Wednesday, January 21, 2015

We Mean No ill! (1924)

From the June 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is the name given to a future state of society in which all the people physically and mentally fit will take a part in doing whatever is necessary, according to their capacities, and in return will receive whatever they require that is within the power of Society to provide, with due regard to the needs of each. The more important of such things are food, clothing and shelter.

We only require the best food and in sufficient quantity to keep us satisfied and healthy; it is not essential that we should have an endless gorge. We only require the best of clothing and in sufficient quantity for comfort and adornment; it is not essential that we should make ourselves into clothes horses. We only require sufficient housing accommodation to enable us to live comfortably and free from foul smells and unsightliness; we do not require an endless number of rooms to get lost in.

There are people so satiated with food that eating has become a bore; we would relieve them of their boredom. There are others who are in an eternal sweat changing from one suit of clothes to another; we would ease their toil. There are others again doomed to occupy vast mansions of numberless rooms; we would relieve them of their solitude.

There are people again, and these are the great majority, who know not the meaning of a stomach regularly filled with the best of food, clothing in sufficiency and patchless, houses comfortable and sanitary; we would see them lifted out of their misery and placed in the midst of comfort and security.

We would convert the lives of one class from the endless hurry after pleasures that do not satisfy to the leisurely pursuit of useful work that elevates and is a pleasure in itself. We would convert the lives of the other class from toilsome work in occupations they detest, that does not always guarantee them even a bare existence, into work the performance of which will fill them with joy and leave them to end their days in tranquility.

Why then does the one class view our friendly offers with hatred whilst the other views them with suspicion and apathy? Heigho! This is a funny old world!

Break the Link With Labour (1993)

Editorial from the September 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Should Labour cut its links with the unions? The Labour Party can do what it likes, but if the question is put the other way round -  should the unions cut their links with the Labour Party -  the answer is yes, they should have done this years ago. In fact they should never have set up and financed the Labour Party in the first place.

Unions and the Labour Party have different aims which in the end are incompatible and antagonistic. The unions seek to get the best deal they can for the sale of their members' labour power to employers. But wages, working conditions and terms of employment can only be improved at the expense of profits.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, now more openly and obviously than ever, seeks power to run the capitalist system. But running the system -  the profit system - inevitably involves giving priority to profit-making over everything else. This is why the Labour Party, when in government, has always opposed strikes, imposed wage restraint and clashed with the unions.

The mystery is why the unions haven't broken with Labour years ago. Why didn't they break with Labour in 1924 when the first Labour Government threatened to use the Emergency Powers Act against striking tramworkers? Or in 1931 when the second Labour Government cut unemployment benefit? Or in 1950 when the post-war Labour Government prosecuted gasworkers for going on strike? Or in 1966 when Harold Wilson imposed a wage freeze? Or in 1979 when Callaghan urged workers to cross picket lines?

Despite this appalling anti-working-class record, the pressure today to weaken the link between the unions and Labour is coming not from trade unionists but from the Labour politicians. For crude vote-catching reasons, John Smith wants to reduce the way the unions have in selecting Labour Party candidates and in formulating Labour Party policy. But he doesn't want to go all the way - he still wants the unions to finance him and the rest of his gang of political careerists.

The way this is done is a scandal in itself. Unions are voluntary organisations maintained by the contributions of their members. But unless union members go out of their way to sign a declaration that they don't want any of their contributions to go to the Labour Party, a part of their money is diverted to financing the Labour politicians' vote-catching machine. As a result many workers who have nothing but contempt for the gang of Labour fakers at Westminster end up paying money to them without being aware that they are.

Since Labour politicians opened the question of union links, trade unionists should seize the opportunity to break all organizational and financial links with the pro-capitalist Labour Party. These have served no useful purpose in the past and certainly will not in the future.

It is not the concept of the working class taking political action that is wrong. On its own, trade union activity, though essential, is a never-ending battle which at best can only mitigate but never end our exploitation for profit. It does need to be supplemented by political action but of a quite different kind to electing Labour MPs.

We need to organize ourselves, democratically without leaders, into a political party dedicated solely to replacing capitalism by a system based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. In other words, into a real Socialist Party. Not the fake socialist party Labour once claimed to be, nor the openly pro-capitalist party is now so obviously is.

