Thursday, December 31, 2015

English Social Democratic Parties (1955)

From the July 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

Neither Marx, who died in 1883, nor Engels, who died in 1895. were impressed by the early efforts made in England to advance the Socialist movement. Social Democratic Parties did not make their appearance until the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In the eighties the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society, and the Socialist League, made their appearance, and in the nineties the Independent Labour Party. Of these parties the Socialist Democratic Federation and the Socialist League claimed to be based upon Marxism but the other two spurned “ imported ” ideas and based their “Socialism” upon “reason,” “justice,” John Stuart Mill and Stanley Jevons, liberally mixed with religion and out-of-date philosophical ideas. All of them, however, had three common characteristics; they had programmes of immediate demands that were similar, they took their starting points from the class division in society, and, although they fought each other with considerable vigour and vituperation they exchanged writers and lecturers impartially and combined for various purposes such as mass celebrations and protests against particular acts of Capitalist tyranny.

The movement that led up to the formation of these organisations was the offspring of a number of different organisations centred in Liberal-Radical clubs, groups of. freethinkers, land reformers, and admirers of Thomas Davidson—the American advocate of communities to “live the Higher Life.” who delivered some lectures in England about that time. An acute trade depression in 1879-1880 and another in 1884 contributed to the growth of these movements as also did the propaganda of Henry George, whose book, “ Progress and Poverty,” was published in 1880. Some of those who took part in founding the new parties had come into personal contact with Marx and Engels although the latter, who were not greatly interested in them, were engrossed with the progress of the movement abroad.

Looking at the literature with which the Social Democratic movement commenced one is struck by its general lack of punch and lack of concentration upon essentials. The single-mindedness, the passion, and the vigour of the Chartist movement had not been recovered. The people who were in the van[guard] of the new movement appeared to speak and write in a condescending manner, as if from outside the working class; some of them became prominent in art, literature, science, diplomacy, and spiritualism. Among these were William Morris. Walter Crane, Bernard Shaw, William Archer, Frank Harris, Havelock Ellis, Sydney Olivier and Annie Besant, although the most outstanding figures, from a theoretical standpoint, were H. M. Hyndman. Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling (the son-in-law of Marx). Frederick Lessner, an old member of the Communist League, and the International, also took a leading part in the movement although he tells us that Engels poked fun at him for his activities.

The real beginning of the movement appears to have been the formation of the Democratic Federation in 1881, although the Labour Emancipation League founded about the same time under the influence of Joseph Lane, had a clearer outlook and a more definitely working class basis. The Democratic Federation was founded by a group of radicals whose leading spirit was H. M. Hyndman, a man in a comfortable social position who had read Marx’s “Capital” on a journey to the United States in 1880 and was later an occasional visitor to Marx's house. Hyndman published the results of his reading in a little book under the tide of “England for All” in 1881. In the preface to this book he made a reference to the fact that he was indebted to the work of Marx but did not mention Marx’s name, and neither Marx nor Engels ever forgave him for this omission. It appears to us that they were unduly sensitive and suspicious. The actual wording of the paragraph of which they had complained was as follows:
"For the ideas and much of the matter contained in Chapters II and III I am indebted to the work of a great thinker and original writer, which will, I trust, shortly be made accessible to the majority of my countrymen.”
Marx looked upon Hyndman as one who had pillaged his writings, and done so badly, for the purpose of his own aggrandisement. The last sentence of the above quotation, however, does not bear this out as he called attention to, and anticipated the publication of, the work upon which he had drawn. Whatever may be said against much of Hyndman’s practical activity he certainly did more than any other writer and lecturer to popularise both Marx’s name and his theoretical ideas when they were little known in England, and he got little but scorn for his work.

As the Democratic Federation became more outspoken in its opposition to the Capitalistic basis of society it frightened away more and more of its Liberal- Radical support. At a conference in August, 1884, the name of the Federation was changed to the Social Democratic Federation and at the same time it adopted, with some modifications, the Object and most of the programme of the Labour Emancipation League, which joined forces with it. The object of the Federation was now proclaimed to be “The Establishment of a Free Condition of Society based on the Principle of Political Equality, with Equal Social Rights for All, and the Complete Emancipation of Labour"; a vague and unsatisfactory Object that left room for different interpretations and marked the limited political understanding of those who adhered to it. Attached to the Object was a nine point programme, and a list of palliatives for immediate attention. The programme was apparently intended to be a picture of the shape of future society, as the list of palliatives are preceded by the phrase “as measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society the Social Democratic Federation urges for immediate adoption,” etc., and then follows a number of reforms such as the extinction of the National Debt. State ownership of the railways, national banks, cumulative taxation upon all incomes above a certain level, and so on. Two items in the part defined as the programme arc a striking example of the confusion in the minds of the founders of the Federation. Here are the two items: “All officers or administrators to be elected by Equal Direct Adult Suffrage, and to be paid by the Community” and “The Means of Production Distribution and Exchange to be declared and treated as Collective or Common Property.” Thus the founders of the Federation had in their minds a society in which common ownership of the means of production would exist side by side with an exchange of products through the medium of money. In spite of the acceptance of theoretical statements and arguments derived from Marx’s work they had not grasped the fact that money is only required where exchange exists, and exchange only exists where there is private ownership of property.

To-day we are witnessing some of the fruits of this false and dangerous conception when State Capitalism, with all the paraphernalia of buying and selling, wage slavery, profits, and millionaires, is propagated by labour parties as an example of Socialism in being. When the means of production are commonly owned by the whole of society there will be neither the place nor the need for the exchange of products, they will simply be distributed according to the needs of people, and therefore money will disappear as it will have no function to perform. It appears to us that the confusion has arisen partly from a failure to grasp the implications of common ownership and partly from the occasional use by Marx and Engels, in some of their writings, of the expression "means of exchange ” to denote means of distribution like transport, centres of distribution, and so forth. Unfortunately, the
Social Democratic Federation retained the reference to the common ownership of the “means of exchange” throughout the whole of its existence and thus helped to fortify the nonsensical views of numerous currency cranks. It may be added that if all the reforms advocated by the Federation had been accomplished the fundamental condition of the workers would have remained unchanged and yet, although 60 years have passed since they were framed, most of them are still the subject of wasted agitation.

Another booklet written by Hyndman, “Socialism Made Plain” which had been adopted by the 1883 Conference of the Democratic Federation, was now published as the official Manifesto of the Social Democratic Federation. Tacked on to this Manifesto were proposals for the State organisation of the unemployed, one item of which is a specimen of the feebleness of the rest. The first proposal is: “That no Government servant be employed at his or her present wages for a longer period than eight hours in each day. This alone would give room for many now out of work, seeing that the ordinary hours of work in the Post Office and other State Establishments are from ten to twelve hours, or more, in the day.” If the framers of this proposal had looked back over the previous 20 or 30 years they would have seen that, although hours of work were gradually being reduced, unemployed figures were steadily going up. What they overlooked was that as long as a system of production exists that is rooted in buying and selling for the purpose of profit, unemployment is one of its essential and permanent features. Under Capitalism unemployment can neither be abolished nor even reduced to small dimensions permanently. If there were no unemployed to threaten the security of the employed there would be nothing to stop wage demands of the workers from eventually reaching a point that would threaten the existence of the profit upon which the Capitalist lives. While the Capitalists retain control of the political machinery and the workers remain politically ignorant such a threat to the basis of the system will not be allowed to become operative. It is true that during and since the last war the workers have been in a strong position, which they have only used to a limited extent, but these times will pass away, as the experience after the first Great War demonstrated.

(To be continued)

The Socialist attitude to the Kibbutznik (1963)

From the October 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

First, we had better define our terms. Most of our readers will probably know what a Socialist is. But if, for example, you think he is a follower of say, Harold Wilson or Nikita Kruschev, you would be sadly mistaken. Socialists are people who want political power for one purpose only, to revolutionise the world we live in, and change it from a Capitalist system to a Socialist one, where the means of life are owned by society as a whole. Which of course rules out the Kruschevs and the Wilsons. They want power sure enough. But whatever labourites and communists have used power for, they have never used it for making the means of life into the common property of all the people. No sensible person even expects them to.

What are kibbutznik? They are Israelis who live in various kinds of communal settlement (the kibbutz). It is the purpose of this article to tell something about this interesting experiment, to show what the kibbutznik aim at, what they achieve, and to see what lessons they provide for those interested in Socialism.

