Saturday, June 27, 2015

Capitalism - Labouring In Vain (2003)

Book Review from the June 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Krisis: Contributions To The Critique Of Commodity Society. (Chronos Publications, B.M. Chronos, London. WC1N, 3XX). 2002. 31 pages. £1.50p.

This pamphlet is a collection of essays from the German-based Krisis group, which has been developing its own take on Marx's critique of capitalism since the mid-1980s. Articles in various languages can be found at: www.krisis.org and may be of great interest to readers of the Socialist Standard.

In the essay Realists And Fundamentalists, Robert Kurz reminds us that:
“In 1992, the US economist Gary S. Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize for the theorem that even outside of the market, all human behaviour is aligned with cost-benefit viewpoints and can be mathematically depicted, even love” (P.15).
How have we come to a point where such unscientific and deeply alienated nonsense is given “intellectual” house-room; and what does this tell us about contemporary society? The answer of the authors of this pamphlet is one we would agree with: that this form of society (namely capitalism) is now historically bankrupt. But it is not dead, and in its ongoing, profit-hungry intrusion into every facet of human activity and experience it is dissolving everything, including human relationships, into something it calls “the economy”.

The big problem facing humanity, according to the Krisis group, is that capitalist society has effectively reduced all human activity to the category of “labour”. Or at least all activity that is “marketable”: that can be exploited to yield surplus value. However, with the technological productive powers humanity has produced under capitalism, much of this “labour” (what you and I have to do to make ends meet) is becoming more and more redundant. This creates a crisis for humanity, but only for so long as we continue to live in a society in which access to the means of subsistence is dependent on the sale of our minds and bodies to an employer for a wage. In a society based on a “to each according to their needs” basis, however, this abundance of productive power would be a positive benefit, freeing up human time and creativity in a way which may seem hard for us to imagine in these dark days.

A problem with this pamphlet is its acceptance of the bourgeois/leftist definition of “socialism” as a failed system of state planning. That said, Kurz is on our wavelength when he writes that the only way to stop the 21st-century turning into a bloodbath for humanity is to “formulate socialism anew and no longer in a state-run economic form. Only in this way is it possible that history will open itself again” (P.19).

The other big problem is Krisis's seeming rejection of class struggle, and of the working class as the agent for achieving the new society. They seem to see the class struggle as part of a process which has helped fetishise “labour”, and thus purely as an aspect of capitalist development, rather than the process which will transcend capitalism. We simply cannot accept this. We have to ask who, if not the working class as a conscious movement, is in a position to achieve the abolition of capitalism? If not the class struggle (which we all experience as part of the realities of our lives in a class society), then what process or motive force in the contradictory, conflict-ridden world of capitalism holds the seeds of humanity's emancipation? The authors seem to take a super-pessimist view of the working class, and it is perhaps this that causes them to dismiss our class as a revolutionary agent as much as any actual theory. In this they very much reflect the “death of the working class” spirit of the ideological age.

The workers, they argue, are largely enthusiastic participants in capitalism's fetishisation of wage labour:
“. . . in the crises of labour society, ordinary people (i.e. the subjects formed by capitalism) turn out to be the main obstacle for the abolishment of the prevailing fetish system. They do not want to stop working … The Titanic must not sink; the passengers want the music to keep playing” (P.5).
Oh, really?! We may prefer selling the best part of our days in return for a more or less crappy wage rather than exist on a pittance and see our dependents go without, but this hardly adds up to positive enthusiasm for wage slavery. Utter loathing of the “labour society” is familiar to anyone who has held down a job for any length of time. Even in countries like the UK, which were among the first to be colonised by the capitalist system, the state still has to go to extraordinary lengths to indoctrinate and discipline us into even a superficial acceptance of the capitalist “facts of life”. Alongside Work, School and Prison are still the other two parts of the bosses' holy trinity and always will be, as long as capitalism continues. True, working class resistance in itself is not going to be enough to change the world, as long as we don't consciously work for the revolutionary end of capitalism itself. But the fact that the working class has not at this point in time organised itself for this revolutionary end is no reason to reject “ordinary” people out of hand.

Where we do agree entirely is with the conclusion the Krisis group reaches about the only real solution to the barbarism humanity faces:
“The inescapable historical task is the negation of the negative mode of social reproduction itself, i.e. the liberation of the production of wealth from the restrictions of the modern commodity-producing system” (From article “Marx 2000” on).”
Or: wealth must be produced and distributed to meet our human needs, rather than to perpetuate an outdated capitalist mode of production which now offers nothing but misery and fear to the vast majority.
BM

PARTY NOTES AND NEWS (1942)

From the April 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

A report by the Propaganda Committee discloses the fact that 200 people attended the (small) Conway Hall on Sunday, February 22nd, to hear the debate between Com. Turner and Raj. Hansa on "Is Parliament the Way to Socialism?" We regret the inconvenience caused to the many persons who had to be turned away owing to a "packed house." Many friends and sympathisers have told us that the debate proved to be very instructive and stimulating, and this is borne out by the figures for the sales of literature, and the contribution to our funds resulting from this meeting. Just over £2 worth of pamphlets, etc., were sold, and the collection was nearly £4.

