Sunday, December 3, 2017

50 Years Ago: Lord Beaverbrook & Nationalisation of Banks (1982)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is the fate of labour Party reformists always to have their reform demands stolen by the openly capitalist parties as soon as the work of popularisation has been carried sufficiently far to give the demands an electoral value. A particularly cruel theft has just been perpetrated at the expense of the Independent Labour Party by Lord Beaverbrook who is a Conservative.

At the last election the workers showed emphatically that they did not like the Labour Party-1.L.P. programme. This chilling experience caused the I.L.P. to polish up its old reforms and look around for some new and more attractive ones. One of the old demands that appeared to contain promise of being a good vote-catcher was the nationalisation of the banks. But hardly had the I.L.P. published the Report of its Finance Policy Committee, recommending a scheme of state control for banking and credit, than Lord Beaverbrook snatched it up. These are the two proposals for a state bank.

The I.L.P.:
A central bank supervising the issue of credit and currency, international exchange operation and government income and expenditure. A unified banking system, with branches throughout the country, for the local financing of industry and commerce. (New Leader, March 25.)
Lord Beaverbrook:
Send the Bank of England about its business! Let it continue to perform the functions of a joint-stock bank, establish a Central bank, owned by the nation, equipped with all the powers necessary to provide abundant credit and hedged about with all the restrictions required to safeguard the permanence and stability of the structure. (Sunday Express, April 17, 1932.)
Lord Beaverbrook’s article was headed “Don’t reduce wages”, and in it he appealed to the workers to rally round the demand for nationalised banking as the way to prevent wage reductions. 

(From an editorial State Control of Banking- Lord Beaverbrook steals some thunder, published in the Socialist Standard, May 1932.)

50 Years Ago: Distorting Marxism (2017)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The theory and practice of the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain is based on Marxism; that is, we accept as valid the main theories put forward by Marx about history, political economy and politics. We accept that the materialist conception of history is a very useful method for examining and understanding social and historical events and changes. We accept that Capital is a brilliant analysis of the workings and historical tendency of capitalism and exposition of how the working class are exploited. We accept too that the working class can be freed from wage-slavery only by its own efforts, by taking class-conscious democratic political action to get Socialism. We were unaware that in so doing we were 'emasculating' Marxism and we are not prepared to consider the allegation that we have distorted Marx's views until and unless Mr. Therrien, or anyone else, produces some evidence.
As a matter of fact it was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who twisted Marx's theories. For Marx the emancipation of the working class had to be the work of the working class itself. Lenin rejected this. In What Is To be Done? he says, contemptuously, of the working class that 'exclusively by its own effort' it can only reach a trade union consciousness. Socialist understanding, Lenin argued, must be brought to them from outside—in Russia by a band of professional revolutionaries organised as a vanguard party. In other words, Lenin and the Bolsheviks held that a vanguard party could free the working class rather than the working class, through its own class-conscious democratic political action, free itself.
(from Reply to a Letter, Socialist Standard, December 1967)

Themes from Marx (1982)

Book Review from the June 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Penguin Books have recently reprinted the third volume in their selection of Marx’s political writings. Titled The First International and After, it contains much of Marx’s work between the founding of the International Working Men's Association in 1864 and his death in 1883. Two themes that occupied Marx during this period seem particularly worth commenting on: the making of socialist revolution, and the nature of socialist society.

Marx made it quite clear that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class. In his Provisional Rules for the International, he stated:
That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves: that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies. but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.
A letter circulated jointly by Marx and Engels in 1879 reiterates this view:
When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle-cry: the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We cannot ally ourselves, therefore, with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must first be liberated from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois. 
Years of writing and activity had taught that the workers cannot be liberated by leaders or vanguards, but only by their own efforts.

And what would be the nature of the revolution bringing about this emancipation? Here there is no doubt that, while Marx considered that force would generally be necessary, he did envisage the possibility of a peaceful revolution in certain circumstances. In 1872, Marx made a speech in Amsterdam at the Hague Congress of the International:
   The workers will have to seize political power one day in order to construct the new organisation of labour . . . We do not claim, however, that the road leading to this goal is the same everywhere.
   We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England, and if I was familiar with its institutions, I might include Holland, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means. That being the case, we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of the revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour.
To a journalist who interviewed him in 1881, Marx said:
 In England. for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work. In France a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war.
In the last hundred years, the circumstances which favoured a peaceful capture of political power have expanded at the expense of "laws of repression", so that Marx’s emphasis on force is now outdated.

