Friday, July 7, 2017

A Question of Policy. (1913)

Editorial from the February 1913 issue of the Socialist Standard

Several correspondents having recently asked questions with regard to the future revolutionary economic organisation, an attempt is made to deal generally with the matter in the following article.

In the first place the position of this party has always been, no matter whether it is the economic organisation or the Socialist Commonwealth that is in question, that all matters of detail most be left to those upon whom the necessity to consider and arrange them is imposed by social development. Social development does not impose this task upon the Socialist Party at the present day. In every walk of life the broad scheme comes first. No organiser ever proceeds from the particular to the general—from the detail to the whole.

That which has been placed before the working-class intelligence to-day is the need for the broad, undetailed social system based upon the common ownership of the means of life. We know that from that basis certain broad conditions must arise. Those conditions are of such vast importance as to dwarf all matters of detail into the elusive diminutive of “nothing,” just as the corresponding conditions which arise out of the present social basis (wage-slavery, for instance) are of such overwhelming moment, as to reduce all other matters to insignificance.

The Socialist, as the member of society upon whom the need for this change in the social base has been borne, accepts these broad conditions which he knows will arise as sufficient. He is aware that such changes may take place as will prevent the establishment of common ownership in the means of living (though he regards the contingency as so remote that it does not worry him), and in that case the whole and the detail would be equally vain. But he is convinced that, whatever changes may take place, or unforeseen circumstance arise, if such happenings are not of sufficient magnitude to prevent the social base being established, then all the effect of those changes must fall upon the details, and cannot affect the broad outline of the new social scheme.

In regard to the revolutionary eoonomic organisation the Socialist position is identical. That such an organisation will be called for as part of the organisation of the working class for the achievement of their emancipation must be admitted by every Socialist. That such organisation, since its aim is the organisation of the working class, must be upon class lines, is the simple logical implication of the facts. That such an organisation, since its object is revolutionary, must hare a revolutionary basis and be composed of revolutionaries admits of no dispute. But beyond certain general conclusions clearly arising from the given premises, and which no changes that do not first disestablish those premises can alter, the Socialist, and in an added degree the Socialist Party, is not called to pronounce.

The work the Socialist has before him is to make Socialists—to make adherents to the Socialist whole, not to any conglomeration of Socialist detail. The details can have no significance to the person who does not understand the whole, and to the person who does understand they do not matter. For the first thing that happens to the man who does understand—to the Socialist, that is—is that he perceives that his only hope lies in his class. If his class is not equal to taking every step necessary for their emancipation; if his class is not capable of considering and deciding every matter of detail when the necessity arises; if his class is not of sufficient mental calibre to lightly throw off the dead hand of any notions and determinations we might seek to impose upon them, then the working class is doomed.

Why, then, should we trouble ourselves with details that we are not called upon to face? We could only consider them in the light of our present environment, and that, we know, is changing every day. It is a very essential, a fundamental, part of our Socialist position that our environment is changing every day. Upon our conception of the broad tendency of that change we base our general policy, but it is the details of that environmental change that must affect and determine the details of the future policy, and as to the details of the change which will take place in the multitudinous conditions that surround us, we are supremely ignorant.

This, however, we do know: before we can have Socialism we must have, not merely Socialists, but a Socialist working class; and before we can have even the Socialist economic organisation we must have the Socialist material with which to form it. It is a significant fact that those who claim to be able to form a revolutionary economic organisation with non revolutionaries are the same who have succeeded in framing a Socialist (!) political organisation without Socialists.

In the knowledge, then, of what we do know; of what we are sure will be necessary in spite of all changes that are not of sufficient magnitude to touch the fundamentals of our position, we concern ourselves with the work that is at hand—the making of the material necessary to the establishment of Socialism. And we do this, whether that material is to be used in the economic field or the political—or both—without imposing on the future the dead hand of unripe judgments—unripe because they must necessarily be formed in an untimely environment.

But as for the specific questions put by one enquirer, we may hazard a reply. The questions are: “How could the economic organisation work in complete unison with the political party if it was kept separate and apart by non-affiliation?” and secondly : “If the economic organisation is to consist of the same units which compose the political organisation, what structure will it (the economic organisation) take so as to debar from membership the non-revolutionary?”

The question of affiliation, as was pointed out in a former answer, is largely a matter of definition. What is certain is that between the economic organisation of the working class and the political there must, since they each will exist for the same revolutionary purpose, and will each be necessary to that purpose, be such close co-operation as will secure the end in view. There is no mystery about this. Just as the capitalist on the economic field and on the political field, can take consistent action in his own interest without affiliating his economic self with his political person, so can the Socialist. Whatever form of words may be used to designate the organisations, since they will, after all, simply be the revolutionary working class organised on the industrial and the political fields for the same object, they will in effect be different sides of one organisation. Nothing can keep them apart, and if there is no definite act of affiliation it will be because none is needed. For example, the workers, in their economic organisation, will be anxiously waiting for the opportunity to go to work on the co-operative basis, but being Socialists, they will know that they cannot do so until, in their political organisation they have taken certain steps. It is hard to believe that, politically, they can take certain conscious steps and, economically, not know they have done it. 

