Thursday, February 19, 2015

Capitalism and underdevelopment: where Leninists go wrong

From the Summer 1986 issue of the World Socialist

The whole Leninist theory of imperialism turns on two or three major concepts: the twin notions of super-profits and super-exploitation, monopoly (denned in a strictly legal sense) and investment strategy. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin pretended to have discovered an ultimate and final stage of capitalism, and this discovery has been widely attributed to his astute grasp of the materialist conception of history. Reading his pamphlet between the lines, however, we discover the existence of at least five acutely unMarxist tendencies:

First, Lenin ignores the definition of monopoly favored by Marx as a monopoly established socially by the capitalist class over the means of production, proceeding instead to adopt a conventional (bourgeois) definition of it as the centralization of control of industries resulting in "restraint of trade".

Second, Lenin identifies capitalism as a system of production with its regime of 19th-century Liberalism, thus persuading himself that the latter's all too apparent demise meant the onset of the socialist revolution.

Third, Lenin describes the frenzy of imperialist acquisitions by the European powers in the last quarter of the 19th century as being the result of monopoly defined in the above manner, in so far as the super-profits made by the monopolies forced capital to be exported abroad to the system's undeveloped periphery, foisting super-exploitation on the local working class and a pattern of "dependent" economic development on the local capitalist class.

Fourth, investment strategy moves quickly to the fore as the dominant focus of Lenin's analysis. His theory of imperialism orients itself around decisions as to how to invest capital rather than around the conflict between capitalists and workers.

Fifth, Lenin's theory is preoccupied with questions of international commodity exchange and very little with capitalist production as such.

Later Leninists have built on these erroneous views of their master to argue that the fundamental cause of underdevelopment is the unfavorable relations of exchange that have evolved between capitalists on the "periphery" and those in the "metropolis", rather than the rigid social structures inherited from colonial times or from home-grown traditions.

ROADS TO CAPITALISM
Teresa Meade in an article in Latin American Perspectives (Summer 1978) on "The transition to capitalism in Brazil: Notes on a third road" argues that "normal" capitalist development in Brazil (and hence, by implication, everywhere that comparable conditions existed) was impossible, owing to the region's integration into the emerging capitalist world economy.

The "third road" referred to in the title of her article is distinguished from the classical or "first" road (according to which small independent producers challenged the dominance of an assumed "pre-capitalist mode of production") and a Prussian or "second" road (where the Junker landlords retained control of the agricultural system even as they benefited from its overall industrialization).

Here Leninist theory has typically inverted the relationship between agricultural backwardness and capitalist development. But it does call attention to the fact that capitalism is a single system of production which develops differently under different conditions. Many a critic of Marxism has concluded with premature glee that the very diversity of capitalist development disproves Marx's analysis of it. What Meade curiously - or not so curiously - neglects to do, however, is to broaden her criterion to include all forms of capital accumulation regardless of ideology. For she has managed to leave out Soviet (or Chinese) state capitalism as an intervening "third road" before she got to the case of Brazilian capitalism.

In the same issue of Latin American Perspectives Peter Singlemann argues that:
during the initial phases of the industrial revolution in the advanced capitalist nations, colonies and dependent nations contributed to the formation of relative surpluses in the industries of the metropolis . . . The amount of relative surplus can be increased by decreasing the amount of socially necessary labor which, in turn, entails a devaluation of the means of subsistence.
This "devaluation", it turns out, is really the campaign to cheapen labor-power, the model case for this being the Anti-Corn Law struggle in mid-19th-century Britain carried out by the industrialists, who subsequently kept the price of grain down by importing American wheat "which paid no rent".

This idea of rent holding up the value of labor-power is in fact interpreted in a very rigid manner: in his The Law of Value and Historical Materialism Samir Amin advances the thesis that there exists a "world-scale hierarchy in the price of labor-power" (radiating outward from the developed centers), in which the price of labor-power and the productivity of labor are disconnected from each other, owing to the distortions created by an export-oriented production strategy. This strategy in turn marks the subordination of local capital to that of the center, perpetuating "super-profits" in the center and "super-exploitation" of labor-power on the periphery. The point, according to Amin, is that the reduction of ground rent to insignificance has failed to take place to a large extent throughout the third world and therefore has blocked the further investment of capital in productive activity, with a consequent brake on industrialization.

