Saturday, February 29, 2020

Fascism: Avoiding Anachronism (2020)

From the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anti-Fascism and Fascism
What is fascism? Or, more pertinently, what was fascism, since the ideology and movement of that name developed in the specific historical conditions of the period between the last century’s two world wars.

The word itself originated in Italy as the name given itself by an ultra-nationalist group opposed both to parliamentary democracy and to left-wing parties and which employed direct physical force on the streets as a deliberate tactic against its opponents. But it was not through street fighting that the fascisti came to power. They did so constitutionally when in 1922 the King, with the support of a section of the ruling class and its political representatives, appointed Mussolini Prime Minister. Once in control of political power the fascisti were able to consolidate their rule with Mussolini as dictator by dissolving parliament and banning other parties.

In Germany the similar ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic movement called itself the ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’, or Nazis, but were also conventionally called fascists at the time. They were able to gain considerable popular and electoral support (over one-third of voters) as a result of the failure of the democratic and reformist parties to solve the problems caused by capitalism, in particular the mass unemployment in the slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They too came to power constitutionally when the German President, with the approval of other politicians, appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. From this position of control of state power, the Nazis were able to ban all other parties and the trade unions and install Hitler as dictator.

One thing that Italy and Germany had in common was that they were relatively recent unified states, in 1870 and 1871 respectively. As a result, feelings of national unity were not as strong as in longer-established states such as Britain and France. The more virulent nationalism there reflected the ruling class’s need for a stronger central state that could overcome the remaining regionalist loyalties.

In the case of Germany, its attempt in 1914 to get a place in the sun commensurate with its industrial and trading strength, inevitably at the expense of Britain and France which had carved out substantial colonial empires for themselves, had failed. But the problem remained for their capitalist class and any second attempt was going to be more aggressive because more desperate.

Fascism, then, in its proper sense was an inter-world-war historical phenomenon which is not going to repeat itself because the conditions of that time are not going to. In this sense classical fascism is not a threat. So why ‘anti-fascism’ today?

Anti-fascism
Anti-fascism was the ideology under which Britain and France, aided later by the US, fought the Second World War to see off Germany’s second attempt to find a place in the sun at their expense (they succeeded but only to see the US take their place as the dominating world power). Somewhat ironically, it was also the ideology under which their ally, Russia, fought its war over which power – Germany or Russia – should dominate eastern Europe; ironically because, apart from the institutionalised anti-semitism, the Russian dictatorship was the mirror-image of the German one (leader-worship, mass rallies, concentration camps, etc).

As a result there have been two kinds of anti-fascism, one in defence of political democracy, the other in defence of the Russian dictatorship. The situation has been confused by the fact that the latter hypocritically employed the language of the former. So some anti-fascists have not really been ‘anti-fascist’ if this is defined as opposition to one-party dictatorships. But who isn’t opposed to these?

Who today wants to replace political democracy by a one-party or a one-man dictatorship? Not even most far-right parties do. There are still some classical fascist groups around but their support is negligible. All political parties with any degree of electoral support now favour governments being chosen through parliamentary and/or presidential elections.

It is an historical anachronism to describe today’s far-right parties which do have considerable support as fascist. Their ideas are still objectionable and dangerous, but they need to be opposed on some other basis than being fascist. On what basis, then, and how should they be opposed?

Anti far-right
Far-right parties have grown in recent decades as a result of two things – their opposition to immigration into their countries and the failure of conservative, liberal and social-democratic parties to solve the problems people face.

As these problems are caused by the capitalist economic system’s imperative to put profit-making ahead of meeting people’s needs, governments formed by the conventional parties are doomed to fail and always do. The far-right parties have been able to exploit this to convince considerable numbers of people that the reason the other parties fail is because they are incompetent, self-seeking and corrupt, in much the same way as the classical fascists in the inter-world-war period were able to convince people that their problems were caused by democracy not capitalism.

The main reason, however, why these parties have attracted support is their opposition to immigration. They are xenophobic, racist, nationalist parties. That’s the basis on which they should be challenged. But how?

No platform no way
Basically, what’s involved is a battle of ideas. Such battles can only be fought through discussion – and with leaflets, pamphlets, books, meetings and, nowadays, websites, podcasts and social media. That’s the only way to change ideas, not by physically fighting with those who hold them nor by taking action, legal or extra-legal, to stop people expressing or promoting them.

That is why ‘no platforming’ far-right organisations is not the way, and is even counter-productive. Stopping them holding meetings, breaking them up, and refusing to let others debate with them, are not going to change their ideas. In fact they are more likely to reinforce them. Physically confronting far-rightists, turning their demonstrations into street brawls or beating up their members is even less effective and, besides, reduces politics generally to the more primitive level of settling disagreements by fisticuffs rather than voting.

Of course, in so far as there are fringe gangs and deranged individuals who physically attack immigrants, as happens from time to time, nobody is going to object to self-defence groups, but this is a different issue to combating the broader ideology of far-right parties which don’t engage in such attacks.

So, no, the way to combat xenophobia and racism is not direct action to stop these views being expressed but to challenge and confront them as mistaken and dangerous, even in public debate with groups that advocate them. In fact refuting their mistaken and dangerous views in a public debate can be very effective.

Anti-capitalism and anti-nationalism
What should be the content of the case against far-right ideas? This has to be more than just the general case that all humans are members of the same species with the same range of abilities and should be treated equally. This has to be an essential part of course but it is not enough on its own. Opposing these ideas cannot avoid bringing up the cause of the problems ordinary people face and which the far-right wrongly identifies and to which they offer a mistaken solution. Capitalism has to be mentioned and it has to be explained that the way-out is to establish a world of common ownership, democratic control, production to directly meet people’s needs and not for profit, and distribution of goods and services in accordance of the principle ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. In short, socialism properly understood.

The trouble is that most ‘anti-fascists’, even those calling themselves socialists (some are supporters of third-world dictatorships), are not anti-capitalism. They think that the problems ordinary people face can be solved within the profits-wages-money system that is capitalism. This is a serious weakness when it comes to making a case against the far-right since it rules out making the point that one reason for its rise in recent years is precisely the failure – impossibility in fact – of the conventional parties to solve these problems because they seek solutions within the framework of capitalism, so contributing to a situation which the far-right can benefit from. It goes without saying that of course the far-right can’t solve them either.

The other weakness is that most ‘anti-fascists’ are nationalists, that is, they accept that the world is, and should be, divided into separate national groups entitled to inhabit a part of the globe and whose members share a common interest. Nations are in fact ‘imagined communities’ whose members are divided into two antagonistic classes – the capitalists who own the means of production and who are the ruling class and the rest who work for them for wages. Nationalism is the ideology through which a national ruling class obtains and maintains the support and acquiescence of those they rule over. The ‘national interest’ is their interest.

This is a misconception that ‘anti-fascists’ share with the far-right. It means that nationalist ‘anti-fascists’ are combating the ideas of the far-right on the far right’s territory, as when it comes to arguing whether or not immigration is in the ‘national interest’. Since the national interest is that of the capitalist class within each supposed nation in some cases the far-right is able to show that immigration controls and discrimination against ‘foreigners’ are in the national capitalist interest,

Conclusion
Any campaign against the far-right views has to be waged on the level of ideas, not physical attacks or legal or extra-legal bans. It has to be based on recognising that capitalism is the cause of the problems such parties exploit to gain support and so a cause of their existence, and on a rejection of all nationalism of which xenophobia is just one end of the same spectrum. In short, the struggle against racist and xenophobic views should not be separated from the struggle for socialism as a world community without frontiers.
Adam Buick

Pathfinders: Fake news? Go and boil your bread. (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘I’ve told every candidate that I’m voting for them,’ says the voter in a Telegraph cartoon just before polling day in December, ‘this election is all about honesty and trust’. Well indeed. As polling fever mounted people were saying this was the most important election in a generation, and all manner of other hyperbolic claims, but what really was different this time was the hot shooting war between fake news and fact checking.

It’s axiomatic that politicians lie. Sometimes they are so blatant they take your breath away, as in the infamous 2016 ‘Boris and the Brexit bus’ affair. Lies by the Vote Leave campaign led to a public outcry and a large number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency, but the ASA had no jurisdiction over political campaigns and besides, the Remain lobby was also at it (LINK).

