Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitalism and health care (2009)

Editorial from the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

On both sides of the Atlantic, the last few months have seen various supposedly alternative models for health care inside capitalism being explored. Barack Obama’s review of US health care provision within his first year in office has met a predictably heated response from the paid lobbyists and cheerleaders of the health insurance industry, as well as other sectors of the US capitalist class with something to lose from any change to the status quo.

The costs of individual medical insurance being prohibitive, the poor of this so-called first world nation (46 million of them) are left with Third World levels of care and medical support, and daily “life and debt” decisions.

Whilst there are some differences between the US and UK healthcare system, we shouldn’t over-exaggerate them. Heated though the US v NHS debate may be, it is essentially a phoney war. From a world socialist perspective, these are just alternative capitalist models for rationing healthcare for the working class

The US system places a cash register and swipe card console at the foot of your hospital bed. In terms of the immediacy and impact on the patient, the NHS and similar systems in Europe certainly seem a little more ‘civilised’. But there is of course still a reckoning somewhere down the line. The ‘socialised’ systems just remove that decision from the immediacy of the ward. Instead the decision is made at one remove: by an NHS Trust or the government that allocates its funds. The decision isn’t made for you as an individual patient, but for your class as a whole, the working class who constitute some 90 percent of the population.

The reason the US administration is looking again at how their system is – or isn’t – working, has little to do with how ethical or plain nice it wants its society to be. Instead it is driven by a need to make economies and find the most efficient way to maintain the health of the US workforce. After all, despite the egalitarian claims surrounding it, the introduction of the NHS to the UK had a solid capitalist ‘business case’ behind it and was supported by all main parties. (The cost to the US state per head of population is now approximately twice that in the UK).

The NHS – and the other examples quoted of ‘socialised’ medicine (e.g. Scandinavian countries) – are not socialism, which we would argue means a moneyless and wageless economy as a whole. However at an individual and emotional level (rather than at a political level), it would be churlish of world socialists to dismiss out of hand the strong empathy and support for the NHS that most workers in Britain have. It is after all support for free access, for the idea that healthcare be freely available to all regardless of wealth.

At one level, world socialists entirely empathise with this sentiment. But not to the extent of getting caught up in expressing political support for one type of capitalist healthcare system over another: only a social system based on production for use rather than profit for the few, can truly realise this powerful and fundamentally egalitarian desire.

Impossibilism by Stephen Coleman

The following article on the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its historical roots originally appeared as a chapter in the book 'Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries'. 
Edited by Maximilien Rubel and John Crump, and published by Macmillan Press in Britain and St Martin's Press in the United States, this 1987 book has long since been out of print, but because of the continuing relevance of socialism as both a critique and alternative to present day class society, it's important that efforts are made to ensure that this chapter (and other chapters) from the book, are made available on the internet to be discovered and re-discovered by both old and new activists alike.
In the editors own words, the book sought to:
" . . . re-establish the genuine meaning of socialism. We are not arguing that absence of the market is the sole defining feature of socialism. On the contrary, socialism is not merely a marketless society, it is also a stateless society, a classless society, a moneyless society, a wageless society . . ."
As well as the chapter detailing the tradition of impossibilism - best represented by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties - the book also included chapters on other currents within the 'non-market socialist' sector, such as the Council Communists, Anarcho-Communists and, perhaps best known of all, the Situationists.

At the end of the article there is postscript that gives links to the other chapters in the book that have since found a home on the internet.

by Stephen Coleman

Like other terms of political abuse which have been absorbed into our political vocabulary, the term 'impossibilism' tells us as much or more about the labellers as it does about the idea being described. After the French legislative election of October 1881, in which the Fédération du Parti des Travailleurs Socialistes de France won only 60,000 of the 7 million votes cast, a group based around Paul Brousse and Benoît Malon began to advocate a more pragmatic, reformist policy for the Fédération. 'We prefer to abandon the "all-at-once" tactic practised until now', proclaimed those who referred to themselves as Possibilists. 'We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.'[1] The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an 'all-at-once' end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as 'the maximum programme' were labelled as impossibilists.[2]

It did not take very long for the term to find its way into British use. For example, in 1896 Ramsay MacDonald, in urging 'socialists more frequently to put themselves in the position of the man in the street', warned that:
We can talk socialism seriously to him and we will likely disgust him; we may gas sentimentalities to him and we may capture a member who will only be one more impossibilist in our movement.[3]
While MacDonald and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) pursued the propaganda of condescension, assured in their own minds that the presentation to workers of the revolutionary alternative to capitalism would cause disgust, th`e majority of the members of the nominally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by the dogmatic capitalist, H.M Hyndman, moved increasingly towards the possibilist policies of parliamentary reformism and opportunist party-building within the trade unions. At the turn of the century a small group within the SDF - some based in Scotland, some in London, but numbering no more than 400 out of the membership of 9000 - began to oppose the Federation's drift towards possibilism. The story of the impossibilist revolt need not be repeated here; it is sufficient to point out that the leadership of the SDF pursued a minor purge against those who insisted that the Federation should stand for clear-cut non-market socialism and nothing less. [4] T.A. Jackson refers to the expulsion of Jack Fitzgerald as a 'trumped up charge', [5] and the obituary of Fitzgerald, published in the Socialist Standard in May 1929, commented upon the fact that he:
was jeered at by the official group, who tried to silence him by the charge of “impossibilism.” He, and the group that was with him, were confronted by a solid wall of opposition, which was the more difficult to get over because the officials held the strings, and meetings were closed to the unauthorised.
The most typically impossibilist and historically enduring product of the split in the SDF emerged in 1904 when the majority of the London impossibilists, having exhausted the possibilities of turning the SDF away from its reformist course formed a new party: the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). Although labelled by opponents as impossibilists (a term which we now use solely for historical reference and not because we have any sympathy with the assumptions upon which it is based), as in the SDF paper Justice. the workers who formed the SPGB rejected the label and its implicit accusation:
At the outset let us insist that we do not believe in impossible political tactics. None the less, our political action must be such as to awaken the workers of this country to full class-consciousness, and to the desire to abolish wage slavery. We therefore feel the necessity of avoiding any action that will endanger or obliterate our socialist identity, or allow us to be swallowed up by a Labour Movement which has yet to learn the real meaning of Class Struggle. [6]
We are not . . . . 'Impossibilists', if Justice's definition be correct, but we doubt its correctness, for we have usually seen what is described as 'Impossibilism' associated with Socialist science, working-class sincerity and correct tactics. [7]
In fact, the SPGB contended that the real impossibilists were the self-proclaimed realists who sought to humanise capitalism by means of legislative reform. [8]