Backwaters of History - 8 (1954)

From the June 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Münzer and the Thuringian Revolt

Eight thousand men were on a hill near Frankenhausen listening to a speech from their leader. They had fortified themselves behind a barricade of farm waggons and carts and, during the period of a truce arranged with their foes, they were debating the terms of surrender offered them.

At the foot of this hill, the Schlachberg, was encamped a well-armed and disciplined army, also of eight thousand men, led by the Duke of Saxony, the Duke of Brunswick and the Landgraf of Hesse. On the 15th of May, 1525, the dukes had granted the truce to the army of ill-armed peasants and workers on the hill-top, to give them time to consider the terms offered, unconditional submission and the surrender of the peasants' leaders, particularly Thomas Münzer.

Some of the insurgents on the hill were for accepting the terms in the face of the formidable opposition lined up against them. Münzer had the two foremost advocates of surrender beheaded and then proceeded to harangue his following. He denounced the enemy with more than his accustomed vehemence, he made rousing allusions to Biblical heroes, how small forces of chosen people had conquered hosts and he concluded by pointing to a rainbow that appeared, just at the moment, as an omen of success.

Before the period of the truce had expired, and whilst the peasant army was still unprepared, the enemy opened cannon fire on their camp and charged through the barricade, mowing down the defenceless peasants left and right, pursuing those who escaped into the town of Frankenhausen where the massacre continued. Münzer was discovered in hiding and, after a period of imprisonment and a letter of "confession" to his followers, he was beheaded. So ended the most significant battle of the German Peasants' War.

The Middle Ages closed on a scene of economic transformation. Commercial activity was shaking the foundations of the feudal system. The feudal peasant and the feudal lord had obligations to one another and the peasant had a measure of security together with a limitation to the degree of exploitation to which he was subject. This was changing to a system of merciless exploitation where taxes, tithes, etc., were continually increased and new methods ever being devised to extract more surplus wealth from the peasantry, which the feudal lord could change into florins, guilders or ducats. Common land was seized and tenant farms confiscated thus giving rise to a class of proletarian cotters.

This increase in exploitation and oppression gave rise to the great peasant revolts throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The peasants, armed with spears and axes, rose against their tormentors in France in the 1350's, in England in the 1380's, in Germany throughout the fifteen century culminating in the Peasants' War of 1525, and later in Sweden and Denmark.

The economic changes gave rise to a confused mass of conflicting interests. The nobility, the peasantry, the merchants, the artisans, the proletarians, the wealthy priesthood and the poor wandering priests, all had interests peculiar to their own grouping. But through these various oppositions there was a dividing line that gave the majority of the people a mutually common enemy—the Catholic Church. The wealthy, grasping Catholic Church, centralised at Rome, was regarded by all strata of society as the exploiter par excellence, sucking wealth from all the sections of the community and pipe-lining it over the Alps to the Papal headquarters.

On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg and gave impetus to a movement which took him and others along with it. Luther started by fighting only against the excesses of the Catholic Church but was carried along by the current to urge violence and the use of fire and iron for the extermination of the cancer that he said was destroying the world.

The struggle that developed was between the Catholic conservatives on the one hand and an alliance of middle-class reformers and revolutionary peasants and proletarians on the other. The peasants at the outset aimed at a re-establishment of their feudal liberties. The famous twelve points around which most of the German peasant revolts centred are evidence of the outlook. Condensed they were:
  1. Religious toleration.
  2. Abolition of tithes.
  3. Interest to be limited to 5 per cent.
  4. All water to be free.
  5. All woods and forests to be free.
  6. All game to be free.
  7. Abolition of villeinage.
  8. No obedience to a lord, only to the emperor.
  9. Re-establishment of old-time justice.
  10. The right to elect persons in authority.
  11. Abolition of death dues.
  12. Re-establishment of the common lands that had been appropriated.
As the revolt grew, large sections of the peasants accepted and supported the communistic reachings of men like Thomas Münzer and Nicolas Storch. The middle-class allies drew away from these communist groupings and Luther turned on them ferociously, urging the nobles and merchants to strangle the peasants as they would mad dogs.

