Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Russian ruling class (1971)

Book Review from the April 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Qui Gouverne à Moscou? By Florence and Ivan Brulé. Dunod Actualité.

This short book —Who Governs in Moscow? — covers much the same ground as our own pamphlet on Russia since 1917, and in not many more words. With one very important exception (the authors say that the Bolshevik seizure of power was originally a socialist revolution, a myth many times exposed in these columns), it gives an explanation similar to ours of the failure of Bolsheviks to establish Socialism.

"Socialism", the authors point out, "is a mode of production which allows everybody to receive according to his needs. Its establishment presupposes abundance". Scarcity, however, reigned in 1917 in technically and economically backward Russia. The immediate need to feed the population and then to develop modern industry meant a division into classes, one controlling the means of production and the other selling its ability to work — a situation Marx defined as characterising capitalist relations of production. The Russian ruling class is "a collective capitalist, a capitalist class which has a firm grip on the means of production as against those who do not". It controls production and its objectives; it imposes the condition of work and fixes the level of wages.

The absence of a legal right to property as in the West should delude no one, says the authors. For property is not "a relation between person and object, but the fact that one man disposes of the object while another does not:. Property, in other words, is not a relation between men and things, but a social relation.

The book also contains useful information on the privileges and composition of the ruling class, the role of the peasantry, the oppression of the working class, unemployment, discrimination against minority peoples and the lack of freedom of expression in Russia. It should provide a useful exposure of the myth of "socialist Russia" for workers in the French-speaking parts of the world.
Adam Buick

The Changing Temper of the Workers (1947)

From the March 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

The industrial attitude of the workers since the Labour Government came to power strongly suggests a solid advance in appreciation of their wage-slave position; the stubbornness with which they advance their claims for better conditions, in spite of the appeals to desist from the leaders they placed in office, is an indication of growing class consciousness.

Immediately after the first world war the workers were also refractory, expressing their dissatisfaction with the leaders they had appointed and paid to work for them, in movements such as the Rank and File Movement. At that time the leaders were also appealing for a work speed-up and a shelving of wage claims and the like. But at least at that time the leaders formed part of the Government Opposition and had not the backing of the majority of the workers for the schemes they claimed would remedy the evils of the time.

How different is the position now! Less than two years ago the Labour Party obtained power by a sweeping majority, with a wagon load of nonsensical promises, but a mandate only to carry out their pettifogging schemes. In power they set about governing in the time dishonoured way, by jettisoning their promises and beseeching their supporters to got to sleep, hungry and homeless, whilst they prepared their five-year, ten-year, and fifty-year plans to make Capitalism run with the minimum of creak in the machinery. The revolutionary firebrands, Shinwell, Strachey, and others were metamorphosed by the tenure of Cabinet posts into the humble and contrite supplicants for the abandonment of industrial strife and the campaign for more hard work; whining for time to accommodate the lion and the lamb in peaceful and comfortable proximity. But the lamb has acquired a pleasant rumbling voice, powerful limbs, and a threatening attitude that is disconcerting to the advocates of submission. How far the lamb will go with his roaring and rending remains to be seen, and although we know he will not go as far as he could and should, at least he is making promising progress.

We are assured that the Government is deeply concerned with the interest of the community, but we notice that the Coal Crisis, which has brought suffering to thousands of workers, did not prevent the waste of fuel and labour involved in the Royal journey to South Africa for the customary soothing syrup tour, and members of the Government were able to tear themselves from their vital labours in order to attend the send-off. Talk of old Nero fiddling while Rome was burning, the Government were bowing and scraping and wasting fuel while London was freezing! Everything was arranged just as well as any other capitalist government would have arranged it; ships wasting tons of fuel, sightseers wasting vital traffic, and representatives of "Labour" wasting their time, though the latter is really nothing to shed tears over as they waste it anyway.

Right from the commencement of the Labour Government the workers have shown a determination to resist the attack upon wages and conditions that is very heartening in these dull times. We are particularly impressed with the steadfastness with which they have pursued a strike policy, striking again and again, in spite of the privations their actions have brought upon their families and their fellows, and with a total disregard of the solemn warnings about the imminent collapse of this rotten capitalist world.

One thing further may be said. The workers are receiving a salutary lesson in the futility of Labour politics which should go far to weaken their faith in programmes to reform Capitalism and in the parties that support these programmes. Maybe the time is not far distant when the workers will realise that is the Capitalist basis of society from which alone spring the evils that afflict them. From that point it will be a short step to the knowledge that their only hope of salvation lies in the establishment of Socialism.