The general background of the kibbutz movement is that among the many Jews who became Zionists (people who believed that the remedy for anti-semitism and persecution from which Jews have suffered for centuries was to form a Jewish State in Palestine) were some who felt that the economic basis of their life should be communal. These people were dissatisfied not only with anti-semitism but also with capitalism and considered themselves to be Socialists. They therefore formed themselves into groups, varying in size from a few dozen to a few hundred, for the purpose of organising their lives on farm settlements in what was formerly Palestine and is now Israel.

Most members of these groups were young Jews from Eastern Europe. They had to be young because the conditions were arduous, the land often barren and malarial, and the surrounding Arab population hostile and dangerous. And it is no coincidence that the bulk of these pioneers came from countries like Poland and Tsarist Russia, because there antisemitism was rife and so-called Socialist movements were thick on the ground. There were a number of different “movements " among the settlers roughly corresponding to the kind of left-wing movements they were used to in Europe—Labour (Mapai). left-wing and somewhat fellow-travelling labour (Hashomer Hatsair) and various orthodox religious groups.

One thing they had in common was that they were all idealists who wanted to show that there was another kind of life (and another kind of Jew) than the one of sweating in tailoring factories or furniture works or, for the go-getters and the successful minority, the chance of becoming rich exploiters themselves. They wanted to show the world that people can live in a spirit of one-for-all and all-for-one. They obtained land mainly with funds raised from the charity of Jews rich and poor who stayed in the countries of the west, and from the same source they also obtained the capital to buy materials for building their living quarters and farm buildings. The land was usually cheap because in many cases it was desert and swamp and the main asset of the group was the enthusiasm, the sweat and tears (often also the blood) of the kibbutzniks themselves.

Many readers will have already detected a similarity between this sort of movement and others which have been tried in various countries of Europe and. particularly, of America. The one important difference appears to be that, after a history of up to about 50 years, with new settlements being formed even now, the kibbutz movement can make a reasonable claim to have stood the test of time — some time at least. Any visitor to Israel can see for himself that the kibbutz are viable institutions; they work. And by and large, the majority of the people are reasonably satisfied with their daily lives.

Now perhaps we can take a look at the way a typical kibbutz is run and in so doing we may be able to see how their ideas compare with those of Socialists. We will find that the kibbutzniks are not Socialists. The fact that they call themselves Socialists proves nothing. After all. so does Kruschev, so does Wilson. But we may find some features of kibbutz life which we are happy to salute as demonstrating the truth of some of the things we Socialists claim.

“From each according to his ability." That, the first half of the Socialist's golden rule for the kind of society he wants to create, is by and large a principle which works in practice in the settlements. The problem of the scrounger, the lazy man who will let his fellows do the work, is one that is always thrust at Socialist propagandists; it is not a problem that causes much loss of sleep in the kibbutz. The average settler does his best for the settlement because he knows that it belongs to him as much as to anyone. He knows he is working for his own wife and children as well as others. And he knows that the work is necessary for the settlement to survive; and acting on this knowledge, he behaves not like a rat in a capitalist rat race but like a human being.

The problem of “ who will do the dirty work " is also one that does not loom large. There is a lot of dirty work on a communal farm. It gets done because it has to be done. Those who are used to looking down on the dustman forget that this is only the case because he is regarded as an also-ran who has failed in the rat-race towards so-called better (and of generally better-paid) jobs. The kibbutznik who cleans the cowshed does so because it needs cleaning. He is doing a job for the good of all. And because of this he is looked up to and not down upon by his fellows. Surprisingly enough, this makes the cow-dung less smelly. Some people like doing the job and have only pity for the white-collared clerk in a London bank who adds up his incessant rows of figures of other people's money. Of course, they are sensible enough to rotate jobs as much as possible, when elections take place for administrative committees to run the affairs of the community, the cowman’s vote is equal to the secretary’s. He is in fact just as likely to be elected himself, and in such a process, the principle of leadership tends to get lost. Which is the best thing that can happen to it.

“To each according to his need." It is in this second half of our dictum that the kibbutz shows its essential failing. Socialism encourages a world which is built upon the enormous powers of production which capitalist society has engendered. A world where goods are so plentiful that we can all have free access to them in the way that we have virtually free access to water now. The kibbutz, far from utilising the enormous powers created by international capitalism, is by very definition a small-scale isolated enterprise. As such it cannot produce goods in teeming abundance so that all can help themselves freely. On the contrary, kibbulzniks can only have a limited ration of limited supplies. It is only their idealism that enables the settlers to run with reasonable smoothness a society where everyone must be spartan enough to take only an equal share of the modest amount available. And partly for this reason, most of the workers of Israel prefer to work for private capitalists. But think how life could be if only we all had a chance to share, not in parsimony, but in abundance.

The kibbutz is an attempt to make little islands in the worldwide ocean of capitalism. It cannot be self-sufficient (not even a giant country like Russia or the US. could be that) so it must produce its goods—normally farm produce—for sale on the capitalist market. In return it buys the things it cannot produce—clothes, bricks, glass, tractors, radios and the countless other essentials. It is therefore at the mercy of the market like all capitalist enterprises and the demand for (and the price of) its products shows the usual anarchic fluctuations of glut and shortage that the capitalist world knows so well. Socialism means, among other things, production not for sale on a market but directly for the use of human beings. No kibbutznik, be he never so convinced that he is a living exponent of Socialism, can claim that his movement has anything like this basic feature of Socialism: most of them, in fact, will hardly be aware that Socialism poses this as a basic fundamental. The kibbutz is as far from this as is every other section of our capitalist world.

The kibbutz movement has to struggle with the fact that many of its younger members become dissatisfied with their small island and are lured to the big world where there are so many of the things that large scale production offers—not to speak of theatres and pavement cafes and sea-beaches. But it has an advantage over most such experiments in that the Israeli government finds the settlements and their idealistic (and often chauvinistic) members to be valuable adjuncts of their military forces. If and when their use in this respect is less important, the kibbutz will find that the government's benevolence and support, which have been so valuable to their survival, will tend to disappear. Such are the facts of life in a capitalist world.

In a word then—the kibbutznik is not a Socialist But he is a human being who is demonstrating in practice what we Socialists have always maintained—that people can behave like human beings. And if they can do this under their own difficult restricted circumstances, how much better and easier could it all be in a society of world-wide abundance. For that is what Socialism will be.
L. E. Weidberg

Our case justified by Keir Hardie (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

James Keir Hardie, one of the earlier Labour MPs, was, at different times, Chairman of the Labour Party Annual Conference and Chairman and leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He was largely responsible for the formation of the Labour Party and it has been claimed for him that “More than any other man, he shaped the political history of the Labour Movement.” Members of the Labour Party praise him for making their party what it is today but, for a reason which will become obvious, they never quote his detailed statement about the kind of party he claimed to be creating. It was published in 1910 by the Independent Labour Party under the title My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance.

Keir Hardie had founded the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and was its Chairman. His purpose in issuing his Confession of Faith was to rebut the charge that, by affiliating to the Labour Party, the ILP had sacrificed its “socialist” character. Some of those who made the charge were members of the ILP. He defended affiliation to the Labour Party, which was, then as now, dominated by trade unions, on the ground of its practical advantage to the ILP but also, and primarily, on the ground of “socialist” principle — in line with his own declaration three years earlier that, for him, the socialist objective was “. . . free Communism in which ... the rule of life will be — ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.” (Keir Hardie, From Serfdom to Socialism (1907), page 89).

His argument from expediency was to point out to the ILP that if they wanted to grow quickly, and in particular, if they wanted to get members elected to Parliament, their only hope was to have the support and the votes of trade unionists and to fight elections as Labour Party candidates. He indicated that there were some people “. . . who act as though their principle reason for being in the ILP is that they may get returned to Parliament.” He did not pretend that the votes the ILP thus picked up were the votes of Socialists.

He quoted figures to show that while it had taken the ILP seven years as an independent organization to reach 193 branches and an income of £721, within nine years of affiliation to the Labour Party (1900- 1909) these figures had jumped to 887 branches and an annual income of £8,871.

