Monday, December 30, 2019

Letter: Socialist Aims and Strategies (1966)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

An open-minded discussion of socialist aims and strategies seems to be badly needed in these days. The present impotence of the socialist movement in the western countries cannot possibly be overcome unless at least some unity in purpose and action is achieved.

There is already agreement on “common ownership and democratic control” of the means of production and distribution, but it still remains to be agreed upon the proper meaning of these words. Should they be understood as referring to a centralised economic system, administered by state-appointed officials, or rather to a decentralised system with scope for local initiatives?

In my opinion the latter alternative is more in accordance with the idea of democracy. State socialism inevitably leads to concentration of power in the hands of state or party bureaucrats, and there does not seem to be much sense in substituting one kind of privileged class for another.

A certain amount of central planning may be indispensable in a socialist society, but then it should be only structural, i.e., provide the general framework of the economy. If central planning is allowed to interfere with ordinary production and distribution, local initiatives will be paralyzed and democracy endangered.

To create a democratic socialist society it will be better to turn most companies into producers’ co-operatives rather than into state-owned property. This kind of decentralisation is especially valuable since it is based on the active participation of ordinary employees, while limiting the powers of company managers.

Workers’ control or self-management is the only remedy for the frustration and “alienation” felt by many workers in factories and offices today. In producers’ cooperatives they would be able to discuss matters of common interest, such as changes of working conditions, investment policies, etc., on the basis of personal experiences and preferences. Being entitled to participate when decisions concerning them are arrived at they would no longer be merely the hired tools of others but human beings with dignity and self-respect.

Abolition of capitalist privileges and introduction of a democratic socialist society could probably not be achieved at one stroke, least of all in countries where the press and other mass media are controlled by a handful of capitalists. A gradualist approach, however, requires a clear-cut parliamentary strategy.

As a first step on the road to socialism it will be necessary to confiscate the large private fortunes by means of death duties and a once-for-all capital levy. All property holdings above, say, £100,000 should be taxed one hundred per cent, and the confiscated assets used for nationalisation of the commercial banks.

The next step should be a transfer of the powers of the shareholders in all major companies to the employees. The latter should be given a majority representation in newly established Works Councils, responsible for the appointment of managers, control of management, disposal of capital assets, fixation of wages, etc.

The third step should be abolition of all unearned income and elimination of the enormous income gap now existing between highly salaried officials and under-paid wage-earners.

By adopting a radical and well defined strategy like this western socialists would leave nobody in doubt concerning their practical recommendations for the achievement of socialism. This is just as important as a clear definition of the ultimate aim: an economic system based on fair distribution and co-operation for mutual benefit instead of exploitation and accumulation of power in the hands of a few.
Sune Hjorth, 
Sundovall, Sweden

Mr. Hjorth bases his argument on the assumption that there is some common ground where the Socialist Party of Great Britain and other political parties (what he calls “the socialist movement in the western countries") can discuss aims and strategies.

In fact, the Socialist Party stands for something which is completely opposed to what the rest want. We alone advocate common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution; the other parties, whatever some of them may call themselves, support the capitalist social system of private ownership and control.

The Labour Party, for example, are now the government of Britain, for the second time since the war. Nothing they have done, or intend to do, has had any effect on society. The capitalist class are still in possession of the means of production; the Labour Party’s part in this has been to attack the living standards of the working class.

None of this has been caused by defects of Labour ministers, or a lack of discussion of aims. The Labour Party know perfectly well what they are doing. It is simply the inescapable result of running capitalism.

The great fault with the proposals put forward by Mr. Hjorth—producers’ cooperatives, workers’ control and so on—is that they are something less than Socialism. Co-operatives still produce for the market and it is the market that in the end rules. Many organisations (including the Labour Party) have dabbled in similar ideas. They have all come to nothing.

Socialists stand outside all this. The only way Socialism can be established is for the working class consciously to opt for it. When they have the necessary knowledge, they will end the privileges of capitalism and set up the new society in which men will stand as equals about the world’s wealth.

The Socialist Party exists to help in this process; it is our job to help the working class come to an understanding of Socialist ideas. Above all, this requires a clear, uncompromising stand. The worst thing we could do would be to confuse the issue by claiming to be a Socialist Party while getting involved in trifling reforms of capitalism—what Mr. Hjorth mentions as “changes of working conditions, investment policies . . . nationalisation of the commercial banks . . . death duty and capital levy . . ."

One final point. Mr. Hjorth mentions “State Socialism”. This is a contradiction in terms. There will be no state machine in a Socialist society; it will disappear along with the other organs of capitalist privilege and coercion. A better way of describing the policies our correspondent has in mind would be state capitalism—which is what the Labour Party and many other organisations stand for, and mean when they talk about Socialism.
Editorial Committee

50 Years Ago: The Opium War With China 1842 (1966)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Educated opinion in China adverse to the consumption of opium as being detrimental to the prosperity of the Chinese nation steadily grew, eventually culminating in laws passed by the Chinese Government strictly prohibiting the traffic in opium. Under cover, however, of an agreement with the Chinese Government for the existence of establishments to carry on general trade in Canton and Macao, our honest English traders smuggled in large quantities of the forbidden drug, in which they did a very profitable trade.

The Chinese Government then took the matter into their own hands with the following result as summarised by Justin McCarthy (Short History of our Own Times) P.27
  “When the Chinese authorities actually proceeded to insist on the forfeiture of an immense amount of opium in the hands of British traders, and took other harsh but certainly not unnatural measures to extinguish the traffic. Captain Elliot, the Chief Superintendent, sent to the Governor of India a request for as many ships of war as could be spared for the protection of life and property of Englishmen in China. Before long British ships arrived and the two countries were at war”.
The Chinese were of course, worsted in the war and compelled to come to terms, the ‘swag’ obtained by England being as follows:

The island of Hong-Kong ceded in perpetuity; Five ports: Canton, Amoy, Foo- Chow-Foo, Mingpo and Shanghai, thrown open to British trade and Consuls established there.

In addition to the above, China had to pay a war indemnity of four and a half million pounds and . . . a further indemnity of one and a quarter millions in respect of the smuggled opium they had destroyed. 

From the Socialist Standard, December 1916.

It’s up to You (1966)

From the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are on the verge of a slump. The so-called affluent society is crumbling.

Once more the capitalist class is caught up in the implications of its own ridiculous system. For weeks past we have had news of redundancies, mounting unemployment, falling share prices and gloom on the stock exchange. Those who have been clamouring for a reduction in the cost of living for so long are due to have their ambitions realised in a most unpleasant manner.

It has all happened before and will continue to happen periodically so long as the working class continues to support the capitalist system.

During the last General Election the working class, upon whom the capitalist class depend for support, was promised more of everything desirable and less of everything undesirable. Once the Labour Party was well and truly in power the mask of good humoured tolerance was cast aside and those who had expected years of continued affluence measured in terms of bigger cars, TV sets, holidays abroad and all the things that have been available in recent years were suddenly confronted with a Labour Party that is hardly distinguishable from the Tories who are traditionally opposed to working class interests.

So here we are. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never had any illusions about the way capitalism would go. We were not deceived after the war when optimistic forecasts were made about the years of prosperity stretching out ahead and slumps being things of the past. We know how capitalism works and are therefore able to tell what is likely to happen next.