Developments since Marx’s time have also affected the relevance of his remarks on the nature of socialism continued in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. This is the work relied on by leftists for their claim that socialism and communism must he distinguishable. But the text provides no justification for any such distinction; rather Marx speaks of two phases of communist society, in the first phase, distribution might be on the basis of the amount of work done by each producer, while in the "more advanced phase", the precept to be followed would be: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!" Our insistence on Marx's exact wording here is not mere pedantry, but is intended to make it clear that the distinction he is making is not between two different types of society, but between two phases of a single society, both phases being characterised by common ownership and abolition of wages, prices and profits.

This point is also relevant to what Marx says in the Critique about the dictatorship of the proletariat:
  Between capitalist and communist society lies a period of revolutionary transformation from one to the other. There is a corresponding period of transition in the political sphere and in this period the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Marx, then, envisaged three stages: the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism (= socialism), the lower phase of communism. and the higher phase of communism. The leftist distortion is to call the lower phase "socialism", and then to identify this with the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Marx, however, the dictatorship of the proletariat was not a type of society at all but a type of state, as the above quotation shows. There is no warrant in Marx for the view that the dictatorship of the protetariat means the kind of society which has existed in Russia for three-quarters of a century. As for the two-phase conception of socialism, technological advances mean that it would not take long till “all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly”, and free access could be introduced.
Paul Bennett

Packaging breaks (1982)

From the July 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

What sort of picture is conjured up in your mind by the thought of foreign travel? The travel agents are working their hardest to whet your appetite: in their brochures the sun shines every day, the grass is greener than anywhere else, the sands are pure golden and the sea a lovely clear blue with no hint of any oil slicks or bits of sewage, wreckage or plastic beakers. Then there are the hints of sexual pleasure. These pictures of people on package holidays on the Costa del Sol or Corfu, or wherever it is, usually show them cavorting happily in their swimming trunks and bikinis. And if you wanted to be really naughty, there are holidays on offer to famous towns where, in addition to soaking up the history and “culture” on offer, you can indulge yourself a little after dark by visiting the Red Light area—if, that is, you have any cash left by then.

One of the arguments frequently used by those who tell us how much better off we are than our forefathers is the number of workers nowadays who go abroad for their holidays. It cannot be denied that many more do so than was the case even 25 years ago, and before World War II it was difficult to find a worker who had been out of the country other than on military service or in connection with his work and even that was uncommon. By far the biggest factor however is the cheapening of the holiday. When Edward VII was on the throne, continental holidays were expensive affairs which only the wealthy could afford. Cheap holidays for workers had only just come in. The excursion platforms at Blackpool Central station were built at this time to receive the traditional exodus from Glasgow during the annual holiday week. (Those with a little more money would go to the neighbouring, posher, resort of Lytham St. Anne’s.) Even to-day this is the only holiday for many Glaswegians. The changing pattern does not mean that the masses have risen to the level of a holiday abroad: it is the latter which has descended to the level where workers can afford it. Enjoyment, recreation and travel are all businesses now. Just as Blackpool is shoddy (or workers could not afford to go there) so cheap hotels and holiday flats are mushrooming on the Costa Brava so that the holiday trade can reap its profits.

The multiplicity of travel firms with their gaudy brochures and television commercials testify to the cut-throat competition in this business. What Winston Churchill once described as “terminological inexactitudes” abound, and many hopeful workers have been shocked by facilities which do not live up to their billing, and in some cases are nonexistent. The ruthless competition has led to a high degree of instability in the trade. Workers who have been saving, often for a long period towards their break from routine, have found themselves stranded and embarrassed when the firms they booked with have gone bust. The financial structure of these companies is often as ramshackle as the holidays they offer if they do stay in business. The collapse of Court Line in 1975 and Laker Airlines earlier this year testify to this, although Sir Freddie’s breakfast, like the kippers and champagne of the swindler Horatio Bottomley before him, will still come out of surplus value extracted from the working class.