Münzer's teaching, like all teaching of the time, was cloaked by religion. Freedom and Equality must reign on earth. The princes and the nobles denied freedom and equality to the poor, so they must be overthrown and the "common man" must be raised in their place. This was the kingdom of God and all who would not become citizens must be killed or banished. The great barrier to a real awakening of the inward light was the riches of the world. So, in the kingdom of God, there must be no private wealth. All things must be held in common. That was the essence of the teaching that caused thousands of peasants to flock around Münzer.

After a brief and adventurous career (he was only 28 years of age when he was executed) Münzer made his headquarters in Muhlhausen, where he joined forces with Heinrich Pfeiffer, an ex-monk who was the preacher and leader of the local merchant guildsmen and artisans. Pfeiffer and Münzer with their joint forces overthrew the patrician council that governed Muhlhausen and established themselves as benevolent dictators of the town and surrounding districts. Münzer proceeded to put his communist teachings into practice. He took over the Johanniterhof, the monastery of the monks of St. John, and established an equalitarian organisation holding its wealth in common. Thousands of peasants from the surrounding countryside flocked to the town where Münzer preached to them from the Marienkirche, sending out missionaries to the districts around. The communist agitation spread to Erfurt, Coburg and into Hesse and Brunswick.

During the two months of Münzer's regime in Muhlhausen, Pfeiffer with a large section of the twon population, concerned themselves not with communist ideas but with their own local revolt and establishing their own power in the local government. When word was received that the armies of the Dukes were marching against the town and Münzer took his force out to meet them, Pfeiffer remained inactive inside the walls of the town.

A body of Münzer's followers were encamped on the hill outside Frankenhausen and he marched his poorly armed and untrained force to support them. It was here that he met the military defeat that ended his career and his life. The Dukes then turned on Muhlhausen where most of Pfeiffer's supporters deserted him in terror and surrendered the town. Pfeiffer was pursued, captured and, with Münzer, tortured and beheaded.

Münzer had visions of a universal social revolution and he was one of the few leaders of the Peasant War who tried to bring unity into the German peasants' movement by establishing communications between centres, His teachings expressed the vague desires of a vital section of the society of his day. Through him they were given a certain definiteness and in every great social convulsion since his days those ideas arise until they merge into the ideas of the working class of to-day.

History abounds with examples of revolutionary classes seeking and using the support of workers and peasants to gain their ends then turning ferociously on them when they start to voice aspirations of their own. Martin Luther offers an outstanding example. His words when the peasant revolts were being suppressed show his spite and viciousness.
" . . . the murderous and plundering hordes of the peasants. They should be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog. Therefore, dear gentlemen, hearken here, save there, stab, knock, strangle them at will, and if thou diest thou art blessed; no better death canst thou ever attain."
(The Peasant War in Germany, by F. Engels.)

Books to Read:
The Peasant War in Germany by Frederick Engels.
The Peasants' War in Germany 1525-26 by E. Belfort Bax.
Essay, "The Reformation" in "Crises in European History" by Gustav Bang.
W. Waters

1492 and all that (1991)

Book Review from the November 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth. By Hans Koning. Latin American Bureau, 1991.

The romance of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, and the inevitable celebrations to mark the anniversary in 1992, are the subjects of this study which attempts to reassess Columbus and put the record straight on his character and place in history. It also confronts the issue of "civilisation" versus "savagery" and the ideology which sees the West as culturally superior and as the ideal to which all people should aspire.

For Koning 1492, the year in which Columbus supposedly "discovered" a new world already widely inhabited, "opened an era of genocide, cruelty, and slavery". The motivation for exploration lay not so much in discovery but in the extension and consolidation of the trading rights of rival European powers and in the desire to finance expansionism and acquire spheres of economic influence and political domination.

That the world was round was commonly acknowledged. Columbus's belief that Asia could be reached by a westerly route was based upon a lamentable and stubborn ignorance as to the size of the world. In his public statements Columbus claimed to be motivated by a desire to convert the "heathen", although this seems to have quickly given way to a policy of genocide or enslavement. In fact, the peaceful, generous and friendly innocence displayed by the original inhabitants of the "new" world, and recorded by contemporary observers, was to place them in a perilous position. Decisions as to their fate were being made elsewhere. The desire for gold at whatever cost, and the necessity of economic domination, led to a global arbitration by Pope Alexander VI, who divided the new world between Spain and Portugal, although somewhat to the chagrin of France and Holland.

