Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What socialism means (1982)

From the November 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a world rotten to the core with human suffering it is easy to forget the richness and beauty of the natural environment. The artificiality of a society over which the mass of humanity has virtually no control obscures the foundations upon which social existence is built.

Urban industrial life, under a system which puts profits before needs, deforms the relationship between nature and human beings. Alienated from ownership or control of our material base — the world in which we live — living often seems to run contrary to nature; our lives appear as a struggle against material forces, as though there were a conspiracy of the universe against the overwhelmed individual. You want to eat, to live in a decent home, to be fully mobile, to enjoy the pleasures of the world — but the world refuses to let you. “It's a crazy world", people often say. But it is not the natural environment which is crazy. Natural forces do not condemn the hungry to starvation or the homeless to permanent insecurity. Nature can potentially satisfy most of our material wants.

Is it, then, the people of the world who are bad? Badness and goodness are human concepts which- reflect moral perceptions: we are no more inherently bad than we are inherently good. The evils of capitalism are not a consequence of the will of bad people. The old shiver and die in the winter cold, too poor to pay for heat; their suffering is no more the consequence of “badness” than "goodness”. There is nothing in the human make-up which makes us behave as we do.

Nature is not greed, aggression, selfishness, laziness and competition. We have a capacity to act in such ways, just as every baby has a capacity not to. Nature is sunlight, rain, birth, death, earthquakes, eating and excreting. When we pour cold water down our mouths on a hot day or sense the coldness of ice or rolling in the grass, we then exhibit human nature. When soldiers shoot with guns they are behaving, but not naturally. Human nature comprises those characteristics by which the human species is defined and constrained. Human behaviour is social; it is limited only by the forces of matter and the workings of the human brain.

The earliest human society, which lasted for tens of thousands of years, was communistic in its organisation. Primitive humans were at one with nature, in that they respected the natural environment, utilising it for their own natural objectives. Modern humans have learnt to control nature in ways that our ancestors would have thought unnatural. We virtually dominate the universe, but our system of society denies us the power to utilise nature for our own ends. We are capable, for example, of doing the necessary productive work to feed, clothe and shelter every human being on the face of the earth, but the capitalist system denies us the chance to use the productive forces to their fullest capacity. We live in fear of our knowledge, for instead of using it to produce all that we want there is the imminent threat of science being employed for the purpose of social destruction.

Perhaps we should turn to the simple life, unbothered by scientific knowledge and control — could that be the path to unity with nature? To stamp out centuries of human evolution — to hope pathetically for a dose of collective amnesia so that we may forget the recipes for bombs and the indignities of poverty — is no answer. It is impossible to fight against history and win even the presently complacent conservatives wilt discover that lesson one day.

Cynical resignation to the reality of the present is no answer either. To sacrifice potential social happiness for the sake of a non-existent omnipotent "Nature" is a waste of our short lives. Why conform to a system which tramples on your human potential when there is not a scrap of evidence to show that it must go on existing and plenty to show that it will not?

To live with the belief that your condition is predetermined is unhistorical and a colossal waste. Consider the Athenian slave or the feudal serf, refusing to envisage life beyond their respective chains of servitude. Think of the factory workers of the late eighteenth century who accepted the bosses’ stick as a "fact of life” or the South African black worker for whom it is “natural” not to enter places where white people go. Now the slave and the serf have made way for the wage slave. The label of oppression has changed, as has the process of exploitation, but a class of propertyless. socially inferior beings remains. The non-possession of the earth is still the lot of the majority; the parasitic power of the ruling class differs in form only.

Trapped in a time-lock of social evolution, the majority of workers think that nothing except capitalism has ever existed, and even if it has, nothing else will ever come. Nature is seen to determine the system and to challenge these false dogmas is to be accused of being at best a crank and at worst a wrecker.

