Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Worked to Death (2016)

From the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

A look at cases of people being killed or injured because of their work, and at why such things happen.
Over the last two decades at least twenty thousand sugar-cane cutters in Central America have died of kidney failure, caused by dehydration, heat exposure and physical stress (New Internationalist, November 2015). This is not the usual kind of industrial ‘accident’, but it was clearly their work that was responsible for these people’s deaths.
A more common kind of workplace death is exemplified by the case of Cameron Minshull, a 16-year-old apprentice killed at a factory in Bury in 2013. Cameron, who earned just £3 an hour, was dragged into a lathe and died of head injuries. There was no safety regime at the company; young workers were untrained and unsupervised, and had to clean the lathes while they were still running. The firm’s owner was sentenced to eight months in prison, the company admitted corporate manslaughter and was fined, and the recruitment agency (which had been paid by the government for placing Cameron at the firm) was also fined. His mother said, ‘He should never have died for doing the right thing, for going to work to earn a living and to be trained to become an engineer.’
In 2014–5 a total of 142 workers were fatally injured in Great Britain; this was lower than the average for the last five years but slightly higher than the figure for 2013–4. In addition 102 ‘members of the public’ were killed in work-connected incidents in 2014–5 (excluding rail suicides).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) makes much of the fact that, since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, fatal injuries to employees have fallen by 86 percent and reported non-fatal injuries by 77 percent. On the other hand, deaths from asbestos-related diseases increased by a factor of ten between 1974 and 2012, largely because of exposure to asbestos prior to 1980. So it is not purely a matter of being killed or injured while at work; deaths and injuries arising from work must also be considered (as the example of the cane-cutters shows).
Agriculture (including forestry and fishing) is the most dangerous industry sector in Greta Britain, according to the HSE. Only one worker in a hundred is in agriculture, but one fatal injury in five occurs there. The number of fatal injuries has been reduced since 1974, but much less than in other industries. In 2013–4, there were 27 workplace deaths among agricultural workers, the most frequent of which involved being struck by a moving vehicle; in addition, four members of the public were fatally injured. Furthermore, about ninety deaths a year among those who work or worked in agriculture are attributed to occupational carcinogens. Non-fatal incidents are common too, with 292 major injuries to agricultural employees in 2013–4 (this figure excludes the self-employed, who make up about half the agricultural workforce, and it is generally accepted that there is a high level of underreporting of non-fatal injuries).
In construction, there were 35 fatal injuries in 2014–5, almost half of them caused by falls from heights. The fatality rate per employee was 3.5 times the average across all industries, though far less than that in agriculture. And in any year, around 69,000 construction workers suffer from an illness they believe was caused or made worse by their work (around 40 percent of these are new conditions started during that year).
In the US, workplace deaths are much higher, with 4,679 fatal work injuries in 2014, the highest figure since 2008. Deaths in the oil and gas industries have risen dramatically, but construction remains the most dangerous industry, with one worker death in five occurring there. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) emphasizes that, since its creation in 1971, workplace deaths have been reduced from 38 a day to twelve, but this is still an astonishingly high figure (over thirty times that in the UK, with a population only five times the size).
In April 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing well over a thousand people who worked in garment factories in the building, making clothes for international brands such as Gap and Benetton. At least 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar while building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. Sadly, similar examples could be listed almost without end.
In 2014–5 there were 258 cases of prosecution related to health and safety in the construction industry, 243 of which resulted in a guilty verdict for at least one offence; nearly £4m was levied in fines. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007 expanded previous legislation and made it possible to convict a company if it could be shown that senior management had committed a gross breach of duty of care. But by April last year there had been just eleven convictions for corporate manslaughter in the five years since the Act came into law. In the US, the OSHA has in over forty years achieved just twelve criminal convictions of errant companies.
The HSE notes that in 2014–5, the equivalent of 1.7 million working days were lost in construction because of workplace injuries and work-related illnesses. The ‘total economic cost to society’ (i.e. to the capitalist class) in 2013–4 was £0.9bn; across all industries the cost was estimated at £14.3bn. This is a crucial point, that workplace deaths and injuries give rise to costs for the specific employer and the wider employing class, in terms of health care and lost profits. Safety regulations exist partly to ensure that such costs do not get out of hand. And enforcement is often more about appearing to have done something than about actually performing rigorous inspections.
It is clear that much work is potentially dangerous, such as anything involving chemicals, machinery or working above ground. But that does not by itself explain why there are so many injuries, fatal and otherwise. While ‘accidents’ cost money, regulations and enforcement are expensive too. All impinge on profits, which are the main reason for production under capitalism. Companies will say that they take health and safety seriously, but they have to take profit most seriously of all. We cannot say that there would be no workplace deaths or injuries in a Socialist society, but we can be sure that the safety and well-being of those who produce the goods and services will be paramount. There will be no shortcuts, no cheap and nasty solutions, no forcing people to work in unsafe situations. Producing in the interest of the whole community will include making production as safe as is humanly possible – something that capitalism simply cannot deliver. 
Paul Bennett

