Monday, July 1, 2019

Half a century of shame (2003)

Editorial from the March 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

So, it’s fifty years since that other Great Dictator himself – Josef Stalin – finally departed this mortal coil. Fifty years on from the death of a man who probably did as much as anyone else in human history to sully the name of socialism. Today, few outside of Arthur Scargill’s mis-named Socialist Labour Party and their friends in the near-moribund Stalin Society have anything but contempt for one of the greatest destroyers of working class hopes (and lives) this century.

Stalin presided over a ruthless dictatorship over the proletariat which was the model followed by a host of other unsavoury regimes which believed that the only way to achieve a socialist society was to oppress the very class – the only class – capable of bringing it about. Their vision of this socialist society was, in any case, distorted virtually beyond recognition, where Marx’s dictum “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” was replaced with “from each according to their ability, to each according to their (supposed) work” and where the Party bureaucrats drove round in limousines and accessed shops only they could access while the rest of the population lived miserable lives of poverty.

It is difficult to think that a sane person could hanker back to the type of regime that Stalin helped develop in Russia and which was replicated across most of Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, East Asia and the Caribbean. And yet, thousands of people – even in a country like the UK – still do. Not that most of them would call themselves followers of Josef Stalin though – far from it. Unlike Scargill and his ilk, these are people who profess to abhor Stalinism and all that it led to: the fear, the intolerance, the labour camps and the murders. But they are people who still agree with most of what Stalin stood for, because even though they might be latter-day supporters of Stalin’s great rival in the Russian Communist Party, Leon Trotsky, they are united in their fervour for the politics of the man who mentored them both: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The bureaucratic Russian police state which terrorised its political opponents (including genuine socialists) did not originate with Stalin, nor did it die with him. Neither was the idea that socialism was really state-run capitalism when operated under the dictatorship of the Russian Communist Party one of Stalin’s contributions. These ideas were Lenin’s and they were adopted by Stalin and Trotsky alike.

Today, many political parties exist which still extol the virtues of Lenin and Trotsky while supposedly denouncing Stalin and all his works. And yet they undoubtedly agree with 95 percent of his politics, including most of the bits others (rightly) find abhorrent. Groups like the Socialist Workers Party, Militant (now masquerading under a nom-de-plume), the Alliance for Workers Liberty and others all believe that the working class must be led to socialism (read state controlled capitalism) by a dedicated band of revolutionaries (them) who will then proceed to set up a “dictatorship of the proletariat” in time-honoured fashion.

We must point out that their politics stands in clear distinction to the honest, open and democratic political tradition of the Socialist Party. This is a political tradition which insists that the working class of wage and salary earners must themselves – organised democratically – bring about socialism: a society without class division, the wages system, a state or national frontiers.

Whatever our political opponents may say about us, we have a proud tradition of standing by our principles and of conveying a consistent analysis of capitalism and of how it can be democratically transformed into socialism. As all reminders of the Soviet Union’s murky existence demonstrate, our opponents on the political Left meanwhile have a past to hide from and a future that is merely a promise to repeat yesterday’s nightmares. In refusing to learn the lessons of the Russian debacle they have tarnished the words “socialism” and “communism” to describe the society that can replace capitalism. For these reasons, their protestations of innocence this month will ring hollow to all those with a decent knowledge of history and a political conscience to match.

The new reality (2003)

Editorial from the May 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The war is now over. Inevitably, given the technological superiority of the US armed forces and their complete control of the air, the US – with token support from Britain – won. Their trained killers were able to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi soldiers and, if they got in the way, Iraqi civilians too, including women and children. Their warplanes not only rained down bombs on defenceless Iraqi soldiers – a repeat of the fire-bombing of the defeated and retreating Iraqi army in 1991 – but also on perfectly usable and empty office buildings. And they allowed the looting of hospitals and of museums containing items that were the cultural heritage of all humanity.