What awaits these travellers when they reach their destination? How different will things really be from what they have left behind at home? In William Morris’ News from Nowhere the narrator wakes up from a dream to find himself in the twenty-first century. Capitalism has been abolished and common ownership is in operation. On going into what he took to be a shop, he is most surprised to be told that he can take all he wanted and that no money was required. He was told that England had become “a garden where nothing is wasted and nothing spoilt”. If only we could come back from our holidays, if we can afford them in the first place, with such a talc to tell!

Even on the cheapest, most rushed of package tours, no-one could get by without some foreign currency to satisfy essential needs. Everywhere in the world goods are produced for sale, not for use. The overwhelming majority are compelled to sell their labour power for wages while the minority who buy this labour power live off their backs. In fact, so completely is the rationale of the present economy accepted, so impossible do most workers still find it to consider living in any other manner, that attention is automatically fixed right from the start on small local variations which become magnified out of all proportion.

As I occasionally travel abroad on “firm’s business”, I find that examination of the apparent differences between countries actually reinforces the essential sameness of capitalism everywhere. For instance in Athens, Paris, Hamburg and New York—cities where I have been in the last three years—public transport costs are much less than in London. In New York there is a 60 cents charge on subway and buses, irrespective of distance. This was useful to me when I managed an afternoon’s sightseeing, but that is not why these cheap fares operate. The operation is effectively subsidised by capitalists who exploit New York workers in order that lower wages can be paid. As long as these employers believe they are getting value for money, the cheap fares policy can be expected to continue; but different policies will be pursued if it is felt that the scheme is not operating profitably. Los Angeles—apart from inner city ghetto areas such as Watts—has virtually no public transport at all. These differences are of emphasis only and the arguments involved are of concern to the capitalists. It is they who foot the bill.

A visit to Hamburg directs attention to the way capitalists of various countries tackle the problem of prostitution. The Daily Telegraph (27/11/81) devoted some space to comparing British, Dutch, French and West German practice. In West Germany brothels and soliciting are legal only in special controlled zones. In the St. Pauli district of Hamburg about 2,000 prostitutes operate in an area of one square kilometre, where there are also striptease clubs and other sexual stimulus. The rest of the city, where all this is illegal, seems to be largely free of these “sins”, and a police spokesman who is quoted as seeing advantages in the system because it means less work has got a point. But so too does the more “moral” type of capitalist who argues, much as Mary Whitehouse, that if brothels arc licensed they will acquire an aura of respectability. Despite the apparent differences these viewpoints are in basic agreement in concern for capitalist values, and the only question again is one of emphasis.

The contrast in housing standards between the two classes in society is just as clear wherever you go. The modern trend towards high rise flats in place of the earlier back-to-back terraced houses (of which there are still plenty in industrial towns such as Leeds and Bradford) is obvious, with only a few local variations in style. In Hamburg, because of wartime devastation, older buildings can be seen only in a small area near the centre— which may deceive the casual observer—but this was the only apparent exception to the rule.

Attending meetings at foreign firms and using their facilities such as workers’ canteens has given me every opportunity of observing the essential world-wide similarity of paid employment, or as it is better described, wage slavery. Indeed, what differences could there be? When on a package holiday there are factors operating which may cloud this basic unity. The tourist will not be going to work, which in itself can make things look better than they really are. And, although the local people will practically all be workers, the fact that they are employed in the holiday trade and their living depends on making the tourist as happy and relaxed as possible means that holidaymakers’ experience and impressions are not likely to form a representative picture.