Obituary - Peter Furey 1913-1997 (1997)

Obituary from the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is with profound regret that the World Socialist Party (New Zealand) inform members and supporters of the passing of Peter Furey.

Peter was one of the longest serving members. Joining the party in 1945, he was one of the nicest and genuine of persons I ever met. If ever there was a "misnomer", it was in Peter's surname, for I am sure a more gentler and honest person never lived. In world war 2 Peter was an objector going to what he referred to as the concentration camp at Ohakune, a very bleak and cold place in winter. Peter never said much about his sufferings behind the wire, and later on in Auckland's dungeon Mount Eden prison, but he referred me to a book in the library, and my heart went out to those brave men and women who refuse to bear arms against fellow workers who they have never met. Some of the things they did to them—for instance, deliberately turning off the hot water when they returned covered in mud from the fields after drain laying, road making, forestry work etc. One fiendish trick they tried was to take all the bedding and blankets  from the single person tiny huts, but placing the King's uniform with warm flannel underwear, greatcoat, etc. on a chair. However not one of them cracked. Not only Socialists but Quakers, Pacifists and other religious people offered this. After the war they were not allowed to vote for ten years. So much for their much the ruling class's rhetoric about democracy! Peter lived in Australian for a while where he taught Marxian economics at Victoria Labour College.

Socialists and supporters of the Auckland branch farewelled Peter in what I feel sure a ceremony he would have liked. The service was performed by a member of the NZ Society of Rationalist's and humanists. How refreshingly different from the usual claptrap spouted by the clergy. At the funeral parlour we sang "Imagine" very fervently and just as fervently at the grave, as Peter was laid to rest we sang the "Red Flag". Farewell Peter and one last thing (with tongue in cheek of course). If there is a Heaven, well it won't be contaminated with the capitalist class—for have not the bead-and-cassock brigade bashed our ears constantly about the camel and the eye of a needle!
Jim Ryder

Punishing the Poor (2015)

