Friday, January 13, 2017

Alright, Jack? (1979)

From the May 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
In modern society, the interests of the individual are indivisible from those of society at large. Socialism then can he seen as a matter of self interest. 
If society is organised as a capitalist jungle, the human animals who live in it will of necessity require tooth and claw in order to survive against the competition. To mix a couple of common metaphors—in a rat race nice guys finish last.

It follows from this that people must now set themselves to the task of cutting down the competitive jungle and establishing in its place an environment which will allow human beings to behave as such and not like rats in a rat race. And this task must be achieved by the non-angelic humans who compose society. But, it may be asked, why should men and women who are accustomed to living in the jungle bother to set their hands to creating a different kind of society and one which will give no scope or reason for all those qualities which religious people describe under the heading of original sin? If we don’t expect people to have a “change of heart,” how can we expect them to take upon themselves the task of building the new society of harmony and co-operation? Well, it will not happen out of altruism—but sheer self-interest.

First, it is necessary to say that the key to the history of the evolution of human society is that classes act in what they conceive to be their own interests. The immediate example of that is seen in the revolutions in various countries (classically France but also, of course, England and Russia) in which the rising capitalist class overthrew the feudal system. And the proof that that step really was in the interests of the bourgeoisie is readily demonstrated when one looks at today’s world and sees the unparalleled wealth which the capitalist class enjoys. The riches of an Onassis or a Rockefeller make the great feudal lords look like veritable “basket cases” (to use the term so often on the lips of glib politicians like Kissinger). But this answer is not sufficient for our purpose even though it is incontrovertible as far as it goes. It might be argued that the capitalist class did not have to think very hard to see where their self-interest lay. (Which is perhaps as well; capitalists do not need to be great thinkers. Just great money-makers.) The rising capitalist class did not have to think very hard to see that feudalism was fettering their efforts to amass wealth—which was the object of the exercise.

The capitalist class needed, above all else, a working class to exploit. And the army of potential workers was not in the towns queueing up for jobs in the mills and the mines. They were tied to the land, eking out their existence being exploited for the benefit of the landowning aristocracy. For capitalism to succeed it was essential to get the peasants off the land and into the factories. So self-interest stepped in and the capitalist class staged their revolution—with the help of the masses who were prepared to assist the devil they didn’t know in preference to the one they did know.

The self-interest is not always clearly and immediately and individually apparent. Suppose we have an elderly worker who is convinced that all the social evils of capitalism (poverty, insecurity, unemployment, inferior housing and food, not to speak of wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation) can only be eliminated by the abolition of the system of private and state-owned means of production and distribution. He could be excused for thinking that he will not see socialism no matter how hard he works for it. Socialism will only happen, as already indicated, when the majority of the working class have consciously opted for it. And not even the most incurable optimist could imagine that being achieved in, say, the next ten years. So how will that worker be achieving his own self-interest, which is the motive force for the establishment of socialism? Will he not simply be working his way into the grave?

The rate of progress in socialist thinking of the working class is difficult to judge. But it by no means follows that because we are a tiny handful of socialists now, fewer than a thousand after seventy five years, that their progress cannot suddenly take off. And once a take-off point is reached, it is reasonable to expect that socialists’ efforts to convince their fellow workers will accelerate at a rather more encouraging rate than we have seen hitherto. But to our elderly worker, the self-interest we talk about is the self-interest of the class to which he belongs. When the majority of the working class can see the clear self-interest of the class as a whole, then the self-interest of the individual members of the class will be fulfilled.

When I jointed the SPGB in Manchester at the age of 19, the aged pillar of that Branch (I reckoned that he and his wife were about half the membership of the Branch) made it quite clear to me: “Don’t be a young man in a hurry. That way lies only disillusionment. No good for you. No good for the SPGB either. If you dislike the world around you, if you think that it is possible to make a much nicer world for you and your posterity to live in, then join us. But if you expect to see the new world by the time you are 30 or 40, then we certainly cannot make you any promises”.

