Sunday, December 28, 2014

The People You Meet No. 2 — Punchy (1949)

From the December 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

He came into the meeting, took one look at the speaker and threatened to knock his b——y head off. Seeing me selling literature, he assured me of a likewise fate. Normally I should have been scared stiff. but we all know Punchy. About six times a year his battered face grimaced at the speaker and his glassy eyes glistened at the prospect of a fight.

At one time he was a promising young boxer. He was naturally well built and the years he had spent in the rough streets of dockland in the years that followed the First World War had taught him to use his fists. They had also taught him that in this world a man is judged not by what he is, but by what he is worth. So when he left school, with neither education nor trade, he sought a fortune with the skill of his fists.

Round the booths as a free lance he picked up a pound here, thirty bob there till he was eventually taken up by a manager. Visions of championships rose before his eyes—Southern Counties, British, European, and who knows, even the World! "But first we've got to build you up," they told him. So once, twice, three times a week he climbed into the ring to punch hell out of declining veterans. The flattery, the cajolery and most of all the money, kept him going. He did eventually reach the top—the top of the bill at many back-street boxing halls up and down the country. There for a while he reigned but there were times when his sight grew blurred; bells rang in his ears. Defeats on points became knock-outs. The rot had set in. On the road down he became the human punchbag which carried other youngsters to the top. Gradually his fights grew less and less and only whiskey kept him going, till he completed his tour and returned, physically injured and mentally scarred, to the gutter from which he came.

Now, as veteran of more than 400 bouts, he lives from day to day, sweeping the arena, selling programmes, and scrounging fags and beer from those who recall his former "greatness."

Sport! —a word which symbolises the human being at play for mental stimulation and physical satisfaction. Where is the sport here with young men being punched into insensibility for a few shillings to satisfy the warped desires of their fellow-workers and make a pile for the promoters? Where is the sport where the player is goaded beyond his capacity by fear of poverty?

Not only is this in the field of boxing. In every sport the professional is gradually squeezing out the amateur—and even the amateur must play to the gallery for support. The field of football affords an example of this transition. Just like every other worker the player is exploited to an ever-increasing degree, and the better he is, the more of an attraction he becomes the more he is bound in his peculiar form of slavery.

Sport is the medium by which men and women display their skill, the co-ordination of mind and muscle, but to be fully appreciated it must be spontaneous and joyful. In a system of society where all goods and services, including the service of entertainment, are produced for sale and profit, the greater an athlete becomes, greater is the pressure exerted upon him by the businessman. Sport gives way to viciousness and cunning.

Punchy cannot be saved. The most he can hope for is the chance to spend the rest of his days in kind hands, well fed and cared for. But it is in our hands to save others, and in doing so to save ourselves, for this, revolting as it may be, is only one of the minor anomalies of capitalism. The answer to them all lies in the establishment of Socialism, a system of society that will make life itself a sport and a pleasure.

No War But The Class War!

