Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Chartists (1987)

Book Review from the June 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Chartists — Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, Dorothy Thompson (Wildwood House Ltd., 1986, £6.95)

This is a paperback edition of a work first published in hardback in 1984. The reviews which appeared then made the point that this work represented the most comprehensive treatment to date of the Chartist movement. On the whole this view has considerable justification.

The book makes clear that working class participation in the Chartist movement was greater than many suppose. There were three main political strands in Chartism. Firstly, a small far-seeing revolutionary component. Secondly, reformist elements which, as capitalism developed, attached themselves to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party for most, if not all, of what remained of the 19th century. Thirdly, there was a strand that was really looking backwards to pre-capitalist days when in many ways people had more control over their lives than is permitted under capitalism. There was, for example, resistance to state control of education, with the object of retaining the informal system of earlier times whereby craft skills and other knowledge was passed from one generation to the next within a relatively small community.

Interesting details are given of the reaction of opponents of the Chartists. The following sentiments, expressed by Elliot Yorke, MP for Cambridgeshire, were no doubt felt by many:
If gentlemen think there is nothing to be dreaded from our rural labourers, I fear they are greatly mistaken. I do not believe there is any village in my neighbourhood that would not be ready to assert by brute force their right (as they say) to eat fully the fruit arising from their own labour . . . Every parish in this neighbourhood is . . . ripe for any outbreak. (p. 175)
Whereas nowadays all kinds of arguments are put forward to try to show that the workers do effectively receive the full fruit of their labours, and that the profit of capitalists is the reward for their own effort as well as ensuring future prosperity, the above statement is brutally frank. This MP seemed to accept that the worker is robbed but was determined, by "brute force" if necessary, to keep things that way. The propaganda with which we are familiar today — in which socialism is portrayed as an unworkable utopian pipedream — appears to be of somewhat later origin, appearing after the more brazen "you could but you mustn't approach had ceased to be subtle enough.
E C Edge


From the July 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the stormy period of the economic crisis of 1928-33 I was a member of the Communist Party. I joined in 1928, the year of the commencement of the first Russian Five-Year Plan. This plan inspired me, and as I thought that they were building Socialism — I wanted to support it. I was enthusiastic and arrogant, and walked into a Communist Party meeting and said that I wanted to join. No questions were asked me, except for my name and address, and I believe a few pence for a membership card, and I was in.

In 1931 at the time of the hunger marchers, many party members believed that the revolution was just "around the corner: and that we could expect that the country would soon be involved in some sort of civil war as a transition to Socialism. I found this idea extremely hard to swallow, and made myself unpopular by saying so.

During my membership of the CP there were the mysterious Moscow trials when many of the "old guard" of the Bolshevik Party confessed that they were wreckers, saboteurs, spies and fascists, and many heaped abuse upon themselves. They were mostly shot on their own evidence, just as happened in the Middle Ages to witches who confessed to causing storms at sea and spreading plagues. Stalin murdered about twenty of the twenty-eight old Bolsheviks who sat round the table with himself and Lenin at the meeting of the Third International in 1919. Men like Radek, Zinovief, Kamenef, and Bukharin. I was unable to accept that Stalin alone was right and that he had been surrounded by wreckers.

When I tried to discuss this point in the party I was accused of Trotskyism. I then knew my days in the party were numbered. Had I been living in Russia, these line would never have been penned — it would have been Siberia or a bullet.

I made many visits to Germany during my Communist Party days, both before and after the Nazis came to power. I watched the Nazis and Communists fighting each other, and could not figure out how Socialism could come from such methods. The Nazis called themselves National Socialists and the Communists also claimed to be Socialists.

I noted that the Nazis after they took power ruled with the aid of the Gestapo and the concentration camps — plus of course the support of millions of thoughtless workers who had voted for them. Russia also had its Gestapo, the KGB (or NKVD as it was then) and their concentration camps. Both systems were headed by a ruthless dictator who showed the world that they were prepared to stop at nothing to hold the reins of office. Both regimes were totalitarian, and held fake elections in which Hitler and Stalin polled 99% of the votes. Both countries marched into Poland and both into Czechoslovakia with the pretence of going to the aid of the Czechs.

Lenin's books (I've read the complete works) are little more than a verbal attack on Kautsky and Bernstein, and of course any Russian who ever opposed him. Hitler's Mein Kampf is also a tirade of abuse against the Jews and Communists. Both Russia and Germany had trade unions — not to protect the workers' wages or hours of work, but to make them work harder and not to grumble. Both Stalin and Hitler persecuted intellectuals. The Russian trade unions and the persecution of dissidents still continue.

While still a member of the CP I went to a meeting of the SPGB on Russia. After the lecture there was the usual allotted time for questions, and I lost no time in seizing this opportunity.

The answers to my questions did not satisfy me, and I said so. Then came a period of discussion and I was invited to take the platform for five minutes and put my case. Without hesitation, and full of cock-sureness I mounted the rostrum and let off my steam. Then came the answers of the SPGB. This did not convince me — but it shook me, for I never imagined that anybody else but CP-ers knew anything about Russia, Marxism or Socialism.

At a meeting of the Communist Party a few days later a critic asked a few questions in a perfectly orderly manner, and he was pounced upon and silenced and called a fascist. As for taking the platform in opposition — that was quite unthinkable. This showed who was democratic, and it did much to convince me which party had a sound case.