In a sense, socialists are cranks and wreckers. Our refusal to accept the beliefs which keep the system standing makes us cranks in the eyes of those who define sanity. To those who wish to conserve class monopoly, exploitation, poverty and war, we revolutionaries are wreckers; and without doubt we do want to destroy such a society. Those who possess but do not produce will use any method they can to defend their privilege. Once the myth of god sufficed: “God says you must obey us, so you had better or you will face everlasting damnation". The modern capitalist line is that to envisage a world without wage labour and capital is to entertain visions of the “unnatural”. We are told time and time again that we have "forgotten human nature".

Think of the arguments against socialism. "It can't work”; “What about the greedy, lazy, war-like, unco-operative person"; “you’re forgetting that society is made up of human beings"; “freedom is impossible because of human nature". Socialists have heard these responses almost as many times as we have been told to "go back to Russia". Thousands of times the same old cliched objections to socialism are trotted out, all of them based on the myth of human nature. But repetition of an argument — or its widespread popularity — does not prove its validity. For many years it was often repeated and widely believed that the earth was flat. The denial of the possibility of socialism on the grounds that the new system would conflict with human nature is not made by coincidence: such a belief is historical and political, it arises out of particular social relationships and it exists to serve a specific class interest.

Human nature is an ideological concept designed to shield those who benefit from the status quo against change. The first response of someone who sees something happening which he or she fears is to say that "it can't happen"; likewise, an historically redundant class can only meet the political challenge of socialism by assuming that "it can't happen”. The capitalists, and their defenders, will give as proof the fact that socialism has never "happened" before. And that which has not existed cannot exist. Such a method of analysis conflicts directly with the most fundamental principle of history and science: that all things change, and all reality is preceded by the conception of that reality, in one form or another, in the human brain.

To maintain their mythical contentions, the Human Nature Brigade must abandon history and science. Had they been told a century and a half ago that society would include an intricate network of motorised road transport, all regulated by a generally self-administered highway code, the believers in human nature would have claimed that "it can't happen. Drivers won't stop at traffic lights. Pedestrians will walk in front of fast cars. There will be multiple pile-ups in every street every other day. Road co-operation is an impossible dream". But, by and large, the transition from the horse and cart to motor transport has worked — and would work even better if the stress and inefficiency of capitalism was taken away. Co-operation does happen now in certain social contexts; people "feel good" when they are able to behave co-operatively. In a socialist society conscious human co-operation will be a natural form of social behaviour — killing, plundering, exploiting and oppressing will seem as unnatural to a socialist community as the idea of having a society without those features seems to most people today.

The need for a socialist society, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution, is an urgent one. Our daily experiences of life under capitalism tell us that this competitive, jungle society does not and cannot work in the material interest of the majority of the population, who produce the wealth but do not possess it. Socialism becomes a meaningful idea to workers when it is realised that instead of trying to survive in conflict with everyone else, as if this were the only possible way, the answer is to survive by co-operating with the rest of humanity.
Steve Coleman

From No Platform to Safe Spaces (2016)

