking control of the union he was badly beaten-up and taken to hospital. A friend got him out of the hospital before the mobsters could finish him off.

He finished with cab-driving and rejoined the W,S.P., speaking frequently in Union Square. His name appeared for many years in the back-pages of The Western Socialist for interested readers in the New Jersey area to contact. He was always an active member. In 1965, he made a trip to England and spoke at a Trafalgar Square meeting as well as elsewhere. On the 4th of July of this year, Sam suffered a stroke from which he seemed to be recovering. But on the 13th August he had another stroke and for three weeks thereafter he lay in hospital until he finally passed away on September 2nd.

All his life, up to the last, Sam was a tough and fearless warrior in the working class movement. When the present writer saw him lying in agony in the hospital he was reminded of an old poem:
See an old unhappy bull
Sick in soul and body both . . .
Waiting for the flesh that dies.
People of Sam's calibre leave a gap when they go. There are many who have been indebted to him for help in the past, both financial and otherwise. A long time ago, one little girl in Boston used to call him "Sammy Claus".

He was like a dynamo, and his impatient activity was inclined to arouse antagonism at times. However, he was a sincere and energetic advocate of Socialism, which was his main interest in life. By this he will be remembered now that he gone to the realm of eternal silence. Would that there were more Sam Orners.

The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1994)

From the November 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is 150 years since Friedrich Engels wrote his classic The Condition of the Working Class in 1844. He described in graphic detail the wretched lives that workers were forced to lead at that time, and he looked forward to the early ending of the capitalist system and its replacement by socialism. His hopes have not been realised, and today we may ask two questions: (1) in what ways and to what extent have the conditions of the working class changed since he wrote? And (2) is the call to abolish the capitalist system and replace it by socialism as valid today as it was then?

In 1844 the Industrial Revolution was approaching its zenith. Engels vividly documents the sordid conditions in the working class districts of the great towns; the effect of competition ("the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society"); the immigrant Irish workers willing to take even lower wages than the impoverished English working class; the poor health and short lives that were the rule, and the drunkenness and depravity that were common; the factory hands exploited long hours in filthy and often dangerous conditions, by day and night, women and children as well as men.

There is no doubt that working and living conditions in Britain have vastly improved for the working class in the last 150 years. Workplaces are cleaner and safer, hours of work are generally shorter, homes better constructed and furnished, health improved and longevity extended. Yet in some ways the situation has not changed that much. This is what Engels wrote about London:
"The turmoil of the streets have something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels . . . The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space . . . the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains."
Today most workers have more than a bare existence, but the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. We are encouraged by the system to pursue our private interest and this does lead to isolation and brutal indifference, mitigated only by the collective efforts to resist the inequalities and the injustices.

The stern realities of capitalist employment are the same now as then. We work if an employer can see a profit in employing us, otherwise we don't. The current version of the system is more than hitherto. Relatively high paid managers do the dirty work of the capitalist class by hiring and firing workers, organising their exploitation and breaking their strikes. Such is the anarchy of the system that managers are sometimes called on to fire other managers.

On the second question of whether the call to socialism is as relevant today as in Engel's time there can be little doubt. Defenders of capitalism point to the improvement in the material conditions of life for the mass of people over the last century or so. Certainly most workers are better housed, better fed and better clothed than they were. How much this is due to the beneficence of the ruling class and how much to their opportunities to extract profits from getting workers to improve their own conditions is another matter.

But working-class life is still far from ideal, still far from the life that is possible if production for profit were replaced by production solely to meet needs. More purchasing power entails poverty of another kind, that of economic insecurity, of worry about losing the job on which "prosperity" depends. And we must not forget that, even if the material conditions of working class have improved in the economically "advanced" countries, many workers and their families in the Third World still suffer deprivations comparable to, if not worse than, those described by Engels.

In 1844 there might have been some excuse for not demanding an immediate end to the system that produced poverty for the mass and riches for the few: the wealth produced by workers was far less abundant. Today there is no such excuse. We have the means - the knowledge, the accumulated capital, the technology and the willing workers - to meet all the reasonable needs of all the world's population. What stands in the way is the support given to the profit system.

Engels understood well the nature of socialism, even though he was over-optimistic about when it would come. He wrote of "the moment when the workers resolve to be bought and sold no longer" and of "the abolition of the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat". The language may be archaic but the thinking was and is sound. Socialism is not out of date. It is more needed and more practically possible than ever.
Stan Parker