Before considering the non-market socialist outlook of the SPGB - and of the parties and individuals in other parts of the world adhering to its principles - there are two other groups which deserve to be examined as examples of impossibilism in Britain.

The Socialist League split from the SDF in December 1884 in circumstances which closely resembled the impossibilist revolt two decades later. [9] Hyndman asserted that the 'antagonism' between the SDF and the League was 'similar to that which existed in France between the Marxists and the Possibilists', and although the arrogant Hyndman cast the SDF in the role of the Marxists, the analogy is, in fact, appropriate insofar as the SDF was comparable to the Possibilists and the League represented impossibilism. [10] The League rejected the idea of having a reform programme, like the 'Stepping Stones' of the SDF. William Morris, who fed the best revolutionary ideas in to the League, declared that 'The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless.' [11] Morris's conception of socialism, which he advocated both in the League and in the years after he left it, was characterised by an awareness - uncommon amongst those claiming to be socialists, both then and now - of the nature of the social transformation which socialism would entail. Socialism would 'put an end for ever to the wage-system'; [12] it would allow everyone to have 'free access to the means of production of wealth'; [13 it would 'not know the meaning of the words rich and poor, or the rights of property, or law or legality or nationality'; [14] and, if News From Nowhere is a guide to Morris's conception of socialism, it will be a moneyless society in which the 'extinct commercial morality of buying and selling relationships will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone but historians. [15] These features of non-market socialism are presented by Morris with a particular clarity of vision and experimental relevance, in a way that makes it hard to understand without at the same time desiring the nature of the social revolution which he is proposing. A particular quality of Morris's conception of socialism, comparable in certain respects with the situationists of the following century, was his eagerness to relate to the down-to-earth concerns of workers. Above all, Morris saw what work could be like in a society which no longer sacrificed creative labour to commercial profit:
all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists. [16]
That Morris was dismissed as a utopian dreamer by many self-styled socialists in his own day and since, tells us more about their conservatism than his vision. As Karl Mannheim commented, with a relevance to the concept of impossibilism of which he was not aware: The representatives of a given order will label as utopian all conceptions of existence which from their point of view can in principle never be realized.' [17]

Unlike the SPGB, which was to accept Morris's general picture of socialism as an immediately realisable objective, Morris himself and the Socialist League asserted that such a system could only be established after a period of transition. Morris's transition period was conceived as being a society in which property would still exist and in 'which currency will still be used as a means of exchange'. [18] Such a transition was not envisaged as being a long-lasting phase, [19] but the idea of a society of property and exchange relationships being defined as socialist - albeit qualified by the adjective 'incomplete' - must be regarded as an abuse of the term. We are not here disputing the fact that such a transition might have been necessary in the last century (Marx certainly considered that it was [20]), but that is no excuse for creating the conceptual confusion of regarding the pre-socialist transition period as the first stage of socialism.

The same criticism must be levelled against the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which broke away from the SDF a year before the SPGB. This party modelled its ideas on the industrial unionist policy of Daniel DeLeon and the American SLP. Like the Socialist League and the SPGB, the mainly Scottish impossibilists who formed the SLP advanced a conception of non-market socialism which can be seen to fall within the tradition of thought being considered in this book. But, while stating that 'There will be no money under Socialism', the SLP goes on to state that:
With the establishment of a system of production-for-use, labor-time vouchers, which the workers may exchange for goods and services, will take the place of money.

Accordingly, under Socialism the worker will receive a labor-time voucher from his union showing that he has worked a certain number of hours. This time voucher will enable him to withdraw from the social store as much as he contributed to it, after the necessary deductions are made for replacement of wornout equipment, expansion of production, schools, parks, public health etc.