Cold comfort (1969)

Book Review from the April 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver Jonathan Cape, 35s.

There are more ways than one of exploiting the Negroes’ downgraded social standing. A Negro, for example, can cash in on it himself by writing the sort of book that will be assured of big sales by a raptuous reception from Left-wing reviewers. Such a book need not say very much and what it does say can be confused. Provided it has a leavening of swear words, sex, and anger, the self-appointed 'intellectuals of the Left will rush to give it their uncritical, patronising approval.

Eldridge Cleaver is the Black Panthers' Minister of Information (their Prime Minister is Stokely Carmichael). He has been imprisoned for possession of drugs and for rape. He was a candidate in the last presidential election. With such credentials, almost any book from his was foredoomed to be hailed as a masterpiece. Thus Richard Boston, in his review in The Times, wrote of “complex arguments . . . put‘ forward with extraordinary clarity and intelligence.”

In fact, Soul on Ice is the same weary old stew of violence, sex. and four-letter words. On racism it has nothing more perceptive than a rant. Politically it is pathetic. Cleaver writes about “the rebellion of the oppressed peoples of the world” and although everyone knows who he is getting at, socialists perceive his lack of understanding that there is only one oppressed people, suffering in varying degrees. They are more simply known as the working class; they exist all over the world and their skins are of all colours. They have one interest — to get their masters, who are also of all colours, off their backs.
Now think about these two sentences:
If the capitalists are in power, they enforce laws designed to protect their system, their way of life . . .  If Communists are in power, they enforce laws designed to protect their system, their way of life.
It is almost impossible to know where to begin unravelling the confusion and naïveté of these examples of extraordinary clarity and intelligence. Does Cleaver think the ’Communist’ states are basically any different from those like America and Britain? Does he think that Communism will be a social system where one class has power and imposes laws to protect its interests? What is meant by “If the capitalists are in power”? Are they, or aren’t they?

Racism is one of the fouler fruits of workers' ignorance and frustration. The Negroes in America have suffered terribly under it and a man like Cleaver — he was born in Little Rock — must have made a tremendous effort even to become literate. That is the achievement, if we are looking for one, of Soul on Ice. But now, as the American Negroes begin to kick back, is no time to lose our balance.

Unquestioning admiration for a black man is as bad as unreasoning hatred for him. Soul on Ice must stand or fall on its merits and not on the colour of the hand that wrote it. And it falls.

Knowledge is Power (1980)

From the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The greatest weapon available to the working class in its fight against the system which oppresses us is knowledge. The wealthy and powerful capitalist class can destroy us with bombs, lock us up and ignore our poverty, but the one thing that they will never be able to beat or ignore is a politically conscious working class. To reach consciousness of our class position and what we can do about it requires knowledge. That is why every new member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain must show that he or she understands and wants the revolutionary objective to which our party is committed. It is not an objective based upon emotional appeal, but upon a rational comprehension of the nature of society. The chief task of the SPGB is to develop and spread knowledge about the world around us.

It is for this reason that Islington branch has decided to run an education programme which will cover some of the basic areas of socialist knowledge. The programme is primarily intended for members and sympathisers in the Islington-Haringey-Camden area, but we shall, of course, welcome interested people from any part of London. The classes will be in history, anthropology and economics and will provide introductory information, while at the same time providing an opportunity for critical discussion.

They will be held every Sunday evening at 8pm SHARP at the Latin American Bookshop, 29 Islington Park Street, which is adjacent to the Hope and Anchor pub in Upper Street and 2 minutes walk from Highbury and Islington tube station. We list below details of the education programme:

ECONOMICS Lecturer: E. Hardy. Dates: Feb. 3, Feb. 24. Mar. 16, Apr. 6, Apr. 27, May 18, June 8. (Subjects for each class to be announced at the first class).