LENINIST INVESTMENT ADVICE
Since third-world countries have generally had or continue to have an agonizingly protracted experience of pre-industrial capitalism, Leninist theory has seen in agricultural backwardness an effect rather than a cause of "low and slow" industrialization. However, whether or not we are talking about "classical" economic development, the original source of the "industrialization fund" of an economy based on commodity exchange is an agriculture which has been monopolized (in the Marxian sense) by agrarian capitalists or capitalist farmers. This process of social monopolization of the means of production carries with it the mass expulsion of the rural population - regardless of the exact course the process may follow - leaving behind only those whom wages can pay or those who can pay them. On the classical model, this leads to a direct polarization of capitalist-worker relations in the countryside and to a lowering of the value of labor-power as in Britain with the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1840s.

Leninist theorists argue that this process (the "formation of relative surpluses") is blocked for third-world capitalists because of their investment strategy of channeling their capital investments into exports of locally produced goods and then compounding the contradiction by locking themselves into import substitution (instead of, as formerly, into conspicuous consumption).

Import substitution - the decision to manufacture domestically what before had been imported (a major trend after the second world war) — is arguably self-defeating as a way to capitalist development. But the propriety of advising the capitalist class on how to "correct" the situation (even if this means replacing wholesale one gang of accumulators with another) is highly dubious at best. It is not necessary, as Leninists claim, for the working class to achieve its emancipation from capital, in the underdeveloped countries or anywhere else, by proceeding to place commodity production on a competitive footing through the foundation of so-called "proletarian republics" (state-capitalist regimes) as a supposed means of allowing productive capital to build up its base of profits by turning its investments to light industry. State capitalism is not a necessary step in third-world countries towards socialism but just another road to capitalism.
Ron Elbert

New Economics: old errors

From the Winter 1986-7 issue of the World Socialist

Alvin Toffler, in his latest book about the nature of the global crisis, opens up with a compelling metaphor:
What is happening is not like a hurricane that sweeps across the landscape, leaving the earth itself unchanged. It is more like the beginnings of an earthquake. For the subterranean structure on which all our economics are based is now, itself, shifting, cracking. In our efforts to prevent a major collapse, we are dealing with surface phenomena rather than focussing on the deep-structure where the really big changes are occurring (Previews and Premises, Pan Books, 1984, p.9).
While, as Victor Anderson points out, the "New Economics" represents a "field of debate rather than a settled doctrine" (New Ground, No.6), one can detect within it a unifying theme: the desire to break out of the suffocating grip of market forces, to situate real needs and values at the centre of social affairs. For this reason it has been dubbed the economics of "anti-economics".

For socialists, this undoubtedly holds promise. Indeed, at the extreme cutting edge of this movement one may obliquely glimpse a vision of the socialist alternative, an alternative so long obscured by the prolific undergrowth of reformist politics. If today the tension between life as we know it and life as we could make it, has never been so palpable, than the significance of the New Economics is precisely that it often unwittingly mirrors much of this tension. Its aspirations, its assumptions, are channeled to no small extent along grooves gouged out by the material forces that have now made socialism, a non-market society based on voluntary work and the free availability of goods, a real possibility.

HUMAN VALUES VERSUS MONEY VALUES
One aspect of this revolt against the blinkered tyranny of abstract economic laws is the belief that "non-economic values" should be allowed to play a greater role in the capitalist economy. As Harford Thomas has put it, there is an "urgent need for new economic indicators which will show a cost benefit balance of loss and gain not only in money terms but also in terms of human needs and human values" (Guardian, 8 May 1985).

