Monday, April 15, 2019

Voice From The Back: 100 Years Of Conflict (2014)

The Voice From The Back column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

100 Years Of Conflict
The centenary of the First World War has produced a plethora of TV programmes and newspaper articles but one fact seems to be usually overlooked: ‘British forces are set to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. If 2015 is a year of peace for the UK, it will be the first for at least 100 years’ (Guardian, 11 February). The British army has been involved in wars all over the world constantly since 1914 – Ireland, Iraq, Aden, Kuwait, Palestine, Second World War, Korea, Suez and so on ad nauseam. Ironically the 1914-18 war was named the war to end all wars.


Billions Of Dollars
We are constantly reminded by the mass media that we are living through a recession and must be prepared to cut down on our economic expenditure, but no such advice is proffered to the owning class. ‘The investment firm run by the US billionaire Warren Buffett has reported a record profit for 2013. Berkshire Hathaway made $19.5bn (£11.6bn) last year, up from $14.8bn (£8.8bn) in 2012. ‘On the operating front, just about everything turned out well for us last year — in some cases very well,’ Mr Buffett wrote to shareholders’ (BBC News, 2 March). Investors in Berkshire Hathaway with an additional $4.7bn culled from the exploitation of the working class will have no need for any cuts in their expenditure.


The Gap Widens
The desperate poverty that forces millions to eke out an existence on the equivalent of $2 a day when we have a handful of billionaires living in luxury is a contrast that was well illustrated recently. ‘Microsoft founder Bill Gates has regained the top spot as the world’s richest person, according to Forbes magazine’s annual ranking of global billionaires. Mr Gates’ total net worth was estimated at $76bn (£45.5bn) this year, up from $67bn in 2013’ (BBC News, 3 March). Gates is not the only one enjoying this bonanza – in total, there were a record 1,645 billionaires, according to Forbes.


Poverty And Ill Health
Harry Burns, Scotland’s chief medical officer had some words of wisdom to say before retiring from his post. ‘As a doctor at the Royal, I never once wrote a death certificate saying the cause of death was living in a horrible house or unemployment. People die of molecular deaths, such as proteins coagulating in arteries and causing heart attacks and strokes. Yet we know that poor [social] conditions lead to poor health and premature deaths’ (Guardian, 12 March). For many members of the working class being exploited all their lives is bad enough but it can even lead to poor health and premature death.


Negative Equity
One of Mrs Thatcher’s proud boasts when she made council houses subject to sale to the occupiers was that Britain was becoming a property-owning democracy. The boast seems a little empty today with growing homeless figures, re-possessions and the following news. ‘Nearly half a million UK households are still in negative equity—meaning their homes are worth less than the mortgages on them, figures show. There is wide regional variation, with 41% of borrowers in Northern Ireland —68,000 homeowners —  in negative equity at the end of 2013, the figures from mortgage group HML show’ (BBC News, 1 March). Another empty political boast proves futile, but negative equity sounds so much better than ‘skint’ doesn’t it?


No Housing Problem Here
Many workers face trouble paying rent and mortgages on their homes but no such problems exist for these New York residents. It has been labelled ‘the world’s most powerful address’, the luxurious Manhattan tower block where Wall Street titans, foreign oligarchs, technology moguls and film and music stars live away from prying eyes. But a book has now revealed the secrets of 15 Central Park West, an imposing $1billion tower block where the ultra-rich and famous enjoy commanding views of New York’s famous green space. ‘It is no surprise that the building is home to New York’s most expensive apartment, a palatial $88million penthouse. It was bought by a trust fund from the fortune of Dimtry Rybolovlev, a Russian fertiliser tycoon, for his 22-year daughter, but it is now at the centre of the world’s most expensive divorce battle with his estranged wife, Elena. Apartments at 15 CPW currently on the market include a 6,000 sq ft unit owned by steel magnate Leroy Schecter. He initially listed the property for $95 million. It is now available for a snip — at just $65million (Daily Telegraph, 12 March).


Religion and Conflict in Africa (2014)

From the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Utter disgust with the repetitive global political and economic crises, as well as the complete failure of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ as a political alternative to capitalism, has made many ordinary people in Africa embrace Christianity or Islam.

In Africa the word ‘socialism’ has been associated with single-party political dictatorships and as such remains resented. But this is a matter of Lenin’s misunderstanding the political and intellectual designation of scientific socialism.

Many ordinary people in Africa still believe that the economic underdevelopment of Africa is a product of neo-colonialism, meaning that it is a deliberate political and economic strangulation of Africans by the developed nations.

The legacy of the slave trade has a negative impact upon the racial and political prejudices of Africans. Ideas like gender equality and same-sex marriage seem to be alien from an African cultural and traditional perspective. Thus religions portraying  God as an all-powerful and knowing authority above the conventional political systems do find fertile ground in African communities today.

A glimpse through African political and social history reveals that Christianity and Islam only came to Africa during the period of the slave trade. But this is not to underplay the fact that African diverse tribes had some form of worshipping God or Mwari (Shona word for ‘God).

Islam, or Mohammedanism, was the religion of the slave traders. The European missionaries followed in the wake of European explorers. They built schools and churches and restrained people from practising witchcraft, slave trading, ancestral shrines and so on. Christianity could be said to have had a positive impact on African communities in the sense that it was the missionaries who first brought a formal education to Africa. At the same time Christianity laid a preparation for the colonisation of Africa by European imperialist nations.

Islam originated from an Arabic culture, supposedly by the prophet Mohamed and no-one else. Its teachings are vested in the Koran. Islam is the religion of most Arabs and in Africa, outside the Arabic north, it is also found practised in communities in Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar.

Islam has come to characterise itself as a militant and anti-western type of religion in Africa today. It is a fact that Islamic fundamentalists tend to be politically autonomous and this gives rise to conflicts. Militant Islam as a religion in Africa is enmeshed in terrorism, a political and cultural nostalgia against west European political and economic ideals (democracy and Christian values). The practice of Sharia Law in African countries in which Islam is a major religion is a naked and orchestrated reaction against Christian morals and ethics.

Islam today appears as a political rather than a spiritual Jihad. In Egypt the conservative military generals had to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood of President Morsi because of the spiralling clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians. In Nigeria the Islamic movement called Boko Haram has increased its attacks on Christian communities, oil installations and government institutions.

So-called Islamic insurgents are on the loose in the African countries where Islam is a major form of religion. In this sense Islam as a religion has brought much pain and suffering upon Africans.

Both Islam and Christianity anticipate the end of capitalism as it currently is and its replacement by a hierarchical structure. Whereas to Christians the spiritual revolution is expected to originate in the consciousness of the individual, Muslims believe that it can only be realised through a political Jihad.

It appears strange to Christians in Africa that church attendance has been on the decline in European countries, where the role of the church has been relegated to the pulpit. It is only in the USA where Christianity is a flourishing religion. There Islam is associated with Islamic terrorism and the two are not separated. Indeed, the American support of Israel in its role in the political conflicts in the Middle East seems to be the major factor that has given impetus to the Islamic political Jihad.
Kephas Mulenga

Party News: Socialists Standing in Euro-elections (2014)

Party News from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is standing in Wales and the South East Region of England in May’s elections to the European Parliament.

The South East Region is the biggest in the country. It covers the counties of Oxford, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, the Isle of White, Surrey, Sussex and Kent and so big urban centres such as Southampton, Reading, Brighton and Oxford.  There are some 6 million electors. We plan to distribute over 700,000 leaflets in 14 selected Westminster constituencies in the area (in addition to the centres just mentioned, in Canterbury, Dover, Maidstone, Slough, Crawley and Milton Keynes).

Contesting Wales entitles us to a Party Election Broadcast in Wales, the first time in our history that we will have had one, and which will be broadcast some time in May.

The election is by proportional representation of party lists. We will be presenting a full list of 10 in the South East and 4 in Wales.

We will also be standing candidates in the local elections in Islington and Lambeth in the London borough elections that are being held at the same time.

Election day is Thursday 22 May, so most of the campaigning will be from the end of April on. Any offers of help to distribute leaflets, write to the press, phone in to radio stations and the like, please contact election committee, by email at spgb@worldsocialism.org or by post to: The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN

Film Review: Gasland (2010) and Gasland: Part II (2013) (2014)

Film Review from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Gasland (2010) and Gasland: Part II (2013). Directed by Josh Fox.