It is not easy to obtain figures on the distribution of wealth and property in various countries which can easily be compared. This is due to considerable differences in definition and the way the statistics are compiled. It is clear however that the basic fact of class monopoly of the means of wealth production is the same all over the world, irrespective of whether governments admit to being capitalist or claim to be socialist or communist. The use of money means that the wages system is in operation. In turn this shows that the majority have no stake in the means of living and, in order to survive, must sell their talents to the owning minority. However some comparative figures were published in The Times (14/3/78). These concern post tax personal income of households, which is a gross understatement of the wealth of the wealthy because it excludes permanent wealth in the form of capital and land. On the other hand, it also excludes incomes in kind such as school meals and subsidised housing, but these items are virtually infinitesimal in comparison. The survey encompassed eight countries: Australia, Britain, Sweden, France, Ireland, Canada, Japan and the United States. The share of the top twenty per cent surveyed varies from 39 to 46 per cent of the total, while the share of the bottom twenty per cent varies from 4 to 6 per cent.
You cannot run away from capitalism by taking a trip abroad, as the system is basically the same everywhere. There is a way out however. Socialism will work in the interests of everyone. While we may still wish to see how others live in different climates, none would feel compelled to travel anywhere to “get away from it all”.
E. C. Edge

Who needs social security? (1982)

From the August 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Forty years ago, at the time of Beveridge, the modest aim of social insurance was to guarantee to every citizen in the event of unemployment, sickness and old age "the minimum income needed for subsistence”. When National Insurance was introduced in 1948 the Attlee government expected that as it developed means-tested supplements would become unnecessary. Socialists knew that plans for National Insurance would not end the poverty of the working class.

Now nearly 1 in 10 of the population gets at least part of its income from supplementary benefit. The social security system, which includes national insurance and supplementary benefit, has become a kind of monster. It accounts for 28 per cent of public expenditure. Yet poverty and insecurity are still part of working class life. There are dozens of different benefits, some administered by central government and some by local authorities, with many different procedures to get them.

Over the years changes have been made in the scheme; other plans, especially for pensions, have been studied. The graduated pension scheme which was wound up in 1975 was used at times by Conservative and Labour governments to raise money in the present without improving pensions in the future. The latest pensions scheme has earnings related contributions for an eventual two-tier pension and will, it is hoped, reach maturity in twenty years  . . .  Retirement pensions amounted to 50 per cent of the total social security bill for 1978/79. The position of pensioners illustrates the complexity of the system. The basic weekly retirement pension for a married couple of £47.35 (plus 25p if aged 80!) is inadequate to live on without supplementary pension to help with housing costs. Those who qualify for this supplement are then entitled to claim additional allowances.

Some who qualify for supplementary pension may be a little better off claiming s rent and rate rebates instead, while others outside the limit for supplementary pension may still get rate and rent rebates. About 50 per cent of pensioners have occupational pensions which, with their state pensions, are just sufficient to take their income above the supplementary level and disqualify them from additional payments. Many pensioners claim to manage tolerably well — membership of the working class has given them years of practice — but it is the breakdown of health or other disaster that underlines their vulnerable position. The system of supplementary payments and the small amounts disregarded when assessing allowances, means that pensioners and all those who depend on the state have varying incomes. Schemes which would pay enough to remove the need for all kinds of allowances are more expensive than means-tested benefit paid to those "really in need".
Pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits under the heading of National Insurance have entitlement related to contributions. It is Supplementary Benefit which causes most controversy, for those struggling to live at or near subsistence level and for others who imagine the recipients of state “handouts” are scroungers who live in luxury. Supplementary benefit is a small part of the social security system. In 1978/79 £2.500 million were distributed, nearly 15 per cent of the total social security bill. (In 1979/80 the net value of tax forgone in respect of mortgage interest amounted to nearly £1.500 million.)

Benefits that are means-tested are calculated as a matter of arithmetic. Only 6 per cent of the money handed out by the Supplementary Benefits Commission was within their discretion, but this is the area which gives rise to the myths about special treatment and prejudice. The system of "discretionary allowances" gives a few claimants an "exceptional circumstances addition" which might be for extra fuel, or a single payment perhaps to replace footwear. If this sounds like a caring state looking after every need of its poorest citizens, the discretionary system "is one of the most arbitrary and meanly operated parts of the entire Welfare State (J. C. Kincaid. Poverty and Equality in Britain). These payments must not be looked on as a right but are reserved for those particularly "deserving". David Donnison was Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission from 1975 until its dissolution in November 1980. In The Politics of Poverty he points out that if every client asked for every discretionary payment available, and then appealed, the pressure of work on local offices would cause the system to collapse. Staff had to deter claims. The "rules of thumb" invented by local offices to replace the book of rules which had "grown into several massive volumes", were kept secret; they varied in different offices and for different claimants. There was prejudice against the unemployed who tend to be among the poorest claimants (losing entitlement to national insurance benefit after 12 months and not eligible for the long term rate of supplementary benefit) and are least likely to win appeals.