But his main argument was that forming Marxian Socialist organizations and propagating Socialism failed to bring quick growth and was wrong in principle. He instanced the small growth of the Social Democratic Federation and its failure to win any Parliamentary elections. (He did not name the SPGB but had a reference to “other Socialist or pseudo-Socialist” organizations.)

He argued that Marxian Socialist propaganda did not quickly attract large numbers of workers and that it was appreciation of this which had been the reason for the formation of the ILP, based on the different policy of
. . . conducting the propaganda in such a way as would win over working-class organizations, especially the Trade Unions to the support of Socialism, rather than alienate them.
This policy, known as “getting into the workers’ day-to-day struggles”, was advocated by the ILP and later by the Communist Party and always featured in controversy between the SPGB and those two organizations.

History has dealt mockingly with Keir Hardie’s theories. In appearance everything happened just as he said it would; in essentials nothing. The tactics he urged on the ILP got them members, money and seats in the House of Commons. In the 1929 Parliament more than 200 MPs belonged to the ILP — now it has no MPs and is all but dead, though its opportunist tactics are constantly revived by new so-called “left-wing” organisations. And the Labour Party first outstripped the Liberals, then became the largest party in Parliament and formed the government, all as Keir Hardie anticipated.

But what has happened to his belief that the policy he stood for would convert the working-class to Marxian Socialism? For that was the specific claim he spelled out in his Confession:
The Labour Party is the only expression of orthodox Marxian Socialism in Great Britain.
The Labour Party practices the Marxian policy of the class struggle, following Marx’s own example, and is blamed by its critics for doing so . . .
Thus it is proved that the founders of the ILP, and even more so, of the Labour Party, were, if I may use the expression, in the direct line of apostolic succession from Marx and the other great master minds of Socialist theory and policy.
Where is it all now? Keir Hardie himself later repudiated the class struggle. The ILP and Labour Party both dissociated themselves from Marxism. It was a General Secretary of the Labour Party, Mr. Morgan Phillips, who asserted that his party “. . owed more to Methodism than to Marx.” The Labour Party, TUC and the Unions all turned their backs on Marxian economics and gave whole-hearted support to anti-Marxist Keynesian myths of “controlled capitalism”, full employment and the end of crises. Even Keir Hardie’s belief that he was building a party completely apart and hostile to Tories and Liberals proved to be wrong because twice they have been in a three-party coalition government. (Is a third time now in the offing?). Above all, nobody in the Labour Party leadership today even pretends that that party is interested in the Marxian Socialist objective that Keir Hardie proclaimed.

The Labour Party has had sixteen years in office, years of administering capitalism just like any other capitalist party. Winning the workers over to Socialism was bound to be a slow business. It was made more difficult by Keir Hardie’s policies. Events have shown how right the SPGB was and how wrong was Keir Hardie.
Edgar Hardcastle

Lot of bottle (1983)

From the August 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every day in Britain, hundreds of thousands of drug addicts are free to buy and consume the substance to which they are addicted although it is known to damage them physically and socially, and may even kill them. It is not something they push into a vein or suck up their nose or sniff from a bag. Its sale is urged on with persistent advertising whose message is that taking the drug is sociable, amusing, intellect-sharpening, sexy  . . . For anyone who hasn't yet got the point, the addicts we are discussing are known as alcoholics.

Well over 90 per cent of the adult population of Britain take alcohol to a greater or lesser extent and very enjoyable it can be. A quarter of all men and two per cent of all women are thought to drink "heavily" and six per cent of men and one per cent of women consistently drink beyond the limits prescribed as medically safe. Above — or perhaps it should be below — that are the alcoholics, an estimated 740,000 of them in the UK, whose dependence on a large, regular intake is such it seriously affects the fulfilment of their role as disciplined, conforming, productive units of the working class.

The other class in society, whose interests lie in keeping an efficiently exploited workforce under control, are in something of a dilemma over alcoholism. On the one hand they must against any threats to the requirements of the productive process, that workers be on time, in line and industrious. On the other [hand] they must take account of the fact that alcohol has an historically established place in the recreation of working energy, fortified by the influence of the mighty brewing industry (which is also a hefty contributor to Conservative Party funds). This divergence of interests causes quite a few anomalies, one of which can be witnessed in magistrates courts every day as people appear in the sock because, while it is perfectly legal to drink in public it is against the law to suffer from the effects—to be drunk—in public. On a good day it is even possible to see people charged with being drunk in a public house.

Much of alcohol's attraction lies in its ability to relax the inhibitions clamped upon us by the repressions of property society. After a few drinks the normally shy and inarticulate mat feel that they are the world's most riveting entertainer. Wheezing weaklings suddenly want to take on every man in the bar. As alcohol stiffens a usually flaccid personality, reality recedes into tomorrow's hangover; an unhappy home, a grindingly tedious job, a fearsome poverty, can temporarily be deprived of much of their menace. This is skilfully worked on by the advertising firms; as one ad puts its, alcohol (or rather a particular brand of it) is essential for those who want to "Get It Right". More perceptive, and more useful, are the memories of the childhood Glasgow of Jimmy Boyle, who was no stranger to the effects of alcohol and its uses:
Every time he was drunk he would stagger up the street shouting at the top of his voice "D. N. Dan, my name's Dan, Dan Noble". Sometimes he would throw in that he didn't give a fuck from anybody, and Dan would start this cry from the minute he left the pub till he fell into bed  . . . The best laugh was that when he was sober Dan was a quiet wee man who didn't bother a soul. The way people looked at it was that Dan, who was a widower, worked like hell all week to keep his family and this was his way of letting loose . . .
(A Sense of Freedom.)
There is however a price to be paid by anyone whose inhibitions are relaxed with alcohol (a price not. incidentally, exacted in the case of the illegal drug cannabis). Alcohol impairs many bodily functions so that drunk people often injure themselves by falling and in road crashes. About one third of drivers and nearly one quarter of all adult pedestrians killed in road “accidents” are found to have alcohol levels in their blood stream above the legal limit. Heavy drinking (like going to war, working down a mine and just being a member of the working class) is not a health-giving activity. It affects the appetite and can cause gastric complaints; alcoholics are often both over-weight and malnourished because drink supplies no dietary needs other than calories and lacks essential proteins and vitamins. It can permanently damage the heart, liver and brain and heavy drinkers have been known to ignore a serious, but curable disease like tuberculosis which will then go on to kill them.

Drug addiction of any kind is usually a costly business to indulge in, outside the pockets of the majority of people depending on a wage or state benefit. So alcoholism may be accompanied by — and blamed for — a deeper than usual poverty which in about five per cent of cases means a descent into vagrancy. Every urban concentration has its population of homeless alcoholics, drifting through the cold streets, sheltering in derelict buildings, swigging their day away on wasteland. Drink is also blamed for crime; one estimate is that about 60 per cent of the offences of “habitual” criminals were due to drink and in 1980 the Parole Board expressed their concern at the high numbers of prisoners jailed for 18 months or more whose offences were put down to drink. In France about 60 per cent of violent crime is attributed to alcohol.

In fact it is a dangerous simplification to say that drink causes crime; there is a lot more to the matter than that. Where alcohol plays a part it can be through the addict stealing because they can’t afford to buy the stuff or because it gives them the bottle for a burglary or because it encourages a release of frustrations into what are seen as anti-social acts — assaults on property rights. Released frustrations can also break out as simple, unprovoked violence and there can be nasty results from this. Relaxed inhibitions, at least for the first few pints, can bring a pleasant relief but for capitalist society it is often an expensive business in terms of medical and social services and in the effort devoted to social control through the police, courts and prisons.

So there is a natural concern among the employing class about the effects of alcohol; they need to protect their profits by ensuring an undisturbed exploitation of their workforce. Accidents at work are expensively disturbing and drunk workers can lose their inhibitions to the extent of forgetting the dangers of machinery on the factory floor. A booze-liberated tongue is not conducive to industrial discipline as it may complain about working conditions or let the manager or foreman know what the tongue-owner thinks of them.

When this has become an issue sensitive enough for the ruling class to feel that their overall interests were being damaged, there has usually been a reaction. Licensing laws were first introduced in this country under the Defence of the Realm Act during the 1914/18 war. At the time the generals were complaining that British workers at the front were being prevented from slaughtering enough German workers in the other trenches because they didn’t have the shells to fire at them. This, in turn, was said to be due to the munitions workers spending time in the pubs which could have been spent making shells. In Carlisle, where there was a concentration of munition production, it went as far as the nationalisation of the brewery and the pubs — one effect of which was that the brewery won the reputation of turning out the strongest beer in the land.