Gasland is an Oscar-nominated film about America’s frenzied drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with more wells planned in the next decade than in the last hundred years. Rural residents (and workers) of Pennsylvania are suffering irreversible brain damage and excruciating pain due to neurotoxins in newly contaminated water and air following drilling. The response of the fracking industry has been a hundred million dollar lobbying campaign, in part to suppress criticism. Some lobbyists have even gone so far as to recommend the use of military manuals on psychological operations and treating critics as ‘insurgents’. Secrecy plays an important part too. No spokesperson from the industry agreed to interviews with director Josh Fox, and companies in the industry have been buying off contaminated land with confidentiality agreements. In public the argument has been made that there is no alternative, in private, industry figures refuse to drink the contaminated water and provide bottled water to residents. One resident commented, ‘you want me to shut my mouth? I ain’t gonna’ and ‘I ain’t no tree-hugger.’

Despite dismissal of environmental critics as unscientific, industry efforts have ensured actual science is hard to come by. Leaked internal industry memos report no way of completely fixing or preventing cement well-casing from fracturing, so perhaps it’s not just cowboy practices. Environmental scientist Bob Howarth comments ‘we tested shale gas [claims] as a transitional fuel and a better fossil fuel for global warming and it is neither.’ Satirist Stephen Colbert asked one industry figure if he could feed his toddler chemicals used in fracking, ‘because they’re perfectly safe, right?’ Fox’s Emmy-award winning sequel is even better than the first. Films about fracking such as the earlier Split Estate (2009), like many social justice films, can tend towards a glum tone. Josh Fox as an investigative film-maker avoids this and is as warm and hopeful as early Michael Moore in covering ‘the last gasp of the fossil fuel era.’
DJW

50 Years Ago: Oil Under the Sea (2014)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The scramble for oil now goes on under the water as well as over the land. The big companies vie with each other to explore the sea bed in more than a dozen parts of the world and are actively prospecting for more.

As long ago as 1937 the Americans were drawing up oil from the Louisiana seaboard, though the amounts were small. But within the last few years, offshore output has gone up considerably and the search has spread to California and Alaska, Mexico and Venezuela, the Middle East and Egypt, West Africa, the Mediterranean, and now the North Sea.

Spurred on by the recent huge natural gas find in Holland, British, Dutch and German interests are already struggling hard for concessions. The French and Belgians are showing similar concern for their own coastal areas.

Why such a sudden spurt of interest in the oil under the sea? First, because the need for more and more oil is unceasing (reserves in 1939 were estimated at 40 years’ supply, today they are reckoned at 30). Second, because even if this were not the case, no oil company can afford to let its rivals steal a march on it—this is a law of capitalism stark and simple.

The chances of finding oil under the sea are good, especially when the prospective deposits lie close to oil-bearing land areas. But the expense gives the oil companies the shivers—it is between three and nine times as costly as land prospecting and, of course, the question of coastal water limits immediately becomes an added problem.

(from ‘Finance and Industry’ by S. H., Socialist Standard, April 1964)

Miners’ strike (2014)

Book Review from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

How Black Were Our Valleys. By Deborah Price and Natalie Butts-Thompson. 180 pages. £7.99

The authors have recorded and transcribed reminiscences by miners and their wives and daughters in one ex-mining valley in South Wales of the Miners Strike that began thirty years ago. Three things from them stand out. First, the solidarity of people in the mining villages. The strike was practically solid in South Wales, so much so that miners who went from there to picket in other areas such as Staffordshire and Nottingham were surprised to find that it was the strikers not the scabs who were ostracised. Second, that Thatcher is still a hated figure a generation later much as Churchill used to be for what he did in Tonypandy in 1911. The first photo in the book is of a poster for a benefit gig in a local hotel for the Miners Benevolent Fund on the day of her funeral. Third, the hostility and bitterness towards the police because of the brutality they employed to try to stop mass picketing. This lives on too.

In this last regard, the authors reproduce as an appendix a lengthy passage from our 1985 pamphlet The Strike Weapon: Lessons of the Miners Strike on ‘The Role of the State’ which makes the point that ‘by the time the strike was over the miners had experienced at first hand the way in which the coercive power of the state can be, and is, used in defence of ruling class interests’ and ‘that the coercive forces of the state should have been used against the striking miners, is not surprising. Governments – both Labour and Tory have used the police and even the army to break strikes many times before.’

The same divergent views of the tactics employed by the NUM leaders which socialists have discussed amongst ourselves – should there have been a national ballot, was Scargill too intransigent – are expressed in the reminiscences.

There are a couple of silly errors which could have been corrected if the text had been re-read by people around at the time. The NUM Vice-President was Mick McGahey not McCarthy and workers conscripted to work in the mines in WW2 were Bevin, not Bevan, boys. All the same, this is a useful addition to the memory of working-class experience.
Adam Buick

War on the Nile? (2014)

From the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Egypt’s now deposed president Mohamed Morsi said in June 2013 that ‘all options’ including military intervention were on the table if Ethiopia continued to develop dams on the Nile River, many dismissed it as posturing. But some experts claim Cairo is deadly serious about defending its historic water allotment, and if Ethiopia proceeds with construction of what is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, a military strike is not out of the question.

Last May some Egyptian parliamentarians were calling for sending commandos or arming local insurgents to sabotage the dam project unless Ethiopia halts construction of its £2.9 billion ($4.2 bn) Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011. Former president Hosni Mubarak made plans for an air strike on any dam that Ethiopia built on the Nile, and in 2010 established an airbase in southeastern Sudan as a staging point for just such an operation, according to emails from Wikileaks. Sudan however now backs Ethiopia’s plans so that military option is no longer available.

‘It is a matter of life or death, a national security issue that can never be compromised on,’ says foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26679225).

Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there effectively is no Egypt. To Ethiopia, the new dam is a source of national pride and the hydro-electric power it will produce is essential to its economic future.

‘Ethiopia’s move was unprecedented. Never before has an upstream state unilaterally built a dam without downstream approval,’ Ayman Shabaana of the Cairo-based Institute for Africa Studies had told IPS news agency last June. ‘If other upstream countries follow suit, Egypt will have a serious water emergency on its hands’ (www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/egypt-prepares-force-nile-flow)

Egypt fears that the new dam, which will begin operation in 2017, will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, on which 85 million Egyptians rely for almost all of their water needs. Citing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that it is entitled to no less than two-thirds of the Nile’s water and has veto power over any upstream water projects such as dams or irrigation networks. Accords drawn up by the British in 1929 and amended in 1959 divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan without ever consulting the upstream states that were the source of those waters. The 1959 agreement awarded Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic metres. Another 10 billion cubic metres is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, leaving barely a drop for the nine other states that share the Nile’s waters.

The desire for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights resulted in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement, which replaces water quotas with a clause that permits all activities provided they do not ‘significantly’ impact the water security of other Nile Basin states. Five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – signed the accord. Burundi signed a year later. Egypt rejected the new treaty outright. Cairo now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of watching its mastery over the Nile’s waters slip through its fingers.

While the treaty’s water allocations appear gravely unfair to upstream Nile states, analysts point out that unlike the mountainous equatorial countries, which have alternative sources of water, the desert countries of Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for their water needs. But upstream African states have their own growing populations to feed, and the thought of tapping the Nile for their agriculture or drinking water needs is all too tempting.

As we said in an earlier article: ‘Scarcity of any resource that is vital for the production of profits could be, and has been, seen by states as a reason to go to war’ (Socialist Standard, December 2012). The waters of the Nile may well be the cause of another conflict.
ALJO

Workers’ education (2014)

Book Review from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott’, by Luke Fowler. Contributors Tom Steele and Owen Hatherley; published by Film and Video Umbrella, The Hepworth Wakefield and Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 2013, 80 pages, £7.50

This short booklet accompanies Luke Fowler’s film of the historian EP Thompson as a champion of workers’ education. The booklet contains the essay ‘EP Thompson, the WEA and Radical Workers’ Education in Yorkshire’ by Tom Steele. Steele’s essay covers ‘The WEA and University Education for Workers and George Thompson – Rebellion in Yorkshire’. The WEA had its origin in 1903 as the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men set up by Albert Mansbridge.