But this, the supporters of the war said in their defence, is inevitable in a war. And they are right. War does bring nothing but death and destruction to ordinary people. This for a cause that is never theirs. This was blindingly obvious in this war with the issue at stake being control of the world’s second biggest reserves of oil and of a country in which the US could establish military bases in strategic reach of both the Middle East and Caspian Sea oilfields. At the same time the US was able to demonstrate to potential rivals, such as France, Germany, Russia and China, that it is the Alpha Male in the world capitalist jungle and that this is the “new reality” they would be advised to take account of.

The US propaganda machine, echoed by the Bush and Blair Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets, are proclaiming that the Iraqi people have been “liberated” and are now “free”. Certainly the Saddam regime, a brutal state-capitalist dictatorship, has been overthrown, but what is going to replace it? In the first instance, a military dictatorship under a retired US general. In time, when the occupying forces are satisfied that it is safe to do so, power will be transferred to a puppet regime of their choosing. This will be no easy task, but that’s their problem.

The emergence of even a capitalist political democracy in Iraq seems improbable. More likely is the rule of hereditary warlords in the North and of Islamic fundamentalists in the South. But that will be acceptable to the US as long as it ensures stability. The fig-leaf that this was a war to establish “democracy” in Iraq will then be seen to have been just that.

The Iraqi people – the workers in the towns, the peasants in the countryside – will merely have exchanged one set of rulers for another. Having seen what happens when a state machine collapses – workers help themselves to some of the products that were ultimately produced by their labour – the priority of any new regime is going to be holding “the masses” down, ensuring that they accept their poverty and deprivation, without kicking too much against the pricks. At the same time, the new regime will be required to make the assets of the overthrown state-capitalist regime available for looting by Western, mainly US, corporation and contractors.

But this is not the end of the story. Iraq could well be only the first of such wars to overthrow regimes considered to threaten the vital economic interest of the US. That’s the “new reality”, though the US government will be hoping that the fate of the Saddam regime will be an object lesson to any other state that might be tempted to challenge US interests and that the threat of war will suffice to make them back down.

In any event, the world is going to continue to be a dangerous place. That capitalism continues to be a war-prone society has been proved yet again. So has the urgent need for world socialism so that wars, the threat of war and preparation for war can become things of the past. It’s the only way to lasting world peace.

Racism is bunk (2003)

Editorial from the June 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists stand for a system of society based upon the principle of each individual having access to what they need, as a pre-condition of social activity. That is, securing for each human being the clothes, food and housing they need, as well as the cultural and social goods of life, should be the first priority of any sane society. Of course, each person getting what they need means that different people will get different things. People are, of course, born with different needs, so it is not a question of everybody getting the same.

Some people share genetically inherited features which are passed on through human reproduction. Genetic features, though, can be mixed and changed by the same process – there is no essential correlation between, say, skin colour and some disease. Merely, there is a chance that the genes for these two separate features will be passed on from parent to child. Just as there is no specific correlation between skin colour and facial features, or eye colour and hair colour. That these features seem to belong together is an effect of the fact that each parent passes on half their genetic characteristics to their off-spring, and that historically people of similar appearance (and roughly common descent) have tended to breed with one another in similar climates.

The fact of the matter is that we are all members of the same republic of genes, all related very closely to one another no matter what part of the globe we hail from. We are the surviving descendants of some less than 20,000 early humanoids. We share a common genetic trait, traceable back through the ages to just one female, many thousands of years ago.

It’s also a fact that we developed as a species to be dependent upon one another for our needs; but also able to communicate and co-operate with one another to meet those needs. Yet, today, we live in a society in which the needs of a great many people go unmet. It’s clear to Socialists that the ideas surrounding race and racialism are bunkum, un-supported by the scientific facts. We can point to the history of the development of capitalism, to show how the misapprehensions surrounding race developed along with the needs of capital to expand and control the globe, and to build loyal armies in pursuit of such conquest. Yet, they continue to do harm and deny our common humanity in the modern world.

