Friday, September 30, 2016

John Ruskin, 1819-1900: A Socialist Perspective (2000)

John Ruskin
From the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

John Ruskin, primarily remembered today as an art and architectural critic, was hugely influential amongst the labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His influence was acknowledged by William Morris, and a poll of the Independent Labour Party, in the first decade of the twentieth century placed Ruskin as the most important figure of influence in the membership.

Ruskin is far less read today than then, and, indeed, many on the left of capitalism are no longer comfortable with many of his views, particularly on issues of race and imperialism (Ruskin was one of few figures to support the savage suppression of the Jamaican Insurrection in 1865). Nonetheless, a good deal has been written about Ruskin this year, the centenary of his death. Exhibitions across the country are also running, including an exhibition "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites" at the Tate in London. This particular exhibition in fact reveals a good deal about the more bizarre side to Ruskin's views on art. Primarily (especially in his early years) the view that good artistic taste was a moral quality as art was the interpretation of divine truth. Representations that were "true to nature", such as J.M.W. Turner's were great, and those that were not were inferior works.

Obviously any reasoning contemporary of his, let alone socialists in the twenty-first century, would see such views as the nonsense they are. The religious obsession of many of Ruskin's contemporaries, however, meant that he rapidly became a respected figure and critic.

So why was Ruskin of interest to the later labour movement and some early socialist pioneers?

The answer, and the reason for Ruskin's subsequent decline as a respectable Victorian art critic, lay in the application of his views to the arena of political economy.

Between 1843 and 1860 Ruskin produced his multi-volume examination of art history, Modern Painters. But he became increasingly diverted by the ugliness of industrialisation, urbanisation, and poverty of a developing capitalist Europe, which seemed contrary to his moral and aesthetic religious view of the world. In the late 1850s, Ruskin's thoughts began to turn from the nonsensical religious analysis of art to an examination of the conditions under which art was produced. He contrasted the works of gothic beauty in Stones of Venice (1851-3) with the squalid uniformity and imitation of industrial British architecture. The relation of labourer to his work in industrial capitalist society meant that production was totally separated from the workers' creative faculties and art had become bastardised displays in private galleries for the appreciation of a privileged few. Ruskin's conclusion that artistic and social decline were due to political and economic conditions produced works that was of interest to later critics of capitalism; most notably the political reformists that emerged from the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, but also early socialists like William Morris.

Ruskin, by around 1860 and the publication of his essays on political economy, Unto This Last, had reached the conclusion that the test of production and consumption was in its impact on human life and happiness. This was opposed starkly to the capitalist society in which he lived, of production for profit and subsequent overproduction amidst a grossly unequal society where the hardest poverty existed next to luxury and opulence. Though a very long way from any sort of socialist conclusions, Ruskin sought, against his inherited Tory political inclinations, to redefine the classical political economy of the era (not fundamentally different from the current orthodoxies). This laissez-faire, free trade political economy was, for Ruskin, a far too narrow reading of human nature, with the motive of human existence being reduced to the lowest terms of private gain and universal, supposedly "enlightened" selfishness. Despite the limited nature of these conclusions from a socialist perspective, they provoked an outcry from Ruskin's contemporary ex-admirers who were alarmed at his straying beyond art in the application of his aesthetic and ethical values. A society which denied production for profit in favour of production for the benefit of humankind, would clearly not enable the privilege of a few to continue. Ruskin, however, never concluded that capitalist ownership of the means of production (whose political economy Ruskin thought was its ideological expression) was the defining feature of the existing condition of production. Instead, he concluded that the relinquishing of paternal responsibilities of industrial capitalists, no longer with a close pastoral tie to its labour force, was the problem (and here lies a possible link to later state capitalists and reformists who wanted the state to fill this role).

In seeking to redefine classical political economy Ruskin attacked its language and terms like "money", "price", "value", "wealth", and so on. Ruskin defined the term "riches" and identified social and political power as depending on economic inequality:
"Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that of electricity acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket."
Ruskin, however, failed to realise the class basis of the "force" and "default" of the guinea in the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources; failing to see a definite difference in interests between those who own property and derive privilege and those who, by their non-ownership of productive resources, are forced to sell their labour power for less than the value of what they produce.

