Saturday, April 8, 2017

Obituary: Sammy Highams (1978)

Obituary from the April 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The death took place on 17th February of our old comrade Sammy Highams. He was 80.

Sammy joined the East London branch of the Party in 1928. Later he was in Hackney branch, and after it closed a few years ago he transferred to Camden. He was a ship’s carpenter and travelled widely, and was in Canada for some years. An active and lively-minded man, he had several interests. He was a keen trade-unionist; he studied French and made visits to France; in his mid-seventies he still went swimming regularly. He was a prolific letter-writer to newspapers, and also wrote to engage politicians and academics in arguments about statements they made.

Sammy’s chief Party activity was selling the Socialist Standard, and he did this with unflagging zeal until a short time before his death. He attended demonstrations, travelled to political parties’ conferences, stood at street-corners and in the London School of Economics, and was often remarkably successful.

He will be remembered by many members — and opponents — as a choleric man. He castigated members for not equalling his efforts with the Socialist Standard, and voiced his boredom when branch-room discussions went on too long for him. In arguments in Hyde Park, he flourished his umbrella alarmingly; and he made an impression on a “Right to Work” demonstration two years ago by shouting alongside it “What about the right to be lazy?” Those who knew him more closely, however, were well aware of his warm and kindly nature. His work for the socialist cause will certainly be missed; so will his person be, by a lot of us.

Anarchism and Socialism (1979)

From the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plekhanov’s book Anarchism and Socialism is a treasure. Not only did he clearly state the case against the anarchists of his day but he also analysed utopian socialism. For Plekhanov, Anarchism was a decadent form of utopianism. For Eleanor Marx Aveling, who translated his book in 1895, "under any circumstances Anarchism is but another word for reaction; and the more honest the men and women who play this reactionist game, the more tragic and dangerous it becomes for the whole working class movement".

The book's central point, made equally effectively in the translator’s preface and the introduction by Robert Rives La Monte, to the 1907 Kerr edition, is the importance of political action. Both Eleanor Marx and La Monte point to the failure of the Socialist League as evidence that "every revolt from the Socialist Party in America, which is based on disgust with the fact that it is a ‘pure and simple’ political party of ‘ballot-worshippers’ is destined to repeat the history of the Socialist League” (La Monte).

Plekhanov begins, however, not with the Anarchists at all but with an analysis of utopian socialism:-
The Utopian is one who, starting from an abstract principle, seeks for a perfect social organisation.
The abstract principle on which utopian socialists like Morelly, Fourier. Owen and Saint Simon based their arguments was "human nature.” But scientific socialism showed that this was not constant: “while man, in order to maintain his existence, acts upon nature outside himself, he alters his own naure”. Since Marx, wrote Plekhanov, the revolutionary socialist movement was no longer founded on an abstract principle or an ideal of a "perfect legislation” in total conformity with human nature, but on “a scientifically demonstrable economic necessity”. The struggle between workers and the capitalist class, he declared, must become a political one:-
Every class war is a political one. In order to do away with feudal society the bourgeoisie had to seize upon political power. In order to do away with capitalist society the proletariat must do the same. Its political task is therefore traced out for it beforehand by the force of events themselves, and not by any abstract consideration.
Rooted in the class struggle and the interests of the working class, Plekhanov lashed into the Anarchists, dealing in some depth with their naive, crazy notions. There was Max Stirner: "for me there is nothing above myself”. Stirner’s League of Egoists, wrote Plekhanov, was "the Utopia of a petty bourgeois in revolt". Some of Stirner’s ideas still surface from time to time in eccentric Tory circles and leagues of small shopkeepers, imbued with the same spirit of "bourgeois individualism".

Proudhon's ideas on the social constitution and on ending capitalism without political action or class struggle are debunked by Plekhanov, who points out with irony the many blatant contradictions in Proudhon's theories.

Bakunin is dealt with next. "I detest Communism, because it is the negation of liberty, and I cannot conceive anything human without liberty”, he declared, thus revealing his basic utopianism. "I am not a Communist, because Communism concentrates and causes all the forces of society to be absorbed by the State, because it necessarily ends in the centralisation of property in the hands of the State".

