Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Questions from a reader (1986)

Letter to the Editors from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors.

I have read the literature you sent me, after my response to your advert in the New Musical Express, and have a few questions to ask. It would be helpful if your answers were numbered as I have listed them.
        Thank you.
Nicky Wiy
Slough, Berks

If world socialism is to come about democratically, must you wait until every country allows the vote?

If you mean literally "every country", then the answer is "no". We certainly don't envisage waiting about for the very last person to catch up. Since the impetus towards socialism would already be having a tremendous impact on the world political stage and, in particular, in countries still without the necessary democratic processes (if any), we don't think there will be anything causing us to wait around. The rapid and widespread adoption of socialist ideas would alter fundamentally the nature and quality of world politics and impart the necessary impetus towards the transformation. The wheel of history would then rotate to the critical point-of-no-return. A socialist majority of the world's population would have sufficient confidence and political power to be able to announce the count down of the lift-off for socialist revolution.

The needs and inner dynamics of modem capitalism, whether the free enterprise or state capitalist kind, make unavoidable the eventual global extension of the limited forms of political democracy sufficient for our purpose. The real problem is here and now — how best to reach the point at which we who have access to the seats of power start exercising this enormous influence around the world. And that requires all of us to work unstintingly to achieve socialist majorities whenever we can — right now!

If there is no police force after socialism is established, who will enforce any laws that remain after those relating to property are repealed — e.g. those relating to assault, GBH, murder, etc?

There will be no laws remaining to deal with socially unacceptable acts of violence such as those to which you refer. All law and jurisprudence now arise from, and are geared to. the needs of the present acquisitive, aggressive, anxiety-ridden system; they are primarily protective of property. "Good public order" serves to keep the dispossessed in their place, their hands off the property of the owning class and their understandable outbursts of anger, violence and frustration under control by the state.

There may be anti-social acts of violence after the establishment of socialism; neither we nor future communities would want to shirk the issue. But each will have to be considered on its merits (or demerits) by each community — no longer motivated by concepts of retribution, revenge or fear of a break down of "law and order". There may well be cases where society's expressed revulsion may not be enough or appropriate — in which case the democratically arrived at decision to apply the ultimate sanction of the minimum necessary restraint, or enforced isolation from those thought to be at risk, may have to be made by that community.

Although the fundamental changes in relationships and attitudes and the quite different social milieu of free access and equality will remove the cause of most violent acts, the members of a community could not be expected to stand idly by on the rare occasions when a member of that community behaves irresponsibly. Socialist mores, common sense and self-discipline would determine what was acceptable and what was unacceptable, rather than invoking the concept of laws, crimes and punishments or commanding obedience by coercion.

When socialism is established, will those people who are in prison as a result of breaking property laws during capitalism be released?


On the back page of the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard, the article gives me the impression that examinations have no value. If doctors, medical students, etc. were not tested theoretically and practically, how would we know if they were competent enough to do operations or to carry out experiments which would yield meaningful results?

This article. "Making the grade", was not intended to give the impression that all examinations are valueless and would be dispensed with in socialism. But certainly the experience of most people would suggest that, though the possession of an educational or professional certificate may serve as an entree to some jobs, it alone is not necessarily an indicator of real ability or comprehension. Indeed the concentration of tunnel-visioned parents, pupils and teachers on "achievement" —memorising fragmented, unrelated facts to meet the challenge of the exam paper — can lead to bizarre, not to say horrifying results.

The author was also emphasising the nature of the examination rat-race (Japan provides a good example) and the need for schooling to be tailored to meet employers' demands for efficient, standardised workers, graded appropriately to ensure value for money.

Within socialism aptitudes, mental and physical dexterity, skills, courage, ingenuity and inventiveness will be encouraged and developed in all. Of course, if someone is called on to perform a complicated operation on a patient or on a computer. there will be experienced persons in attendance who will have been delegated to ensure that all goes well. Those individuals will be the contemporary beneficiaries of socially transmitted knowledge and experience — none of whom would think of themself as exalted, as some consultants do today. In socialism no one could be motivated by the prospect of status or material advantage.

In your yellow leaflet Questions and Answers about Socialism, you say that thousands of people in this country die each winter of hypothermia. I would like to know from what source you obtained these vague statistics. In the book Consuming Secrets (page 224) there is listed official Government figures on deaths from hypothermia. They are: for 1970 - 16 deaths; 1971 - 15; 1972 - 21; 1973 - 22; and for 1974 - 17. I admit these are old figures and give no indication of those who suffer from hypothermia but do not die. The number who so suffer is about 5 per 1.000 OAPs. However, I do not see how the number of deaths has risen by approximately 8,000 per cent in eleven years.