The major force for change in this direction has been the growth in ecological awareness. Conventional accounting measures economic performance in terms of Gross National Product (GNP) according to which losses inflicted upon nature may actually count as additions to economic prosperity. The New Economics argues that as long as governments are guided by GNP in their efforts to promote economic prosperity, they will remain blind to the environmental consequences of economic growth - until, that is, those consequences reach the point where they rebound against them, forcing them to re-assess the parameters of their economic thinking. Once again, Harford Thomas:
Money economics is treated as sacrosanct but the rate of return on money is no measure of the worthiness of human endeavour. It is inappropriate as an indicator of personal or social wellbeing. We need a new financial ethos.
We need a new economic language to match new concepts. This would distinguish between "sustained recovery" and "sustainable development". New accounting systems would distinguish between self-defeating and sustainable growth (Guardian, 5 June 1985).
What this proposal amounts to is a translation of ecological factors into monetary values. In theory, this would mean that if a particular amenity such as a river were priced, the destruction of that amenity would entail a cost that would have to be borne by the offending firm to hopefully deter it from polluting. The cost of disposing of its pollutants in an ecologically acceptable manner would thus be "internalised". Perhaps as a consequence, the local fishing industry downstream might live to see another day and in so doing, continue to provide employment for the local population. In this event, the "sustainable development" of the area would have been secured. But in order for this to happen, goes the argument, it is essential that the relevant authority - central or local government - takes the necessary steps to ensure that firms conduct their business with due regard for the environment Left to their own devices, market forces are quite "unfit for (this) purpose" (Harford Thomas). In any case, some elements of the environment - like the oceans or the atmosphere - do not lend themselves to private ownership by individuals or firms. Thus a political authority of some sort is regarded as a vital key to policing the environment.

BUT CAPITALISM CANT BE HUMANISED
The trouble with this scenario, and even more so, that proposed by the advocates of "zero growth", is that it assumes that governments operate in a social vacuum, that they are in a position to consciously direct economic growth in line with some preconceived objective. In fact, economic growth is subject to those very economic laws, the consequences of which the Green movement attacks, that arise out of the nature of the present social system, that transcend firms, governments and even international bodies. Capitalism is a system that is inherently dynamic and geared to "growth". It is a system based upon the relentless accumulation of capital out of the surplus value produced by workers. Because it is an intrinsically competitive system, each enterprise must strive to maximise this surplus value in order to extract from it as much capital for the purpose of investment so that the enterprise can remain competitive - the only alternative is economic bankruptcy. The tendency of a competitive economy is to force upon its competing units the overriding need to pursue short-term gain. It is hardly surprising, then, that the total effect of their actions should amount to a general disregard for the long-term costs such actions entail.

Of course, economic growth does not proceed in a straight line; it is periodically interrupted by recessions. But this is not something for which governments can be held responsible any more than they can take the credit for the economic upswing that follows on the heels of every recession. Rather, it arises out of the anarchic nature of capitalist competition itself, resulting in an uneven growth between different industries leading to cutbacks which spiral uncontrollably into a general recession.

Governments do not control the capitalist economy - the opposite is the case - and those who want the government to direct the economy along ecologically sustainable lines overlook that firms, including government -owned firms (which are among the most conspicuous polluters of the environment), invest their capital only if they see the prospect of profit in doing this. Ironically, in an economic recession when that prospect diminishes, the pressure on firms to "externalise" their costs actually increases. It is no coincidence that at such a time, "acceptable" levels of pollution are less rigorously adhered to or are deliberately downgraded by government decree. Under these circumstances to expect governments to compel firms to internalise their costs is to ignore the essential nature of government as an institution which seeks to promote the interests of the capitalist class within its territorial bounds, upon which it depends for its revenue.

Despite Murray Bookchin's claim that "carried to its logical conclusion . . . the struggle for a more balanced environment is the struggle against commodity production" (Post Scarcity Anarchism p. 16). it is clear that the Green movement with talk of a "new financial ethos" and the like is still trapped within a money-bound mode of thinking. Spurning the sacrosanctity of "money economics" it nevertheless pays it due homage. Yet it cannot hope to make much headway while it fails to extend its ecological awareness of the environment into a more fundamental analysis of the economics of capitalism.