An economy based on labor-vouchers would, in effect, be a non-socialist society: first, because the law of value would still exist, measuring the worth of labour input and allowing certain amounts of goods and services to be used on the basis of equivalent value (no mention is made of those who do not work); second, because the limitations of access to the common store by means of vouchers could easily lead to the circulation of vouchers, which would be in effect monetary circulation; and finally, because the absence of free access on the basis of self-defined needs and self-restraint (where materially necessary) imposes a form of economic alienation which is incompatible with the freedom of a non-exchange society sought by socialists. As early as 1918 the SLP (in Scotland) published Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme under the title of The Socialist Programme. In that work Marx makes the case for the use of labour vouchers in the very early days of socialism, but points out that 'these defects' will be transcended when 'the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly'. [22] The case for the immediate abolition of the law of value and its monetary expression is argued by the SPGB, which rejects the relevance of Marx's ideas about labour vouchers, [23] while the SLP (no longer active in Britain, but still existing in the USA) persists in advocating a form of 'socialism' without free access. It must be emphasised that the SLP's abuse of the concept of socialism is more serious than that of the Socialist League, for in the latter case it was at least proposed that labour vouchers would exist only in the brief transition period, while the SLP sees a need for such a rationing system within the period that Morris might have called 'complete socialism'.
Having criticised the SLP on one crucial point, it can still be said that it and other DeLeonists have made an outstanding contribution during the course of the century to propaganda in favour of the abolition of class monopoly and wage labour. Between 1903 and 1917, in addition to its very limited success in the creation of socialist trade unions, the SLP in Britain did valuable work in providing basic Marxist education for workers. After the Bolshevik coup d'état of 1917 one section of the SLP turned enthusiastically to Bolshevism (even though they were criticised by Lenin for taking Bolshevik propaganda at its face value [24]), while those who rejected the Bolshevik tactics maintained a dwindling party in Britain until quite recently. Today in the USA the DeLeonist movement has split in different directions, with journals like The Socialist Republic and The Industrial Unionist, as well as The People, published by the SLP, providing valuable analyses of the class struggle.

In June 1904 the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted an Object and Declaration of Principles which it has not since changed. In September of that year the first issue of the Socialist Standard was published and th Object and Declaration of principles have appeared in every monthly issue since then - not a single month's publication having ever been missed, despite the difficult circumstances of two world wars and frequent financial crises. Consistency has been the hallmark of the SPGB - a persistence of outlook which has infuriated, intrigued and won respect from those aware of it. The ideas of the Party have travelled: parties in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and Ireland, groups in Austria, Sweden and France, and active supporters as far apart as Jamaica, India and Hong Kong hold tight not only to the principles of the Party (which refers to itself internationally as the World Socialist Movement), but also to a certain political style which steers an unsteady course between uncompromising clarity and doctrinaire intolerance.

The Object shared by the SPGB and the other parties and groups of the World Socialist Movement does not tell us in much detail what they stand for:
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Nor do the eight principles offer great help in outlining the non-market socialist aim: in Clause 3 the points made in the Object are repeated in different words; Clause 4 makes it clear that socialist emancipation will be 'without distinction of race or sex' (an advanced proposition for 1904); and Clause 8 refers to 'comfort', 'equality' and 'freedom' as being benefits to be gained in socialism. The SPGB has traditionally shaed Marx's caution about devising utopian blueprints for socialism. None the less, much more has been said and written by SPGB-style impossibilists about socialism than is to be found in the Object and Principles. In his 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto, published in 1951, M. J. Panicker explains that:
Socialism is a universal system of society where there will be no buying and selling. Consequently all institutions which are now functioning only for the running of this buying and selling will disappear. Money, banks, insurance companies and several other institutions will disappear. All the resources of the world, the means and instruments of wealth production and social services necessary to the sustenance of mankind will be held in common by the whole people of the community as you and I breathe air or drink water. All the people will happily work and they will have free access to their needs. Each and everyone will determine his own needs. [25]
Panicker has spent years advocating these ideas in India. It is accepted by all SPGB-impossibilists that socialism will entail the immediate ending of the capital/wage-labour relationship:
there can be no wages system. Wages, of course, mean that somebody is working for somebody else - they imply rich and poor, two classes. To talk of wages under socialism is ridiculous. [26]
Similarly, it is seen as being ridiculous to speak of the existence of money in a society of common ownership. In 1943 two chemists by the name of Phillips and Renson (writing under the name of Philoren) wrote an excellent book introducing the idea of socialism (without using the term socialism) entitled Money Must Go; in it they argued that:
What I do propose is, that the whole system of money and exchange, buying and selling, profit-making and wage-earning should be entirely abolished and that instead, the community as a whole should organise and administer the production of goods for use only, and the free distribution of these goods to all the members of the community according to each person's needs. [27]
What about the state? Long before widespread nationalisation took place in Britain, the SPGB had pointed out 'how little difference there is from the workers' point of view between State capitalism and private capitalism, whether under a Conservative or a Labour government'. [28] According to the SPGB, socialism will be a stateless society:
The State, which is an organisation composed of soldiers, policemen, judges, and gaolers charged with enforcing the law, is only needed in class society, for in such societies there is no community of interest, only class conflict. The purpose of government is to maintain law and order in the interests of the dominant class. It is in fact an instrument of class oppression. In Socialism there will be no classes and no in-built class conflicts . . . . The phrase 'socialist government' is a contradiction in terms. Where there is Socialism there is no government and where there is government there is no Socialism. [29]
A distinction between government and democratic administration is made. The SPGB has tended to refrain from extensive speculation about the precise organisation of the stateless society, pointing out that such decisions must be made by those establishing socialism, in accordance, no doubt, with ideas and plans formulated in the course of the revolutionary process. Many different kinds of bodies might be used by the inhabitants of socialist society:
there is intrinsically nothing wrong with institutions where delegates assemble to parley (Parliaments, congresses, diets or even so-called soviets). What is wrong with them today is that such parliaments are controlled by the capitalist class. Remove class society and the assemblies will function in the interest of the whole people> [30]
Advocates of soviets or council communism will note that their insistence upon how socialism would have to be organised is not ruled out by the SPGB. The point emphasised is that those establishing socialism will be free to determine the nature of its administration. Of course, such a decision will not be based upon utopian fancy, but will have to accord with the historical circumstances existing at the time of the revolution:
The basis of industrial organisation and administration will start from the arrangements existing under Capitalism at the time of the transformation, and this will present no difficulties because the Socialist movement will already be thoroughly international, both in outlook and practical organisation. As far as the machinery of organisation and administration is concerned, it will be local, regional, national and international, evolvong out of existing forms. [31]
The quotations given demonstrate clearly that the essential features of non-market socialism are advocated unequivocally by the SPGB and those sharing its principles. One does not have to search long to find within such literature clear and simple statements of what socialism means. Indeed, one strength of impossibilist literature is its tendency to get to the point. Perhaps at the cost of being repetitive - and after eighty years that is forgivable - the SPGB remembers (usually at least) to address itself to the uninitiated who do not want to read about one hundred new positions before they have been told the facts of life. Poets write stirring poetry and philosophers polemicise well, but it takes a straight talker to deliver a plain and urgent message; even its enemies have never accused the SPGB of being other than straight talkers.