Government figures on the number of people dying of cold each year in Britain are not dependable. But even if their very low figures are accepted. that still leaves large numbers of people (hundreds) dying of cold every winter. That would be bad enough, but there are reasons for believing that the real figure is in thousands rather than hundreds.

Each year tens of thousands more people die in the winter than in the summer; 80 per cent of these are over 65. In the ten years before 1980 the death rate was 17 per cent higher in winter than in summer for those aged 60-69; 20 per cent higher for those aged in their 70s and 25 per cent higher for those over 80. On average, approximately 45,000 more old people died each winter than each summer. In 1982, when government figures put the number of deaths from the cold in the 600s. 42,500 more people aged over 65 died in the winter months than the summer ones. We accept that not all of them died of hypothermia (some died of other conditions made worse by the cold) but it is highly unlikely that of 40,000 plus extra deaths, less than 1.000 can be attributable to lack of protection against the cold. In Sweden, where the sharp contrasts between summer and winter temperatures do not affect some areas, there is no equivalent rise in winter deaths among the old.

Many old people are not found until some time after they die. As a result, doctors do not know their body temperatures near to the time of death and hypothermia can neither be proved nor disproved. Geriatric specialists do not give a figure, but suggest that large numbers of deaths caused by the cold are undiagnosed because of this delay in examining the body.

Many doctors are reluctant to write on a death certificate that a person has died of the cold because of the stigma attached to this way of dying. Pressure is put on doctors by families, anxious to hide the fact that they have neglected an elderly relative and by local authorities, whose Social Service Departments fear that a large number of deaths in their area caused by the cold will reflect on them. Doctors involved in the study of death resulting from the cold acknowledge the existence of these strong pressures.

A very important reason for the false picture given by the government figures is that the BMA has quite arbitrarily fixed a body temperature above which a person is said not to be suffering from hypothermia - 95°F. The official measurement of normal body temperature is 98.4°F. So, according to the BMA. a person in their 70s, 80s or 90s can be found dead with an internal body temperature which is 3.8°F lower than that considered healthy for an active, young person and a doctor is not permitted to state that they have died of the cold.

In a survey carried out by the Medical Research Council in 1972 (findings published in the British Medical Journal, January 1973) it was discovered that one in ten old people examined were suffering discomfort or illness as a result of their body temperatures being under 98.4°F. If that figure is applied to the 65+ population in 1986 we can say that 900,000 old people are now living in what the MRC defined as hypothermic conditions. Of course, not all of these will die of the cold, but it is probable that tens of thousands will and likely that hundreds of thousands will die earlier than they might due to the cold. Clearly, the energy exists to provide warmth for all of these people.

Malcolm Wicks, one of the researchers involved in the above-mentioned MRC survey and report, has stated that "We know that there are tens of thousands of deaths each winter caused by the cold". Most medical and geriatric specialists accept Wicks as the leading authority on this subject (see his book. Old and Cold). The question is,  do we believe Wicks and the medical profession or the government?

Please also see the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard for the article "Hypothermia in the old".

How seriously does the SPGB take conservation?

The Socialist Party has frequently expressed its anger at the waste and the despoliation which capitalism generates. We are fully aware that the profit system poses a serious threat to the environment and have been sounding the alarm about the state and future of the world's ecology for decades. We contend that it demonstrates the urgent need to establish world-wide socialism. Then, attention to need would take its proper place alongside unjaundiced consideration of the health of the world's population, biosphere and resources. The conservation lobby, though deserving credit for exposing the details of this threat, would do well to bear in mind that what enrages them are symptoms of a sick world economic system; a cure can only be obtained by removing the cause of the sickness.

I have only been eligible to vote since last March, but I have never seen any candidates for the SPGB. If socialism is to be brought about democratically, candidates should be in every constituency in the country. This does not seem to be happening and I wonder how high this issue is on the Party's list of priorities?

The Socialist Party gives electoral activity a high priority and seeks to put up candidates in every constituency, national and local, whenever it can. That we at present only manage to contest a few constituencies is simply a reflection of lack of financial and political support. Meanwhile, we work energetically in all avenues open to us to inform and persuade workers as to what is in their best interests.

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