But why do such mistaken ideas continue to exist in the world today, in the face of the evidence of the facts? We would point to the mutually re-enforcing tendencies of today’s modern world. On the one hand is the continued existence of poverty fed by ignorance, which nurtures the desire for people to cling onto what little they have, instilling in them a fear of a threat from apparent strangers. On the other, capital’s drives for efficiency, the need to cut out anything that interferes with or reduces the profit-making capacity of the industrial machine, which means that worker’s whose needs cause costs (such as dealing with language and cultural differences) are squeezed out in a “one size fits all” approach.

What socialists propose is a different world. Wherein everyone could have more than enough of the things they require, so they need no longer fear to lose it; where meeting and exploring our different needs becomes a past-time and an end in itself; where without conflicts of power and dominance – because we co-operate voluntarily and democratically – there is no limitation set on, nor distortion of, our endeavour to understand what it means to be a part of the human race. In short, socialism will allow us to be treated as unique individuals, rather than as a bureaucratically allocated “race” on an equal opportunities monitoring form.

Which way forward? (2003)

Editorial from the August 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Thanks in large measure to proportional representation, the Scottish Parliament now has 6 (out of 129) MSPs from a left-of-Labour party, Tommy Sheridan’s “Scottish Socialist Party”. The SSP is a direct descendant of Militant and so has a Trotskyist past, and in fact includes the members in Scotland of Militant, the SWP and other such groups.

Many in England who don’t like the profit system look to the SSP as a model, hoping that the “Socialist Alliance” will be able to repeat its success south of the border. However, without proportional representation, they are not making much headway, trailing far behind the BNP as a party of populist protest (the BNP would be a major beneficiary of PR in England, just as the National Front was in France).

So, in England, a rival idea is being canvassed: that of refounding the – or a – Labour Party, as a group of trade-union sponsored MPs pressing for reforms of capitalism in the interest of trade unionists and workers generally.

Yet others, believe it or not, entertain the illusion that, after Blair goes, it will be possible to recapture the Labour Party and turn it back into a party committed to redistributing power and wealth to working people that they believe it once was.

What all three options share is a reformist approach: that what is important is to get people elected to parliament and local councils to pass measures aimed at improving the lot of wage and salary workers within the profit system.

There’s nothing wrong with contesting elections, but if Socialists are going to do this it should be done on a sound basis: getting elected on a straight socialist programme of common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit, with a view to using parliament or the council chamber as a platform from which to spread socialist ideas (while still a minority) and to usher in socialism (when a majority, acting on instructions from a mass democratically-organised and socialist-minded movement outside).

But what is being proposed is quite different: getting elected with non-socialist votes on a programme of attractive-sounding reforms to capitalism. It was on this basis (tinged with a divisive Scottish nationalism: they appear to believe in “socialism in one province”) that the SSP’s MSPs were elected, promising a local income tax, free school meals, a £7.32-an-hour minimum wage, a 35-hour working week, which are reforms of capitalism not socialism. (In fact, neither the SSP, nor the Socialist Alliance, nor the Old Labourites have any clear idea of what socialism means; they hardly ever mention the word and, when they do, it turns out they mean state capitalism – nationalisation, or the wages system under state management.)

It is not as if the workers’ movement hasn’t been here before. This was what the Labour Party in Britain set out to do. On the Continent it was the policy of parties which, on the face of it, were far more radical than Labour in that they claimed to be Marxist and based on the class struggle. In practice, however, they were just as reformist as the Labour Party, and failed just as miserably.

The danger is that the same mistake is going to be made again. While some trade union leaders and activists want to re-found a Labour Party, others such as the SWP see the “Socialist Alliance” as a revival of the left and centre of pre-WWI continental “Marxist” Social Democracy – as an embryonic leftwing party calling itself Marxist but pursuing reforms to capitalism.

This might just be a tactic – another ploy by a vanguard to attract a following. But it’s a bad tactic that can only encourage illusions about what can be achieved under capitalism. It glosses over the fact that capitalism is not a system that can be humanised or reformed or transformed into something better. It is a profit system subject to economic laws which can only work in one way: as a system of profit-making and accumulation of capital in the interest of a tiny minority of profit-takers.