I got the message, I cannot pretend that I am not disappointed that the working class has proved to be so slow in seeing their own class self-interest. But never having had illusions, I am spared the risk of becoming disillusioned. And what better way is there to spend one’s time than in trying to make a better world? And to make people see the futility of hoping that by putting a little cross every few years for the likes of Callaghan or Thatcher, these vile politicians (some of whom even have the impudence to call themselves socialists while actually running capitalism) will make the better world for them.
L. E. Weidberg

John McDonnell Imagines (2016)

From the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the end of his speech to the Labour Party conference in September, shadow chancellor John McDonnell offered a definition of socialism. Invoking John Lennon he orated:
‘Imagine the society that we can create. It’s a society that’s radically transformed, radically fairer, more equal and more democratic. Yes, based upon a prosperous economy but an economy that’s economically and environmentally sustainable and where that prosperity is shared by all. That’s our vision to rebuild and transform Britain. In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it’s called socialism.’
Evidently McDonnell hasn’t got much of an imagination as this is something that politicians in the other parties can, and do, subscribe to without calling it socialism. They’re right. It isn’t.

It is not even what in the days of Clause Four the Labour Party used to imagine was socialism. In those days Labour believed that to govern in the interest of trade unionists and other workers they would have to control at least ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ through a substantial state-owned sector. The Thatcher government in the 1980s abolished that.

The nationalised sector of the economy wasn’t socialism either, but a form of state capitalism. Not that McDonnell is promising to bring it back. He accepts that the commanding heights of the economy are to remain in private capitalist hands and is offering only a bit of state intervention and direction:
‘Good business doesn’t need no government. Good business needs good government … the next Labour government will be an interventionist government … our government will create an entrepreneurial state that works with the wealth creators,  the workers and the entrepreneurs to create the products and the markets that will secure our long term prosperity.’
Don’t ask us what an ’entrepreneurial state’ is. It sounds like a state that will help entrepreneurs.

He did promise that, in the lowlands and foot hills of the economy, Labour ‘will promote a renaissance of cooperative and worker ownership.’

Experience, however, has shown that such enterprises don’t last long as they are unable to compete with ordinary capitalist enterprises in the same sector.

None of those set up by Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Industry in the 1970s survived. But even if they had, worker-controlled enterprises producing for sale on a market with a view to profit is not socialism and not what socialists want.

Workers in them have to discipline themselves to work harder and cut costs. It’s what’s been called ‘workers’ self-exploitation’.

McDonnell’s ‘vision’ accepts that a future Labour government would have to act within the framework of a capitalist economy dominated by private, profit-seeking enterprises. That means that it would have to allow these enterprises to make profits and in fact that it has to work with them and not against them, unless, that is, it wants to provoke an economic downturn.

Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, provided a more apt ending for McDonnell’s speech when he told the delegates: ‘Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy.’ How could it be when you are committed to running a capitalist economy?

The Passing Show: Spanish Arms (1964)

The Passing Show column from the August 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spanish Arms . . .
What a fuss has blown up over the cancellation of the “Frigates of Franco” contract! Anyone would think that arms deals between powers had never taken place before. Both government and opposition are striving hard to make as much electoral kudos out of the affair as they can. What a godsend to Sir Alec, looking around for a reviver for the sunken Tory spirits; and as the game of shadow boxing is played out in the Commons, press and elsewhere, the same old stench of hypocrisy overall.

Self righteous indignation abounds. “Insulting a great and proud people!" roars a Tory. “No arms for fascists.” jeers Labour in return, although as Government spokesmen have pointed out. Franco will just get his warships elsewhere and British capitalists will lose a few million pounds worth of trade. The Prime Minister says that the opposition have done irreparable harm to “our” trade with Spain, which Mr, Wilson promptly counters by offering to trade with any fascist country, except in war weapons. Gibraltar, one of “our” major bases, has also been drawn into the squabble as an additional red herring. Franco has been after it for years and apparently plans to lay claim to it again in the near future.