Regarding the last point, it certainly seems that provision for sound membership might be made in the same way that the S.P. secures it: by a declaration of principles—and discipline.

Taking the poison again (1983)

From the June 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Elections always nourish hopes. I had high hopes for the Labour Party in the 1964 election and was sure they would be fulfilled when Labour were returned to office for the first time in thirteen years. It would all begin. Things would start to go well because at last we had a government that cared about people, understood their problems and wanted to solve them. More than anything we had in Harold Wilson a leader with the flair and confidence to control events and shape the future in the general interest.

Wilson reigned for six years. During that time the cost of living went up by thirty per cent, unemployment doubled to 700,000, National Health charges were drastically increased, free milk for schoolchildren was abolished, racist legislation was passed and the government supported horrific wars in Vietnam and Nigeria. I wondered at the time why all this was happening because none of it had been in The New Britain, Labour's 1964 election manifesto. I was surprised at Harold Wilson too because all this meant that the reputation he had made for himself in opposition as some kind of political magician was now lost.

But this didn't stop me supporting Labour. Old ties are hard to break and, anyway, I didn’t see any alternative. I was puzzled however as to why, if Labour really cared, it hadn't tried harder to keep its promises. Perhaps it really hadn't, as it claimed, had enough time to clear up the mess the Tories had left behind and would do better next time.

But there wasn’t to be a next time, or not right away, because in 1970 the Tories were voted back in. Although I was disappointed, by this time I’d come into contact with some people calling themselves socialists who were actually telling you not to vote Labour in elections and who, I soon found out, had said the same thing at every election the Labour Party had ever contested. All the people I’d previously known as socialists, no matter how opposed to or sceptical of the Labour Party they were most of the time, considered it an article of faith to vote Labour in elections if only to “keep the Tories out”. But these “new”’ socialists said that there was no more point voting Labour than voting Tory and that a Labour government could only deceive and disappoint the workers who elected it. And when I started to look into the Labour Party’s record in office, 1 realised that this argument had history on its side. Labour governments in 1923-24, 1929-31 and 1945-51 had presided over rising levels of unemployment, falling living standards, strike breaking, militarism and scores of broken promises. What I'd just experienced was only the latest in a succession of similar failures that went back over forty years.

Does it always have to be like this? The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always said it does because the Labour Party in office has the same function as the Tory Party — to administer the capitalist system, and that system cannot be administered in the interests of the majority, those who have to work for a living. And if you look at this proposition, certain things become clear. “Capitalism" no longer appears just an empty word. It actually describes the world we live in, a world which depends on capital being invested by that small minority who own it with a view to making profit. If capital can’t be invested at a profit, it isn’t invested at all. This causes production to cease, regardless of the need people may have for the fruits of that production and it also causes workers to be unemployed. Governments of whatever colour and whatever their stated intentions, can be seen in their true light as guardians of the existing state of things and therefore working to preserve and protect the interests of that capital-owning minority.

Socialism too takes on a definite meaning. It has nothing to do with the particular method the Labour Party has of running capitalism but means a completely different kind of society from capitalism, the like of which we have not yet seen anywhere. It means a society where production doesn’t take place for profit but directly for use, where everything is owned in common, where all goods and services can be taken freely by everyone and where governments don’t rule but people participate democratically and meaningfully in their own affairs.

So is there no difference between the Labour and Tory parties? Only so far as each claims to govern according to its own distinctive values and philosophies. Labour says it is a party of humanitarianism, compassion for the underprivileged, intervention by the state to serve the interests of working people. The Tories also say that they are concerned about workers’ well-being but that what is ultimately of benefit to workers is the success of private enterprise and keeping state intervention to a minimum.

But “values” and “philosophies”, like manifesto promises, are discarded by both parties when they are faced with the reality of trying to keep capitalism on an even keel. British capitalism needs to keep its costs down in order to compete favourably with other national capitalisms in the world and this imposes on both Labour and Tory parties policies which have neither been part of their declared outlook nor corresponded to their pledges. And these policies have often been strikingly similar — wage restraint, cuts in education and social services, trade union curbs, inflation caused by printing an excess of inconvertible paper currency, and so on. Labour, despite its compassionate, peace-loving image and its sentimental links with the working class, has gone in for cuts in the health service, strike-breaking and war-making, while the Tories, despite their free market “principles" and tough, “stand on your own feet” reputation, have backed nationalisation (e.g. Rolls-Royce) and seemingly humane reforms (Supplementary Benefit legislation) when conditions dictated. And what unites the two parties — their commitment to operating capitalism and their adherence to its immediate dictates — is much more fundamental and important than the different values, rhetoric and promises supposedly dividing them.