The failure in the course of the 20th century of every single Labour or Social Democratic government, in all of the countries of Europe, to make any progress towards socialism has demonstrated the soundness of the position taken up by the “impossibilists” at the turn of that century: that it is impossible to reform capitalism so as to make it work in the interest of working people. And that, therefore, it is futile and time-wasting and a diversion to try.

What those who want a better society should be doing – should have done – is to campaign to change people’s minds, to get them to realise that they are living in an exploitative, class-divided society and that the only way out is to end capitalism and replace it by a new and different system based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, with production to satisfy people’s needs, and distribution on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

Once a majority have come to this realisation, they will know what to do: organise themselves into a socialist party to democratically win political control and use it to bring about a socialist society. That’s what socialist politics should be about.

The Problems Facing Humanity (2003)

Editorial from the September 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The problems facing humanity? Where to start? In fact, where to finish? The list is endless. With the millions of children under five who die each year from starvation or starvation-related diseases – unnecessarily, since enough food exists in the world to keep them alive and when farmers in Europe and America are being paid to take their land out of agricultural production? Or with the millions of others in the world who live in appalling housing and sanitary conditions while resources are wasted on the development of the most sophisticated weapons of mass destruction? Or with the millions of people in this country who live in conditions which even the government classifies as unfit or who are actually homeless, while at the same time there are unemployed building workers and huge stockpiles of bricks and other building materials? Or with the problems of health care, pollution, crime and financial insecurity that affect all of us to one degree or another?

Socialists contend that all these problems are inter-related in that they have a common root cause – in the fact that today production is carried on not to meet people’s needs but to make a profit.

If we lived in a world where production was geared to meeting people’s needs then we would go on producing food as long as there was anybody would needed it. Nobody would starve. Nobody would go without enough decent food to eat. Similarly, nobody would go without adequate health care or housing. How could they where the main aim of production would be to satisfy people’s needs, beginning with their basic needs?

But we are not living in a world that is geared to satisfying people’s needs. We are living in a world where production does not take place unless those who own and control productive resources think they can make a financial profit out of selling what is produced. The basic economic law today is “no profit, no production”. If something can’t be sold at a profit, then it won’t be produced. That’s what production for the market means. If you don’t have any money, then you don’t count as far as the economic system is concerned. That’s why millions of people go without enough food in the world today. They need food but because they’ve no money, they don’t constitute a market; or, as the economists put it cynically, their demand is not “effective”.

That’s how the profit system works. It puts the profits of the few before the needs of the many. We Socialists say that this is the only way it can work and that it is therefore a waste of time and energy to try to reform it, to try to make it work in the interests of the majority. This just can’t be done. It’s impossible. The profit system can only work as a profit-making system in the interests of those who live off profits. “Profits first, People second” is an iron law of the system which can’t be altered. So, the choice is clear: either you accept the logic of the system and go along with it or you work to end the system altogether.

Keeping the system and trying to make it work against its logic is not a viable option. Such reformism has been tried over the years and has failed. What we advocate is the replacement of the profit system by socialism. Real socialism, that is, which has nothing to do with Labour administration of capitalism and even less with the state-capitalist dictatorships which failed so miserably in Russia and East Europe.

Socialism is the opposite of capitalism in that it means the application of the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, whereas capitalism only distributes goods and services to people according to their ability (and non-ability) to pay for them.

Common ownership, democratic control, production for use, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” is what socialism means and it alone provides the framework within which the problems currently facing humanity – world poverty and hunger, global pollution, etc, etc, etc – can be solved. But it can only come into being democratically, when a majority of people want and understand it. So the urgent task of the minority of Socialists who exists today is to help make more Socialists so as to become the majority. Which is what the Socialist Party is all about.

The case against capitalism (2003)

Editorial from the October 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The world is in a mess. The big question is why? Various explanations have been put forward. It is said that wars happen because human beings are naturally aggressive. Hunger has been blamed on overpopulation, while the waste of the world’s resources is attributed to people being greedy.