A fair summary of the current Labour attitude was given by Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker, M.P. He said: ~
The Labour Party wants trade with all countries, including Spain. We do not believe in trade boycotts, but arms deals are different . . . 
which only goes to show how little H.M. Opposition really know about the capitalist world in which they live. First, we cannot resist reminding Mr. Walker that only two or three years back, his party launched a “Don't Buy S. African Goods” campaign in protest against Apartheid, and if that is not a trade boycott, then we don't know what is. (It failed to have any appreciable effect, needless to say).

But this is the sort of inconsistency of which every capitalist party is guilty, but have no difficulty in shrugging off as the shifting sands of politics force a change in posture from time to time. At the moment, the Labour Party is a very strong contender for government, in which case it won't want to be squeamish about whom to trade with. There are, however, matters of deeper import which should concern us, and which none of the other parties can be expected to raise.

The existence of arms anywhere and in any hands is an evil, and since Socialists are not concerned with choosing between evils, we refuse to enter into the futile squabble over the Spanish arms deal. We know that while capitalist society lasts, the State in all its various political complexions will be with us too. And that means coercion at home and abroad. It matters little, after all, whether the bullets which end our lives are home-made or imported.

And what of the trade which Labour and others are so anxious to foster? “ Peaceful trade ” is how they would all describe it, but there is really no such thing. Trade is a product of private property society. Its very existence means competition, and sooner or later, strife. It cannot be conducted on any other basis or with any different result, yet it seems to mesmerise everyone including workers - the very people who should view it as a curse, not a blessing. Modern trade typifies the anarchy which is capitalism. Despite all the market research, it cannot be regulated and makes a mockery of even the most cautious plans.

But, above all, trade presupposes ease and comfort for the few and deprivation for the rest of us, even when the economy is riding high on a boom. No wonder governments are so anxious for it to continue. These are some of the points which we ask you to bear in mind amidst the mud slinging and irrelevancies of the forthcoming election.

And British double think . . .
What does the word "usefully" mean to you? From our point of view the only satisfactory definition would be "aiming to advance human welfare and happiness." So anything short of that could hardly be called useful. Accepting our definition, would you then say that soldiers perform a useful service? No, neither would we. But it just shows how language can change, or can be changed to suit the interests of capitalism.

A current advert is appealing for male instructors for the Army Cadet Force, and if we are gullible enough to believe it, we will rush to lend a hand. Did you know, for example, that a youngster in the A.C.F. “uses his leisure well?” That the A.C.F. “ . . . is concerned with producing good citizens rather than with training future soldiers, but it does this by fostering soldierly qualities? ” There is a picture, too, of a smiling uniformed youth at camp with a rifle slung over his shoulder. (“ . . . worthwhile open-air activities ”)! Search as you may through this prime piece of double think, you will find no allusion to its object, which should be as obvious as a sore thumb, i.e„ to interest youngsters in joining the regular army, where they will have opportunities of exercising their “soldierly qualities" on the battlegrounds of the future.

Nowadays, the armed forces have to compete with industry for manpower, and rates of pay have been increased in an effort to attract youngsters. But despite the various improvements in pay and conditions, the dirt, discomfort and disciplines, to say nothing of the possibility of a violent death at sonic time or an". . .  professional.” In the Royal Signals, for instance, he speaks to his commander "in the capacity of professional adviser.” It says so in another advert. The place of our fresh-faced cadet has been taken by a good-looking young man in his early twenties, whom the camera catches in earnest discussion with his superiors during manoeuvres. Oh yes, they do discuss this officer's function in battle, but with a subtle air of detachment, deftly balanced against glamour and flattery, thus: -
And because he is first and foremost a soldier, he has also the most rewarding responsibility of all —the lives and welfare of his own men.
We can guarantee that never in any of the recruitment adverts will you find even a hint at the real purpose of the armed forces. Nowhere will you be told just what a really dirty job it is, in every sense, to be a soldier, sailor or airman. That whatever the inducements they hold out, the object is still to protect the interests of British capitalism at home and abroad. And that means sooner or later, killing other workers.
Eddie Critchfield