Book Review from the October 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
No War But The Class War! Libertarian Anti-Militarism Then and Now. Edited by Anna Key. Kate Sharpley Library. 2003.
Some purchasers of this short, 20-page pamphlet might find it a bit of a con since, though it opposes militarism, it does not oppose violence. Far from it. It praises violence and advocates this as the way to confront the State. We ourselves are not pacifists, but we always make it clear that we think that Socialists should only contemplate resorting to violence reluctantly and as a last resort should an anti-socialist minority attempt to prevent by violent means the implementation of the democratically-expressed will of a majority for socialism. So you will find no glorification of violence—such as the talk of “armed joy” by the sick individual who wrote this pamphlet's last contribution—in our literature.
The items in this collection of anti-militarist leaflets and articles start from an appeal to conscript soldiers in Spain in 1896 not to go and fight in Cuba to a leaflet against the recent war in Afghanistan. The contrast between the early and the later ones is striking, with the early ones coming from the heart in contrast to the more intellectual later ones. Not that the message in the earlier ones is that coherent or, frankly, sensible.
There are two contributions from the pre-WWI French anti-militarist militant, Gustave Hervé, who wrote a book called Leur Patrie (in English “Their Country”, but whose English version is called My Country Right or Wrong). One starts off well enough, excellently in fact:
“For anybody who is not satisfied with words, or anybody who wants to forget for a moment the fantastic definitions of the Country which have been taught him at school, a Country is a group of men living under the same laws; because they themselves or their ancestors have been brought willingly or by force, more often by force, to obey the same sovereign, the same government. Patriotism groups men according to their land of origin, as decided by the vicissitudes of history; within every country, thanks to the patriotic link, rich and poor unite against the foreigner. Socialism groups men, poor against rich, class against class, without taking into account the differences of race and language, and over and above the frontiers traced by history”.
But it then goes on to advocate, as the working-class response to the outbreak of war, an armed uprising to attempt to overthrow capitalist rule: “Insurrection rather than War!”
The early SPGB (since we were founded in 1904) was aware of Hervé views and commented on this particular slogan in the July 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard:
“Certainly no one country's exploiters are so superior to the rest that the workers should sacrifice themselves in defending them; but it is equally certain that if the proletarians were to rise in armed revolt against their rulers immediately on the outbreak of war, while the master class controlled the armed forces of the nation, and while the workers were yet unable and unready to assume control of Society, they would be courting a shambles that would make war peace by contrast.”
“Since, therefore, Hervé's statement implies that the workers even though they are not in a position to successfully emancipate themselves should nevertheless sacrifice themselves in a fruitless and bloody attempt to do so on the outbreak of war, it is necessary to dissent from that position of his declaration.”
“The particularly anti-militarist propaganda of Hervé has undeniably an educational value, and to that extent it is to be welcomed.”
It has to be added that, when the first world slaughter did break out in August 1914, Hervé rushed to join the French army to defend “their Country”, a fact referred to (but without naming him) in the next following article in the pamphlet: “the same man who had once proclaimed 'insurrection rather than war' now exhorts his comrades to defend the 'civilization' of the exploiters”.
Hervé later became a fascist. He wasn't the only pre-WWI anti-militarist militant to take this road, the most notorious being Mussolini. The publishers of this pamphlet, with its talk of “armed joy” and “transforming life arm in hand”, might like to ponder whether the glorification of non-state violence is not in the fascist rather than the “libertarian” tradition.
There's not much wrong with the slogan “No War but the Class War”. But there's a lot wrong with “No War but Civil War” which is how this pamphlet interprets it.
Adam Buick

