Friday, November 7, 2014

On getting a bit of your own back (1979)

From the May 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Technically, Proudhon was wrong when he wrote that property is theft. But they are inseparable in a way which is not captured by crime statistics, nor portrayed anywhere in five decades of cops and robbers films. The working class version of self-help is not the sort of thing of which Samuel Smiles would have approved, yet it is more universal than his prescription of inventiveness, frugality and diligence as a means of improvement. I mean pilfering.

The world of the workers is one where access to what is needed is heavily restricted by the rationing system of wages; while the world of the capitalist is one of abundance where desire has only to be expressed in pieces of paper for the object of that desire to be accessible. These two worlds come together, in part, at places of work; for there the worker glimpses, at second-hand, what it is like to belong to the master class.

Clock Cards
In factories the stores are always full of materials and tools which the machinist needs to complete his jobs; power flows unrestrictedly through the machine he operates and electric light floods from the roof of the machine shop—with no need for anyone to worry about bills. money for the meter, or who is going to pay to-day. For the machinist adds his measure of labour time to the products which pass through his hands. When the worker is surrounded by this beautifully organised system of social production, he cannot help contrasting it with the paucity of his private ownership; so he gets a bit of his own back as part of the vain attempt to redress the balance, after his employer has taken everything he makes, leaving him only a small packet of money.

Thieves do not form a sub-culture of the working class; most of us are at it. Hence the half-admiring description of the opportunistic worker — "he'll steal anything that's not bolted down". While the sharp-eyed storeman who controls every washer is — "as tight as a duck's arse". Because the worker has no stake in what he makes, the battle between these two is often the only thing which lends interest to the working day. Anyone who doubts that the workers are resourceful enough to run a socialist society should consider their skill in outwitting the storeman.

What happens to the street trade with his barrow, who sharpened knives, shears and landmowers? Every cutter-grinder in the toolrooms where U have worked has two jigs under his bench. One mounts the cylindrical blades of the landmowers his friends bring in for sharpening; the smaller fixture holds the blades of the rotary mowers. Between them they earn him his cigarette or pin-money.

Learning how to get a bit of your own back starts early for most workers. Who does not have an atlas and a few school textbooks on their bookshelf? While teacher tried to stop us from stealing or "losing" books, she kept her house in pens, pencils, drawing pins, Sellotape and envelopes from the stockroom, taken while the school secretary's back was turned.

Jobs which involve collecting money offer endless scope for self-help. The crowded early morning work 'bus often arrives at the factory area before the conductor can collect the fares upstairs. So he stands on the platform as the passengers come down, takes their money and rolls a stream of 5 pence tickets for 25 pence fares. The 'bus inspectors spend a lot of their time looking for discarded strings of 5 pence tickets; so a clever conductor takes them home with him. It is a poor man who does not fiddle enough for his own and his driver's tea money this way.

I once knew a sheet metal worker whose whole house was decorated with low relief brass and copper ornaments, hammered from offcuts of material used in his work. So accomplished had he become in producing the cycle of jobs at the factory, that he was able to divide his time at work equally between jobs for the gaffer and his homework. Standardisation had taken all of his skill and inventiveness out of his trade, so he lavished it on those ornate and decorative tokens of his stolen labour.

Free For All
The existence of this universal fiddling is a strong argument for the futility of criminal reform. Petty crime is as natural an occurrence as rain in Manchester. Small wonder then that a few workers schooled in this tradition take to theft in a big way. The whole process is turned into an institution by dossers in cities. Most of the book on "alternative" London list places where free food, drink, clothes, telephone calls and other unlikely gifts can be had from firms engaged in promotions, display and publicity events.

Fiddling has its amusing side. Norman moved into a new council house. He was nailing down the linoleum in the toilet, when a carelessly aimed hammer struck the lavatory pan a glancing blow. It fell apart and there was water everywhere. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he unscrewed the two halves from the floor, quietly carried them across the road to the unfinished houses, slipped in through an open window, exchanged the broken one for a new one and crept back home. His wife never learned of all this, but a few days later he was passing the time of day with the site foreman of the estate, who was complaining of vandalism. "They even get into the new houses just to smash the lavatories nowadays", moaned the foreman. "It's terrible" said Norman, "I don't know what the world is coming to".