TOWARDS A SOCIETY OF MASS UNEMPLOYMENT?
If the New Economics sees the "environmental backlash" to be an external constraint upon capitalism, supposedly forcing it to redefine its priorities, then the primary internal constraint is seen as the impact of new technology on the level of employment, forcing a separation of work and income.

The basic premiss of this argument, as presented by Andre Gorz. is the view that the new technology is of a qualitatively different order to that of previous technologies:
New technologies are being developed which are both cheaper and more effective than the old ones, allowing for growing quantities of goods and services to be produced with shrinking quantities not only of labour but also of capital. Whereas in the past, additional investment made for a growing number of jobs, at present it abolishes more jobs than it generates (Guardian, I August 1985).
Moreover, argues Gorz, it is no longer possible to count on the service sector to compensate for the elimination of jobs in manufacturing industry. Here too, jobs are under threat as automation bites deeper holding out the prospect of a tapering off of service sector employment. As a net result, a "society of mass unemployment is coming into being before our eyes".

How in the face of this chronic mass unemployment on an ever-increasing scale can workers expect to support themselves beyond the diminishing opportunities afforded by waged employment? For Gorz. the answer is to sever the link between income and employment by providing everyone with a "social income" as of right - an idea that can be traced back to the "underconsumptionist" theories of Jacques Duboin before the war and others before him (see Socialist Standard, February 1980).



To some extent, a "social income" of a sort already exists in that many workers receive an income out of state funds in the form of welfare benefits, to supplement, or to substitute for the total lack of. an income from employment. This is not merely a politically expedient development carried through by the state, mindful of the social consequences of absolute destitution on a large scale and aware of the advantage of holding large sections of the working class within a relationship of dependance upon the crumbs it doles out. There is also an important element of economic expediency in this in that it makes for a working class sufficiently fit and able to run modern industry with the degree of efficiency it requires.

On the other hand, there arc also counteracting tendencies that inexorably work to restrict the size of the crumbs doled out. Above all there is the fact that such benefits, paid for out of taxation, represent a burden upon the national capitalist class, whose competitive standing in the world economy would be adversely affected were that burden to become too great. This is why at a time of economic recession welfare benefits tend to be squeezed.

For this reason one would think that the notion of a "social income" has at best a limited applicability. Yet Gorz insists that it is bound to become a much more significant aspect of capitalism - indeed, a precondition for its continued survival - with the consequence that the law of value regulating the distribution of income will bear little, if any, relation to the way capitalism will operate in the future. Since the rapidly shrinking amount of wages as a result of growing unemployment will lead to a severe contraction of the market, capitalism will be increasingly forced to provide workers with a social income to buoy up its markets. In a sense, says Gorz, capitalism will thereby negate itself:
We are going towards a society where commodities will buy people instead of people buying commodities. It's what I call "dead-living" capitalism - capitalism which is a living corpse. Capitalism which is already dead but keeps up the appearance of the wage relationship and commodity production (International, January-April 1984).
But is Gorz right in claiming that a "society of mass unemployment is coming into being before our eyes" as a result of new technology? Similar claims have been made in the past about other technologies. Generally speaking, such claims have proved unfounded, based as they were upon a grossly exaggerated view of the increase in productivity that could be achieved by the introduction of such technologies. In focussing attention upon the particular area of employment immediately affected, they failed to notice, or greatly underestimated, the repercussions this had for the wider picture of employment as a whole. In this respect, the claims made about new technology are no exception.