From the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

We refute two arguments for not allowing the free expression of ideas
Last year the militant atheist and ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie was initially banned by the officials of the student union at Warwick University from giving a talk to the atheist, secularist and humanist society there on “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Free Expression in the Age of ISIS”. The justification offered was that the views to be expressed would be offensive to some students, namely, those who still adhered to the Muslim religion. After protests, the student union officials backed down and she was allowed to speak.
Similarly, a petition was launched, which attracted 2500 signatures, calling for the veteran feminist Germaine Greer to be prevented from speaking at Cardiff University. This was because she had expressed the view that men who changed their sex to a woman weren’t really women, a view considered offensive to the LGBT community. This case was worse than Namazie’s as Greer was not going to speak on this but was to be banned merely because of an opinion she had expressed on another matter. In the end she too was allowed to speak.
No Platform
This argument for not allowing particular views to be expressed (or particular people to speak on any subject) differs from that invoked by the likes of the SWP for not allowing racists and fascists such as the National Front and the BNP to speak. ‘No Platform for Fascists’ was justified on the grounds that the views themselves were dangerous and so should not be allowed to be heard in case people came to accept them.
This was an elitist position in that it assumes that some people – the leftwing ‘no-platformers’ – could hear and read fascist views without being affected by them while others – the rest of us – were liable to be infected if they heard them. This was the same argument put forward by those who wanted to ban Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover as obscene and actually expressed at the trial in 1960: that educated men could read it without being corrupted but not their wife or servants.
That censorship is undemocratic and elitist as it involves a minority deciding what the majority can hear or read is the main case against it in general and why we in the Socialist Party never supported, and in fact actively opposed, the ‘No Platform’ policy,  practising what we preached and debating against the National Front and other racists (despite the no-platformers trying to break up the meetings).We took, and still take, the view that people are quite capable of deciding for themselves what to think, and so the way to deal with racists and fascists is not to prevent them expressing their views but to allow them a platform and then publicly confront and refute their arguments . We are pleased to note that this approach is now more widely accepted.
That the majority class of wage and salary workers and their dependants are capable of understanding what is in their class interest is central to the whole case that socialism can only be established if and when a majority have come to want it and to understand what it is and what it involves. To claim that people need protecting from certain views lest they be led astray is saying that the working class is not capable of coming to a socialist understanding on its own but needs to be led. Which of course is precisely what the SWP and other Leninists think.
Identity Politics
What about the argument from offence for censorship? It starts from the plausible position that people who are subject to prejudice and discrimination should have a ‘safe space’ where they can be free from this. This does tend to happen anyway as such people meet together in their own clubs, cafes or pubs. But the student union officials want to extend this to a whole university campus and to this end to ban the expression there of views considered offensive to particular such groups.
This change of argument reflects a wider change away from class politics to ‘identity politics’, a change welcomed by the authorities who prefer divide and rule to class unity (though some of them are beginning to have second thoughts as it also undermines the national unity they want). Minority groups are urged to identify themselves politically as such and to campaign to get gains and concessions only for themselves. Previously both revolutionaries and reformists had talked in terms of getting benefit for the whole wage and salary working class, irrespective of their ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, sexual orientation or whatever.
This class approach has now been abandoned (though not by us) and reformists and do-good liberals have turned to protecting ‘identity’ groups that are subject to prejudice and discrimination, seeing the setting up of ‘safe spaces’ from which the expression of views offensive to them are banned as one way to do this.
But the question remains: which is the best way to deal with people who hold racist or other prejudiced views? Is it to ban them from expressing them? Or is it to confront them in open debate and refute their views and expose them as dangerous? We see no reason to change our position of favouring the second approach.
Religion and Politics
In one respect the ‘safe spaces’ argument for censorship is proving more insidious than ‘no platform’. It has led to bans being sought on the expression not just of admittedly obnoxious views but also of views that don’t fall into this category but which, on the contrary, are helpful and necessary, namely, the criticism of religion. Ironically it has also led to the SWP being banned because of a rape scandal a few years ago, but we are magnanimous and defend them being allowed to express their views.
Nor is it clear why the ‘safe-spacers’ want to exclude Islam from such criticism when the expression of its views on women and gays could be considered offensive to such groups. In any event, suppressing a view does not change the mind of those holding it, which surely is the point as in the end changing minds is the only way to overcome prejudice and discrimination.
No doubt religious people – and not just practising Muslims – find criticism of their religion offensive but to ban the expression of such criticism because of this is to re-introduce the old blasphemy laws and extend them to all religions. Quite apart from us being against censoring views in general, this is something socialists cannot accept. Religion is a social issue, even a social problem, that needs to be discussed and debated and, like other mistaken ‘solutions’ to humanity’s situation, confronted and refuted. We cannot accept any policy which leads to the expression of anti-religious views being banned.
Fortunately, the attempts by student union officials to suppress free expression in universities have met resistance which has forced them to back down, but this has not stopped them from keeping on trying. This is why they must be opposed and exposed just as much as the Leninist ‘no-platformers’.
Adam Buick

