Monday, April 3, 2017

Worldwide is the only way (1999)

Editorial from the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
Tommy Sheridan surely put his finger on it when he said, in a letter to the Glasgow Herald (10 February), that the "the problem is that wealth is owned and controlled by a tiny minority of society in an undemocratic and unaccountable fashion".
This obscene concentration of wealth in a few hands lies at the heart of all major social problems which confront us today. Far from being irrelevant, as some argue, the property question is the most important social question of the modern age. It cries out for a solution.
What, then, is Sheridan's solution? By his own account, it is "the collective ownership and democratic control of the means of production throughout Scotland".
This won't work. Scotland is only a small part of an economic system which embraces the whole world. It could never enjoy any real autonomy or self-sufficiency in the face of the world market. From day one it will be buffeted by hostile economic forces entirely beyond its control.
In no time at all, Scotland will be faced with two choices—either total ruin, or the complete restoration of capitalist economics. Councillor Sheridan's "independent socialist Scotland" would be neither independent nor socialist.
We completely share Tommy Sheridan's disgust at what capitalism does to people. We can readily understand his impatience for an end to poverty in all its hideous guises. But we think he has allowed his impatience to get the better of him, to lead him down short-cuts that go nowhere.
There is no sense in dodging the issue. Since the property problem is in its essence worldwide, the solution to that problem must also be worldwide. That is why the Socialist Party insists that the socialist transformation of society must be carried out on a worldwide basis. Quite simply, nothing less will do.
"Socialism in one country" is an illusion. That is the lesson of history. If the Soviets could not manage it, we fail to see how the Scots could.

Life of Marx (2000)

Book Review from the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate, London.
Journalist Wheen has performed a staggering feat. In just over 400 pages, he has traced the action-packed life of Karl Marx from childhood in Triers in the Moselle valley to university life in Bonn and Berlin and political exile in France, Belgium and finally London.
In the hands of Wheen the story is one of almost cinematic action. The heady student days of feverish philosophical debate fuelled by too much wine and beer are vividly portrayed. His foray into political journalism, his jousts with state censors and his eventual political banishment, leading to the life of a stateless person trekking through the capitals of Europe in poverty and constant harassment by state authorities and police spies are dealt with in a lively and readable fashion.
The real strength of this book, however, does not rest on the colourful biographical detail, but on its depiction of Marx as a human being, rather than (as has been too often the case in the past) as a god or a devil. Interestingly enough Wheen mentions in his introduction a book, written by an American evangelical preacher, entitled "Was Karl Marx a Satanist?" The other side of the coin, of course, are the books that are nothing less than hagiographies. As the jacket cover says, "Karl Marx emerges as a flamboyantly unmistakable individual, not the stony head of a monolithic, faceless organisation."
Socialists might have wished for more emphasis on Marx's ideas, but when Wheen does this he does an excellent job. Considering that his intention was to deal with Marx more as an individual rather than as an economist, historian, philosopher or revolutionary, the author's discussion of the works of Marx is generally speaking difficult to quarrel with and easy to admire. He distances the writings and actions of Marx from his so-called supporters like Lenin, Stalin and Mao. He has a pop at Karl Popper's criticism and absolutely devastates the attacks on Marx by the likes of Paul Samuelson. The role of Marx in the International Working Men's Association is particularly well documented and his jousts with Michael Bakunin and the anarchists are vividly drawn.
A lot of people are going to hate this book. Left-wingers who see every industrial dispute or petty social unrest as the harbinger of a transformation of society will be reminded (if they ever knew) that Marx's view was that a long period of education and organisation was necessary before the working class could establish socialism. Anarchists with their 19th-century romanticism about conspiracy and direct action will be less than pleased at the reporting of the antics of their anarchist heroes in the International. The academics who have dismissed Marx's views as outdated are not going to like Wheen's view that Marx's criticisms of capitalism are still valid today.
Even if a lot of people are going to hate this book, this socialist loved it and advises readers to get down to their local library immediately. If you are going to buy only one book this year, then this is it.
Richard Donnelly

Another world is possible (2002)