Bakunin also expressed clearly the characteristic mistake of Anarchist thinking, that is, the idea that the State should be smashed since its oppression is the cause of exploitation. In this belief can be seen the Utopian’s ignorance of hard economic facts, of the historical process and of the role of the State, as necessary to class-based economic systems. As capitalism has become an intolerable fetter on the productive forces, the working class must abolish it. The State will not be abolished: it will wither away, like an uprooted weed. Rut as long as class ownership of wealth exists, smashing the State is futile—a new form of State will always arise, as weeds do when their roots are left in the soil.

The Anarchists are mistaken in believing the abolition of the State would achieve emancipation. The events of 1917, when Lenin, destroying the old State with his programme "All power to the Soviets", only succeeded in creating a new form of State, and new methods of exploitation, are evidence of the futility of such tactics. Capitalism can only be ended by the working class taking political action, not to smash the State, but to abolish the wages system.

Bakunin distinguished between social revolution and political revolution. Plekhanov answered, in memorable terms:-
Every class struggle being necessarily a political struggle, it is evident that every political revolution, worthy of the name, is a social revolution; it is evident also that for the proletariat the political struggle is as much a necessity as it has always been for every class struggling to emancipate itself.
Adrift from political action. Bakunin and his followers encouraged terrorist tactics—the "propaganda by deed” which still sporadically hits the headlines in many countries—Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan. Mexico, Argentina, US and England.

"Error has its logic as well as truth. Once you reject the political action of the working-class, you are fatally driven —provided you do not wish to serve the bourgeois politicians—to accept the tactics of the Vaillants and the Henrys", observed Plekhanov. After parliamentarism was discarded, the tactics of riots and isolated uprisings were abandoned since workers, sensibly, did not want anything to do with such suicidal tactics. What was left? For the Anarchist, either syndicalism (equally disastrous) or the individual gesture, the assassin with a bomb in his briefcase—"doing the work if not receiving the pay of a spy”, as La Monte put it.

The result of the Anarchist movement’s rejection of political struggle in favour of syndicalism or terrorism is to weaken the working class movement and to encourage the forces of reaction. Special police agents infiltrate all working class organisations, laws are passed and special measures enforced which handicap socialists in their activity. Workers become hostile and reactionary. Revolution becomes a dirty word. Socialism is seen as dangerous lunacy. As Plekhanov said, "An Anarchist is a man who—when he is not a police agent—is fated always and everywhere to attain the opposite of that which he attempts to achieve".

For its chapter on scientific socialism alone, clear and concise, this book deserves to stand alongside the best-known works of Marx and Engels.
Charmian Skelton

El Salvador (1982)

From the April 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The present crisis in El Salvador must be seen against its historical background. Not just the “local oligarchy” of fourteen families like the Duenas and the Hills, who own most of the country’s coffee exporting and other industries. Not just the particular American corporations, such as Exxon, Texaco and Westinghouse Electric, who have capital invested in El Salvador. But the market system of production for profit, which has come to dominate the entire world in the twentieth century.

The present Salvadorean capitalists arose with the integration of Central America into world trade at the end of the last century. Land which had been farmed in common by villages was transferred by the government into large private holdings for the cultivation of coffee for export. Some capitalists from other countries also joined the venture, and by the early twentieth century the increasingly powerful land-owners began to complement their activities will the creation of financial institutions, such as a central bank. The depression of world capitalism in the ’thirties brought diversification into other industries, in response to falling coffee prices. It also brought the peasant uprising led by Farabundo Marti, the massacre of thirty thousand people by the troops of Martinez, and the beginning of fifty years of military dictatorship.

The imperialist efforts of the Russian dictatorship have generally not been too subtle. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Poland . . .  to control the profitable resources of these countries is naturally of strategic advantage to any capitalist power, including Russia. The American empire, on the other hand, is rather sophisticated. Capital is invested, puppet regimes are installed, arms provided, complete with “technical advisors”, and the dividend freely drawn. If a few peasants are shot, if a few workers starve, it will be in the name of “freedom”, and the investors are certainly “free”.

