Friday, September 5, 2008

Our Opinion Of Marx (1972)

From the May 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Sir,

I am a Marxist, and interested in the problems and policies of the various anti-capitalist parties and organisations in this country. I would be grateful if I could have your opinion on some points of Marxist theory which appear to be in contradiction with your own policy.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain believe in a society in which "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", is the outlook; in which the means of production and distribution are controlled by the whole population; in which the State as a means of class oppression (i.e., parliament, the armed forces, the police force, etc) no longer exists; in which money and all forms of similar exchange tokens have no place. This was undoubtedly the ultimate aim of Marx.

However, Marx at no time said that the transfer from capitalist society to true communist should be immediate. He stated something very different, both in the Communist Manifesto and throughout his later works.

In the Communist Manifesto, at the end of the chapter "Proletarians and Communists", he states measures which will be generally applicable to advanced countries. Among these are a graduated income tax, a national Bank in which all credit is controlled by the State, centralization of the means of communication in the hands of the State. The state referred to is the worker's state, an institution which is necessary and inevitable; the abolition of any form of state will come when all power is in the hands of the working class and when the forces of production have been raised and changed to working class rule. Only then will the dialectical process come to its final synthesis and completion; only then will, to use Marx's phrase, the State wither away.

I have no desire to criticise or decry the Socialist Party of Great Britain, but I feel you interpreted Marxism wrongly.
— Martin Allan, Edinburgh.

Our general attitude to Marx is that he was a pioneer Socialist, the one in fact who put socialist theory onto a scientific basis. We accept his labour theory of value, his materialist conception of history, and his view that Socialism must be the outcome of the political struggle of the working class to free itself from capitalist exploitation. We therefore sometimes call ourselves "Marxists", despite the shortcomings of this term (such as suggesting that we might regard Marx as some infallible source of wisdom who never made a mistake).

But we are not committed to applying socialist principles in precisely the same way as Marx did a hundred years ago. This is because conditions have changed considerably since Marx's day. When he was politically active the workers were only just beginning to organise politically and industrially. He considered it his task to encourage this, even if the organisations the workers first formed were not explicitly socialist in character. He expected, somewhat overoptimistically as it has unfortunately turned out, that the workers would soon move on to become conscious Socialists.

In Marx's days the world political scene too was different. Capitalist Europe (those countries in which the bourgeois revolution against the landed nobility had taken place) was threatened by reactionary feudal powers, especially Tsarist Russia. Opposition to Tsarist Russia became something of an obsession with Marx and led him to take up positions, such as supporting the British-French-Turkish side in the Crimean War, which we have no hesitation in saying were wrong. Generally, what Marx favoured was the further development of capitalism since he knew that this would ultimately remove the threat the reactionary feudal powers posed.

He was proved right in this. The first world war (aptly named as it marked the final triumph of capital¬ism as the dominant world system) saw the end of the last great dynastic empires of Europe, not just Tsarist Russia but Imperial Germany, Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey as well. Since then capitalism has clearly been the dominant world-system so there is no further argument for socialists to favour capitalist development in order to undermine feudal-based regimes. This has been done, and Socialists can now concentrate exclusively on undermining capitalism by build¬ing a world-wide movement for Socialism. In this sense developments since Marx's death have made his tactics (but not his principles) outdated.

These same developments have also made it possible to establish a society of abundance, with from each according to his ability to each according to his needs, now without any transition period while "the forces of production are raised". The forces of production have already been raised immensely since Marx's day: Why, Marx lived in the age when road transport was still by horse and carriage and before the electrification of industry, let alone the discovery and application of electronics and nuclear power! The wonder of his age was "the electric telegraph" while we are now only a few decades away from the peaceful use of nuclear fusion which would give mankind an almost unlimited supply of energy which could be used to produce wealth in abundance.

To be fair to Marx though, he would have been the first to admit this. As he and Engels wrote in a preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto:
"The practical application of the principles will depend, as the manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today."

They went on to say that in view of "the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organisation of the working class", and in view of the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, "this programme has in some details become antiquated". If these measures were antiquated 100 years ago, they must be prehistoric today!

Marx, incidentally, never spoke of a "workers' state" and it was Engels who wrote of the withering away of the State. Marx himself preferred to talk about the abolition of the State. The political and economic developments listed above made Marx's formulations more appropriate than Engels' — though of course the abolition of the State will still be a consequence of the change in the mode of production.

The Scottish Question (2008)

From the September 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
The SNP’s victory in the Glasgow East by-election has kept this irrelevant pot boiling.
The Labour Party has always claimed to represent the interest of the worse off majority but now finds itself deeply unpopular to the point of facing a crisis. Labour has had untrammelled power for over ten years, and yet now finds itself rejected because it has failed so spectacularly. Bernard Shaw once wrote that any government that robs Peter to pay Paul can count on the support of Paul. Labour has failed to achieve even this modest level of vote buying.