From the April 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last year the New Internationalist asked its readers for “their own vision of a better world”. Under the titles of “Give Us Your Dreams” and “Another World Is Possible” shortened versions of twelve of the replies were published in the January-February issue of the magazine which supports the broad “anti-globalisation/anti-capitalist” movement. Three of these came from members of the World Socialist Movement.
Since the proportion of socialists amongst the “anti-capitalists” is nowhere near 25 percent (if only it were) this can be interpreted as a sign of a lack of vision, or interest in “grand schemes” for a better world, amongst those who are involved in the movement. They have yet to take on board our view that it is not enough just to be “anti”, but that to get anywhere you have to have a clear idea of where you want to go.
Having said this, two of the other replies chosen for publication also envisaged a world without money. One, from Minneapolis in the US, wrote: “I can imagine a global community with no private property beyond immediate possessions, no need for money, no racism or sexism, no enslavement of children, no profit motive to drive the oppression of working people, no battles over personal interpretations of spirituality, and no disrespect for the 'other'“. The other, from Canada, envisaged “a society where the concept of exchange is non-existent” but then went on to propose a system of consumer vouchers which would be issued to everybody in equal amounts and be cancelled on use.
Of the other seven, one represented the reformist wing of the movement and proposed a list of “reforms that would be necessary as preliminary measures before more radical programs could be considered”. These included renegotiating trade agreements, a Tobin tax, changing company law, tax incentives to encourage co-operatives, ending nuclear power, etc, etc, etc.

This is the approach of the campaigning charities and non-governmental organisations such as OXFAM, Christian Aid and the others who are the most vocal section of the “anti-globalisation” movement, probably reflecting the views of most of those active in it. Not only does such a reformist approach lead to compromise with capitalism but the reforms proposed are piddling compared with what is needed to end world poverty, protect the biosphere and stop the waste of armaments. That it leads to compromise with capitalism can be seen by the number of activists who have switched sides and gone to work for government bodies and private corporations, believing that you can do more to get piddling mini-reforms from within the system than by pressure group politics from outside. No doubt such individuals are for the most part entirely sincere since they never really did think that there is any practical alternative to the profit-motivated market system. The history of Green Parties everywhere is another illustration of this point, where they have either joined capitalist governments or would if they got the chance.
As to the effectiveness of the reforms proposed, does anyone really think that tax reforms and legislative charges are going to be enough to bring about the massive increase in the production of food and other basic goods and services needed if there are not going to be more people, in absolute numbers, living without basic amenities in 2030 than there are today? Clearly “radical programs” not “preliminary measures” need to be considered right now, today. That makes trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon – or even a tablespoon – a waste of valuable time.
The other replies were, frankly, pathetic, indeed disheartening because they suggest that more people in the anti-globalisation movement entertain these kinds of views than envisage a global change in society, even by reformist means. Three advocated a return to the “simple life”. One looked forward to oil running out forcing people to “return to the land, working side by side with nature, in blissful harmony”. Another urged people to “buy locally and buy certified organic” and to “grow some of your own food” (why not, but as a solution to world problems?). A third wanted a “culture based on cottage industry and gardening”.

But the worst, and most disturbing, came from people expressing religious views. One claimed that “over history our collective subconscious has invented a basic code for humanity to live by, in the form of religion” and that this meant that humans had a “predisposition to co-operation, love, non-violence and selflessness”. This could be seen as harmless mysticism – there is no “collective subconscious”, how could there be, given what we know about biology and inheritance? – but at least this person's heart was in the right place. The same, however, cannot be said of the other two.
One put the more traditional religious view (which explains why these people put our backs up so much) that “no human system, no matter how carefully and idealistically crafted, will create a better world. All in the end are corrupted by self-interest or greed. Eliminating poverty is impossible . . . Only one thing works – the inner change for the better in individuals who have had some kind of illumination from a supernatural entity”. This view was echoed by the other, who wrote that “the ideal world, as it stands in our current understanding of the term, is simply unreachable” and proposed that “the alternative state of global perfection, and an eminently achievable one, consists of not having everything we want, but being totally satisfied with everything we have”.
Clearly, such views are quite incompatible with those of socialists – and not just of socialists but of reformists too. In fact the New Internationalist itself must have been disappointed to have had such replies, presumably more than the two they published. “Eliminating poverty is impossible” and “be totally satisfied with what you have” are what the rich, through the religious ideology that reflected their interests, have always told the poor throughout the ages. We have no choice but to be implacably opposed to such views and to combat them whenever we hear them.
No, eliminating poverty is not impossible and, no, the millions of people who go to bed hungry every night or who lack clean running water or who have no health care or education should not be happy with what they have (not) got. They should be bloody annoyed and upset about it and get together with the rest of us to work for a better world, here and now, down here.
Not that it is a question anyway of dreaming up a “perfect” or an “ideal” world. What is at issue is establishing a better world, where those problems that people face because of the way society is currently organised can be tackled with some hope of success. The starting point for this is not some idea of a perfect society but the world as it is today. It is rather a question of finding a practical solution to actually existing problems that have arisen at this particular moment in the history of humanity.