Socialists know what they would like the world to come to. But the pity of it is that workers in general have no idea of how the stores of the world could be made freely available to them—and not surreptitiously.
Barry McNeeney

Analysing Marx (1992)

Book Review from the October 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx, Our Contemporary. Social for a Post-Leninist World. by Keith Graham. (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992. £35)

Marx is our contemporary, argues Keith Graham in this book, in that he analysed not just 19th century capitalism but capitalism in general, and capitalism, unfortunately, is still very much with us.

Graham's approach is that of what has come to be called "analytical Marxism" which consists on analysing what Marx wrote to get at the logic of his line of argument and then to see where this leads, as well as identifying, and even correcting, any inconsistencies.

Graham applied this technique both to what he calls Marx's "general theory" (basically, the materialist conception of history, how societies are structured and change) and to his "special theory" (of how capitalism works and how it can be abolished). Light is thrown on various problems of interpretation of Marx. For example, what did Marx mean when he wrote about property relations becoming a fetter on the development of the means of production? Is it the class struggle or the development of the productive forces that is the motor of change from one form of society to another?

Graham also discusses Marx's concept of class and its political implications. Marx adhered to the principle that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself". So do we (it is incorporated into our declaration of principles). So do many others. But the sort of action this commits you to depends on how you define "working class". Which is where the disagreements and misunderstandings begin.

One view defines the working class as, essentially, only manual workers who actually physically manipulate raw materials. This is the popular view and also that of non-Marxists who define class in terms of occupation and way of life. It has definite political implications, as Graham points out:
If it [the working class] is identified with those engaged in manual labour, it constitutes a small and probably shrinking proportion of the population. And, as Przeworski puts it, 'A party representing a class which has fewer members than the other classes combined cannot win electoral battles'. This identification would therefore militate against acceptance of democratic political structures.
As a minority within society, the working class would not be able to use democratic political means to emancipate itself and so would have to reject majority action and favour some other means, such as industrial action.

Another view holds that Marx defined class in terms of class consciousness and political organisation. Graham quotes David McLellan who says that for Marx "a class only existed when it was conscious of itself as such, and this always implied common hostility to another social group", and Ralph Miliband who argues that "for Marx, the working class is not truly a class until it acquires the capacity to organize itself politically . . . without consciousness, the working class is a mere mass".

This view too can lead to an anti-democratic conception of the emancipation of the working class by excluding the un-class conscious and the politically unorganised—and allowing the politically organised minority to act as "the working class".

Graham argues, convincingly, that Marx rejected this view. Marx defined class in terms of a social group's material circumstances (relationship to other social groups with regard to control over and access to means for producing wealth) not of their consciousness. He gave an objective not a subjective definition of class. The working class were the working class, by virtue of their position in society, even if they were unaware of being a class.

So how did Marx define working class? Graham has no difficulty in showing that Marx did not restrict the working class to skilled and unskilled manual workers. First, Marx introduced the concept of the "collective worker" as all those workers who, within the social division of labour, contributed in way or another to the productive effort; this would include those engaged in activities which at a lower stage of technological development would have been done by the same person as actually worked the raw material—planning, researching and co-ordinating the work—and so embraced engineers, researchers, draughtspeople, their back-up clerical staff and other such "white collar" workers.

But, even apart from this, Marx defined the working class as the class of those whose economic circumstances (exclusion from ownership of means of production) compelled them to sell their ability to work for a wage or salary, including those dependent on them and those unable to find an employer. This included clerical workers, civil servants, teachers and even managers (who Marx referred to as "a special kind of wage labourer"). In a country like Britain we are talking about the overwhelming majority of the population, well over 90 percent of people in fact.

If this overwhelming majority is the working class that is to emancipate itself, then the political strategy for achieving a classless society can live with, and make use of existing democratic political institutions, limited and distorted as they are and must be under capitalism. As Graham puts it:
If you believe that the proletariat is in the process of becoming the majority class in society, and if you believe that this class is the only practical agency which can be expected to carry out and consolidate the desired transformation to the future society, then you have strong grounds for favouring democratic values. Universal suffrage and majority rule will be congenial institutions in that regard.
This was why Marx always supported action by workers to secure the franchise, as the Chartists in Britain, and urged those who had got it, as in France, to transform universal suffrage "from the instrument of fraud it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation" ("Introduction to the Programme of the French Workers Party", 1880).

The principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself committed Marx to a thoroughly democratic practice. His was a concept of a democratic social revolution, both in the sense of the workers organizing themselves democratically without leaders and in the sense of democratic methods being employed.

Graham brings this point out well in his book, which can be highly recommended to those who  want to understand what Marx was trying to say on this and other subjects.
Adam Buick

The Central Asian Holocaust of the First World War (2014)

From the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Way back in the Socialist Standard of August 1918 we referred to a 'Mr. Price from Russia itself, in his article in the Manchester Guardian for November 28th , 1917, where he describes the cold-blooded slaughter of 500,000 Khirgiz Tartars by the Czar’s Government in 1916. And he caustically remarks: “While Western Europe has heard about Armenian massacres, the massacre of the Central Asian Moslems by the Tsar’s agents has been studiously hidden.”'

Under Tsarist Russian rule, Turkestan was converted to a major cotton-growing region. Cotton cultivation was imposed to compensate for the loss of the US cotton supply in the 1860s due to the American Civil War. The resulting economic development brought some small-scale industry to the region, but the native people of Turkestan were worse off than their Russian counterparts, and the new wealth from cotton was spread very unevenly. On the whole, living standards did not improve, and many farmers became indebted. Cotton price fixing during the First World War made matters worse, a large, landless rural proletariat soon developed, gambling and alcoholism became commonplace, and crime rose considerably. Historian Togan wrote 'after the proliferation of cotton planting in Ferghana [imposed by the Tsarist state at the expense of cereal cultivation] the economic conditions deteriorated'.

On 25 June 1916 the Russian Imperial Decree ordered the compulsory conscription to military service of Muslims in the Central Asian region of Turkestan. This was the beginning of the 'Basmachi' movement or the Turkestan National Liberation movement which was documented by historian and participant Zeki Velidi Togan (1890-1970) who wrote: 'Basmachi is derived from “baskinji” meaning attacker, which was first applied to bands of brigands. During Tsarist times, these bands existed after Turkestan independence was lost and Russian domination began'.

On 11 July 1916, the first mass protest meeting took place in Tashkent and Russian police fired into the crowd. Arrests and summary executions followed. The Russian settlers, who had been brought  into Tashkent some thirty to forty years earlier, began looting, apparently at the instigation of the Russian police. Protest meetings spread to Marghilan, Andijan and Hojend; attacks on Tsarist officials took place in Akkurgan, Akmesjid and Kanjagali. The people of Jizzakh destroyed the railroad at several points. In the middle of August the resistance spread to Ashkhabad, Mervto Akmola, Turgay, Yedisu, Karakul and Chu basin.

The Imperial Russian state declared martial law in Turkestan, and as a concession announced a lower quota of workers to be conscripted under the 25 June decree. Russian generals Kuropotkin and Kalbovo armed the Russian settlers in Central Asia to act as additional military units to reinforce their existing and well-armed regular forces. Russian generals Ivanov and Rynov moved all their forces against Jizzakh. Fully equipped Russian regiments under General Madridov attacked the people of Khiva region, and according to eyewitnesses, massacred even babies in the cradle. Those who were not killed were stripped of their all possessions. Contemporary reports estimated that between 25 June 1916 and October 1917, some 1.5 million Turkic peoples were killed by the Russian forces and settlers. At least half of the Central Asian livestock was destroyed and an inestimable amount of personal property was looted by the Russian military forces and settlers.

Amadeo Bordiga once pointed out that extermination of peoples 'occurred not at a random moment, but in the middle of a crisis and an imperialist war. It is thus from within this gigantic enterprise of destruction.' This can be seen in the midst of the First World War with the Ottoman Empire's genocide of 1.5 million Armenian people but also the 'Central Asian Holocaust of the Turkic Peoples'.
Steve Clayton