Sunday, September 7, 2014

Romantic rebels (1988)

Editorial from the May 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Twenty years ago this month the French took an unscheduled holiday together. For three romantic weeks a minority of revellers bathed in a glorious self-deception, erecting barricades, occupying their places of work, popularising a critique of consumer culture and sending wish-you-were-here cards to the workers, who responded with a General Strike for better wages and conditions but refused to "take power and overthrow capitalism". Here and there legal authority was replaced by self-catering communes, which actually managed nothing more productive than festivals, traffic and 24-hour talking shops. General de Gaulle's five-minute television broadcast of 30 May called a halt to the entertainment and within a few days the radicals - like naughty pupils caught misbehaving - were back in class with their heads down. Tedious normality returned, leaving a handful of Redcoats without audiences and British and American sociologists to ponder whether we had witnessed a "revolutionary situation" or an extended lunch break.

The student revolt which triggered worker unrest had its roots in the strict subordination of universities to the Ministry of Education, a factor which served to create a uniformly militant state of mind amongst the young elite. The libertarian spirit of the time had also fostered a New Left rebellion against Communist orthodoxy and liberalism, but the practical result of its propaganda was limited to a number of wildcat strikes in the aftermath of the Communist-led General Strike of 13 May. Cold reality was that the majority of wage and salary earners wanted nothing more than improvements and reforms -  a fact confirmed by the overwhelming ratification of representative democracy in the June general election, when the Gaullists were returned with an increased majority.

The events of May'68 are of concern to socialists because they probably represent most people's ideas of what a revolution would entail - blood and barricades, factory occupations and the violent overthrow of legal authority. The leading actors in the drama may have represented different strands of left-wing ideology but they all shared a belief in the primacy of industrial action and force as the means to effect social change, the central arguments of syndicalists and anarchists being repeated by Bolsheviks of all varieties. The backbone of their theory was and remains the General Strike, which begins in a small way, spreads in sympathy strikes and occupations and develops into the overthrow of the entire system. A fundamentally elitist approach, it assumes the working class to be a simple giant that needs taking by the hand and leading into the class struggle. Revolution is viewed as the culmination of hundreds of industrial struggles in which workers gain experience and an ever-stronger sense of solidarity, and rests on their ability to take and hold the means of production in face of the combined forces of the state. Its advocates dismiss the possibility that workers can ever reach their exalted level of consciousness without such vigorous exercise.

It is impossible to deny that ideas are conditioned by people's material experience, but this is a long way from suggesting that industrial struggle will, in itself, automatically produce socialist consciousness. Activists who took to the streets of France in 1968 were not preoccupied with the abolition of the wage labour and capital relationship and its replacement with free access, and no amount of struggle could have conjured these concepts out of the air and into the majority of heads. Had the French left been able to turn their dreams into reality (let's assume for argument's sake that the armed forces all happened to be on holiday) they would have had no choice but to administer capitalism since their followers would have gained as little knowledge as they had of its alternative.

Spontaneity may be an asset for the stand-up comic but it is of no use when attempting to dispose of capitalism. The ownership of the means of life  cannot be settled at the factory gate or the barricade because such methods leave the coercive state in the hands of the owning class. When workers are sufficiently class conscious to capture the political machinery for socialism, they will have already used their knowledge to bring their workplace organisations to a similar state of development. They will talk not of mines for the miners or factories for the factory workers, but of the democratic control of the world's resources by the whole community.

The only movement in the interest of the great majority that can ever be successful is one they understand, desire and vote for. Industrial action for political ends can produce conditions of chaos. But chaos is not socialism, and so long as the great majority do not want socialism, socialism cannot be the outcome.

A TALE OF THE SUBMERGED (1912)

From the January 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bertram Williams, a homeless labourer of 21, fell, it is reported, into the Thames. In a moment of aberration of mind he got out again. An idea smote him, perhaps because it was a raw December night. He thought he would try and find somewhere to dry his clothes. He went to two police stations, where he was referred to the casual ward. There they would not admit him because he had no "order".

There was one other place he could apply at in Christian England, overflowing with the traditional "peace and goodwill" of Christmastide. To the Salvation Army Shelter! Ah! yes, a good idea. "Knock and it shall be opened." "Do unto others --." "For He e e doth mark th' spa a-rrow's fall." Excellent! B. Williams would go unto the Good Samaritan.

He found the G.S. on duty even at that early hour (4 o'c in the morning), which is not surprising, for thee Salvationist watch as well as bray. It is a habit they acquire through watching the financial aspect of their "prayer skirmishes." When Williams preferred his request to be allowed to dry his clothes, he was told to call again at 5, because their rules did not allow them to admit anyone before that hour. You see, though it is true that the bridegroom cometh, the S.A. are so firmly convinced of his respectability that they make no provision for his reception before 5 o'c in the morning.