An an antidote to Gorz's conjectures, one can cite the conclusions reached in a major study recently published by Wassily Leontief and other researchers of the Institute of Economic Analysis of New York University. This study, called The Impacts of Automation on Employment 1963-2000, which relies on an input-output analysis of different sectors of the United States Economy, argues that new technology, far from precipitating  a fall in aggregate employment, is likely to result in a substantial increase:
Far from it being likely that machines will displace workers, it is more likely that there will not be enough workers to operate all the machines we will want Equally, the changing structure of the labour force will not be dominated by a decline in production workers who will probably increase their share of jobs. But there will be a dramatic fall in office workers and a rise in the number of professionals (Guardian, 7 February 1985).
How is it possible to have such vastly different predictions about the future? The answer is that both scenarios - those who foresee the "collapse of work" and those who imagine there will be abundance of jobs - take as their starting point what they believe is an existing trend and, differing markedly over their interpretation of this trend, are able to reach very different conclusions about what the future might hold.

But there is an inherent weakness in the procedure of extrapolating from an existing trend. It assumes the linear progression of that trend indefinitely into the future. As earlier pointed out, economic growth does not behave in this fashion. Unemployment, as a feature of capitalism, waxes and wanes in response to the capitalist business cycle of boom and slump. In every slump there have been prophets to predict that mass unemployment was here to stay. In every upturn that followed those prophecies were proved false as industrial growth eventually led to more workers being employed.

A DUAL ECONOMY: MARKET AND NON-MARKET
For the New Economics, the administration of a "social income" poses a particular problem. It could massively reinforce the power of the state, a prospect which it does not welcome. The way round this difficulty, suggests Gorz, is to create opportunities for the "autonomous production of use-values", that is, people using their free time to produce goods and services for their own consumption (what Toffler calls the "prosumer economy") rather than for sale on a market. What is interesting about this proposal is the way Gorz relates it to the socialist objective:
Today there is another technological revolution going on which can be compared in its significance to the industrial revolution and which holds out the possibility of the dream of the first socialists - the abolition of wage labour. In the Grundrisse, Marx opposed disposable time to labour time. And certain key parts of his work say that the measure of wealth is disposable free time. "Really rich" is a nation where you work six hours and not twelve hours... When people work two days a week, the essence of their life is no longer labour, it's no longer the wage relation, it's what they do with their free time (International, January-April 1984).



According to Gorz, the realisation of socialism is only possible through the spaces opened up within capitalism for the utilisation of free time for the purpose of autonomous production; the development of technology under capitalism has effectively short-circuited the possibility of socialism being achieved in the way classical Marxism envisaged. The division of labour, having evolved into a highly integrated system of mass production, does not lend itself to a "socialist rationality" with its emphasis on the "free development of each individual as goal and precondition of the free development of all" (Marx):
Technology is not neutral, it was developed precisely in order to destroy workers' power in the factory. You can win a certain amount of control overworking conditions, over the technical process of production on the shop floor. You cannot, as Marx thought in his early period, say that the working class will feel at one with a comprehensive social process of production. You have to compare the working class as it is now with an army. It is structured by capitalist management, like an army. It is subdivided by smaller units led by what Marx called the "officers and petty officers of production". Of course an army can take power. But as long as the technology of production remains the same, the division of labour remains the same, the subdivisions will remain the same and those who will take power will be the officers. It will not be the soldiers (International, January-April 1984). 
What is at issue, then, is a form of alienation inherent not only in capitalist relations of production, but in the socialisation of the process of production itself; in the workings of a complex machine-like society. The effects of this alienation can be attenuated, but never entirely eliminated. (Farewell to the Working Class, Pluto Press, 1982, p.9)
So for Gorz, there will always remain a residual area of what he calls "heteronomous activity" - that is, activity over which individuals have relatively little control, activity that is determined by the technical requirements of the production system. In other words, the opposite of autonomous or self-determined activity. For example, no individual or group of individuals can manufacture a complete washing machine. As Gorz points out, "because there are so many inter-dependant processes you need a country of five million people to make one washing machine". In that each of these processes is tightly honed into, and governed by the specifications laid down by, numerous other processes, there is very little room within which individuals can freely develop, can creatively identify with the product of their collective efforts.