Over the past hundred or so years the world has developed the capacity to adequately feed, clothe and shelter every single man, woman and child on the planet. The resources, the technical knowledge and the skilled personnel exist to do this – the information on what to do is lying gathering dust in the archives of the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and the World Health Organisation in Geneva – but it is not done because the world is currently organised on the basis of the minority class ownership of productive resources and the production of wealth with a view to profit.
It is this profit system that stands in the way of satisfying human needs. It only allows production to take place in response to needs that can be paid for and then only if a big enough profit can be made from doing so. It diverts resources into maintaining a whole superstructure of finance and commerce – banks, insurance, accounting, advertising, etc – that is only needed because there is production for the market. And it diverts yet more resources into armed forces and their weapons which every state is compelled to have in view of the competitive struggle for profits – which as a last resort involves war – that is built-in to the system.
Once this artificial scarcity and this built-in waste is eliminated, as it would be in a world where the Earth's resources had ceased to be the private property of states, national and multinational corporations and rich individuals, then these resources could be directed to turning out wealth to meet human needs. It may take some time to completely clear up the mess left by the capitalist profit system, but people dying of hunger could be stopped immediately. So could all problems arising from money worries.
This is the practical solution to the practical problems facing humanity at this particular stage of its historical development. Unless this basic change from class ownership to common ownership, permitting the change from production for profit to production to satisfy human needs, is made, then unnecessary human suffering and a generally unsatisfactory life for everybody except a privileged few will continue.
Yes, another world is possible, but it doesn't involve going back to basic agriculture, even less embracing pessimistic and do-nothing mysticism, but accepting that we already live in one world and going on from there. The solution is global in both senses of the word. Global in that it has to be world-wide, and global in the sense that the change-over has to be all-embracing and not piecemeal reform.
Adam Buick

Depths of alienation (2003)

Book Review from the April 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Culture of Make-Believe. Derrick Jensen, New York, Context Books, 2002
The Future of Success. Robert B. Reich, New York, Knopf, 2001

The stream of books coming out of America on the Holy Global Empire of capitalism continues unabated. The tale is of two classes: arrogant winners and collateral losers, private wealth and public poverty, triumphalist insecurity for the elite and traumatic insecurity for the mass. The system is enthusiastically praised, superficially criticised, but never seriously opposed. There Is No Alternative - or, if you prefer the sporting metaphor, capitalism is the only game in town.

With Derrick Jensen's 700-page blockbuster you get more or less what it says in the blurb: “the atrocities that characterise so much of our culture - from . . .  modern slavery and corporate misdeeds to manufacturing disasters, death squads in developing nations and the destruction of the natural world”. The text is discursive, even gabby. There is no index, which suggests that the author wants you to read it as a novel for entertainment, not a polemic for study.

To give Jensen his due, he's good on slavery:
“. . . the power relationship between slaveholders and slaves can be broken into three components. The first is social, and involves the use or threat of violence by the slaveholder to control the slave. The second is psychological, and has to do with convincing the slaves to perceive their slavery as actually being in their own best interests. The third is cultural, and has to do with transforming force into a right of the powerful and obedience into a duty of the powerless. . .”
He can't bring himself to explicitly oppose wage slavery and the capitalist system of which it is an integral part. Instead he seeks to shock us with the revelation that his solution is to get rid of civilisation. On the last page we get a sanitised biblical story: the appropriately-named Ham, rather than being condemned to perpetual enslavement, feels a happy, fecund sense of freedom.