Even without the Labour Party’s conscious effort to create unemployment by introducing the Selective Employment Tax capitalism would follow its familiar pattern of overproduction. Foreign markets are becoming more competitive and some manufacturers are finding it more and more difficulty to compete with rivals. The smaller companies will crumble, and survival will only be possible for the large groups who will cut out unprofitable products as was recently seen in the case of ICI. The continued dismissal of workers means that there are more workers on the labour market and since labour power is a commodity a surplus of it forces the price down. Unemployment becomes a problem for the worker which intensifies his struggle to live. The trade unions are made impotent by mass unemployment and it then becomes obvious how limited are their powers. They can only resist the encroachments of capitalism on their members wages and conditions of work. This is the extent of their usefulness. Their role is purely reformist and can never be anything else.

Their muddle-headedness shows itself in trade union support for the Labour Party and the acceptance by trade union officials of knighthoods and other “honours” with which the capitalists buy off potential opponents.

It is possible that the slump that is just beginning will make the nineteen-twenties and thirties look like a Sunday School treat followed by another arms build up and the Third World War to decide who shall have the pick of the markets.

These events are the deadly monotony of capitalist production and so-called progress. There is only one way to stop it. The majority of the world’s workers must work together for the establishment of Socialism.

We must consciously take over from the capitalist class the sources of raw materials and the instruments for producing wealth so that we can build a society in which food, clothing and shelter will be produced for the use of all. In which competition will be abolished and with it the causes of war, insecurity and mass misery.

This is not a dream. It is the only practical solution to our economic problems. All that is needed is working class understanding and your conscious support of the Socialist Party case. We are here already organised as the only political party whose object is Socialism.

Notice from the January 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard:

Last month we published what seemed to be an article, with the title, ‘It's up to You’. We did not make it clear that this was in fact a letter from a person who at the time was not a member of the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain.

Blogger's Note:

I think that this confirms that 'L.J.C.' was in fact Louis J. Cox. He originally joined Bloomsbury Branch of the SPGB in 1943, resigning in 1958 ('personal reasons"), and then rejoined the SPGB via Paddington Branch in November 1966. He didn't stick around for long, resigning from the Party in 1970 ("not in agreement with party case"). He rejoined the SPGB again in 1980, finally resigning from the SPGB in November 1991 (reference to a "starry-eyed" takeover in his resignation letter). I've no idea if he went on to join the Socialist Studies group. 

Austria (1966)

Party News from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

The League of Democratic Socialists
The Bund Demokratischer Sozialisten, whose journal we have been advertising in our columns, was set up in 1959 by people who had left the Socialist Party of Austria (SPO) and the Communist Party and wanted a clear way to Socialism. The League has always had a declaration of principles that was in essentials the same as that of our companion parties of Socialism. The League came into contact with one of our comrades in Vienna and in March, 1966, the Executive Committee of the League decided to adopt the same Declaration of Principles as ours as the basis for further activity. Since March their journal, Das Wiener Freie Wort (Vienna Free Voice), has carried this declaration. The League is in some difficulties as to a name since the SPO has the prerogative, funder law, of all versions of party names using "socialist".

Visit to America (1966)

Party News from the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

As I was fortunate enough to be able to visit America and Canada, I was asked by our Executive Committee to be a fraternal delegate to the World Socialist Party of America Conference being held in Boston in September.

I was happy to be able to visit comrades in New York, New Jersey, Long Island, Boston and Toronto, and to meet at the conference comrades from Montreal also.

Members in Boston had arranged for an interview on the Boston Radio network followed by telephone (live) discussions and questions from listeners of the programme. Socialism and other matters concerning workers were discussed—the whole programme lasting nearly two hours. In addition, during the programme we were able to give information about the forthcoming conference, the address of the Headquarters, details of literature and also to mention all the other companion parties.

The conference was held in Boston. As a fraternal delegate I addressed the conference and gave news of the work of the Party in Britain. I also look the chair during one session. Gladys Catt from Toronto was the minute secretary throughout the 3 day conference. Three theoretical discussions were on the Agenda which gave much scope for exchange of views. Two lively and interesting socials were held, one at Headquarters and the other in the home of our comrades Rab and Fenton.

From Boston—a journey to Toronto with the Toronto delegates. I. Rab joined us in Toronto, where members had been hard at work to get publicity and arrange two outdoor meetings. One in the New City Hall Square and the other the following day at Allen Gardens. Newspaper offices were visited and a reporter at one office listened to our case and we spent much time with him. He attended our meeting in Allen Gardens on the Sunday and stayed for two hours taking notes and photographs. A picture and report on the Party were published in the paper.

Both meetings were stimulating and well attended. Several members speaking from the platform including Rab from Boston and myself. There were good literature sales and donations and a great interest was shown, people asking for details of the Party and meetings.

In Boston and New York most of the members have worked for the Party for many years and they are still very active and enthusiastic. In Toronto the members are mostly quite young and it is certain that their energy and enthusiasm will considerably help to propagate the Socialist case.

In all, it was a wonderful experience to join our comrades in America and Canada in their work and their tremendous hospitality left nothing to be desired! There is no doubt that if members from either side of the Atlantic can more frequently visit one another it will give us all a boost to work even harder together to bring Socialism nearer.
Phyllis Howard

Voice From the Back: Confidence trick (1999)

The Voice From the Back Column from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Confidence trick 

The confidence gap between rich and poor households last month was the largest since June 1995, when records were first collected. Nearly half the households with an annual income of more than £25,000 believe that things can only get better, compared with only one in five of those on £7,000 or less who are optimistic about future finances. “The widening gap between rich and poor suggests the emergence of two nations,” said research consultancy GfK, which undertook the survey for the European Commission. The survey shows that the pessimism of low earners is based on bitter experience. While 44 percent of those in the top income bracket have become better off over the past year, 37 percent of those on the lowest incomes have seen their finances deteriorate. Guardian, 30 September.

Divided and ruled 

Average wealth has climbed during the 1980s but distribution has grown more unequal, and the number of people with no savings at all has climbed. Nearly 30 percent of all Britons have no savings or investment outside their home and pension, and around 10 percent have no savings at all, according to a new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Most of this 10th consists of single parents and out-of-work couples. Half the population has less than £750 in liquid savings; up from a figure of £455 in 1991/92 . . . However, average wealth of £7,136 compares with this median of £750, indicating that the distribution is very uneven. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that for the wealthiest 10th of the population, the average level of investments amounts to £50,000, and only the wealthiest quarter achieve an average level of more than £5,000. Independent Digital, 22 October.

Poverty kills 

They are new, they are powerful, but they will not be for us. A new generation of drugs is bringing the cure for some types of cancer out of the realms of science fantasy, but limited NHS budgets means that they will be available only for the rich who go private. The most recent generation of drugs has improved the chances of survival for many types of cancer, but rationing is already taking place. Taxol for ovarian cancer, Taxotere for breast cancer, and Irinotecan for bowel cancer have all proved effective, but at between £3,000 and £5,000 for a course they are 10 times the price of previously used drugs. Some health authorities refuse to prescribe them on cost grounds. Observer, 24 October.

Good night? 

The Future Foundation, a consumer think-tank, defines the 24-hour society as a term used not only literally to refer to 24-hour access to goods and services, but also as a metaphor for extended hours—the process by which services are starting to open beyond their normal daytime hours . . . But what about the people who have to work these anti-social hours? Currently, more than one million out of a total working population of 27 million are still at work between 9pm and 11pm. More than 300,000 are at work between 2am and 5am and the Future Foundation estimates that these figures will double by 2007. Guardian, 2 October.