If riches (being the power of the privileged in an unequal society) grew with inequality, wealth did not. "Wealth" defined by Ruskin was not more money or property, but that which contributes to the common benefit of humanity. Great wealth, as opposed to riches, by Ruskin's definition, was therefore incompatible with the deprivation of body and mind of capitalist labour. Ruskin's declared object was:
"to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration".
Socialists would not disagree with this statement necessarily. Clearly, human production should be for the common wealth and for human needs. But Ruskin's belief that this could be achieved by a "noble" class of philanthropic industrialists is misguided in the extreme and a failure whose lesson his "followers" in the later reformist labour movement did not learn. But it is all too easy to see the appeal of this lazy idealism; that people had just forgotten their responsibilities; that the condition of the working majority was naturally one of subservience to benevolent masters. It simply avoids rational reasoning and substitutes it with a sentimental appeal to a past that was every bit as exploitative of the majority as the present (this sort of attitude is present today, particularly in the ranks of the capitalist left, about the post-World War II "golden age"). The twentieth century saw a whole host of reformists, headed by the Labour Party, just like this, trying to provide paternal support for an exploited working majority, robbed blind but expected to be grateful for a state handout when capitalism cannot even provide (profitable) work in a society and economy with potentially boundless useful work to be done.

A further, but equally flawed, aspect of Ruskin's thought and influence was his appeal to nature and the simple pastoral life; clearly an attractive proposition for many workers in appalling living conditions. But the choice is not industrial or pastoral society, but between the democratic control of commonly-owned productive resources and production for profit for the benefit and privilege of the five percent of the population who presently control these resources.

So why the appeal to early socialists such as William Morris?

Here the answer lies in the rejection of much of Ruskin's thought, most obviously much of his religious confusions and more dubious aspects of his political economy, and the acceptance of his aesthetic ideal; that things should be produced beautifully if they can and that art and labour should not be separate concepts. While Ruskin expected this within a pastoral capitalism, William Morris realised that this was only possible when workers controlled their own productive process (see esp. Art, Labour and Socialism) through the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. A conclusion as relevant in 2000 as it was on Ruskin's death in 1900.
Colin Skelly

The Curse of Xawara (1998)

From the June 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The tragedy being enacted in Northern Brazil appears to be moving towards its last act. It is a tragedy that has been enacted throughout the history of private property.

The fate of indigenous people invaded by a more economically developed society makes a sorrowful catalogue of human misery. The Native Americans slaughtered in the United States in the last century, the butchery of the Aborigines in Australia and now the destruction of the Yanomami people in Brazil.

It has been estimated that there were over 100,000 Yanomami roaming the watershed of the Rio Branco and Orinoco rivers in the Northern Amazon basis when the Spanish colonises reached the New World. It is reckoned that they have lived in these tropical rain forests for something like 40,000 years but it is now though that only 22,000 of them survive, 9,400 in Brazil and the rest in Venezuela.

Unlike many other tribal groups, the Yanomami have managed to resist integration with modern capitalism. Portuguese exploiters, who attracted indigenous people into their settlements and into slavery, failed to lure the Yanomami from their traditional communal culture. Likewise, early missionaries failed to convert them to their guilt-ridden religious opium. The Yanomami preferred inhaling the Yakuna (a hallucinogenic tree extract) and practising their traditional rites and ceremonies. Modern anthropologists consider them to be one of the last remaining societies on earth that still live in kinship groups and inhabit "malocas" (communal huts). They exist on a staple diet of cassava gathered from their manioc plantations and game from the jungle, such as monkeys and turtles. They live the semi-nomadic life that once was the norm for all of humankind. They are a living example of humanity's communal past. Tragically, they appear doomed. Modern capitalism will probably see to that.

Many of them were killed in the 1970s when the Brazilian military government, in an attempt to open up the amazon to gold speculators and cattle barons, built the first highway through the Yanomami's terrain. The road was never finished but thousands of the Yanomami were. They were killed by the infections, such as Yellow Fever, brought by the road builders. The 1990s were to see an increase in the encroachment of capitalism in their way of life. Their reservation of 9,000 square kilometres was reduced to 2,000 and the government allowed another 256 square kilometres of their land to be exploited for gold mining in 1990. Little attention is paid to "human rights" when capital becomes involved. Some 45,000 gold miners have poured into their land, polluting their rivers with mercury, blowing up villages, and shooting children (they call them "monkeys") out of the trees for sport.

The recent forest fires have devastated even more of their forests. Many of these fires were started deliberately to clear land for cattle. The Yanomami must have to forest to live, without it they must die. There are laws in Brazil that debar the exploitation of the shrinking rain forest area that the Yanomami inhabit, but these are largely ignored by a government desperate to advance the development of capitalism in Brazil.

These last remnants of a former stage of human society have at present little chance of survival. Neldo Campos, the state governor, voiced the insatiable voice of modern capitalism when he said; "There is too much land for the Indians, and the devastating economy of the state will make it inevitable that hungry colonisers will want to move in on the indigenous reserves."

The Yanomami language is a linguistically isolated one with many dialects, making anthropologists believe that they once occupied a much larger area than at present. Their word for disease and epidemics is "Xawara" which they see as an evil spirit that lives in the bottom of the world. They have the same word for gold. They see the "nabebe" (white men") as having an insane desire to bring disease and gold from the bottom of the world.