During his time with the SBC Donnison set out to review and change its principles and practices. The dilemma of reformers is put neatly by him, when he wonders if half a loaf would be better than no bread (the result is usually crumbs). The Commission decided to support the Social Security Bill (1980) even though the resulting changes would be made without spending more money or increasing staff. Improvements they had sought for the unemployed, and a twice yearly lump sum grant for all claimants which would "make a drastic reduction in discretionary payments tolerable". would not be made. The system has been simplified and its rules made clearer. There is less discretionary benefit, and a Specialist Claims Control adding to the misery of the poor by zealously testing the validity of their claims. (Is this the "special case officer" Donnison was expecting to have more time to help claimants "sort things out"?) Working for reform meant gaining the sympathetic interest of the right officials, MPs and Ministers, regardless of party.

Pressure groups work in a similar way. Organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group and Age Concern assemble information, collect signatures and compete with each other for money. Their most successful work has been in taking up the cases of individuals. The SBC had listened to, and even advised, pressure groups, but in 1979 a Cabinet Minister dismissed members of the poverty lobby as " . . . crickets in the field”. They were not leaders of a movement. The Callaghan Government had kept quiet during the May 1979 election about its decision to increase Child Benefit, thinking it would be unpopular. Opinion polls after the March 1980 budget showed an increase in support for the Government: cuts in social security did not invoke mass protest.

Poverty is not a popular cause. Against the background of recession other workers have their own problems, and in any event accept that some of them have better living standards than others. Unions will fight to defend wage differentials. In a competitive society the converse of the idea that those who "get on" do so by their own efforts is that the poor are somehow to blame for their position.

The same kind of reasoning suggests that many of the unemployed choose not to work because of the generosity of benefits. The scale of fraud is also exaggerated. Claimants are more likely to get less money than they are entitled to. Unclaimed benefit is reckoned to have been worth £400,000,000 in 1979 (Guardian 21 June 1982). Less than 4 per cent of workers would not be much worse off if they were unemployed. Put another way "several hundred thousand households are affected” (Guardian, 23 June 1982) by a poverty and unemployment trap which makes families worse off by earning more (because of reduced benefits) and not much worse off if unemployed.

The government is facing opposition from its backbenches over its refusal to restore the 5 per cent cut in unemployment benefit, made last year, before taxation of that benefit starts this month. Two charities object to Norman Fowler’s plan to give allowances for the care of handicapped people priority over restoring unemployment money. Mr. Tim Yeo, director of the Spastics Society said:
Many of the disabled are also unemployed. So by not restoring the 5 per cent cut in unemployment benefit to pay for an increased invalid care allowance would be giving with one hand and taking away with another (Guardian, 5 July 1982).
Successive governments’ intentions to help the "less well off’ (modern euphemism for poor) are inevitably linked to improvements in the economy. The bank of England has forecast only “modest" economic growth and unemployment is expected to stay at the present high level. Far from becoming unnecessary, cuts in insurance benefits indicate more dependence on means-tested supplementary benefit.

The social security system will continue to be amended. Reforms being put forward include ending the married man’s tax allowance in order to finance substantial increases in child benefit. All of the suggestions are made in the context of a social system which always considers cost before need. The aim is still to give the minimum amount necessary to sick, elderly or out of work members of the class whose “normal" way of getting money is through employment.

It must not take another forty years for the working class to discover that the problem of poverty, however defined, will not be solved by reform.
Pat Deutz

Why workers must combine (1982)

From the September 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The wealth of society is produced by the class of men and women who neither own nor control the means of wealth production and distribution: this is the great social contradiction of capitalism. Labour is the source of value, but those who labour are destined to relative degrees of poverty, while those in positions of ownership enjoy lives of privilege and luxury and are not compelled to produce anything. To state that capitalism is a system of class exploitation is not to moralise about it, but to define it scientifically.

