Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bert Ramelson buries Lenin (1976)

From the March 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

What happened when the BBC's "Newsday" interviewed the industrial organiser of the Communist Party would have been more suitable for the Goon Show, or Monty Python. Bert Ramelson, keeping a perfectly straight face, point-blank denied everything that the Communist Party was founded on and peddled for over thirty years!

True it is, as he said in the interview, that he only joined the CP in 1936; whereas some of us knew it intimately since 1920. However, that should not prevent him (or anybody else) knowing the facts. The interviewer did not know a great deal about the subject, and questioned from a prepared brief.

But even the political department of the BBC had heard that the Communist Parties were founded on "Leninism". That is, seizure of power by an intrepid, resolute minority of "professional revolutionists", leading the working class — who would then lead the "toiling masses" (meaning peasants) to socialist victory. For thirty years a vast mass of pamphlets, books and newspapers flogged the Leninist dogma of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", meaning minority action.

Many able writes waded patiently  through Marx's work to show that, from The Communist Manifesto onward, Marx never used this then-popular French slogan to mean anything else than majority democratic methods. For instance, Lucien Laurat, who in Marxism and Democracy quotes The Communist Manifesto:
The first stage in the working class revolution is the constitution of the proletariats as the ruling class, the conquest of democracy.
No use! For thirty years CP writers and speakers denounced democracy and exhorted the workers to follow "Marx's best disciple" Nikolai Lenin. Parliament was a useless "gasworks", elections a waste of time (although they regularly took part in them, but "only for propaganda, comrade"). The state would be smashed and "bourgeois" parliaments replaced by Soviets, "the workers' democracy".

The theses of the Communist International, Third Congress, prescribed the basis of Communist Parties. They must be organized with strict military discipline, based on "democratic Centralism", meaning complete obedience to the edicts of the Central Committee, or E.C., and prepared for "heavy civil war". The Programme of the Third International included armed insurrection.

For many a long and weary year the speakers of the Socialist Party strove manfully against an avalanche of Communist falsification of Marxism and distortion of Socialism. Exploiting every possible grievance of the workers — "the Leninist tactic": especially the mass unemployment of the 'thirties. Communist-inspired Hunger Marchers were batoned by the police after the General Strike ended in disaster; to be followed by yet another "change of tactics" by the CP.

When the war broke out poor old Pollitt, not realizing that Stalin had signed a pact with Hitler, proclaimed it a "just war", wrote a pamphlet "How to Win the War, One Penny" — and was promptly sacked by Moscow. After Hitler invaded Russia, the "imperialist war" of the western imperialist powers became "a war of liberation against German Fascism" and Pollitt was reinstated, although not as General Secretary of the Party.

Stalin had wiped the "Communist International" out of existence once he had the prospect of nuclear weapons. Understandably, the interviewer politely raised the question of the CP's present policy, and its past. "Was it not the case that the CP had advocated 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' in the past?"

"Not any more", replied Bert. Not any more! And do you know why, dear reader? Let Bert tell you. Because there has been "so much misunderstanding of what Marx really meant". He actually said this. "Marx meant the action of the vast overwhelming majority", said Bert; the CP has not used the phrase in any document since 1950, to avoid any more misunderstanding.

He was then asked if the British CP is a constitutional party, now willing to obey the majority vote. Yes! said Bert. But, said the question-master, didn't the CP try to take control of the trade unions? No, said our industrial organizer, not any more — we only organize our members in trade unions to help the unions, whose job is not political but economic. He would up by saying that the CP hoped to be able to join in a Coalition Government of Left-wing Labourites, like the Communists in France or Italy.

When one considers that Stalin systematically exterminated everyone within reach, and certainly everu one of those prominent in the Russian CP prior to Lenin's death . . .  when we recall Trotsky's extravagant calls for ruthless terrorism and the wiping-out of all opponents, and that many were shot by Stalin for daring to doubt his infallibility — we can only describe Bert as the best thing since electronic ignition.

Funnily enough, in the same week that Bert did his comic turn (19th January) the BBC was running a series involving Russia, called "Fall of Eagles". It was not expertly informed, but at least tried to achieve some resemblance to the facts. It showed the famous 1903 Congress, where Lenin founded the Bolshevik faction. Bert Ramelson did not even mention Lenin's name. Poor old "Ilyitch" is dead and buried, along with the thirty-eight volumes of his Collected Works.

And yet, up to and after 1950, famous scientists in Russia did not dare try to publish reputable work without the customary sickening adulation of Comrade Stalin — "Lenin's greatest disciple". How fortunate for Bert that he wasn't the industrial organizer then. He'd have got twenty years in a labour camp — if he was lucky!