In September it emerged that the Tories had posted a BBC article on proposed school spending to their Facebook page but altered the headline and changed the numbers involved. Facebook removed the page but argued that it wasn’t their job to ‘fact check or judge the veracity of what politicians say’. This despite Mark Zuckerberg himself being spoofed on Facebook by Democrat candidate Elizabeth Warren, who planted a fake ad to see if Facebook would run it (New Scientist, 16 November).

Then in November a row blew up after the Tories were caught blue-handed in the act of rebranding their press office Twitter account from CCHQPress to factcheckUK. The independent charity Full Fact (fullfact.org), itself founded by a Tory, was furious: ‘It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their Twitter account factcheckUK during this debate.’ With astonishing chutzpah the foreign secretary Dominic Raab justified the con as a legitimate stunt, telling BBC Breakfast that ‘no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust’.

With just days to go before the polls, a new storm gathered over the four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital waiting room floor because there was no bed for him. Footage went viral of Boris Johnson showing no interest in the boy and in fact pocketing the journalist’s phone so he didn’t have to look at the picture. But within hours a new story broke that the whole thing was fake news, on the say-so of an alleged senior nursing sister at the hospital. The hoax claim was swiftly endorsed by Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson (‘Stage a photo. Cause outrage…. Jesus.’) and aptly-named Tory politician Michael Fabricant, yet within hours came the refutation, as Full Fact along with the hospital and even the Health Secretary confirmed that this senior nurse did not exist, that the Facebook account which launched the post had been hijacked, and that the original story was true in every particular.

The whole election campaign was as usual awash with dodgy claims and counter-claims, but this time the fact-checking process began almost as soon as the words were out of politicians’ mouths. All parties were predictably found wanting and not even the Greens were spared from the shredder, although it’s fair to say that Labour generally stuck closer to the truth while the Tories were the most shameless and shambolic liars.

Given the outcry over the 2016 Brexit campaign, it was perhaps predictable that similar protests would be made over the conduct of this election campaign. According to the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, this was the ‘fake news and disinformation general election’ in which ‘at least 31 campaigns across the party spectrum have been indecent, dishonest or untruthful’ (BBC, 10 December – bbc.co.uk/news/technology-50726500). The Coalition is demanding that fact-checking of political advertising become a legal requirement and quotes a YouGov poll to argue that 87 percent of voters would be in favour. Many eyebrows must have launched skywards at the news that this Coalition is made up of advertising professionals, who insist that politics should be like retail advertising, in which a ‘founding principle’ is the requirement to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’.

Er, come again? This must be what happens to marketing people eventually – they swallow their own hype, become delusional and think they are doing the public a service. Advertising has no such founding principle, in fact no principles at all, that’s why there’s so much legislation to keep it in line.

Will they get their way though? Will political parties be legally bound to tell the truth? Theoretically it could happen, but the ASA are afraid of becoming embroiled in political disputes and thereby bringing the regulatory process itself into disrepute (LINK). Ultimately it’s a philosophical conundrum. What is ‘truth’, and would voters really accept the ASA, or any other body, as the ultimate arbiter of it? Anyway, it’s unlikely that any government is going to see fit to enact legislation that holds it hostage.

It’s no good expecting technology to come up with a fix either. Last year New Scientist ran a story about an AI system that could generate convincing fake news stories and that therefore might, in a kind of ‘It takes a thief to catch a thief’ way, be able to spot other fake news stories. ‘Grover’, the fake news AI, produced a story about how eating bread makes your hair curly. Here’s an excerpt to show how convincing it was: ‘Many people cook a bowl of fresh bread the morning after a hard night of tossing and turning on the sofa. With little thought, people add the crust of the bread to the mix of water and flour… [H]is team found that in European girls, one third of girls had curly hair after eating the leftover crusts of fried or boiled bread and sandwiches’ (15 June, 2019). Think AI is about to take over the world? Not on this evidence.

You probably saw the brilliant ‘deep fake’ video of Corbyn and Johnson endorsing each other’s electoral campaigns. Nobody can be in any doubt now about how good the technology of fakery is. There is an arms race between the misinformation industry and its fact-checking nemesis. Now campaigners can micro-target political ads to Facebook users based on their individual data profiles, circumventing the fact-checkers. The only thing you can do is beware of and be equally sceptical of far-fetched stories supporting your own view as well as those which contradict it. Or get off Facebook. Or at least use your loaf, preferably without boiling it.
Paddy Shannon

Letter: Asked and Answered: Municipal Politics. (1908)

Letter to the Editors from the January 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard

QUESTION.

How would a candidate of the S.P.G.B. conduct himself if returned to a council chamber? would he vote for higher wages for Council employees and better housing of the people, etc., and what course would he pursue while in a minority ?
J. T. Tyson (Stoke-on-Trent).


ANSWER.

The answer to this question was given in essence by the election address upon which S.P.G.B. candidates ran at local elections in London. This election address, the first in this country to lay down the Socialist position on municipal elections, was also printed in the October, 1906 Socialist Standard and should be referred to.

Broadly speaking, the attitude of a Socialist member of a municipal today only becomes doubtful when the object for which such a candidate stands, together with the essential fact of the class antagonism and the narrow limits of municipal action, are lost sight of, and in so far as the electors are not at one with their representative regarding these important facts. Hence at this stage how the representative is elected is of the greatest importance in determining his attitude.

It must, therefore, be clearly understood, 1st, that any reform worthy the name from a working-class standpoint involves the conscious taking from the capitalist class of, at least, part of the proceeds and power of robbery, and thus even genuine reform is conditional upon working-class supremacy, (2nd) That to wield in the workers’ interest even the limited and paltry powers allowed by the central government to the local bodies, it is first necessary to control the local bodies by a Socialist majority.

Consequently to promise immediate reforms that cannot be granted until the revolutionary step has been taken leads to confusion, disappointment and apathy, while it means a vote worthless for Socialism followed by desertion. But to insist upon the futility of reform, and the primary necessity of capturing political power means a sound vote, a solid backing, and a sure and steady growth of the class-conscious and revolutionary army.

That these facts are recognised elsewhere although in the rush for jobs they are not acted upon may be made clear by one or two quotations.

In Guesde’s new journal, “Le Socialisme” an editorial on “The Party and Municipal Elections,” states:—
  “The freeing of Society by emancipated labour, which is by nature national and international, is necessarily out of the power of that organised powerlessness of which the municipality consists at present, dominated as this is at the same time by economic necessities and by the arbitrary politics of the bourgeois state and its agents, but if the government—the central power—having passed into the hands of the proletarian class and remaining therein, is the indispensable instrument of the social revolution, if the municipal ground cannot in any way be anything but a field of manoeuvres and training for the Socialist army, the duty of the class-conscious workers is none the less to dislodge the industrial, landed, and financial feudalism from the town halls, and, turning these against the enemy, to use these as so many bases of operations in our march, forward.”
In the “Social Revolution,” Kautsky also states :—
  “In the same way, municipal Socialism finds its limits in the existing order of State and Society, even where universal suffrage prevails in the communes. The commune is always tied down to the general economic and political conditions, and cannot extricate itself from them singly. Certainly, in municipalities in industrial districts the workers may get the administration into their own hands before they are strong enough to capture the political power in the State, and they are then in a position to eliminate from this administration at least the most objectionable features of hostility to labour, and to introduce reforms which cannot be expected from a bourgeois regime. But these municipalities soon find their limits, not simply in the power of the State, but also in their own economic helplessness. It is for the most part poor districts, almost exclusively inhabited by the proletariat, which are first won by the Social-Democrats. Whence can they obtain the means for carrying out their greater reforms? As a rule they are limited in the levying of rates by the laws of the State, and even where this is not the case they cannot go beyond a certain limit in the taxation of the rich and well-to-do, without driving these, the only inhabitants from whom anything is to be obtained, away.”
In the face of these recognised and undeniable facts the long reform programmes of “palliatives” and “immediate demands” of so-called Socialist organisations can only be characterised as fraudulent. Upon all counts the first and essential step to secure genuine working-class amelioration is the control by the workers nationally and locally, and this must be made plain; and when the workers are the ruling class, lists of reforms suited to the continuance of capitalism become stupid, and entirely different revolutionary measures of transition become the order of the day. Thus reform programmes not only scatter and render mutually antagonistic the workers’ efforts, but they obscure and prevent concentration upon the essential step.

