Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Meaning of Work (1964)

Book Review from the January 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Meaning of Work, by Lisl Klein. Fabian Society, 2s.

In her introduction the author says that, obviously, the first thing that matters about work is to have it. She adds that any discussion about being satisfied with one’s work has to presuppose that there are no fears of large-scale unemployment and it becomes nonsense if there are such fears; the second thing is that it must be adequately paid for. She goes on to say: “Nevertheless, I want to discuss the question of work as if basic security and basic living standards can be taken for granted.” She ignores, for the purposes of the argument, the problems of those who lose their jobs through automation.

In other words the author has, as one would expect, considered “the meaning of work” entirely within the context of capitalism. Nevertheless, she has some useful and interesting points to make and considers various aspects of the subject which are often ignored or over-simplified. In considering some problems, she suggests solutions in several cases which would be viable, or even “pay off” under capitalism in the 1960’s/1970’s. One instance is on the question of piecework, where she quotes a reason for its popularity with some workers which is not usually mentioned, when she says:
Variation in speed can make piecework attractive. On many piecework jobs it is possible to bash away hard for a couple of hours and then take ten minutes off to have a cigarette or a chat without incurring the wrath of the foreman, because in quite a big way one is one's own boss. This may even be possible on a conveyor belt. There have been experiments in letting groups of people decide the speed of their own belt, and they have usually varied it at different times of the day.
A worker often develops his own way of doing a particular job. This may not always be the most efficient way of doing things for the whole organisation, but people cling to them because this is what makes it “their” job. She says “One of the dangers of work study is that it may determine methods too precisely and take away the opportunity to develop small tricks.”

She stresses the importance of workers being aware of the value of their work and knowing the part it plays in the organisation—or community — as a whole. She quotes the case of some women in a factory in Blackfriars who, during the war, were employed painting large quantities of metal D’s stamped out in metal. These were put on trays, sprayed with paint and dried, and two women had the job of turning them over so that they could be painted on the other side. Doing this job hour after hour, day after day, they had almost reached screaming point when the foreman explained that they were preparing drinking water identification for troops fighting in Normandy. This quite changed their outlook as they now felt they were doing something of “national importance” and they almost began to enjoy it.

On the subject of automation, she points out that a false picture is sometimes given by lumping all automatic processes together. While it is true that many are just “push button" stop and start jobs, others require control of complicated machinery. The job which was a craft one where a man did everything himself now may be done by a complicated piece of apparatus which he has to control; in many ways his role again resembles that of a craftsman. It often leads to breaking down of barriers and closer co-operation between different grades of workers to ensure efficient functioning of machinery. The operator has direct access to senior people, maintenance people, etc., and he feels a joint responsibility. The change to automation may lead to a freer exchange of views and, as a result, groups or “teams" develop spontaneously and the so-called unskilled operator is regarded as a responsible person.

There is an interesting section of Ergonomics, or “human engineering,” the latter description, as the author says, being rather unpopular here, although used extensively in the U.S. This is the study of “fitting the job to the worker." As seems to happen in so many fields, this line of research first arose out of military needs. During the war technical advances produced machines, such as high-speed aircraft and radar devices, which presented their operators with tasks that could be so complex or exacting, or require such rapid action, that they were pretty well impossible to perform. It therefore became necessary to understand the human limitations of the operators and to take them into account. It was almost by accident, by some of the people engaged on this work in the Defence Department trickling out into civilian life, that industrial applications of the knowledge began to be worked on.

Often it is a case of making work more satisfactory (this does not necessarily mean—easier). By making it more satisfactory, it becomes more efficient. Sometimes this can be achieved simply by work rotation. I.B.M. carried out an experiment in one of their machine shops, where there were machine setters, operators whose job was to put pieces in the machine, start the machine, stop the machine and take the pieces out; inspectors who inspected the work and specialist departments for sharpening and maintaining the tools. In a fairly lengthy re-training programme, the operators were trained to set their own machines, sharpen their own tools and inspect their own work. The author sums up “This is not as simple as it sounds. . . .  It could only be done on a rising market because it left the firm with a lot of specialists to find work for. But this does open up big and interesting possibilities and far more experimenting of this kind could be done."