Steele writes about an important figure in WEA history, a George Thompson (no relation to EP), a carpenter and WEA Yorkshire District Secretary from 1914-45 who was supported by Arthur Greenwood, Labour Party politician who would later hold Cabinet positions in MacDonald’s and Attlee’s Labour governments. George Thompson believed ‘the aim of workers’ education should be to enable the student to raise not rise out of his class. The education he received was not intended for personal advancement but as trust for the good of others, and workers’ education was not to de-class the student but to deepen his understanding of class solidarity’ (JFC Harrison). However in Steele’s essay we can see the reformism of the WEA. The WEA Yorkshire District Commemoration Souvenir (1935) by Arthur Greenwood ‘could list no fewer than 350 past and present members of WEA classes currently holding public office, from the parish council to the House of Commons.’ Steele confirms that ‘the function of trade union education was to prepare organised labour for a role in government.’

It is with grim irony that ‘the more open form of class-sensitive cultural studies’ such as Culture and Society (1958) by Raymond Williams, The Uses of Literacy (1957) by Richard Hoggart, and The Making of the English Working Class (1962) by EP Thompson appeared at ‘the pivotal historical moment when Thompson’s digging into the historical origins of the working-class, and making a compelling narrative of its world-historical success in becoming a ‘class for itself’, tragically occurs just when working-class self-belief seems to be waning, and the WEA nationally had all but given up on the working-class.’

It is instructive to recall George Thompson who wrote in A Socialist’s View of the WEA: ‘Workers will only achieve emancipation when they are capable of thinking out issues for themselves and have the capacity and sufficient tolerance to achieve the ends collectively.’
Steve Clayton

Harry Graeber and the Magic Wand (2014)

The Cooking the Books Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin published in March carried two articles on money which were received with delight by currency cranks. They were further comforted by an article by David Graeber in the Guardian (18 March) headed ‘The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it. The Bank of England’s dose of honesty throws the theoretical basis for austerity out of the window.’

He interpreted the main article as saying that ‘there’s really no limit on how much banks could create, provided they can find someone willing to borrow it’ and that the money a bank lends mortgage holders ‘is not, really, the life savings of some thrifty pensioner, but something the bank just whisked into existence through its possession of a magic wand.’

The Bank of England article does repeat the old but ambiguous bankers’ saying that ‘loans create deposits’ (which could mean merely that a loan made by one bank will, when spent, become a deposit in some other bank or even that, by facilitating an expansion of production, a loan will lead to more deposits). It does indeed say that bank loans are essentially circulating IOUs. It does not, however, say that banks can issue these in unlimited quantities. Quite the contrary. Much of the article is devoted to describing in detail what the limits to banks’ lending are.

The section headed ‘The limits on what banks can lend’ begins:.
  Figure 1 showed how, for the aggregate banking sector, loans are initially created with matching deposits. But that does not mean that any given individual bank can freely lend and create money without limit. That is because banks have to be able to lend profitably in a competitive market, and ensure that they adequately manage the risks associated with making loans. Banks receive interest payments on their assets, such as loans, but they also generally have to pay interest on their liabilities, such as savings accounts. A bank’s business model relies on receiving a higher interest rate on the loans (or other assets) than the rate it pays out on its deposits (or other liabilities). (…) The commercial bank uses the difference, or spread, between the expected return on their assets and liabilities to cover its operating costs and to make profits’ (emphasis added).
It goes on:
  In order to make extra loans, an individual bank will typically have to lower its loan rates relative to its competitors to induce households and companies to borrow more. And once it has made the loan it may well ‘lose’ the deposits it has created to those competing banks. Both of these factors affect the profitability of making a loan for an individual bank and influence how much borrowing takes place. (…) Banks therefore try to attract or retain additional liabilities to accompany their new loans. In practice other banks would also be making new loans and creating new deposits, so one way they can do this is to try and attract some of those newly created deposits. In a competitive banking sector, that may involve increasing the rate they offer to households on their savings accounts. (…) Alternatively, a bank can borrow from other banks or attract other forms of liabilities, at least temporarily. But whether through deposits or other liabilities, the bank would need to make sure it was attracting and retaining some kind of funds in order to keep expanding lending.
This is a good enough description of how modern banks work. Graeber, however, is the victim of his own delusion that banks can lend whatever people want to borrow when he claims that this ‘throws the theoretical case for austerity out of the window.’ This would seem to imply that the Bank of England and the banks could, if they wanted to, create substantially more money for investment and spending than they currently do. But if they tried, the result would be roaring inflation and/or widespread bank failures.

Alternatives (2014)

Book Review from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

'S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism’. By Richard Swift. New Internationalist. 2014. £9.99

Swift surveys the various movements and schools of thought which, over the years, have seen themselves as being anti-capitalist: reformist Social Democracy (which he recognises has come to accept capitalism), Russian, Chinese, etc  state capitalism (which he calls ‘state socialism’), anarchism (whose anti-election dogma he criticises), Green parties (which he sees as going the way of Social Democracy), ‘ecosocialism’ (with which he identifies), the ‘commons’ movement, and the Italian ‘autonomists’.

His treatment is readable and perceptive, even if open to challenge on some points. He would probably classify us as old-fashioned Marxist ‘technological optimists’ and ‘economic determinists’. He himself is the opposite, seeing capitalism’s built-in drive to ‘growth’ as leading to ecological disaster in the fairly near future.

He opposes not only ‘growth’ in the capitalist sense of capital accumulation but also any increase in overall productive activity; in fact he wants a decrease in this – ‘degrowth’ – in order to save the planet. This may or may not be necessary in the long run but in the short run, to eliminate world hunger, ill-health and shanty towns, the production of useful things will surely need to be increased.

In any event, society won’t be able to control the amount and kind of production as long as productive resources are owned and controlled by a minority. Replacing this by the common ownership of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources under various forms of democratic control is an essential first step before anything lasting and constructive can be done.

Swift makes the valid point that it is not enough to criticise capitalism but that its critics must put forward a realistic alternative. But it is disappointing to find him advocating, in the concluding chapter,  a form of that contradiction in terms ‘market socialism’ and ‘putting financial capital at the service of people, and providing a universal basic income’.  Both are impossible reforms to capitalism and would be meaningless in a world where the Earth’s resources had become the common heritage of all.
Adam Buick

Mixed Media: The British Black Panther Movement (2014)

Neil Kenlock self-portrait. 1970.
The Mixed Media Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

In October 2013 during Black History month, the Photofusion Gallery on Electric Lane in Brixton, South London, put on a photographic exhibition about the British Black Panther Movement. The exhibition was an oral history and photography project with archive photographs of protests, debates, parties, and key members by Neil Kenlock, official photographer of the British Black Panther Movement.

The British Black Panther Movement was active in the early 1970s, had several branches but Brixton in South London was the centre. Its key members were Barbara Beese, Kenrick Goppy, Darcus Howe, Farukh Dhondy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Danny Da Costa, Liz Obi, Leila Howe, Olive Morris and Neil Kenlock. It had a HQ at 38 Shakespeare Road, off Railton Road, which was bought for them by art critic John Berger. The British Black Panthers were inspired by Black Power in the USA although they were different from the American Black Panthers: ‘they were a Party seeking political power, the American Constitution allows people to carry guns, so they were policing the Police’ (Kenlock).

Malcolm X’s speech at the LSE in 1965, Stokeley Carmichael’s appearance at the ‘New Left’ event Dialectics of Liberation Congress in 1967, and Black Panther Angela Davis’s visit to London inspired the movement. If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (1971) by Angela Davis was very influential along with other Black literature such as The Black Jacobins (1938) by CLR James, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters (1970) and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by WE Du Bois. Reggae musician Linton Kwesi Johnson said: ‘Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered Black Literature.’

The exhibition includes material on the Black People’s Alliance demonstration against Racialism during the Commonwealth Premier’s Conference in January 1969, the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in Britain in May 1971, and the fire-bombing of the Unity Centre at 74 Railton Road in March 1973. There is a focus on the trial at the Old Bailey of the Mangrove 9 in October 1971. The Mangrove was a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill that was repeatedly raided by the Metropolitan Police, and at a subsequent protest march 9 people including Jones-LeCointe, Beese and Darcus Howe were arrested.

A significant figure in the British Black Panther Movement was Olive Morris (1952-79), born in Jamaica who was a feminist, black nationalist, campaigner against private property rights and for the rights of squatters, a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, and co-founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. In 1972, 121 Railton Road was squatted by Olive Morris and Liz Obi and was later home to Black organisations, feminist and anarchist groups which were only evicted by Lambeth Council in 1999.