As an economist, Robert Reich is more upfront about capitalism, which he takes for better and for worse. The good news is for consumers, who can "shift allegiance with the click of a mouse" because they live in "the age of the terrific deal". But the bad news is about quality of non-consuming life: more frenzy, less security, loss of time and energy for friendship, community and self.

Reading through Reich's prose, with its chapter heads like “Of geeks and shrinks” and “The sale of the self”, gives the impression that the author is writing about and for people very much like himself. Of the 6 billion people in the world only perhaps a billion or so have regular employment, and by no means all of those worry about their CV and how they present themselves at interview. Yet Reich asserts that:
“In the new economy, you get ahead not by being well liked but being well marketed… Talented people are even selling shares in themselves… Once, the worst thing that could be said of someone was that he had sold out. Now the worst thing that can be said is that he's not selling”.
By this reckoning, capitalism has plunged depths of alienation that Marx could only have had nightmares about.
Stan Parker

What classless society? (2005)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
At one time, a long time ago now, when the Labour Party still retained some sort of vague commitment to being opposed to the workings of capitalism it used to say that it favoured the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. They were going (they said) to establish a more equal society by taxing the rich and using the money to provide better public services for the rest of us.
Actually, in the last century there was a long-term trend towards a less uneven distribution  of wealth ownership. But this did not result from any deliberate policy on the part of governments (the wealthy soon found ways of minimising or avoiding taxes on their existing wealth and on their accumulation of more wealth), but rather from a majority of people coming to own more consumer goods, etc. resulting in the total amount of wealth owned by the non-rich sections of society rising faster than the total amount owned by the wealthy.
The rich still got richer – and, in absolute terms, each one of them got more than each of the rest of us – but, proportionately, together they got less than the rest of us as a group. There was no redistribution from them to us; which would have gone against the logic of capitalism involving as it does the accumulation of more and more capital in the hands of a capitalist class.
In the 1990s this long-term trend (which continued even under Thatcher) was reversed. Since 1991 the rich have been getting richer faster than the rest of us – despite a Labour government. In December the Office for National Statistics published the figures for the latest available year, 2002. Two sets of figures are published, one for all marketable wealth and the other for ““marketable wealth less value of dwellings”. Since capitalism is based on the concentration of the ownership of the means of wealth-production  in the hands of a tiny minority, and since houses are not means of production, it is the second set of figures that are the more relevant (even if they still include other items of wealth such as cars and hi-fi equipment that are also not means of production),
These figures (published on the ONS website at  show how things have changed since 1996, as the situation inherited by the present Labour government when it came into office:
                                     1996  1999 2000 2001 2002
Top 1% owned               26      34     33     34     35
Top 5%                           49      59     59     58     62
Bottom 95%                    51      41     41     42     38
Bottom 50%                      6       3        2       2       2

As can be seen, whereas in 1996 the top 5 percent owned as much as the bottom 95 per cent - or one out of every 19 persons owned as much as the other 19 (of whom half owned virtually nothing) taken together - by 2002 the top 5 percent owned nearly 40 percent than the rest of us.
Who says that we’re living in a classless society? Who says that the capitalist class have died out? Who says that the Labour Party can deliver a more equal society or is even trying to?

History as propaganda (2007)