"Making it" v World Socialism (1977)

A Letter from America from the September 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the entertainment business, good lines that catch the attention of the viewer are not easy to come by and many a Show Biz personality—whatever the field —must sweat blood to hold interest. Happily, though, there is one tried-and-true exception to this rule and any number of movie, radio and TV stars have used it to good advantage. It is the reminiscing by a successful one of his and his family’s earlier bout with poverty. If there is one tale that never goes stale with most audiences it is the saga of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, as the saying goes, or making it against the world on one’s merit. Having been the butt of capitalist propaganda from nursery school times, it is little wonder that the average worker continues to get a vicarious thrill from the rags-to- riches story.

Not that we would challenge the argument that it is still possible to work one’s way up the “ladder.” It is being done and we are more apt to hear of it now because of the growth of the media, particularly TV. But unlike news broadcasting, which features disasters, plain-and-simple entertainment does not generally deal with those who fall off the “ladder” or get stuck on the bottom rungs. It is the exceptional success that gets the play. For the entire philosophy and rationale of modern capitalism rests on the possibility of rising from rags to riches or, at the very least, the opportunity to combat and overcome economic adversity.

True, there is widespread admiration, even veneration—in America as in the “old countries"—for those who have inherited their wealth and status and who have never been compelled to do a day’s “honest” work in their entire lives. We have our “royalty,” too — the Rockefellers, Fords, Du Ponts, Kennedys, etc., almost any of whom have been or could be represented in the elective bodies of the land. But this is somewhat of an aberration in the general scheme of American capitalism. Lurking behind all of the professional representation of “black and city poor” in the USA by organizations—such as National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League is the philosophy of an individual’s right to “make it” if he has “what it takes” and is not being deliberately shut out by those in political control.

Item: The writer, James Baldwin, appearing recently on an educational Network broadcast, defended the looters in the recent NY City blackout, most of whom were black (as were their small-business victims). The looters had been conditioned, he contended, by the advertizing of a “consumer oriented” society to acquire status items so, when the opportunity presented itself, they took advantage of it. The problem, according to Baldwin, is that black workers are being deliberately deprived of the opportunity to live a good life by being denied good jobs with “decent” wages. The fault does not lie with the organization of society on the basis of wage-labor and capital, it would seem, but with those who are in a position to shut out blacks, especially, from opportunities to “make it.” An interesting aspect of that affair was the fact that those who committed arson as well as theft, did their victims a favour—at least those who were covered by fire insurance. On the other hand, and also of academic interest, was the response of horror from the authorities at the magnitude of the crime of looting. Hundreds of the culprits were incarcerated in cells with no facilities, and with no communication with lawyers or family permitted, during a record heat-wave while awaiting for days for arraignment. “Let the punishment fit the crime!” One example of “Human Rights” in the USA.

Now, Socialists maintain a “hands off” stance in regard to activity such as helping the city poor to “make it.” It is not that we object, in any way, to individual workers beating this jungle system. We all must live until we die and certainly it is easier to live under capitalism when one enjoys comparative affluence. Nor are we concerned, as an organization, with the manner in which one “makes it”—whether through inheritance or by one’s wits, legally or otherwise. Our goal is to spread a different gospel. It no longer makes sense to maintain a society wherein individuals have the need to acquire economic or political power in any degree whatsoever. Capitalist mass production techniques have long since made possible a world in which every man, woman and child can be secure by having the right to access to the goods and services that provide security. Modern capitalism must concern itself more and more with damning this potential by slamming production floodgates to accommodate a market. It is possible, given a sane system of society, to change the meaning of “making it.” When brain power no longer must be wasted on “beating the system” the frontier of the future will be unlimited.
Harmo, WSP, Boston.