Cheer up! 

Depression has reached epidemic levels worldwide and in 20 years will account for a greater health burden than any other condition apart from heart disease, an international conference heard. In the UK alone, estimates show that depression already costs the economy £2 billion a year, experts attending the meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine were told. Evening Mail, 27 October.

It’s God’s work 

The Church of England yesterday defended the “operating costs” of its diocesan bishops after a leaked report showed that some spent more on their chauffeurs than the average vicar earns in a year. Dr William Beaver, director of communications for the Church, said: “Some bishops have a huge geographical spread to cover. Their car costs are going to be higher than someone who could get around otherwise. We run on three maxims—efficiency, economy and effectiveness. With bishops’ engagements as heavy as they are, they may need to work while they are in their cars and hence the need for a driver.” There are 42 diocesan bishops and, of these, all but nine had chauffeurs, with one bishop spending nearly £20,000 on this service alone . . . One bishop claimed more than £200 a week in hospitality, or more than £11,000 a year, while another claimed a mere £1,629. The highest spending bishop claimed a total of £138,713 in one year, while the lowest claimed back just £34,745 from the church. Times, 11 October.

“Don’t just deal in valuable commodities. Become one”

Job advert by The Royal Bank of Scotland. Times, 11 October.

The Death of the Dismal Science (1999)

From the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  An understanding of how the capitalist economy works should be essential for anyone claiming to have any influence over it, whether they be politicians or financiers. Why then is the “dismal science” of economics apparently on its deathbed—and deservedly so?
Standard economics textbooks used in schools and universities today should, in theory, encapsulate something which is of importance. They should be representative of the sum total of accumulated knowledge developed in modern times about how the market economy operates, the fruits of millions of hours of labour-time put in by a variety of economists who have observed, measured, and theorised about a system which now dominates the entire planet. This is a system—capitalism—which they almost invariably believe to be both necessary and irreplaceable.

But economists have not just taught schoolchildren and undergraduates all they understand about the workings of the market. They have provided the stimulus—and intellectual justification—for countless schemes adopted by capitalism’s political representatives for the betterment of their system. And in no period of human history have economists been more in demand, or risen to more prominence, than in the century just passing.

The twentieth century has seen the “science” of economics reach its influential zenith. As the capitalist economy has grown more complex and the role of governments within it more necessary, so have politics and economics become ever more entwined. No government is ever likely to be elected to office in the modern capitalist world without having what is considered to be a credible economic policy.

Yet here lies the paradox. Virtually all the governments in the world today claim to want to solve major social and economic problems, like poverty for instance. Most of them claim to have a coherent set of policies aimed at doing precisely this. But more people in the world live in poverty today (on whatever definition) than at any other time in human history. This seems especially strange given that total world output has, according to many of the economists, increased more than tenfold this century.

Few features of the market economy today cause greater stress and strain than unemployment. Indeed, economists have spent more time analysing this particular phenomenon than perhaps any other. Yet even in the European Union, the advanced heartland of the global capitalist system where economic analysis should be at its most developed and refined, ten per cent of the workforce is currently unemployed.

It goes without saying that the movements and machinations of the international financial system should be meat-and-drink to those armed with decades of accumulated knowledge about monetary movements, bond markets and stock markets. Yet why is it that the vast majority of these economists have systematically failed to anticipate every single crash and every single recession, ever?

As the twentieth century has worn on, so economics has moved from being the observation of verifiable phenomena and argumentation developed from this into being an entire pseudo-science which today finds expression in the construction of increasingly elaborate economic models, a practice otherwise known as “econometrics”. Econometrics must rank as the most dismal failure of the dismal science so far. Responsible for laughably inaccurate Treasury forecasts and much else, econometrics is now openly derided by many economists themselves who have now realised that what socialists were telling them at the beginning of the century was true all along: capitalism is an anarchic and uncontrollable system which has an unnerving habit of making fools out of those who seek to plan or guide its development. Paul Ormerod was one of those honest enough to recognise this in his book The Death of Economics, where he wrote that today “economic forecasts are the subject of open derision. Throughout the Western world their accuracy is appalling”.

There can be little doubt that dismal science has been a dismal failure and it is now being edged out of universities and colleges in favour of the more amorphous “business studies” where, presumably, it is hoped its inadequacies will be less apparent. In one sense, this could be construed as being an unfortunate situation for the ruling class in society. For despite its manifold failings, conventional economics had the advantage of being an effective ideological weapon for the capitalists. Economics grew up with capitalism and is essentially an intellectual defence for the capitalist system, justifying the existence of private property and essentially concerning itself with capitalism’s surface appearances, like markets, consumers and rewards to the “factors of production”.

At its very core—indeed in its first principle—conventional economics is anti-socialist. It justifies both its own existence and capitalism’s on the basis that resources in society will always be scarce. Not only this, it postulates that wants are somehow limitless too, ensuring an irreversible tendency for demand in society to exceed supply without the guiding hand of the price mechanism to ensure some sort of equilibrium. In taking this position, economics reveals itself to be the ideological discipline it really is, distorting any meaningful definition of the word “scarce” (which, like dictionary definitions, would stress its relative nature, that is, resources in relation to needs) in favour of abstract absolute concepts like scarcity existing at any point when resources aren’t infinite. It is from this entirely bogus philosophical construction that economics deduces that abundance is impossible, and that so, therefore, is socialism.

Unfortunately for socialists, the effective demise of modern economics does not necessarily mean that every single one of its false assumptions has been scuppered for ever. The view that scarcity is an absolute concept which makes the existence of a system like capitalism inevitable for the purpose of allocating scarce resources among competing uses, still lingers on. As the twentieth century closes one of the many challenges for socialists is to be able to show how a society of real abundance is now possible, and in so doing demonstrate the practicality of socialist production.

Despite economics’s paper-thin defence of private property society, it has in most other respects now become almost entirely useless, even for the ruling class. It was not always so, of course. As capitalism has never been short of economic problems its economists have long been around with their advice on how to deal with them: unemployment, crises and slumps, balance of payments problems, budgetary difficulties, income inequality, monopolisation, distorted markets, and all the social (and political) problems consequent on them.

But as the problems of capitalism have proved to be so remarkably intractable, so economics has seen its practitioners splinter into opposing camps offering conflicting analysis and advice. Even if the fundamental propositions of mainstream economics have been the same over time, the precise theories advanced by economists at any given point have sometimes varied markedly from those considered so useful in other periods. Indeed, it is because conventional economic theories have proved to have been such failures that they have been picked up and then dropped to be replaced by something else with such monotonous regularity.

What seems unique about the end of the twentieth century is that the economists do not appear to have any new theories left, just—at best—remixes of old ones. In the century now passing, protectionism, free trade, land taxes, social credit, currency inflation, currency deflation, rearmament, Keynesianism, the “welfare state”, nationalisation, indicative planning, privatisation and monetarism have all at some point been advocated by large numbers of economists as the solution to the economic problems of the time. For the last fifteen years—since the failure of monetarism—the cupboard has been bare. The present Chancellor, Gordon Brown, made his name talking about neo-classical non-endogenous growth theory, which sounds more like an affliction than a body of thought, but even that was at root more ancient than any of the theories named in the economic progeny listed above.