Once the Socialist position is grasped, the rest becomes plain sailing. The Socialist candidate is only the advance guard of the revolutionary working-class army and his attitude must be consistent thereto. He will, of course, work to wrest from the master class in open struggle any possible present ameliorations, but he did not seek suffrages for this but for Socialism, whilst neither he nor his electors are under any illusions on this head, for he has made plain how little is to be hoped from the enemy while entrenched in power.

Whilst in a minority the only effective political weapon of the Socialist in the obtaining of concessions is the relentless opposition, criticism and exposure of capitalist rascality, educating and organising the workers for Socialism and so striking fear into the exploiters, and causing them to throw out sops in order to maintain their position.

It would be the educational duty of the Socialist members even while in a minority to also propose measures embodying what should be done on any particular question in the interests of the working class. True, since a minority is a minority, he will be voted down, and any measure passed will surely be one which supports and strengthens capitalist interests, whether as working-class soporific or an aid to greater exploitation. Nevertheless, the work will tell, and therefore the consistent opposition of the Socialists to capitalist parties must be kept perfectly plain. Indeed, as Marx has said, the master class acting in its own immediate interests cannot avoid at the same time helping to dig its own grave.

And when as the result of this education and organisation among the electors, and training in administration, the majority are Socialist on the council, then—and then only—can such very limited powers as the local bodies possess be used as far as can be done to help strikers, children, and the workers generally, not alone by increasing the pay of municipal employees and housing the people, but even more important in the use of the power, funds, and organisation of the municipality, as far as is locally possible, in helping to complete the task of the workers in the capture of the central powers for Socialism. Indeed, the sound capture of a municipality by the Socialist workers can hardly occur without—owing to the similarity of capitalist development elsewhere— many other localities being also more or less ripe. While the continued financial and legal conflicts between such municipalities and the agents of the capitalist Government on the L.G.B., etc. can only help to make clearer and more pressing the only solution of the antagonism, and to hasten the day, as they make ever plainer the necessity, of completing the capture of the governmental powers in order to use them against the recalcitrant exploiters, and, backed by the whole of the organised workers, to transform Society by a series of transitional acts from industrial despotism into industrial democracy.
W.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Who needs money? (1992)

Book Review from the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Money & Survival. By Melvin Chapman. Third Millenium Press. £5.85.

The basic proposition of this book is that money is the organising force in society but that it is inefficient, wasteful and inhumane and should be dispensed with before nuclear war or ecological disaster overwhelm human beings.

Many of the topics Melvin Chapman deals with, such as education, crime, human nature, production for need, and the wastefulness of the financial system are familiar to socialists. What they will find lacking, however, is any acknowledgement of the historical development of capitalism which gave rise to the universal power of money with which he is so concerned; any examination of the class structure of modern society which has been responsible for the unsatisfying and mainly unhappy lives of most of the population—the working class.

A disproportionate amount of space (twenty-two pages) early in the book is devoted to an examination of the social losses resulting from the running down of the railway system in Britain. Many readers (including this one) will be unable to judge whether his figures for tonnages of freight carried and passenger miles travelled help to justify his conclusions that the British transport system has been less efficient overall as a result. And the impact of the chapter is further weakened by his use of the term “money” to cover almost every aspect of capitalist economics. What he is trying to show, presumably, is that profitability is not the same thing as efficiency and often works against it, in spite of the loud claims made by politicians and economists. But he should have said so.

A similar obscurity or reticence blunts many of the other points made in the book. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of acute perception here of the workings of modern society and the way in which life would change when money was no longer regulating production, consumption and behaviour.

In not giving any attention to the fact that society's means of production and distribution are owned and controlled by a small section of the population, Melvin Chapman helps to make his arguments for a moneyless society seem unrealistic, and that is a pity. When he deals with the question of property he considers little other than personal property and sees no reason why the owners of fortunes should not be allowed to keep them. He does not seem to realise that the poverty and the drudgery of the working class is caused by the profits, rents and interest extracted by these fortunes from unpaid labour. Nowhere, in other words, does he consider the nature of capital.

Without this class dimension, Melvin Chapman has no suggestion of a social force to bring about his moneyless society other than the power of a "good idea”. Subscribing, if only tacitly, to the myth that ours is a united society with common interests, he lays the responsibility for the piecemeal removal of money upon "The Government”, without questioning how it is that governments have never yet made the economy operate in the interests of the whole population.

Money & Survival is interesting to socialists in that it makes a wide-ranging indictment of capitalist society without, apparently, owing anything to the Marxian tradition. But it demonstrates, yet again, how crucial was the contribution of Marx and Engels in identifying and analysing the class nature of capital.
Ron Cook

Action Replay: Bastia Disaster (1992)

From the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
“I have done it again.One year in every ten I manage it.” (Sylvia Plath).
Sadly, one year in ten is not frequent enough for the exploiters of the public’s taste for football to draw blood in their pursuit of profit. Three years, almost to the month, after Hillsborough we have what appears to be an action replay. Once again a cup semi-final; once again avoidable casualties; once again preposterous attempts at victim-blaming; once again inadequate medical provision.

Let us make no bones about it—the Furiani stadium bloodbath in Bastia was caused by the profit motive proving too strong for the authorities to adequately consider safety aspects which most of us would regard as more important. Like the ram-raider who causes damage ten times worth what he steals, they couldn’t resist the temptation to sell 10,000 more tickets even though they must have known there was a grave risk in erecting a temporary stand for such a game.

That they knew is (at least circumstantially) evidenced by the fact that warnings were given to the crowd not to stamp in unison in that stand. The outrageous suggestion that you can expect a cup-tie crowd to behave like a chamber concert audience insults the intelligence of all but the dourest apologists for unbridled capitalism.

The parallels with Hillsborough continued when we saw the players taking down the perimeter fencing which, if there had been a quite understandable panic in the crowd, would have prevented their escape to safety.

The emergency services, to their credit, were fairly quickly on the scene at Furiani but hospital facilities for the dying and injured were far from close to hand. The nearest hospital was five kilometres away in the mountains and utterly incapable of coping with the scale of the disaster.

Again, as at Hillsborough, the dignity of the plain people of Bastia made a sharp contrast with the posturing of those in charge. The same newspaper which shows a crippled victim of the disaster attending the funeral of one of the dead reports that efforts were being made to stage a makeshift cup-final between Monaco and Marseille. The chief consideration in the timing of this event appeared to be when it was convenient for Mitterrand to grace the proceedings with his presence.

Have we learned nothing? Socialists would argue that we should have learnt never to trust a capitalist who is in a position to make a few bob. Have the capitalists learned nothing? We would argue that the rules of capitalism don’t permit them to learn any more than they need to know to make a profit.
John Usher

The Socialist Party's Summer School 2020 (2020)

Party News from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard



The Socialist Party’s 2020 Summer School on 7th-9th August, looks at technological progress and its application in the past, present and future. This weekend of talks and discussion is an exciting opportunity to share and explore revolutionary ideas, in the relaxing setting of Fircroft College in Birmingham.

From the development of the first tools and the wheel through to the invention of the printing press, the steam engine, the microprocessor and beyond, technology has always shaped how we live. Scientific developments take place in the context of the social and economic conditions of the time. In capitalism, technological progress and how technology is used are driven by what is profitable and cost effective more than by what is really needed and wanted. This means that technology is often used in ways which go against our best interests, whether through environmental damage, the development of ever-more destructive weapons or the misuse of data gathered online and through social media. In a future socialist society based on common ownership and democratic organisation of industries and services, technology could really be used to benefit us, in harmony with the environment.

Full residential cost (including accommodation and meals Friday evening to Sunday afternoon) is £100, and the concessionary rate is £50. Day visitors are welcome, but please book in advance.

E-mail enquiries should be sent to spgbschool@yahoo.co.uk. 

To book a place online, go to spgb.net/summer-school-2020 or send a cheque (payable to the Socialist Party of Great Britain) with your contact details to Summer School, The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London, SW4 7UN.

Venezuela: Rooting out corruption? (1999)

From the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1989, following mass rioting, after government austerity measures which cut working-class incomes, 300 people were killed by the security forces in Venezuela. Most of the bodies “disappeared”; but in October 1996, because of a putrid smell in a building in a cemetery, on a hillside just outside the capital, Caracas, dozens of unidentified corpses were discovered. They had been dumped there secretly by the state, and left to rot.