Lenin's Legacy (part 2) (1979)

From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lenin as revolutionary leader 

Last month’s article outlined Lenin’s failure as a political thinker. In particular, it took two aspects of Lenin’s work (the need for a transition, and the question of whether socialism must be preceded by capitalism) to show that Lenin failed to understand the nature of the problem facing the working class. This month, we deal with Lenin as a leader of a party claiming to be revolutionary. And it should be remembered that Lenin was not just a revolutionary theorist. He seized a unique opportunity that history presented, and by doing so captured the imagination of many workers both at the time and since. It is therefore important to correct the illusion that Lenin’s method is capable of introducing a socialist revolution. (All page references unless otherwise stated are to the one Volume Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975 printing.)

The first thing about Lenin’s theory of a revolutionary party is that it is based on leadership of the “masses”. This is the reverse of the socialist principle which holds (with Marx) that socialism will be a society of voluntary co-operation. This means that in order to run socialism, the workers have to be aware of what is necessary to make the new society function. And it follows from this, that it will not be possible to establish a voluntary society unless those seeking to do so are in fact the majority of people in society, and those people know what is involved and can work conscientiously for socialism.

Lenin’s theory of leadership was based on several grounds. The most important is probably his opinion that the working class did not have the necessary ability to get to grips with socialist ideas; he developed this idea in his early work, What Is To Be Done? (1902) Where he draws the distinction between revolutionary activity (for the hard core of professional revolutionaries engaged in full time political activity), and trade union activity, (a task to be engaged in by the working class as a whole.)
The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness . . . The theory of socialism, however, grew out of philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied class, by intellectuals. (Selected Works, 3 volume edition. Progress Publishers, 1970 Vol 1 p. 119).
Now it is true that Lenin is here dealing with the specific conditions of aristocratic Russia at the start of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, this passage does demonstrate one of his most essential concepts as revolutionary. that of a “vanguard”. Because of the inability of the workers to think for themselves, according to Lenin, it is necessary for socialism to be introduced for them. Although this is quite impossible, the idea stayed with Lenin in theory, and above all in his political practice (the seizure of power by a small minority). He never abandoned it.

The Worker's Role
It is worth pursuing What Is To Be Done? a little further. Lenin lays down three principles for the workers' organisation:
The workers organisation must in the first place be by a trade union organisation: secondly it must be as broad as possible: and thirdly it must be as public as conditions will allow, (ibid p.207)
This delegation to the workers of the “menial” tasks of wages struggle is of course the reverse of the attitude taken by Marx, who pointed out that the struggle over wages and working conditions (trade union activity proper) was essentially defensive. It concerned the working class in that it was a constant battle to try to prevent the capitalist class lowering wages. But Marx made it absolutely clear that this was not sufficient; workers also had to take steps to abolish the wages system, to end capitalism altogether. There is no hint in Marx that workers should seek leaders to end capitalism for them. Notwithstanding this sound policy, Lenin wrote a little later in What Is To Be Done? that his anti-majority action propositions, “I shall defend no matter how much you instigate the crowd against me for my ‘anti democratic’ views etc.” In a speech in 1920 Lenin repeated this view. He said: "We do not hold the utopian view that the masses are ready for a socialist society.” (p. 618)