Alternative strategy
Given the disarray of our opponents, do socialists have any right to be smug? Of course not. While capitalism’s economists have been impotent and clueless, socialists have been an isolated minority commanding relatively little public attention or support. We have not been able to alter the course of the twentieth century in the way that we had wished and that is our greatest failure. But what we have been able to do is present to the working class a coherent alternative to the present system which has stood the test of time far better than all the theories and prognostications of the economists which have been dreamt up and then re-hashed a thousand times over. In addition, we have been able to provide a comprehensive critique of existing capitalist society, and explanations of its shortcomings, in a way few others have been able to. We have done this on the basis that it is only when workers understand the real nature of the inadequacies of capitalism that they will seriously countenance an alternative.

It was socialists who argued from the outset that poverty is endemic to capitalism as it is based on the exploitation of the poor by the rich and the maintenance of what is now an entirely artificial scarcity of resources in relation to demand. It was socialists too who claimed—in distinction to the bleatings of the economists and politicians—that unemployment is a constant feature of the market system, because:
  “As wages, the price of labour power, are regulated by the relation of supply and demand, a surplus of labour power (the unemployed) is necessary to prevent wages swallowing up all profit. Therefore the unemployed army is a vital necessity to capitalist production, and there can be no solution under Capitalism” (Socialist Standard, December 1908).
How many other comments from the pages of this journal and from a myriad of socialist writers have confounded the predictions of capitalism’s finest defenders? On everything from the periodicity of economic crises, to the crumbling welfare state, through to the unchecked excess currency issue which has been the greatest cause of the massive rise in prices since the Second World War, socialists demonstrated that the wishful thinking of reformers and tinkerers was no substitute for socialist understanding.

Even when the anarchy of the capitalist economy has rendered socialist analysis tentative in some fields, we have, of course, had an in-built advantage over capitalism’s economists. This has been our use of the body of economic theory built up by Karl Marx and other key figures in the working class movement, especially Marx’s labour theory of value and its related economic concepts. Marxian economics delves beneath the surface appearance of things in the market, to reveal the underlying “laws of motion” of the system which the conventional economists deny exist. In practical terms this Marxian approach, applied in the developed capitalist conditions of the twentieth century, led the Socialist Party to predict the failure of every Labour government from MacDonald to Blair, to outline the shortcomings of nationalisation and planning in the capitalist economy, and to debunk Keynesian economics after the war when it was considered almost heretical to do so. It was actually John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the century, who claimed that Marx’s approach was “obsolete”. But what has really stood the test of time better—an approach which anticipated the failures of all the economic theories designed to patch up the evils of capitalism, or the theories themselves which failed to do just that?

As one millennium closes and another begins the chatter of the economists who have understood little and achieved even less gets more frantic; now they try to rationalise after the event phenomena they neither anticipated nor were able to prevent. Watch them squirm in the broadsheets and the supplements as the millennium draws closer. Socialists, while humble in the knowledge that we have work to do if the revolution we desire is to come to fruition, will be happy to let our record speak for itself.
Dave Perrin

US Senate’s Millennium Gesture (1999)

From the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In mid-October, the executive of US capitalism made a timely gesture to the people of the world. With the 20th century drawing to a close, when people the world over are preparing to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium and all the “hope” it entails, the US Senate voted not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thus consigning an intrinsic defence against the proliferation of nuclear weapons—the greatest threat to world peace—to the dustbin of history.

Since negotiations were completed in 1996, some 150 countries have signed up to the CTBT. Twenty-six of the world’s 44 nuclear capable countries have refused to sign, including India, Pakistan and North Korea. The chance now is that, the US apart¸ the remaining 17 hold-out countries will follow the US example with the world witnessing a new orgy of nuclear proliferation, forcing other states to rethink their position in the new world pecking order.

Celebrating the vote in the US Senate, Republican hawks, led by George Bush junior, son of the former President Bush, announced their intention to scupper the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which outlawed “Star Wars” missile systems that were capable of shooting down an enemy’s warheads.

The anticipated Russian response came at the end of October with Moscow warning that if the ABM treaty was amended by the US, it would be forced to deploy more nuclear weapons with more warheads and capable of overwhelming any US anti-ballistic missile system.

Russian Defence Minister, Nikolai Mikalov calculated that it would be easier and far cheaper for Russia to deploy a greater number of nuclear weapons than for the US to build the necessary defences against them. Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, at the same time announced plans to massively increase military spending next year by 57 percent to £4 billion, to counter the rising internal and external threats.

Suddenly, the 21st century doesn’t seem all that inviting. The recent Senate vote hovers above it like a black pregnostic cloud, warning us that the US, as in the preceding century, will strut the globe with all the arrogance of the schoolyard bully.

Indeed, we are entering the 21st century with a US ruling elite promising the same contempt for human rights, peace and stability as we have grown used to in the past 50 or more years. The US refused to ratify the land mines treaty and have now refused to ratify the CTBT and promised to bury the ABM treaty. Just as they declined targets aimed at reducing toxic emissions at two Earth Summits, they openly boasted of destroying any attempts to set up an International Criminal Court.

At the United Nations, the US has consistently voted (almost always alone) against measures aimed at promoting goodwill and prosperity, i.e. against negotiations on the prohibition of biological and chemical weapons (9 December 1991. For 109, against 1); against protection from products harmful to health and the environment (17 December 1982. For 146, against 1); against proper nourishment being a human right (16 December 1983. For 132, against 1). The list of such US-scuppered votes at the UN is endless.

Since 1945 the US has spent 18 trillion dollars on defence, bombing four continents and overtly or covertly orchestrating and helping out in 300 conflicts, whilst supporting every dictator you can think of.

So long as there is a global capitalist system there will be a profit-crazed US elite prepared to go to any lengths to ensure the 21st century is another “American Century”. The end of the 20 century is, therefore, not a time for complacency and celebration, but of increased vigilance for the class conscious. The US may be the most visible villain of world peace, but where markets are to be monopolised, trade routes secured and mineral wealth coveted, the executive of any nation’s capitalist class is to be mistrusted. And so we, the workers, take our battle against exploitation into another century, determined this will be the last in which one class exploits another. We have witnessed a century of complacency and its consequences as it draws to an end—800 million dying of starvation, 600 million homeless, 1.1 billion unemployed and 220 million lost in wars. It is up to us, the workers of the world, to make sure the next century is ours.
John Bissett

Land reformism (1999)

Book Review from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Scotland: Land and Power (The Agenda for Land Reform) by Andy Wightman, in association with Democratic Left Scotland. Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh, 1999. 126pp

There is much of interest to be found in this book, not least the amazing statistic that 1252 landowners own two-thirds of the 16 million-plus acres of private rural land in Scotland. Scotland has a population of 5 million. This of course is a legacy of the universal process behind the rise of capitalism: the war on common ownership and the separation of people from land, by sword and by fraud. Once enough people were denied the autonomy that access to land provided, a class of exploitable wage workers was produced and the rest, as they say, is history.

