Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Poverty of Sociology (1976)

From the January 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

A member has written to us as follows:
   “I have just started a WEA course in Sociology and have purchased a copy of the book recommended by the author—Sociology: An Introductory Course by P. Selfe (Nelson £2).
    Page 1 defines Sociology. ‘It studies the behaviour of people in a careful and scientific way. Sociologists study the way in which a society is organized', and so on.
      On page 55 we get a photograph of Marx and a chapter entitled ‘The Marxian Theory of Class’. It starts with definitions of the two main class groups and that Marx ‘argued that to own the means of production is to be in possession of political and economic power’. It goes on to say: ‘In his interpretation of history (which he claimed was a scientific interpretation) he placed a great deal of emphasis on the struggle between the owners of the means of production exploiting the class of wage earners. He predicted that after a succession of crises capitalism would collapse, a revolution would occur and power would be transferred to the proletariat, and a more egalitarian society would emerge. His concept of class was based on the single economic dimension — that of economic power. But sociologists do not consider that this alone is a satisfactory way of defining class membership. Furthermore, many of the predictions made by Marx in relation to his theory of class and social evolution have not been borne out. One can also question the extent to which it is possible to develop a “scientific view” of the unfolding of history and a blueprint for the ideal society. If you were to draw up a plan for the perfect society, how many of your friends would find it acceptable? Marx looked towards a society in which there would be complete equality between all citizens, no distinctions of status or class, total co-operation between all members, and the gradual elimination of any form of organized govrnment — the state eventually “withering away”. Some of his ideas have been put into a novel by William Morris entitled “News From Nowhere”.’ So much for Marx!
     As this purports to be written in ‘a careful and scientific way’, would you care to comment?”
The most illuminating thing about this summary is that practically every sentence is wrong, and a WEA student who learned it by heart would have acquired a collection of erroneous ideas about Marx.

Classes and History
“The Marxian theory of class” is a theory Marxists have not heard of before. Marx laid down two detailed propositions: the materialist conception of history and the labour theory of value. The first deals with the reasons why societies take the forms they do and why they change, and the second is his analysis of capitalism.

Marx did not argue “that to own the means of production is to be in possession of political and economic power”. The contrary is true. A class cannot make itself effective as the owners of the means of production and distribution until it obtains political power. A large part of political history is about struggles to that end. Numerous examples can be given. In Britain, the upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries were for the breaking-down of the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy as an essential to the replacement of feudalism by capitalism. The French Revolution had the same purpose. Similarly, the establishment of Socialism requires a political act, the conquest of the powers of government, to replace class ownership with common ownership.

Nor is it correct that class is based on “economic power” (or that this phrase has any meaning). Class is the relationship of groups of people to the means of production. In capitalism there are two classes only, owners and non-owners — capitalist class and working class. Rather loftily, the writer says “sociologists do not consider” that this is a satisfactory definition of class — without explaining why. Certainly society is riddled with “false consciousness” of class: do sociologists accept these conditioned evaluations, or do they seek categories in “a careful and scientific way”? However, the alleged concern is to render Marx’s view, and his done—wrongly.

The writer shows another misconception in saying that “in his interpretation of history” Marx “placed a great deal of emphasis” on the struggle between those two classes. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Prior to capitalism, many classes were involved. The critical struggles were not between slaves, plebeians or serfs and their masters, but between existing and aspiring ruling classes. Each time the outcome was, as The Communist Manifesto says, “either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” It is the class struggle under capitalism that is a confrontation between the owners of the means of production and wage-earners.

These mistaken observations are followed by a string of assertions which might be headed “fallacies about Marx”. First, Marx did not claim that as a result of crises capitalism would collapse. The idea of capitalism collapsing is drawn from a section in Volume III of Capital, “The Theory of the Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit”; included in the chapter is a list of “counteracting causes”, which operate separately or together at different times against the tendency Marx described. Second, the sole avenue to revolution for Marx and Marxists is the working class organizing consciously: not to get “power transferred” to it (by whom?) but to take ownership and control of the means of living.