There is nothing exceptional about diverging interests among the ruling class, but in the case of their dilemma over alcoholism it is historically established. By the end of the eighteenth century alcoholism was a feature of life in Britain, marked by gin replacing ale as a popular drink, encouraged in parliament by the landed interests whose corn went into the distillation process. It was the age of cheap gin, searingly recorded by the likes of William Hogarth, when straw houses abounded where it cost only a few pence to get dead drunk and the genial landlord made no charge for the straw onto which the customer collapsed. In 1750 every fourth house in London’s notorious St. Giles’ Circus sold gin. Whatever happened in parliament, the fact was that the urban expansion following from the enclosures and the Industrial Revolution made for living conditions which gave every encouragement to seek the opiate effects of drunkenness:
In some parts of the town the cellars are so damp that they are unfit for habitation . . . I have known many laborious families who, after a short stay in damp  cellars, were lost to the community . . . The poor mostly suffer from the insufficiency of the windows in cellars. Fever is the usual effect, and I have known very often cases of consumption which can be traced to such causes. (Paper presented by Dr. Ferriar, Manchester 1790.)
During the first decades of the eighteenth century the death rate rose sharply, at one point actually exceeding the birth rate; in London between 1740 and 1744 there were twice as many burials recorded as baptisms. This was attributed not to the appalling living conditions but to the people's response to those conditions. There was a move to restrict the sale of gin; in 1751 taxes were introduced to curb its free availability and retailers were prevented from selling the stuff. Workers continued to suffer in the cellars and the slums but they could now die from more acceptable causes like consumption and starvation. This was satisfactory to the burgeoning temperance movement and to the importers of tea, which from then increasingly rivalled gin as a cheap consolatory potion among the horrors of the cities.

The temperance movement gathered strength during the nineteenth century. Standing for exactly what was demanded of the new dispossessed class in society — a docile acquiescence in their own exploitation as wage slaves — the movement was associated with the Nonconformist church and the Liberal Party, both of them champions of the modern style of class dominance. Drunks were regarded as people in need of salvation, although from what was not made clear. Missionaries infested the London courts, pressing religious admonitions on the already troubled minds of the hapless, bewildered flotsam in the dock. As might be imagined, the missionaries were themselves not free of problems of personality:
. . . well intentioned but narrow minded, zealous but inclined to preach and apt to derive a sense of self-importance from the condescending friendship of magistrates and the deference of the humbler people with whom he has to deal. (H.R.P. Gamon. The London Police Court Today And Tomorrow, 1907.)
On the other side were the landlords, on whose acres the raw materials for alcohol were produced and the brewers, both of them powerful in the Tory Party. Many a bitter argument was played out between these sides, in terms of freedom of choice and of protecting the physical and moral well-being of the people. Hypocrisy flowed as freely as gin in the straw houses, for what was really at issue was the material dominance of one set of parasites over another. The straw houses are no longer and the temperance movement only twitches with traces of life; there are no longer excruciatingly boring slide shows at the local Band of Hope and it is very rare to find one of those brown painted, cabbage scented temperance hotels which once stood in every town. But proper understanding is as elusive as ever.

A flood of alcohol is downed every day in Britain and it is held to be responsible for a number of medical and social ailments, from damaged foetuses to road accidents. But people who must get their living in the grey monotony of an office or supplying the relentless demands of a production line need an escape from the experience of being exploited and expendable. One of the easiest, most accessible ways out is through drugs, whether hard or soft or liquid and legal. But part of being a member of the working class is an expectation of moderate behaviour; we may go to the pub but we must get home in good time so that we can be up to get to work in the morning. If we exceed the bounds of moderation the blame is often laid on some personal failings rather than on our class position and what capitalism does to us.

There is only one way to escape from wage slavery and that cannot be bought in a pub. Standing at the bar, we are not escaping but only on parole — and at that only until they call time.

Capitalism and the individual (1989)

From the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

An often-heard criticism of the socialist case is that at times such an overwhelming emphasis is placed on economics that concepts such as individual liberty and fulfillment seem to be neglected. The fact, however, is that such concerns are central to our argument but cannot be separated from the economic critique of capitalism, as meaningful freedom for the individual is only possible in a society where provision of the basic needs of all human beings is guaranteed.

Capitalism markets many illusions, but perhaps one of its most grotesque claims is that it can satisfy our every need. In this respect western capitalism is compared to ‘'communism". The former, we are led to believe, allows people to make choices, politically through the ballot box and economically via the market, while in "communist" society individuals are coerced by a state which regulates all political and economic life. Socialists do not dispute that in so-called communist countries there is a lack of individual freedom. However, we maintain that such societies are just another form of capitalism, where a state elite exploits human labour power for the purpose of capital accumulation. We argue that neither form of capitalism can guarantee individual freedom and fulfillment and that for real meaning to be given to such concepts the profit system in all its guises must be abolished through democratic political action.

In a free society each person would choose the means to develop his or her individual potential. Today, millions die of starvation or undernourishment when they could be adequately fed, and millions more are killed in wars which involve no working class interests. Even in "advanced" industrial societies millions are denied access to decent food, adequate housing and basic medical treatment. This occurs even though it is possible to produce enough to satisfy everyone's basic needs. While such conditions exist, as they must in a system which gives priority to profit over human needs, individual fulfillment is nothing but a sick joke. Real freedom is only possible when the means for producing and distributing all goods and services are owned in common and subject to democratic control; where the sole purpose of all productive activity is to satisfy needs. Until that basic condition is established, talk about individual rights and freedoms is just that — talk.

Even for those who do not suffer the worst effects of poverty under capitalism, the ability to develop their full potential as human beings is still missing. To supporters of capitalism, money is the magic means of securing individual satisfaction. For the overwhelming majority, however, money is only obtainable by the sale of their labour power (capacity to work), and employment is precisely what prevents most people from developing themselves as individuals. They are in jobs that do not provide satisfaction but involve boring, repetitive tasks subject to control and long hours. Employment dominates peoples lives; most work between 35 and 40 hours a week for about fifty years. Time spent outside of employment has to be organised around work hours: an early start means getting to bed fairly early and shift or night work not only ruin a person's social life but can also affect health. After working for something like eight hours, there is little time or energy left to pursue satisfying outside activities.

Individual choice is obviously dependent on the amount of money we have in our pockets or purses. The sheer monotony of work and the weekend spending spree go hand in hand: an urge to consume afflicts much of the working class, and is an attempt to overcome the frustrations of employment. Reality reasserts itself, however, and the gloss of the latest acquisition soon wears off when Monday morning comes around again. Employment clearly alienates the worker from her or his work — it is just a means to an unfulfilling end.

There are many other ways in which capitalism degrades people and forces them to conform. Norms of behaviour are drummed into us through the family and school. A “normal" person in their thirties should be married and have 2.5 children. Individuals are judged not for their human qualities but on the basis of surface appearance: the way they act, the car they drive, the house they live in or how much money they have in the bank.

It is possible to create a world in which the object of work will be to produce useful items for direct consumption, without the intervention of exchange and profit. With the creation of better working conditions, less need for control and production for need rather than profit, work will be more satisfying. With the full utilisation of modern productive capacity, people will work far fewer hours than they do at present and be free to engage in whatever other activities they wish to pursue. Education will mean just that; no longer will it be tied to the needs of employment.

The common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution on a world-wide basis — socialism — is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Becoming a socialist does not require you to read Marx's Capital, although people may well become interested in finding out what he really had to say. Above all, it means liberating your mind from capitalism's tunnel vision and seeing the potential of a society in which nothing has a price tag.
Ray Carr

The final frontier (1987)

From the December 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Have you ever looked up at the sky at night? If you have, you might have seen the moon, the stars and the planets. There are people who admire the beauty of the heavens but who also get excited about the potential real estate out there. You are probably not one of them. Most people have enough trouble trying to own a piece of this planet without worrying about owning a chunk of another as well.

The first enterprise to venture forth into space was the Communist Party Inc. (USSR). On October 4 1957, they launched a satellite into orbit called Sputnik 1. Capitalists all over the world were deeply shocked. So the American capitalists' minder (US government) decided to play Celestial Monopoly and even landed on the moon. Arianespace pic. (Europe), another Communist Party Inc. (China), and Gandhi & Sons (India), entered the game with down-market satellite-launching businesses.