What exists in rural Scotland, behind the aristocratic veneer, is not really feudalism. In the true sense this is a system in which all land is held by the monarch (ultimately from god) and parcelled out to “superiors” and “vassals” who control the land inhabited by the tenants. This is a dead system, as Scotland’s landowners (as elsewhere) own the land they hold in fact and in law. They are the “kings” of “their” patch. As the authors point out, the proposed abolition of one of the last vestiges of the feudal system, that of the theoretical status of the Crown as “paramount superior”, would actually benefit big landowners as this is also the last vestige of the idea that landownership was conditional and subject to the “public interest” represented by the Crown. Junking “feudalism” would also give the essentially capitalist system of landownership a ore up-to-date image of course, and perhaps further hide the fact that what we are talking about here is the dividing up of stolen goods.

The authors see a solution to Scotland’s unusually concentrated pattern of landownership in “land reform”—to break up large holdings to enable people to purchase property within a regulated framework which insists on residency and limits monopoly holdings” (p.79). Indeed a similar process was undertaken in Ireland between 1881 and 1903. Whether this will happen is questionable. What can’t be denied though is that any such move would have to take place within the confines of the same “market forces” that have brought hunger, clearance and destruction to both Scotland and Ireland (and England for that matter) and depopulated the land. The market system unfortunately doesn’t give a toss about “social justice”, sustainable rural development etc.

Globally, what are the implications for all this of the march of the fully industrialised agriculture system? As land is effectively changed into a system of huge factories, as agri-business corporations like Monsanto move to patent DNA and unleash the “terminator” gene, what does the immediate future hold for those living and working on the land? From India to the Vale of Evesham, things are not looking good.
Ben Malcolm

Letters: Dawkins wars (1999)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dawkins wars (1)

Dear Editors,

“(Dawkins) is wrong in so far as he lets it be suggested that human social behaviour is genetically determined”. Just not true! In fact in the endnotes to The Selfish Gene (Oxford UP, 1989) his sub-headings reads: We, Alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. He continues, in the text that follows, ” . . . genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while the same time . . . this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences”. He illustrates his point by pointing out that our sexual desires originate in our genes, but that we, most of the time (?!), have no difficulty curbing our natural desires within the social situation (pp. 331-2). Much more recently, he makes the same point in his introduction to Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (Oxford UP, 1999): “Every gene in a gene pool constitutes part of the environmental background against which the other genes are naturally selected, so it’s no wonder natural selection favours genes that “co-operate” in building those highly integrated and unified machines called organisms” (p. xv). Dawkins tells us that genes are instructions for building proteins and the results of this protein synthesis are influenced at every state by the available raw materials and the nature of the environment. Nothing is purely genetically determined and nothing is purely environmentally determined. We, humans beings, like all other creatures, are a complex product of both—this is true of our behaviour as well as the shape of our legs!

The argument with Gould on “progress” is, I think, to do with definition of the term. He is correct rule out progress towards anything. This is where we would differ with the god-believers—and is the whole point of Darwin’s inspiration—there is not master-plan, no “objective”, no designer. But there is progress in the sense that we live in a world full of complex creatures of all kinds, when a few billion years ago there was only a primeval soup . . . and perhaps some pre-cellular replicators.

You are free to “take sides” in the “dispute” between Gould and Dawkins. But your writer might do himself a favour and read Dawkins with more care before launching into an assault on his ideas.
Bob Potter, 
Hove, Sussex

We never launched an assault on Dawkins’s ideas. In fact his book The Blind Watchmaker, in which he brilliantly refutes the Creationist argument for God that nature must have had a designer, has been highly regarded by Socialists. What we criticised was his choice of title of The Selfish Gene for his most well-known book on the grounds that this could be misunderstood as suggesting that there was a human gene for selfishness which “as a biologist Dawkins knew to be nonsense but he nevertheless let the title stand”.

The endnotes from which you quote were added by Dawkins to the second edition of 1989 precisely to try to dissipate the impression he had created, partly by the title he had chosen, of being some sort of genetic determinist as far as human behaviour was concerned. Incidentally, the second quote is about “co-operation” between genes within an organism not about co-operation between organisms.

Of course our genetic make-up plays a part in human behaviour. We are “genetically programmed” for flexible, adaptive behaviour, which means we can adapt to living in all sort of cultures and societies. It also means that in our behaviour we are far, far less the prisoner of our genes than any other organism.—Editors.

Dawkins wars (2)

Dear Editors,

The article on the Gould/Dawkins controversy in your October issue raises a fundamental point. The Dawkins view that individual genes, like people, compete and struggle to survive is not just misleading. Genetic structures “evolve” and the real danger is that the greed, selfishness and aggression endemic in money systems, particularly in capitalism, will become genetically imprinted, making it impossible for societies to advance and eventually for the human species to adapt and survive.
M.B.A. Chapman, 

Fortunately, you’re wrong. Acquired characteristics aren’t incorporated into our genetic make-up. Lamarck thought that and Darwin proved him wrong. Even less can acquired behaviour patterns such as “greed, selfishness and aggression” be inherited. They are transmitted culturally through being taught and learned. So, don t give up, humans can equally learn to live in a non-competitive, non-monetary system as they have learned to live in capitalism and in the past in feudalism and tribal communism.-Editors.

Good news, bad news

Dear Editors,

Two events recently have given me some hope:

(I) John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was voted as having the best song lyrics of all time, This appears to confirm to me that despite the 24-hours a day propaganda of capitalism, people still aspire to a better world and instinctively recognise that true socialism would provide it.

(2) The decision by Callnet to introduce a free internet access service in Europe—no telephone charges. no monthly fee. Providing near-universal access to the internet—at least in Europe—provides a great opportunity for ordinary people to communicate and organise across national boundaries. An essential requirement for the growth of world socialism.

Two events recently have caused me to despair:

(I) Tony Blair’s decision to back away once again from banning hunting. This is clearly against the wishes of the majority of the people, but more importantly it underlines once again just how remote the existing government is from the aspirations of the people who elected it. Of course we all knew that a Labour government would disappoint us but can even you—the editors of Socialist Standard—have truly anticipated just how right-wing the current government would turn out to be, following joyously in the footsteps of Thatcherism.

(2) Emphasising the above, Gordon Brown’s decision to create tax breaks of up to £100,000 each for the top ten directors in any company as part of the Enterprise Management Scheme. This is so grossly elitist that it leaves me speechless.
Andrew Stephenson
(by email)

Remember Bhopal ! (1999)

From the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Fifteen years ago this month the greatest industrial disaster of this century crept quietly over the sleeping one million population of Bhopal, capital of the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh. On the midnight of 3 December 1984, the Union Carbide chemical plant released over 40 tonnes of gases into the night air. What happened then, and what followed, clearly illustrates the anti-human concerns of the privateers of capital and their system.
The Bhopal plant contained a chemical storage tank, with 40 tonnes of methylisocyanate (CH3NCO), or MIC. It was this tank that ruptured, releasing this gas and possibly others (including hydrogen cyanide) into the air. The gas spread over an area of some 20 square kilometres, helped by the low, but changeable wind. The discharge lasted for around one hour. Lethal injuries occurred up to a distance of 2.5 kilometres from the plant, and people noticed effects as far away as 4 kilometres. MIC reacts with water, and thus is extremely irritating on tissues such as eyes, throat or lungs, and has a high acute toxicity when inhaled.