It was not, however, just the bodies of the workers that were left to rot. Much of Venezuela was in a state of decay. Moreover, as we pointed out last year (Socialist Standard, October 1998), the economy had been teetering on the edge of total instability throughout the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Venezuela was badly affected by the economic crisis spreading throughout much of the world. The government, whose currency had been under intense pressure for some time, launched an immediate round of public spending cuts. What has happened since then?

Seven years ago, Hugo Chavez led a failed military coup against the government, “in the name of Venezuela’s poor”; but was democratically elected president last February. He is a belligerent populist, who claimed that he would root out corruption, of which there is a lot, in Venezuela.

Following his inauguration, Chavez soon showed his hand. He began to prepare for the elections in August. He flouted the electoral laws by promoting his own candidates, and by appointing army officers to senior government posts. And he claimed that he had strong support among the poor majority. And he has been proved right. His left-wing coalition, which included his wife, his brother and about 20 of his former military colleagues, won 122 seats of the 131-seat assembly, in an 80 percent turnout.

He says that the new assembly will renew institutions which have been dominated by the two old parties for 40 years; and he wants the assembly to dissolve congress and the supreme court. Following his victory, Chavez claimed that:
  The victory of the patriots has been pulverising. We are building a true democracy in a way that those who destroyed the country from here didn’t know how to (Guardian, 27 July).
Official statistics admit that sixty-five percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, despite the fact that the country possesses the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. During the last three decades, the per capita wealth of Venezuela has dropped twenty-five percent. In October last year, we asked: what of the working class? And we said that, for them, it can only get worse. We were right.

Despite the stabilisation of the currency, there has been a sharp economic downturn of the economy, resulting in the loss of about 600,000 jobs since Hugo Chavez took office as President in February. Moreover, we can safely predict that the majority of the people of Venezuela, the employed and unemployed working class, will continue to exist in poverty and deprivation, in the dilapidated apartments of Caracas, the run-down shacks of the surrounding ranchos or the one-storey slums of Maracy in Aragua state.

All Chavez’s proposed reforms, and all the present support of the workers, will not make one iota of difference. Only a change from capitalism to socialism will achieve that.
Peter E. Newell

A disaster waiting to happen (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard 

When the global economic crisis hit, first, the Pacific Rim countries and, later, Latin America and elsewhere, just over a couple of years ago, Venezuela was, as we noted (Socialist Standard, October 1998), particularly vulnerable. It had been economically and politically unstable for at least two decades, and corruption was rife (see Socialist Standard, September 1999).

In February last year, Hugo Chavez, the former paratrooper who had led a failed military coup d’état seven years previously, was elected president; and in August, he and his left-wing coalition won an overwhelming victory (but on a 53 percent turnout) in the elections to the National Assembly. He had proposed a complete rewriting of the constitution, the draft of which went before the new assembly, and was passed on 16 December.

According to his mainly right-wing critics, President Chavez has become a virtual dictator. He has increased, against the general trend worldwide, state intervention and control of the economy, reduced civilian control of the armed forces, and has probably secured the presidency for himself until 2012. He says that he needs such powers in order to “root out corruption” which, of course, he blames on previous governments. And, said Chavez, he would solve Venezuela’s economic ills. Nevertheless, between February last year, when he became president, and the beginning of December, unemployment had increased by a massive 700,000.

On polling day, last August, there was heavy rainfall throughout much of Venezuela, causing a number of landslides, 37 deaths, and the destruction of up to 2,000 homes. But worse was to come.

Beginning around 10 December, almost a year’s average rain fell, outside the usual rainy season, in five days. Torrential rain continued for another five days. The worse affected area was the tiny Vargas state bordering the Caribbean Sea in the north-west of Venezuela. Much of the country is flat; but there are hills and mountains, such as Mount Avila, inland and parallel to the coast, from Guacara in the west to the east of Caracas, the capital.

By 15 December, huge amounts of mud as well as large rocks and boulders began to slide down towards the coast. The soils, have, moreover, suffered constant erosion over the years; and when the natural dykes broke rivers formed, sending floods of muddy water onto the low-lying areas. Large swathes of the northern coast were swept into the sea. One of the towns to be worse hit was Carmen de Uria. It only had dirt roads; and it straddled what had been a small river, which had no proper embankment. After 10 days of rain, the river overflowed, cascading through many homes. Shortly after, Carmen de Uria was entirely buried under mud.

Floods like these claimed 100,000 lives in Venezuela

“It was,” said Piero Feliziani, an Italian geologists, “a holocaust waiting to happen.” But it need not have caused so much death, destruction and misery, even if it was a “natural” disaster. (The Archbishop of Caracas said that the rains “were divine retribution” for President Chavez’s radical policies!)

The basic cause, however, was the rapid development of a commodity-producing, capitalist, market economy from the early 1950s. According to Michael McCaughan in the Observer:
  “Venezuela, like neighbouring Colombia and Peru, was a largely rural society with strong family community ties until the fifties, when civil unrest and depressed crop prices forced millions into misery belts around the cities, where they piled high in precarious dwellings” (26 December).
For decades, there has been rapid, uncontrolled, unregulated immigration from the rural areas of extreme poverty to, and around, Caracas and other cities seeking employment, first, in the expanding oil industry and, then, in tourism. Indeed Venezuela’s weak economy depends almost entirely on oil and tourism for its foreign revenue. Vargas state has 500,000 workers who service the tourist industry, or commute each day to Caracas from the shanty towns and ranchos in the hills surrounding the capital. “Corrupt politicians and planners” turned a blind eye to such developments, where up to 350,000 workers existed, often without electricity, running water or main drainage.

This urban overpopulation is, according to Luisa Romero, an investment broker based in New York, “one more effect of the globalised economy”. It has also resulted in the death, disappearance and loss of habitation of hundreds of thousands of workers. Indeed, at the time of writing these lines, the numbers are not known, and may never be known, but have been estimated at more than 450,000, then times the number killed in Venezuela’s previous catastrophe, the earthquake of 1812.

Surely, if nothing else, the events and disaster in Venezuela at the end of 1999 demonstrate the need to replace capitalism by a new, democratic society of production, not of profit, but of use and the satisfaction of people’s needs; a socialist society of common ownership of natural resources (including Venezuela’s oil reserves if still required) and the means of production.
Peter E. Newell

Proletaires—Unissez-Vous! (1976)

Party News from the May 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

What happened the other Sunday morning had to be heard to be believed. Our man in Hyde Park was patiently explaining the mechanics of inflation to a fair crowd when a French television crew arrived (TFI, no less) with a polite request to interview the Party. This was an offer we couldn’t refuse, and off we went, s’il vous plait.

First question: “‘Est le Parti Socialiste de Grande Bretagne (yes, they got it right!) contre la Monarchie?” Now, it so happened by some quirk of Fate that our bloke on the platform, at that moment, had a smattering of French (apparently picked up in the more sleazy joints behind the Pigalle). The word rapidly shot round: they came running from all quarters to enjoy the fun.

Deuxième question (Second Question, to you): ‘‘Est le Parti Socialiste contre l’Aristocratie?” Réponse: “Oui. Socialisme will abolish all titles, ranks and privileges, Lords, Dukes and Queens as the French bourgeois did in 1794. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — remember? But they replaced aristocracy with plutocracy. Socialism is social equality.”

By this time our bloke’s slender stock of French was rapidly running out. Third question: “What do the British people think of Princess Margaret and her affairs?” This was a question for the British people, not the Socialist Party, and the speaker therefore translated to the audience. ". . . !” shouted a large man at the front. ". . .? Qu’est-ce que e’est . . .?” said the TV producer. So they had to be content with “Rien” — nothing. “We don’t think about Princess Margaret at all. Nothing.”

“Nothing?” “Don’t you understand any English at all?” roared the exasperated speaker. “Mais oui” responded the TV man. The speaker then proceeded, as we usually do, to interview the interviewer. “May I ask if you are a member of the French working class?” The TV man gave a typically Sacha Distel shrug: “Je ne sais pas: I don’t know!”