In 1973, the Brixton Black Women’s Group was set up at 65 Railton Road by Morris and Obi, though it later moved to Stockwell Green. The Lambeth Women’s Project was established in 1979 at 166a Stockwell Road and would be evicted by Lambeth Council in November 2012. In 1986 Lambeth Council named one of its buildings on Brixton Hill after Olive Morris. The Lambeth Council leader at the time was Labour Councillor Linda Bellos, a black radical feminist. It is with grim irony today that Lambeth ‘New Labour’ Council operates its housing department and benefits from Olive Morris House, the same Council notorious for evicting ‘squatters’ and tenants from long-life housing and those who cannot afford to pay the ‘bedroom tax.’ This is in sharp contrast to Linda Bellos who said in 2006: ‘I think class remains a key element in people’s life chances which is why I remain a socialist.’

The British Black Panther Movement was a reformist strategy in capitalism, as confirmed by the following statement: ‘I seriously believe that the methods we learnt, the ideology we imbibed and then the campaigns that we participated in gave rise to legislation which outlawed discrimination in housing and employment. We couldn’t make a Marxist-Leninist revolution but we did establish the right of blacks to become proper citizens of Britain’ (Dhondy).

Today in capitalism ‘Black youth unemployment nationally is now pushing 65 percent and rising, in some local wards this rises as high as 75-85 percent’ (Lee Jasper 8 July 2013). Today there are a disproportionate number of deaths of black men in police custody, a disproportionate number of black men in the prison population, and a disproportionate number of black people subject to stop and search by the police.

Black American novelist Alice Walker said ‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.’ Socialists agree with this and when the united black and white working class recognise their own immense potential power they can transform society through conscious unity by abolishing capitalism. Capitalism promotes and aggravates conflicts such as racism. Socialism will be a world free of social conflict in which human beings live and work in unity without distinction of race.
Steve Clayton

If We Wanted (2014)

From the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the world today, we have the resources, technology and ability to feed, clothe and house every man, woman and child on Earth. Enough for everyone to live in comfort.

So, why are so many people these days wasting their breath and time arguing about nations and borders?

The vast majority of people in this country don’t own it. We just live and work here. It’s the same in other countries. Working people everywhere already run society from top to bottom, but we run it for the people who own it, rather than for ourselves.

The government, the police, courts and army exist to defend the people who own the world.

That depends on us complying but, if we wanted, we could choose to run the world for ourselves.

If we want, we can use our votes to take control to end this. If we wanted, we

could organise in our workplaces and communities to abolish poverty and inequality.

If we wanted, we could plan to abolish poverty and inequality as our priority, instead of the profits of the wealthy.

If we owned the world, in common, we could provide plenty, for everyone. There’d be no more need for buying and selling, just sharing and free access. Instead of spending our time fighting over scraps, we could work together to make life better for everyone. No more unemployment. No more working for an employer.

If we wanted we could bring about a society where people not markets matter, where goods are produced for need not profit and where we all share on an equal basis in the fruits of our common efforts.

Still the State (2014)

Book Review from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dominic Frisby: Life After the State. Unbound.  £9.99.

The best part of this book is the title, and even that is not totally accurate. Frisby in fact advocates capitalism with a much smaller state apparatus than now, combined with a so-called free market, and where the only tax is on land values. In the last few pages he does say he leans towards ‘anarcho-capitalism’ (capitalism with no state at all, supposedly), but he says nothing about how this would work and it is not his main focus, so we will ignore it here.

Frisby’s strategy is to blame nearly all the problems of society on the state. He defines capitalism as a system where prices and a business’s success or failure are determined by the market. What exists now is not real capitalism but something called crony capitalism, where success is determined by the privileges a business is granted by the state, in the form of subsidies, regulation, etc. Mysteriously, this is claimed to have existed only since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. Under crony capitalism, a person who benefits from the privileges granted by governments is a rent-seeker, defined as ‘Somebody who does not himself create new wealth, but appropriates that wealth from other people after it has already been created’. This is not a bad definition of a capitalist, but alas Frisby has no idea that the capitalist class do not themselves produce but exploit the rest of us.

He wants the state to do no more than defend property rights, which means there would still be police and armies. This is what the state exists for now: it is ‘a coercive machine (police, judiciary, armed forces, schools, etc.) for conserving the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers in a geographical area’ (www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/education/z-marxism).

The book has many shortcomings, one of which is that often only part of an argument is made. For instance, Frisby does not even try to argue that capitalism was wonderful before its crony variety developed. Further, he begins by discussing Glasgow, once a major port and centre of entrepreneurial activity (in the 18th century it controlled the tobacco trade with the US), and contrasts this with its current situation: high unemployment, low life expectancy, high  murder rate. As with many things, this decline is supposed to have started with the First World War, when the state began to intervene much more in daily life. But he makes no attempt to describe the lives of Glaswegian workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the appalling living and health conditions (life expectancy of 42 years for men and 45 for women in the 1820s, for instance). Of course, acknowledging this would have completely undermined the point he wishes to make.

Frisby claims that capitalism ‘exalts peaceful co-operation between producers and suppliers, without coercion, theft, and rent-seeking’. What is missing from this idyllic picture is the employer, and there can be no co-operation between the capitalist and the workers who are forced to sell their labour power. He sees socialism as involving a big state and high levels of taxation, yet mystifyingly he refers a couple of times to his own system as ‘socialism without the state’.

The book’s general level of reliability is illustrated by its author not even being able to cite the principle ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ correctly, mangling it as ‘From each according to their means, to those according to their needs’.
Paul Bennett

Zambia: The Copper Elephant (2014)

From the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Zambia has been mining copper for almost a century. In 1889 the British South African Company was granted a Royal Charter to exploit minerals in Southern Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes, founder of the De Beers Mining Company, had a vision to build a Cape-to-Cairo railway line, allowing minerals to be transported from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – en route to Europe. Massive copper ore deposits were only discovered in the Copperbelt in 1920. During the 1940s there was a tide of nationalism in the mining towns of the Copperbelt Province characterised by strikes that were organised by the Mine Workers’ Union, led by Lawrence Katilungu.

This prompted the British colonial government of the day to pass a Public Order Act to stem the tide of African political consciousness on the Copperbelt mining towns. The Public Order Act still remains in force today and the PF government is widely criticised for enforcing the act to prohibit political demonstrations of any kind.

Zambia became a member of the IMF and World Bank in 1964. The first republican president Kenneth Kaunda nationalised the privately-owned copper mines in 1968. This was followed by the forming of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines in 1972 (ZCCM). In 1973 CIPEC was inaugurated in Lusaka with the major copper-producing countries, namely Chile, Zaire and Peru. But CIPEC the intergovernmental council of copper-exporting countries failed to contain the falling prices of copper on the international commodities markets. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) meant that Zambia had to find another trade route for the exports and imports. Kaunda invited the Chinese Peoples’ Republic to build a railway line from Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia to Tundunia in Tanzania. Tazara Railway Authority was created to manage the jointly-owned railway company. This was followed up by the construction of a pipeline to transport crude petroleum from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Indeni Oil Refinery in Ndola. This was the beginning of what has been dubbed a ‘Socialist Economy’ in Zambia.

In 1973 Kaunda declared Zambia a one-party state and passed the Emergency Powers Act that prohibited the formation of political parties. The ideology of Humanism was promulgated on the premise that it was going to unite the people of Zambia. But falling copper prices and increasing production costs in the state-owned mines posed economic and social problems – the breaking-apart of Soviet ‘Communism’ in eastern Europe led to incessant demands for political pluralism. In 1980 there was an attempted military coup-d’état against Kaunda. In 1983 he was forced to seek economic aid from the IMF. The official Economic Structural Adjustment Programme was imposed by the World Bank in 1983. These structural adjustment programmes gave rise to food shortages, a black market, work stoppages and student demonstrations which forced Kaunda to pull out of the IMF. This period was characterised by political detentions, and many dissidents disappeared under unexplained circumstances.

When the MMD came to power in 1991 Zambia was subjected to Economic Liberalisation Measures that have continued today.

The legacy of extractive colonialism and the recent far-reaching economic liberalisation reforms is what has come to characterise the Zambian state today.

The state remains corrupt and misinformed. Political consciousness grounded on regionalism alongside a concerted effort by mining companies to hide data – leaves the government with scanty information on the ownership and mining activities. Tax evasion, fraud, environmental damage and human rights abuse are rarely punished even if discovered by the government. The most striking example of this was when two Chinese managers at Collum Mine shot and wounded 13 Zambia workers during a strike in 2000.