A number of factors led to the release of this toxic cloud. From 1980 onwards up till 1984 Union Carbide (UC) had been cutting the number of staff at the plant. The number of workers on the MIC tank was halved, from 12 to 6 and the maintenance crew was cut from 6 to just 2. In December 1981 a plant worker died from exposure to phosgene gas leaked at the site; in January 1982 28 workers were exposed to phosgene from another leak, and a further 4 in October of the same year. In May 1982 an internal report noted “a total of 61 hazards, 30 major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units”. On the night of the disaster the refrigeration unit, meant to keep the MIC at near zero degrees (and thus stable), was switched off to save electricity, and the safety equipment was not functioning because it was under repair.

The exact cause of the accident remains unknown: somehow water got into the MIC tank, and began a runaway reaction. The MIC began to heat and evaporate, and eventually the valves burst, sending the gas pluming outwards—the safety equipment (the chimney and water sprays to douse the gas out of the air) failed to prevent the escape. As the leak began UC enacted the first of its lies. The warning sirens remained silent, so as to “not unduly alarm” the population within reach of the toxic cloud. One UC doctor is on the record as saying: “A lot of patients could have been saved had they not panicked, what they did is start running, which caused them to breathe more deeply. If they just would have taken their time and sort of walked away from the scene they wouldn’t have inhaled so much of the pollutant”. Days after the event UC were maintaining that MIC was “nothing more than a potent tear gas”.

History, of course, brands such statements lies, as, also, would the Union Carbide safety handbook, which stated “MIC is poison to humans by inhalation, swallowing or skin-contact even limited exposure can be fatal”. Of course, UC did not release such data to the public and in fact withheld all the relevant data about MIC even from the emergency teams, claiming to need to protect commercial secrets and intellectual property rights. This left doctors treating the victims in the dark, proscribing treatments that “might” help, but which might have made an outright disaster even worse. The toxic cloud left 8,000 people dead, and some 300,000 injured, of whom between 50,000 and 70,000 sustained permanent damage.

The social impact of this disaster was far reaching. The sick and injured often were the main source of income for their families, and medical costs for many of the survivors were more than their means allowed. The lingering effects of the disaster included blindness for many. Up to thirteen years later:
  nearly one fourth of the exposed population is chronically ill with diseases of the respiratory, gastro-intestinal, reproductive, musculoskeletal, neurological and other systems. Corneal opacity and early age cataract are common in more than half a million exposed population. Breathlessness, loss of appetite, pain, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, persistent cough, neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression are the most common symptoms.
And chromosomal studies point to a future generation of victims of the leak.

Legal manoeuvres 
Union Carbide immediately blamed a rogue saboteur or a disgruntled worker for the disaster. The Indian authorities begged to differ, and began criminal and civil proceedings against Union Carbide. UC proved unwilling to have its saboteur claims tested in court, and fought every inch of the way, hiring eventually $50 million worth of legal assistance to defend themselves. As civil proceedings dragged on, the Indian High Court ordered Union Carbide to pay a sum of $90.4 million, as an interim payment to help alleviate the suffering of the victims until the full settlement was reached.

At the same time the Indian government pursued a claim for $3 billion dollars in the US courts. The case was followed with interest on Wall Street, as it would establish a precedent for the accountability of multinational corporate entities. In May 1986 the State Court of New York ruled that the case could not be heard in America, and that it must go back to the Indian courts. Effectively, they ruled that corporations were not responsible in their home countries for disasters that occur abroad. As UC pursued appeal after appeal against the interim payment, they opened up secret negotiations with the Indian government.

In 1989 the Indian High Court announced a surprise deal. Union Carbide agreed to pay a total of $470 million in compensation, as well as providing $20 million worth of funding towards local hospitals. For its part the Indian government promised to protect Union Carbide from any future independent lawsuits. This settlement meant that around 90 percent of the victims would receive $430, with the average in total being $940 per recipient. This sum represented 50c per share of Union Carbide stock. On the day it was announced, UC shares rose by 2c. The awards barely covered, for most, the costs of the medical treatment they had required, let alone the earnings lost because of not being able to work.

The Indian authorities continued criminal charges against the 10 top officials of UC. They were charged with “culpable homicide”, a charge just short of outright murder. The initial proceedings were started by the local authorities on the night of the disaster itself, and the chief executive Warren Anderson was arrested. He was bailed for $2,000 and hasn’t returned to India since. Little movement was made on the criminal charges, until the Indian Criminal Bureau of Investigation brought charges in December 1987. Anderson resolutely refused to attend the trial, ignoring a summons from Interpol, and Union Carbide de-registered its Indian holdings. In 1996 the Supreme Court downgraded the charges to death caused by negligence, which carries a sentence of around two years. Throughout, the Indian authorities showed little zeal in pursuing the case.

Market concerns 
Union Carbide liked to portray its presence in India as a beneficent act. But the fact is UC was there to make money and aggrandise itself.

It was market concerns that led UC to build a bigger plant producing hazardous chemicals than necessary at Bhopal, as Edward Munoz, a former director of Union Carbide India, revealed in an interview:
  The plant to begin with should have been for 2 million pounds not for 10 million pounds, you know. We believed our own propaganda. We were cornering the market by asking for 10,000 tons. We knew that 10,000 tons wasn’t realistic for the next five to ten years. But we knew that if we asked for 2 million pounds and then Beyer will ask for other 2 million pounds, and FMC will come and ask for—and then we have competition in the market, so we ask for 10 million pounds. You know, but the engineering department said, well, if we are supposed to build a 10 million pound plant, we are going to build a 10 million pound plant (Go to source).
MIC is a volatile substance, and expensive to store, contributing to the potential for disaster, as the company, ever desperate to increase its profits, looked to cutting costs and jobs. At every stage myopic interest stood pre-ordinate in the minds of UC policy-makers.

Union Carbide was forced by its very nature as a publicly owned company (i.e. in that any member of the public may buy shares) to behave the way it did. As one commentator notes:
 had they [UC] been genuinely forthcoming and made truly disinterested offers of help on a scale appropriate to the magnitude of the disaster, they would almost certainly have been confronted with suits from shareholders seeking to hold management to account for mishandling funds.
By the very laws on which such corporations are based, and by the very rigours and imperatives of the market, Union Carbide was categorically unable to behave in an humane way towards its victims.

Union Carbide has remained at the top of its industry, despite this disaster, and “the corporation participates in partnerships and corporate joint ventures whose combined net sales totalled approximately $4.1 billion in 1998” ( It holds 22 percent of the paints market and 18 percent of the packaging market. This year: “On August 4th, Union Carbide and The Dow Chemical Company announced that their boards of directors have approved an $11.6 billion merger to create the world’s second largest chemical company, to be known as The Dow Chemical Company”.

This is taken from “A Brief Chronology of Union Carbide“, in which the Bhopal disaster only merits a brief mention as an act of sabotage that caused “a tragic loss of life”. Union Carbide has accepted “moral responsibility” for the accident, but it cannot let that get in the way of its profits. Like the scorpion in the oft-told story of the frog and the scorpion, the scorpion-Union Carbide put profits before people, because that’s what it does, it can’t help itself.

The story of Bhopal is not a story of a wicked cabal of corporates viciously conspiring against the people of India, but, rather, a story of the Mad-Blind Machine God of the market crushing all in its heedless path. All along the way, profits and property were put before the needs of people. Humans were subordinated to the drives of the commerce. 8,000 were slaughtered and quickly forgotten, and capitalists were given a green light to exploit the artificial divisions of national boundaries to escape any form of responsibility for their actions.

