Thursday, January 5, 2017

Confusions of the Left (1987)

Book Review from the January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anthony Wright. Socialisms: Theories and Practices. Oxford University Press (Oxford. New York, 1986).

The title of this work is significant for the author argues that there must be a rejection of a single "correct" meaning of the term socialism for many interpretations are possible. Wright claims that those who deny the pluralistic perspective have embarked on a course which is "illegitimate, its basis flawed, its consequences damaging". However, far from clarifying the meaning of socialism, this book merely adds to the general confusion associated with the term.

It would appear, according to Wright's argument, that any claim to be "socialist" would be "legitimate". However, he argues that in Britain there is no political party with a "Marxist basis” (thus excluding discussion of the Socialist Party), and concentrates instead on the 1LP and the Fabians which he sees as the main school of "reformist socialism" in Britain.

Wright sees the Russian revolution as a turning point which led to Marxism becoming "Marxism-Leninism, with few prepared to quarrel about the hyphen”. Yet the term, Marxism-Leninism, simply adds to the general confusion since politically it has no meaning, or at least not for those with any understanding of the politics of either Marx or Lenin. Wright's insistence that Russia proved that there could be different interpretations of socialism depending on the social conditions, seems to assume that socialism can be anything at all. In fact, Russia, since the revolution, rather than establishing socialism, has seen the development of capitalism - state capitalism - with the state as owner rather than private individuals. Lenin himself referred to state capitalism in the context of Russia and Wright might have done well to have read Lenin more closely.

According to Wright "the world is full of socialisms" and the plethora of definitions he presents us with is certainly confusing. Because the author rejects the idea of a single “true" socialism, or socialist tradition, he can therefore include discussion of many strands of left-wing thought which call themselves socialist.

Wright has a tendency to slip into cliche at the expense of argument. So, for example, he claims that Lenin was "socialist of the deed and not of the book" and. having provided a thumb-nail sketch of Marx, writes him off as having left "a profoundly ambiguous legacy". Similarly the 1945 Labour government is described as a "vindication of the viability of a democratic socialist strategy" an observation that is merely stated, not argued for.

Wright argues that history has shown that the working class has abnegated its responsibility for establishing socialism and that this has now become the function of the "party”. And here we can see clearly Wright's affiliation to Leninism rather than Marxism. But new confusions soon occur. Wright does not think that racial, ethnic, religious and sexual conflicts have a class basis. As a result he says that the need is now to build a "socialist movement of persuasion and reform capable of making a wide appeal to people of different social classes". Thus in addition to the plethora of "socialisms", we now have a plethora of social classes. Of feminism he writes
It is a major achievement of feminism not merely to have identified the limited stereotype of socialism's traditional actor (male, manual, muscular) but to have identified the limited character of the wage-labour-capital relationship that underpinned it. Feminism has extended and enriched the definition of the socialist project, from "work" to "life", and has extended the range of possible socialist actors in the process, (p. 115)
But such an attitude expresses the limitations of the "socialisms" that Wright discusses, rather than the limitation of socialism as such. The Socialist Party has always had a concern not just with "work" but also with "life". And while we recognise that there are certain problems experienced by women in capitalism, those problems cannot be separated from the context of the class society in which they occur. Also, to focus on the particular problems of one section of the working class at the expense of the common problems experienced by all workers may result in divisive antagonisms between workers.

Wright dismisses Marxism with the self-contradictory statement that "every Marxist state is a dictatorship" and opts instead for what he calls "welfare capitalism" claiming that it can deliver what socialists have traditionally stood for, if the capitalist system is milked for what can be got out of it. But to adopt such a strategy would amount to accepting the crumbs of capitalism instead of seizing the banquet for socialism.

Socialisms: Theories and Practices ought to be retitled "Confusions of the Left: Claims and Counterclaims". There is a tendency for ever more absurd statements to be made such as: "there is a whole range of Marxisms". This is only true if we accept uncritically the claims of those who profess to be Marxists, or indeed socialists.

Wright concludes by observing that those who refuse to acknowledge "credible socialism" or socialism of a "realistic" kind, have not learned from "political and economic experience". Of course this begs the question of how we are to interpret that experience and what lessons are to be learnt from history. Socialism is more than moral outcry in an uncaring world, as Wright assumes. He argues that both socialism and capitalism are compatible with despotism but only capitalism has been capable of providing democracy and political freedom. This leads him to opt for a "third way between state socialism and welfare capitalism” a solution which is as unrealistic as Wright obviously feels socialism to be.

This book is yet another attempt to undermine socialism. It pretends to be offering "realism" but in fact is little more than an avowal of capitalism and an apologia for the Left.
Philip Bentley

Pollution and poison (1987)

Book Review from the January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Poisoned Womb. 1986. John Elkington. (Pelican Books. 255pp. £3.95).

This book sets out to describe the dangers to health and, in particular, the health of future generations that drugs, radiation, pollution and pesticides pose as a result of the increasing use of toxic substances which damage reproductive capabilities or cause mutations.

The author, a prolific writer on environmental problems, has collected an impressive amount of evidence to illustrate the ecological disasters which have occurred because of the need to make a profit under capitalism.