ANTHROPOLOGY An Introduction to the Study of Pre-History. Lecturer: H. Walters. Dates and subjects: Feb. 10. General background and relevance of related sciences. The birth of the Earth, the organic period and the beginning of organic matter. Mar. 2. The succession of life through geological time. History of the primates and the emergence of the hominid line. Mar. 23. The evolution of mankind and the emergence of homo sapiens. Apr. 13. Darwin, Wallace and the theory of natural selection and the misrepresentations thereof (Social Darwinism). May 4. From hunter to farmer and the neolithic revolution. May 25. The natural division of labour and the subordination of women. Mankind the toolmaker. June 15. An appraisal: Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?

All classes are free and will be open to any member of the public. It is intended to tape record all of the lectures; members wishing to obtain tapes should contact Cde. H. Walters. Further information is obtainable by visiting or writing to Islington branch.

Comparisons with the nineteen-thirties (1977)

From the February 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most frightening things about the present depression to large numbers of people is the destruction of their belief that “bad times” would never come back. After the long post-war period without unemployment on the pre-war mass scale, it was widely assumed that chronic depression belonged to a past era which had ended. When the crisis took hold, the spectre of 1929 was raised by journalists and commentators; and as its effects intensified, the feeling spread of an old film with a cast of millions being shown again. Are the nineteen-thirties being re-enacted? There are differences as well as similarities. Some of the factors in the pre-war situation were apparent opposites to those at work today, showing that they are neither causes nor remedies of the depression. A comparison is of interest.

The 1929 crisis originated in agriculture, and was marked by the collapse of a speculative fever in the United States. In Britain it was preceded by a short boom period in new industries such as electricity, chemicals and motor-cars. It took place when — as a result of government restriction of the note-issue — the pound sterling had risen, i.e. was dearer abroad: this, and a close-down on lending in America following the Wall Street crash, killed purchases of British exports in the USA. Prices fell throughout the period 1929-33 when the depression was most acute. The British Index of Retail Prices of Food went down from 160 in 1927 to 154 in 1929, 131 in 1931, and 120 in 1933.

The present depression was preceded by minor crises which increased in severity from the nineteen- fifties onwards. Its strongest industrial features were the break in the motor-car boom and the slump in house-building; but it has been accompanied by continuing price rises now running at an annual rate of 15-20 per cent. This has been the result of inflation promoted by Labour and Conservative governments alike since the war, and one aspect of the crisis is the long run of that economic policy. Previously in the 19th and 20th centuries the operation of any policy was interrupted after a few years by a prolonged depression or a war.

The inflation policy was started by the post-war Labour government, and until now no economic or political catastrophe has baulked it. In the early nineteen-sixties party leaders were clearly unsure how to continue it, or if it could continue. Thus, immediately the 1964 Labour Government was elected Wilson and Callaghan announced measures to deal with an economic “Dunkirk” which was upon Britain, while the Tory leader Douglas- Home denied that a crisis existed (reversing the position a year earlier, when Home claimed there was a crisis and Wilson disputed it).

The world’s finance ministries in 1929 were firmly against using government expenditure to try to remedy the fall in demand. Later, groups of MPs of different parties argued for State interference and planning — Torv MPs (including Macmillan) from the depressed north-eastern areas, as well as Labourites and Lloyd George, the Liberal. Against this, the recovery in Germany took place with the ruling Nazi party declaring opposition in principle to State management; the Nazis in fact de-nationalized many undertakings. In the Economic Journal R. F. Kahn contended that “the creation of money” could do nothing but good when there were idle resources and unused productive capacity, and this was taken up by Lord Beaverbrook in his papers: the remedy for the depression, said the Daily Express, was inflation.

The Express and the Mail also campaigned for import controls — taxing all imported goods, but giving preference to those produced in the British Empire. In 1932 a 10 per cent duty was imposed on all imports except wheat and meat, and the Ottawa Agreements establishing Empire Preference were signed. Though Labour and Liberal MPs opposed Protection, both parties supported a campaign to “Boycott Japanese Goods”. This was presented as a moral stand in view of Japan having invaded Manchuria and left the League of Nations, but a flood of cheap Japanese goods into Britain was held to be putting British workers on the dole: at the 1935 Jubilee and George VI’s Coronation, girls stood in Japanese stockings and waved Union Jacks made in Japan while they watched the parades.