So this election is not, as Tony Benn called it, “the most critical in this century” (South Wales Miners’ Conference, 10 May) nor is it, as the Guardian newspaper has said, “likely to decide the political direction of the UK for a generation”. It is an election like any other whose result will not touch the root cause of social problems, the system of production for profit, but will only alter minor details within the framework of that system. After the election the winning party will pull out the goodies from its manifesto cupboard only if they contain the ingredients the world market can digest. Michael Foot can bluster about reducing unemployment by “reflating the economy” and Margaret Thatcher can insist that the only way to get people back to work is to “stimulate investment". But “reflation” is a dead end, as Mitterand’s failure in France has shown, and investment will only be stimulated by the prospect of profit, which depends on the present slump in world trade easing off and markets beginning to expand. Only if this happens will the jobless figures go down and neither Foot nor Thatcher, nor any individual or political party, will have any influence in the matter.

On unemployment therefore, as on other issues, both will inevitably fail to keep their promises — perhaps through naivety, but certainly through their inability to control a system that is uncontrollable. But even if they miraculously managed to run capitalism according to their predetermined plans, they would still be failing — and in a more important way — the majority of those who elected them. They would be failing the wage and salary earners by fostering the illusion that there is no alternative way to organise things than through buying and selling and that any attempt to manage our affairs sanely — without markets, without wars, without wages and salaries, without governments, without the whole paraphernalia of buying and selling — is impossible, unrealistic and not an issue worth considering.

But then, in the final analysis, it is up to the majority not to be taken in by the illusions of the capitalist parties and their leaders and to take our own democratic political action to change things. As long as we leave our world in their hands, they will fail us and we will be failing ourselves.
Howard Moss

What goes around comes around (2001)

Editorial from the September 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
The mantra repeated by Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown since they were first elected has been the importance of avoiding "Tory Boom and Bust". Everything else has hinged on the economic stability which they claim is the almost unique preserve of their type of "new" Labour government, with its supposed emphasis on "building for the long-term" over "short-term fixes".
During the recent election campaign Labour put up posters across Britain depicting William Hague and Michael Portillo as Mr Boom and Mr Bust in a pastiche of the film Towering Inferno, called instead 'Towering Interest Rates". Those with long memories will have found this slightly odd – not because the Tory record on unemployment and recessions was a good one – but because no Labour administration in history until the present government had ever left office with unemployment lower than when it had been elected.
Since 1997 the government under Blair and Brown has harvested some of the luck denied to these previous Labour governments, simply by virtue of being elected during an economic boom (even if it offends their sensibilities to describe it in such terms). And their reticence to recognise the recent economic prosperity for what it really amounts to is significant in itself. It stems from their awareness that most people think that all booms eventually end in busts, no matter whether it is the Tories in office or some other group of tricksters.
In the rather distorted worldview of Blair and Brown things underneath really are different this time, as a benevolent New Labour government guides the economy along a smooth upward path avoiding the recklessness and irresponsibility that led to two consumer booms and two deep recessions under Thatcher and Major. New Labour has allegedly tapped into a technological "paradigm shift" in the global economy, rendering the old problems and previous conceptions and analyses obsolete. But it is a worldview which is increasingly – and embarrassingly – child-like and which is now finally being tested to the limit by economic realities that are starting to emerge on an almost daily basis.
On the back of the big slowdown in the US economy (caused by an over-expansion in relation to market demand of the high-tech and "dot com" industries) there comes a British manufacturing sector which is now officially in recession, having suffered two consecutive quarters of economic contraction (or "negative growth" as the government euphemistically likes to call it). That this state of affairs has transpired should be no real shock to anyone, for the economy in Britain has been in the grip of a consumer boom in recent years to rival the best of them. Total consumer debt in the UK is now 10 percent higher than total disposable income with many people borrowing against rising house prices to sustain – or increase – their spending levels, just as they did in the last unsustainable boom. With mortgage brokers and building societies issuing warnings that rises in commercial and domestic property prices are now about to stall with the market reaching its peak, the signs are there for all who want to see them.

Not that the present government does want to see the signs of course, any more so than any of its predecessors did. The present Labour government has never taken the considered view of those who have based their analysis on the entire history of the operations of the market economy, and certainly not of anyone claiming to put a Marxist analysis, as we do.

But whether they realise it or not, the moment of truth for this official government outlook is now upon us it seems. Is modern capitalism under Blair and Brown really crisis-free or is it still essentially the same system it always has been?
While Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and we in the Socialist Party today claim that capitalism inevitably goes through a periodic cycle of expansion, over-investment, crisis and economic stagnation, new Labour contends that it is all old hat. But their problem is that so has, in effect, every government that has ever preceded them. Those governments didn't necessarily talk about paradigm shifts but they did talk a lot of other economic tomfoolery: from protectionism to free trade, from nationalisation and indicative planning to laissez-faire and privatisation, from Keynesian intervention to monetarism, and all in the hallowed name of "economic stability". And what was the one thing they all had in common? Sooner or later they were all beset by the very boom/slump cycle of capitalism (and its attendant economic problems) that the Marxian analysis contends is endemic to the system.
Will Blair and Brown's government be able to buck the trend? Well, not if history, tried and tested sound economic analysis and the government's own figures on the stagnating manufacturing sector are anything to go by.
So forget the rhetoric and forget the "paradigm shifts". Once again it looks like time for Mr Boom from 11 Downing Street to go and visit his friend next door, Mr Bust.