From the April 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
There’s probably more history published today than ever before. As with every genre sold as a commodity most of it is of little value
At its very best history is one of the most important of all disciplines. It seeks to present a narrative explaining not just who we are and how we got here but also why we use these very concepts to understand ourselves. A chronicle of events is of little interest without interpretation; and it is through this that an analysis has any chance of achieving significance.
The interpretation of motivation is seen as important in understanding events but their significance can only be calculated by the effect on later generations. Often the motivation for action is given to be this or that hoped-for effect on later generations. This was part of the stated aim of many historical figures including Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler. It is doubtful whether they were successful in achieving such aims but what cannot be doubted is the need of the support of thousands, sometimes millions, of others to even make the attempt. It is in this support that the real social power resides.
Hitler’s rise was no less dependent on the Treaty of Versailles and the Wall Street Crash than on any characteristics he may or may not have possessed. The ideological values, which evolved within the German state and made millions believe they needed ‘a strong leader’, should be the focus of any historical analysis of the Third Reich. The origin of social power and its relationship with, and expression by, individuals, groups and the masses is the real business of historians.
The conventional definition of history (as distinct from prehistory) is the study of the written record from and about the past. It is no coincidence that this record begins during the so-called ‘Neolithic revolution’ when humans were making the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to that of the private property city-state. Such settlements were made possible by the discovery of sustainable crop growing and animal husbandry. This not only brought an end to the nomadic lifestyle but also dramatically changed the social relationships that went with it.
The production of surplus food changed the basis of power within society forever. It meant, amongst many other changes, that some parts of society were freed from subsistence living to pursue other activities. Foremost amongst these was the development of a warrior elite to protect this surplus from raiding nomads. It was not long before they restricted access to other members of their own settlement.
Those who created the wealth were only granted access to the surplus if they produced more of it. In this way social elites evolved, their power derived from the ownership of the wealth created by others. To this day social power derives from a group or class’s relationship with the means of production and the surplus it produces. Many historians would object to this characterisation of social power and would point to theories of morality, justice and reason as explanations of capitalist ‘civilisation’. Such theories ignore the possibility that the origin of these concepts derive from ‘rationalisations’ of social relationships which seek to justify their existence without reference to their historical source.
Of course the examination of the ‘mode of production’ as a way of understanding historical development is identified with Marxism. To attempt to dismiss it as mere political propaganda is to ignore the ideological content within any historical perspective. Although Marxist historians can with some justification claim that at least their bias is conscious, does this mean that all history is propaganda (conscious or not)? To answer this let’s examine those who create history  –historians.
Most of us do not have the time or resources to become historians. The intellectual division of labour within our culture means that most of them are created by and financially dependent on universities.
Living in Cambridge I have encountered many through the years. They are immersed in a life of study and intellectual rigour with usually only their peers to provide debate and criticism. Specialisation (knowing more about less and less) gives them the right of interpretation.
A memorable conversation with a noted scholar on the Crusades provides a sense of this. When asked about the motivation of the leaders of the first crusade he replied he believed it was an attempt at redemption. Europe’s knights hoped that their God would forgive their violent life style if they ‘liberated’ the holy land. This was so reminiscent of many historians who believed that Lenin, Mao and Castro were socialists because they proclaimed themselves to be so.
The sincere motivation of an individual does not give us any understanding of the origin of the concepts involved or their acceptance by those who are led into any action. The English revolution was not dependent on Cromwell’s belief in an obscure Jewish prophet who lived some 1600 years before. Likewise the English reformation was not caused by Henry VIII’s lust for a young Anne Boleyn. Napoleon was quite possibly not the inheritor of ‘the age of reason’ he supposed himself to be.
The distinction between any proclaimed ideology and the actions of those who profess it seem lost on many historians. Perhaps it is because they themselves are immersed within a deeply ideological culture – from public school to university the cult of individualism is universal. How could it be otherwise within one of capitalism’s oldest establishments?
The elitist ethos is the cornerstone of any authoritarian social structure like ours. I use this to illustrate how ideology permeates historical interpretation. As stated earlier, Marxists do the same in a more conscious manner. But can we ‘prove’ that some historical interpretations are of more value or even of more significance than others?
Why are socialists disgusted but not surprised by the activities of Bush and Blair any more than we were by the crimes of the Bolsheviks and their fascistic ‘Soviet Union’? Because an analysis of history based on an understanding of the relationship between the mode of production and the values and concepts that it creates can only come to one conclusion: people make history but only within the constraints of their historical context. Blair may proclaim himself to be ‘New Labour’ but what is new about worship at the altar of the ‘free market’ to answer all of capitalism’s problems? Can a moral crusade against one’s enemies that means the murder of thousands of innocent people be considered ‘new’?
Neo-conservatives use the same failed ideological excuses as their 18th century counterparts to maintain their wealth and status. Despite all of the socialist rhetoric the Bolsheviks and their subsequent purges and militarism was symptomatic of all regimes that orchestrate the transition between agrarian feudalism and industrial capitalism. China’s ‘cultural revolution’ had infinitely more in common with the ‘terror’ of the French revolution than it did with the Paris commune.
We know this to be so because of the lack of a majority to oppose such actions of the elite (and indeed to be complicit to make them possible). Today it is still this lack of historical knowledge that makes it possible for our rulers to continually repackage their reactionary ideology using the media and helped in no small measure by historians.
Fukuyama, Starkey, Sharma and countless others have and continue to propagate capitalist ideology through their history. Good history is an ideological battleground. Two people present at the same event can give opposing interpretations of its meaning and significance. Most of us were not present and are not historians but we have a political duty to decide which perspective is more likely in the light of our own experiences. Our future depends on the understanding of our past.