Of course, the wisest course for B. Williams to have followed at least, from the moral point of view, would have been to get back into the river for an hour or two. Such Christian meekness would probably have met with its promised reward. He would have inherited the earth, or at least, six feet by two of it.

But there, we can all be wise after the event. Williams smashed the S.A. shelter window.

Oh dear! That's a crime against private property, you know. So they hauled him off to the police-station, where he was received with open arms. They didn't refer him to the casual ward now - he had smashed a window.

In the fulness of time Bertram appeared before the magistrate, to whom it was explained by the Good Samaritan that the Commissioner of the S.A. took a very serious view of the offence. That is only to be  expected. It is a much more serious affair, smashing a window, than sowing the seeds consumption in a homeless young labourer. But what a wonderfully convenient thing the prison is to those who preach the gospel of turning the other cheek to the smiter.
A. E. Jacomb.


Piecemeal (1983)

Book Review from the June 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The CND Story, ed. John Minnion and Philip Bolsover, Allison and Busby (1983).

In the preface to this book the editors point out that it is a collection of individual views and that it is 'in no sense an "official history"' (p.7). This has always been the stance adopted by CND, which claims to be a movement not an organisation as such. Its aims are simple but vague enough to bear many interpretations. It is a broad church which embraces christians, pacifists and left-wingers. There are a multitude of peace groups now in existence: Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, Journalists Against Nuclear Extermination, Teachers for Peace, Families Against the Bomb, Women Oppose the Nuclear Threat, Tories Against Cruise and Trident, Babies Against the Bomb, Women for Life on Earth, etc. They represent an outcry against the horrific consequences of technological advance in weaponry. Such protests have always existed. There were protests against waging war on civilians, the bombardment of towns, chemical weapons, submarines, napalm and atomic weapons. Socialists also oppose the slaughter of human beings, but in any form of war whether conventional or nuclear. CND in the 1970s developed its campaign to "increase its opposition to chemical and biological weapons" (p.32) yet it still wishes to see the retention of capitalism. For this reason CND's programme of action is futile. Restricting the type of weaponry available does not reduce the chances of war nor the horrific consequences of war.

Janet and Norman Buchan in the section 'The Campaign in Scotland: singing into protest' say:
From a very early stage we had won full support from the Labour Party, Trades Council and the STUC  . . . And it was they who were largely responsible for securing the biggest post-war demonstration in Glasgow till then, at the start of the 1960's. Incidentally, that was the demonstration that produced the sectarian slogan to end all sectarian slogans. Just as we were turning round the corner of Sauchiehall Street two grim stalwarts of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were standing heralding the march with a huge banner and slogan which read: "This demonstration is useless—You must first destroy capitalism" (p. 53).
The Buchans have clearly not grasped the profound nature of this criticism of CND. They may wax lyrical about the support from different reformist groups but this has in no way reduced nuclear weapon proliferation. War is endemic to capitalism. Nuclear weapons represent only one aspect of the arsenal of modern capitalism and these weapons will be used if the capitalist powers (whether NATO, Warsaw Pact, China or any other) feel the need to. In 1925, 114 countries signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases but countries still reserved the right of retaliatory usage. This is the recurrent hypocrisy of the arms race but it does not mask the willingness to develop, produce and ultimately use any weapons. Supposed peaceful intentions do not hide the reality of weapons retention. CND's problem is how they can effect a change in government policy in order to bring about unilateral disarmament. 

Andrew Papworth says that CND must avoid "the dangers of creating illusions about the extent to which Britain is a responsive democracy" (p. 126). He talks about the failure of political parties to carry through into government disarmament policies and about their failure to respond to disarmament demands. What he should recognise is that this is the inevitable outcome for political parties who are committed to capitalism. Dan Smith argues that the strength of CND is in its non-political nature and that its "basic role is to close the door against certain options in defence policy — nuclear options" (p. 107). What Smith's argument does emphasise is that CND is not concerned about the eradication of war; he talks of guerrila style territorial defence and non-nuclear armed forces. Nuclear weapons are an unpleasant aspect of war but death in the wastes of the Falklands is not glorious and is no less final than nuclear obliteration. John Fremlin argues that to call for a rejection of all weapons would turn away those who "genuinely afraid of giving up our conventional territorial and naval defence" (p. 104).

It is little wonder that The CND Story presents a confused image of what CND is about for the various attitudes adopted within CND are essentially confused. For Joan Ruddock the task of CND is to "make work within the Labour movement a priority" (p. 98). Such faith in the Labour Party suggests that CND have learnt little since the reversal of the Labour Party's unilateralist vote between 1960 and 1961. Ruddock also talks of extending political activity through the newly formed Parliamentary and Election Committee. It will be interesting to see if CND secure any more votes than the 1,000 or so gained by Michael Croft when he stood for an Independent Nuclear Disarmament Election Committee in 1964. What most CND supporters claim is that there  is a need to swing the policies of one of the established political parties and for David Griffiths the "Labour Party is, for the present, the only serious candidate" (p. 133).