The working class of the so-called "civilised" world must establish World Socialism very soon, otherwise, the men, women and children of the Yanomami people have little hope of survival. After all, as workers, we also suffer from the curse of Xawara.
Richard Donnelly

The Heroic Tragedy: Civil War and Social Revolution in Spain (2016)

From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Back the revolutionary general strike the very instant anyone [i.e. the military] revolts. We, the people of Catalonia, let us be on a war footing and ready to act. Be valiant. Arm yourselves and do battle. Long Live the CNT! Long Live Libertarian Communism! Launch the revolutionary general strike against fascism.' - CNT statement of 19 July 1936
Eighty years ago this summer, Spain saw an attempted military coup being temporarily defeated by ordinary people in many parts of the country. This was the beginning of what was to be a three year long civil war, resulting in half a million deaths, and followed by the four decade dictatorship of General Franco. This article will aim to describe some of the key features of the conflict, paying close attention to the ‘social revolution’ in Catalonia and Aragon which is of most relevance to socialists.

To understand the outbreak of the civil war it is first necessary to understand some of the background to the conflict. Spain in the early twentieth century was a predominately agrarian society; large scale industrialisation had only taken place in the north of the country and in Catalonia, around Barcelona. In the countryside an entrenched land owning class, of which the church was a significant section, had been resistant to agrarian economic reform, rural workers were locked into a state of poverty, often forced to work for long hours for little more than subsistence wages. Decades of agitation and self education had given birth to a strong and militant anarchist and syndicalist movement. Spain had become the only country where the anarchist ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and others had given rise to a social movement of significant numbers. By the time of the 1930’s the major workers unions where the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) and the UGT (General Workers’Union). Despite ideological differences and occasional conflict there was often cooperation between the two organisations. The CNT was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation that shunned parliamentary elections and advocated industrial direct action as a means of overcoming capitalism. From the late twenties onwards, the FAI (Anarchist Federation of Iberia) had gained influence within the CNT. The FAI pushed for a programme of insurrectional ‘revolutionary gymnastics’with the intent of immediately bringing about anarchism through violent confrontation with the state. These policies clashed with those of the more orthodox syndicalists within the CNT who saw the social revolution as only being possible after a longer period of working class self-education and self-organisation. The UGT was affiliated to the labourist social-democratic PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and pursued a line that was more in favour of winning legal concessions from the government.

The military declaration of 1936, which bought the beginning of the civil war, was not the first time that Spain had faced dictatorship. The dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera came about in 1923 when the government resigned in the face of a similar pronunciamiento from the Army. Following a bloodless coup, Primo de Rivera stayed in power until 1931, when the support of the military and the wealthy classes was lost. Subsequent elections gave victory to anti-monarchist parties, causing the King to abdicate and flee the country, thus bringing into being the Second Republic of Spain.

The coming of the Second Republic saw a sudden rise in working class activity as workers looked to it as a means to finally solve their economic and social problems. Rural and urban workers, even in areas not previously known for their radicalism, began to demand improvements to working conditions, public meetings became commonplace and the church, seen by many to be defending the privileged and the wealthy, often became a target for grievances. The increase in working class militancy, and particularly attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, enraged certain sections of the ruling class. In the election of 1933 a confederation of Catholic parties, the CEDA, operating on a quasi-fascist platform, won the largest amount of seats but not enough of a majority to form a government. Despite this, power was offered to the second largest party, the Radical Republican Party. The Radicals co-operated with the CEDA and in 1934 they ceded, giving three ministerial positions to the CEDA.

In protest against the CEDA entering the government the PSOE declared a general strike on 5th October 1934. In most parts of the country the strike was rapidly defeated as the government declared a state of martial law and the army took over the running of essential services. In Barcelona the regional government declared an independent state of Catalonia. A blood bath was avoided, when a request to arm the workers was refused, and when the military general in charge of re-establishing the authority of the Madrid central government ordered his troops to be ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ towards any provocations. The only place the strike held on for any amount of time was in the northern mining area of Asturias where, unlike in other areas, the strike had the backing of all the workers organisations. There the situation rapidly became insurrectional. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 armed miners took part in an uprising. Civil Guard posts and public buildings were attacked and several towns being successfully occupied. Comunismo libertario was declared with revolutionary committees taking on the social responsibilities of government, the use of money was restricted and ration vouchers were distributed to families. In response the government sent General Franco and the Moroccan Army of Africa, as well as the navy and airforce, to quell the disturbance. Retribution was brutal, around 2000 miners were killed and a further 20,000 to 30,000 imprisoned. Moorish troops unleashed a wave of looting, rape and summary executions on the surrounding mining villages. The Asturian uprising showed a pattern of events that would be repeated on a larger scale two years later, as the civil war took its course.