Two political terms which are important in explaining the SPGB position are Consciousness and Democracy. This is because of the particular emphasis placed by the impossibilists upon the inseparability of means and ends. If socialism is to be a society in which the conditions of life 'hitherto dominating humanity now pass under the dominion and control of humanity, which now the first time becomes the real conscious master of its own social organization', [32] then such a system is not to be created by minority imposition. The SPGB insists, therefore, that majority socialist consciousness is a prerequisite for socialism. The task of spreading socialist understanding and desire is not to be evaded, even though:
the faint-hearted may shy away, aghast at the prospect of trying to convince the world's workers of the need for Socialism. It may seem an enormous task but there is no choice in the matter. Socialism . . . depends upon the conscious support of its people. Unless people understand Socialism and want it, they will never establish it. [33]
This socialist consciousness requires workers to experience 'a process of complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.' [34] Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind - but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation. Two points can be made here about the SPGB and the recruitment of members - a subject about which there are more than a few myths. First, while it is true that the SPGB will not allow a person to join it until the applicant has convinced the branch applied to that she or he is a conscious socialist, this does not mean that the SPGB has set itself up as an intellectual elite into which only those well versed in Marxist scholarship may enter. The SPGB has good reason to ensure that only conscious socialists enter its ranks, for, once admitted, all members are equal and it would clearly not be in the interest of the Party to offer equality of power to those who are not able to demonstrate equality of basic socialist understanding. Second, the SPGB does not claim that socialist consciousness will come to dominate the working-class outlook simply, or even largely, as a result of the activity of socialists. As the Socialist Party of Australia puts it:
if we hoped to achieve Socialism ONLY by our propaganda, the outlook would indeed be bad. But it is capitalism itself, unable to solve crises, unemployment and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars, which is digging its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning very slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process. [35]
This contrasts with those who seek to substitute he party for the class or who see the party as a vanguard which must undertake alone the sectarian task of leading the witless masses forward into the next stage of history.

According to the SPGB, the revolution must be a democratic act. Political action must be taken by the conscious majority, without depending upon leadership:
it is upon the working class that the working class must rely for their emancipation. Valuable work may be done by individuals, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to individuals, either of the working class or of the capitalist class, that the toilers must look. The movement for freedom must be a working class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation for them. [36]
This brings us to the controversial question of how the independent, conscious, democratically organised working class will establish socialism. To say - as many superficial critics and vague advocates of the SPGB have - that the SPGB stands for 'socialism through parliament' or 'parliamentary socialism' is misleadingly incomplete. When Alex Anderson, the great orator of the SPGB's first years, was tackled by a syndicalist with the question, 'Does the SPGB really propose to establish socialism through the ballot box?', his reply was 'Yes, but more importantly we must win it through the brain box.' This linking of the conquest of state power with the concept of a consciously and democratically organised working-class majority, even if regarded as strategically incorrect, must be distinguished from the reformist parliamentarianism of those who, in the name of 'socialism', seek to enter parliament for other purposes than to express the majority mandate formally to abolish class rule. Engels rightly points out that the conquest of state power will be the final act of the working class; [37] the significance of such political action may be ignored by those within the 'anarchist tradition', but in the historical future it might be ignored at a tragic cost. Whatever may be thought of the SPGB's case for the working class, in the course of the socialist revolution, sending mandated delegates to parliament as well as organising industrially to keep production going, it is clearly those who insist that ballot boxes and parliaments can play no part in the establishment of socialism and assert that socialism can only be established via industrial organisation alone, who are being dogmatic and historically fetishised in their thinking about revolution.

The non-dogmatic impossibilist position on the relationship between parliament and the socialist revolution was best summed up by William Morris:
I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep 'Society' alive. [38]
In considering the strengths and weaknesses of the SPGB's impossibilism, one is forced to conclude that these characteristics are not politically separable: that which in one sense manifests itself as a strength appears from another angle as a weakness. Therefore, the temptation to list the 'good' and 'bad' points of impossibilism will be avoided and this chapter will conclude with general observations which are intended to assist the readers in deciding the strengths and weaknesses of impossibilism.