New World
To speak of a “more egalitarian” society “emerging” is completely misleading as to the nature of Socialism. Inequalities in society all arise from the single fundamental inequality between owners and non-owners of the means of production. When common ownership is established, all people then stand in the same relationship to society and its wealth. There is no question of inequalities being removed by degrees, as the words “more egalitarian” and “emerge” imply: they all go, as an organic consequence of the change.

The writer says Marx “looked towards” a society of complete equality in which there would also be “gradual elimination” of the state. It is true that when The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848 Marx and Engels had to take into account conditions which are now different; their preface to the 1872 edition observed that some measures they had proposed would be “very differently worded” after twenty-four years. They were perfectly aware, however of the state’s nature as “the executive committee of the ruling class” and that its function would end after the establishment of Socialism. Today we can say that would not be a gradual abolition but an immediate one.

The writer attributes to Marxism the idea of “a blueprint for the ideal society” and asks if people would find it acceptable. A reasonable question — only there is no blueprint; indeed, Engels pointed out that is was not Socialists’ business to provide “recipes for future cookshops”, or tell the working class what it was going to like. The outlines of Socialism, implicit in common ownership, are: complete equality; free access to all the wealth of society and consequently no money; the absence of the problems of capitalism — wars, economic crises, poverty and the countless problems associated with it. People are at liberty to infer or surmise details about work, social life and effects in personal relationships. The important point is that whatever vision is formulated is not a strait-jacket for the entire community; Socialism will afford not a single way but many ways of life. In that connection, a final error must be pointed out. News From Nowhere is Morris, not Marx. Morris said he had never read Marx; conceivably, Marx might not have cared for Morris’s enthusiasm for the mediaeval. But does the writer not think Socialists capable of independent thought?

This is, of course, only one of a great many cockeyed accounts of Marx. The majority are found in weightier works where the author is concerned to push an economic or political viewpoint and claims “scholarship” for misrepresentations. The serious thing about this book is that it is an elementary work for students, and for a good many will provide their only information about Marx. Where do these garbled snippets masquerading as “careful and scientific” knowledge come from? They are notes, passed on in endless scrappy courses. A lecturer who hasn’t read Marx gives out the notes and comments he took from his lecturer; his students reproduce them, and any who become lecturers hand them on; one writes a study-course incorporating them, and they are turned into notes again . . . It is like the party game where a message is whispered from ear to ear round a circle, for the fun of the inevitable distortions — “Going to advance, require reinforcements” comes out as “Going to a dance, need three and fourpence”.

Any WEA student is recommended to write to us for some pamphlets and issues of the Socialist Standard that will put him in the picture, as well as Marx’s own work. There is no substitute.
Robert Barltrop

A Propagandist visits Birmingham (1956)

From the October 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

Euston Station was congested on Saturday, August 11th with industrial workers returning to the Midlands. after the industrial fortnight’s holiday. Workers seem condemned to doing everything “en masse" and it seems the accepted idea that a “holiday” means the mass transference of population (working class) all in the same two weeks.

The sight of hundreds of people carrying cases, all pushing their way through the same three feet wide gap of the “ all important" ticket barrier was one that typified the absurdity of Capitalism. The train, which was late, was packed beyond cattle limitation with people standing in the single gangway right up to Northampton.

Due to late arrival and missing the Birmingham Comrades no meeting was held on Saturday night, but on Sunday an excellent meeting was held. Both a Birmingham speaker and the visiting London member addressed an audience of 100 for 2½ hours. At first the Bull Ring (the public meeting centre in Birmingham) is a difficult place to speak in unless one has had some experience of places in London like Beresford Square, Woolwich and Tower Hill; there is always quite a bit of noise going on. both from traffic and from street performers who also frequent the spot, but a more attentive audience is hard to imagine. The hecklers are few, the reception of the case for Socialism is excellent, and a fair hearing is demanded by the audience if anybody persistently interrupts. At this first meeting 13s. 8d. worth of literature was sold and a collection of 10s. taken up. As is usual, all forms of Capitalism and types of government, were attacked by our speakers with emphasis laid on the black record of the Labour Party in and out of office; and no sign of enthusiasm for that party came from the workers assembled. It was also not difficult to show the real pro-Capitalist (Russian variety) nature of the so-called Communist Party. It was found necessary to stress the difference between nationalisation and common ownership of the means of production, workers being more familiar with quack reforms of Capitalism than the abolition of the wages system as a solution to their problems.