It was all very expensive — especially the moon trips. There was nothing of value there — no gold, no uranium, no workers. The USA mumbled something about feeding people being more important than manned exploration of the moon, and spent the money in developing the Star Wars programme. There are rumours that the Russians are going to have a go at Mars. Europe, China and India are cashing in on the satellite business, especially after the Space Shuttle blew up, due to a cost-cutting exercise.

Do workers come into this? Do we get to play Celestial Monopoly as well? I'm afraid not. We make the rockets, the rocket fuel and the gallons of white paint. We even polish the rockets so that they will look good for the TV cameras. We also make the computers that guide the rockets, the spacesuits, the sticky space food . . . The list goes on. All these things are made by the wage and salary earners of the world, the working class. We do not own what we make though, which is why we can 't join in the game.

However, as far as games go, Celestial Monopoly is rather silly. Why not co-operate in the exploration and use of space, so that all people can enjoy the benefits? The same could be said for all endeavours. But the rockets and the satellites and the farmlands and the fisheries, are not owned by everyone. They are mostly owned by a minority, to satisfy their own interests. It is in their interests to use the raw materials and machinery that they own, only if the things produced can be sold at a profit. It is not profitable to feed starving people who have no money to pay for food.

What uses-of-space are profitable? Communication satellites owned by large companies are one aim. There are. of course, the spy satellites, anti-satellite satellites and perhaps even orbiting missile silos. The owners of the world take "defence" very seriously. They have a lot to defend.

Are these of any use to the working class? Communication satellites enable anyone to dial direct to any phone in the world. However, after chatting for three minutes, it begins to get expensive. The major shareholders of the company that owns the satellite can afford to talk as long as they like. How long can the people who assembled the satellite talk?

As for "defence", the wage and salary earners of the world have no country to defend. Most of the wealth in any country is owned by a minority. Yet it is the workers who produce this wealth — the workers have much more in common with each other than with those who own and control most of the world and everything in space.

Today space is for sale. It is so expensive that even capitalists are finding it difficult to exploit it. The raw materials are there. The skills are there. The people who want to use space are there. But profit is nowhere to be seen. This is why the colonisation of space is still seen as a utopian dream. The worst thought-crime in capitalism is to want what capitalism cannot give.

The day before Sputnik 1 was launched, most people thought that space exploration was impossible. Science fiction, they said. People say the same thing about socialism today. They do not believe that a society where everyone co-operates in decision-making is possible. However, the wage and salary earners of the world already co-operate in producing and distributing everything. It only remains for them to have the power to decide what will be made, and how things will be made. It is this class alone which has the power to co-operate to produce a socialist society.
George Marcelo

Between the Lines: Prejudice on parade (1986)

The Between the Lines Column from the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prejudice on parade
British TV does not have a good record when it comes to racism. In what passes for comedy the reference to offensively racialist stereotypes has made many a performer afford his first Rolls Royce; unfunny "stars" of the Jim Davidson category find it easier to get a laugh out of imitating the accent of an immigrant than to point at some of the truly laughable contradictions which capitalism throws up. The drama departments are not much better: when was the last time you saw a peak-time non-European or American play on TV - and if you can remember, is that not because the occurrence is so rare?

Even attempts to portray black lives on TV. such as C4's comedy series. No Problem, over-emphasised and parodied the blackness of the characters, as if the only justification for showing the black character on TV can be the experiences associated with the colour of his skin. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when West Indian immigration into Britain was initiated on a large scale, the BBC made several deeply patronising documentaries about what were then referred to as "coloured people" (as if the rest of us are colourless).

As time passed, racism became inconvenient for the ruling class: it has its uses in dividing workers against one another, but the conflicts engendered by race prejudice are now regarded as an interference with the smooth-running of modern capitalism. It is for this reason that TV has in recent times become a little more sensitive when it comes to racism. 1986 began with two programmes which did more than anything I have seen on TV before to explain racism. The American Documentary (Sunday, 5 January. ITV) showed a film of an experiment conducted by an American elementary school teacher on a class of white children. She began asking them what they thought of blacks and most of them gave the conditioned answers expected from those who have been prejudiced by an all-white environment.

Her contention was that the only way to teach children to reject prejudice is for them to experience it. She divided the class into those with blue eyes (the superiors) and those with brown eyes (the inferiors). The blues were allowed to go out to play before the browns; browns were not to be spoken to by blues as they would be a bad influence on them; browns had to drink from special paper cups and wear brown collars as symbols of what they were. It was not long before the blue- eyed children assumed the role of social superiors. The brown-eyed children were seen to suffer and feel resentment. The following day the roles were reversed.

Two observations by the teacher who conducted the experiment were especially worthy of note: firstly, that spelling tests conducted during the course of the experiment showed children in the inferior group to produce below-average results, whereas those who were told that they were special achieved above-average results. This not only helps to explain how it is that those groups which society expects to achieve less tend to achieve less, but also that once people are told that they are special they are likely to achieve more than we would normally expect. A socialist society will be free from the educationally bogus categories of "black" or "white" or "kids" or "disabled" and the many other meaningless categories through which learning expectations are based on gender or "race" or parental occupation; learners will all be treated as important people and can therefore be expected to learn faster.

Secondly, the teacher observed how before the experiment the children she taught were such a lovable bunch of people who did not think of discriminating against each other; once conditioned to be prejudiced, even she was frightened by the ferocity of the conflict which emerged. Does this not demonstrate that antagonism is not inherent in human beings - it is not "human nature" - but has to be taught, conditioned, injected like poison into the minds.

Both the teacher and the documentary-makers seemed to accept the naïve notion that teaching workers to be victims of racism can eradicate racism. No doubt such an exercise can help to change ideas, but the tragedy is that capitalism breeds division and hatred as fast as idealists try to spread fraternity and there will be no eliminating racism until the material conditions which produce it are removed.

A second, equally good, stab at racism was shown in a Horizon programme entitled Are You A Racist? (Monday, 6 January. BBC2). The programme's makers placed adverts in newspapers asking for those who were racists and those who have been the victims of racism to reply. Of hundreds of replies they selected four of each category and put them in a country house for five days to explore their ideas. The result not only made compelling viewing (TV producers are slow to learn that there is little more exciting to watch than the tension created by the honest exchange of ideas), but also helped viewers to observe the inability of the racists to use rational arguments in the defence of their cause.

During the five days one of the racists changed her mind and rejected her original ideas; another spent his time in what appeared to be a condition of dazed drug-overdose (he was either very tired and was using the chance to catch up with some rest or else he was a slow thinker); the third racist, a woman from Peckham who claimed to have been mugged by blacks, held tight to her prejudice which she was utterly incapable of articulating, beyond the fact that whatever she was told she would not change her mind. The fourth racist, an exceptionally nasty bigot called Tom (described the following day as "eloquent" and "reasonable" by the TV critic of The Daily Telegraph). provided a fascinating insight into the difficulty faced by the racist - indeed, any dogmatist - in responding to ideas which contradict what they want to believe.

Tom's problem was not just that he held absurd. offensive views about other people being inferior because of their skin colour but that he could not understand why. He talked, but he listened little and heard less. Why could he not hear ideas which opposed his own? Perhaps because ideology — ideas which do not arise out of real experience, but out of imagined experience — can only be maintained by repressing the ability to be self-critical. Perhaps one day a similar documentary will be made in which four socialists and four anti-socialists are put in a house for five days to discover why they think as they do. In the end, how else can you defend the absurdities of capitalism except by struggling to protect your mind from the force of logical analysis?

Just like a Tory
BBC2's series called Comrades (Sundays) has offered British workers a peep into the Russian Empire. If it has shown nothing else it has demonstrated that Russian life has nothing to do with socialism — a classless, stateless, moneyless social system — and that state capitalism is just as bad, or worse, than capitalism in Britain. The programme on Sunday. 6 January portrayed a Communist Party official in a Pacific port town. What was notable about this woman was not that her ideas were advanced or revolutionary or inspiring (they were not), but that she was so similar to a typical politician in Britain. As one watched her at a CP-organised dinner dance, entertaining some visiting Japanese business men, it was remarkable just how much like a British Tory councillor she was.