Scottish? English? Who Cares?

From the June 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the run-up to the referendum in Scotland in September we begin a three-part series exposing the myths surrounding events in Scottish history.

‘Reive’ is an early English word for ‘to rob’, from the Northumbrian Scots verb reifen, related to the modern English word ‘ruffian’. The reivers also added the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved’ to the English language.

During the wars between Scotland and England, the lives and livelihood of the people on the borders would be devastated by the contending armies. Crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed. Those living in places known as Liddesdale, Redesdale and Tynedale were the most affected as, for reasons of geography, the invaders regularly used these routes. Families on either side of the Border had a lot in common regardless of whether they were Scots or English. It is no coincidence that these people, having their crops regularly destroyed and their livestock stolen, looked for other means of sustaining themselves and their families. They took to reiving.

Royal authority in either kingdom was often weak and there was little loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or people kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and improve their existence at the expense of their rivals.

Bishop John Leslie of Ross wrote of the Border Reivers:
‘In time of war they were readily reduced to extreme poverty by the almost daily inroads of the enemy, so, on the restoration of peace, they entirely neglect to cultivate their lands, though fertile, from the fear of the fruits of their labour being immediately destroyed by a new war whence it happens they seek their substances by robberies or plunder and rapine (for they are particularly averse to the shedding of blood) nor do they much concern themselves whether it be from Scots or English that they rob...They have a persuasion that all property is common by law of nature and is therefore liable to be appropriated by them in their necessity.’ (our emphasis)

The Border reivers, nick-named the ‘steel bonnets’, raided along the border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire border country without regard to nationality. Border families practised customs similar to those of the Highland Gaels and although feudalism existed, loyalty to kin was much more important and this is what distinguished the Borderers from other Lowland Scots. Relationships between the Border clans varied from uneasy alliance to open deadly feud. There being much cross-border migration, families that were once Scots now identify themselves as English and vice versa.

The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. When fighting as part of larger English or Scottish armies, Borderers were difficult to control as many had relatives on both sides of the border, despite laws forbidding international marriage by punishment of death. They could claim to be of either nationality, describing themselves as Scottish or English at will. At battles such as Ancrum Moor in Scotland in 1545, Borderers changed sides in mid-battle, to curry favour with the likely victors, and at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, an observer (William Patten) noticed that the Scottish and English borderers were talking to each other in the midst of battle, and on being spotted put on a show of fighting. Indeed the Borderers had a much closer allegiance to their family than to their country. Raids were made, not in the name of Scotland or England, but in the name of their family or clan. A Border official, Thomas Musgrave said:  ‘They are people that will be Scottishe when they will and English at their pleasure.’

When a man was killed his whole family became involved in a feud with the family who had done the killing. Reprisals were not just against the killer's immediate family but against anyone with the same surname. Mostly feuds were English against English and Scot against Scot. These feuds could last for generations and families could be engaged in several feuds with several other families. The authorities were reluctant to get involved in feuds because it was their thinking that they could stand back and watch troublesome families kill each other and rid the authorities of problems with these families.

The Debatable Lands lay between Scotland and England, extending from the Solway Firth near Carlisle to Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, the largest population centre being Canonbie, and which country's sovereignty it lay under was a matter of dispute. Some twelve miles long and three to four miles wide, the boundaries were marked by the rivers Liddel and Esk in the east and the River Sark in the west. For over three hundred years they were effectively controlled by local clans, such as the Armstrongs, who successfully resisted any attempt by the Scottish or English governments to impose their authority and who could alone put 3,000 men in the field. They launched frequent raids on farms and settlements outside the Debatable Lands and the profits enabled them to become major landowners.

In 1530, King James V broke the strength of the Armstrongs by hanging Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and 31 others. In 1551 the Crown officers of England and Wales, in an attempt to clear out the trouble makers, declared that ‘All Englishmen and Scottishmen, after this proclamation made, are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy all and every such persons, their bodies, buildings, goods and cattle as do remain or shall inhabit upon any part of the said Debatable Land without any redress to be made for the same.’

Upon his accession to the English throne, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) moved hard against the reivers, abolishing Border Law and the very term ‘Borders’ in favour of ‘Middle Shires’, and dealing out stern justice to reivers. He embarked on the so-called ‘Pacification of the Borders’.