From the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is a common feature of capitalism that those at or near the bottom of the social pyramid are attacked in specific ways by the state and its agencies. In many cases these are the people who are easiest to scapegoat and who find it hardest to resist. And such attacks often happen when capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Here we look at some historical and current examples.
Since the early seventeenth century there had been some state provision, including workhouses, for looking after the poor. Under the Speenhamland system, low wages were in effect subsidised out of the poor rate. The New Poor Law of 1834 was intended to reduce the expenditure on the relief of the poorest, which had increased enormously after the spread of enclosures and the growth in the number of the destitute. It required all recipients of ‘relief’ to enter the workhouse, which was deliberately made an extremely unappealing place to live. Families were separated, food was basic, and able-bodied men had to perform hard physical labour. Thomas Carlyle said the message was in effect that ‘whosoever will not work ought not to live’. The dread of the workhouse, in periods of unemployment, illness or old age, was for many years pervasive among working people. Workhouses were officially abolished only in 1930, on grounds of their expense.
The Depression of the early 1930s, with its drastic rise in joblessness and the consequent increased expense of unemployment pay-outs, saw massive attacks on the living standards of unemployed workers. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was explicit that unemployment benefit was not, and was not intended to be, a living wage, so the government had no compunction in cutting it. In November 1931 the benefit rate for an adult man was cut from the pre-decimal equivalent of 85p to 76p a week, for instance, and married women were generally excluded from unemployment benefit if they had not worked a specific number of weeks after getting married, no matter how long they had worked before marriage. These cuts were only reversed in 1934.
But above all it was the means test that constituted a vicious attack on the living standards of the unemployed. Under this people could have their benefits reduced or withheld if they had some savings or their household had some other income. So someone could find their benefits cut if they had a son who was employed, or if their mother lived with them and drew a war widow’s pension. The impact of all this varied from place to place: in Lancashire, for example, one-third of the unemployed had their benefits stopped completely. Some local bodies did try to alleviate the worst effects of the cuts, though. It was not just the financial impact of the means test that workers objected to, but also the intrusive and insensitive investigation into their family situation and finances.
The recent recession and consequent austerity measures have led to similar onslaughts on many of the poorest. One clear example is the notorious ‘bedroom tax’, as opponents have named what is officially called the under-occupancy penalty. People have their housing benefit cut if they are deemed to have ‘too many’ bedrooms. It has saved the government some money but, because of the lack of availability of one-bedroom flats in social housing, has largely failed to free up ‘under-occupied’ properties. Many of those penalised in this way are disabled, and in general this vindictive piece of legislation leads to poor health: people are forced to eat less in order to save money, and stress is caused by struggling to meet bills or having to move. One tenant had, after essentials, just £6 a week for food and travel; he then lost £15 a week because of the bedroom tax (Guardian online, 16 March).
More generally, reducing the amount paid out in benefits is a government priority, often coupled with offloading this dirty work to companies who make a profit from it. Atos, for instance, went to great lengths to cut the numbers on disability benefit by declaring people fit for work, even in some cases if they were severely paralysed. Even when some of the more absurd rulings were overturned on appeal, claimants had by then gone through longish periods of stress and destitution. In one case, a man who was half-blind and partially paralysed after a stroke died the day after being found fit for work and told that his benefits would be stopped (Owen Jones: The Establishment). There are plenty of other horror stories along such lines.
A4e is a company that treats job-seekers as just another means for their own profit, sending them on useless ‘courses’ and offering no real assistance in finding work at all. The Mandatory Work Activity programme forces the unemployed into unpaid work, and does not improve their chances of getting a ‘proper’ job. Just turning up late can lead to losing benefit and having to resort to foodbanks. All this is very similar to the workfare system introduced in the US in 1996, which forced people to work unpaid in return for benefits. Unpaid work undermines the wages and job security of existing staff, while of course increasing the profits of the companies concerned.
The prison population in Britain has almost doubled since 1993, and it is the poorest who are subject to the worst police harassment and the threat of jail. These developments though, have been even worse in the US. Earlier this year the Washington-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Studies published a report The Poor Get Prison, which looks at the ways poverty has been effectively criminalised there.
Debtors’ prisons were officially abolished in the US in 1833, but a very similar procedure still exists. For instance, people are often fined for low-level offences such as traffic violations; but if they cannot pay the whole of the fine, they may be imprisoned. If you are arrested but not convicted, you may have to pay to have your arrest record cleared when you apply for a new job. If you are put on probation, you may – depending on which state you live in – be charged for services provided by a private probation company (such as $12 a day for an alcohol-monitoring device); and if you can’t pay, you face prison. An estimated 600,000 people in the US are homeless on any given night, and they can be arrested for crimes such as public sleeping or begging. It is the poorest section of the population who are punished by fines or imprisonment for trivial misdemeanours, while those who are rather better-off get away with it.
From the Poor Law to the means test to the bedroom tax, capitalism has saved some of its most savage onslaughts for the most vulnerable, those who are hardly in a position to produce profits and so are little more than a drain on resources.
Paul Bennett

We are The Socialist Party (2015)

From the Socialist Courier Blog

The Socialist Party purpose is straightforward, and we do not hide it. We want to re-establish the genuine meaning of socialism. The socialist movement is a project for revolutionary change. Socialists want to overthrow today’s society based on exploitation, and build a new world where ordinary people have control over their lives and communities. The agent for this change is the working people themselves. Socialists seek to empower working people to change the world while trade unions are organisations for working people to defend their interests. An overlap of purpose is obvious. Capitalism is a system that serves to exploit. This exploitation changes and develops over time. To challenge capitalist exploitation, it is important for trade unions to be in all sectors of the economy. When workers are organised they can exercise their collective power by going on strike or refusing to over-time or working-to-rule to combat low pay, long hours, or bad working conditions. Socialists support trade unions as organisation for workers to fight for their interests. Therefore, socialists do not support practices that undermine unions. However, socialists have a vision that looks much further than limiting the forms of exploitation that working people submit to and socialists strive for the overthrow of capitalism and building a new world based on co-operation and social ownership. Socialists support unions because we believe in the power of ordinary people. The role of a socialist in a union can be varied. Socialists will always try to be good unionists at their work, but this can take different paths, depending on a range of factors. Being a union radical can mean assisting with initiatives in the union and building organisation for the next fight with the boss. It could mean opposing a corrupt leadership and building rank and file networks to challenge an entrenched union bureaucracy. Sometimes socialists may work for unions to contribute to building the organisation as an official. But always, socialists union activists seek to build the capacity for the working class to fight against their oppression.