Capitalism being what it is, always in the midst of one crisis or another, there was ample current material to deal with in the strike at Austins, and the Suez Canal dispute. This latter thieves’ quarrel was illustrated to advantage by the August Socialist Standard quoting Eden as telling workers that their very existence depended on winning the “battle of inflation’’ only to find one month later that “ our’’ canal is the thing on which our lives depend.

About half way through the meeting an opponent, who had been heckling, got up on our platform to state his case against us. This largely consisted of a complete misunderstanding of the Party's concept of equality (the gentleman being a Christian told us that “God did not make us equal”) and the usual vague references to the un-Socialist constitution of “human nature.”

On other days the Bull Ring alternates with meetings and selling stalls, but another good meeting was held at Monday lunch-time. On this occasion another Birmingham comrade spoke to good effect. On Wednesday, the most promising of all meetings so far, was stopped by heavy rain after three-quarters of an hour. An audience of 150 were listening to questions and answers but before they dispersed some literature was sold.

Meanwhile on Tuesday (a marketing day) a trip was made out to Austins at Longbridge, a vast assemblage of factories, work shops and offices, which take the best part of half an hour to walk round outside. There are entrances at varying intervals with Austin Police in attendance; most of the rest of the surrounding is iron fencing with a double strand of barbed wire on top. The main idea in going was to see about the possibilities of a lunch-hour meeting, but the arrangements for this on Thursday fell through once more because of rain. While out there, however, half past five came round, which is knocking off time for some Austin workers, and with the literature case at the ready efforts were made to sell Socialist Standards. These were not very successful, it being only the second day back after the strike and holiday spending. One outstandingly curious feature of the visit was that hundreds of men from the factories and women from the offices coming out from making cars were either riding bicycles or on foot, and extra ’buses are laid on to move the queues. But for the madness of Capitalism there was a wonderful way to get rid of the reported 200,000 unsold cars, but then again, but for Capitalism such a contradiction would not have arisen.

In the evening on Thursday the visiting member went along to the Birmingham Branch meeting where, after usual branch business, an interesting discussion on present-day aspects of Trade Unionism was held.

On Friday, from 12.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. another good meeting was held in the Bull Ring. A Birmingham Comrade spoke again and in favourable weather 200 workers listened to our case. The following day being another Market Day, and the London members having been out to Stratford-on-Avon, the meeting did not start until 7.30 p m., having to stop after 8 p.m. due to heavy rain.

The last meeting of the visit, on Sunday evening, more than compensated for any set-backs. Starting at ten minutes past seven the meeting carried on till nearly 10 p.m. The audience was a good 200 strong and listened attentively to our speakers, 8s. 6d. worth of literature was sold, including some pamphlets (most who were interested had by this time bought the Socialist Standard) and a collection of 5s. 8d. wer taken up.

Looking back, the London member would say that the visit to Birmingham was successful and worthwhile: the support from Birmingham members, considering they have to work for a living, was excellent, and it is hoped that next year’s return visit, which he is looking forward to, will be enjoyed as much.
Harry Baldwin

Profits before life (1913)

From the May 1913 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The profits will not allow it.”

Rarely has the plain, tragic truth been so bluntly stated by a capitalist as on April 28th in the Westminster Coroner’s Court.

The Coroner was holding an inquiry into the “accident” that took place upon a building in course of erection in High Holborn.