Today, copper leaves Zambia loaded on trucks and trains bound for Dar es Salaam and ports in South Africa. The increased copper exports to China is attributed to the opening up of new copper mines owned by the Chinese government in the Copperbelt Province (Chambishi Metals, Non-Ferrous Copper Mines, Chambishi Copper Smelter). A detailed report into the operations of Mopan Copper Mines revealed that cobalt extraction rates were twice inferior to that of other producers of the same mineral.

A glance at the top shareholders of the largest copper mining companies is revealing. Prominent shareholders in Vedanta Resources, First Quantum Minerals and Glencore are Black Rock Asset Management, Standard Life, Capitol Group and the government of Singapore.

Black Rock, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs currently buy around 80 percent of the available copper in Zambia. Zambia produces 16 percent of the world’s copper and it has the richest copper ore deposits in the world. However, copper mining only contributes 2 percent of government revenue. Koukola Copper Mines was first sold to Anglo-American Mining Corporation for a paltry $90 million in 2002. But in only a few months Anglo-American pulled out of KCM. The MMD president Levy Mwanawasa sold 5 percent of shares in KCM to Vedanta Resources in 2002. The deal was facilitated by Clifford Chance and Standard Chartered Bank.

When Vedanta bought KCM it inherited many of the concessions enjoyed by Anglo-American Mining Corporation – tax dividends, interest on royalties and management fees. But KCM’s reputation in Zambia sank to a new low in 2012 when it announced that it was going to mechanise its underground operations: this entailed retrenching 2000 workers. President Sata threatened KCM with revoking their mining licence if KCM retrenched the workers. But KCM’s chief executive Kishor Kumar went ahead and dismissed 54 workers. Sata was furious, so much so that Kishor Kumar was served with a deportation order and fled from Zambia in 2012.

It is common to hear conventional politicians often describe foreign companies as investors whose presence in the country helps create employment even at the cost of making profits. This misconception of capitalism could not be further from the truth.

To quote from Walter Rodney’s book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa:
  ‘The question as to who and what is responsible for the economic underdevelopment of Africa can be answered at two levels – firstly the answer is that the operation of the imperialist system bears responsibility for the economic underdevelopment of Africa by draining African wealth and making it impossible to develop more rapidly.
  Secondly one had to deal with those who manipulated the system and those who are either agents or unwitting accomplices of the system. The capitalist nations of western Europe were the ones who actively extended the exploitation from inside Europe to cover the whole of Africa. In recent times they were joined by the government of the USA..’
Kephas Mulenga, 
Kitwe, Zambia

Film Review: ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ (2014)

Film Review from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology directed by Sophie Fiennes is written by and features Slavoj Žižek, the Hegelian and Marxist philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and leftwing political activist. For Žižek a fundamental area of social and political struggle is ‘culture’, and cinematic art ‘raises serious ideological and political issues.’ Žižek wrote ‘my principal task as a philosopher is to analyse ideology particularly as this is bound up with the formation of individual and social identity through language and discourse.’

The film opens with They Live by John Carpenter which Žižek describes as ‘a forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood Left’ and he discusses Marx’s line ‘sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’ (‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’) from Volume I of Capital. Ideology relies on a collective naiveté; that people accept a set of illusions that obscure how the system really works, capitalism persists because of this false consciousness. Marx wrote in The German Ideology that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ For Žižek, ideology is an unconscious fantasy that structures reality, even in dreams we are in ideology.

Žižek’s analysis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song Climb Every Mountain in The Sound of Music is exquisite as he identifies ‘the affirmation of desire, the cynical power of the Roman Catholic religion resides in hidden, obscene permission to do whatever you want, enjoy it all as it is covered by God.’ Žižek says ‘underneath the message of self-denial there is the opposite message: pretend to abstain and you can have what you want.’

Žižek dissects James Cameron’s Titanic as ‘Hollywood Marxism, fake sympathy with the lower classes’ and sees ‘Winslet as an upper class woman in psychological distress, the function of DiCaprio is to help her to reconstitute her ego. A new version of the imperialist myth of when upper class people lose their vitality they need to ruthlessly exploit in a vampiric way, suck the life out of the working class. Rich people have the right to revitalise themselves by ruthlessly appropriating the vitality of the poor people.’

Žižek sees Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as an ‘unacknowledged re-make of John Ford’s The Searchers and is linked to American liberal interventionism while Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is related to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which saw ‘the staging of the obscene underside of American military culture.’

Depressingly he is correct when he says ‘it is easier to envisage the end of the world in such films as I am Legend than a modest change in our economic order.’ Žižek adds that ‘right dreams point towards a dimension beyond our existing society, wrong dreams idealise the consumerist reflection of our society, the aim is to change the way you dream which will change reality.’ He asks us to ‘set our possibilities straight and become realists and demand what appears as impossible in the economic domain.’

Žižek’s analysis is rich, detailed, complex but always interesting and thought-provoking. He quotes Walter Benjamin at the end: ‘the authentic revolution is not only directed towards the future but it redeems the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts as it were; the living dead of the past revolution, which are roaming around, unsatisfied will finally, find their home.’
Steve Clayton

Some Are More Equal (2014)

The Action Replay Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

On International Women’s Day the Guardian provided a list of the ‘50 most influential women in British sport’, who were supposedly ‘leading the battle for equality’.

The list was a very mixed bag, and the paper admitted that it was all pretty subjective. Top of the list was the ‘leading lady of British sport’, Debbie Jevans, CEO of England Rugby and former boss of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. She used to be a professional tennis-player, and a number of the executives and administrators listed were former athletes themselves. Those still active in sport included swimmer Ellie Simmonds and Jessica Ennis-Hill (who’s now a millionaire).

The list featured broadcasters such as Clare Balding and Jacqui Oatley (‘the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day’), media figures such as various sports editors, a football referee, and politicians such as Helen Grant and Tessa Jowell. A number are vocal supporters of greater involvement by women at the top of sport, with Jevans for one calling for quotas.

But step back a bit and think about what it all means. You might expect top athletes to be influential and act as role models (like film stars and singers). But why should there be powerful people, whether men or women, who are in a position to decide what happens to so many others? Decisions about funding, involving sanctions and incentives, inevitably help to determine developments, at both elite levels and the ‘grass roots’. Careers in sports admin often require a degree in business or marketing, for that after all is what running sport is really about.

Just as a tiny minority of capitalists rule society as a whole, so a small number of people exercise enormous power in professional and amateur sport. Whether part of the media or the sporting or political establishment, they wield influence that affects the lives of others in myriad ways. And, despite what the Guardian says, this has little to do with equality.
Paul Bennett

Voice From The Back: Capitalism In Europe (2014)

The  Voice From The Back column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism In Europe
Despite press reports of some sort of economic recovery the job situation is still grim for millions of unemployed workers. Greece, of course, has been hit the hardest: Its unemployment rate is still hovering above 27 per cent, but the whole European situation is still dire. ‘In the broader 28 nation European Union, 25.9 million people remain jobless, out of a potential labor force of about 244 million. Data released last week showed no change in the euro zone’s 11.9 per cent unemployment rate in February. Spain’s jobless figure was 25.6 per cent, and Italy’s was at a new high of 13 per cent’ (New York Times, 8 April). This so-called efficient social system is denying potential productive workers of contributing to society.


Asian Billionaires
Every day on the TV and press we are made aware of the appalling poverty that exists in Asian countries, but that is only part of the picture. ‘There are three times more Asian billionaires in Britain than there were five years ago while total wealth of the 101 richest Asians in the country has risen 14pc to £51.5bn over the past 12 months alone. The latest Asian Rich List is topped by the Hinduja brothers, Gopichand and Srichand, who have added £1bn to their wealth over the past year and now estimated to be worth £13.5bn’ (Daily Telegraph, 12 April). Millions starve in Asia but Asian billionaires increase their immense wealth -that is capitalism worldwide.


A Brutal Society
It is common for the media to depict the USA and its allies as always behaving in a humane fashion unlike its evil opponents who indulge in torture and other brutal tactics. Recent events seem to give the lie to such a notion. ‘Senate committee found CIA interrogations and detentions to be ‘brutal’ and urges administration to release the report as quickly as possible. A leak of the major findings of a landmark Senate inquiry into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture of terrorism detainees led, on Friday, to intensified pressure on the White House and the CIA to release the inquiry speedily and with a minimum of redactions’ (Guardian, 11 April). Capitalism is a brutal competitive society and all its governments reflect that brutality in their actions.