The popular cries on all sides were remarkably similar to those of today. “The right to work” was demanded in marches and demonstrations on behalf of the unemployed. This “right”, incidentally, was a constitutional one in Nazi Germany, and is part of the Russian constitution also. C. W. Guillebaud’s 1939 book The Economic Recovery of Germany, 1933-38, described the position:
Rather than permit this [prolonged unemployment] the State will itself provide alternative employment in some form—if not 'regular’ then ‘substitute’ employment. As a corollary to this recognition of the right to work the State imposes the duty to work, and this is a very far-reaching obligation.
The “training centres” for unemployed young men set up half-heartedly — as now — by the Government in Britain were opposed by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, but in letters to The Times supporting the centres there was a lot of praise for the German labour camps for the unemployed.

As now and always, the working class was blamed for everything and it was commonly said that the unemployed were layabouts living too well on the dole. The magazine Good Housekeeping referred to “profiteers, dole-drawers, music-hall artists — in fact the only people who have money today”. (Quoted in The Long Week-End by Graves and Hodge). The National Confederation of Employers’ Associations claimed in 1931 that unemployment pay was sapping the nation’s strength by preventing "unemployment acting as a corrective factor in the adjustment of wage levels”. There was pressure also to stop married women being either employed or registered as unemployed, under the Anomalies Regulations of 1932. This can be compared with the discovery by “a top doctor”, headlined in the News of the World on 2nd January 1977, that married women going to work are in dire peril of bad health and infertility.

The birth-rate was low in the nineteen-thirties. In 1933 it touched he lowest point of any peace-time year before or since, and it was predicted that by 1961 the population of Britain would be under 40 millions. Family allowances were proposed to try to turn the tide. The question was debated in Parliament in 1937 with reference to the “danger to the maintenance of the British Empire” from under-population: Malthus was stood on his head. There was no shortage of particular scapegoats for the plight of the time, immigrants and Jews. The British Union of Fascists, like the National Front today, traded in this kind of ignorance, and it is a melancholy reflection that the fascist-fighting Communist Party recruited numbers of Jews who were unaware then of what happened in the Communists’ beloved Russia.
The CP and other ’‘militant” groups based much of their propaganda in the ‘thirties on the belief that the capitalist system would collapse, and this fallacy has risen again in the same guise of a serious theory. It was contended that radicals of all varieties should rally together; the Communists sucked up to the Labour Party they had recently been ready to attack physically, and sought an alliance with the ILP. Another still-persistent belief was that the crisis itself was a manoeuvre by powerful agents of reaction; the Labour Daily Herald said it was “a bankers’ ramp”. Radical factions formed and re-formed, with titles remarkably like those of today; and there was a fear among trade-union and labour leaders of subversion by “revolutionary” movements.

Throughout the depression, it was all right for some. The first knighthoods of trade-union leaders were given in 1935: Sir Arthur Pugh and Sir Walter Citrine, for services to capitalism. The violent contrasts between the lives of rich and poor furnished material for damning (but reform-minded) reports similar to the Inner City Studies published on 12th January 1977. The crisis and the depression affected the rich very little. Colin Clark, the economist, estimated a fall of 9-11 per cent, in personal expenditure of those with incomes over £250, from 1929 to 1933 — a figure well balanced by the sharp fall in prices.

The depressed areas of the ‘thirties were those with older industries such as shipbuilding, iron and steel, coal, and textiles. The new light industries in other areas expanded, and the multiple stores selling cheap shoddy goods paid high dividends (a table published by the News Chronicle called Woolworth’s and their like “depression-proof investments”). It was a chaotic, insensible time brought about by the senseless chaos of capitalistic production, and that applies with undiminished force in the nineteen-seventies. What were proposed as cures for the economic and social problems then are in operation in the depression today, but are regarded as part of the trouble: inflation and the Welfare State. Conversely, today’s alleged solutions were part of the situation in the nineteen-thirties: a “strong” pound, import controls, and low prices (including wages).

One more similarity is the circuses provided to mollify the breadless. In the midst of mass unemployment, they had a Royal Jubilee and a Coronation; by what may be thought a nice coincidence, 1977 offers a Jubilee too. In Coronation week, 1938, everyone registered with the Unemployment Assistance Board was paid an extra 2s.6d. What overwhelming bounty is in store this year? W.H. Auden called the nineteen-thirties a "low, dishonest decade”. No more so than any other decade under capitalism, Mr. Poet; and that isn’t the point anyway. The ’thirties and the ’seventies show the capitalist system in its cycle, which will come round again if it is not stopped. On a brief inspection, plainly the only alternative is Socialism.
Robert Barltrop

A Letter from a Former Communist (1935)

From the March 1935 issue of the Socialist Standard

[We have received the following letter from a former Communist. It is particularly interesting, as the writer took an active part, in the Manchester area, in the work of the Communist Party. While we may not see eye-to-eye with the writer on every point, his letter merits serious attention, as an example of the outlook to which years of wholehearted support of the Communist Party has brought one of its adherents.—ED. COMM.]