Addresses to other organisations have always been an important feature of the Party activity, and in this connection Com. F. W. Johnson has been appointed to put the case for Socialism to the Romford, Essex, branch of the Co-operative Party. In February, Com. Johnson addressed a meeting of the Chadwell Heath Co-op. Party, and the literature sales reveal that considerable interest was arouse in the Socialist Party's case. Negotiations are proceeding with a view to sending a speaker to address the Bristol branch of the Co-op Party.

Glasgow branch held another big meeting at the Central Halls, Glasgow, on Sunday evening, March 8th. Com. Higgins was the speaker, and reports indicate that the Branch's efforts to ensure a good attendance, literature sales, etc., were rewarded with success. Perhaps the high-light of Glasgow branch's activity during March was their annual dance, which took place at the New Astoria Ballroom, Sauchiehall Street, on March 12th. Over 750 friends and sympathisers enjoyed themselves at the dance.

Despite the very cold weather, the Sunday meetings in Hyde Park have been maintained, and have drawn remarkably large crowds. A number of midday meetings in the city had to be cancelled, but as weather conditions improve, more meetings will be held at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Tower Hill, etc.

Arrangements have been completed to hold a mass immediately after the Annual Conference in the Wigmore Hall. Members and sympathisers will have an opportunity of hearing two or three of the Party's speakers from the provinces as well as some of the familiar London speakers. The meeting commences at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 5th.

The Annual Re-union and Dance, which is to be held this coming Easter Saturday evening at 7 p.m. at the Lysbeth Hall (Beta Cafe), 65, Oxford Street, promises to be a very happy affair, and we wake this opportunity of extending a cordial invitation to friends and sympathisers to join us in this event.
H. G. Holt

TO THE NEW WOMEN VOTERS (1929)

From the May 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

All the newspapers are vying with each other in giving advice to the new women voters.

Each paper is gravely urging the newly-enfranchised to give their vote to the Party it happens to support. Judging by the Liberal, Labour and Tory Press the future prosperity and happiness of this generation and the next is to be settled finally at the forthcoming election.

We want to give some sound advice to the new women voters, and it is the same advice that we have given to all the workers, men and women alike.

We are not going to draw pretty posters of chubby babies, with touching headlines, or any other slushy, sentimental nonsense to tickle their fancy. We want to talk to women as responsible, intelligent people, with the ability to think and judge for themselves. Are you satisfied with conditions to-day? Can you read the newspapers without feeling keenly and bitterly the reports of continual hardships and sufferings endured by our class? Fellow feeling is strong in some of us, and when one reads of a thousand men fighting, yes, literally fighting, to get into a Town Hall where one hundred were to be chosen for a temporary job, and one thinks of nine hundred going wearily home to report no luck to their anxious families, then the chubby faced babies fade from the picture and stern realities take their place.

Think of all the suffering miners and their families without sufficient food or clothing, think of the broken-down aged men and women tramping from one workhouse to another; thrown out on the industrial scrap heap. Think of the one million maimed, many so hideous that they shock their own families, relics of the last war. Think also of those who, not actually wanting food, clothing and shelter, are starved in other ways, yet possessing talents they have no chance of using. Musicians, painters, artists and students of every conceivable subject, all held back by the lack of cash and opportunity to further their studies. Thousands die every year in the hospitals because the cures they need are too expensive. What about your own struggle to make ends meet?

Here now are stern realities, day to day happenings, and we ask you, what are you going to do about it? Not one of the Parties in Parliament can or will obtain the remedy for these ills. Why? Because the remedy lies in Socialism, and they are opposed to common ownership of the means and instruments for producing the necessities of life. Women have got to understand that political power must first be obtained by a Socialist working class, who then will reorganise society on Socialist principles. The workers will be in possession of the fields, factories and workshops, and production will be for use and not profit. Those fit will work, and working time will be adjusted to the needs of the population. All will be entitled to what they need, providing it can be produced, and at a glance one can see that the economic ills we are suffering from must of necessity disappear.

There is only one organisation in this country which is working for these ends, and that is the S.P.G.B. We do not say "vote for us and we will do it for you." We simply tell you, first understand Socialism and then send your representatives to Parliament to carry out your wishes. Knowing what you what, none could bamboozle you.

This is the advice we give to new women voters, and it is advice that we have given to the workers, both men and women consistently for twenty-five years.
May Otway

Irish Myths (1972)

Book Review from the January 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ireland Her Own, by T. A. Jackson, Lawrence and Wishart.

Those who believe in the myth that "the Irish people" for eight hundred years struggled for "national freedom" will find this book to their taste, but those who are looking for a more objective approach to Irish history will be disappointed.

T. A. Jackson, who wrote this book during the last world war (it was originally published in 1947) was a leading member of the British Communist Party but even Communists have been known to write better history books than this, jackson makes no attempt to relate in a convincing way the political history of Ireland with the changing interests of the various classes involved and at times his book degenerates into a mere chronicle of the Irish State's national heroes.