A Belligerent Society
Of all the millions of words that have spewed from the mass media about the centenary of the First World War it is probably those of the humorous writer of the Horrible Histories Terry Deary that get nearest the truth. ‘Soldiers on both sides were brainwashed by propaganda. They were told to go out and kill for their country. All these arguments over who started it are pointless—they all joined in enthusiastically’ (Sunday Times, 13 April). The inevitable outcome of a social system based on economic competition is military violence.


A Poverty-Stricken Society
Politicians are quick to assure workers that either we are experiencing an economic recovery or that good times are just around the corner, but a YouGov poll suggests otherwise. ‘Millions of families are in such a perilous financial state that they are just one pay cheque away from losing their home, research shows. Nearly four million families who pay rent or a mortgage have so few savings that it would take only a month’s missed salary to lose their home, YouGov polling for Shelter reveals. Of these, 2.4 million have no savings whatsoever and would not be able to survive a full month’ (Independent, 14 April). Hardly an economic recovery, is it?


The Big Con Trick
Politicians have a very good opinion of themselves but the Prime Minister has excelled himself here. ‘David Cameron has claimed his concept of a ‘Big Society’ is merely following in the work of Jesus, more than 2,000 years ago. The Conservative leader’s vision of Big Society was a cornerstone of his 2010 General Election campaign. But, speaking last night, he said the idea was just a continuation of Jesus’s work. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago,’ the Prime Minister told Downing Street’s Easter reception. ‘I just want to see more of it’’ (Daily Express, 10 April). Certainly the British unemployed would be delighted if Cameron could perform that biblical trick of the multitude with a few loaves of bread, perhaps to supply his Big Society’s food banks.



Joseph Dietzgen - The Workers Philosopher (1975)

Josef Dietzgen (1828 – 1888)
From the Spring 1975 issue of Radical Philosophy magazine

"April the 15th 1888 Joseph Dietzgen died . In memory,  I post this article written by Adam Buick for the journal Radical Philosophy 10. Spring 1975 ." (Via Mailstrom blog.)

Josef Dietzgen is indeed a neglected philosopher. How many people know that he was the man Marx introduced to the 1872 Congress of the First International as ‘our philosopher’? Or that it was Dietzgen, not Plekhanov, who first coined the phrase ‘dialectical materialism’? Or that for the first thirty or so years of this century Dietzgen’s Philosophical Essays were to he found on the bookshelves of any working class militant with Marxist pretensions?

Who, then, was Dietzgen? What were his views? And, indeed, why has he been neglected?

Joseph Dietzgen was born in December 1828 near Cologne. His father was a master tanner and it was in this trade that Dietzgen was trained and worked. He was neither a capitalist nor a propertyless worker but an artisan owning and working his own instruments of production. What distinguished him from other pioneer scientific socialists like Marx and Engels was that he never went to university; he was a self-educated man. Dietzgen was involved in the 1848 rising and after its failure left for America returning, however, after a couple of years. He spent another two years in America after 1859 and went there again in 1884, never to return. He died in 1888 and is buried in Chicago.

Dietzgen was not just interested in philosophy, though this was his main interest. He was also a writer on economic and political matters for the German Social Democratic press, especially in the l870s. Marx commented favourably on Dietzgen’s review of Capital in his Afterward to the Second German Edition.1 The two men were personal acquaintances.

Dietzgen wrote in German, but a number of his writings, including the most important, were translated into English in the early years of this century and published as two books 2 by the Charles H. Kerr Co. of Chicago. The book bearing the title The Positive Outcome of Philosophy contains not only this, his last work originally published in 1887, but also his first work, The Nature of Human Brainwork (1869), and also his Letters on Logic. The other book, Philosophical Essays, contains translations of some of the propagandist articles Dietzgen wrote in the 1970s and also his pamphlet Excursions of a Socialist into the Domain of Epistemology. This pamphlet, especially Chapter 3, ‘Materialism versus Materialism’, is perhaps the best outline of Dietzgen’s views in his own words. For, frankly, Dietzgen’s works are not easy to read, partly because of the subject matter, but partly also because Dietzgen tended to express himself somewhat philosophically and to needlessly repeat himself.

In his introduction, written in 1902, to the English edition of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, the Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek, described Dietzgen’s philosophical writings as ‘an important and indispensable auxiliary for the understanding of the fundamental works of Marx and Engels.’3 Ernst Untermann, another German Social Democrat who had emigrated to America, expressed a similar view: ‘Dietzgen rounded out the work of Marx and Engels by a consistent monist conception of the universe' 4 Are these opinions justified? In this writer's opinion, yes. Marx’s historical materialism is a materialist theory of history and society; it is not, and was not meant to be, a materialist philosophy. Of course, being an atheist, Marx must have had a materialist conception of the universe but he never wrote much about it. Nor was there any reason why he should have. His specialities were history, sociology and economics, not philosophy or epistemology. Engels made an attempt to back up the materialist conception of history with a materialist philosophy but, in many respects failed to do this satisfactorily. It was Dietzgen who succeeded and in this sense can justly be said to have filled a 'gap' in socialist theory.

Dialectical Materialism

Dietzgen was a thoroughgoing empiricist and materialist. For him all knowledge was derived from sense-perception and what human beings perceived had a real existence independent of their perception of it.

The Nature of Human Brainwork (1869) presents an empiricist theory of knowledge derived from a rejection of Kantian dualism. Kant had claimed that Reason (=science, knowledge) could only deal with the world of experience, but the world of experience, according to him, was only a world of appearances or, to use a word derived from Greek meaning the same, a world of ‘phenomena’. Thus science could never come to understand the world as it really was, the world of what Kant called ‘things-in-themselves’ of which he supposed the world of phenomena to be but appearances. For Kant. there were two worlds: a world of phenomena, which was all the human mind could come to understand, and a world of things-in-themselves beyond human experience and understanding.

For Dietzgen, to posit the existence of a second world beyond the world of experience was simply metaphysical nonsense. ‘Phenomena or appearances appear - voilà tout.’5 The world of phenomena was the only world; phenomena were themselves real, the substance of the real world. Phenomena, however, says Dietzgen, do not exist as independent entities; they exist only as parts or the entire single world of phenomena. The world of reality is a single entity embracing all observable phenomena, past, present and future. Reality is thus infinite, having no beginning nor end. It is constantly changing. The universe and all things in it consist of transformations of matter, which take place simultaneously and consecutively in space and time.

The universe is in every place and at any time itself new or present for the first time. It arises and passes away, passes and arises under our very hands. Nothing remains the same, only the infinite change is constant, and even the change varies. Every part of time and space brings new changes.6

The world of reality is a never-ending, everchanging stream of observable phenomena, and it exists only as a whole. That Reality, Existence, the Universe, Nature – call it what you will (and Dietzgen called it many things drawn from philosophy, e.g., the Absolute, the Good, Truth, even God) – is a united whole a single unit, is the basis of Dietzgen’s theories and is endlessly repeated in the Letters on Logic, written over the period 1880-3 to Eugene, one of his sons.

As can be seen, this conception of the universe is both materialist (since it posits the existence of a world of reality independent of men’s perception of it) and dialectical (since it sees the world of reality as a changing, differentiated unity). It was for this reason that Dietzgen called his philosophy ‘dialectical materialism’, a phrase he first used in his 1870s articles in the German Social Democratic press.7 This was some years before Plekhanov, who is generally said to have originated this phrase (which is not to be found in the writings of Marx or Engels), even claimed to be a Marxist. Plekhanov, it should be noted, meant something rather different by it than did Dietzgen; he was the father of the undialectical state philosophy of present-day Russia which also, unfortunately, goes under the name of ‘dialectical materialism’ and with which Dietzgen’s quite different theories are not to be confused.

What is Knowledge?