When I decided to join the SPGB I was surprised to learn that there no "sign your name and you're in". I was carefully questioned on my ideas about Russia, and my understanding of Socialism.

This procedure keeps the party small, but if we admitted all and sundry, we may have a larger membership, but we would soon cease to be a Socialist Party.
H. Jarvis

Don’t ask Jevons (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last November’s Monthly Review carried an article by John Bellamy Foster, Robert Clark and Richard York on “Capitalism and the Curse of Energy Efficiency. The Return of the Jevons Paradox” They recounted how in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1863 the leading capitalist (and arms manufacturer) Sir William Armstrong raised the question “as to whether Britain's world supremacy in industrial production could be threatened in the long run by the exhaustion of readily available coal reserves”. The authors went on:
“In response, William Stanley Jevons, who would become one of the founders of neoclassical economics, wrote, in only three months, a book entitled The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines (1865). Jevons argued that British industrial growth relied on cheap coal, and that the increasing cost of coal, as deeper seams were mined, would lead to the loss of ‘commercial and manufacturing supremacy,’ possibly ‘within a lifetime,’ and a check to economies growth, generating a ‘stationary condition’ of industry ‘within a century‘. Neither technology nor substitution of other energy sources for coal, he argued, could alter this.”
Jevons (1835-1882) is known to students of Marxian economics but only as bit of a joke for his view that economic crises were caused by sunspots but also for his theory that prices were determined by their marginal utility to consumers.

H. M. Hyndman called his 1884 lecture defending the labour theory of value “The Final Futility of Final Utility”. In it he also took a sideswipe at Jevons’s theory of crises saying that “Jevons’ Commercial Crises and Sun Spots may be left to gather dust on its neglected shelf, until some writer, with nothing better to do, thinks it worth while to publish a monograph on ‘the Strange Hallucinations of Professors of Political Economy’.”

Jevons was of course just as wrong about coal becoming exhausted as he was about crises being caused by sunspots. Coal in Britain is not exhausted even today, only not mined as much as it once was, due to the relative cheapness of oil and gas as alternative sources of energy.

The “Jevons Paradox” that Foster and the others were interested in says that economies in the use of some material aimed at reducing its consumption will in fact, by making it cheaper to use, actually increase this. This is why they called energy efficiency a “curse” today. Economies in the use of oil and coal under capitalism, they said, will lead to more not less being consumed, and so not reduce the threat of global overwarming.

This is a problem only because under capitalism the competitive struggle for profits to accumulate as more capital that is built-in to it forces enterprises to use the cheapest methods and materials so as to keep the price of their products as low or lower than those of their rivals. It’s called “being competitive” or “maintaining competitiveness”.

In a socialist society energy efficiency would not have this perverse effect. It really would cut the consumption of coal and oil (and, similarly, for other non-renewable resources) as neither the imperative to accumulate capital, nor profit-seeking nor economic competition would operate.

Pie-crust Pie-chart (2015)

The Cooking the Books column from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did you get one? The government propaganda sheet, that is, sent to some 24 million people recorded as paying income tax or national insurance on ‘How your tax was spent in 2013-14’.

What stood out – and what you were expected to see standing out – was a huge slice of a pie-chart for 'welfare'. It amounts, if you do the arithmetic (which the propaganda sheet doesn't), to a quarter of the whole pie. How terrible, we are supposed to conclude, all that money going on welfare for scroungers who are too lazy to work.

However, imagine for a moment that we are living in a rationally-organised society, one geared to meeting people's needs, and that the pie-chart was measuring not money spent but real resources used. 'Welfare' would then be the goods and services consumed by or for certain people to ensure that they 'fared well'. But who are they?

The government propaganda sheet doesn't help but the Institute for Fiscal Studies does, in an article on their website 'What is welfare spending?' (www.ifs.org.uk/publications/742). They break the 25 percent into 'personal social services' for people in care (4 percent), public service pensions (3 percent), other benefit spending on pensioners (4 percent) and other benefit spending on those of working age (14 percent).

So, 11 percent of the pie is going to people who have retired from work or people needing to be cared for, children and the disabled as well as the elderly. What's wrong with that? A rationally-organised society would certainly cater for the needs of people in this position and devote resources to this, in fact more than today though allocated on the basis of need and as of right rather than final or average salary or pensions contributions (if only because nobody would be working any longer for a wage or a salary).

That leaves 14 percent of the pie going to people under retirement age, but some of this will be going to people who are disabled or who are temporarily sick. That would still happen in a society geared to meeting people's needs. As to the able-bodied unemployed, they would no longer exist as everybody would be free to contribute work to society instead of being forced to be part of capitalism's industrial reserve army or be included in the 6 percent rate of unemployment that economists say is 'natural' under the market system.

But back to capitalism where what the pie-chart is showing is how capitalism distributes some of society's resources. Three other slices of the pie, amounting to nearly 17 percent, stand out as waste: national debt interest (7 percent), defence (5.3 percent) and criminal justice (4.4 percent). Talking of scroungers who contribute nothing, a good example is the capitalist holders of the national debt who are getting a much larger income than Job Seekers Allowance without having to work. The remaining nearly 9 percent goes to maintain the coercive part of the state machinery, which would not need to exist in socialism (for that's the rationally-organised society we're talking about) where only the non-coercive and non-financial parts of central administration would continue.

So, what the government propaganda sheet is unwittingly showing is how capitalism wastes society's resources and is not geared to meeting people's needs, ie. not catering for everybody's welfare. Thanks, Mr Osborne.