It is worth relating this point to the recurring theme in Alvin Toffler's work that, as a result of the revolutionary impact of new technology, society's dependance on socialised mass production techniques is now diminishing. According to Toffler, the trend towards a de-massified economy signals the end of a centuries old process of "market building". This marketisation of the economy went hand in hand with the socialisation of production itself based upon an ever more complex division of labour. The more elaborate this division of labour, the greater the split between producers and consumers, between production and consumption. This led as a direct result to the market playing an increasingly important role of mediating between the needs of producers and consumers (including, of course, the consumers of producer goods such as machinery). Now that the divorce between producers and consumers is narrowing - as shown by the growth of the "prosumer" economy - so the role of the market itself is corresponding contracting.

Gorz himself appears to endorse this view of the market as inextricably bound up with the development of socialised production. But whereas for Toffler the necessity for the market lies in the fact that it provides an indispensable mechanism to facilitate the flow of information linking producers and consumers (a quite mistaken view, as it happens, since it is entirely feasible to convey such information purely in terms of physical quantities by means of a self-regulating system of stock control), for Gorz market relations will remain an inevitable feature of a socialised system of production by virtue of the alienating experience of work within such a system which necessitates the retention of labour power in its coercive, commodity form. Like Toffler, he sees the decline of market relationships in relative terms as being connected with the growth in autonomous production:
The liberation of individuals and society, together with the regression of wage labour and commodity-based relationships, requires the domination of autonomous over heteronomous activity (Farewell to the Working Class p. 10).
Thus, instead of what the Communist Manifesto described as a "radical rupture with traditional property relationships", Gorz envisages the emergence of a socialist society in terms of a process of change analogous to the way capitalistic relationships developed within, and ultimately gained ascendancy over, feudalism. As he puts it:
The outlines of a society based on the free use of time are only beginning to appear in the interstices of, and in opposition to, the present social order (p.3).
However, this analogy only holds good up to a point Whereas capitalism supplanted feudal society, Gorz does not foresee the growth of self-determined, autonomous production leading to the elimination of externally-imposed, heteronomous activity. On the contrary, he asserts that that very growth will depend crucially on the goods and services provided by the latter. For example, advanced technology like computers which could be used for autonomous purposes depends crucially on research and development which can only be effectively carried out on a socialised basis. Generally speaking, local communities or groups lack the means to undertake such work, but the large-scale production of such technologies at low cost puts them within a price range that the latter can afford.

Thus, what Gorz is arguing for is what he calls a "Dual Society" with the emphasis on enlarging the sphere of autonomous production by making the sphere of non-autonomous, wage-based production as productive as possible through widespread automation, with workers moving continuously to and fro between these two spheres. He relates this scenario to Marx's reference in Capital Vol III to the "realm of freedom" and the "realm of necessity". The latter cannot be merged with the former and the former can "blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis" having "the shortening of the working day as its basic prerequisite" - a prerequisite which Gorz would contend has now been met with the aid of new technology.

SOCIALISM AND WORK
Let us now examine Gorz's claim that the nature of "socialised" or mass production techniques makes for the retention of wage labour (however marginalised it may become as a result of the growth in autonomous production) because of the "alien" technical requirements imposed upon the workforce. Put simply what this suggests is that, in any sort of society that makes use of such techniques, there would be certain types of work that would still have to be done but which could not be made intrinsically enjoyable or satisfying, regardless of the extent to which such a society sought to attenuate "the effects of this alienation", and that therefore people would have to be offered monetary incentives - a wage - to undertake them.

Quite apart from the absurdity of imagining that money could be an incentive - could have any sense even - in a society where goods and services would be freely available, there are several reasons for supposing that such work would not present the insurmountable difficulty it would appear to in a society based upon the purely voluntary efforts of its members.