The first feature which distinguishes the SPGB from other non-market socialist traditions considered in other chapters is its endurance over eighty years in a single organisation. In short, we are not just examining an intellectual tradition, but can observe the tradition as being contained within an essentially unchanged political party for a far longer period than any other concept of non-market socialism has survived organisationally. Thousands of workers in Britain have at some time been members of the SPGB and today, with a membership of 600, the Party has quite tangible support from many more workers than that. If one turns to the Socialist Standard of 1904 one can read basically the same analysis of capitalism and statements about socialism as would be found in 1934 or 1984. There are some who would see such consistency as a strength and others who would regard such a record of unaltered social perception as a serious weakness. As an example of the former, the SPGB propagandist of the late 1970s, arguing against the reformism of the 'Right to Work' Campaign and pointing out that full employment cannot be created by governments and even if it could such a condition amounts to no more than the right to be exploited, is able to argue with even greater credibility when he or she can point to the Socialist Standard editorial of November 1904 in which precisely the same argument is presented. Having existed long enough to have seen the possibilists' 'somethings now' burst to life and vanish into disillusion more times than the reformists care to remember, the SPGB has served as an observation post, charting the failed short-cuts of reformist history and storing them up for reference when the next possibilist rushes into the capitalist slaughter-house loaded with promises for the cattle.

The record of accurate prediction and sound analysis for which the SPGB can claim credit is an impressive one. Before 1906, when the Labour Party was founded, the reformist nature of that political movement was predicted. In 1914, when 'socialists' across the world succumbed to the temptation of national chauvinism and supported the imperialist war, the SPGB stood out in unqualified opposition to the war, producing at the time probably the finest anti-war manifesto ever to be published in English. [39] In 1918, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized state power in Russia, the SPGB presented a Marxist analysis of the 'revolution' which foresaw its state capitalist outcome. [40] In the 1920s, the SPGB was virtually the only British contender for the theory of Marxism against its Leninist distorters within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In 1926, the SPGB predicted that syndicalism, or trade-union militancy without conscious political action, was doomed to failure. In 1939, another world capitalist war was exposed as being nothing like a 'war for democracy' and was opposed[41] and, subsequently, the bogus socialism of Labour government nationalisation and welfare reform policies was predicted and charted.[42] It has been, in one sense, an impressive record of predicting historical failures: national liberation, CND, environmentalism, charities - the SPGB warned them all that, even on their own terms, these possibilist movements would end up faced with frustration.

A record of being right about the futility of other people's hopes and energetic actions has led to the conclusion on the part of many reformists that the SPGB is somehow opposed to improvements within capitalism. It would not be unfair to state that this misconception has been accepted by a few SPGBers themselves. A. E. Jacomb, writing in the October 1905 Socialist Standard, explains well the position of the impossibilist worker:
I claim it as a fundamental truth that the object of every Socialist, as a Socialist, is the realisation of Socialism alone. As a husband, as a father, as a human animal, he has many other interests . . . but in his Socialist position none. As a man he may favour palliatives, the feeding and clothing and comforting of the destitute and suffering, but as a Socialist such matters are of interest only so far as they affect the attainment of his objective.
This distinction cannot be more than 'an abstract separation' (as Jacomb goes on to concede), but it is a necessary one for those less interested in short-term concessions than fundamental transformation. The SPGB states that it is opposed to reformism, but not to reforms.

The price of long-term persistence and validity of argument has had to be paid by the SPGB. Although many possibilists have a definite respect for the endurance and soundness of their impossibilists rivals, whom they would regard as being theoretically correct but practically unrealistic (an absurdly illogical conclusion), there are other possibilists who find few labels more contemptible than SPGB. This hostility was not unknown before the 1920s, when parties like the SDF and ILP devoted more words to attacking the SPGB than the Party's small size deserved. But it was in the 1920s, when the CPGB's Leninist mission began, that the organised attacks upon the SPGB commenced. By the 1930s, CPGB policy was to break up SPGB public meetings and CPGB members were actually instructed by their leaders not to speak to SPGBers lest they be tempted to believe the SPGB's 'propaganda' about the state capitalist tyranny of the Stalinist regime. When, in the 1940s, the West Ham branch of the SPGB invited the local CPGB to engage in a debate, they were told that 'The Communist Party has NO dealings with murderers, liars, renegades or assassins' who must be treated as 'vipers, to be destroyed'. [43] After the Second World War. CPGB union bureaucrats conducted a vicious campaign to oust from trade union positions SPGBers who had refused to do their 'patriotic duty' in the war. The legacy of anti-SPGB slander has been slow to die, and it is common to meet Leninists even today who will repeat their intellectual predecessors' resentful attacks upon the party that would not fall in line with Stalinism; such prejudice is all the more tragic/comic when it is considered that many of the anti-impossibilist young Leninists of today are Trotskyists who are repeating - now that it is fashionable to do so - many of the arguments against Stalinism which were put by the SPGB half a century ago.

One does not want to paint a picture of the SPGB as the offended innocent, treated with hostility without cause. It must be remembered that the SPGB's Principles commit it 'to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist'. [44] This it has done without compromise and, at times, without making the necessary distinction between hostility of principle and of style. The SPGB has made clear that it is opposed to those so-called socialists, communist, Marxists and radicals who would appear to be its allies, and in so doing it has gained a reputation - largely, but not wholly undeserved - for a certain sectarianism. This latter characteristic has been stronger at different times in the Party's history, depending largely upon the outlooks of the most active organisers and propagandists in a particular period.