Two and a half tons of iron was being hoisted by a crane “made to take three tons.” “ Everything was brand new ”

Henry James Matthews, a lad of 18, acting as a crane signalman, was killed as the result of the chain of the crane breaking.

After the poor lad’s brother had given evidence, the Coroner called a member of the firm that made the chain.

After great difficulty the Coroner got the makers to give evidence. The secretary of the company that supplied it offered the Coroner some certificates, but said that he knew nothing about the chain itself.

The Coroner was forced to remark that "it seems a very casual way of doing things when a man’s life is at stake.”

Finally a member of the manufacturing firm told the Coroner that he had been asked to attend ‘‘to listen to the evidence." He was asked by the Coroner : "After testing do you go over the chain to see if there are any cracks?"

The answer was a remarkable indictment of this cursed system of society, for he said:


"I am not talking about profits,” retorted the Coroner. "I am talking about the safety of human life."

After some further questions the Coroner was led to say: "You are perfectly well aware of what you are talking about. It in no use trying to befool me. You are trying to ride round the subject."

A link of the chain was handed to the witness and he was asked why, although the link had snapped, it showed no signs of fracture. All he could say to the point was. ” It shows no signs of fracture."

The Coroner said that “looking at the surface of the link you can see it is not a fracture, and that the metal had never been properly welded."

Frederick John Parkes, Factory Inspector, said that the quality of the workmanship of the link was very bad indeed and that the metal was defective. It had not been properly welded.

Even the representative of the building company had to confess that he "found the rest of the chain not perfect."

This is the plain, unvarnished evidence, as reported in the “Evening News" (28.4.13). And it bears out to the fullest extent the charge of the Socialist that men are sacrificed to the hunt for profits. You have here the capitalist confession as given in a capitalist paper.

A lad of 18 is done to death! At an age when the sons of the parasite master class are enjoying themselves in the playing fields of Eton or Harrow, or Oxford or Cambridge, a worker’s child is manipulating two and a half tons of iron with a “brand new" but rotten chain—because the employers want “profits."

In the interest of profit women and girls are sweated in the chain-making sheds of Cradley Heath, and after years of struggle against the employers they are allowed 2½d. an hour!

The story of profit mongering is the record of the sacrifice of human lives to the parasites' interests.

Col. H. A. Yorke, of the Board of Trade, said in his report of the 19th September last, that during the year 2,934 accidents occurred due to failure of couplings—made of iron —on the railways.

"A weldless steel coupling has been tried and has given very satisfactory results, but" —(Ah, that all-meaning "but"!)— "unfortunately it costs rather more than the iron coupling. The accidents," the Colonel said, "frequently result in injuries to the men." But what matters that when it is a case of workmen's lives against PROFITS.

“ Even if a little more money were spent upon it it would still be the cheapest coupling in the world," declares Col. Yorke, but his Department, the infamous Board of Trade (of Titanic memory), being anxious only for the capitalists' welfare, lets the matter rest, whilst the murdered are carried in a ghastly procession to their eternal home.

Toilers may be slaughtered so that the “White" Star Line may pay 60 per cent, dividend. Shunters may be shunted into an early grave to enable the railway companies to make 50 millions profit in a twelvemonth. Dynamite makers may be blown to atoms (as at Pitsea last month) so that the dynamitards may give “Peace prizes." All this may be done to make a merry England for our masters.

It will only cease when the workers awake to the fact that this system stands for murder and robbery—stands in the way of the safety, the well-being, the happiness of humanity—of the wealth producers.
Adolph Kohn

The Socialist Party of Great Britain (1978)

From the February 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following is from the new 112 page edition of our pamphlet QUESTIONS OF THE DAY which will be available later this month price 50p (65p including postage). There are new chapters on inflation and unemployment, left-wing organizations, the women’s movement and China, together with those on parliament, democracy and dictatorship, revolution, reformism, nationalization and others.

THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, which is the only party in this country that stands for Socialism, was formed on 12 June 1904 by a hundred or so members and former members of the Social Democratic Federation who were dissatisfied with the policy and structure of that party.