This is why it is all the more imperative that the working class organises itself, world-wide, to stand solidly against a system that can so wantonly throw away life.
Pik Smeet

Red benches and Red Ken (1999)

The Greasy Pole column from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

If anyone needs any odd jobs doing – mowing the lawn, walking the dog, putting up some shelves – they might bear in mind those well-preserved people who now have time on their hands because they are no longer allowed to spend their days snoozing on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

The Commons vote to abolish the rights of hereditary peers – or at least for most of them – was hailed as a great victory for democracy and proof that New Labour is a government which keeps its promises. This, we were told, was the will of the people. The people had read Labour’s manifesto and liked what they read and gave the government a clear mandate to get on with the job (actually only 44 per cent voted for it but never mind). And everyone knows that there are no stauncher defenders of the people’s democratically expresed will than Tony Blair and his New Labour enforcers.

In the past Blair has always been quite clear about the urgent need to do something about those people who had the right through birth to interfere with the processes of running British capitalism. “Ancient and indefensible practice” he called it in 1984. “In principle wrong and absurd . . . a drinking and dining club” was his view in 1996. And in Labour’s 1997 manifesto “The right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute”.

A Deal 
No two ways about that, you might think. What was not promised in the manifesto was to abolish the rights of only some of the peers, leaving the rest of them to carry on while everyone gives the matter further thought. That was the result of a covert deal between the government and one of the bluest-blooded of the peers (which cost him his place in the Shadow Cabinet). Why Blair, with his huge majority, should have accepted this compromise is not entirely clear, unless it was that it was just another manifesto commitment to be mangled, enfeebled, delayed . . . It has not been so with all that the government has done. When thinking up new ways of punishing criminals, or reducing legal rights, or attacking the poorest and most vulnerable people, they have acted with memorable urgency. But of course in those cases they were not dealing with people of wealth and influence.

It could hardly have been, that the government were impressed with the Lords’ own defence of their privileges. One of them – Lord Campbell – had the nerve to describe the abolition of their undemocratic rights as “a great denial of democracy”. Lord Strathclyde claimed to be in touch with public opinion on the issue in this country and beyond: “We do not want it. The public does not. The outside world does not”. In this deluded state the noble Lords were capable of believing that the people were about to take to the barricades to preserve their rights, in gratitude for the days when they occasionally gave Margaret Thatcher some grief and so were able to pose as defenders of the democratic rights of the common people. At that time there were signs that some peers were appalled at the crudeness of all those car sellers and estate agents braying on the Tory benches in the Commons, none of whom were ever likely to touch their forelocks to anyone.

One example of how the Lords behaved then was when they debated – if that is the right word – a final vital amendment to the Bill which was to abolish the Greater London Council. On that day there was no open rebellion because there was simply not enough of them in the chamber. The Daily Telegraph reported that “Lord Denham’s (leader of the Lords) face froze with horror…(He) gazed over the thinned out ranks of unsocial Tories behind”. The reason for the unpopulated benches on that day was rather less romantic than any last ditch stand in favour of Ken Livingstone and his Council. Many of the noble heads were at Ascot, where it was a big event – Ladies’ Day. It was an appropriate comment on how seriously the self-styled champions of democracy took the obligations implied by their privileged position. The Tory whips rushed around frantically, rounding up peers of a lesser pedigree while the “debate” was kept alive through a lordly filibuster. When they had enough votes the amendment was voted on and lost, the GLC was on the way out and the peers could congratulate themselves over their port and nuts on their value to the machinery of democratic government.

There is, then, a certain ironic symmetry in the fact that the House of Lords and Ken Livingstone should be in the news at the same time and that in both cases there is an issue of whether democratic procedures are under abuse. In their 1997 manifesto the Labour Party promised that London would have its own elected strategic authority headed by an elected mayor. What they did not promise was that, whatever popular opinion was on the matter, the Labour candidate would be someone who was guaranteed not to upset Blair and his Millbank cronies in the same way that the House of Lords and Ken Livingstone once upset Thatcher.

In September 1993 Blair told Brian Walden, on London Weekend TV, that the block vote was “the brake on the enthusiasms” of Party members. “We are going to have One Member One Vote coming into many, many of the decisions of the Labour Party” he assured the viewers. That may have persuaded many members of the Labour Party that OMOV would be used to select their candidate for London’s mayor. The snag was that, had that been allowed to happen, Ken Livingstone was well fancied to win the nomination hands down – which would have been something akin to a nightmare to Blair. Since Livingstone could not be persuaded to stand down the system had to be changed along with the candidates to oppose him. So out went the likes of Trevor Phillips and in came Frank Dobson, who was the leader of Camden Council when it was prominent among those local authorities damned as loony lefties and who is renowned as a talented reciter of shockingly dirty jokes but who would do what Blair wanted. Out, too, went OMOV and in came the electoral college with the block vote, now no longer a brake on enthusiasms but the way forward to the kind of democratic decision making which Blair approves.

But Livingstone’s popularity would not go away so there had to be more tinkering; this time so that more time was allowed between the settling of the short list and the final selection of the candidate, with the object of giving Dobson an opportunity to organise a more effective campaign. You may call all this moving the goal posts or gerrymandering or fiddling the system. What you may not call it is allowing a democratic vote on an important issue.

In these irrelevant squabbles about who should be in charge of the organs which run, and try to control, British capitalism nobody should be deceived by Labour’s claim that their reform of the House of Lords and the establishment of an authority to run London is driven by any democratic principle. When they need to the government treat democratic procedures as irritants and obstacles. Democracy for them is what pleases their leader and what pleases their leader is the imposition of policies which are based on Labour’s need to protect and prosper the interests of the British ruling class. That is why, when the voters of London go to choose their mayor, they may well find that they can vote for anyone they like as long as it’s Frank Dobson.

A culture of medals (1999)

From the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a serious debate doing the rounds along the length and breath of Africa. From the sidewalks to the living rooms, and now it is gaining stature along the corridors of European intellectual halls.

Suffice it to say, much lip service is being paid to this issue of reparation. Most of the time, those who advocate reparation for Africans have used as their platform the New African and West Africa magazines respectively . It is perhaps no accident that both magazines are based in London, England.

England holds a special place in the recollection of most pre-independence generation Africans. If not as a colonial giant, or for her naval superiority, then, as a sovereign that handed out medals to its subject. My late grandfather had one such medal. Before his death, he often recounted his services with the royal navy, especially during the second world war. After the war—in which his brother lost his life—and until his death, my grandfather religiously polished his medal which graced our living room, believing that his services were worthwhile.

If he and his brother and all other Africans who lost there lives in protecting the British Empire had lived today, like present-day Africans they would have confronted the realities by recognizing that these medals were nothing but a token of the British Empire in exchange of their person.

The medals do have a place in present-day capitalism. For availing its land and water facilities to the British during the Falkland war, England presented Sierra Leone with medals after her victory over Argentina. After the Gulf War, the then US Joint Chief of Staff, Colin Powell, went to Sierra Leone to present medals to soldiers who took part in operation Desert Storm. Modern day Africa is littered with forts erected by colonial masters. Each of these forts has a sad story to tell. Africa as a people and as a continent has nothing but medals to show for the scars of these forts.