A little later she says, “Technically there is probably very little which could not be done in the way of reorganising work so as to abolish those aspects of work which it might be demonstrated are harmful to the people doing them. . . . The question is whether anyone is prepared to afford it" (our emphasis).

Here seems a useful field of study in answer to those of our questioners who ask how, in a Socialist society, the dull and unsatisfying jobs will be coped with.

Finally, the pamphlet has, as one might expect, a section on “efficiency." What is rather more surprising is that the final section is headed “Deliberate Inefficiency." She states that all ergonomic and similar studies are undertaken with a view to improving the efficiency, rather than the well-being of the worker. His health and well-being are only considered as a means of obtaining greater efficiency. In her last paragraphs she makes a rather startling suggestion; startling, that is, under capitalism, when she writes: "One day some enterprising employer is going to do away with his sports ground, his welfare facilities, his flower-beds and his fringe benefits and use the money in deliberately ignoring some of the accepted precepts of efficiency—perhaps running his assembly line at a lower speed or allowing the girls in the typing pool to chat. The result might be surprising."

We are often taken to task for not being willing to “give a blueprint" of life in a Socialist society and refusing to sketch in all the details. However, here is one thing of which we can assure our readers. In a Socialist society, work will be done at a speed most compatible with the well-being of the worker, and the “girls” will “chat” quite naturally. We would go even further—in a Socialist society we shall not need to do away with sports grounds or flowerbeds to achieve or “afford" this happy state of affairs!
Eva Goodman

Why Socialists aren’t part of the Left (2006)