The SDF had been formed in 1884 as a professed Marxist organization, although Engels who was living in London at the time would have nothing to do with it. At that time the writings of Marx, Engels and other socialist pioneers were hardly known in the English-speaking countries, except to the few who knew foreign languages. The SDF, however, did have the merit of popularizing in Britain the ideas and works of Marx. This was later to bear fruit in demands for an uncompromising, democratically organized socialist party in place of the reformist and undemocratic SDF.

The SDF spent much of its time campaigning for reforms that were supposed to improve working-class conditions. H. M. Hyndman, who played the major role in setting up the party, seemed to regard it as his personal possession and reacted to any criticism in a haughty and autocratic manner. The party journal Justice was owned by a private group over which the members had no control.

The opportunism and arrogance of Hyndman had already led to a break-away in 1884 when a number of members, including William Morris and Eleanor Marx, set up the Socialist League which however soon unfortunately ceased to be of use when it was dominated by the anarchists.

A second revolt led to the formation in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party, copying the American organization of that name. At first, along with a programme of ‘immediate demands’, the SLP declared its object to be the conquest of political power but soon, under the influence of its American parent it subordinated political to industrial action.

Another revolt against the Hyndman group’s dominance of the SDF was organized by men and women who had a much firmer grasp of Marxist political and economic theory. For their opposition to opportunism they were contemptuously called ‘impossibilists’. At first they tried to use the machinery of the SDF to get the party to reform itself, but they came up against the Hyndman clique who were ready to resort to all kinds of undemocratic practices to maintain their control of the party. Conferences were packed, branches dissolved and members expelled.

Matters came to a head at the 1904 Conference held in Burnley at the beginning of April. At the Conference more expulsions took place. When the delegates of some of the London branches returned they held a special meeting to discuss the situation and approved a statement which, among other things, urged the following:
‘The adoption of an uncompromising attitude which admits of no arrangements with any section of the capitalist party; nor permits any compromise with any individual or party not recognising the class war as a basic principle, and not prepared to work for the overthrow of the present, capitalist system. Opposition to all who are not openly and avowedly working for the realisation of Social Democracy. A remodelled organisation, wherein the Executive shall be mainly an administrative body, the policy and tactics to be determined and controlled by the entire organisation. The Party Organ to be owned, controlled and run by the Party. The individual member to have the right to claim protection of the whole organisation against tyrannical decisions.’
On 12 June most of those who signed this leaflet together with a few others founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The constitution of the Socialist Party was formed in such a manner that what had happened in the SDF  would be impossible. The Executive Committee, elected by the whole of the membership, was to run the day-to-day affairs of the party in accordance with the policy laid down at Conferences and was required to report to the membership twice a year. All its meetings were to be open not only to members but also to non-members. The party journal the Socialist Standard, which first appeared in September 1904 and monthly ever since, is under party control through the Executive Committee. An elaborate appeals procedure —first to the Conference or Delegate Meeting and then to a poll of all the members—was written into the rule-book to protect any member charged with activities warranting expulsion.

The rule-book of the Socialist Party lays down a thoroughly democratic procedure for the conduct of party affairs. Control of policy is in the hands of the members; there are no leaders and never have been. Democratic procedure has been maintained throughout the party’s existence and is a practical refutation of those who argue that all organizations must degenerate into bureaucratic rule. In fact a democratic structure without leaders is the necessary form of any socialist party.

At its formation the members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which, without the need for any change, has remained the basis of membership of the party. Within that framework the party has worked consistently to make socialist principles known and to expose the many erroneous and dangerous theories that have attracted support among the workers.

Whose side are you on? (1985)

Editorial from the April 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The World Socialist Movement membership is a tiny minority who think in terms of a social upheaval to establish a different order of human relationships. In socialist society the attitudes which people have to each other — how they relate to one another — will be fundamentally different from those which operate today Some things which now have to be taken for granted, because life under capitalism would otherwise be impossible, will be inconceivable in socialism. Nothing, for example, will be produced for sale; there will be no presumption that society is operated in the interests of a parasitic minority. On the other hand the presumptions of socialism, such as free participation in society’s work and unfettered access to the common wealth, is totally at odds with everything which characterises capitalism.