CND have always claimed that their strength is in being a broad church. This is in fact one of their weaknesses. Not only do disagreements occur as to how to get rid of nuclear weapons within CND but there are now a host of different peace groups. They may ostensibly share a single aim but profound disagreements occur as to how to achieve that aim and what exactly that aim is. The CND Story emphasises the frustration and anger felt by people in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation. What CND and the other peace groups have failed to grasp is that wars do not occur as a result of having weapons but because of the conflicting economic interests of capitalist states. CND have helped to bring into public debate the horrific consequences of nuclear war. What is needed is to go beyond a moral outcry and to attack the system which creates war. Good intentions will not solve the problem of war but there is a revolutionary alternative: "You must first destroy capitalism".
Philip Bentley

Gorbymania (1989)

Book Review from the June 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Revolution From Above by Tariq Ali, Hutchinson, £3.95

Trotsky argued that Russia was basically socialist because industry was nationalised but that political power had been usurped by a privileged bureaucratic caste led by Stalin; all that was required to put it back on the road to socialism again was a political revolution to remove this caste from power. The argument was flawed in two main respects. First, nationalisation is not socialism but state capitalism and, second, the ruling group in Russia is not a mere  privileged caste but a class monopolising the means of production. So what Trotsky really wanted was a less authoritarian regime for state capitalist Russia.

As Gorbachev and the reform group which currently has the upper hand in the single party that rules Russia want to move in the same direction, it was inevitable that sooner or later someone on the Trotskyist movement should argue that Gorbachev was carrying out "the political revolution" Trotsky called for. Former sixties student leader and editor of a series of Trotskyist papers (Red Mole, Socialist Challenge, etc), Tariq Ali has emerged as that someone. According to him, Gorbachev's "revolution from above" is in the process of putting Russia back on the road to "socialism". His only regret is that the Russian reformers see themselves as being inspired by Bukharin rather than Trotsky.

Ali is particularly impressed by some of the more radical supporters of Perestroika within the Russian Party, in particular Boris Yeltsin (to whom the book is dedicated), former Moscow Party chief sacked in November 1987 for going too far in trying to stamp out corruption in the local Party and city administration but elected triumphally to the Supreme Soviet in the elections last March, and Professor Yuri Afanasiev, Rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historical Archives, who wrote in a letter published in Pravda on 25 June 1988 (the full text is reproduced in an appendix):
I don't consider the society created in our country socialist, however 'deformed'. 'Deformation' touches its vital foundations, political system, relations of production and decidedly everything else.
This is indeed an amazing statement to have appeared in Pravda (which, for once, lived up to its name), even if it was spoilt by an earlier passage where he wrote "we haven't achieved socialism in the form envisaged by Lenin and the Leninist guard in the twenties". Still, it must have set some people thinking and is more radical than the orthodox Trotskyist position which sees Russia, precisely, as a "deformed Workers State". 

Yeltsin has indeed attacked some of the privileges of the nomenklatura (of which he is a member of course) and this is no doubt the cause of his popularity amongst ordinary people in Russia who clearly have no illusions about Russia having established a society without classes, but what he has called for is not the abolition of the nomenklatura but merely that some, or maybe all, of its privileges in kind (special shops, hospitals, etc) should be ended. He has no objection to them being paid high salaries. As he told the 19th Party Conference in June 1988 (also reproduced as an appendix):
My opinion is that this is what should happen: if something is in insufficient supply here, in a socialist society, then the shortage should be felt evenly by all without exception. But different contributions of work to society should be regulated by different wages. we should, at last, abolish the food 'rations' for the, so to say, 'starving nomenklatura', eradicate elitism in society . . . (our emphasis).
In other words, what Yeltsin wants is the Russian ruling class to be in the same position as the ruling class in the West: to be privileged by having more money to spend rather than by having special shops, etc. reserved for them exclusively. This is confirmed by his declarations during his election campaign: "The rouble must be the same for everyone" (Independent, 20 March) and "Everyone, from the ordinary worker to the head of state, must have equal access to food, goods and services" (Independent, 22 March). 

In any event, even if the members of the nomenklatura, as the corporate group that collectively owns and controls the main means of production in Russia, were to lead ascetic lives (as Lenin wanted) they would still remain a capitalist class as they would still be the group, in a society based on a capital and wage-labour, that carried out the function of pumping surplus value from the working class to be accumulated as profit-seeking capital.

If Gorbachev's reforms really do lead to more political democracy and less blatant privileges for the nomenklatura, welcome as this would be as giving the working class more elbow room to prosecute the class struggle it would not make Russia socialist, but a form of capitalism more similar to what we have to put up with in the West.
Adam Buick