Sunday, July 26, 2015

Democracy, ancient and modern (2013)

Book Review from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation, by Brian S. Roper. Pluto Press, 2013

It is ironic that, just at a time when the undemocratic nature of the SWP’s internal structure is being exposed to the public glare, an SWP sympathiser should bring out a book on democracy.

Roper’s basic thesis is that the Ancient World produced two different models of democracy – Athenian direct democracy and Roman representative democracy – and that bourgeois democracy conforms to the latter. Rome, even in its republican days, was always ruled by an oligarchy of patricians; the plebs only had a say through representatives, magistrates who were either rich plebs or patricians starting their political career.

To make his point, Roper examines the English, American and French revolutions and has no difficulty in demonstrating that their leaders rejected the concept of universal manhood suffrage; where they did accept a fairly wide franchise they imposed property qualifications on those who could be elected. Some of the New England towns practised direct democracy but the US constitution and that of its states practised what Thomas Hamilton called ‘representative democracy’, where the people were represented by those who had more property. The French republic had a similar constitution before it was overthrown by Napoleon.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw popular struggles in all capitalist countries to remove property qualifications and extend the franchise. It is a pity that Roper hardly goes into these, but those in Germany, Belgium and Russia gave rise to interesting discussions within the Marxist-oriented Social Democratic movement as to the tactics of the struggle and why it was important. He mentions Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Mass Strike but omits to mention that she was advocating this as a tactic in both Russia and Germany to obtain the vote and political democracy.

Marx himself supported the Chartist demand for a parliament elected by universal suffrage and with paid MPs and later campaigns to extend the vote to more workers. Roper does not discuss the extent to which this – where workers could in theory represent themselves – could still be called a ‘representative democracy’ in the sense Hamilton meant it but continues to use the term as if it was.

In the eulogy which Marx drafted for the First International on the Paris Commune of 1871 after its suppression, he offered a different model: a federation of municipalities elected by universal suffrage where these would send mandated delegates to a central assembly; in other words, a parliament which would only be indirectly elected. Whether this would be more democratic than a directly elected one remains a matter for debate.

Roper completely ignores Marx’s view that, under certain circumstances, the workers might be able to win control of political power via the ballot box, so turning universal suffrage from an instrument for duping people into an agent of emancipation.

According to Roper, ‘the experience of the Commune highlighted the need for a centralised revolutionary party to exercise leadership within the working class during the course of the revolution in order to ensure that capitalism and parliamentary democracy are successfully overthrown and replaced by socialist democracy.’

By ‘socialist democracy’ he means the system that was supposedly established in Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, based on ‘soviets’ (workers’ councils), in which the direct democracy of a workplace assembly would be the basic unit and which would elect delegates to wider decision-making bodies. Whilst it is true that directly elected parliaments have been hi-jacked by leadership-run parties dominated by MPs who refuse to consider themselves delegates, it is also true that the Russian soviets were taken over and manipulated by the vanguard party that the Bolsheviks were. They never did function as they were supposed to. What happened could even be used to reach the opposite conclusion to Roper’s on the Paris Commune: the dangers of the existence of a centralised party seeking to exercise leadership over the working class.

This is not a work of original research but to a large extent a rehash of the writings of SWP theorists such as Alex Callinicos and the late Chris Harman.
Adam Buick

Jack finds out about capitalism (1973)

From the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard


LABOUR PARTY APOLOGETICS (1948)

Book Review from the July 1948 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. John Parker's book, "Labour Marches On" (Penguin, 1s. 6d.) is a haven of peace after the exhausting thunder of its companion volume, Hogg's "Case For Conservatism." Mr. Parker writes quietly and modestly, and makes one think of him as a nice, modest man. After reading his book one realises that, in the matter of political understanding, he has plenty to be modest about.

Mr. Parker's case is that the Labour Party represents "the latest attempt of the forces of the Left to extend the rights of the common people against the forces of privilege which always tend to support the political Right." This, of course, means less than nothing, though it does seem a pity that in such a blaze of jargon the words "progressive" and "reactionary" have been left out. However, Mr. Parker goes on to inform us that two main strains went to the creation of the Labour Party: "the Socialist Idea" and the desire of the Trade Unions to secure representation in Parliament. Had he stuck to the latter in talking about the origins of the Labour Party, Mr. Parker would have been on fairly safe ground; as it is, he insists on the former, and thereby reveals that his "Socialist Idea" is as knock-kneed as most of the other ideas that march through "Labour Marches On."