Another problem arising from the SPGB's longevity is that of credibility. After more than three-quarters of a century, a party calling upon the working class 'to muster under its banner to the ned that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system' [45] is open to the accusation that, as the workers have not yet mustered and the termination has thus far been less than speedy, there must be something wrong with its policy. Of course, the reasonable historical answer to this is that lack of numerical support does not disprove the validity of a proposition. But, as the years have passed, cynics and empiricists have been able to contemplate with complacency the negative historical confirmation of their lack of hope for the SPGB's success.

The second concluding observation to be made about impossibilism, which can be seen either as a strength or a weakness, depending upon one's perspective, is that it has held tight to the basic tenets of Marxist theory. Indeed, two comments are made frequently about the SPGB: first, that if nothing else it possesses a fine knowledge of Marxism and plays a major role in spreading such knowledge; second, that the SPGB represents an orthodox, purist version of Marxism which has remained remarkably close to that which was revolutionary in the thinking of the theory's founders. The study of Marx's writings was frowned upon in Hyndman's SDF - the ex-Etonian demagogue thought that SDF members would do better to study his books - and it was partly as a result of organising unauthorised Marxist economics classes that the young Jack Fitzgerald was hounded out of the SDF. From its inception the SPGB placed great emphasis upon the study and propagation of political economy. Indeed, it is the political link between the Marxist theory of value and profit and the revolutionary implication that class exploitation can only be ended by the abolition of wage labour which provided the most forceful theoretical justification of the SPGB's aim. SPGB propagandists, especially in the early years , placed great emphasis upon the concept of legalised robbery: the robber class and the robbed. Possibilists were forced to defend their palliative policies in terms of adjusting the operation of class robbers. In recent years, since many 'Marxists' have rejected economic determinism ( a dogma which Marx and Engels were at pains to dismiss), it has become fashionable for 'Marxist humanists' to understate the significance of Marxist political economy. The SPGB has not followed this trend; it is still expected that official SPGB speakers should have a comprehensive knowledge of Marxist economic theory before they take the platform on behalf of the Party.

Whilst the SPGB has not failed to make clear those matters upon which it disagrees with Marx, some of which are far from peripheral, [46] its presentation of its ideas as Marxist has led to many difficulties. These are mainly difficulties faced by any Marxist in the twentieth century who does not want to be associated with the opportunists and tyrants who claim to be following in the Marxist tradition. The extent to which modern Marxists can rescue themselves from such awkward intellectual associations depends to a great extent upon whether Leninism can be regarded as part of, or in opposition to, the essential principles of Marxism. The impossibilists have devoted much energy to demonstrating the extent to which Marxism and Leninism are opposed to each other. [47] If such an interpretation is accepted, then the state ideologies of the modern 'communist' police states can be seen as Leninist, but not Marxist.

Like any theory, Marxism is open to dogmatic abuse, and, although impossibilist writers and speakers have tended generally to treat Marxist theory with a proper degree of critical reasoning, examples of Marxist dogmatism are certainly to be found sprinkled throughout the recorded history of impossibilist propaganda. But, despite the very real dangers of theoretical dogmatism, a distinction must be observed between the intellectual conviction which is a product of a theoretically defensible Marxist positivism, and the religious adjustment of social perception to fit in which dogma which is the product of a mind which has descended from reason to belief.

The third noteworthy point about the impossibilists - which is not unrelated to the origin of the SPGB within the English autodidactic tradition - is their tendency to argue in accordance with the strict standards of formal logic and empirical proof. Although such an admission would be regarded by certain European 'Marxists' as a confession of philosophical deficiency, impossibilists have always been suspicious of philosophical formulae and have never been impressed by the dialectical gymnastics of the fluid logicians, whose sophistication of thought is usually regarded as a refined front for evasion and confusion. [48] The impossibilists have always preferred clear-cut definitions, quotations, statistics, and logically comprehensible deductions to the methodological abstractions against which E.P. Thompson has written persuasively. [49]

Of course, it may be commented by critics that the price of impossibilist simplicity has been over-simplification. Faced with the choice between abstruse detail and simplification which may lack theoretical refinement, the impossibilists have erred in the right direction by opting in general for comprehensibility, even if it is occasionally at the expense of sophistication.

This concern for comprehensible propagandism is at the very root of the impossibilists' conception of their revolutionary mission. Always identifying their role within an activist, rather than contemplative, context, the impossibilists have seen their purpose, in the words of William Morris, as being 'to make socialists'. And when all the grandness of revolutionary rhetoric is brushed aside, it is, at the end of the day, the worker putting the case for the abolition of wage labour to her mates during the lunch break, the man on the soapbox who is cultivating new social visions in the imaginations of his listeners, the man who is known in his local pub as the fellow who is always talking about a world without money - it is these who are doing the real work of giving their fellow workers a taste of the impossible. When the taste turns into a hunger it will be time for those who need socialism to show, in ways which will ultimately be determined by them, that they posses the 'courage and strength to realise the impossible. [50]