Unaware of this decision, the inhabitants of the so-called new world were not long in feeling the consequences. The later activites of Pizarro and Cortes have been widely documented yet the systematic brutality of the original conquerors should not be underestimated. The rapid annihilation of the Arawaks, for instance, would necessitate the importation of black slaves from Africa to replace them by 1550. As Koning argues, the brutality of the Spanish and, for that matter the Portuguese on the Guinea coast of Africa, persisted until chattel slavery became uneconomic: "men became humane at the very moment inhumanity lost its business advantage".

As to Columbus, in contrast to his ambitions, the rewards he received were small and mostly honorific, for at this point in the conquest the anticipated gold was not sufficiently forthcoming. In a sense Columbus was as much a product of his time as we are of ours. What we should not do, however, is to hide reality beneath a mythology of the heroic discoverer and the coming of civilisation. But neither should we become complacent in our reading of history. The economic momentum that motivated and legitimized the Spanish conquest of America 500 years ago is the same to which we are victims today.
Philip Bentley

Women's movement (1983)

Book Review from the July 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is to be done about the family? edited by Lynne Segal (Penguin Books)

This collection of essays by seven women looks at the family from different points of view while always keeping the oppression of women at the centre of the analysis. The first essay describes the protest movements of the 60s which rejected all traditional family values. These were short lived and led to nothing but another protest movement: the new feminism of the 70s. The next essay shows how feminists moved away from trying to live out their ideals in alternative households towards a theoretical critique of the family and finally came to concentrate on reforms, often within the Labour Party. This is followed by an attempted Marxist analysis of the particular oppression of women in capitalism, but comes to the disappointing conclusion that the problem simply lies in the social division between productive and reproductive labour. The next essays concentrate respectively on childcare, sex as a product of the family as we know it, communes as alternative families, and the Welfare State in relation to women's economic dependence on their husbands and their need for some form of independent income. The concluding essay takes stock and tries to answer the question posed in the title of the book, but in doing so it has to admit that things have not improved very much at all and that there is no sign that they are going to. 

In this book we find all the typical questions that feminists ask: Why is housework not recognised by society? How can one find security and warmth in association with other people without the pressures of family life? Can the needs of children and women be reconciled? How did women become pure providers? Why can't housework be shared? Who is responsible for the oppression of women, capitalism or men? There do not appear, however, to be any answers to these questions nor any solutions to the problems they raise. In fact one has to feel some respect for the intellectual honesty with which these women look at their involvement as feminists and clearly see the contradictions within the movement and their failure to achieve their aims. But at the same time one cannot help wondering why, if feminists can see the drawbacks and limitations of most reforms and admit to a "depressing failure to improve women's lot generally" (p.221) they do not turn to other solutions and start asking different questions. If they can wonder why "women who form 40 per cent of the population only get 25% of the pay" (p.221) they might consider why the working class, who form 90 per cent of the population and produce all the wealth, only own about 38 per cent of the wealth.

It seems almost as if these writers did not want to find the real solutions outside their movement. Denise Riley, in the face of all the evidence, writes:
But there is no automatic opposite [to the present system] — a  socialism of abundance which would pay full and imaginative attention to the needs of women with children; plenty does not spontaneously flow from a new socialist order, any more than refusing public welfare provision is a timeless characteristic of capitalism (p.129);
and Lynne Segal includes the following comment on her concluding remarks: "But whether we like it or we don't, family life will continue to change" (p.230). Their attitude is one of passive resignation (how ironical in committed feminists!) which leads them to fear that the system will not treat them well, or hope that it might if they plead with it as they all do at the end of each essay, giving long lists of "we want this, and we want that . . . and is it too much to ask?" The mistake they make is precisely to "ask". If we want things to be a certain way, then we must run society ourselves instead of allowing it to be run in the interests of a tiny minority.

The word socialism is used a lot in this book, but mainly as a label that says something about the person wearing it (that she is a good sort of person who wants to improve the lot of people generally), not as a definition of a form of society. Pity. Because that form of society, run by the majority of the people in their own interests, without distinction of race or sex, without wages or money and therefore without property or economic dependence of any kind, would be a good place for a woman to live.
Christine Moss