Socialists reject all these explanations. In our view, the reason wars take place, the reason millions die of hunger, the reason the world’s resources are plundered, is that we are living under an economic system that is geared to making profits rather than to satisfying people’s needs. These problems are caused by the existence and the operation of the Profit System. They are an inevitable consequence of that system and cannot be eradicated as long as it remains in being.

Wars arise out of a conflict of economic interest between the two sides resulting from their pursuit of profits. All wars since capitalism came into existence about five hundred years ago have been fought over control of one or more of the following: sources of raw materials, trade routes, markets, and investment outlets – or control of strategic areas to protect or control any of these.

The standard non-socialist explanation for world hunger is that there are too many people. In other words, that not enough food can be produced to feed the world’s present population. This is just not true. Enough food (in terms of calories and proteins) is already being produced which, if evenly divided, could eliminate hunger and starvation tomorrow. In short, the problem is one of distribution or, rather, of maldistribution.

But there is no need to take food from those getting more than their basic needs to ensure that everyone’s such needs are met. World food production can be increased well above its present level. In expert circles if you reckon that world food production could be doubled, then you are regarded as a conservative. Most estimates by the various experts who have examined this question say it could be increased by three or four times rather than simply doubled.

So why isn’t this done? The answer is that we live under an economic system geared to making profits rather than satisfying needs. Once again, it is the Profit System that is to blame. Under capitalism production is for sale on a market. A market is composed of people able and willing to pay for some product. Some people think this is a brilliant system. They overlook the other side of the coin: if only those who can pay have their needs met, those who can’t pay don’t have theirs met. If you’ve got no money, or not enough money, you’re not part of the market, and production ignores you.

That’s why people starve today. Not because enough food could not be produced.

Pollution, too, arises because of the Profit System. This system involves competition between firms to sell their products and make a profit. The main weapon used by the combatants in this battle of competition is price. The firm that can keep its price down by keeping its costs of production down can sell the most. So the pressure under capitalism is to keep financial costs down: to use the cheapest materials, to adopt the cheapest methods of production, irrespective of the effect on the environment.

So here, then, is the indictment against the Profit System: that it causes wars and preparations for war; that it causes world hunger and famine; that it causes waste and pollution. If found guilty of these charges – and socialists contend that the evidence overwhelmingly points to this verdict – then there is only one sentence: the capitalist profit system must be abolished lock, stock and barrel, and replaced by a new and different system geared to meeting needs instead of to making profits.

We are saying that capitalism cannot be patched up, or reformed, or made to work in any other way than it actually does. Capitalism is a profit-making system that can only work by putting profits before needs and, as a consequence, causing wars, hunger and pollution. That’s its nature. So there is no point in trying to reform it. That’s just a waste of time that only prolongs the agony. All efforts should be concentrated on getting rid of the Profit System.

Total recall and true lies (2003)

Editorial from the November 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

So second-rate film actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been elected Governor of California. A sad reflection of the abysmally low level of political understanding of that section of the California electorate who voted for someone, apparently on the basis of his screen image as an “action man”, in the belief that he would be able to solve the problems generated by capitalism in the same way that he always triumphs in his films. It might be thought that they would have learned their lesson after the failure of Hollywood screen cowboy, Ronald Reagan, to live up to his movie image. Apparently not.

But it is not so much this that we want to comment on as the right of recall. This – where voters have the right to recall from office someone they have elected, for not carrying out their wishes – is a key democratic principle. We don’t suppose there will be State Governors in Socialism but there will certainly be elected assemblies and perhaps some elected officials; in the socialist conception of democracy, such elected people should be subject to recall if, in the opinion of a majority of those who elected them, they have failed to carry out the mandate conferred on them. For, in socialism, all elected persons will be delegates chosen by the community to carry out some task on their behalf. It is therefore only normal that, if they fail to carry out this task properly, the people who elected them should have the power to revoke their mandate, i. e. to recall them and mandate someone else in their place.