The American ruling class has long had particularly lucrative and strategic interests in the Caribbean basin. In 1964, the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense produced a document entitled Winning the Cold War The US Ideological Offensive. The unfortunately named USAID Deputy Administrator, Mr. Coffin, is quoted as saying:
Our basic, broadest goal is a long range political one. It is not development for the sake of sheer development . . .  An important objective is to open up the maximum opportunity for domestic private initiative and to insure that foreign private investment, particularly from the United States, is welcomed and well treated.
American “military and economic aid” to the Caribbean area this year will total almost one billion dollars, of which more than a third is directed at El Salvador. A request for an additional $100 million military aid for the Duarte regime was included in the foreign aid bill sent to Capitol Hill by the White House. The US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, has tried to rouse his fellow American capitalists with suggestions that the opposition movements in El Salvador and similar Central American countries are secretly being sponsored by the Russian government. The fact is, when you are living under a regime where the state forces can kill 30,000 in two years, and where one in fifty people possess three-fifths of the land, you don’t need Tsar Brezhnev to tell you of the need for change. But despite Haig’s hysteria, American capitalists seem to have learnt some caution since Vietnam. One hundred and four members of Congress have signed a statement urging Reagan to support negotiations between El Salvador’s government and what they call “left-wing insurgents":
The escalating crises in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua are reaching a critical juncture and run the risk of involving the United States in a major regional conflagration.
Haig responded to this by insisting on the importance of “investment in foreign assistance" for future American security:
The overwhelming portion of our aid programme will go to nations which share our strategic concerns. (The Guardian, 4 March, 1982.)
Cartoon by George Meddemmen.
As with every other military conflict in the world, what is at stake is the profits of minorities. Guatemala, for example, another US-backed dictatorship, contains much oil and other minerals, and has a vital strategic position near the huge oil fields of Southern Mexico. Many ports in the region are heavily used for US trade.

In El Salvador, then, there is a civil war. Those who oppose the maintenance of the Duarte regime and the particular interests it protects are now represented by the joint Revolutionary Democratic Front and its military wing, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Many thousands have died in this war. The United States government has supplied arms and “advisers” to the army and has claimed that the uprising is part of a “Communist" plant to take over the region. In their campaign the FMLN-FDR has publicised information about El Salvador. By 1961, for example, six families owned as much land as eighty per cent of all landowners, and nearly three-quarters of young children are still malnourished. But the workers and peasants in El Salvador must look at the backcloth of world capitalism against which they have suffered so much, and question carefully the FMLN-FDR leaders who are now offering to lead them to “national liberation" and “independence”. Mario Sandoval Alarcon, who is reported to control about three thousand armed civilians in a number of “anti-Left" death squads, has long been the leader of a “National Liberation Movement” in Guatemala, and the hated Christian Democrat President Duarte of El Salvador himself was exiled in 1972 for his “subversion”. Social revolution has not taken place if one dictator is simply replaced by another, the system of society remaining the same.

Liberation from capitalism cannot be achieved on a national scale. Socialism will not be introduced by yet another set of military leaders acting “on behalf of the people", whatever their slogans or proclaimed allegiances. This was unwittingly admitted by Luis de Sebastian, European representative of the FDR-FMLN, speaking at their anniversary meeting in London:
The economic model proposed for El Salvador will be a mixed economy. By this we mean that along with a state-owned sector, there will be a private sector . . . We will not yet be socialist . The people‘s views are very much present in the FMLN-FDR’s leadership of the process. We sincerely hope that we will never become detached from the masses, that we will never become an empty bureaucracy dictating to the masses what to do. (Quoted in El Salvador News Bulletin, 13.)
All of the indications are that this “sincere hope” will not be fulfilled. The US government backed the March elections in an attempt to legitimise the process of exploitation without the expense of sending in troops. But any party standing had to present a list of twenty thousand members—not the sort of information any opposition party would want to hand over to the government forces, with their incarceration and torture of political opponents. Taking part in the elections was made potentially so dangerous that the Electoral Council advised candidates to campaign through “paid advertisements in the press, radio and TV, and remain outside the country” (El Diario de Hoy, 16 July, 1981). In the midst of a civil war, and organised by a particularly vicious dictatorship desperate to retain its power, the elections were a travesty of democracy. In solidarity with workers throughout the world, the subjects of that dictatorship would do well to challenge the world capitalist system which cannot tolerate genuine socialist democracy, in the spirit of their anonymous folk poem:
What I'm telling you is true. The rich
   will never lift a finger to help us,
that would be like trying to cover the
   sun with a five-penny piece.
The big merchants, the money lenders
The factory owners, the landowners
The bank owners, the Military Mr. President
Don't wash our shirts stained
   with sweat after our day’s toil,
Don’t fetch us water from the river
Don't build our shacks
Nor will they set the factory machines in motion
Nor till the soil
Nor sow or harvest the seed
All this we do
and it's the same with everything.
If we, with that same fervour with
which we plough the earth,
don't organise and keep fighting
no one will do it for us 
                                    (Poesia Rebelde
Clifford Slapper