The “disappearing working class” thesis in unsupportable. It was fashionable in the past to say it had been “bought off”, become “middle class” etc. etc. but hasn’t this recession exposed that myth. What is disappearing is the false idea that those in the middle class are not actually members of the working class.  It's true that waged industrial manual workers has shrunk in size and significance but you don't cease to be working class because you're serving burgers in a McDonalds rather than a factory worker. “Working class” denotes a position within the social relations of production. Socialists see the working class as the agents of revolutionary change not because it suffers a lot (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't), but because it's so placed within the capitalist system as to be feasibly capable of taking over. Who else but the men and women who create the system, whose livelihood depends on it, who are capable of running it justly and collectively, and who would most benefit from such a change, should take it over?

The central place of wage workers in the productive process gives them the social power to overthrow capitalism. No other social class or group has the power to achieve this. Because the system of private property is the source of its oppression, the working class can liberate itself only by abolishing this system and replacing it with a system based on social ownership of the means of production. The working class re simultaneously at the root and source of the capitalist system and incapable of being wholly included within it. Only another of the contradictions of capitalism.

The point Marx made over and over again is that the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing. Worldwide the labour and socialist movements appear to have been in retreat for several decades. Yet it is a mistake to see the workers movement as merely that section of the working class organised within the trade unions or worse still the union leadership. The predominance of racist and sexist ideas, the whole-scale belief in religion, and other socially conservative ideas that seem to belie any possible revolutionary role for the working class. Despite the rout of the traditional working class organisations, the class struggle continues unabated.

If our vision of socialism is simply a slightly modified version of what exists, don't expect it to embraced. The market cannot coexist with socialism because socialism means that society owns and controls both the means of production and the goods which result from productive activity. For the market to exist, some sectional interest (an individual,  a joint-stock company, a nationalised concern, a workers' cooperative and so on) has to be in control of part of the social product, which it then disposes of by entering into exchange relations with others. Exchange cannot take place when society, and none other, controls the means of production and the social product. Far from socialism being compatible with exchange and the market, the generalised production of goods for exchange on the market is the hallmark of an entirely different type of society - capitalism. We are not saying that absence of the market is the sole defining feature of socialism. On the contrary, socialism is not merely a market-less society; it is also a stateless society, a classless society, a moneyless society, a wage-less society. The fact that social democrats, Leninists, Trotskyists and other supposed “socialists” or “communists” accept a role for the market, tells us that they represent forces for maintaining capitalism, not for achieving socialism. Haven't they all had their share of power, and haven't they all proved totally ineffective in ridding the world of the problems which capitalism continually recreates? Other contenders for the privileges which accompany the administration of capitalism such as the 'Greens' are waiting in the wings, and are having some success in turning themselves into mass movements because of the illusory attractiveness of their promises to reform the market system. Like previous attempts at reform, these latest efforts directed towards making the capitalist system function in a manner which gives priority to human interests are bound to fail. As long as the world market remains, human beings will be forced to dance to its tune. Market forces cannot be tamed; only eliminated. The very existence of humankind is now threatened by the rivalry and the fixation on profit which are inherent in the market system.

In the society envisaged by non-market socialists, the people of the world would own the global means of production in common and would operate them communally for the benefit of humankind as a whole. Socialism in one country, or even one part of the world, is impossible. Since capitalism today is a global society which encompasses all parts of the world, the socialist alternative to capitalism must be equally global in its scope. Socialism is as relevant to the plight of those who are starving in Africa and other parts of the world as it is to the inhabitants of London or Paris. It is true that non-market socialists have generally seen the wage workers of those advanced, industrialised areas of the world which act as the power-houses of international capitalism (Europe, North America and Japan) as the force which is likely to initiate the revolutionary change from world capitalism to world socialism. Yet the establishment of non-market socialism could not be accomplished without the active cooperation of the majority of the population in those parts of the world which capitalism has consigned to underdevelopment. In contrast to the hopelessness and destitution which afflict the majority of the people in backward countries under world capitalism, the prospect of dignity and sufficiency which world socialism would open up for them would be overwhelmingly attractive. It is also worth mentioning that several of the non-market socialist principles closely resemble the principles of social cooperation found among hunter-gatherers and other supposedly 'backward' people. People in their social position would take much less convincing of the desirability of non-market socialism than would many of those in 'advanced' countries who are currently steeped in the values and assumptions which capitalism encourages. Socialism would be a global solution to the global problems which have accompanied the rise of world capitalism.

If Socialism is worth struggling for, it is precisely because it will be based on the principle of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs". And capitalism, with its reliance on exchange, utterly fails to satisfy the real needs of the vast majority of the humanity. 