There are factual mistakes and omission. Today the word "Protestant: includes Presbyterians, Methodists and the like as well as the Church of Ireland. But when the Orange Order was set up in 1795 to defend the "Protestant Ascendancy" the word referred only to the then established Church of Ireland. "Dissenters" as the other non-Catholics were known did not join the Orange Order until well into the 19th century. To call it "the first Fascist body known in history" is quite meaningless.

In Irish nationalist mythology Cromwell and William of Orange figure as great imperialist villains. In fact both were compelled to conquer Ireland in order to prevent it being used as a base by those opposed to the parliamentary rule established by the English revolutions of 1649 and 1688. The Dissenters settled under Cromwell but not exclusively in parts of Ulster and remained until the middle of the 19th century the most radical section of the Irish population. They were in the forefront of Ireland's successful UDI of 1782 (which gave Ireland twenty years of Home Rule until the Act of Union of 1801) and supplied many of the leaders of the 1798 armed uprising. In fact the first two Irish Republican martyrs—Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett—were descendants of Cromwellian settlers.

The great problem of Irish history is: Why did this once radical group come to abandon its support for an independent and democratic Ireland and go over to supporting Union with Britain and abuses of democracy? The Home Rule issue is obviously the key, yet Jackson says nothing whatsoever about Belfast's fierce opposition to Gladstone's 1886 Home Rule Bill out of which emerged the "Protestant" political consciousness (and another set of myths, including forgetting that in 1690 King Billy's victory in the Battle of the Boyne was celebrated in Rome by Pontifical High Mass and the singing of the Te Deum) which survives to this day.

Nor does Jackson say much about "Ulster custom", which gave the tenant a property in the improvements he made to the land and which did not apply in the rest of Ireland, as the important factor encouraging the growth of capitalism in the North and its stagnation in the South in the 19th century.

Another interesting quotation in Irish history—the extent to which the tradition of physical force in politics was linked to the country's relative economic backwardness—is of course not even raised.

Jackson, incidentally, and Con Lehane to whom he dedicated this book were both founder-members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain or what Desmond Greaves in an introduction calls "the Left" group which broke away from the London Social Democratic Federation in 1904". Not that we are proud of their subsequent political careers, Jackson as a hack Stalinist writer and Lehane as (in Greaves words) "a lieutenant of Connolly', but we are not prepared to let Greaves get away with suppressing this fact.
Adam Buick

Obituary: George Dolphy (1981)

Obituary from the February 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

We were shocked to learn of the sudden death from cancer of Comrade George Dolphy in Jamaica; a sad end to a socialist campaigner not yet 60 years old. George met the SPGB during his stay in Birmingham in the late 1950s, when he attended the local Branch, and he returned home to Jamaica a convinced socialist. He formed a small group and produced the country's first socialist journal, The Socialist Review. The following is an extract from the preamble in the first issue:
It is our job to bring the socialist message here and let people realise there is an alternative to the present social system. The only barrier to Socialism now is the lack of socialist knowledge among the working class. We have accepted the challenge of this barrier. 
After publishing ten issues, the group dispersed for various reasons and George, on his own, brought out the last few issues. In his own words: "I shan't let this thing die." His letters were always full of interesting socialist comment on the local scene, and he wrote at greater length for the Socialist Standard on a couple of occasions.

He suffered personally from the violence engendered by high unemployment and social instability in Jamaica and experienced robberies and severe disruption to his life. In spite of these difficulties he worked to spread socialist understanding to the end of his days. His death is a sad loss to the socialist movement and we must hope that at least some of the seed he sowed during the last 20 years will bear fruit. We have news of socialists in Trinidad and Martinique; we wish them success, following in the footsteps of George Dolphy.
G R Russell

POCKET AND PRINCIPLE (1922)

From the February 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Beware of all other classes."—"No matter whom it shuts out, go through with, it—make them line up with the worker . . . or else shut the door on them" . . . "If a man is a member of the B.S.P., the S.P.G.B., the Herald League, the Salvation Army, the Anarchists, no matter what organisation or group, if his income is more than £5 weekly . . . he is not a member of your class." (E. T. Whitehead, the "Spur," June, 1920.)

Whitehead did not explain who were "all the other classes." He also did not attempt to support this weird idea of his by evidence, but palmed it off on poor old Marx. The sequel, however, is amusing.

Since those days Edgar appears to have prospered. He is now the employee of the Communist Party, that curious compound of the "B.S.P., the Herald League, the Salvation Army, " etc., etc. He has also passed the £5 line, which for him parts the sheep from the goats. "Change the manner of getting the living . . . from working to cadging . . . the ideas change at once." ("Spur," as above.)

Are Whitehead's words to be applied to himself, and is this the reason why our wartime pacifist is now a full-blooded Bolshevik?

The "Herald" completes the chapter. A New York report in the issue for 14th January, 1922, reads as follows:—

"Edgar T. Whitehead . . . . the representative of the Communist Party of Great Britain on the Workers' International Famine Relief Committee . . . . arrived as a first class passenger aboard the "Baltic." (Italics mine.)
R. Bird