Stephen Hawking: No Anthropologist (2017)

From the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
In an interview with the Times (7 March) world-famous scientist Stephen Hawking opined:
'"Since civilisation began, aggression has been useful inasmuch as it has definite survival advantages," he said. "It is hard-wired into our genes by Darwinian evolution. Now, however, technology has advanced at such a pace that this aggression may destroy us all by nuclear or biological war. We need to control this inherited instinct by our logic and reason."'He may know a lot about theoretical physics but in stating that human aggression is 'hard-wired' and an 'inherited instinct' he has merely echoed popular prejudices cultivated by certain scientists, as this extract from our pamphlet Are We Prisoners of Our Genes? explains.
After leaving a respectable time for people’s memories of Nazism to dim a little, the defenders of a muscular biological determinism began to make a reappearance. One of the first was the Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz. A book he had written in German in 1963 was translated into English and published in 1966 under the title On Aggression. In it he argued that humans were naturally aggressive, or, as he put it, that they were 'phylogenetically programmed' for aggressive behaviour.
In a chapter entitled 'The Spontaneity of Aggression', Lorenz claimed that aggression in humans was an internally-generated 'drive' that was part of their genetically-inherited physiology:
'Knowing of the fact that the aggression drive is a true, primarily species-preserving instinct enables us to recognise its full danger: it is the spontaneity of the instinct that makes it so dangerous. If it were merely a reaction to certain external factors, as many sociologists and psychologists maintain, the state of mankind would not be so perilous as it really is, for, in that case, the reaction-eliciting factors could be eliminated with some hope of success' (On Aggression, Methuen, 1969, p. 40).
This assertion was based on his own studies of non-human animals, mainly birds and fishes, and on his personal belief in Freud's view that 'we are still driven by the same instincts as our prehuman ancestors' (p. 193).
His fellow scientists were highly critical of the book. They pointed out that in talking about 'instincts' in humans he was having recourse to a notion long since discarded as unhelpful; that his view about there being 'phylogenetically evolved patterns of social behaviour' in humans went against the evidence of anthropology and history; that it by no means followed that what applied to other animals therefore applied to humans; that in any event the behaviour he described as aggressive didn’t apply to all animals; that even in those to which it did apply it was not always clear that it might not be learned.
On the key issue of whether aggressive behaviour in humans was triggered in response to external factors or, as Lorenz asserted, in response to some internal 'drive' that had to be 'discharged', opinion (apart from a few die-hard Freudians) was unanimous: Lorenz had drawn the wrong conclusions from the facts. There was no 'fighting instinct' or 'aggression drive' in humans; aggressive behaviour in humans was triggered by external causes. This being so, the situation was not as dangerous as Lorenz had imagined since, on his own admission, this meant that these external aggression-eliciting factors could be eliminated 'with some hope of success'.
Ironically, but fittingly, it is the science of genetics itself that is undermining the speculations and prejudices of the biological determinists. Its advances are discovering that the parts of the brain involved in human social behaviour are 'wired' after birth, depending on the social environment in which the human child grows up. It is this biological capacity to get wired after birth that is gene-governed, not the content of the wiring. In other words, the findings of genetics are confirming those of anthropology that the main biological characteristic of humans that distinguishes us from non-human animals is the capacity, as a species, to engage in a great variety of social behaviours.
(Pamphlet can be obtained from us at 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UN, price £5 postage included)