Part of their problem was that Peter is just too strong to let himself be robbed – the organised ranks of capital and the disorganised might of the market are strong enough to see off any challenge that doesn’t seek to remove them entirely from the picture. Labour tried to accommodate itself with business in order to achieve modest social goals – but this simply left it prey to the mood swings of the market, with Paul’s position unchanged.

One noticeable change Labour did manage to get through was devolution. We’ve discussed in these pages before how this was as much jobs for the boys and girls – as well as providing a handy redoubt for Labour forces for when they would eventually lose Downing Street. Their colossal votes in Scotland and Wales would make them the permanent natural party of government in those areas, and would allow them to circumvent to rock solid Tory core in the English south east. It would, they hoped, stymie the challenge from Welsh and Scottish nationalists to their dominance in those areas.
After all, they believed that the desire for the retention of the United Kingdom is strong. Hence why Gordon Brown has tried to wrap himself in Britishness – a neat bit of stealing Tory clothes to win their supporters over, while his own supporters have nowhere else to go. At least, that’s the theory. The problem is, however they were wrong about the Nationalists – the voters found they could go to them.

In 2007 Labour lost control of the Scottish parliament. They had never had a full majority there (the proportional electoral system they introduced makes that an unlikely event) but they had been the biggest party. It was a close run thing, but they were beaten into second place by one seat (and about 20,000 votes). Not only that, but a new PR system for local government meant the smashing of the old Labour family run fiefdoms throughout Scotland, with almost all councils falling to no overall control.

A part of all that was the demise of the Scottish “Socialist” Party, one of the most successful leftist parties of the last fifty years. It had had six seats in the Scottish Parliament, before it had imploded over the behaviour of its charismatic leader Tommy Sheridan suing the News of the World over allegations on his private life (plus a touch of SWP skulduggery). It had latched on to regional nationalism, as a successful means to electoral success.

The Scottish Nationalists had tacked left, making social democrat noises to pick off Labour supporters. There is nothing intrinsically left-wing about nationalism. Being a nationalist does not necessarily commit a person to any particular reforms or economic principles. Indeed, technically, the SNP is a one-issue party – for an independent Scotland. Their history, though, is marked by debates between the minority of hardliners wanting to stand for nothing but independence, and the dominant pragmatists who want to win political power by offering to administer the current situation, and knocking the maximum demand into the long grass. This allows people to safely vote for the party of independence without necessarily voting for independence. In truth, they stand for no principle different than the other parties, offering to represent and work hard for “you”.

Having formed a minority government, they plan to use events in their favour. Just as Labour’s first British government dressed up in Ruritanian Privy Councillor’s costumes to prove that they weren’t revolutionists, so too the Nationalists have accepted political responsibility within the Union to try to show that they are trustworthy and to win people to their cause while in power. Of course, they generate heated debates between themselves and Westminster, and try to provoke controversy. Of course, they intend to legislate for a referendum on independence – but only after they have been in office some while. So, even if that is rejected, they have a fair chance of holding onto their jobs.

What some commentators look to, though, is after the next UK election. It seems increasingly likely the Tories will end up ahead of Labour. It is even possible, after the Glasgow East by-election result, that the SNP could take a majority of Scottish seats. Following the death of John MacDougall Labour MP for the Fife town of Glenrothes there will be another by-election in the autumn. This is another Labour safe seat, and losing again may be fatal for Gordon Brown’s premiership – and spell almost certain disaster at the next general election.

David Cameron has announced that he believes that Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on legislation in England just as English MPs cannot vote on Scottish issues (because those matters are devolved to the Scottish parliament). Considering that his party won a majority of English seats at the last election, he would say that. If Scotland breaks away this would make Labour’s return to power in Westminster that much harder, and the SNP would have their cherished dream.

The indications are, though, that Scottish voters will not opt for independence. At heart, then, the SNP, like Labour, has achieved political success at the expense of its core project. At heart, in both cases this is because they have sought power by telling people they agree with what they think, rather than trying to change minds. The quick route to power is to buy people’s votes with popular policies – but the danger in that is that you attract people who support those policies, but not necessarily your wider aims. They’ll simply up and leave when someone offers them something better. Political time, effort and consciousness are wasted arguing to and fro on such nonsense.

Ultimately, such baubles are thrown around by the political hacks in order to win for themselves the major prizes. Workers have nothing to gain from the redrawing of the boundaries, but regional entrepreneurs and bureaucrats certainly do have a chance of making good if only they can persuade the electorate to back them. Capitalism knows no boundaries, money has no accent. Yet the Scottish question continues to play a major part in the ongoing passing show of UK politics.
Pik Smeet