The human mind The human mind is not the metaphysical mystery that idealist philosophers try to make it. As something that can be observed and studied, it too is part the world of phenomena. Once this is recognised, as Dietzgen insists it should be, then it is possible to give a materialist explanation of the nature of thinking. Dietzgen’s philosophy is in fact essentially such a materialist epistemology. Human brainwork consists, says Dietzgen, in generalising from experience, in constructing abstract general concepts on the basis of perceptions supplied by the senses. The senses perceive a continuous stream of different phenomena; the role of the mind is to make sense of this stream by distinguishing and naming parts of it. The mind, as the organ of human understanding, understands the world by classifying it:

Knowledge, thinking, understanding, explaining, has not, and cannot have, any other function than that of describing the processes of experience by (division or classification.8

Phenomena are classified by the mind into different categories on the basis of common characteristics. But the categories, or concepts, are abstractions from reality, mental constructs. A table, for instance, does not have a separate, independent existence; it is the name given by the human mind to a certain group of recurring phenomena perceived by the senses. A table (and indeed all other things) is an abstraction, a mental construct. In reality all things are interdependent Darts of the whole which is the entire world of phenomena:

The world is not made up of fixed classes, but is a fluid unity, the Absolute incarnate, which develops eternally, and is only classified by the human mind for purposes of forming intelligent conceptions.9

This dialectical view contrasts with the everyday – and undialectical – view that the world consists of a collection of separate, fixed objects. Dietzgen does not challenge the usefulness of this latter view. On the contrary, he recognises that men must form such a view of the world if they are to orient themselves and survive in it. It is this ability to generalise, to, as it were, stop this continuous stream of phenomena (so that parts of it can become subjects for abstract thought), that distinguishes men from other animals and has enables them to intervene in and control the external world. But, says Dietzgen, we ought to know that stopping the stream of phenomena and classifying it into separate, fixed objects is only a mental operation, however vital to the survival of the human species:

The logical household use of rigid conceptions extends, and should and must extend, to all science. The consideration of things as ‘the same’, is indispensable, and yet it is very salutary to know and remember that the things are not only the same and congealed, but at the same time variable and fluid.10

To state that things are mental constructs can give rise to the misunderstanding that you are saying that they are only mental constructs and that you are therefore an idealist who sees the external world as the creation of the mind. Rut Dietzgen was not saying that things were simply mental constructs: things were mental constructs out of the real world of phenomena as perceived by the senses; things were abstractions, yes, but abstractions from an objectively-existing external reality. Although a thing as such, as a separate independent object, did not exist, there was certainly something in the real world of phenomena which corresponded to it that existed. The mind was not so much constructing the external world as reconstructing an image of it.

Science altogether does not want and cannot want to accomplish more than the classification of perceptible things according to species and varieties; its entire desire and ability is confined to the mental reconstruction of the different parts of a differential unity. [emphasis added] It is the substantial force of the Universe, in which they participate, which has brought about the things that are, and all that the human mind can do is to form a picture of its gradual, consistent and rational working.11

These passages make it quite clear that for Dietzgen the external world existed independently of the human mind. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this did not prevent him from being misunderstood on this point.

A further aspect of Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism is that knowledge can never be absolute or complete, all knowledge is relative; our classification or description of the world must always be regarded as a tentative approximation liable to revision in the light of further experience. Dietzgen’s last work, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy (1887), ends with the following rule for scientific investigation which remains valid to this day:

Thou shalt sharply divide and subdivide and farther subdivide to the utmost, the universal concept, the concept of the universe, but thou shalt be backed up by the consciousness that this mental classification is a formality, by which man seeks to register and Systematize his experience; thou shalt furthermore remain conscious of thy human liberty to progressively clarify thy experience, which is constantly enriched in the course of time, through modified classification.12

Mind and Matter

Dietzgen, as we saw, called himself a materialist. There are however various kinds of materialism and Dietzgen was careful to differentiate his dialectical materialism from what he called ‘onesided,’ ‘narrow’ and ‘mechanical’ materialism. This was the view (indeed the traditional materialist view going back to the philosophers of Ancient Greece) that the world is composed of tiny particles of tangible ‘matter’ and that the mind and thinking are simply the effects of the movement of these atoms. Writes Dietzgen:

The distinguishing mark between the mechanical materialists of the 18th century and the Social-Democratic materialists trained in German idealism consists in that that the latter have extended the former’s narrow conception of matter as consisting exclusively of the Tangible to all phenomena that occur in the world.13

Every phenomenon, everything that occurs, exists, as part of the entire world of phenomena. Since non-tangible phenomena, e.g. ideas, thoughts etc., also occur, they are just as real or, if you like, just as ‘material’ as tangible phenomena:

In the endless Universe matter in the sense of old and antiquated materialists, that is, of tangible matter, does not possess the slightest preferential right to be more substantial, i.e. more immediate, more distinct and more certain than any other phenomena of nature.14

Dietzgen had no objection to the classification of the world of phenomena into two general categories, one consisting of tangible phenomena and called ‘matter’ and the other consisting of mental phenomena and called ‘mind.’ He had no objection either to explanations of mental phenomena in terms of tangible phenomena. What he was concerned to point out was that, in this sense, both ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ were abstractions, even if very general ones, from the real world of phenomena. The rigid distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ was a mental distinction that did not exist in the world of phenomena which, despite this mental operation, remained an undivided whole:

The mind is a collective name for the mental phenomena, as matter is a collective name for the material phenomena, and the two together figure under the idea and name of the phenomena of Nature.15

This was the basis of Dietzgen’s statement, which, as we shall see, so upset Lenin, that ‘our materialism is distinguished by its special knowledge of the common nature of mind and matter’.16 By this he simply meant that both mind and matter were parts of the world of observable phenomena.

Those Dietzgen called the ‘narrow’ materialists made the mistake of not thinking dialectically, that is, of not realising that the parts of the world of phenomena do not exist independently but only as interconnected parts of that world. In taking one part of the world of phenomena and making it the basis of all the other parts, they were falsely ascribing a real, independent existence to what was in fact only an abstraction:

This materialism is so enamoured of mechanics, that it, as it were, idolizes it, does not regard it as part of the world, but as the sole substance of which the universe is made up.17

This was the same mistake as regarding the objects of everyday use as having an independent, separate existence. ‘Matter’ just as much as ‘table’ was a mental abstraction from the real world of phenomena; in reality tangible phenomena do not exist separately from other phenomena, they exist only as an integral part of the entire single world of all phenomena.

It is worth emphasising again that this equal epistemological status of tangible and mental phenomena does not at all rule out scientific explanations of mental phenomena in terms of tangible phenomena, e.g., in terms of the physiological functioning of the brain and nervous system, or indeed of the explanation of all phenomena in terms of the movement of atoms. The fact that ‘matter’ and ‘atoms’ were metal abstractions from the world of phenomena did not in the least detract from their possible usefulness as concepts for understanding the world. As Dietzgen said of atoms:

Atoms are groups. As smallest parts they exist only in our thoughts and thus give excellent service in chemistry. The consciousness that they are not plastic but only mental things, does not detract from their usefulness, but heightens it still more.18

To understand the world was to divide it into necessarily abstract concepts. It was not Dietzgen’s aim to decide which was the best way to classify, describe and explain the world but to show what we were doing when we did do this. To ascribe reality to any of these mental constructs, even so general a one as (tangible) matter was a confusion, was to think undialectically; the only thing that had a separate, independent existence was the entire world of phenomena itself. Dietzgen’s criticism of one-sided, narrow materialism was a criticism of its confusion on this point, and not at all a criticism of the basic principles of materialism.

Dietzgen was essentially a philosopher of science. We would not want to claim that he always expressed himself clearly or adequately (his ontological proof of the universe and his virtual pantheism will make some readers wince – or smile), but despite his shortcomings he must be given the credit for first formulating a theory of the nature of science – as basically a description of the world for purposes of prediction and control – which is now largely accepted even if it does not call itself ‘dialectical materialism’ or indeed refer to itself as ‘materialist’ at all (mainly for fear of confusion with the narrow, one-sided materialism of the past – and present-day Russia).

Dietzgen’s works, besides being difficult to obtain, make difficult reading. However, his best interpreter, the Dutch Marxist Anton Pannekoek, expressed himself very clearly. Pannekoek was himself a scientist, a professor of astronomy of world renown in fact, and wrote not only the introduction to the Kerr editions of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy but also, later, two short brilliant books applying Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism: Lenin as Philosopher (1938)19 and Anthropogenesis (1944). Unfortunately these are just as difficult to obtain as the works of Dietzgen himself.

Lenin versus Dietzgen

At about the same time as Dietzgen was writing, two other German-speakers, Ernst Mach in Austria and Richard Avenarius in Switzerland, were working out a theory of science which was in a number of ways similar to Dietzgen’s. One of Avenarius’ followers called this theory ‘empirio-criticism.’ We can’t go into this theory here except to say that it too saw knowledge as essentially the classification of experience. However, while Dietzgen never doubted the independent existence of the world of phenomena or experience, empirio-criticism was ambiguous on this point. It wished to construct the world from ‘experience’ (sense-data, etc.) but since experience is the experience of human beings it came very near to saying, and some of its exponents did say, that the human mind (or minds) was as vital to the existence of the external world as external phenomena themselves.