Concerning the facets of history, whether you read it from the adjacent views of Christopher Columbus, the diagonal glimpses of Mongo Park, the parallel glance of Pedro De Centre or the opposite panorama of Basil Davidson, the conclusions are unanimous: colonialists are selfish. There is no line of history, not even the distorted version compiled by the colonialist, that found Africa was wanting in food or shelter, prior to their arrival.

The common ground agreed upon by history is that no sooner the Europeans arrived in Africa, out of weakness using firearms, they drew up a diabolic strategy that shifted Africa’s priorities from agriculture and self-reliance to that of mining and dependence. The arrival of the Europeans ushered in a new era. One of slave and master. One that saw an entire race being reduced to beggars. Like their government, Africans had to beg for the air they breathed. African Chiefs that were deemed helpful were presented medals as a token of their loyalty.

The argument put forward by reparationists hubs around the thesis presented by both the Germans and the Swiss. The Jews accepted reparation from institutions in both countries because sufficient and ample effort has been demonstrated by both countries to eradicate nazism. The question begs an answer, has slavery ended for Africa?

In the just-ended UN General Assembly World leaders, as have always, pretended to articulate the world’s problem, with a solution in sight. What continues to baffle the mental engineering of every sober being is that no other capitalist solution can shrive where the IMF and the World Bank with their contingent agencies like the Paris Club have failed. The ever-increasing problems of the world’s poor contrasts and contests capitalism’s much acclaimed successes this century.

The pictures beamed into our living rooms by TV stations of war across the face of the globe, coupled with the inhumane treatment meted out to blacks across Europe, plus the increasing cases of malnutrition in a world of plenty, lapped by the unfriendly conditions under which workers sell their trade, reflect a world gone amok.

The answer to our present predicament underlie that aspect of human endeavour where our capitalist masters have registered their greatest failure. Their inability to understand that we are all equal irrespective of race and that the resources of the world are to be equally apportioned for the benefit of all, has brought mankind to our present transfixed position of moral and social disequilibrum.

Never before has mankind been left so destitute, so as to be robbed of all its wit, thus failing to realize that the doctor is the angel of death in disguise. Capitalism kills, it doesn’t heal. Data speak for themselves. There are more hungry, poor, homeless and sick people in the world today than any other point in history.

Hope is not and should not be allowed to dim on us, socialism presents the only practical alternative to our present disorder. It ensures all a safe and peaceful environment. It does not operate on profit, goods are produced for the common good of all, including medical services. But , like capitalism, socialism has its drawback: there will be no medals given as a token, because they are no masters nor slaves, only companions.
Daniel Wah (Sierra Leone)

50 Years Ago: Bigger Armaments Under Labour Government (1999)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the course of an explanation why taxation is much larger than before the war, Mr Douglas Jay, MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, recently repudiated the view that it is solely due to expenditure on social services. He was speaking to the Westminster Savings Committee, and went on to tell them of another reason:-
  “Equally important is the growth in defence expenditure (£750 million to-day, compared with £200 million before the war), and also in debt interest due to the war” (Daily Express, 4.10.49).
Mr Jay was seemingly content with his explanation but he should now answer the question “What has happened to the Labour Party’s promises that when they came to power they would know how to settle international problems peacefully and drastically cut down the Armed Forces?”

Instead they have to accept responsibility for peacetime conscription—opposition to which is now left to Tories and Liberals—and for maintaining the Armed Forces at far greater strength than in 1939. The number now is 765,000, just over twice as many as before the war.

One consequence of the Labour Party being responsible for running capitalism and keeping its Armed Forces up to standard is that that Party moved far away from the vague pacifist sentiment of the nineteen twenties. When recently the Assistant General Secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union published in the Union journal an article appealing to young members to consider joining the Auxiliary Forces he made the comment below:-
“When I first became an officer of this union, an article on the Armed Forces of the Crown (unless it had been the purpose of the writer to condemn them as the tools of outworn imperialism, deplore their existence and dissuade young men from having anything to do with them) would have been unthinkable in the Record” 
(From the Notes By The Way column, Socialist Standard, September, 1949).

Inadequate and incomplete (1999)

Theatre Review from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Remember This by Stephen Poliakoff. National Theatre.

Stephen Poliakoff is a playwright who is clearly very interested in science and innovation, and in social consequences of technological innovation. In Breaking the Silence a dispossessed Jewish patriarch succeeds in inventing “the talkies” ten years before the trick was managed in the USA; in Blinded by the Sun (reviewed Socialist Standard, October 1996) market forces appear to distort the procedures of science and lead to the falsification of results; and now in Remember This we follow Rick, an imaginative innovator, who seems unable to cash in on his own inventions.

Unfortunately the play as presented still seems at the draft stage. The narrative line is frequently more fanciful than convincing, with the result that the behaviour of Rick and the other characters in the drama often seem implausible and unlikely. I found my credulity stretched almost to breaking point as the evening unfolded. Years ago they used to “try out” new plays—especially musicals—”out of town”. As a result early performances were seen as experimental, and changes were anticipated. I could have wished for a reprise of this antique tradition now.

Some years ago Peter Hall said of Poliakoff, “He always has an eye fixed on where society and fashion are going. His plays are evolutionary reflections of the social scene”. I don’t know what Hall meant by “evolutionary reflection”, but on the evidence of Remember This Poliakoff has yet to find a set of theoretical perspectives which would allow him to make sense of technological innovation and of the interplay between science, technology and social change.

Rick was first into wedding videos in the early 1980s and into the stretch cars which frequently ferried guests from marriage ceremony to reception, and now he makes the discovery that all his home videos made at the time are deteriorating. What are the implications, especially the economic and technological implications? How can punters be persuaded to transfer the treasured images of their past—their holidays, their children growing up, their children being born even—on to a new digital tape using digital cameras? How should Rick proceed? Poliakoff’s response is as unsatisfactory as it is incomplete.

A socialist would set any analysis of science and technology in an economic context. A socialist would hone in on the idea that it isn’t technology which drives society, but rather society which determines both the kind of technology which is produced and the use to which it is put. And spiralling through the whole analysis would be the notion that the economic system is prime, and that the interests of those who own the means of producing goods and services are paramount.

I’m not for a moment criticising Poliakoff because he hasn’t written a play from a socialist perspective. That is, quite properly, his choice. But a standard textbook on science, technology and society would mention the above ideas as being the basis for explaining observed behaviour. They are hardly contentious. Poliakoff’s writing needs to be informed by them.

In the programme Jack Bradley points to the supposed gap between the sciences and the liberal arts—the two cultures, as CP Snow had it 40 years ago—and he suggests that this debate is “a key to the heart of Poliakoff’s work”. If this is the case Poliakoff’s apparent ignorance of key aspects of history and contemporary social science seems especially ironic.

The play does offer some powerful ideas. Like the observation that as far as the captains of industry are concerned the greatest question of the day is “How (in a world of new products) to coax the average punter to keep up. The market depends on it! To make them keep upgrading their possessions . . . How to make people take the hook?” Or the idea that since the world of finance is so unpredictable and apparently irrational, and the impact of technology (as evidenced by the decaying of video images) so uncertain, that “everybody in the City has got really superstitious” and “like the Middle Ages . . . have little offerings on their computers, like lucky charms, and mascots, their favourite toys and trinkets”.

But a few interesting ideas are not enough. To my eyes Remember This is inadequate and incomplete. The cast do their best, but for the most part the occasion seems eminently forgettable.