Wage labour and capital must always be in conflict; the class struggle is inevitable in a society where two classes have directly opposing interests. James the capitalist wants Jack, the worker to work hard, take low wages and be thankful he’s employed. Jack the worker wants to expend as little energy as he can and receive as high a wage as possible. Jack is grateful to James for "giving him a job and a wage" — if he thought about it he would see that he is in fact giving James a free ride in life. Employment is a contract which is only entered into when where is a likelihood that workers will create more than the value of their labour power.

If the working class were half as "selfish" and "greedy” as the propagandists for capitalism claim, there would have been a socialist revolution years ago. Socialists are depending on the self-interest of our fellow workers, for only when they are so inspired will they create a society in which the best things in life are free for all. At the moment, contrary to all the bogus talk about “selfishness”, workers willingly accept inferior lifestyles, die to protect their bosses’ markets and generally regard exploitation as inevitable. The majority support the status quo, not because they are stupid, but because capitalism is well-geared to perpetuate those ideas which defend the position of the capitalist class.

Capitalism's propaganda may divert workers from the socialist solution (although it will not be able to do so forever), but it cannot shield them from the problems which class society throws up. No amount of clever talk and trickery can deny experience. In the early days of capitalism, workers and animals were treated by the capitalists almost indistinguishably; indeed, the British ruling class have always cared rather more for their pet dogs than for their human wage slaves. Lives were casually lost because of the use of insecure machinery, slacking employees were ruthlessly beaten, the hours of labour were so long as to cause physical harm, children were forced to perform filthy, dangerous tasks and any workers who resisted were sacked and left to starve. All of this was experienced by British workers only five or six generations back, and many of the capitalists living in respectable affluence today owe their positions to such ruthless exploitation. The same horror story is, of course, a permanent social feature of many parts of the industrialising world of today.

Experience of exploitation teaches workers elementary lessons about self-defence, the first usually being the value of combination. Many capitalists would like it if workers were unwilling or unable to combine — if they could be kept atomised so that individual "trouble-makers" could be picked out and excluded from employment. The moment that workers combine for the purpose of looking after their interests the long journey to self-emancipation has begun. Trade unions combine two factors: consciousness and organisation. Firstly, trade unions mark the recognition on the part of workers that they produce the wealth of society, that by striking they can stop production and force the employer to take them seriously, and that there is a common enemy: the boss. Secondly, trade unions provide important training in how to organise in a democratic manner. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx expressed his clear recognition of the importance of industrial combination:
Big industry masses together in a single place a crowd of people unknown to each other. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of their wages, this common interest which they have against their employer, unites them in the same idea of resistance — combination. Thus, combination has always a double end. that of eliminating competition among themselves while enabling them to make a general competition against the capitalist. If the first object of resistance has been merely to maintain wages, in proportion as the capitalists in their turn have combined with the idea of repression, the combinations, at first isolated, have formed in groups, and in face of constantly united capital, the maintenance of the association became more important to them than the maintenance of wages. This is so true that the English economists are all astonished at seeing the workers sacrifice a great part of their wages on behalf of the associations which, in the eyes of these economists, were only established in support of wages. In this struggle — a veritable civil war — are united and developed all the elements necessary for a future battle. Once arrived at that point, association takes a political character. (Kerr edition. p.188.)
If Marx was unduly hopeful in seeing trade unions as ‘training schools for socialism’, he was quite correct in realising that only experience of conscious solidarity can provide workers with the kind of self-awareness necessary to turn them into a revolutionary class. Because they were not mere idealists who painted pictures of socialism in their heads. Marx and Engels did not attack trade unions as non-revolutionary organisations; they realised that only from their experience of self-defence could workers learn to take political action to end exploitation itself.