      February 20th, 1935.

The Editorial Committee,
Dear Comrades,

Although in the past I have been an active and enthusiastic member of the Communist Party, the recent change of policy in relation to the Labour Party has compelled me to re-examine the principles and policy of the Party I formerly supported. The conclusions, for what they are worth—but by no means lightly arrived at—are set out below.

At the moment, the C.P., notwithstanding all specious reservations, is committed in principle to the return of a third Labour Government as a “lesser evil" to the National Government of to-day. This in spite of past vehement declarations that Labourism was Social Fascism, was, as Stalin declared, “objectively the moderate wing of Fascism." I, at least, have learned the lesson that the Labour Party “is the most dangerous enemy of the working-class within the working-class" too well; so well, in fact, that I find it impossible to support one capitalist party against another in the supposed interests of unity—even though the Party I am asked to support calls itself Labour.

The incontestable truth is that the change from unqualified opposition to the Labour Party and I.L.P. (quite clearly defined in the C.C. Resolution of the C.P.G.B., 1931) to one of support, was imposed from above by the Comintern when, after the German disaster and at a moment’s notice, it issued its world-wide appeal to its component parties to make unity overtures to organisations hitherto denounced as “Social-Fascist," etc. Evidently, one policy having proved so disastrous, it was decided, with a complete lack of political principle, to try something else.

The indecent haste employed by representatives of the Soviet Union in attempting to conclude pacts of an economic and political character with the butchers of the German working-class; the entrance of the Soviet Union into that “thieves' kitchen," the League of Nations; the substitution of the “defence of the Soviet Union" for the world revolution, can only mean that the Comintern has become completely subordinated to the special interests of the Soviet Union; and that, consequently, the various Communist Parties have been degraded to mere advertising agencies for Russia.

The advent to power in Germany of the Hitler dictatorship proves quite conclusively the bankruptcy of Communist policy. Through their blind “fetishism" of violence, the German Communists contributed just as much to the dissipation of the working-class forces as did the Social-Democrats through their shameless prostitution of the name of Socialism. Palme Dutt, in his book, "Fascism and the Social Revolution," quotes, in support of his case, Kautsky, who, in his introduction to the third edition of his book, “The Proletarian Revolution" (1931), says: “In November, 1918, the Revolution was the work of the proletariat alone. The proletariat won so all-powerful a position that the bourgeois elements at first did not dare to attempt any resistance." What lesson is drawn from this? That the German Social-Democrats betrayed the revolution because they persuaded the German working-class to adopt the “ peaceful path to Socialism," as against the path of violent revolution advocated by the Communists.

The one clear and indisputable conclusion, namely, that Social-Democracy was able to operate a policy of capitalism, suitably garbed in “Socialist" phrases, because the majority of the German working-class were in complete ignorance of Socialist principles, has so far been completely ignored by Communist writers on German events.

Before the workers can obtain political power, and wield it in their own interests, they must be conscious of those interests. The Communist Party, in urging the workers to fight for reforms, has not assisted in any way in aiding the workers to realise the need for Socialism. In fact, the thousands that have drifted in and out of the C.P. proves that they have failed to educate their own members in Socialist principles, to say nothing of the working-class.

For a so-called revolutionary party to enter into competition with reformist parties for reforms, is utterly futile. Any reforms that capitalism may think necessary will reach the working-class via parties with years of experience, organisation and traditions in the reformist business.

If the emancipation of the working-class is to be the work of the working-class itself, it follows with iron logic that the working-class must know from what it has to emancipate, and to what its emancipation will lead. This can only be achieved by spreading Socialistic knowledge.

Therefore, I appeal to all thinking members of the Communist Party to earnestly consider whether their time could not be more profitably employed in working for a Party that stands uncompromisingly for Socialism, instead of in a Party where half their time has to be occupied in explaining away the political somersaults of the Communist leadership. and the other half in urging workers to fight for reforms, which, even if granted, leave the position of the working-class materially unaltered.
                                                                                                                        Yours fraternally,
A. H. Maertens