Firstly, there is the fact that having established socialism people would not wish to jeopardise what they had consciously achieved. In so far as such work was seen to be a vitally necessary contribution to the material security of a socialist society it would be carried out. Gorz's claim that "socialist morality - with its injunction that each individual be completely committed to his or her work and equate it with personal fulfilment - is oppressive and totalitarian at root" and that it is "a morality of accumulation which mirrors the morality of the bourgeoise in the heroic age of capitalism" (Farewell to the Working Class p. 10) completely misses the point To describe as totalitarian what (for want of a better term) is a self-imposed sense of duty, a desire to cooperate out of a sense of enlightened self-interest to carry out the more routine humdrum tasks of a socialist society, is to strain the use of language beyond all reasonable bounds. Oppression presupposes the division of society into oppressors and oppressed. In a socialist society where all have free and equal access to the wealth produced by that society there can be no leverage that one could apply in order to oppress others.

Secondly, it is quite mistaken to argue that the only source of satisfaction in work derives from the intrinsic nature of the work itself. Another source of satisfaction is the social esteem that attaches to such work. In a socialist society, where the products of work are made freely available to all, status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be rendered meaningless: the only possible basis of social esteem would therefore be one's contribution to society. This being the case, it would seem likely that the less intrinsically satisfying a particular task is held to be, the greater would tend to be the social esteem that attaches to such a task.

Finally, one has to question whether the externally-imposed nature of some aspects of work today would in any meaningful sense persist in a society based upon voluntary effort. It is true, of course, that having volunteered to work for a certain length of time in some process such as the mass production of washing machines (to use Gorz's example) one would have to submit up to a point to the technical requirements this involves. But the point is that one would have consciously chosen to do this. In this sense one's activity is of an autonomous or self-determined nature however little one is able to individually influence or alter the technical process of production itself.
Robin Cox

Hard Times

An excerpt from Robert Barltrop's The Monument: Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (1975) 

I first knew the SPGB when I was a boy, in old Knight's boot-repair shop. My father stabled his carthorse in the yard next to the shop; when he went in to pay the rent he always lingered to listen to the talk, fascinated by the erudition and vehemence of the men who seemed to stand there all their lives. His admiration for them was so obvious that when in my teens I was drawn to their revolutionary creed I assumed it would give him pleasure. Instead, he was angry and fearful for my welfare: those men would not go to work, he said.

The charge was half just, half unjust. If it had been made directly to Crease, Allsopp and the others who thumped endlessly on old Knight's counter with their fists, they would have replied at once that there was no work to be had. This was in the depressed age between the wars; a million men were desperate for work, walked the months and years away for work, grovelled for work. The hopeless crowds at the Labour Exchange were as much part of the life of our town as the street market or the rackety silent picture palaces. There were beggars, barrel-organ players, kerb singers and pavement artists wherever one went, half of them war-maimed and with placards which said: 'No Pension, No Work.'

There was no doubt, on the other hand, that these same conditions had produced a small class of men unprepared to make the show of seeking work that self-respect demanded. The revolutionary socialists cared little for respectability, or for the difference between outdoor relief and the meagre wages a desperate search might bring. A man a family might get thirty-five shillings a week from the Board of Guardians when a labourer's wage was not much more. And if he were thoroughly contemptuous of the system and its authority, the Guardians and the Labour Exchange might be swindled out of more — except that it was no swindle, but mere partial restitution.

The shifts and subterfuges born of those circumstances and that frame of mind were remarkable. It might be unwise even now to explain the flaw in the system of franking unemployed men's cards that was first discovered by a supremely scientific socialist. It became common knowledge in the SPGB, and the knowledge meant simply that anyone bold enough could  draw dole from two Labour Exchanges instead of one. Indeed, it could have been drawn from twenty a week by the same procedure, but the limitation was that 'signing-on' times were too nearly universal to give much time for travel.

James did this for a long time. A severe-looking man who always wore a stiff white collar and dark clothes, he was a passionate revolutionary to whom work meant self-abasement before the capitalist class. He had come to the neighbourhood from another district, where he had lately bought a quantity of furniture on hire-purchase and immediately sold it (a relatively easy practice for a respectably-dressed man then, when hire-purchase was less efficiently organized then it has become). He and another socialist would draw their dole at half-past ten each Friday, and rush for a tram to be in the next town and present their cards again at eleven. James's enthusiasm for the scheme knew no bound; he was for hiring a taxi to a third Exchange, but the other man thought it tempting Providence too far.