The earliest records of working class industrial combination stand as clear proof of just how heroically and effectively workers are capable of struggling. At the end of the eighteenth century the British capitalist class was so scared of combination that they passed the notorious Combination Acts, which made it illegal for workers to unite in their own defence. But illegality was no barrier to the dedicated workers who formed underground combinations. They understood that only by uniting could they be strong — just as the workers in Poland did when they defied their state capitalist masters and set up Solidarity. In 1812 the Scottish weavers came out on strike, defying the laws of their masters. In 1816 the South Wales miners came out. . . in 1818 the Scottish miners ... in the same year the Lancashire spinners. Many of these men and women were imprisoned or deported, but the combinations survived them. The north-east miners formed an illegal brotherhood and each worker had to swear “a most solemn oath to obey the orders of the brotherhood, under the penalty of being stabbed through the heart or of having their bowels ripped up”. When the Combination Acts were finally repealed in 1825 the workers responded with a wave of well-organised strikes. In 1826 the Lancashire cotton spinners fought a vigorous, but ultimately unsuccessful battle to resist a reduction in wages. In 1831 the marines and cavalry were used to crush a strike by the Durham miners. The ferocity of that assault, and that of the troops in their barbaric attack upon the Welsh ironmasters in the same year, showed that the capitalist state could and would use every violent tactic, including the killing of strikers, in order to protect the power of the parasitic elite. Although state violence secured short-term gains for the capitalists, in the long-term it only contributed to a greater feeling of hatred by trade unionists against the bosses. As Brontcrrc O’Brien wrote in 1834 :
The great advantage of a strike is that it increases the enmity between labourers and capitalists, and compels workmen to reflect and investigate the causes of their sufferings. . .
Legalised robbery
Many workers over-estimated the importance of trade unions as forces in the class struggle. They did not realise that as long as they confined themselves to struggling over the rate of exploitation — over how much of the values produced by workers shall go to the capitalists and how much shall constitute the price of labour power (wages and salaries) — there could be no way of breaking free from the inherently exploitative nature of the wages system. The economic laws of capitalism demand that workers must be legally robbed of the fruits of their labour in order for the system to run profitably. Trade unions can only provide limited defence against the level of exploitation; they are powerless to eradicate wage labour as such.

Socialists stand for the abolition of the wages system and argue that it is to this end that workers of all lands must combine, politically and democratically. But that does not mean that we arc unaware of the immense importance of industrial combination for the working class. The socialist attitude towards the industrial struggle is necessarily ambivalent; we encourage workers who are organising along sound lines in their own defence; but we recognise at the same time that most trade unionists support capitalism, knowingly or otherwise, and that the trade unionist aim of “fairness” under capitalism is illusory and reformist. Writing in The Labour Standard in 1881. Engels explained the impossibility of establishing “fairness” within the wages system:
But let us inquire out of what fund does Capital pay these '“very fair wages”? Out of capital, of course. But capital produces no value. Labour is, besides the earth, the only source of wealth; Capital itself is nothing but the stored-up produce of labour. So that the wages of Labour are paid out of labour, and the working man is paid out of his own produce. According to what we may call common fairness, the wages of the labourer ought to consist in the produce of his labour. But that would not be fair according to political economy. On the contrary, the produce of the workman’s labour goes to the capitalist, and the workman gets out of it no more than the bare necessaries of life. And thus the end of this uncommonly ‘fair’ race of competition is that the produce of the labour of those who do work is unavoidably accumulated in the hands of those who do not work, and becomes in their hands the most powerful means to enslave the very men who produced it. (7 May 1881.) •
As members of the exploited class, socialists join trade unions to defend their living standards. While a majority of workers support the wages system there is no other action which a socialist worker can take; except, of course, to engage in socialist propaganda. As socialists we support the principle of trade unionism. We do so because we understand where workers would be without unions and also because we see them as providing useful experience in the class struggle. In countries where democratic trade unions do not exist we urge workers to form them; and in countries like Britain, where apparently independent unions do exist, we urge workers to ensure that they are run as democratically as possible and to refrain from allowing trade union strength to be sidetracked into support for capitalist political parties. Much as we support trade unionism, as opponents of the wages system we [also] reject the limited, sterile and ultimately conservative position of most trade unions. So, socialists support trade union action and we seek to establish a system of society where industrial combination will no longer exist because exploitation has been ended.