"Socialism," says Mr. parker, "means the ownership or control of the main resources of the community on behalf of the community," but it turns out that all he means is nationalisation. Fortunately, we know that Socialism is nothing of the sort, and that the Parker definition is only a particularly juicy specimen from the bag of carrots that the Labour Party keeps for dangling before working-class noses. What Mr. Parker needs to be told is that capitalism, the system in which the whole community does not the means of production, does not become any more acceptable when it is dressed up in the terminology of the Left Book Club. The working class is concerned, not with the question of who administers wage-slavery, but with the existence of wage-slavery.

According to Mr. Parker, the whole conception of Socialism owes its existence almost entirely to those clever Fabian Society people. Mr. Parker is himself a Fabian, by the way. He tells us how it was the Fabian's hope to establish Socialism through the Liberal party, and how that hope was raised when many Fabians were adopted as Liberal candidates in the early 1900s. As the Liberal Party was, had always been, and is today an avowedly capitalist party, it would seem that the Fabians' "Socialism" was not altogether what it made itself out to be. Their hopes went awry, alas, because "Lloyd George did not become a Socialist"! There is a cursory mention of "the German refugee, Karl Marx," who merits no more than three lines because his writings "had far more effect upon Socialists outside this country." If Mr. Parker was not, like his fellow-Labourites, bound hand and foot by nationalism, he might not dismiss any Socialist as ineffective on such a ground.

There are the usual excuses for the failure of the two previous Labour Governments to produce the goods. Mr. Parker describes the period after 1918: "Most of the fine talk of 'Homes for Heroes' failed to materialise . . . profiteering was rampant . . . strikes and unemployment were soon the order of the day." Things are scarcely different in 1948. However, the Labour Party took advantage of these conditions and gained sufficient support for the first Labour Government to come to power in 1923. Of their short-lived reign, Mr. Parker says: "Labour was thus called on to take office for the first time without having anything like a majority for carrying out its specifically Socialist programme; in fact it was dependent for day to day support unpin the Liberal Party." This, of course, is the standard Labour excuse for that sorry episode. However, listen to another writer: ". . . this reason for the inability of the 1924 Labour Government to do anything tangible for the benefit of its supporters will not bear examination. The Liberal Party, which formed the necessary support of the Labour Government in the House of Commons, was anxious to press on with the extension of that system of social services which it had initiated." That was Mr. Strachey, that was. ("The Menace of Fascism").

Of the second Labour fiasco, Mr. Parker says the blame must be apportioned in part to the world economic slump and in part to ineffective leadership. Listen again to Mr. Strachey: "To their dismay, the Labour Ministers discovered that the real task of anyone who chose to administer the Government for British Capitalism was to apportion the sacrifices which the crisis was making necessary . . . And somehow or other it seemed inevitable that, under the existing economic system, by far the heaviest penalties should fall on the workers."

The remainder of "Labour Marches On" is the familiar hotch-potch of nationalisation, social security, promises of full employment and the like. We are concerned here principally with the historical case that Mr. Parker puts forward for supporting the Labour Party as a Socialist Party. As Strachey pointed out (in the days before he became a Labour Minister, of course) the previous Labour Governments failed for the precise reason that their object was not Socialism. Like the present Government, they discovered that capitalism can only be run in one way—against the interests of the working class. The Labour Party does not represent the desire of the workers for Socialism but, on the contrary, gains its support from their lack of political consciousness.

It is hardly necessary to say that the present Government will go the way of its predecessors. Socialism is not a promised land to which the working class will be guided by clear-sighted, high-minded leaders. When it comes, it will come through the action of the working class itself, without the need for leaders. Neither is Socialism the pet idea of Fabian intellectuals. There is only one "main strain" that leads to Socialism and that is the ever-worsening conditions of the present system. It might perhaps be said that in one way the Labour Party will contribute to the coming of Socialism, and that is by showing the working class than no amount of "planning" and no number of reforms can alter the basic facts of capitalism, and that the problems and paradoxes of that system will remain until it is abolished.
Robert Barltrop  




What's wrong with prostitution? (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Do you consider that prostitution would be a good job for your daughter? The pay can be good but the career prospects are poor. She'd meet lots of people, but the hours would be anti-social. There's a small risk of being murdered—but Popes, Princes and Presidents share the same occupational hazard so she'd be in good company. She would provide a valuable service breaking in the youngsters and catering for some peculiar personal preferences. There's plenty of variety in the job—unlike most of the usual jobs for women, like typing and shop assisting. No—you would not put your daughter on the streets because you see prostitution as sordid and shameful. As St. Paul wrote (Corinthians VII) "It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife  . . . for it is better to marry than to burn."