The Public Assistance system was squeezed for all the small allowances and extras it gave. Once a relieving officer said to James: 'Your wife is claimed to be an invalid, but I see her regularly in the queue for the fivepennies at the cinema'; and James replied indignantly 'You are a liar, sir — my wife pays never less than eightpence.' Many of the out-of-pocket expenses of living were passed by, too. No-one paid fares; everyone knew the geography of all the railway stations, and a member who was a tram-conductor let his comrades know his time-table to provide a free service up and down East London. If a likely windfall appeared, members wrote letters of recommendation for one another, signing them with the names of bishops, lords and well-known public men.

To see all this as either reprehensible or comic would be to miss the bitter taste of the time. There was little conscious drollery about it all. Some of the revolutionists were unemployable through their perversity, their arrogance against all authority; but the whole vast army of unemployed was unemployable through the chronic depression of the capitalist system. The frauds, tricks and perjuries were the only alternative to acquiescence — the fight was an unfair one anyway. Moreover, every issue of the Socialist Standard quoted instances culled from newspapers of the cynicism of the rich and powerful. There were always reports of luxurious dinners and conspicuously wasteful parties in 'society', and always speeches by incredible public figures who thought the poor deserved no pity. If the upper class had no conscience, how could the unemployed afford one?

This was the temper of the men who used to stand in old Knight's shop. Knight himself was a former member of the SLP; a revolutionary, but at variance with the SPGB over the subject of industrial unionism. He was an impressive man, with a great white moustache and a voice like thunder. He did little work in the shop — most men in those hard times mended their own and their families' boots — but lived mainly on the rents of the stables. His passion was for philosophy; he refused to mend the boots of a local schoolmaster because the master said he had never heard of Socrates.

The talk, the marvellous talk that flowed unceasingly in that dingy little shop! There seemed nothing those men did not know, no book or theory they could not quote and criticize. Nor is this merely an illusion preserved from boyhood. Groups of this kind were the real equivalent, in the hungry years in Britain, of the American socialist circles which Jack London described in Martin Eden. But whereas London's contentious oracles, pictured from his associates in San Francisco, were Bohemians touched by travel and aesthetic experience, these socialist talkers were down-at-heel working men whose knowledge rarely came from any other source than a lifetime of self-instruction.

The exception, and the dominant figure in the little group, was Arthur Crease. A man of sixty, he had been well-to-do; he had been an actor, and was said to be an accomplished musician. He would never tell the reason for his fall in fortune, except in vague phrases about 'bad times'; but his family blamed his socialism, and it was more than likely. He sometimes came to our house for an evening, and would fascinate us with music and Shakespeare as well as with savage commentary on the capitalist system.

Crease had joined the SPGB in its early days, left in one of the controversies, and became one of the band of perpetual supporters who were scarcely distinguishable from members. Often, though it was strictly forbidden by the SPGB's rules, he took the platform at street-corner meetings for the local members. His power of rhetoric alone was enough to command respect, and — though most of them understood probably not a word of it — his audiences would stand spellbound as he quoted pages of Marx, Spencer, Darwin, Nietszche, Morris and, it seemed, everybody else. On the other hand, he loved to be in the crowd at a Communist or Labour meeting and roar ridicule at the speaker.

The Party itself was in low water in the nineteen-twenties. The Russian revolution ad excited radicals as nothing before, and the angry discontent of the post-war years found its outlet in the belief that here at last were a signal and a hope for the oppressed working people of the world. Thus, the energy of those who wanted sweeping change now went into the building of the  Communist Party and its offshoots. The members of the British Socialist Party — the SDF had changed its name in 1911 — and the SLP, who in disillusionment might have been ready to listen to the SPGB, became Communists instead. And, at the same time, those who sought change in more moderate terms saw the Labour Party, emergent as a new power in 1918, as the means to eventual economic and social sanity.