Empirio-criticism, partly because of its similarity with Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism, enjoyed a certain vogue in Social Democratic circles in the early years of the twentieth century. A number of Social Democrats, including Dietzgen’s son Eugene, misinterpreted Dietzgen in an empirio-criticist direction. Included in the Kerr edition of Dietzgen’s Philosophical Essays is an essay on Max Stirner by Eugene wherein we read that ‘whatever does not partake of the psychophysical nature of the universe, cannot exist for us’ and that ‘phenomena outside of us . . . exist independently of individual man, although they cannot exist for mankind independently of human consciousness.20

Eugene Dietzgen would seem to be suggesting here that the external world is not an objective world but only an inter-subjective world, i.e., a sort of collective creation of all human minds which would not exist in their absence. Similar views were expounded also by a number of members of the Russian Bolshevik Party. Lenin was scandalised by this departure from materialism (as indeed it was) and set out to refute this deviation once and for all. In 1908 was published Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism and in 1909 Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Both contain a denial of the view we quoted earlier that Dietzgen had added something to the work of Marx and Engels. We won’t deal with Plekhanov’s criticism here except to say that he preferred Feuerbach’s materialism to Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism (though he retained the phrase ‘dialectical materialism’).

Lenin devotes a section of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism to Dietzgen entitled ‘How could J. Dietzgen Have Found Favour with the Reactionary Philosophers?’ in which he criticises in particular Dietzgen’s view that the real, or material, world includes the intangible (thoughts, etc.) as well as the tangible:

To say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism.
That the conception of ‘matter’ must also include thoughts, as Dietzgen repeats in the Excursions, is a muddle, for if such an inclusion is made, the epistemological contrast between mind and matter, idealism and materialism, a contrast upon which Dietzgen himself insists, loses all meaning.21

Lenin regards this as a ‘deviation’ by Dietzgen from materialism, without seeming to realise that this view is the basis of Dietzgen’s whole materialist epistemology. It is not a question of Dietzgen expressing himself badly but of there being a fundamental difference between Dietzgen’s materialism and Lenin’s. Lenin was clearly one of those Dietzgen described as a narrow, one-sided, mechanical materialist.

Lenin’s claim about the epistemological contrast between idealism and materialism being blurred if thoughts are regarded as part of the world of phenomena (= the material world) is not true. As we have seen, Dietzgen was quite able to make this the basis of his epistemology and to remain a thoroughgoing materialist who never for one moment doubted the objective existence of the external world. Lenin was quite right, on the other hand, to attack people like Eugene Dietzgen who only gave the external world an inter-subjective existence. This was indeed a departure from materialism in the direction of idealism, but Lenin’s criticism of it was made from the point of view of what Pannekoek in his Lenin as Philosopher called ‘bourgeois materialism’ not that of dialectical materialism.

Pannekoek, in this work (which is a reply to Lenin following the publication of German, English and French translations in 1927 and 1928), attempted to give an explanation of why the Russian Bolshevik Party should have adopted ‘bourgeois materialism’ as its theory. By ‘bourgeois’ materialism Pannekoek meant a materialism which seeks to explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. When the bourgeoisie had to fight to achieve and retain power, said Pannekoek, they believed in the power of the physical sciences to change the world, practically by developing modern industry, and theoretically by exposing the religious views of their class opponents as superstitious nonsense. That Lenin and the Bolsheviks 22 should have adopted a similar ideology to that of the rising bourgeoisie of Western Europe at an earlier period was to be explained, said Pannekoek, by the essentially similar task that confronted them: to carry out the equivalent of a bourgeois revolution in Russia which would sweep away the obstacles, institutional and ideological, to the development of modern industry there. Pannekoek saw Leninism as the ideology of a new ruling class whose historical task was to industrialise Russia on the basis of state capitalism, with militant physical-science materialism as its ideology. This materialism, though falsely called ‘dialectical,’ is still the dominant ideology in Russia today.

Dietzgen Today

Whatever the explanation as to why Lenin rejected Dietzgen’s dialectical materialism, the fact that he did contributed in large measure to Dietzgen becoming a neglected philosopher.23 Dietzgen’s ideas had been introduced into Britain before the first World War by the English-language translations of his works published by Kerr of Chicago, and had been propagated here by such organisations as the Labour College movement and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Both of these continued to exist after the War and Russian revolution and both of them proclaimed a Marxism independent of Moscow. A textbook on Dietzgen’s philosophy by an NCLC lecturer, Fred Casey, called Thinking (1922) was widely read in militant working-class circles. Then in 1927 was published the first English translation of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.24 From then on, as in the 1930s, the Communist Party’s false claim to be genuine Marxists came to be widely accepted, Dietzgen receded into the background. In 1936 T.A. Jackson, a professional Communist Party writer, included a vituperative attack, in true Leninist style, on the unfortunate Casey in his book Dialectics; to be a ‘Caseyite,’ i.e., to accept Dietzgen’s philosophy without Lenin’s ‘correction,’ became a heresy in Communist Party circles.

We would not want to claim that the sole reason for Dietzgen becoming neglected was the fact that his materialism differed from that proclaimed by the State philosophers of Russia. Other factors entered into it too, including the difficult reading that his writings make. Also, with the decline of religion as a social force, working class militants have felt less need to arm themselves with a militant materialism such as Dietzgen provided. Nor is it now really necessary to ‘revive’ Dietzgen. For, as we have said, his basic views have been absorbed into modern science which in practice is both dialectical and materialist. For the historical record, though, it is worth paying a tribute to the working tanner and socialist militant who pioneered these views. Dietzgen, radical philosophers of today should be aware, was the man who first formulated the theory of dialectical materialism as an essential complement to Marx’s materialist conception of history.
Adam Buick

Notes
1 Capital, Vol. I, p.16, FLPH, Moscow, 1961.
2 The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, 1906. A second revised edition was published in 1928, from which the quotes for this article are taken. Philosophical Essays, Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, 1906 and 1917.
3 Positive Outcome p.63.
4 Science and Revolution p.161, Kerr, 1905.
5 ‘The Nature of Human Brainwork,’ Positive Outcome, p.102.
6 Ibid, p.101.
7 Essays, pp.139, 159, 208, 216 (231, 293, 294, 306, 307, 361).
8 ‘The Positive Outcome of Philosophy,’ Positive Outcome, p.425.
9 ‘Excursions,’ Essays, p.322.
10 ‘The Positive Outcome of Philosophy,’ Positive Outcome, pp.374-5.
11 ‘Excursions,’ Essays, pp.361-2 and p.310 respectively.
12 ‘The Positive Outcome of Philosophy,’ Positive Outcome, p.428.
13 ‘Excursions,’ Essays p.298.
14 ‘Excursions,’ Essays p.307.
15 ‘Excursions,’ Essays pp.311-12
16 ‘Excursions,’ Essays p.308.
17 ‘The Positive Outcome of Philosophy,’ Positive Outcome, p.368.
18 Ibid, p.418.
19 Lenin as Philosopher, New Essays, New York, 1948. A French translation was recently published by Spartacus, 5 rue Ste-Croix-de-la- Bretonnerie, Paris IVe. See also Pannekoek’s article ‘Society and Mind in Marxian Philosophy,’ Science and Society, 1, 4, 1937.
20 ‘The Proletarian Method,’ Essays, p.65 and p.61 respectively.
21 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p.290 and p.292 respectively, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1972.
22 Trotsky too was a mechanical materialist who believed that, in principle, it was possible to explain everything, from the movement of the planets to thinking and consciousness, in terms of the movement and properties of the tangible atomic particles he supposed the world to be made up of. See the extracts from two speeches made in 1925 and 1926, reproduced in The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited and introduced by Isaac Deutscher, Dell, New York, 1964, pp.342-55.
23 Dietzgen was not entirely forgotten. See, for instance, ‘Empiricism and Ethics in Dietzgen’ by Loyd D. Easton, Journal of the History of Ideas, January 1958. Also the SPGB, and the World Socialist Party of the United States (from which this writer first learnt of the ideas of Dietzgen and Pannekoek), continued, and continue, to propagate his ideas.
24 There exist two English translations of Lenin’s work. The first, the one published in 1927, evidently had various inaccuracies. For instance, it has a passage ‘all materialists regard Dietzgen as an inconsistent philosopher’ which the second translates ‘materialists . . . regard Dietzgen as a philosopher who is not entirely consistent’!