Similarly, the section of the programme showing her sitting in her weekly surgery trying to sort out the difficulties of local workers overcrowded housing and all the usual problems — it was striking just how easily that could be any British inner-city with any politician sitting behind a desk giving the same tired excuses and promising in the same sterile way to "get something sorted out". And to think that some workers look to Russia as the place where capitalism has been transcended; they have only to watch their screens to see that the same old capitalist problems are there, with the same old capitalist leaders trying to brush them under the (red) carpet.
Steve Coleman

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

At the mercy of global capitalism (1996)

From the January 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Workers in developing countries, even those with vast natural resources such as Brazil, face a future of insecurity, destitution and repression. There is simply no way out within the capitalist order. For them, the establishment of Socialism really is a matter of life and death.

Brazil originated as a slave society. The Portuguese who ruled it from the sixteenth century saw its natural resources—brazil wood, sugar and gold— as the basis for massive fortunes. But the native inhabitants, who mostly lived as hunter-gatherers, were unwilling to work for pitiful wages in appalling conditions. The solution was to enslave the native peoples, and slave-hunting itself became a profitable business. When even this failed to produce a large and reliable enough workforce, slaves were imported from Africa—they had the advantage of immunity to European diseases in addition to their working abilities. As many as three-and-a-half-million slaves were shipped from Africa to Brazil, making this an important, if often neglected, aspect of the slave trade.

By the time Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1822, coffee was becoming the biggest export. Independence served the interests of the Brazilian ruling class, who were no longer tied to trading through Portugal, but made little if any difference to the lives of ordinary people. As elsewhere, slavery ceased to be the best method for extracting surplus labour, and by 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil, Brazilian peasants and new immigrants from southern Europe were working as wage labourers. Besides coffee, there was a boom in rubber production in the north-cast of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, but this ended when rubber plants were smuggled out to south-east Asia and vast rubber plantations set up there.

For the first few decades of the present century, Brazil continued to be run as an export economy, dependent on the lion's share of the world coffee market. Imports were mainly of consumer goods for the rich, and machines. Brazilian industry was inefficient, protected from competition behind high tariff barriers. But the slump of the 1930s drastically reduced the world demand for coffee, and produced a crisis in Brazil's economy. A series of dictatorships and military governments failed to make a success of the policy of import-substituting industrialisation introduced into Brazil, as into much of Latin America, after 1945.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Brazil experienced annual growth rates of 10 percent, making it now the world's eighth largest economy (in terms of GDP). Coffee remains the main export, but fruit and some industrial products are also important. For a handful of rich capitalists and land-owners, things have worked out very well, but for the mass of ordinary Brazilians all this economic “progress" is a myth.

The expansion of manufacturing has led to an enormous increase in urban population, and vast shanty towns (favelas) have grown up around the main Brazilian cities. These offer few facilities of any kind, and are massively overcrowded, with over a million people living in favelas in Sao Paulo alone. In the whole country, one-third of houses have no piped water, and according to one report 80 percent of those going to casualty departments in public hospitals are suffering from illnesses caused by poor sanitary conditions. Under-five mortality rates are getting worse, certainly in some areas. Over 30 million people (one-fifth of the population) suffer from chronic malnutrition, while the richest one percent get 14 percent of the national income.

Child labour
While the rich enjoy their exclusive beaches and Swiss bank accounts, the overwhelming majority of the population live in fear and squalor. Violence and terrorism abound, directed especially against street children in the big cities and favelas. Child labour is rife, and perhaps half-a-million girls and women are forced to work as prostitutes. And despite its formal abolition over a century ago, slavery still exists, with thousands of workers in debt to their bosses and unable to leave their jobs on pain of death. This is particularly common in the Amazon, where workers are transported to clear the forest and make way for multinational-owned plantations.

For centuries, in fact, Amazonia has been seen as ripe for exploitation, whether by the Portuguese colonists, the Brazilian rulers or capitalists from abroad. Earlier this century, Henry Ford spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to start a giant rubber plantation there. Besides logging—thus helping to destroy the rainforest—one of the current preoccupations of the government is of the Amazon as a source of hydroelectric power, with vast dams under construction or on the drawing- board. This devastates the lives of those who dwell in the forest, including the few remaining Indian bands. Resistance is met by violence and repression—the murder of rubber-tapper Chico Mendes in 1988 is only the best-known example.

Brazil has always been at the mercy of global capitalism and the interests of those who run it, and no Brazilian government has been able to administer the system in the way that it wants. The foreign debt is now a staggering $150 billion; interest payments were suspended [in] 1982 when it was little more than half this amount. Attempts to gain some control over the country’s helter-skelter economy, with inflation sometimes beating 2,000 percent a year, have included two introductions of new currencies, the latest in 1994. But nothing helps. Earlier this year, import tariffs were hiked on a range of "luxury" goods, including cars and televisions, to try and reduce the trade deficit—not that this tariff increase affects the vast majority of the population, who are in no position to afford such items.

Of course such a system has not run without resistance. Many slaves escaped over the decades and created slave sanctuaries, while the great Cabanagem rebellion in the 1830s showed that the rulers could not have everything their own way. Exploitation of the Amazon has led to much resistance to loggers and dam-builders, while workers have struck in a number of industries after the latest currency reform led to lower wages. In May this year troops seized control of government oil refineries in a conflict with striking oil-workers. Cardoso, the new president, recently vetoed an increase in the minimum wage: at £58 a month, this remains well below what is needed to support a family. Cardoso tried to set a good example by taking a 25 percent wage cut himself, but then his own salary, at £7,000 a month, is a little higher than the minimum.
Paul Bennett

Saints and sinners (1984)

Cartoon by George Meddemmen.
From the September 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

The government’s assault on the town halls of Britain is being dramatised by the Labour Party as an epic battle for democracy, civil rights and human dignity. Heroically resisting the Whitehall panzers are municipal guerrillas like Livingstone of London and Hatton of Liverpool who, if the government is ever unwise enough to prosecute them, will be rapidly raised from mere heroism to martyrdom and then, perhaps, to sainthood.

In July the guerrilla leaders held a council of war, appropriately in Sheffield. There they set out the basis of a campaign against the expenditure cuts which are being imposed on them. Boldly they faced the prospect of acting outside the law; the leader of the Islington council, supported by Livingstone and Lambeth’s Ted Knight, proposed that Labour councils should budget to protect services and jobs and refuse to make a rate. Any government, let alone one including Thatcher, Tebbit and Jenkin, would be bound to respond to this, perhaps by assuming the councils’ functions and, by more indirect means, by prosecuting the recusant councillors.

This all makes good material for Labour’s dramatists and it may even win some votes for their party (although it may also lose some; the working class have not always been grateful to councils which have been labelled as squanderers) but it is somewhat out of touch with reality. Capitalism 1984 is in a slump which affects every industrial country. As usual, workers are being subjected to an extra fierce attack called economising, living within our means and so on. As it is bound to, this attack falls partly on things which, whatever their deficiencies, do something to ease workers’ lives — medical and social services, libraries, education, recreation facilities, sanitary controls. So in a slump workers who need, say, domiciliary nursing or home help can’t get them; teachers are sacked and schools are forced to manage with disintegrating books and equipment, libraries are closed and streets left dirty, spilling uncollected rubbish. Labour resistance to these cuts is unreal because it assumes, against all the evidence and experience, that a Labour government would ride out the slump while protecting the working class and keeping all services intact. This assumption inspires Livingstone and Hatton as it inspired the Clay Cross councillors and, 40 years before them, the councillors of Poplar led by white-whiskered, benign George Lansbury.

In 1921 Lansbury was Lord Mayor of Poplar and an elected member of the Borough’s Board of Guardians. It was not the happiest of times to be mayor in any big British city and especially of a place like Poplar, disfigured by slums and grinding poverty. This was a dockland Borough, lying close by the East and West India docks; its mean houses were overlooked by gasworks and warehouses and veined with railway goods yards and canals. The docks were notorious for their insecurity, with employment handed out each morning at the gates. In August 1921, according to the dockers’ union leader Ernest Bevin, there were 62,000 registered dockers in London but on any day the most who were employed amounted to 29,000. It is common for workers in places like Poplar to be staunch supporters of the Labour Party, in the mistaken belief that that party can ameliorate their poverty. In 1921 Poplar had a Labour majority on its council and on its Board of Guardians, who administered the Poor Law relief which, like supplementary benefit today, was supposed to be a fail-safe when other benefits were not available.