The Socialist Party exists to encourage our fellow workers to acquire an appetite for something more than the crumbs from the cake which we, as a class, have baked. Put an end to pleading for a little more — to demanding the "right” to be exploited — to seeking "fairness” from a system which is based on the legal robbery of the workers as a class. Having learnt to combine for the purpose of negotiating with the master class, let us now unite to abolish their political power.
Steve Coleman

Europe: A Whiff of Fascism in the Air (2017)

The Material World Column from the December 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many of us recognise a rightward swing in British and American politics in recent times and throughout Europe topics of immigration, Muslims and refugees are now dominating election campaigns like never before. In France, Le Pen's National Front. In The Netherlands Geert Wilders EERT Dutch Freedom Party. In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD) has made a strong showing. But all those parties have been rejected in general elections. Some, sadly have been more successful.
Despair and deprivation are fertile ground for the populist demagogue. Political and economic crises bring forth renewed discontent based on old slogans. Nationalist parties have been making significant gains and only too frequently elections in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have become contests between the right and the further-to-the-right. Some call it fascism but it is more accurately described as nativism where scapegoating foreigners offers an increasingly successful tactic for gaining political power. Populist regimes have opportunistically seized on refugees and migrants to promote xenophobia for political gain, tapping into fear and prejudice  
The recent election as Austria's chancellor of Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People's Party and (at the time of writing) a possible coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria is yet another signal of this shift to the right. The nationalist rhetoric of Kurz has given the extreme right FPO no point of differentiation, making the impending coalition more likely.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban's Fidesz party and in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński 's Law and Justice Party (PiS) have openly embraced far-right policies. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban referred to asylum seekers as 'poison' and advocates 'ethnic homogeneity.' To counter the country's declining population he announced a housing grant and loan scheme for couples who promise to have babies. Since his election in 2010, Orban has been accused of setting up an authoritarian state, jiggling with electoral laws, placing cronies in the judiciary and media, and squeezing funding for groups critical of his regime. Orban was re-elected in 2014 with more than double the combined vote of the next two candidates. Mainstream politicians are also critical of Orban, but they know that the alternative is even less attractive — the extreme right Jobbik party is Hungary’s second-largest.
The Czech billionaire media-magnet Andrej Babis has also been recently swept into power with his own political party, ANO, 'Action of Dissatisfied Citizens', where his anti-immigration policies appealed to many voters who agreed with the Czech president Milos Zeman that the flight of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan was an 'organised invasion'.
In 2015 Slovakia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Ivan Metik announced it will only accept Christian migrants when it takes in Syrian refugees under an EU relocation plan. Robert Fico, Slovakia's prime minister, reinforced that message the following year, saying that Slovakia will not accept 'one single Muslim' migrant into the country.' He further stated '...Islam has no place in Slovakia... I do not wish there were tens of thousands of Muslims.'
Political factions almost everywhere have turned immigration into a political football. Ruling nationalist party leaders have seldom dissociated themselves from xenophobic racist violence. During the 2015 election campaign, PiS politicians ranted about immigrants and hate-crimes have multiplied six-fold since 2010.
Capitalism both unites and divides workers. The system compels our fellow workers to unite in order to defend their interests, but it also imposes upon us the necessity to compete individually for jobs. This rivalry creates animosity between workers of different nationalities, regions and religions, by endeavouring to bind the workers of one nation to the idea that they have a common interest with 'their' nation's employers. The only way to overcome these divisions is to strive for the solidarity of all workers, regardless of their nationality, language or faith. Native-born workers may think that excluding migrant workers will help them. But if the employers can hurt one section of the working class, it is easier to hurt the other.
Our fellow workers in Central and Eastern Europe have nothing to gain from the return of nationalisms which ravaged this part of the world several times.  Our class is clearly international. We are all interdependent. The Socialist Party maintains that workers must free themselves of patriotism and any concept of national superiority, for without discarding these ideas of the ruling class they will never themselves be free.
'We have to fight against nationalism,' said Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, 'We have the duty not to follow populists but to block the avenue of populists,' adding, 'Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians…' (
We can only agree. Instead of nation-states (or transnational trading blocs), we could have instead a worldwide socialist cooperative commonwealth as an alternative way of life.