A prostitute is a living denial of the set of values carefully instilled in us from childhood. Sex is for making babies. "Daddy put a seed in mummy's tummy". How about that for a whole set of attitudes and prejudices neatly encapsulated? A caring parent explaining the facts of life often gets the reaction "You and daddy did that three times!" followed by "why don't you do it again and we can have a baby brother?" The caring parent—if she doesn't duck out of the responsibility at this stage—is faced some time later with trying to explain contraception, abortion, extra-marital sex, VD, prostitution, pornography and rape, and has to add a whole new dimension, which is necessarily negative, to the "making babies" bit.

Do you want your daughter to marry? We all want affection, companionship and sex. Our society's approved provision for these needs is marriage—a formal, legal, sacred union of one man with one woman for life. We are taught from childhood to seek happiness in one exclusive relationship, and when we go into this full of expectation and are disappointed, we feel ashamed rather than cheated. For this reason much of the pain, loneliness and frustration which is the reality of marriage to many people is covered up and denied. The prescribed "Happy ever after" package handed out by society is a lucky dip—often dreary but bearable, sometimes full of cruelty and pain, seldom fulfilling, and never completely satisfying.

In real life the handsome princes turn into toads—pathetic frustrated toads—some of them capable of extreme cruelty and violence. There are not, as is popularly imagined, all unemployed drunken labourers or immigrants with different marital practices than ours. A wife who is beaten by her "respectable, educated husband, is no less trapped in her three-bedroom semi than a West Indian wife, supposedly accepting her customary beatings in her one room slum. A battered wife hides her bruises and smothers her screams to avoid the embarrassment of revealing her failure. When, in desperation, she leaves, she can lose everything—even her children. If a wife leaves her husband to escape his cruelty, she discovers the Catch 22 situation of a system geared to protection of men's rights. She may have to put her children into "care" or leave them behind, and then fend for herself. Her husband's assault, if not actually tolerated by the legal system, can result in his being bound over, fined or put on probation, given a endless chances to undertake to reform even after years of perpetual violence. He may even given custody of their children.

Convention allows a man to treat a woman he "owns" as he pleases. This extends to women bought for his temporary use—the prostitute whose function is to provide sexual relief where a wife is unavailable or unwilling. Their very existence is an embarrassment to the system—pointing to its inadequacy, hanging out its dirty washing. They are regarded as less than human and expendable. Peter Sutcliffe butchered eight prostitutes, merely thrilling and titillating the readers of trashy papers. Only when he murdered an "innocent" victim were the news-reading public directed to be outraged.

Socialists are optimists. We insist that the mess that is human society to-day can be changed if we all decide to change it. We made it, no demented divine power ordered it from above, so we can think it out and get it right. We assert that all the problems which need resolving are part of the property society that began in a simple way 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution. This is too short a time for evolution by natural selection to have advanced at all. Before then, from the early hominids twelve million years ago to modern people (homo sapiens sapiens) 50,000 years ago, the human race was evolving genetically. The characteristics which made them successful, and which are part of our genetic code to-day, were the ability to organise into co-operating groups, dividing their labour to get sufficient for their groups, and deliberately sharing it out. It is probable that the females, being perpetually sexually receptive, helped to keep the protecting, hunting males in the group, making sex a vital aspect of social relationships them as now.

The human brain developed the capacity to react and respond to the complex demands of social organisation and co-operative hunting. There is no reason to suppose that a hunting animal has a single gene for aggression—implying a natural hostility even towards its own kind. Other co-operating hunters, like man's best friend in its wild state, direct their aggression only at their prey and are gentle towards all the members of their own group. Ten thousand years ago some of our own kind stopped wandering, settled and farmed, grew crops and herded animals. The notion of ownership and property began at this point with the need to build defences and keep out pilferers. The males, being larger and more mobile, did the protecting and the females became part of the property being protected, and thereby were reduced to the level of the ox and ass.