The system of “outdoor relief’ was set up in 1834; it was collected through a local rate. The amount of relief varied from one Board of Guardians to another; most of them were not renowned for their generosity and to apply to them was excessively degrading, fraught with terror of being forced into the workhouse with its hard labour, starvation and brutality. By the 1920s the worst features of this system had supposedly been abolished by a series of reforms, among them the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1921, which effectively extended unemployment benefit to almost all workers and even promised “uncovenanted” benefits. This reform had seemed safe at the time; there was a mood of boom-induced optimism and the Act was designed to relieve short-term unemployment, allowing benefit for only 26 weeks. The few people expected by the experts to be still out of work after that could apply to the Guardians for “outdoor relief’.

But capitalism in the Twenties was no more under the control of the experts than it is today. The brief post-war boom was followed by a slump and in 1921 unemployment exceeded 2 million (about 17 per cent of the workforce) and it did not fall below one million until the Second World War. There was general surprise at the slump; “In April 1920,” said The Economist, “all was right with the world. In April 1921 all was wrong.” That year saw the emergence of the long-term unemployed who, as their 26 weeks of benefit ran out, were driven to apply for Poor Law relief; Between March and November the numbers on that relief rose from 224,000 to 831,000. As we have said, how these desperate people fared varied from place to place, with some Guardians being bullying and niggardly and others comparatively sympathetic and generous. Poplar was one of the latter sort; led by Lansbury, the Guardians there were prepared to allow a man and wife 33 shillings (£1.65) a week, compared to the state “uncovenanted” rate of £1.00 a week. One result of this was that in Poplar one person in five was on relief compared to one in 21 in England and Wales as a whole. The Poplar Guardians justified their policy in a defiant leaflet they published in 1922:
. . .  the duty of members of the Board of Guardians is to be Guardians of the POOR and not Guardians of the interests of property. In Poplar there is no cringing or whining on the part of those who apply for public assistance . . .  Relief is accepted without shame or regret — in fact in exactly the same spirit as that in which ex-Cabinet ministers, Royalties, and others accept their pensions and allowances from the Government. In Poplar it is well understood that the poor are poor because they are robbed, and are robbed because they are poor . . .
The snag in this generosity was, of course, that it offended against the vital principle of all capitalist administration, that the accounts must not get into the red — and definitely not, as was the case with the Poplar Guardians, be forced into the red. In places like Poplar the demand for relief was likely to be high but, for the same reasons, the local rate was likely to yield that much less. As the Borough slid inexorably towards bankruptcy the gutter press, already carrying on an eager crusade against official “squandermania”, coined the word “poplarism” for the policy of pampering workshy layabouts out of other people’s money (they could not, apparently, think up a word for the real layabouts in society — the class who lived in luxury off the unpaid labour of the working class and who, while the people of Poplar fought the ravages of poverty, were wining and dancing their days away at the smart restaurants of London). A judge, who clearly did not understand a word of what he was saying, later condemned the Poplar councillors as ' . . . motivated by eccentric principles of socialist philanthropy”.

These criticisms did not impress the Poplar Guardians, who now came up with an unconventional proposal to regard the relief of the poor as their first priority and to refuse to collect the Borough’s precept to such bodies as the London County Council, the Police and the Metropolitan Asylum Board. This policy was later described, in the report of a clearly outraged inspector to the Minister of Health, as “. . . in many instances foreign to the spirit and intention of the Poor Law statutes”; no attempts had been made to discriminate between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”; the council had supplied boots and clothing to people who needed them (and who, complained the inspector, might have pawned them to get money instead) and they had sent children, on the recommendation of their doctors, on holiday. They had even begun to feed the inmates of the Poplar workhouse adequately.

When the Poplar Guardians ignored a court order to pay the precepts Lansbury and 29 other councillors were sent to prison in September 1921 for contempt of court. As we all know, it is a heinous crime to defy a court, especially when it is a matter of the protection of property rights and the priority of profit above all else. But no sensible person could have expected the Poplar sentences to be deterrent. At their last meeting before the councillors went to prison there were excited, emotional crowd scenes and ten thousand people saw off the women councillors when they were arrested. The fate of the Poplar councillors did not deter their counterparts of Stepney and Bethnal Green, similarly impoverished parts of London. Although the London Labour Party advised against it, both Boroughs followed the example of Poplar. On behalf of the capitalist class, The Times of 3 September 1921 gave vent to its frustration:
The unlawful cause for which some of the Poplar Borough Councillors have gone to prison has confessedly been followed, not with the sole object of relieving distress — other and more temperate methods would better have served that end — but in order to vindicate the Communist doctrine of "full maintenance” for the unemployed.
But even this attack on the idea that unemployed people should be able to live somewhat above destitution did not help the government to wriggle out of an embarrassing situation. Lansbury and his fellow martyrs sat comfortably in gaol, while their supporters sang songs to them outside the wall, apparently for the offence of trying to keep working class people above actual starvation. On 12 October, although they had not “purged” their contempt, the Poplar councillors were released. This was celebrated as a great victory but there was rather more to it. On one hand the government gave way to one of the Poplar councillors’ demands and pushed through an Act which spread the cost of relief over all the London boroughs so that rich areas like Westminster contributed to relief in the East End. On the other hand there was legislation to allow an authority like the LCC to collect its precept over the heads of a recalcitrant council through a Receiver and the Minister superseded the Guardians in West Ham, Chester-le-Street and Bedwelty. In the end, there was no widespread attempt to imitate Poplar. A more serious effect of the affair was that it tended to divert attention away from the vital question of the cause of, and remedy for, unemployment and into a spurious, futile debate about how much, or how little, the unemployed needed to survive. There was much discussion around the definition of “not genuinely seeking work” and preoccupation with the “gap” between unemployment benefit and Poor Law relief. Such debates — which today still rage on — are the very stuff of life to the reformists but they do not touch on the basic issue of capitalism’s inability to satisfy people’s needs.

The Poplar Guardians emerged from gaol to find capitalism still there, its economy switchbacking with unemployment never falling below one million. The Local Government Act of 1929 effectively brought the end of the Guardians, substituting Public Assistance Committees which would be a lot less likely to pursue a maverick course. This was just in time for the Great Crash and unemployment rising over 3 million and the hated, degrading means test which, under another name, still operates today. By any standards, this is hardly a victory for the working class.

And what of Lansbury? If he was a saint it was one who displayed some devilish political guile and will to survive. In 1928, after the debacle of Labour’s 1924 term of office, he insisted that never again should they form a government dependent on Liberal support. But when they did form such a government, in 1929, Lansbury not only failed to object but actually accepted a job in the government. His attitude in the much-reported debate at the 1935 Labour conference, when his pacifism conflicted with his place as party leader on the issue of military sanctions against Italy, was not notable for its saintly consistency. It is true that he did offer to resign but, as Ernest Bevin noticed, he carefully worded his offer to leave himself open to being persuaded to carry on. Bevin’s famously brutal speech was designed to prevent that happening, with its sneer that Lansbury was “. . . taking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”.

So the 1984 Labour municipal guerrillas are following a tradition made disreputable by its futility, not to mention its conflict and cynicism. Since Lansbury trod the martyr’s trail the working class have endured over 60 years of suffering for capitalism. After all that they might realise that there is a lot more to the history of this society that a conflict between saints and sinners.


From the August 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

At a conference recently held by the Y.M.C.A. the question of blind alley occupations for boys was discussed. Some interesting figures were published by the Daily Chronicle, which also stated in a leading article that the evil was due to the selfishness of parents and the desire of low-grade employers for cheap labour. The very fact that the majority of workers employed are doing work that requires little skill, while there is a large percentage of unemployed in nearly every skilled trade, proves this statement to be a lie.

Capitalists, low grade or high grade, do not pay skilled workers wages for so-called unskilled work. The jobs that capitalists want filled arE mainly low-skilled jobs with low pay. Modern industry is carried on with a relatively small number of skilled workers and a huge majority of low-skilled.

A high proportion of skilled workers is not required with machine production, and the bulk of the wealth in any capitalist country is produced by machinery tended by men, women, boys and girls, who can often learn their tasks in a few days, or even hours.