Liberty, Levelling and Lies (2015)

From the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Much of the story of the United States of America’s founding is a total lie. The War of Independence can be described as a civil war between the various forces within American society. The United States remained a society of disparities in wealth.
Income and wealth were as inequitably distributed in the United States in 1800 as in British America in 1776—this despite the confiscation of 2,200 loyalist estates and the opening up of the West to settlement. Europeans visiting the United States in the years following the War of Independence wrote of hovels from which emerged the impoverished and undernourished of the new republic. ‘Instead of the lands being equally divided, immense estates are held by a few individuals,’ observed a traveller in rural Virginia in the 1790s, ‘whilst the generality of the people are but in a state of mediocrity.’ The historian Robert Wiebe argues, ‘the Revolution actually strengthened gentry rule by channelling popular ferment toward the British and the American Tories’.
Marxists call the American Revolution a ‘capitalist’ revolution. This means that the revolution put the American capitalist class in power and accomplished many things that the capitalist class needed to have done. It unified the colonies, ended all of the restrictions on the growth of capitalism, set up a government that would protect capitalist property and so forth. But when we call this revolution a ‘capitalist revolution’ that does not mean that the capitalists themselves led this revolution, or even that a majority of the capitalist class supported it. As a matter of fact, the revolution was mainly made by other classes. It was even made against the will of the majority of the capitalist class of that day, the merchants.
In the 1770s and 80s, something revolutionary was stirring in the colonies. It was a people's movement for political democracy. In public meetings and town halls, ordinary citizens were gathering to discuss how to govern themselves. Town meetings, long an institution in New England, were taken out of the hands of the propertied voters by the general city population. Although there were only 1,500 people in Boston entitled by property qualifications to attend town meetings and vote, attendance reached two and three thousand, and in days of crisis, six or seven thousand.
In 1776 a conference in Pennsylvania proposed a new constitution with annual parliaments in which voting wasn’t qualified by property, nor was holding office, and a judiciary appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms, and removable at any time. Some radicals, such as Thomas Young, even pushed for a provision in the state constitution limiting how much property any one person could own. That, however, was narrowly defeated and removed by more conservative influences. It called to form a ‘new government … on the authority of the people alone’. Out of it emerged the most democratic constitution of the time, guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the vote for all male taxpayers resident for a year or more. There was no Governor, but there were annual elections for the House of Representatives and all bills were printed so people outside the immediate political process could consider them. It was viciously denounced by the wealthy as ‘a mobocracy of the most illiterate’.
It was this threat that lead James Madison, the fourth US president, to warn of the perils of democracy, saying too much of it would jeopardise the property of the landed aristocracy. ‘In England,’ he observed, ‘if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.’  Land would be redistributed to the landless, he cautioned. Without the rich exercising monopoly privileges over the commons, the masses would be less dependent on elites like them.
The first constitution of the United States (the Articles of Confederation) endured for 10 years, starting in 1778, before being circumvented.  In February 1787, the richest man in the United States, George Washington, proposed a convention in May in Philadelphia for the alleged purposes of revising the Articles of Confederation. In their place was proposed a new, second Constitution of the United States, which included a powerful federal government to rule over the state governments, a president for life (a king!), a senate appointed for life (peers!), an electoral college that elects the president and an appointed for life Supreme Court (Law Lords) with authority over the state courts. Because of opposition the terms of office were subsequently limited.
The Philadelphia Convention, widely heralded today as the birth of democracy, was essentially a coup against it. America was divided between the moneyed interests which supported the new federal government and popular dissent which objected to the loss of local power and the rising supremacy of the rich. The Anti-Federalists were overpowered by the media apparatus and political influence of the oligarchs, who convinced commercial interests, small landowners, farmers, merchants and artisans to side with them. What happened at Liberty Hall in 1787 was that the wealthy elites empowered themselves to regulate commerce to their own advantage, enshrining their rule under the empty rhetoric of liberty.
To praise the oppressors of the time as spokesmen for liberty is to forget actual real history and fall victim to propaganda of the ruling class ideology which camouflages plutocracy by creating the form and appearance of popular government yet under private control. Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were motivated by high-minded ideals ignore the fact that it was they themselves who repeatedly stated their intention to create a government strong enough to protect the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. They gave voice to the crassest class prejudices and at no time denied the fact that their concern was to thwart popular control and resist all tendencies toward class ‘levelling’.