Capitalist childhood (2009)

Book Review from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Good Childhood: Searching for values in a competitive age. Richard Lazard and Judy Dunn. Penguin, £9.99. 2009.

Some of us have a good childhood; others don’t. Of course it all depends on what you mean by a good childhood. Is it to own a lot of things – or to be happy? Is it more important to have a good relationship with others – or with yourself?

This book is based on the report of an 18-month survey sponsored by the Children’s Society, and is written by an economist and a psychologist. It deals with a wide range of issues connected with childhood: family, friends, lifestyle, values, schooling, mental health and inequalities. Its centre-left viewpoint is well illustrated by the remark “With immense courage the Labour government committed itself in 1999 to abolishing child poverty by 2020 . . . ”

The authors are critical of excessive individualism, by which they mean “the belief that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of her life, rather than contribute to the good of others”. They reject some features of the face of childhood in present society, but they want to scrub that face clean rather than remodel it. Thus the media “should be embarrassed at the amount of physical violence which they put out and advertisers should be embarrassed at their encouragement of premature sexualization, heavy drinking and over-eating”. No question of the media and advertisers stopping their malign and profit-seeking influence on youngsters—just suggest that they should feel embarrassed at what they do.

The authors are far from holding the view that there is no such thing as society. Indeed they write of moral education that “it needs to offer a vision of a good person and a good society”. But most of the solutions they propose to childhood problems are at the level of individual behaviour rather than societal change: “If we want to improve our quality of life, we must above all produce better people.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams, patron of the Inquiry Panel, contributes an elegantly waffly 12-page afterword in which he claims that “the report ask far more from churches and religious communities – as it does from all kinds of bodies in our society”. The text does in places have a vicarish tone (“Children are a sacred bush”). But the nearest the report gets to churchy religion is to refer to spirituality as “an uplifting experience”.
Stan Parker

Obituary: Vic Brain (2010)

Obituary from the April 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Vic Brain has died at the age of 95. He had been a member of the Socialist Party for nearly 60 years, having joined Swansea Group in 1952. In the following year he helped form a fully-fledged Swansea branch, of which he remained a member until his death in December 2009.

Vic had been a member of the Communist Party in the early years of the Cold War period but always said that he had never found it comfortable doing what CP members had to do – support Stalin and the Soviet Union. So when he came into contact with the SPGB, he quickly realised that the CP’s version of ‘socialism’ was effectively a form of capitalism – state capitalism – and that far more congenial to his optimistic hopes for the future of humanity was the classless, stateless, moneyless society of free access advocated by the Socialist Party but never mentioned in the CP.

From then on he never looked back. Over the next 30 years he was an active member of Swansea Branch, involving himself enthusiastically in local activity, fearlessly stating the socialist case wherever he went, writing articles for the Socialist Standard, and giving ebullient talks on subjects that especially interested him such as art and socialism, Welsh nationalism, and the nature of the Labour Party.