Under any system of society the production and distribution of wealth must require workers of varying degrees of skill; but it is only under capitalism that each particular kind and degree of skilled labour-power is catalogued and priced. Under capitalism labour-power is a commodity. The strength or ability to perform a particular kind of labour has a price recognised by worker and capitalist, just as the value of a cabinet is recognised by seller and buyer because of the workmanship and materials used in its construction. But just as everybody would admit that it would be foolish for capitalists to expend capital in the production of cabinets that were not wanted, so it must be apparent that parents who trained their boys as cabinet makers when the trade was already overcrowded would be equally foolish.

What shall we do with our boys? is a question always being asked. Every skilled trade is already overcrowded, though occasionally for short periods a particular trade, through an unforeseen rise in the demand for its goods, may have only a small percentage of its members unemployed.

In any case the proportion of workers relatively high skilled to lower skilled is determined, not by the workers, but by the kind of industrial products in demand and the tools and methods employed in their production. Machinery and scientific discovery eliminate skill and enable the capitalist to avail himself of the lower skilled and cheaper workers, such as women and boys.

To the boys thus employed their daily work is, for them, so many hours of imprisonment that merely tires, and leaves them with no desire for healthy recreation or study.

To pretend, as the Daily Chronicle does, that the manufacture of low-skilled and casual workers is due to the selfishness of parents, is sheer hypocrisy. No parent can create jobs for his boys. The majority of workers are themselves low-skilled or casual and on or below the poverty line. They have little or no choice in the matter.. The majority of boys are compelled to take the first job that offers; compelled to do so because capitalist industry offers nothing better.

Both the Y.M.C.A. and the Daily Chronicle also claim that capitalists in “the lower grades of industry” are largely responsible for the evil, but there is scarcely an industry that does not employ a greater proportion of low-skilled than high-skilled workers; while in many industries highly-skilled workers are paid lower wages than the so-called unskilled of other industries, simply because they are in excess of the demand and not organised to resist encroachments by the masters. There is little difference in capitalists. The small parasite may be more hungry for profits, but the limited company and the large scale concern are better organised and equipped for the purpose of exploitation.

Under capitalism the machinery of production is owned by the capitalist, and the energy of the worker is bought to operate it at a price which enables him to live. The machine condemns him to a life of toil in which there is no hope of intelligent interest or development. But when the worker realises the value of the machine as something which will give him more freedom from the nature-imposed necessity to work, he will no longer complain of the dreariness of his task. With full control of all the material factors in the production of wealth the workers can produce according to their needs. With modern machinery and methods, each performing his share in the necessary labour, the major portion of the life of every human being can be spent according to his own ideas of happiness or development.
F. Foan

State Murder in the USA. (1993)

From the October 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

The law and order card is always the trump that struggling governments use to divert attention away from the crisis created by the capitalist system they help to run. Just as crime, law and order have been at the forefront of the political agenda in Britain, so too is this the case in America now if all else fails, there is always the scapegoat, the working class, potential miscreants and criminals who are responsible for social decline.

The only Western industrialized state that still applies the death penalty is the United States. Just as grotesque, in this land where its constitution proclaims the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", is that come election time candidate’s stance in the capital punishment debate can win or lose him or her a seat in Congress or the Senate.

In 1988 Democrat Michael Dukakis voiced his opposition to the death penalty and lost many votes in the presidential elections. Bill Clinton, as Governor of Arkansas, was all too aware of this when he later sanctioned the execution of a mentally subnormal teenager — he had in mind the 80 percent of the American electorate who belong to the pro-capital punishment camp.

To what extent Clinton’s victory last year in the race to the White House depended on his pro-death penalty views is open to question. But his views on the death penalty and on crime in America in general are now being used by Democrats to regain the political initiative. Basically, Clinton wants $3.4 billion funding for a plan that will put an extra 50,000 police officers on the streets. He also wants to expand the number of crimes punishable by death and to limit death row inmates to one habeas corpus appeal within six months of sentence. He also believes the law's governing the sale of handguns should be tightened calling for a 5-day waiting period for handgun purchases!

If any department in the American Establishment is devoid of logic it is certainly that which is responsiblc for law and order. In 1990 (the last year for which statistics are available), 37,155 Americans died of gunshot wounds. If this is not an abominable figure (3.000 have died in Northern Ireland since 1968), there are an estimated 200,000,000 firearms in circulation in America. Yet the Clinton camp have revealed no plans to curb the individual’s "right" to possess a firearm.

At present some 2.500 prisoners await execution on death row in 36 states. The statistics here are just as baffling. Between 1973 and 1988, executions and the lengthy appeal process they entailed cost Florida tax payers $57 million. Which is $3.2 million per execution. At the same time, a prisoner held in maximum security cost $40,000 per year — twice the cost had he been educated at Harvard. In the state of Texas the cost of an execution case is the equivalent to the cost of imprisoning three men for "life".

Anyone with a grain of common sense will realize that an extra 50.000 police officers, all with arrest quotas to meet, will mean a jump in prison statistics. Clinton could only say this on the matter: "The plan is tough. It will put police on the streets and criminals in jail" (Guardian, 12 August).

Perhaps no-one has told him that there are some one million prisoners in the United States, housed in federal, state and county jails the highest incarceration rate in the world, with imprisonment, rising at the rate of 13 percent per year, and the criminal justice system processing 1,500 new prisoners per day. Little wonder that new prison construction costs are running at $6 billion per year.

Against all the crass statistics on the vast amounts spent on imprisonment must be set the penny-pinching when it comes to executing death row inmates. States that do use the death penalty arc finding it cost efficient to use the lethal injection method of execution - the equipment costs a pittance.

Oklahoma has been using the lethal injection method since 1977. Apparently prison authorities did not want to fork out the $60,000 needed to fix the electric chair while, the $200,000 asking price for a gas chamber was out of the question. Surely a bullet to the head would have cost the state no more than one-dollar per year!

1977 was also the year that Texas’ Governor claimed lethal injection would "provide some dignity with death". Where is the dignity in being forcibly strapped into a chair by men in uniform and injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs?

In all forms of execution the prisoner suffers pain and trauma. Sitting in the gas chamber in 1983. Jimmy Lee Gray convulsed for eight minutes before dying. In 1985 William Van Diver took 17 minutes to die in the electric chair, requiring five charges. Observers reported seeing his flesh smoke. Even where lethal injection is used, groans have been heard 18 minutes into the execution.

Any true Socialist is appalled at the idea of the state having the right to execute its citizens. The death penalty in any form is a blatant violation of human rights — the most undignified and irreversible of all punishments. How do you resurrect an innocent man? State executions are in reality the state taking revenge on the wage-slave for a mistake he or she committed because of the frustrations caused by the contradictions of the capitalist system that they are conditioned to exist in.

Those who advocate the death penalty tend to use the time-honoured argument that the death penalty is a deterrent, that it helps to reduce crime. However, throughout the world, no sociologist nor any export hired to study the subject has been able to demonstrate conclusively that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to the commission of the crime for which it is exacted. Moreover, there is no proof that the abolition of the death penalty will lead to the nightmare consequences predicted by its propagandists.

In the United States in 1985, FBI research revealed that the number of law enforcement officers killed was almost four times as high in states with the death penalty than in states without it. This stark revelation led reformers to conclude that legal executions may actually stimulate violent crime by exemplifying society’s approval of killing.

The equation Capitalism = Mass Inequality. Frustration. Murder for Gain State Execution is backed up by further statistics. Since 1972, 60 percent of death row inmates were unemployed at the time of their crimes. Of the 2.500 on America’s death rows, 65 percent were in low-paid, unskilled jobs. A study carried out on the Texas judicial system found that prisoners with court appointed lawyers were over twice as likely to be given the death penalty as those who could afford a reputable defence team.

The American criminal justice system is also racist with black people murdering whites 11 times more likely to face execution than for white people murdering blacks. In Florida the ratio is 40-1! Of all men executed for rape since 1930, 90 percent were black. There are six black people in prison for every four in higher education.

State executions is capitalism at its ugliest. It is the state giving up on the individual and admitting that the social system under capitalism is not working — that the only solution to capital crimes is death.

As Clinton refuses to address the real problems facing America, and to look to solutions that have already been tried and failed in the past, American wage-slaves can expect a tough time ahead should they look for a quick way to bridge the gap between poverty and wealth.
John Bissett