[1] Prolétaire 19 November 1881 (emphasis in the original).
[2] Aaron Noland, The Founding of the French Socialist Party, 1893-1905 (New York: Fertig, 1970) p. 13. I would not regard Guesde, Lafargue and the other French 'impossibilists' as impossibilists in the sense in which the term is used in this chapter.
[3] Rochdale Labour News, October 1896.
[4] Stephen Coleman, 'The Origin and Meaning of the Political Theory of Impossibilism', unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1984). See also Chushichi Tsuzuki, 'The Impossibilist Revolt in Britain', International Review of Social History, 1 (1956). Tsuzuki's article, whilst being very acceptable as a work of narrative scholarship, places less emphasis upon the intellectual conflict between possibilism and impossibilism than does my own study.
[5] T.A Jackson, Solo Trumpet (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1953) p.66.
[6] Circular statement issued by impossibilists within the SDF in May 1904. I possess a copy of this document.
[7] Socialist Standard, September 1907.
[8] See 'Who Are the Impossibilists?', Socialist Standard, November 1912.
[9] Coleman, 1984, ch. 6. See also Stephen Coleman, 'What Can We Learn From William Morris?', Journal of the William Morris Society, VI (summer 1985) pp. 12-15.
[10] H. M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (London: Macmillan, 1912) p. 2.
[11] 'Art and Socialism', in Collected Works of William Morris, vol. XXIII (London: Longman, 1910-15) p. 208.
[12] Manifesto of the Socialist League, reproduced in E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977) appendix 1. Also reproduced in Socialist Standard, July 1985.
[13] True and False Society (Socialist League, 1888) pp. 16-17.
[14] 'The Society of the Future', in A. L. Morton, Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973) p. 201.
[15] William Morris, News From Nowhere (London: Routledge, 1970) p. 31.
[16] Ibid, p. 78 (emphasis in the original).
[17] Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge, 1936) pp. 176-7 (emphasis in the original).
[18] See Morris's and E. Belfort Bax's Notes on the Manifesto of the Socialist League, in Thompson, 1977, p. 738.
[19] See Adam Buick, 'William Morris and Incomplete Communism: a Critique of Paul Meier's Thesis', Journal of the William Morris Society III (summer 1976) pp. 16-32.
[20] See his Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. III (Moscow: Progress, 1970) pp. 9-30; and proposed policies listed at the end of the second section of The Communist Manifesto, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. VI (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976) p. 505.
[21] Socialism: Questions Most Frequently Asked and Their Answers (New York: Socialist Labor Party, 1975) p. 20.
[22] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. III, p. 19.
[23] See the articles by A. Buick and P. Lawrence in The World Socialist, 2 (autumn 1984).
[24] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. XXXI (Moscow: Progress, 1966) pp. 77ff.
[25] M. J. Panicker, 20th Century World Socialist or Communist Manifesto (London: Panicker, 1951) p. 66.
[26] Socialism or Chaos (Melbourne/Sydney: Socialist Party of Australia, no date) p. 19
[27] Philoren, Money Must Go (London: J. Phillips, 1943) p. 16.
[28] Socialist Standard, April 1930. See also Nationalisation or Socialism? (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1945).
[29] Questions of the Day (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1978) pp. 97-98.
[30] Socialist Principles Explained (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) p. 15.
[31] Socialist Standard, February 1939.
[32] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Peking: Foreign Language press, 1976) p. 366.
[33] The Case For Socialism (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1962) p. 42.
[34] Socialist Standard, September 1980.
[35] Socialism or Chaos, p. 35.
[36] The Socialist Party - Its Principles and Policy (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1934) pp. 22-3.
[37] Engles, Anti-Dühring p. 362
[38] Letter to Dr J. Glasse, 23 May 1887, in R. Page Arnot, William Morris: the Man and the Myth (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964) p. 82.
[39] Reprinted in The Socialist Party and War (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1970) pp. 60-2.
[40] See Socialist Standard, August 1918. For detailed analysis of the SPGB's response to the Bolshevik coup, see Coleman, 1984, ch. 5.
[41] The SPGB's statement on the Second World War is reprinted in The Socialist Party and War, pp. 62-4.
[42] See Beveridge Re-Organises Poverty (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943), and Family Allowances: a Socialist Analysis (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1943).
[43] Socialist Standard, May 1943.
[44] Declaration of Principles, clause 8.
[45] Ibid, clause 8.
[46] For example, the SPGB does not endorse Marx's ideas regarding struggles for national liberation, minimum reform programmes, labour vouchers, the lower stage of communism. On some of these points, the SPGB does not reject what Marx advocated in his own time, but rejects their applicability to revolutionaries now; on the other points, the SPGB approaches social problems from a different angle from adopted by Marx. There are, of course, other issues (not listed above) upon which the SPGB might appear to be at variance with Marx, but is in fact only disputing distortions of Marx's thinking.
[47] See Lenin Distorts Marx (Victoria: Socialist Party of Canada, 1979).
[48] See The Socialist Party of Great Britain and Historical Materialism (London: Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1975) ch. 7 on 'Dialectical Materialism', pp. 39-48.
[49] E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory London: Merlin, 1978). See title essay.
[50] A quotation from the anabaptist Thomas Müntzer in Mannheim, 1936, p. 192.
Many of the Socialist Party of the Great Britain pamphlets and Socialist Standard
articles that are cited in the article can be found at the following link.
The following chapters from Rubel and Crump's book can be found on the internet:

  • Anarcho-Communism by Alain Pengam (this version of the article does not include the end notes that appeared in Rubel and Crump's book).
  • Council Communism by Mark Shipway
  • Bordigism by Adam Buick
  • Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (114)

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 114th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1525 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Oil or democracy, what do you think?
  • Against all war, economic and military
  • Overlords and underlings
  • Quote for the week:

    "Enable every woman who can work to take her place on the labour front, under the principle of equal pay for equal work." Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976)

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Japan : the road to Pearl Harbor (2009)

    From the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    No-one can even pretend that the second world war in the East was other than a naked clash between imperialist powers over markets and raw materials.
    The Second World War started for Japan in 1937, with its attack on China, four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The roots of the Pacific side of the conflict, however, went back a century. The seeds of conflict were sown in the unfair treaties enforced by Western powers in the Pacific, nurtured in their maintenance, and the racist exclusion of Eastern nations from equal recognition; and brought to fruit with trade restrictions and the struggle for US-UK naval supremacy.