150 Years of The Communist Manifesto (1998)

From the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Communist Manifesto remains a good introduction in their own words to the ideas of Marx and Engels. Here we summarise its contents and put it in its historical context.
It was not until the 1870s, when Marx gained some notoriety, that interest began to be expressed in his earlier works, including the Manifesto. It was first republished in German in 1872, then several other languages before the 1888 English edition. Marx refused to re-write it for the changed circumstances because, reasonably enough, he claimed that it had become a historical document which nobody had a right to alter. However, for the reader lacking an understanding of the context in which it was issued, it is all too easy to suppose that it was entirely a communist Manifesto. Yet if we are careful to distinguish the historically specific from the universal we can then see the communism (socialism) in the Manifesto.
It was translated into English by Samuel Moore (who had translated volume 1 of Capital) and "revised in common" with Engels for the "authorised" 1888 edition. However, this "authorised" version contains a large number of small but important alterations to Marx's original text. Compare the published version with translations of the original wording reproduced here, especially in section two. (See The Communist Manifesto, a Norton Critical Edition edited by Frederic L. Bender, 1988. Contains Prefaces, annotated text, sources and background information.)
The original title, Manifesto of the Communist Party, indicates that it was written for a particular organisation with particular purposes, at a particular time and place. Karl Marx (but not Engels) was commissioned to write the Manifesto by the Central Committee of the Communist League, a small London-based organisation of German refugees, in November 1847. The Manifesto was published in late February 1848, at about the same time as the revolutions of 1848 began-first in Paris, then in Berlin and many other European cities. The occurrence of widespread uprisings throughout Europe owed nothing to theManifesto, though members of the League were not alone in anticipating such an event. The contributory factors were food shortages and starvation brought about by the spread of potato blight, chronic unemployment and falling wages caused by recession, frustration at the feudal bastions of reaction in government, and revolutionary nationalism. In most cases it fell to members of the "petty bourgeoisie" (shopkeepers, artisans, small farmers) to organise revolution. They had suffered economic hardship in the previous few years, had the most to gain from a more progressive regime and potentially had the political clout to bring it about. The big capitalists had not as much incentive, having done well in the industrialisation sweeping Europe, and so often tended to ally themselves instead with the forces of conservative reaction. It was in this context that Marx and the League issued their Manifesto.
The famous opening declaration, "A spectre is haunting Europe-the spectre of Communism", was something of an exaggeration. Marx borrowed this already well-known imagery from Lorenz von Stein's book on communism in France, published in 1842. After the opening the Manifesto is then divided into four sections:
Bourgeois and Proletarians; Proletarians and Communists; Socialist and Communist Literature; Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties.
Bourgeois and Proletarians
The bourgeoisie (capitalist class) "historically, has played a most revolutionary part". They have pursued their class interest by gaining political control of the state, which "is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." The bourgeoisie, by pursuing its own self interest, has brought about great advances in technology and production. "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." But the bourgeoisie has also created the proletariat (working class) and this class will in turn become the "gravedigger" for the bourgeoisie by recreating society in the proletariat's interests. "All previous movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority" (original wording).
Proletarians and Communists
The Communists (meaning members of the Communist League) are distinguished from the other working class parties by the way "they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality."
The Communists are "the most resolute section of the working-class parties of every country" (original wording). Theoretically, "they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement".
The Communist League wants to eventually abolish "bourgeois property" (private ownership of the means of production) and this also entails "the abolition of buying and selling." The bourgeois family must also be abolished ("prostitution both public and private") and nationality ("working men have no country"). The first step in the revolution by the working class is "to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, which is the struggle of democracy" (original wording). The proletariat will use its political power to take, "by degrees", all capital from the bourgeoisie, "centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state" and "increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible".
The practical measures for achieving this "will of course be different in different countries." Nevertheless, "in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable." There then follows ten measures, including the "Expropriation of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes" (original wording), "a heavy progressive or graduated taxation" (original wording), "abolition of all right of inheritance", "centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly", "centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State", "extension of factories and instruments owned by the State", and "free education for all children in public schools".
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and "all production has been concentrated in the hands of the associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character" (original wording). Political power is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. When the proletariat, organised as the ruling class, "abolishes the old conditions of production" (original wording) it "will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class."
In its place we will have communism: "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."
This second section of the Manifesto is controversial, with the measures at the end being mistakenly interpreted by some as communist (socialist) measures in themselves when clearly they are not. Two points should be made by way of clarification. First, the Manifesto was written with Germany in mind (though not exclusively). This was made explicit when the Central Committee of the Communist League issued its "Demands of the Communist Party in Germany" in late March 1848. This seventeen-point programme expands on the Manifesto's ten-point programme to the changed German conditions. It starts: "All of Germany shall be declared to be a single and indivisible republic." It adds at the end, above the signatories (which included Marx and Engels): "It is to the German proletariat, the petit bourgeoisie, and the small peasantry to support these demands with all possible energy." In short, Marx, the League and the ten measures in the Manifesto were encouraging a bourgeois-democratic revolution.
In the circumstances of the time it seemed logical to Marx and the League that they should accept that for the moment their interests coincided with those of the bourgeois democrats, until such time as the absolutist regimes had been overthrown, and should then continue their struggle against the new bourgeois regimes. It was assumed that "the bourgeois democratic governments" could be placed in the situation of immediately losing "all backing among workers" (Marx's address to the Communist League, 1850). Second, when the Manifesto was reprinted for the first time in 1872, Marx and Engels stated in the Preface that "no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today." For instance Germany had become a unified bourgeois state the year before. In fact, many of the measures have since been implemented within capitalism.
Socialist and Communist Literature
In this section Marx discusses various other contemporary types of "socialism" and "communism". The Critical-Utopian Socialists (St. Simon, Fourier, Owen) are praised for revealing the class division in society, but are utopian because they refuse to advocate a class politics. This is understandable, given the level of development at the time the utopians wrote in the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, their practical measures point to the abolition of class antagonisms: "the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production". The reference to the abolition of the distinction between town and country, and family, in the former case is evidence of an ecological critique of the way capitalism centralises and concentrates living space, in the latter case it is evidence of a critique of the gender roles imposed on women and men in a class society.
Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties
The Communist League fights for "the attainment of the immediate aims, interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent the future of the movement" (original wording). The Communist League "turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution." The Communist League "openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all social orders up to now. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose in this but their chains. They have a world to win.Working men of all countries, unite!" (original wording).
The final injunction to forcibly overthrow the old social orders was framed within the context of absolutist regimes with little or nothing in the way of a franchise. In such circumstances it did seem that force was the only way of bringing about change. Later in life Marx argued that the universal franchise meant that the working class might be able to bring about change peacefully by force of numbers.
The Manifesto was also written before Marx had sufficiently worked out his theory of value. A reference to wages tending to the bare physical subsistence level should not be taken as a theoretical proposition, but rather as a rhetorical flourish. The latter applies to some other phrases, such as the inevitability of workers' power.
Setting to one side the capitalist measures at the end of section 2, we can extract Marx's ideas on communism (or socialism, since Marx made no distinction between the terms as systems of society) which remain valid as a Manifesto for the twenty-first century:
  • Communists (Socialists) want to abolish private ownership of the means of production, buying and selling, the wages system, the economic enforcement of the family unit, the concentration and centralisation of living space and the state.
  • Communists (Socialists) want to replace this with democracy and a free association in which the self-development of each individual is the condition for the development of everybody.
  • Communism (Socialism) must be world-wide, because it is replacing a system which is world-wide.
  • It must be brought about by the revolutionary political action of the working class.
  • It must be brought about by the majority of the working class, not minorities.
  • Communists (Socialists) are the most determined and politically organised section of the working class, but they are not a vanguard leading the working class.
Lew Higgins