With very little formal education, Vic had trained later in life to become an art teacher and was a keen painter who would offer his excellent water colours as presents to branch members. He was a keen rambler and cyclist and, even in later life, thought nothing of cycling the 25 miles from Llanelli to Swansea and back to visit other members. As a first language Welsh speaker, he was also a keen enthusiast of the language but, rather than take the narrow view of minority language survival taken by nationalists, Vic’s take was that it was good for such languages to survive because of the cultural diversity they expressed. Such diversity – and this was a view that he was particularly keen to express to fellow socialists – was being eaten up by capitalism but, if it managed to survive the ravages of the current system, it would flourish and be a positive feature of a Socialist world.

In his later years, Vic’s activity inevitably diminished but he was always ready to talk to members who visited him about what was happening in the world and – the perennial question – when would we get socialism. He will be remembered with great affection by those who knew him. We offer our condolences to his wife Anne, his son Chris and his daughter Pat.

Howard Moss  

Letters to the Editors: Trade Unions and socialism (2011)

Letters to the Editors from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trade Unions and socialism

Dear Editors

After reading a number of SPGB statements on the unions, among them the SPGB Executive Committee's appeal to trade unionists (Socialist Standard, September 2009), I wonder if you could devote some space to further explaining your position on the role of unions in the revolutionary process.

I am prompted to raise this question by certain things I have read in Marx on the same question, among others the statement in Value, Price and Profit, where he speaks of the unions “using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system”. Similarly with Marx's contention that “only the trade unions are thus able to represent a real working-class party, and to form a bulwark against the power of capital”.

The second statement, with its emphasis on “only the trade unions”, is taken from Marx's 1869 interview with the German trade unionist Hamann, as quoted by Karl Kautsky in his 1909 article, “Sects or Class Parties”,  which is posted to the Marxist Internet Archive. Kautsky also said there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Marx's statement to Hamann.  I also know the importance Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party in America attach to it.  (See, for example, De Leon's articles, ”A Brace of Specimens, Even Neater'“ and “With Marx for Text”, both of which are posted to the Daniel De Leon Internet Archive.)

By “union” you will understand that I do not infer today's unions, which are as unfit on the economic field as your country's Labor Party is on the political, but unionism as Marx envisioned a union aiming at “abolition of the wages system.”  Frankly, I cannot reconcile my understanding of the SPGB's position on this question with these statements from Marx, and would like to see a Socialist Standard article devoted to clarifying the SPGB's position on the union question and how it relates to the Marx passages cited here.

BERNARD BORTNICK (SLP Member), Dallas, Texas.

As can be seen from the quote in Kautsky’s article Marx was talking about the existing, non-revolutionary unions:

The trade unions should never be affiliated with or made dependent upon a political society if they are to fulfil the object for which they were formed. If this happens it means their death blow. The trade unions are the schools for Socialism, the workers are there educated up to Socialism by means of the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes. All political parties, be they what they may, can hold sway over the mass of the workers for only a time: the trade unions, on the other hand, capture them permanently; only the trade unions are thus able to represent a real working-class party, and to form a bulwark against the power of capital. The greater mass of the workers conceive the necessity of bettering their material position whatever political party they may belong to. Once the material position of the worker has improved, he can then devote himself to the better education of his children; his wife and children need not go to the factory, and he himself can pay some attention to his own mental education, he can the better see to his physique. He becomes a Socialist without knowing it.” (Translation by Zelda Kahan for the July 1909 issue of the Social Democrat, theoretical journal of the SDF),

We can agree with Kautsky that there is no reason to suppose that Marx did not say something like this, as it conforms to his strategy of the time of working within the International Working Men’s Association to encourage a trade union consciousness amongst workers to develop into a socialist political consciousness. His advice to the existing unions to organise workers irrespective of their political opinions and to avoid being linked to a political party is sound (it is our view too). What he says about unions being the only real defence workers have under capitalism against “the power of capital” is also true.

We cannot see that this passage can be interpreted as Marx advocating a syndicalist approach. If it wasn’t for his other writings of the period urging workers and their unions to aim also at the abolition of the wages system he might rather be thought to be advocating here a trade-union based party like the Labour Party in Britain was at the beginning.

In any case, events did not confirm the optimistic view Marx expressed here that the trade unions would be “schools for Socialism”. Kautsky correctly makes the point about this that England showed that the existence of trade unions “alone is insufficient to convert the worker to Socialism ‘without him knowing it’; that they do not necessarily bring Socialist conviction home to the worker because of  ‘the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes’. Only a scrap of this struggle is really being pursued daily, and this scrap is not even always sufficient to indicate the real meaning of the whole struggle.” Hence the need for a socialist organisation to point out that meaning.