From the January 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
When someone comes across the Socialist Party for the first time, a common reaction is to consider us as just another left-wing political organisation. From one point of view this is not surprising, as the left use similar terminology to us, talking of Socialism, class struggle, exploitation, etc, and invoking Karl Marx. But digging a little deeper will show that our political position is very different from that of the left. By ‘the left’ we mean the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Labour Party, all the groups with a name that’s a variation on Communist Party, Militant (dishonestly using the name ‘Socialist Party’), and the Scottish Socialist Party, among others. All quotations in this article are taken from the websites of the organisations referred to.
The first difference is that of our aims, the kind of society we wish to see established. Socialists are quite clear and uncompromising on this — our aim is a society without wages, money, countries or governments, based on common ownership of the means of production (land, factories, offices, etc.). Production would be for use, not profit, and there would be free access to what had been produced. The result is quite simple: no poverty, no homelessness, no starvation, no war. Such a society would be fully democratic, with no ruling class or vested interests.
Do the left stand for this kind of society? The simple answer is No. Militant, for instance, say they wish to ‘take into public ownership the top 150 companies, banks and building societies that dominate the economy, under democratic working-class control and management.’ Forget the rhetoric about democratic control — this is a recipe for state-run capitalism. Socialism, as a moneyless society, will have no need for banks or building societies. In general, in fact, the left stand for a version of capitalism where the state is the main employer. This makes no difference to members of the working class, who still have to work for wages, but will now be exploited by the state and those who run it rather than by private capitalists. The left are admirers of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which ushered in over 70 years of state capitalism and a police state. They differ on when and why they think things ‘went wrong’ in Russia, but they all support the regime established in 1917.
It’s true that there are minor variations on the theme of state-run capitalism. The SSP, for instance, advocates ‘the break-up of the British state and the creation of a free Scottish socialist republic.’ But a single Socialist country in a hostile capitalist world is just impossible, and this quote just reveals that the SSP aim is state capitalism — Scottish state capitalism. Many of the left are in fact nationalistic in one way or another.
It is also true that some left-wing organisations pay lip service to the idea of a moneyless society. The CPGB, for example, refers to ‘communism — a system which knows neither wars, exploitation, money, classes, states nor nations.’ But, like the rest of the left, this is for them a paper aim that bears no relation to their everyday activity or the ideas set out in their publications. They make no effort to explain how Socialist/Communist society would work, and no effort to convince workers of the advantages of such a way of organising things. Instead they combine a set of immediate demands with the aim of a so-called proletarian dictatorship, which in reality means state-run capitalism.
This takes us on to a further point. In spite of all their revolutionary posturing and calls for a fundamental change in society, the left actually devote their time to chasing reforms of capitalism. If you look at the programmes or manifestos of left-wing parties, you will find them full of reforms of a wide variety of types. A random list of examples: ‘Right to retirement from age 60 for all workers’ (CPGB); ‘a Scottish Service Tax — a fair alternative to the council tax that will make the rich pay their share’ (SSP); ‘An immediate 50% increase in the pension as a step towards a living pension for all pensioners’ (Militant); ‘Renationalise the railways’ (WRP).
The left generally draw a distinction between ‘immediate demands’ such as those just listed and longer-term goals. We’ve already seen that the longer-term goals in any case involve a continuation of capitalism, but they are usually given second place to the short-term demands. The justification normally provided is that fighting on the immediate demands will win workers over to the longer-term ideas of the organisation. ‘The struggle for reforms can tip over into revolution. Battles for reforms are vital preparation for social revolution’ (SWP). But no evidence is offered for such a position, and the task of revolutionaries is not to jump on the bandwagon of reforms but to expose their inadequacies, to show that reforms cannot solve working-class problems. Indeed, some left-wing groups deliberately and dishonestly go for short-term aims that they know cannot be met under capitalism, as a way of fuelling working-class discontent. In other words, they deliberately lie to workers as a way of getting them into their party!
Lastly, Socialists differ from the left in our attitude to leadership and democracy. Socialism will be democratic, with all having an equal say in how things are run; it follows that the movement for Socialism must be democratic too. The Socialist Party has no leaders and is run by its membership. We have an executive committee, elected each year by ballot of the members; their role is not to make policy but to administer the Party in accordance with decisions made by members. The left, however, adopt a Leninist view and support leadership: they see themselves as leaders of the working class, and are organised internally with a division between an inner circle of leaders and ‘ordinary’ members. For instance, they see the need for ‘authoritative and influential leaders who have been steeled over a long period of time’ (CPGB). Most left-wing groups do not operate as cults (see the November Socialist Standard), but they still have a distinction between rank-and-file members and the leadership. They are often rather coy about their role as would-be leaders, but as Leninists they all support the idea of a vanguard. A leadership-based organisation is not going to be any use in establishing an egalitarian society without leaders. But, as we’ve said, that’s not what the left aim for anyway.
The left, then, stand for state-run capitalism rather than Socialism; they advocate reforms rather than revolution; they are in favour of leadership rather than democracy. The Socialist Party, in contrast, does not aim at reforming capitalism but at replacing it by a new democratic way of organising the world, Socialism, brought about by a revolution, and we do not see ourselves as leaders. It should be clear that the Socialist Party is quite unlike the left wing, and that we are definitely and for good reason not part of the left.
Paul Bennett

50 Years Ago: From Comintern To Cominform (1997)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Communist Parties are merely the propaganda agents for Russian governmental policy. What they preach is not a consistent policy based on principle but a policy based on the day-to-day tactics of that Government in its fight against the other imperialist powers.

In home policy there is the same want of principle. They alternatively oppose the Labour Party, saying it is a capitalist party, and support it, saying it is a socialist party. In 1929 they described nationalisation as “State Capitalism” and the Labour Party as the “third Capitalist Party” (“Class Against Class,” p. 8), yet now pretend that nationalisation is socialism and ask the Labour Government “how is it that only one industry has been nationalised?” (Daily Worker, 13/10/47.) In 1939 they took the initiative in asking Mr. Churchill to form a National Government along with the Labour and the Liberal parties. When this was done they attacked the Labour Party for associating with Churchill! Then in 1941 when Russia was invaded they supported Churchill and now again discover that he has all along been and enemy of the workers.