We might put this in another way: socialism will change, among other things, how people think, in much the same way that the development of industrial capitalism changed ideas from those of mediaeval society. Clearly, we of the socialist minority have taken on an enormous task — to encourage and stimulate a world-wide change of attitudes to the extent that a majority of the world's thousands of millions of people consciously opt to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. How then do socialists — getting their living as wage slaves, struggling for the socialist revolution — think?

Socialism is a matter of class interests. It is the only political objective in the interests of the class who depend on the sale of their labour power for their living. The parties of the World Socialist Movement are the only political organisations worthy of working class support. But can capitalists also join a socialist party? And what happens if a worker in a socialist party becomes miraculously elevated into the capitalist class? Would they then reverse their political opinions, attacking the ideas they once supported and vice versa? Would those lucky workers have to abandon their membership of the party?

The first thing to be said in reply to these questions is that all people should be expected to act in their class interests. It may be that a few individual capitalists, for motives perhaps of altruism or because they cannot stomach a society of universal repression, murder and disease, decide to join the struggle for socialism in the knowledge that they are working to deprive themselves of their privileged standing in society. But as a class the capitalists cannot and do not act in this way. As a class, internationally united whatever their national disputes, they protect their position as owners and rulers. For one thing, they ensure that every effort is made to persuade the useful, productive majority that capitalism's deprivation and exploitation represent the ultimate in rational, beneficent social organisation.

It is rather different with the workers. In their case only a small minority act fully in their class interests, by joining the struggle for socialism. The overwhelming majority are on the other side. Whatever reservations they may have about the system's effects, workers in the mass agree that capitalism is the sanest and the best of all possible societies and they dismiss the idea of a classless, moneyless, leaderless, war-free system as at best a crackpot utopian dream. At elections, in their tens of millions, they affirm this attitude in their overwhelming and consistent support for the parties which stand for the continuation of capitalism.

That is to view the situation across a fairly wide, historical and social spectrum. What happens when we take a narrower view of the day-to-day and immediate events of capitalism? When we do this we can see that workers are often compelled to act in accordance with their class interests, whatever misconceptions they may have about their social standing and whatever their view on the issue of capitalism as against socialism. An obvious example of this is when workers combine to resist an attack by the employers on their living standards, or try to enforce an improvement in those standards. In such cases, where the workers are genuinely acting in a cooperative assertion of their united class interests, they have the support of socialists.

In giving this support, socialists apply a rigorous, unbending judgement of working class interests. For one thing, we look beyond those side issues which so often absorb so much attention during a strike. In the case of the coal strike, for example, there were many such side issues, which stimulated some powerful emotional responses. There was the fact that many thousands of working class people suffered extremes of impoverishment in face of the resolve of the employers and the Tory government to crush and starve them into defeat. Then there was the courageous, poignant reaction of the strikers — the communal self-help which did so much to feed and clothe the miners and their families, to keep them warm and to uplift their morale. There is evidence here of the power and efficiency of human co-operation and mutual support. And then there were the sights and sounds of the police, provoking, insulting and beating the miners.

An immediate, emotional response to this was to support the miners because we are of the same class. But not all workers' actions, no matter how courageous and inspiring they may be, are in their own interests. It is, to put it at its most tentative, debatable that the interests of the working class — as a class, internationally — were ever at stake in the coal strike. The miners may argue that some national, short-term interests were involved, which in turn raises the question of whether even those interests are served by a strike which dragged on for so long and which cost the strikers so much. Then there is the fact that those ugly, sneering, brutal policemen are themselves members of the working class, holding a job which is by definition opposed to their class interests. Miners, along with some other traditionally militant sections of the workers, are not untainted by such criticisms. Just after the war there was an organised resistance in the coalfields to the employment of Polish and Italian workers, just as there now is to the import of coal from abroad. And it was, of course, the London dockers who marched in support of Enoch Powell just after his "rivers of blood" exercise in racist demagoguery.