Consideration of our remote past has limited value—Socialists do not advocate a return to the simple life except for those who would like it. Learning from and building on others' experience is vitally necessary to our survival. We depend almost completely on other people's skills and knowledge, each of us contributes our little bit of effort and expertise to the joint endeavor. However, just as we are capable of learning and communicating, so we can analyse and criticise. We can probe to the root of the problems that beset us, below the network of daily irritations and frustrations until pattern of causation is discovered. The cause is ownership and control, property—the fence around the the settlement 10,000 years ago. A simple division between owners and "protected" exists today, but to no useful purpose. The owners have long since delegated even the protecting to workers and sit securely, fattened parasites, while we meekly teach our children that this is how life is and must inevitably be.

The suffering and abuse of women is inseparable the social system in which we live. Prostitution in, for example, Hulme in Manchester, is a product of the system that builds slums in the skies where vandalism and muggings , alcoholism and drug dependence are part of the tawdry and squalid lives of the poor. A girl who kept the favour of a violent father by accepting his advances, leaving home for the big city to find work in hotels drifted naturally into prostitution. Though she is offensive to "respectable" conforming people, she provides a service which is human and valuable to emotional misfits who use her.

The rest of us, pushing pens and pressing buttons in our pointless, meaningless jobs, perpetuate our frustration, which we carry home and take out on our tired, boring, penny-pinching partners. Women, like some other groups in the working class, have a double struggle—to improve their position in relation to men, and with all workers, to hold their position in the quicksand of the wages system. There is a difference of degree only between the housewife and the prostitute. Both are victims of the cockeyed algebra of the market system—the more personal the service, the less pay and status.

There is little value in diagnosis without a cure, but the cure has to come from awareness of the cause of the disease. It has to come through growing dissatisfaction, leading to questioning and consciousness. The worker, the wife, the prostitute, all innocent but jointly responsible for their continuing exploitation, must resist and rebel. The cure is far simpler than the disease. We will dismiss all manifestations of poverty and control—wages, money, law and state—take down all the fences and establish one world where all the human race will share the good things that we have learned to make. Freed from the dictates of the law and the confines of convention, relationships between men and women will find harmony. Marriage and prostitution will have no meaning when people may work together, live together, love together in any way they choose.
Chris Marsh

They called it peace (1985)

From the May 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

VE Day in Britain was a typically bright and sunny late spring day, cloaked in a certain air of unreality. It had been obvious for several weeks that Germany was collapsing and that the war in Europe was drawing to a close. Hitler was dead and it was just a matter of time before the end. Over the radio came a stream of announcements in German, accompanied by martial music, that were later revealed to be false messages put out to spread confusion in a Germany that was sinking into chaos. In fact the choice of day was bungled. It had been intended to announce the final surrender on 9 May—the day the surrender was to be ratified at a stage-managed ceremony in Berlin—but the news was leaked by an American reporter and so the Western powers celebrated a day earlier. 

People went through a repeat performance of 1918. Church bells were rung, floodlights were turned on, there was dancing in the streets and street parties, and the usual crowds outside Buckingham Palace. The mood was more realistic than in 1918. Just as in September 1939 there had been an absence of the hysteria of 1914, so in 1945 there were no wild expectations. People had at least learned enough to realise that this was not going to be a World Fit for Heroes and there was a complete absence of the Hang the Kaiser type of nonsense, the overwhelming feelings were of relief and concern about what lay ahead. After all, the first World War had only ended 27 years before, so people in early middle life could clearly remember what had followed it: a brief period of full employment and a slump that lasted, with fluctuations, until 1939. During all that time there were never less than a million unemployed, which served to keep down workers' wages, and even those who were children in the 1920s had vivid memories of the heroes of yesterday, often minus limbs, singing and playing for money in the streets. In 1945 prophesies were rife that there would be a couple of million unemployed, and war with Japan still had some time to run. 

Wartime censorship was still in operation and decisions which were to shape future events hidden from the public. People who had grown up with the concept of an "Empire on which the sun never sets" had no idea that in not much more than a generation only a few distant outposts would remain. And while Hamburg and Dresden were in the past, the dropping of the atom bomb was still to come: an event that would make total annihilation a possibility. But perhaps the most important unknown fact was the deterioration of the relationship with Russia. 