James was determined to have a United Kingdom. He proclaimed that ‘if any Englishman steal in Scotland or any Scotsman steal in England any goods or cattle which amount to 12 pence, he shall be punished by death.’ The most blatant offenders were rounded up and served with what was known as ‘Jeddert Justice’ - summary execution. Some families abandoned their reiver connections and found favour with the king and joined in the subjugation of the old reiving families to be rewarded with the lands of their former friends and allies. All Borderers were forbidden to carry weapons and fortified tower houses destroyed. Reiving families were dispossessed of their lands, the people scattered or deported, and many families rounded up and banished to Ireland where they partly made up those who became known as the Ulster-Scots. And there lies another tragic tale of blood-soaked nationalism and unionism!

War, Weapons and Water

From the December 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over.’ (Mark Twain)
The BBC in November 1999 reported on a UN Development Programme which argued that potential ‘water wars are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country’. Speaking in New Delhi in March 2001 the then Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, predicted that: ‘if we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not about oil.’ John Reid, Minister for Defence warned in 2006 that: ‘climate change may spark conflict between nations – and … British armed forces must be ready to tackle the violence,’ Independent (28/02/06).  And in March of this year in the Guardian Energy Secretary, Ed Davies stated that: ‘I have a fear for the world that climate instability drives political instability,’ and continued by saying: ‘The pressure of that makes conflict more likely.’ Mark Twain may have got it right then.
The Pacific Institute ( underline Twain’s words through their chronology of 225 entries from 3000 BC to 2010 of violent conflicts relating to water. Water and air are the two necessities of human life. Fortunately, only water has evolved into private property and only recently as a commodity for sale on the market. Fortune magazine extols its virtues as a commodity: ‘One of the world's great business opportunities. It promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th’ (CBC News, 02/03). Which might give Kofi Annan something to brood over.
The origins of conflicts over water developed with the ownership of domestic livestock and the growth of agriculture several thousand years ago. Water had gradually taken on an economic character. Thus, when grazing pasture and natural watering holes dry up, and farmers seem to be flourishing, then peaceful cooperation inevitably stops working. Latterly, under capitalism, the procuring, extracting, treating, storing and delivery of water has a cost and, as Fortune magazine points out, a profit is expected in return. If supplies of any commodity become short, it can be expected that the price will rise.
Growth is as important to capitalism as water is to a human being. And water is a crucial element in any future growth of capitalism. Global capitalists compete to harness and control water because it is an indispensable component for commercial fisheries, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism, and most importantly it is a source of energy through hydroelectric power, which at present supplies around 6 per cent of the world’s commercial energy. But this commodity is becoming scarce. A CIA report in 2000 predicted that ‘By 2015 nearly half the world's population –more than 3 billion people –will live in countries that are 'water-stressed' –- have less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year –mostly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and northern China’ (
In Africa, The Okavango Basin is a source of tension between Botswana and Namibia. Both countries are victims of drought and Namibia has already built a water canal and has proposed building a pipeline to divert water from the river back into Namibia. At stake for Botswana is its only source of water and an expanding income from tourism. Namibia argues that it is entitled to any water that flows through its country. Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture and thus the distribution of the waters of the Nile. Egypt claims to have a historical right to the Nile, but upstream, Ethiopia and Sudan see matters differently. The former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak threatened in 1989 to send demolition squads to destroy a projected dam in Ethiopia, and ‘The Egyptian army still has jungle warfare brigades, even though they have no jungle’ (
In the Middle East just one per cent of the world’s water is competed for by five per cent of its population. Thus, the former Israeli Prime Minister, General Ariel Sharon, could state that, ‘People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the six-day war began. That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two- and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.’ And in 1979 following the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, President Anwar Sadat said that ‘Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources’. Likewise King Hussein of Jordan stated that ‘he will never go to war with Israel again except over water’ ( Israel maintains control over the River Jordan and has restricted supplies during times of scarcity as the people of the Palestinian Territories will validate.
The Euphrates River has been a regional flashpoint for a number of years. Minor skirmishes had been fought between Syria and Iraq over water rights. In May 1975 tensions were ratcheted up when both sides massed troops on their borders following Syria’s claim that Iraq had reduced the flow of water by 50%. In January 1990 Turkey shut off the flow of the Euphrates for 30 days by closing the gates of the Ataturk Dam. And in 1998 distrust, which some observers believed could lead to hostilities, arose because of Turkish plans to build dams that could be used to control supplies to downstream Syria. The escalating scarcity of water in the region has done nothing to improve this situation.
China and India’s economic growth is jealously eyed by other capitalist states. With the predicted consequences of climate change and faster glacial melt factored into the thinking of state planners, alternative methods for power, such as hydroelectricity, have been a strategic dynamic in their efforts to maintain future levels of growth. Power shortages are acting as a constraint on India’s factory output. Outages are frequent and for an economy that is already slowing a serious handicap. And, of course, the damming of rivers brings with it control: a useful adjunct to cheap power.
China and India boast two of the world’s mightiest armies who fought a brief border war in 1962. Both stand poised over tensions concerning upstream Chinese proposals to divert water from the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra flows from its source in the Himalayas into Eastern India where it unites with the Ganges. To the east The Kishanganga River thunders down through Northern Kashmir to The Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant, which was constructed to divert water from the river to a power plant in the Jhelum River basin. The Kishanganga flows on down past one of the world’s most heavily defended borders into Pakistan. The Pakistan state is concerned that the dam will have a detrimental effect on the flow of the river. Water has long been a source of strain between India and Pakistan.
Meanwhile China is also busy in Southeast Asia, along with Laos, in constructing dams over the Mekong River to the alarm of downstream states. Moreover China has built almost 20 dams, and around 40 more are planned, on the eight Tibetan rivers. It is believed that hydropower alone is not the only motive for China’s increasing control over the sources of rivers.
In a society that is awash with weapons that come in various guises, water might appear to be less menacing than many. However, water is now talked of as a ‘Political Weapon’, which is synonymous with the deceptive language conjured up by the school of wordsmiths who gave birth to the snappy idiom, ‘The Nuclear Deterrent’. Brahma Chellaney, the author of the book ‘Water: Asia's New Battlefield’ has asserted, ‘Whether China intends to use water as a political weapon or not, it is acquiring the capability to turn off the tap if it wants to – a leverage it can use to keep any riparian neighbours on good behaviour.’
Problems globally will be exacerbated with the expected rise in grain and oilseed prices as US crops suffer from the country's worst drought since 1936 and the farming regions of South America and Russia suffer similar water shortages (Daily Telegraph, 5 September). According to Rabobanks’ commodities analysts, ‘By June 2013, the basket of food prices tracked by the United Nations could climb 15pc from current levels.’ Rising food prices are always a source of social discontent and thus political instability.
A growing number of environmental writers and strategic analysts view water as a potential trigger for future wars. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2007 stated that: ‘The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.’
Socialists view war as the last resort for states. Scarcity of any resource that is vital for the production of profits could be, and has been, seen by states as a reason to go to war.
Andy Matthews