“Well, we do,” said the Socialist party speaker. He turned to the audience: “Come on, somebody — ‘wage-slave’ in French?” And from the inexhaustible resources of working-class knowhow, back the answer came — in a piercing girlish treble from a pretty mademoiselle in the audience: “l’esclave salaire”.

“That’s it! You are an ‘esclave salaire’. And what’s more, you’re working on Sunday while we’re all enjoying ourselves discussing Socialism.” By this time, the the interviewer was in the van amid mutual “Au revoirs”, “Venez chez nous encore” and “Merci beaucoup”. Cheers! handshakes! Formidable, magnifique, etc.

So now we need linguists. All Party speakers must learn at least two foreign languages. Anyone who knows French, Swahili, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese or Urdu should come along to Hyde Park and help the Workers of the World unite.
Horatio

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Commons Blunder (2020)

Book Review from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plunder of the Commons: a Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth by Guy Standing (Pelican £9.99.)

In a Supreme Court ruling towards the end of last year, an open space in Lancaster lost its status as a village green, on the grounds that the fields might be needed for the expansion of the local school (Guardian online 14 December). One campaigner said, ‘this judgment totally redefines the way we understand land held in the public domain’. This is just one example of the kind of development discussed in Guy Standing’s book, which in some ways complements Brett Christophers’ The New Enclosure, reviewed in the January Socialist Standard. Rather than just looking at the selling-off of state-owned land, it examines many examples of the privatisation or commercialisation of ‘the commons’, described as ‘all our shared natural resources … and all the social, civic and cultural institutions that our ancestors have bequeathed to us’.

As this suggests, different types of commons are identified. The natural commons consists of land, minerals, forests, rivers, sea, air, sky, while the social commons comprises public housing, healthcare, roads, public parks and so on. The civil commons is not so clearly defined, but includes the rule of law, justice and personal freedom. The cultural commons includes libraries, museums, mass media and sport, and the knowledge commons covers information, ideas and learning. In all these areas, there have been many examples of enclosure, such as cuts to the funding of national parks, the privatisation of water supplies and much of the NHS, the selling of allotment sites, the closing of libraries, and the domination of Google in providing information. Much of this material has been written about elsewhere, of course, but it is useful to have it summarised in a single volume.

Standing’s solution to all this is to propose a Charter of the Commons, which, for instance, contains statements such as ‘Farm subsidies based on the amount of land owned should be abolished’ and ‘Local markets selling fresh and local produce should be encouraged and protected’. A Commons Fund would be financed by a levy on all use of the commons, by a tax on wealth, land value taxation and a carbon levy. It should pay Common Dividends to everyone, thus constituting a basic income. But these ideas might equally well be summarised as ‘Capitalism should be run as a nice friendly system’.

One article in the proposed Charter is: ‘Privatized water companies must be restored to common ownership’. This reveals one of the problems with the whole concept of the commons employed here. Ownership and control by the state (whether of water or the railways or whatever) is emphatically not common ownership, as people still need to pay to have access to them. Standing writes: ‘our public wealth has been plundered by encroachment, enclosure, commercialization, privatization and colonization of Britain’s commons’: but it was not public wealth in the sense of being owned by the people. Common ownership implies an end not just to privatisation but to wage labour, production for profit and the class division of capitalism.
Paul Bennett

Bad Marx – See Me! (2020)

From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

I must begin with a mea culpa. For around four decades I was a ‘Marxist Leninist’, sometimes actively, often more passively. What I thus demonstrated to myself is an individual’s capacity for self-delusion.

The ideology associated with Lenin continues to be presented, by adherents and foes alike, as the realisation of Marxism, the actuality of communism when put into practice. The subsequent abject failure of the Soviet Union and its bloc confirming the inherent impracticality of socialism.

Not that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ has gone away. There remains ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, more accurately, burgeoning capitalism protected by an authoritarian one-party state. Cross the border into North Korea and the only ‘socialism’ to be found is akin to ‘National Socialism’.

Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela et al make various socialistic claims and can boast some successes with enlightened social policies. However, the working class in each still stands in the same relationship to capital as in avowedly capitalist countries, with the common tendency to authoritarianism.

Stated boldly, the working class may have acquired limited influence in the ruling bodies of capitalist states, but without assuming control, or anything approaching it, anywhere. Those states that developed state capitalism as the dominant mode as opposed to the ‘free’ market, often adopt, or are ascribed, ‘Communist’ or ‘Socialist’ as labels of convenience.

Socialism, in Marxist terms, is synonymous with communism, it is not an interim state of unspecified length, with communism promoted as the distant, very, very distant, Promised Land, while the state far from ‘withering away’ actually becomes much stronger and entrenched and then gradually moribund.

Nonetheless, mention socialism or communism to many (perhaps most) folk and it’s Leninism that is conjured up. Indeed, whatever fleeting contact people have with socialism it is usually in the form of a ‘Communist‘ Party, of which there are quite a few, or a ‘Socialist’ party/group styling themselves Trotskyist, of which there are more.

Despite their virulent antipathy to each other, they share a common feature. Each is the vanguard of an exclusive, and self-serving, interpretation of Marxism by which the working class will be led along the socialist road to communism. And yet, in the unlikely circumstances of actually being in a position to do so, all would actually establish state capitalism.

What defines socialism in Marxist terms is the relationship of the producers to the means of wealth creation: do they have full control over those means being held democratically in common? If producers are employed by the state, paid wages by the state, with the state controlling the means of wealth creation and surplus value, then they do not. That is still capitalism.

The attraction of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is the sense that unless it is led by those who understand the grander scheme, workers will at best develop what Lenin referred to as ‘trade union consciousness’, going no further than making bargains with capitalism.

Indeed, the working class has, so far, singularly failed to lift its eyes from the politics of the here and now, to the grander vision of what is actually possible. The temptation is to take people by the political scruff and drag them to their destination. Unfortunately, that destination is always the state claiming to act on their behalf.

However, unless the working class acts for itself by consciously pursuing its own interests, socialism cannot come about. To be blunt, if the working class cannot be inspired and educated to vote for socialism where it is able to do so, then it certainly cannot be compelled to be socialist.

Of course, socialism is not a simple matter of an overwhelming electoral or parliamentary majority. However, that would be an indication that the working class was pursuing a new society on its own behalf. There would be no need for a Lenin, living or embalmed.

Until Leninism has been decoupled from Marxism it will continue to serve as an ideological bulwark containing working class potential. It is the militant counterpoint to the reformism of social democracy. Both act, in their own ways, as distractions from confronting the actualities of capitalism and the need for the working class to actively engage with transcending it.

I was afflicted by elective political blindness, but once my vision cleared I saw there are no short cuts. It is also became clear that defending the indefensible – Leninism and its derivatives Stalinism and Trotskyism – is, in the tragic terms of the Soviet purges, a crime against the people.
David Alton

Jeremy Corbyn: Last Stand of the Left (2020)

From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oh dear, Jeremy Corbyn!

The supposedly halcyon days of Corbyn’s successful Labour leadership contests in 2015 and 2016 are now but a distant memory as the chants of: ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ fade away like ghosts in the night; another ‘fame to infamy saga’ in the personality cult of contemporary politics.

After all, as the pundits never tired of telling us, Corbyn was not up to being a leader; perhaps the biggest compliment that could be levelled at him given the bear pit, come cesspit, of the Westminster Bubble. This fixation of the media with personality was perhaps epitomised by a rather fatuous post-mortem piece in the Guardian newspaper penned by Jonathan Freedland who, in spectacularly reductionist mode, summed up the reason for the Corbyn defeat as his: ‘lack of charisma’, proclaiming – with somewhat sparse and dubious evidence – that the Left can never win elections with a leader with no charisma; but concluding, somehow, that the Right can win elections merely by fielding a sack of potatoes. Freedland spent the remainder of the article in a kind of je ne sais quoi fog, preferring to point to examples of men whom he claimed had charisma, such as Blair and Clinton, rather than enlighten his readers as to what it actually comprised. With political commentators like these it is hardly surprising that the public are increasingly dumbed down into an apathetic stupor, or else whipped up into a fervour of unrealistic expectations when it comes to politics. It may come as a shock to Mr Freedland, and his ilk, but the charisma hypothesis lacks a certain ‘completeness’ when it comes to explaining Corbyn’s defeat.