Infertility, miscarriages and congenital diseases have always occurred and the interplay of factors causing them make it difficult to prove that individual substances are harmful. But as the author points out, in the USA in the late 1950s about 2 per cent of newborn babies had some physical, mental or learning defect compared with about 4 per cent today (p. 18) and research carried out at Florida State University showed that by the late 1980s some 20 per cent of American males could be functionally sterile, compared with only 0.5 per cent in 1938. when scientifically sound sperm counts began, (p.48)

The different methods used in the analyses of pollutants and contaminants and the problems and limitations of the tests employed are described in interesting, though sometimes technical, detail in chapter one.

Chemical poisoning is not a new problem however. The ancient Romans suffered from lead poisoning due to the extensive use of lead drinking vessels and Napoleon suffered a number of symptoms as a result of arsenical contamination of the wallpaper in his room at St. Helena.

Multinational firms have, in many instances, ignored safety regulations, falsified research records of dangerous substances and been socially irresponsible in the search for increased profits. At least 5,000 children were born with deformities of the limbs by 1961 because their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide during pregnancy. The drug had been distributed by Distillers under the trade name of Distival in spite of the fact that Dr. George Somers, Distillers' pharmacologist, found in 1959 that a liquid preparation of thalidomide was definitely toxic. He tried to get Distillers to publish his findings but the company chose to keep them secret, (p. 101)

In 1976 the James river in Virginia had to be closed because of contamination from the manufacture of the insecticide Kepone by Life Science Products. Workers at the plant were found to be working in an environment where Kepone dust was several centimetres deep, and a number of workers suffered from severe headaches and tremors and some were found to be sterile. An investigation showed that a pollution control system had not been implemented because it would have affected profitability

Ciga-Geigy deliberately sprayed unprotected children with the insecticide Galecron to see how much of the insecticide was excreted, (p.232)

It is claimed that the damage can cause to reproductive systems has led to discrimination against women in the workplace. In 1979 five women opted for sterilisation to keep their jobs with Cyanamid Corporation. USA. The resulting controversy, although acrimonious, was by no means new: at the beginning of this century women were banned from working in the heavy lead-using trades in Britain because of research carried out at Guy's Medical School. The fact that lead may have been equally toxic to the fertile male worker was not considered and it is consistent with capitalism's priorities that it is more profitable to exclude certain categories of workers than make industrial processes safer.

Under capitalism profits can be made from any misfortune:
The Xytex Corporation . . . is aiming to publish a thriving market in human sperm: it sends out frozen sperm by mail order to doctors carrying out artificial insemination, supplying catalogues listing donors with details of their ethnic origin, height, weight, hair and eye colour, skin colour and blood group, (p.64)
John Elkington has provided many examples of the way in which the drive for profits harms workers' health without drawing clear political conclusions and the book ends rather lamely by stating more people are concerned with environmental issues. Even when political statements are made:
Such problems cut right across political frontiers, as it forcefully illustrated by recent experiences in Siberia. The rapid development of the region's natural resources has resulted in soaring birth defects and worker-mortality rates, (p.20)
Elkington misses the point that problems in the state-capitalist countries are caused by their integration into the capitalist system. Although this book provides a lot of useful information it does not offer a solution to the present system. Readers looking for a socialist alternative to capitalism's nightmare will have to look elsewhere.
Carl Pinel


A message for the New Year (1965)

Editorial from the January 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard

Another new year has arrived, and with it the usual crop of wishes for health, wealth, and prosperity. It is customary for the politicians and press at this arbitrary point in time to review the last twelve months and talk about our prospects in the coming year.

Probably many of them, Tories in particular, will be glad to turn their backs on 1964, not without a shudder. For the Conservative Party, it was a time of internal ructions and fortunes at a low ebb. Under the rather uninspiring leadership of Douglas-Home, they were still trying to live down the effects of the Profumo and other scandals, and were sensing the swing of opinion against them as the general election drew near. For the Labour Party, it was of course a different story.

With the turn of the year, Wilson's hundred days will be more than three-quarters gone, and with them perhaps some of the working class enthusiasm which gave him his precarious victory last October. A settling-in period he called it, and in that time the Labour Government have been busy imposing just the sort of measures which they so heartily condemned when their predecessors used them. There is nothing surprising in this. Such is the stuff of capitalist politics that even the best-intentioned promises are broken just like so much piecrust.

If the sentiments of a new year’s wish could become a reality by wishing hard enough, life would be a lot simpler, but whatever we may wish, capitalism will determine what we get, and for most of us it will be a pretty second rate existence.

For we are the majority and we have no ownership in the means of production and distribution; we have to rely on our wage packets to get by. Because of this, 1965 basically will not be any different for us than the years which went before, although Labour politicians will try to tell us otherwise.

For the owning minority it is another story. Capitalism will determine what they get also, but it will be very much more worth having than the very best for which workers can hope. It will in fact be for them a life of ease and comfort, with the best food, clothing and shelter that money can buy. Despite the ups and downs of business, this will be the general picture of their life from one end of the year to the other. They are the capitalist class.

Capitalism is based upon the minority ownership of the means of life, where the paramount interest is the production of goods for sale and profit Such a system is anarchic, riddled with anomalies and contradictions, and relegates human interests to a point way down the list of priorities. Yet despite all this, it will not die of old age, but will stay in existence until the workers of the world decide to end it. It is against this background that the failures of governments fall into perspective. They just cannot deliver the goods as far as workers are concerned, because capitalism can only be administered in the interests of the capitalist class.

The only answer is to establish a world of common ownership, where production is carried on solely for the use and enjoyment of the whole of the world’s population. It will take mass working class knowledge and understanding to achieve, but that it can and will be done is our confident expectation, despite the apparent bleakness of the present outlook.