The future Socialism depends on the growth of democratic, socialist organisations. The new Cominform, as well as the Communist parties that are at present not affiliated to it, are the enemies of both Socialism and Democracy.
(From editorial, Socialist Standard, November 1947)

50 Years Ago: Post-War Fascism (1997)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Post-War Fascism in this country had Raven Thompson (Director of Policy for the British Union of Fascists before the war) as its champion in the debate at Kensington Town Hall on November 10th. This debate was organised by our Ealing branch. Thompson represented the Union for British Freedom, one of the groups aping the Nazis here. This organisation offered to supply stewards to keep the meeting in order, including some to prevent "undesirables" getting into the hall. We naturally refused their offer and told them that our meetings were open to all members of the working-class who wished to attend, and that we did not anticipate any disturbances at a meeting run in our customary democratic manner. Our views were justified. The hall was jammed to capacity with 650 people and about 200 had to be turned away. A large number of those present were passionately opposed to Thompson but they listened patiently while he plodded along with a monotonous and boring recital of the mish-mash of reformist rubbish and dictatorial junk which comprises the stock-in-trade of the present day little Hitlers. Our representative. Turner, had no difficulty in ripping Thompson’s tattered political ideas into even smaller pieces with socialist analysis, and presented our alternative to Fascism and the rest of the political policies which in effect preserve the present social system. Another lesson of the debate is that a sure way of preventing the spread of Fascist doctrines is to get these would-be strong men and dictators on to a public platform and expose them for the exploded political wind-bags which they really are. Those organisations who claim a monopoly of so-called "antifascism" were shown by Turner in the debate to be based on the same reformist twaddle as the Fascists themselves, and they can only oppose with disruption and disorder—tactics which the Fascists welcome and by which they thrive. The audience were orderly throughout and gave about £24 to our funds.
Clifford Groves
(From Party News Briefs, Socialist Standard, December 1947)

Myths about equality (1981)

From the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

For two hundred years the survival of capitalism has depended on the belief, on the part of the working class, that we are naturally inferior. Writing in 1784, George Pitt made it clear in his Letters to a Young Nobleman that
Nothing can be more dangerous, more impossible to practise, or more immediately subversive of all government than the doctrine of the equality of mankind. A doctrine, the fallacy of which is proved by the experience of every day, by the concurrence of all history from the earliest times, and above all, by the contemplation of all the works of the Creator, the very essence of which appears to be gradation or inequality.
It is true that the earliest spokesmen of the Whig capitalist class in the late eighteenth century spoke at about the need for political equality. The reason for this was that they wanted to be equal with the dominant aristocratic ruling class and were prepared to use whatever political rhetoric was necessary to get them into a position of state power. But this capitalist equality was never seen by them as anything more than equality for the bosses. In a broadside printed in 1795 by the radical London Corresponding Society — a collection of ambitious capitalists - the defenders of “political equality” protested at the accusation of their aristocratic opponents that they stood for social equality:
In our ideas of equality we have never included (nor till the associations of alarmists broached the frantic notion could we ever have conceived that so wild and destestable a sentiment could have entered the brain of man) as the equalisation of property, or the invasion of personal rights of possession. 
The radical capitalists of Sheffield-insisted that
We are not speaking of that visionary equality of property, the practical assertion of which would desolate the world and replunge it into the darkest and wildest barbarism. (Parl. Hist. Vol. XXX, 738)
So, armed with the rhetoric of 'equal rights', the rising capitalist class realised that social equality before the means of wealth production was no more desirable to their system than it had been to feudalism. In France in 1789 and Britain in 1832 the working class was led to believe that by supporting political equality for their exploiters they would be furthering their own interests. In the event, they found that they were supporting “the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie” and “that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law” (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).