Corbyn was a fish out of water from the get-go; thrown into the spotlight by accident, with no-one more surprised than himself. Although a career politician he was always an outrider to the main pack, having defied the Party Whip and voted with his conscience more than 500 times; usually taking a left-wing oppositional stance to war and ‘imperialism’ and seeking to champion causes of social and economic justice; in a nutshell, arguably the complete antithesis of the average modern day politician, who excels in guile, duplicity and low cunning. The establishment was not about to let an anti-imperialist, sandal-wearing vegetarian peacenik in a Lenin cap into the hallowed halls of power. And here ‘the establishment’ includes a large chunk of his colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party who constantly plotted and schemed to undermine his leadership.

The more Corbyn bent over backwards to appease his critics the more they lambasted him. Not that such an establishment/media-bashing campaign is anything new when it comes to exorcising the Left from respectable society, but Corbyn seemed incapable of combatting the onslaught; compounded by some of the people around him who often seemed to be setting him up for a fall, rather than helping to get him out of a jam. He went into the 2019 General Election, mumbling and fluffing his autocue lines; to some he was barely recognisable from just two years earlier when he commanded public rallies of thousands, delivering rousing speeches on the stump.

But it was not just Corbyn’s emaciated persona that caused such a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 general election. Many in his party on both the right and left (from Blair to McDonnell) also handed him a poisoned chalice in the form of an incoherent Brexit stance. A 10-year-old child could have told him that you don’t go into a Brexit-dominated election with polarised public opinion and refuse to say whether the UK should be in or out of the EU and then witter on about a second referendum. It was a no-brainer that the ‘Oven ready/let’s get Brexit done’ slogans of the Tories would have more appeal to a Brexit-fatigued electorate.

The Labour Party ran a mind-bogglingly inept campaign in other ways. It had echoes of the debacle with Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Primary contest, when the Democratic National Committee sabotaged his candidacy for the nomination; preferring the prospect of handing Donald Trump the Presidency, by backing the lame duck candidate Hilary Clinton, than risk a left-leaning Sanders.

Another factor in Corbyn’s demise was the digital media with its use of algorithms for data analytics and targeted marketing through the Twittersphere et al, together with a panoply of so-called fact-checker websites, often presenting diametrically opposite views of the same ‘facts.’ All this digital electioneering was invariably at Corbyn’s expense; the pinnacle of cynical manipulation being when the Conservative Party changed the name of its Twitter account to: ‘factcheckUK’.

A demented Christian-celebrates.
Then there was the first-past-the-post system which put a further nail in Corbyn’s coffin. The outcome of general elections are always determined by a relatively small number of marginal constituencies and this time around, with the help of the shenanigans of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, this worked against Labour significantly.

Then there was the issue of the ‘wish list’ Labour Manifesto. Dependent on one’s perspective it was either too radical, or not radical enough. Predictably the party grandee, Tony Blair, was in the ‘too radical camp’ declaring it: ‘a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism that has never appealed to Labour voters.’ A ludicrous assertion given that there was nothing either revolutionary or discernibly socialist in it.

Since its inception in 1906, the Labour Party has invariably kept within the modest confines of what has been dictated to it by the powers that be; that is what they deem possible, or tolerable, within capitalism to mitigate the worst effects on the masses whilst maintaining profits for the owners of capital. On the rare occasions when it has stepped outside of such ‘operational constraints’ it has quickly been reminded by the banks, the corporations et al. who is really in charge -– a run on the pound, a debt crisis, a character assassination, has quickly brought the Labour Party to heel, or else they have been ousted on the basis that the Tories are much better suited to manage capitalism.

Prospects for the new decade

Johnson’s crowing about ‘the people’s government’ and ‘protecting our wonderful NHS’ etc. will go the way of all his other mendacious utterances to be supplanted by the most pro-business authoritarian government the UK has seen since Thatcher. Johnson is another Trumpian political figure, a few notches higher on the IQ scale; a political buccaneer, a chancer, a populist, who will lie and cheat to gain political advantage and personal aggrandisement whilst serving his masters, the capitalist elite. The consummate modern-day politician.

The wealth and income inequality gap will become ever more grotesque as Johnson applies meagre rations to public services whilst dishing out largesse to the private sector; further enriching the minority by impoverishing the majority. The remnants of the fetters on capitalism – taxation and regulation – will most likely be further rolled back in order to give free rein to ‘the entrepreneurs’, while the mass of long-suffering people will either be seduced with the discredited notion of ‘trickle-down economics,’ or else met with a cocktail of omnipotent surveillance and coercive force in order to subjugate them.

The next few years will be grim for the working class, while the capitalist class will be jubilant, but this may be their last fling. Many people over the years have predicted, prematurely, the end of capitalism, underestimating its ingenuity, dynamism and resilience. But the twin existential threats of nuclear conflagration and ecological collapse are becoming ever more acute. It is impossible for capitalism to solve these problems because it is the inherent cause of them. The very essence of capitalism is exploitation in the name of profit, exploitation of the working class by denying them the full value of their labour and exploitation of the natural environment by gobbling up resources and ignoring the ‘externalities’ in the form of degradation of the natural environment. The risk of nuclear war is ominously present as nation states and transnational corporations fight to claim dwindling natural resources and to secure new markets.

The human species remains incredibly resilient to such capitalist exploitation, but the natural environment is not faring so well. Other species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate and the global ecosystem, upon which all life depends, is under threat. An alternative economic system is urgently needed. There is renewed talk of socialism as the alternative. But often these are ‘false flags’ amounting to capitalism with a kinder face. Sometimes they are genuine attempts at radical change, but stop short of the abandonment of capitalism. But unless the exploitative nature of capitalism is confronted head-on and supplanted, then such movements will be insufficient.

Socialism has the potential to provide the solution by changing the fundamental economic relationship between people, and between people and the planet. Rather than commodifying every aspect of life and concocting markets where goods and services are provided only when there is the ability to pay, instead the provision could be based on need; rendering the notion of price, market and money redundant. Instead of the world’s resources being mercilessly plundered in the name of profit they could be held in common ownership for the benefit of all. These socialist fundamentals would help to avoid the immense waste under capitalism and hasten a more sustainable existence.

Corbyn was successful for a short time in galvanising a mass movement with rhetoric of radical change and talk of socialism; but led his followers down a side road of reformism which in the event was a dead end. By misrepresenting reform of the capitalist system as socialism he, and others like him, inadvertently undermine the cause, rather than advance it. These efforts, whilst initially creating a momentum for change, are counter-productive as they inevitably end in tears. As Marx observed, ultimately socialism will come about when the majority of the working class understand its transformative potential and collectively work to bring it about. When people decide to take that road they will not need leaders – charismatic or otherwise. They will learn to find their way by themselves.
Tim Hart

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What's Wrong With Education: Bursting of the 'Comprehensive' Bubble (1974)

From the May 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

So the cat is finally out of the education bag — at last. The cracks have finally broken through the paper!

The situation in the Inner London schools is now so disastrous that teachers are telling the papers how, in many of them, it is practically impossible to teach. Truancy has reached catastrophic proportions. According to Dr. Rhodes Boyson MP (late Head of Highbury Grove Comprehensive School) 500,000 children play truant every day; he says “it is creating a new criminal sub-class”. Nobody really knows how many truants there are, because without frequent spot-checks absence is uncontrollable. The kids are voting with their feet. Many of those who sit through the morning to get the school dinner vote with their eyes, glaring balefully at the monkey up front in silent vicious hatred.

All the millions in money, the shiny new glass and plastic buildings, the innumerable experts (there is no field of human endeavour with more bloody "experts” than education!) and “advisers”, the gimmicks and stunts to keep the kids at it till 16 — have, in about half the schools population, lamentably failed.

Above all, it is the dismal failure of the so-called comprehensive schools. These are the hot-beds, the fertile source of the troubles. For twenty-five years the love-child of every sentimental “Lefty”, eventually official Labour Party policy, “comprehensive” was to be the magic key to crack the education problem. It was to give “equality of opportunity” to all, including the academically backward.

Only those who are actually inside the school racket (sorry — “educational profession”!) know the full story of the incredible goings-on in the most notorious giant London comprehensives. The one in North London where the kids piled the desks and chairs in the middle of a class-room and set fire to them. The other one in South London where when the teacher shouted “Will you shut up?” thirty-three boys shouted back in unison “No, we will not!”