Workers should not, then, take up the attitude “this is my class and I stand with them through thick and thin". The class struggle is not a game. It is a deadly war between two sections of society whose interests are opposed — immediately over the division of wealth under capitalism and ultimately over the ownership and control of the means and instruments to produce that wealth.

Socialism will be a classless society of communal ownership, free access and human co-operation. To bring it to reality needs a conscious, united act by the world working class. Consciousness is not developed or raised through mental confusion; it is only hampered and diverted. Socialists struggle for the next social order through our uncompromising, searching analysis of capitalism. It is a commentary on the present state of political awareness, that this analysis brings us more often to oppose working class actions than to support them because we know which side we are on and where the workers must stand.

Clones for sale (2003)

Editorial from the February 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
In her utopian novel Herland that was first published in 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes a society in which there have been no men for generations. Naturally, she had to assume that reproduction had become possible without the intervention of men.
In a work of literature this is of course quite acceptable but as late as 1994 her book was being criticised, somewhat humourlessly, on this point for not realising “that without the fertilisation by the male, the human race would atrophy and disappear”. As it has turned out that Gilman was not talking biological nonsense, not that in a work of utopian literature she was required to be entirely realistic: an all-woman society lasting generations is theoretically possible (whether it's desirable or likely are of course completely different matters).
In fact even in 1994 biologists knew that it was theoretically possible to reproduce a mammal asexually: by taking a cell from some of part of a body and substituting it for the nucleus of an egg cell. However, this method meant that the new individual would have exactly the same biological make-up as the individual from which the cell was taken, i.e. would be a clone. After a sheep was reproduced asexually in 1997 it was only a matter of time before a human would too. Now, allegedly, this has been done, by a clinic linked to a New Age sect.
Although there can be no objection in principle to the procedure involved – it's not playing god (since there is no god; life, including human life, wasn't created, it just evolved) – the question arises: what's the point? Why do it?
The Raelian sect say they are doing it because they believe that human life was introduced on Earth 25,000 years ago by aliens from outer space and that this is what these aliens want us to have done before they return. Obviously, this is complete nonsense, though not quite so nonsensical as the more widespread belief that some supernatural being created all life on Earth some 6,000 years ago. Others are trying to do it for more down-to-earth reasons: to make money. And that's the point under capitalism. If there's a profit to be made from something some “enterprising” person will come along and try to do it – and there is a market in providing babies for childless couples.
A fair number of commercial “fertility clinics” are already in the market and cloning might be a more acceptable procedure for some couples than those currently marketed. Hence the race to get there first and make above normal profits before others join in. The irony is that the commercially-motivated clinics may have been beaten to it by a group moved by other considerations. In fact, some of the criticism of the Raelians sounds like sour grapes as well as concern that they might have queered the pitch by provoking a backlash that will make not just commercial cloning but already marketed procedures more difficult.
Normally the media – whose aim is to make money from advertising – feign to believe that there might be something in the “paranormal” – UFOs, ghosts and other strange tales – as this has proved a good way to attract an audience and so advertising revenue. But when something serious is at issue they drop this pretence and admit, as their ridiculing of the Raelian beliefs shows, that they no more believe all this guff than do most of the rest of us.
Having said this, genetic engineering does raise problems of choice – ethical problems, as they are called – that would persist even in a socialist society. Which particular genetic disorders should be corrected, and how? How far can choosing the sex of a child go? Since there seems to be no point in it, will human cloning continue?
But the point is that in a socialist society these matters will be able to be debated and decided in a serene atmosphere, free from contamination by commercial considerations. For socialism will be a completely non-market, non-commercial society whose guiding principle will be human welfare and nothing but human welfare, not profit and money-making as is the case today.