The military rebellion
In 1936 a leftist popular front, supported for the first time by the votes of the anarcho-syndicalists, won the election. The victory was partly due to the promise to release the thousands of prisoners who were still being held following the uprisings of ‘34 and to also reverse and improve on wage reductions imposed by the previous government. Determined to put a stop to the growth of working class militancy, anti-religiosity and regional separatism that had accompanied the coming of the republic, a conspiracy of officers in the military sought to reimpose what they saw as being the true will of the nation. A coup was organised to take place in July 1936. The generals hoped that they would achieve a rapid victory. However, this was not to be. In the event, beginning on the 18 July, significant elements in the military and security forces remained loyal to the Republic. The whole of the Navy remained loyal, just over half of the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard –a rural paramilitary police force) as did over 70 percent of the Guardias de Asalto (Assault Guards –an urban paramilitary police force set up during the time of the republic).

On hearing of the military rising the government, in the beginning in denial about the seriousness of the situation, was at first unwilling to arm the workers organisations. So initially through their own initiatives, by raiding gun-shops, digging up weapons stored since the Asturias uprising or by being provided weapons by loyal Assault Guards, ordinary workers began to come out against the rising. In Madrid a crowd stormed the Montanna barracks. In Barcelona factory sirens sounded to warn of the rising and an immediate general strike came into effect. Thousands of people took to the streets, setting up barricades to hinder the incursions of the military. Where the workers movement was strong, and opposition was organised quickly, the rising was defeated. In areas which failed to offer resistance, the rising was successful and the military rebels (henceforth referred to as the ‘Nationalists’) began serving out a brutal repression of the workers organisations and anyone who was seen as being loyal to the republic. Spain was split into two zones, as noted by Raymond Carr ‘those who happened to be in a zone that was hostile to their beliefs had to conform, escape, or risk imprisonment or shooting. Loyalty was often a matter of locality.’Though, where given the choice, the working classes generally supported the Republic and the upper classes, the Nationalists.

The working class in the saddle
The effect of arming the unions meant that the workers organisations were in control. In Barcelona, the CNT was offered full control of the Generalitat (Catalonian regional government) but refused to take it, partly because they did not want to set up a ‘workers’ dictatorship’, and partly because they were not sure how to deal with the situation. Instead they took a place on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, which was in effect a sub-committee of the regional government. This committee was later dissolved and the CNT took a minority position within the Generalitat. While the CNT held power in the factories and workplaces, a vast swathe of governmental state power, including the administration of military affairs and the overseeing of justice, was left with the Generalitat. This would later be used as a level to prise power away from the syndicalists.

In Barcelona, Catalonia, Aragon and the surrounding areas the CNT enacted their anarcho-syndicalist ideology and set about collectivising large sections of industry, though it was in the countryside that the most far reaching attempts at realising ‘libertarian communism’ where attempted. Following the upheavals, most large landowners in republican controlled areas had fled. With the landowning class absent, rural workers began spontaneously commandeering and collectivising land. Collectivisation meant that access to equipment, resources and labour could be pooled, leading to and increase in output and productivity and an improvement in living conditions. Within the collectives attempts at achieving an equitable distribution of goods and services were conducted in a various different ways. Some, a minority, practised a system of free access where people could simply take what they needed from the communal store. Others printed their own forms of currency or ration cards. As time went on the normal state of affairs gravitated towards that of being paid a fixed ‘family wage’ where collective members where entitled to certain quantities of various household items. To say that money was abolished is to push too far, ‘money’ does not necessarily mean only state minted currency but whatever can serve as a general measure of value and means of exchange. Whilst some agricultural collectives did not pay their workers in state currency, it was still used as a means of accounting between units. Despite the collectivisations the basic economic unit was still that of separate and competing enterprises.
“Anarchists abandoned the idea of a substitute for national money. The agrarian collectives decided to abolish money, only to adopt other systems of exchange…. The difficulties created by local money and the lack of a unified currency soon became evident. Very soon the collectivists of Aragon saw the advantages of a kind of national bank”–Frank Mintz
In Catalonia and Aragon nearly 70 percent of the workforce was involved in the collectives. Across the whole of the Republican territory there were almost 800,000 involved on the land and just over one million in industry.

Industrial collectivisation was not as deep or far reaching as the efforts in the countryside. In the first days of the revolution workers simply seized abandoned factories and restarted production. Workers in a collectivised enterprise would organise themselves into committees, and the committees would be federated regionally. The basic unit of organisation was the factory committee. The requisitions where retrospectively made legal in late October 1936. This was partly in an effort for the central government to regain control of industry. Part of the legislation meant that each factory council had a designated ‘controller’ that was responsible to the government. The vast majority of industry in Catalonia was organised in this way. While the workers certainly had more control over their working conditions than in a privately or state owned enterprise, the industrial situation could best be described as kind of trade-union controlled capitalism; production was still being conducted for the purpose of exchange, both within the Republic and with the outside world.

(to be continued and concluded next month)