So bad has the situation become that the Inner London Authority now has special Truancy Centres (staffed by “experts", of course) where the kids who just will not attend, any school do what they like. According to the London Evening News “what they like” is smashing things up.

The ILEA now wants to abandon “comprehensive” policy and build no more. Having scrapped the smaller, despised “Secondary Moderns” to set up vast comprehensives, small schools have become a desperate administration’s new ideal. Quite outside all the high-minded and noble educational sentiments and theories, the main motive for comprehensives was simply economy — as it was foolishly believed: saving money.

Your contributor was actually present at a meeting of several hundred London teachers in the early days when Mr. Houghton, Chief Education Officer, told them: “I don’t care whether you are for or against comprehensives — I’ve got to find a quarter of a million places on the ninth of September!” A comprehensive school saves at least three headmasters’ salaries (about £5-6,000 p.a. each) and makes many practical economies in buildings, power, heating, maintenance, catering, etc., by working on a large scale. With the result that, with the raising of the school-leaving age, 2,000 or even 2,500 children have been crammed into schools bursting at the seams.

After the war, the Labour Government set up a committee to enquire into education. It came up with the Hadow Report, which was the Bible of the teachers’ training colleges in those days. The old system of sorting elementary-school sheep and grammar-school goats was to be replaced by juniors up to 11; then Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern up to 15. The now-notorious eleven-plus examination would decide that each child would receive education according to “his age, aptitude and ability”.

Almost as soon as this tri-partite system was introduced, the howls of protest started. True it is that the eleven-plus produced some fantastic results (like the boy whose card was sorted into the wrong box at the office — an eleven-plus failure — who went on to get a Ph.D.). The theory behind “comprehensivation” — yes, that’s what they call it! — was “equality”. Even if a boy couldn’t do differential equations, analyze a sentence, or speak German, he wore the same uniform and played football on the same pitch (although frequently he couldn’t play football either).

Faced with the fact that various kids have different aptitudes — and certainly Socialists have never thought otherwise — an elaborate system of “streaming” and “sets” was set up, to shove some through the university-animated exam, system. The teachers themselves got together and drafted a completely new examination, the Certificate of Secondary Education. Still only a few responded. A flood of learned books has poured out; teams of research sociologists have “proved” that a boy (or girl) in a “home” where money is tight, the telly never stops, there is no spare room and, above all, the parents can hardly read and despise learning—has little chance against a well-fed, contented child with ample room, warmth, light, and (most important of all) the practical example of a genuine delight and pleasure in books and learning.

Outside the school, the lure of money is compelling. A hefty well-built lad of sixteen can get a job as a hod-carrier at a man’s wage. Small wonder that the bait of examination passes fails to attract!

Thousands of teachers leave training colleges annually filled with a genuine vocational idealism and the intention to dedicate their lives to the education of our children: only to have “their hearts broken” (as they say) and leave to do anything — barmaid, petrol pump, shop — rather than “be driven mad” teaching. Four out of five girls leave in the first year.

The zealous educational reformer has now to swallow the bitter bread of humiliation. The old submissive obedience has gone. The kids are sceptical, intensely suspicious and inquisitive. To them we would say: “Why waste time and effort harassing and barracking the teacher? They are victims of the capitalist system no less (even more) than you. They are working men and women trying to do an extremely onerous and impossibly demanding job. There is something to be learned from even the worst teacher!” And: "Ignorance never helped anybody ’ (Marx).

To the teacher we say: You will never get educational equality in capitalist society. All you can do is maintain an efficient Union to protect you from abuses.

During the recent General Election the school debating society at a large north-west London comprehensive ran a mock election. The Socialist candidate, a sixteen-year-old boy, denounced the Labour Party and exposed nationalization. To cheers from the audience he declared : "We’ve got to learn, we’ve thought too much about Lenin; we’ve got to find out more about Karl Marx!” And they will, too. After all, they are finding out about practically everything else!
Horatio

Gold! Gold! Gold! (1976)

From the June 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Further shattering revelations by the BBC! First, the programme on “Where Keynes went wrong”. Now, the documentary on Gold. The Radio Times of 24th April said plaintively:
  Why do we dig gold out of a hole in the ground, carry it across the world, and bury it in other holes, with guards over it? There are millions of tons of it lying in the vaults around the world, yet nobody can touch it. How did we get into this insane situation?
Could it be that Simon Campbell-Jones (the producer) is a listener to the SPGB in Hyde Park? There, our speakers, in dealing with the absurd contradictions of capitalism, frequently refer to precisely this absurdity as the most bizarre of all: surpassing the glut of dairy produce, the millions of bricks, the wine lake, the motor-car crisis, and now the 74 laid- up super-tankers.

The programme was quite well done, even amusing in parts, but giving not the slightest hint of an explanation of this insanity, preferring to leave it at that. May we suggest a solution of this perplexing problem? First, the programme was in error in stating that gold buried in the ground by man “is quite useless and has no value”. The reason that 80 per cent. of the world’s gold is re-buried is because it does have value, not because it has none. If it had no value it would be thrown away. It has value because it contains human labour. This is the reason why it is so carefully hoarded, whether by individuals or governments.

Gold metal is preferred to everything else as a “universal equivalent” (“as the hart pants for cooling streams—so pants the Commodity for gold”, wrote Marx) because it is practically indestructible, conveniently divisible, and immediately measurable (by weight). Our original “One Pound” was a pound weight of pure silver, then ousted by gold. Bankers quickly found that it is not necessary to ship actual gold bars to settle debts. After all, its specific gravity is 19.00. Most accounts could be settled by clearing banks debiting one client against the credit of others. Paper documents, Bills of Exchange, Promissory Notes, cheques, bonds, securities, are all ways of transferring goods without any move of gold bullion.

But, however complicated and extensive, the credit system still depends in the end on gold for solvency and stability. Gold: the one commodity everybody wants, because it reflects all the others. Who has gold, has everything. Gold is real wealth—tangible, shining, weigh-able labour—its value determined, like the value of everything else, by the amount of labour it contains.

Neither is it true that “nobody can touch it”. Not so! Today’s news is that the government has spent over £2,000 millions in gold, to try to bolster the falling paper pound. Those who push it down vaults —can pull it up again. Indian peasants hoard gold ornaments, Stalin insisted on payment in actual gold bars and not paper pesetas for the arms supplied to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Shylock demanded a bagful of real gold ducats in exchange for the paper promise.

What finally sparked the invasion of Russia by the capitalist powers in 1918 was not the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat” or Lenin’s red banner, but the fact that he confiscated the gold in the Czarist banks. This writer has actually been shown a wad of Czarist banknotes by a poor fellow in the south of France, confident that when the Romanoffs are back he’ll have it made.

When Trotsky was removed from the War Ministry and placed in charge of the Concessions Committee, one of his first visitors was Averil Harriman, the American banker. Harriman was proudly taken by Trotsky to the famous Lena goldfields and informed by him that “beneath that terrain was one of the richest seams in the world—and above it one of the best Communist Youth organizations in Russia”. Harriman was reported as saying on his return home that had the position been reversed he would have been ready to talk business.

When Ivor Montagu, the Communist scion of the Swaythling merchant banking family, visited the USSR to further his researches into the smaller mammalia, his father mentioned to him that they had regular confidential reports on the Bolsheviks’ gold reserve— hinting that confirmation of these would be much appreciated. The banker needed to know how much gold the Bolsheviks really had.

Capitalism has now reached the stage where even the BBC sees the absurdity: vast amounts of labour are wasted digging gold, to bury it again. But this does serve a function under capitalism; it is the real backing to the paper promise. What to do with the vast hoards of the stuff left buried by capitalism may be a problem in Socialism. Thomas More suggested that it be used for children’s toys. William Morris thought it might line lavatory pans, though porcelain is more hygienic. Apart from capping teeth, it seems foredoomed to ornamental use.
Horatio.

Condition of Blind Leaders Deteriorating (1976)

From the July 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

How hopelessly ignorant can these trade union leaders get?

Here we have John Boyd, the Secretary of the Engineering Union, on television the other night talking about “the Marxian phrase Surplus Value or what is the same thing, Profit’.

Dear Mr. Boyd, surplus-value is not the same as profit. Profit is calculated on the capitalist’s total outlay including Constant Capital (machinery) and Variable Capital (labour). Surplus-value is calculated on the difference between necessary and surplus labour. It is called “surplus” because it is over and above the value needed to reproduce the workers’ pay.