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism (2011)

Book Review from the October 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism. By Keiran Allen. Pluto Press. 233 pages.

Professor Keiran Allen is a senior lecturer in Sociology at University College Dublin and his book purports to offer Marxism as an alternative form of social organisation to a sick and increasingly socially vile capitalism.

Marx delineated the social mores and behavioural culture that dominated and dominates our lives in capitalism, debunking the myths and superstitions originating in a class-structured society. Allen begins his work with a brief history of Marx’s life and times followed by an examination and, in some ways, clarification of his key theories, his theory of value and his Materialist Conception of History.

I found Allen’s exposition of Marx’s concept of alienation engagingly relevant to life in contemporary capitalism where the obscenities of extreme riches and poverty represent ubiquitous fare in the media. This is an increasingly relevant and often neglected area of Marxism in a world where the old traditional ‘moral’ values and the idea of a harsh Universal Policeman are disintegrating and where the vision of real social reform has been replaced by the visible political effluence of wealth-corrupted politicians.

Unfortunately what Allen offers as a Marxian antidote to the ongoing crisis of capitalism is all his own work.

In the Leninist tradition (he is a leading member of the Irish section of the SWP) he sees the working class, the vital element in the revolutionary transformation of capitalism, as being unfit for purpose; unable to rise to a full comprehension of social freedom and capable only of reacting to the leadership of an informed revolutionary elite. And, like Lenin, he thinks socialism is an indefinite condition, a form of political sticking plaster that may be applied by state regulation to the harsher sores of capitalism to make it less painful. Given his insubstantial perception of socialism it is not so surprising that he has discovered little islands of it out there existing among the turbulent oceans of world capitalism.

So what is this Marx being offered by Professor Allen as an alternative to capitalism?

Well, first we will have the Revolution – internecine warfare and those nasties that normally engender hatred and division but, guided by the revolutionary elite will, according to Allen, create working-class solidarity and a new (but, it transpires, not very new) social order.