This latter was to present the authorities with one of their most difficult problems that of convincing people that those gallant, smiling heroic soldiers were in fact a menace to be feared. But they had had practice in such things in 1941, when they had to undo the propaganda efforts of the previous two years. From the signing of the Non-Aggression 'Pact with Germany just before the outbreak of war, through the invasion of eastern Poland and the attack on Finland, the Soviet Union was portrayed as a tyranny. The British Communist Party opposed the war and the Daily Worker was suppressed. When, in June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia, a complete change around took place. The propaganda machine was turned on full blast and for four years everything Russian became not only fashionable, but admirable. Russian faces looked down from hoardings and out from our news papers and magazines, Russian tunes poured from the radio, with dance-band singers trying to sound like Cossacks. while Russian films drew long queues to the box office. Russia was portrayed as a kind of democracy, different from the West but still a democracy. Joseph Stalin was really a kindly old chap who smoked a pipe and had a sense of humour. The purges and show trials were portrayed as being aimed solely at Nazi Fifth Columnists. The Daily Worker was restored and used the same strip cartoons that had opposed the war to support it. 

But on VE Day the public were blissfully unaware of this and Russian flags were carried with the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. The media—newspapers and magazines, radio and films—consciously sought to create a feeling that the war had blown away much that was stuffy and stale and that we were about to emerge into an exciting new world. This had started quite abruptly at the end of 1940 after the collapse of France and the beginning of the Blitz. With no introduction or build-up, just as if they had turned on a tap, the authorities started to talk about a new world. This was not the crude old stuff of the 1914-18 war, but much more subtle. Committees were set up and reports were issued covering every aspect of the economy. The most famous was the Beveridge Plan which, even from a capitalist point of view, hardly merited the claim to be "the hope of salvation for the future of the people of this country". However the propaganda machine pushed it until it became part of modern folklore. Planning Boards were set up for the development of town and country and to prevent the ugliness of pre-war urban sprawl. The bombing had laid bare large areas of the City of London and grandiose schemes were drawn up to lay these out with wide boulevards and open up a vista of St. Paul's from the Thames, with gardens and walks. But capitalism does not allow some of the most expensive land in the world to become flowerbeds. The result can be seen today in the City's forest of gigantic office blocks. 

Alongside this, throughout the war, every effort was made to encourage discussion and education as a morale booster, and to allay the boredom of the troops who during the build-up to D Day had been kept in comparative inaction. Radio programmes like the Brains Trust and the lunch-time concerts in an empty National Gallery were part of this, as was the effort of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, who sent out fortnightly pamphlets to Army units for discussion. One result of this was to produce a swing to the Left in political thinking, which helped to produce the Labour victory at the 1945 General Election. 

During the war a political truce had prevailed and government was by coalition, on VE Day the truce was still intact but behind the scenes it was breaking up. Party leaders began to make veiled political speeches and after VE Day a General Election was called. This took place on 5 July but the count was delayed until 25 July to allow time for postal votes from the Armed Forces to come in. It was a quiet affair conducted on an out-of-date register and it resulted in a sweeping Labour victory. This was greeted by exaggerated hopes and fears. The Left saw it as the beginning of socialism which would sweep away the problems of the world, while some of the sillier Tories feared that they would be dispossessed, or at least lose their savings. Neither fears nor hopes were justified as all the Labour government could do was to run the country in the interest of the British capitalist class. Not that they had the slightest intention of doing anything else.


The Conservative Party were badly shaken by their defeat. For twenty years they had had things their own way; they had undoubtedly lost touch with grassroots feelings and their organisation had become obsolete. After a period of sulking because the electorate had had the cheek to throw them out, they began a steady climb back. They did what they would have shunned before the war and went out on to the streets. We were treated to the sight of top Tories slumming and ex-Cabinet Ministers were prepared to debate with anybody. They even found a few Tory working men who could be relied on to drop their aitches at the right place and address Tory women delegates in flowered hats as "mate". They went over big with the well-heeled delegates at the annual conference. Once they began to pick up again, the Tories dropped all this kind of stuff.

The Labour government began with a massive programme of nationalisation, which they called socialism, and found it difficult to get the British economy going again after the war. They gradually became more and more unpopular. Fascism had been discredited during the war but was soon to rear its ugly head again. 

There is no doubt that many men coming back from active service were determined that their children should grow up in a better world and that what they saw as the errors of the past should not be repeated. Unfortunately it was the inevitable workings of capitalism with which they were dealing. Slowly this political interest faded and for some years, once the immediate post war shortages had eased. things on the surface appeared much improved. Mass unemployment did not appear for many years and during the "never had it so good" era many people thought that the world had learned how to deal with such things as slumps. There were other problems of capitalism, principally the chronic housing shortage. People had jobs but nowhere decent to live. Love on the Dole was replaced by Cathy Come Home—and In Which We Serve by The War Game
Les Dale