For instance: An investment of £10,000 (£5,000 Constant and £5,000 Variable or wages) with a rate of surplus-value of 100 per cent, produces a profit of 50 per cent. Why? Because, silly Mr. Boyd, the capitalist has to pay for machinery and raw materials besides labour. Therefore, even if the worker works 4 hours for himself and then 4 free for the capitalist, the boss still doesn’t make 100 per cent. profit: only 50 per cent. on his total outlay.

What Mr. Boyd can do for his members when he doesn’t even know what profit (and therefore wages) is, nobody knows! Perhaps he had better stick to playing the trombone in his Salvation Army band.
Horatio


Monday, February 24, 2020

The First Age of Speed (1960)

From the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Short as was the hey-day of canal transport the supremacy of the “flying coaches” was even shorter, From about 1810 to the late 1830’s. The Golden Age of coaching lasted a mere generation but it has held the popular imagination for over a century.

Unlike their floating counterparts—the canal packet-boats that have been forgotten—the stage coaches are a familiar feature to people who were born long after their disappearance. They have a romantic appeal that was fostered by Victorian writers who looked back to them with nostalgia once the noisy, smoky locomotive had taken their place.

But there was nothing romantic about coach travel. It developed in an age of ruthless competition, in fact the first age of speed, when speed became important for its own sake. Men and horses were driven ruthlessly to keep to strict schedules and constant efforts were made to clip minutes off travelling times. The Comet on the London to Exeter run aimed to change horses at Hounslow near London in 30 seconds.

It was understandable, that after centuries of painfully slow travel, a smooth and swift transport system should appeal to people, but fantastic risks were taken that often resulted in accidents. Wealthy idiots would drive private carriages at break-neck speeds and would even bribe coach drivers to let them take the reins of the public coaches. But in spite of this it was still an efficient transport system that would have seemed impossible only a few years before. This system was made possible by the far reaching improvements in road construction and bridge building that had taken place at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.

Medieval Roads
The hopeless state of the roads during the first half of the 18th century that had led to canal construction, led also to constant agitation for road improvement. One 18th century cartoon portrays a sailor with a wooden leg refusing an offer of a lift in a coach saying “No thanks I’m in a hurry.” But the problem was a complex one. Since the departure of the Romans 1300 years before no properly constructed roads had been built on any large scale. The Romans had built with great thoroughness, their roads often being five feet in depth and carried across swampy land on piles driven down to firm soil. After over a thousand years of neglect they were still the best roads in England in spite of having been robbed for stone.

The roads of Medieval Britain were, in short, little better than the farm tracks of today. Medieval man regarded a road as a right of way rather than a permanent highway. A person or vehicle had a right of passage “without let or hindrance” but no more. If the road was impassable a traveller had the right to pass along the edge of the road even through standing crops. Pack-horse trains on finding a track in a bad condition would tread out a new one alongside. In this way a number of parallel tracks would be formed, sometimes covering a hundred yards or more. This situation survives today in the public “rights of way” through the countryside where there is the right of passage from point to point but no obligation to provide, a surface to the path. Medieval man could manage with such an arrangement but a growing industrial country could not.

Turnpike Roads
By the 18th century, responsibility for the upkeep of the roads had been thrust on to the unwilling parishes. The parishes were responsible for all roads that passed through them and the work had to be done without payment. A surveyor had to be appointed for a year, to organise the work. This official was forced to accept the job and was unpaid. The inhabitants were forced to work without pay for a number of days a year and the parish had to supply all tools, materials and horses free of charge. Under these circumstances very little real work was done. At the same time the parishes were fiercely independent and resisted any attempt at a central control.

To meet this problem the Turnpike System came into being. Barriers were set up on the road and anyone passing through had to pay tolls which went to pay for the road’s upkeep. Turnpike trusts were set up to administer the system, the first Turnpike Act being passed in 1663. From the beginning there was bitter and violent opposition. The canals and the later railways were privately owned and after the necessary Act of Parliament had been obtained work could go on with little or no regard for anybody affected. But the roads were public and the idea of charging tolls for their use aroused tremendous resentment. Tollgates were destroyed, gate-keepers were attacked and sometimes murdered and their houses burned down. The Government retaliated by extending the death penalty for offences against the turnpikes. Although with the passage of time opposition died down, the system was never popular and riots would break out from time to time. This attitude was strengthened by the Turnpike trusts themselves. In the main they were corrupt and regarded the income from tolls as something to be milked, consequently road improvement was very slow. Not until late in the 18th century did the need for well-constructed and therefore expensive roads become generally accepted.

The canals had been constructed to carry heavy goods. It was to carry coal, not people that the first one had been constructed. After they were built their obvious advantages led to the development of passenger traffic. But the reasons for constructing good roads were many and various. Firstly military. The first good roads since the Roman occupation were built in the highlands of Scotland by the British army under General Wade when about 400 miles of roads were built. This was after the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 and the purpose was to subdue the highlands by making troop movements easy.

It was many years after this before good roads were constructed in other parts of the country. Other reasons were the growth of the postal system, the development of the Inland Spas and later the new seaside resorts where the wealthy landowner and the rising Capitalist class went to spend the wealth that they had wrung from the "dark Satanic mills.” There was also travel for commercial reasons, which grew as industry grew.

After the roads had been built their advantages for general transport became obvious. During the later part of the century first Metcalf, then Telford and McAdam, began a great construction programme that included not only roads but bridges, docks and harbours as well as improvements to canals. The political need for easy access to Ireland gave rise to one of the most important of schemes, the London to Holyhead road which included the famous suspension bridge over the dangerous Menai Straits.

The first mail coach ran from London to Bath in 1784 and the system rapidly spread. The mail coaches were the “aristocrats” of the road and travelled free of charge. Toll gates had to be opened immediately and there were heavy fines for delaying them. Their first duty was to deliver the mail but they also carried passengers. Their fierce rivals were the stage coaches, which were privately owned public transport coaches. First class passengers travelled inside, an second class on the roof, and to meet the competition of the Mail coaches constant efforts were made to improve speeds and general conditions. In addition, there were the faster and even more expensive Post coaches that carried inside passengers only. These were for people who objected to the rowdy second class passengers on the roof. The really wealthy travelled in private carriages. All of these coaches were expensive and the lumbering broad-wheeled stage-wagons carrying both passengers and freight catered for poorer people, but even these were beyond the reach of a vast number of people. Another feature of the roads were the flocks of animals and birds being driven into the towns for food.

Steam Carriages
In the early 19th century a new and revolutionary form of travel appeared—the steam carriage. These in the early stages were noisy and cumbersome and were regarded with suspicion but they were soon showing signs of being a serious rival to the horse-drawn coaches. Services both long-distance and within cities, began and unheard of speeds were reached. But the Turnpike trusts feared the damage that they would do to the roads and imposed crippling tolls on them—as much as £3 a time. This, together with legislation restricting them to a speed of 4 miles an hour, drove the steam carriages from the roads. By their action the Turnpike trust helped, to seal their own fate for the steam locomotive, transferred to rails, was to destroy them. During their lifetime the coaches built up a vast supporting industry. In addition to over 30,000 people employed by the coach companies themselves, there were the numerous inns to cater for the needs of the traveller, the tollgate keepers and a vast army of ostlers, and road-menders needed to keep the coaches on the road. There were also such supporting industries as coach-builders and harness makers, and all the lesser fry such as shoe blacks who managed to scrape a living serving the coaches. When the crash came it was complete for unlike the canals the coaches relied mainly on passenger transport and could not survive the competition from the very much faster trains. The distress and poverty that was caused to the unfortunate workers in the industry is vividly described by Dickens.

Some of the labour force was absorbed into the new railways but many sank into increased poverty as capitalism ruthlessly advanced, creating new industries as it destroyed the old.

By 1850 the roads were deserted and becoming grass grown and the once bustling inns which had milked passengers by outrageous charges struggled on as country pubs. Toll-gate keepers who had joined with the Turnpike Trusts in taking their cut from the tolls now sold sweets and repaired boots in their crumbling and neglected lodges. It was to be half a century before the roads once again became an important feature of transport.
Les Dale



See also:
January 1960 Socialist Standard, 'Canals and the Growth of Industry' .