The socialist movement, of which the Socialist Party of Great Britain is the British representative, was born out of the discontent felt by workers at the inequality inherent to the rule of capital. In February 1848 in Paris workers manned the barricades so as to ensure the rule of their bosses; in June 1848 the capitalists sent their armed guards to massacre the workers for asking for too much in return. In 1831 workers rioted in the streets of London and Bristol so that their bosses could sit in Parliament; after the victory of the 1832 Reform Act the working class of Britain was repaid by notoriously pro-capitalist legislation such as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which condemned the unemployed to the wretchedness of the workhouses.

The apologists for the inequality of capitalism persist in the assertion that inequality is natural. “It’s human nature; there will always be rich and poor” they tell us, as if social inequality is a reflection of the inherent superiority of the property-owners. The same arguments are used to support claims of racial and sexual inequality. The bosses, we are told, possess natural “enterprise”, “initiative” and “intelligence”. This suggestion is but a thinly disguised insult to the wealth producers of the world who - it follows logically - are poor because of an inherent lack of these fine qualities. After all, the word e-quality simply means “of the same quality”. According to this claim that some are born to be rich and others to be poor, we are asked to believe that the unfortunate child of a capitalist who is born mentally retarded, but with an inheritance of several million pounds, is of a superior quality to an unemployed skilled labourer. Once the majority of the working class recognise the magnitude of this insult they will begin to organise for social equality.

As with many socialist arguments, those who cannot defeat them by reason try to do so by distortion. It is alleged that socialists want all people to be exactly the same. Far from this being the case, socialists are saying that only when the interest of one is the interest of all will the differing talents of humanity be able to be utilised to the common good. We are depending upon the fact that individuals will always be varied indeed, in a socialist society where the mass market ceases to dominate the fashions of life, men and women will be more individualistic than ever.

In a speech on 16 September, 1975 the present Prime Minister, Thatcher, stated that
  The pursuit of equality is a mirage. What is more desirable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality is the pursuit of equality of opportunity.
  And opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal.
The ultimate in liberties is this: the right to be unequal! Thatcher should tell this to the 93 per cent of the population who own no stocks and shares, while the richest 1 per cent own 80 per cent of them. She should tell the thirty million people who die of starvation each year - one per second, on average - about this 'right to be unequal.' She should tell the old aged pensioners who are too poor to keep warm during the winter that at least they have won the “right to be unequal” with the Queen Mother. The working class, whose labour is the source of all wealth, have certainly won the “right to be unequal” with the idle parasites who live in privileged affluence by exploiting us. And having won this perverse “right”, it is time to push aside the politicians and the philosophers in the realisation that the mighty are only high because we are on our knees.
Steve Coleman

Vision Impossible (2016)