Such a conception of democracy is alien to what has come to pass as “democracy” under capitalism. The right of recall exists in the constitution of the State of California and of a number of other US States only because at one time bourgeois democrats in America were more radical than they are today. But capitalism corrupts everything it touches and has been able to distort this basic democratic principle to fit into its conception of politics, where democracy is not a question of the community mandating delegates to carry out some task on its behalf – if only because as a class-divided society there is no community under capitalism – but that of choosing between two or more rival elites, a competition between rival gangs of professional politicians.

This reduces politics to choosing every few years which leader or leadership team is going to administer the political side of capitalism. Voters are not citizens participating in the self-administration of their common affairs, but are essentially only an audience whose role is limited – like that of the crowds in the Coliseum in Ancient Rome – to giving the thumbs up or the thumbs down to some outgoing leadership team seeking re-election.

This is not democracy, and it doesn’t work either in that the leaders never live up to their promises. Not necessarily because they are liars or tricksters or self-seekers (though many of them are of course) but because capitalism, despite their promises, just cannot be made to run without causing insoluble problems for the great majority of people, i.e for those who, with their dependants, rely to live on the wage or salary they are paid for the sale of their mental and physical energies.

They – we – make up the vast majority of the electorate but have not yet learned to use the vote in an intelligent way – not to elect capitalist politicians to govern capitalism in the only way it can be, as a system that has to put profits before people, but to send delegates into all elected assemblies mandated to put an end to capitalism. Of course, in keeping with the socialist conception of democracy as a participatory democracy, this assumes that people outside the elected bodies have also mobilised themselves and are ready to play their part in establishing socialism.

Last month’s recall election in California was not really an exercise in democracy, but rather a variation on the futile exercise of kicking out one leader and replacing them with another. But leaders can’t do anything for us. Changing leaders changes nothing. Only we can change things, by taking matters into our own hands and, as just stated, organising to send mandated socialist delegates to elected bodies instead of falling for the empty promises of capitalist politicians.

Arnold Schwarzenegger will fail to solve the problems wage and salary workers in California face just as much as the less charismatic ex-Governor Gray Davis did and all other politicians everywhere always do and always will. What is required is not a change of leaders but a change of society. Let’s terminate capitalism.

Chairing UK plc (2019)

Editorial from the July 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

By the end of this month Britain will have a new Prime Minister – either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – but does it matter?

In Britain the Prime Minister is the head of the government, the executive arm of the state. The state, we are told, represents the people. In reality, however, as Marx and Engels identified, ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. In other words, the state and its executive, the government, do not represent the interest of everyone but only of the few who own and control the means of production. The Prime Minister is the chair of the executive committee charged with this.

The person who fills this role does not have to be a capitalist. In fact this has rarely been the case. In the nineteenth century the capitalists were content to let aristocrats fill this and the other posts on their executive committee. Nowadays, both the chair and the other members are filled by people, many from the working class, who have chosen to make a career out of being a politician.

In the end it doesn’t matter who the members of the ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ are. What matters is that they have to manage these common affairs and that this involves, besides arbitrating between sectional interests, putting conditions for profit-making before everything else.

There is a political constraint too. In Britain the government has to command a majority in the House of Commons for its policy. Where this is not the case, as now over UK plc’s membership of the EU, there is a problem.

Until the introduction of the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, the Prime Minister was able to call a general election. Now this rests in the hands of MPs and, at the moment, there are not many Tory MPs who want one for fear of being tossed off the greasy pole. They are disguising this as a fear that an election today could result in a ‘Marxist’ becoming Prime Minister.

The depiction of Corbyn as a Marxist is absurd – he’s mainly just an old-fashioned Labour reformist – but, even if he were one, this would make no difference. As chair of a committee charged with managing the common affairs of the capitalist class, he would be constrained by economic circumstances to give priority to profit-making, despite this not being his intention. But he would at least have a better understanding of his predicament: elected on a promise to improve things for the many he would eventually have to put the profits of the few first.

So, no, it does not matter who is the Prime Minister as it is not governments who control how capitalism operates but the operation of the capitalist economy which limits what governments can do, obliging them to put profits first. Whoever chairs the committee managing the common affairs of the capitalist class merely presides over the meetings at which the formal decisions to do this are taken. Why should we get worked up over who it is?