But this is not a reason for socialists to oppose the existing unions. They are organisations that can, in a limited way, defend the wages and working conditions of their members. That is why our members join them and work with their fellow workers to get what can be got out of employers. Inside them, we advocate a class approach, internal democracy, non-affiliation to a political party (our members refuse to pay the levy to the Labour Party) while of course also arguing that the only framework within which the problems facing workers can be lastingly solved is socialism and the abolition of the wages system.

We have never seen the point of trying to organise a socialist or revolutionary union to rival the existing unions. Since the vast majority of workers today are non-socialists such a union would be small and ineffective. The non-revolutionary position of the existing unions (“a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”) is a reflection, not the cause, of the non-revolutionary ideas of their members. However, when more and more workers come to be socialists the unions will be transformed.

In fact, we envisage workers, once they have become socialist, organising both politically and economically to bring in socialism. Politically to wrest political control from the parties of capitalism. Economically, to keep production going during and immediately after the changeover from capitalism to socialism. We don’t envisage the socialist revolution being purely electoral and parliamentary (if that’s what you were thinking). – Editors.

John Maclean

Dear Editors
It was with interest that I recently read on the SPGB Blog that the SPGB recognised one positive achievement of Lenin in that he helped to get Russia out of the bloody capitalist First World War (
Although I recognise that Scotland's John MacLean  was not in the "Impossibilist" tradition (although he was once a member of the Social Democratic Federation),   I write to ask if the SPGB  recognised the vigorous anti-war work of John Maclean?
Harry McShane, of the CPGB, wrote in his book that John Maclean was persecuted to the extent of exhaustion and eventually dying of pneumonia.   McShane wrote that "....The authorities hated him more than any other man. He was jailed five times; the first time was in 1915, and he spent four of his remaining eight years in prison.   When he was out of jail he was followed everywhere by plain-clothes policemen. They were more frightened of his revolutionary stand than of the shop-stewards...."  (Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter, page 151)
Just being curious, but did the Socialist Standard of the time make any mention of John Maclean during the First World War?

J. MELROSE,  Glasgow

We can’t find any mention of John Maclean in the Socialist Standards of the war period, but no doubt we would have respected him for the anti-war position he took up as that was what our members were doing and suffering from it too, also being sent to prison.

We did not think much of his Scottish republicanism and said so in an article on the party he founded in the October 1925 Socialist Standard from which here is an extract:

  “A correspondent sends us the Manifesto of the Scottish Workers' Republican Party, and asks for our opinion of it. The object of the Party, founded by the late John Maclean, is a Workers' Republic for Scotland. The Manifesto sets out the slave position of the working class, and urges that the workers must carry through the Social Revolution.
  The chief fallacy of their position is their insistence upon a Scottish Workers' Republic. This demand is both reactionary and Utopian. The struggle of the workers of the United Kingdom must be a united one. The workers are under the domination of a class who rule by the use of a political machine which is the chief governing instrument for England, Scotland, Wales, etc. To appeal to the workers of Scotland for a Scottish Workers' Republic is to arouse and foster the narrow spirit of Nationalism, so well used by our masters. Economically the demand is Utopian, as the development of capitalism has made countries more and more dependent on each other, both through the specialisation of industry or agriculture, and also by the force controlled by the Great Powers to suppress or control the smaller nations.
  The history of " independent " Hungary, Poland, and the Balkan States shows that the realisation of " political independence " by a country leaves the workers' conditions untouched and actually worsens them in many cases.
   The appeal to the worker in this Manifesto to "rally to the cause of a Workers' Republic for Scotland" is made "so that we might win you away from the service of the imperialist gang who direct their activities from London" If the worker is to be won for Socialism, it is by getting him to understand the principles of Socialism, and not by appealing to him to concentrate on Scottish affairs. Socialism is international.”

This is still our position in face of those today who seek to revive the idea of a “Scottish Workers’ Republic” Editors.