Given this arrogant and contemptuous view of the ability of the working class, certain fairly obvious conclusions must follow. Take for example the vital work of education of the working class. Now this task is essential for the reason, that until the working class abandon their support for capitalism as the only form of society possible. the socialist revolution cannot take place. This is why so much work of the socialist is concerned with showing the way capitalism causes problems for the majority. and how it is incapable of solving those problems. At the same time the socialist puts forward, in as concrete and definite a way as possible, the solutions to the problems of capitalism. Lenin too talked about the necessity of educating the working class. Indeed it was Lenin who stressed the vital importance of his party running a mass circulation newspaper, and put down much of the Bolsheviks’ ultimate success to this vital propaganda vehicle. In 1905, twelve years before the revolution, Lenin was writing that: “our main attention will be fixed on propaganda and agitation, extemporaneous and mass meetings, the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets, assisting in the economic struggle and championing the slogans of that struggle.” (Two Tactics of Social Democracy etc. p. 119). In the same year, Lenin urged his comrades to get to work: “to organise a broad, multiform and varied literature inseparably linked with the Social-Democratic working-class movement.” (Party Organisation and Party Literature, p. 152)

But what is the point of all this party literature if there is no need for the working classes to understand anyway? If all the workers need is some limited trade union understanding, then that can be achieved without education from a vanguard. After all. the workers throughout the capitalist world have learnt a trade union consciousness without the intervention of the Bolsheviks. One answer that Lenin might give to this is that it is necessary for the revolutionary party to "join” with the masses. "A vanguard performs its tasks as vanguard" Lenin wrote in 1922, "only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people that it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward.” (p. 653) 

And for those of the masses who want to graduate to the honour of being the vanguard. Lenin warns in his Left Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder that he is not going to have too many of the masses getting in the way. He writes that “We are apprehensive of an excessive growth of the party . . .”. (p. 532) This apprehension is caused, says Lenin, because of the fear of invasion from “careerists and charlatans.” It is all part of a principle of leadership designed to keep the “masses" where they are—as wage-slaves, divorced from the spoils of office which the ruling bureaucrats of the communist party keep for themselves.

Dictatorship Over The Proletariat
Lenin’s double standards should be made clear. For Lenin’s claim, that his revolution would, and did, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat sounds as though he intended to have a dictatorship of the majority (whatever that might mean). In fact Lenin at other times makes it quite clear that the dictatorship is intended to be by a minority, with firm control by the party over the working class who are to remain workers. In The State and Revolution (1917) Lenin issues grim warnings to the workers that if he captures power he will rule with an iron hand (in the interests of the workers of course!). He wrote that they will establish “strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers.” (p.296) A little later in the work Lenin writes: “And the Dictatorship of the Proletariat i.e. the organisation of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy.” (p. 324. emphasis ours). Note the subtle change here. Now the workers are being told that it is not the workers who will do the ruling, and therefore be the "dictators”, but the vanguard.

But if the warning was not heeded prior to the revolution, Lenin certainly made it clear afterwards. In his appendix to Left-Wing Communism, etc. he talked about revolutions being impossible without "the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, without a rigorously centralised party with iron discipline, without the ability to become masters of every sphere, every branch and every variety of political and cultural work.” (p. 577/8)

Before the revolution. Lenin was never in much doubt that his party would both take part in government and, if it could, run its own government. And if there was any doubt about this prior to 1917, there was no doubt after. The Communist Party has ruled Russia since 1917 and justifies itself by appealing to Lenin’s authority. (It also appeals to the authority of Marx—only the Russian revolution is as much related to Marx, as the lamb is to the wolf.) Lenin knew what he was doing—he was seizing power.
The art of politics (and the Communists’ correct understanding of his tasks) consists in correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power . . . and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate and extend its rule by educating. training and attracting open broader masses of the working people, (p. 535)
Lenin seems to have come a long way from Marx, whose ideas he says he is applying. In Capital, Marx makes it clear that the changes from primitive society to the first forms of class society were bloody and violent struggles; whereas the transformation from capitalism to socialism will not be that sort of struggle. "In the former case, we have the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter case we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.” (Capital Volume 1, Lawrence and Wishart printing 1970, p.764) Lenin’s revolutionary party merely replaced one set of usurpers with another.
Ronnie Warrington