Comic Capitalism (2014)

The Cooking the Books Column from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The word ‘capitalism’ is well and truly back in circulation. At one time if you used it you were taken for a Communist. Not any more. Even stand-up comedians have incorporated it into their routines. One is Liam Williams who was given a page in Time Out (October 7-13) to tell jokes about capitalism. Actually, they were largely at the expense of those who defend capitalism.

Defining capitalism as being where ‘the means of production and trade are privately owned and operated for profit’, he has somebody called Mo%^&$fucker! object

‘The only alternative is a primitive economic system involving trading with stones or shits.’

Socialists have often heard this objection as ‘so you want to go back to barter?’ No, we don’t. Socialism will involve the disappearance of money but also the disappearance of all ‘trading’, all buying and selling. As the means for producing wealth (useful things) will be commonly owned so will the wealth produced.

The question will then be, not how to sell it (how can owners sell what they own to themselves?), but how to distribute it, how to share it out. Socialism doesn’t mean going back to barter. It means going forward, now that the technology and skills exist to produce enough for all, to distribution in accordance with the principle of ‘from each their ability, to each their need.’ People co-operate to produce what they need and then have free access to it. Money becomes redundant and does need to be replaced by anything.

Williams then deals with a more subtle defence of capitalism:
‘Capitalism is now the dominant economic model. It’s actually a product of nature, like maths and human song.’
This is the familiar ‘human nature’ objection to socialism. If socialism is unnatural, then capitalism is natural. Actually, capitalism is neither natural nor eternal. It has not always existed but is a product of social and historical evolution. It came into being, in western Europe, in the course of the 15th to 16th century when countries began producing for sale on an outside market that none of them were able to dominate or control but, on the contrary, had to adapt to in order to survive economically. This set in motion a process which led to one group of people (a small minority) acquiring money seeking profitable investment and another group (the vast majority) of landless people seeking to sell their ability to work to get money to buy what they needed to survive.

Capitalism has now spread all over the world.  It  is still a system of production by workers employed for a wage or salary by those who own means of production and working to produce wealth for sale with a view to their profit.

He mentions Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century which, he says, ‘shows how the gap between rich and poor is widening dangerously’ and adds ‘but even he thinks outright anti-capitalism is nonsense’. He goes on:
‘Most figures of political and intellectual influence agree that his proposals (including a global confiscation tax on the absurdly rich) are unfeasibly idealistic.’
It is not clear whether or not this is another joke at the expense of defenders of capitalism. In any event, it is true that Piketty’s proposals are ‘unfeasible’ as capitalism can’t be reformed to stop the rich getting richer.  That’s a by-product of the accumulation of capital out of profits which is what capitalism is all about.