The farmer will still own his field (p.180) and you’ll still be able to spend your money in the cafes and local shops but if you work for some of the big companies your new boss will be the state There will still be a need for wages’ departments and banks but if you are on the minimum wage you will have the satisfaction of knowing that the pay of those above you in the pecking order be restricted to a maximum of, say, four or five times what you get (p.192)

So, just as after the last Bolshevik Revolution, we will be a society of equals – but some will be more equal than others.
Richard Montague

Is There Anybody Out There? (2000)

TV Review from the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The question of whether we are entirely alone in the universe is one that has perplexed philosophers, scientists and daytime talk-show hosts across the aeons of time. BBC2's Horizon addressed itself to that very issue last month enquiring whether somewhere out in the vast expanses of the universe there is a planet (or planets) just like Earth. If there is, do they know about our existence and have they monitored our activities in any way? Are they aware of all our social and cultural developments? And if so, did they understand 3-2-1?
To be fair, Horizon restricted itself to discussing the strictly scientific advances surrounding the various recent attempts to discover the existence of hitherto unknown planets, particularly the efforts of the successful team based in Scotland. This was entirely worthy from the point of view of a respected science programme like Horizon, but it did unfortunately entail prolonged discussions about seemingly randomly-spaced dots on endless pieces of graph paper. All in all, it was quite possibly not what a lot of viewers had in mind when they switched on.
It did, however, beg questions which will no doubt be returned to time after time. Foremost among these of course is if—as seems to be the case—other planets exist elsewhere in the universe, how likely is it that some of them can support life? Is it the case, as some scientists have recently maintained, that Earth coalesces such an entirely unique combination of properties to sustain life that it is highly unlikely that life will exist on any other planet?
Socialists are naturally in no better a position to judge this than anyone else, though it is worth mentioning that the view that We Are Alone has always seemed a particularly unscientific one given the vastness of the universe and the multiplicity of its star systems—moreover, it smacks somewhat of a search for a scientific justification for the creationist sympathies of some scientists, sympathies that are often lurking at a deeper ideological level.
To go boldly
If intelligent life does exist elsewhere then it is quite possible that some of this life will be aware of our existence, and if so, then they will surely look at us with a little pity. How could it be otherwise with a planet populated by an intelligent and technologically-developing group of mammals who are to all intents and purposes a slave species, under the parasitic domination and control of a tiny group from their own number? As Gene Rodenberry, the founder of Star Trek, tried to tell the waiting world before William Shatner got in the way, sophisticated and technologically advanced life-forms are unlikely to be living in conditions of self-imposed artificial scarcity elsewhere, in societies based on slavery and exploitation like we have on Earth.

It is interesting to socialists how often science fiction writers—those most typically granted licence in such matters in modern society—return to this theme despite the ideological hegemony of the ruling capitalist class and the mindset associated with it, dominated by everything consequent on private property and competition. Some scientists have shown an ability to explore this theme too. These have included an American called Fred Steckling, who wrote a seemingly kooky book some years ago which was among a number at the time attempting to argue from official NASA sources and photographs that alien life-forms of some kind had a base on the moon. The fixed constructions and vehicles Steckling claimed to identify in the photographs included in his book were of such a colossal magnitude that he contended that:
". . . whoever they are, living on the Moon, or using it as a base, must have solved the economic aspects in the construction of such vehicles long ago. This in turn suggests great co-operation and consolidation of people, talents and experts into one genuinely co-operating labor force . . . This no doubt suggests that whoever they are up there, they are more advanced than us. One could speculate further, that with such great co-operation, there would result a common language and economy with perhaps the elimination of the monetary system entirely. It is logical to assert, pursuing this same line of thought, that this seems to be the reason why the officials [NASA and US Intelligence] have chosen to ignore these inexorable truths" (Alien Bases On the Moon, p.28).
If Steckling was arguing logically from an unfortunately flawed premiss in writing this, he was at least more advanced in his application of the materialist conception of history than the bizarre Leninist outfit the Revolutionary Workers Party, whose periodical can still be found occasionally in the darkest recesses of Housman's bookshop. For those who don't remember, this was the Trotskyist sect which claimed that if socialism is impossible in one country (true enough) then it must be impossible on one planet as well (“that is illogical, captain”).
Of course, the underlying point about all this speculation over the existence of other life forms (and it is, at the moment, only that) is that it should not get in the way of attempts to solve the very real problems of humanity down here on planet Earth. For that is a large part of the problem with searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence and all the rest of it—whether done throughHorizon's conventional scientific methods or not. If all the well-meaning individuals out there who have spent their time looking for some sort of salvation or rescue by extra-terrestrials had concentrated on the real and concrete task of struggling to free humankind from our self-imposed chains, then we may well have dispensed with the need for alien assistance quite some time ago—whether any was forthcoming or not.