The Pathfinders Column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
It probably escaped most people's notice that it's 500 years since the publication of Thomas More's seminal work Utopia, the first systematic attempt since Plato to set out the definition of an ideal society, though regrettably this includes (in More's case) royal princes, priests, the subjection of women, and slaves.
Not everybody missed the occasion though, as a recent 'Utopia' art exhibition in London's Somerset House bore witness.  And with an eye for a good cover story, New Scientist recently went with 'Utopia – the quest for the perfect society, and the lost civilisation that found it' (17 September).
This is of interest to socialists, not because we have the slightest faith in perfect societies (and even less belief in supposedly lost paradises), but because we so rarely see any mainstream discussion which dares to venture outside the capitalist paradigm. Utter the word 'utopia' and we're almost bound by law to follow the debate, even if we usually come away disappointed with the poor quality of the arguments.
So, to begin, what was the civilisation that, according to the magazine, was a utopia? The Indus Valley civilisation, active in the Bronze Age from around 2600 to 1900 BC. Why was it a utopia? Because of the lack of defensive structures, obvious military weaponry and other signs of organised conflict. There is also no sign of palatial structures, monuments or depictions of obvious rulers, implying a lack of social classes. This is significant, given that such evidence is abundant for contemporary civilisations in Egypt and the Twin Rivers.
Carl Sagan liked to stress that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But just as a lack of bus stops would strongly imply a lack of buses, in archaeology one can learn as much from what one doesn't find as from what one does. Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos in Crete, found no defensive structures and controversially claimed on the basis of this that Crete during the Minoan civilisation (3650 – 1400 BC) enjoyed a Pax Minoica (Wikipedia). This view is still open to debate, although evidence of warfare is even today described as 'scanty'.
Such claims have been made before, only to be overturned. The Maya were thought to be peaceniks until their inscriptions were deciphered, and they turned out to be full of bloody battles and torture-porn. Interestingly, the Indus culture also has a script which has not been deciphered.
Still, war-free complex societies are known to go back a long way. Çatalhöyük, an Neolithic settlement in Turkey dating from around 7,500 BC, famously lacks any sign of warfare, or of social or gender stratification. 
Why did the Indus culture die out? Possibly due to climate change, or the Indus river changing course, or earthquakes. Not content with such prosaic reasoning, some commentators can't resist sticking the capitalist boot in, arguing that the demise was ideological in form, resulting from a lack of conflict-driven dynamism and invention which led to cultural sclerosis and death. Of course there's no evidence for this claim, and it doesn't make much sense either. If lack of conflict is bad for you, one wonders how humans managed to survive the approximately 2.5 million years of the Palaeolithic, during which time there is no evidence of warfare whatsoever.
So were these places 'utopias'? Hardly. But they suggest that war and conflict did not always and automatically follow from the development of complex societies after the expansion of agriculture. In other words, war was not normal behaviour but a forced adaptation to hostile local conditions. Where those conditions did not apply, war did not appear. This may seem obvious but it is crucially relevant today, because we humans now have the technology to change our conditions. Logically, if we change them in the right way, we can make war disappear.
So what of the magazine's other statement about 'the quest for the perfect society'? This amounted to a booklist of utopian and dystopian novels, featuring some obscure 17th century texts but with some surprising omissions, such as Sam Butler, Edward Bellamy, Jack London, Barry Skinner and William Morris.  But this might be because the writer defines 'utopia' less as a political idea than a form of artistic escapism: 'They are never places evolved from the here and now, but fantasies conjured from scratch, pristine and unsullied, out of sheer yearning'. In other words, if your future society is in any way based in reality, it's not really a utopia. Which is a fair point.
'Utopian' is a bullying and derogatory term used by people who believe in the status quo and want to discredit alternatives as unrealistic. While there have been genuinely utopian novels (and utopian socialists) the vast majority of either are not trying to create perfect societies, just better ones. 'Normative fiction' is a more accurate phrase, meaning fiction based on what ought to be, according to the writer, as opposed to what is.
What 'normative' novels do socialists like? Three perennial favourites are Morris's News From Nowhere (1890), Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). They're not perfect though. Morris was a decent writer but his novel is dragged to a standstill by the weight of exposition, and the romantic medievalism looks hopelessly quaint nowadays.  The Le Guin story seems so keen not to be accused of utopianism that its anarchist planet is rendered as a Dune-style hellhole full of miserable ascetics, while Piercy's work has some weird notions about gender equality (men getting womb implants) and suffers somewhat from its own framing device, which makes the anarcho-socialist 'vision' look unflatteringly like the delusion of a paranoid schizophrenic.
Do people call us 'utopians'? Of course, and for the reason given above. But really, all talk of utopias is beside the point. Utopias don't exist, but dystopias do, and we know that because we're living in one. Though there are many good things about capitalism, it is a real-life dystopia that only suits the rich, and we don't need perfect visions to tell us what we need to do about it.