    While Japan had reformed economically under the Tokugawa Shogunate, in the 16th century, its closure to the outside world meant an almost complete lack of an accompanying industrial revolution. This ended in principle with the arrival of Perry in 1853 and his warships, returning a year later to sign an unequal trade agreement at cannon-point. Further unequal agreements with European powers followed. Japan was not the only victim. The pattern began with the British triumph in the First Opium War, leading to the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 (also signed under the threat of British naval bombardment of the city). This was probably what Marx was thinking about when he referred to capitalist trade being the cannons that knocked down Chinese walls. The Chinese were forced to drop tariffs and open ports to trade, without any reciprocation by Britain. The Japanese experience was similar (incidentally, the Japanese learned quickly; they imposed similar unfair agreements on Korea even before Western powers got round to it, in 1876).

    Strong Army
    This last, Korean example, is probably the key to later developments. The Japanese rulers, or at least the modernising, trade faction, realised that in a world of naked aggression enforcing unequal trade agreements, on a model well-rehearsed by Western powers, they needed to copy the West, build up a strong economy and a strong military, and muscle in on the racket. All of the unequal agreements had been based on humiliating military defeats or demonstrations of raw military technological power. The expression of this was the Meiji Restoration of 1868 : the modernisers promoted their own emperor candidate, and under the slogan "Rich Country, Strong Army" set out to construct a modern Japanese state. The extent of the new, post-treaty Japan was established in 1876 when Japan conceded Sakhalin to Russia, retaining the Kurile Islands. Japan's imperative now was simple: in a country with no mineral resources of note, to build a state of sufficient economic strength and military power to become the ruler of the Western Pacific, cast off the treaties of the West, and impose its own.

    The politics of the Meiji Restoration reflected this integral militarism. The Constitution promulgated in 1890 created an extremely strong executive, following the Prussian model, and allowed only an extremely limited franchise (about 5 percent of males, no females) based on a property qualification. In principle, the emperor had unlimited power; this was qualified by the tradition that, in practice, the emperor would not act so imperially. The military answered to the emperor alone, not to the Cabinet. This meant that the military held a constant veto over the cabinet: since only a full cabinet could rule, and the Navy or Army minister had to be from them, either the Navy or the Army could withdraw their minister and bring down the government. This was not a problem at first, but helps explain the later military dominance of the government.

    The first objective was control of Korea, in a conflict referred to as the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5 : Korea, described as a 'dagger pointing at the heart of Japan', was the subject of pressure from China, but Japan struck first. A quick victory ensued, further weakening the Chinese Qing dynasty: Japan gained Taiwan, other territory, and a large indemnity that was ploughed straight back into industrial development. This was followed by assisting Western powers in the suppression of the Boxer uprising (probably the last straw that led to the fall of the Qing in 1911 and to the new Chinese government of Sun Yatsen). There followed the first match against a Western power, the Russians, in 1904-5: seizure of Port Arthur, the humiliation of the Russian fleet in the straits of Tsushima, and control (later annexation) of Korea and part of Manchuria, saw Japan's re-evaluation by Western powers. By taking back half of Sakhalin, in the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan also tore up one more of the 'unequal agreements', and established de facto dominance in the area, frustrating Russian ambitions and limiting them to Vladivostok, a port which froze in winter and thus insufficient for their Pacific needs. This was also a show of strength against the Western powers who had overruled Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese war just a decade previously, forcing them to hand Port Arthur to Russia which Japan had originally wanted for herself.

    Post-war carve-up
    Anglo-Japanese alliance, signed in 1902, led to Japan's entry on the 'Allied' side in WW1, gaining easy pickings from indefensible German territories both in China and island chains across the Pacific. At Australian and New Zealander insistence, even this early, Japan was limited in acquisitions by latitude and territories in reach of these Australasians which went to the US (which of course had not been idle in the Pacific: having annexed Hawaii in 1898, its war against Spain in 1898-99 yielded almost all of Spain's possessions including the Philippines and Guam). German New Guinea (itself gained out of the disintegration of the Spanish empire in 1899) thus was split into the Marshalls, Carolines, and Marianas for Japan, Samoa for the US, and the Territory of New Guinea formed after WW1 to encompass all the territory that the Australians wanted to control. (The usual 'mandate' agreement').

    Thus the battle lines were drawn for World War 2.

    The problem was Japan had largely acquired barren lumps of rock. The rich territories of New Guinea were denied them. While some of these lumps of rock were useful (Iwo Jima, for example, does mean 'Sulphur island') and the island chains were rich in fish, by and large Japan had acquired an expensive police operation, while being short of the new naval fuel, oil, required to patrol them and trade between them.

    While the US occupied Vladivostok in their attack against the Bolsheviks, the Japanese took the opportunity to occupy every city in the Russian maritime region (the US had asked them to send 7000 troops : the Japanese obligingly sent 70,000). Following the execution of Kolchak and thus the stabilisation of the Bolshevik regime, the US pulled out in 1920, but the Japanese continued their occupation until – note this – being forced to leave in 1922 due to pressure from the US and the British. Anti-Bolshevik policies count for nothing when Realpolitik demands the curbing of an erstwhile ally's power.

    The early interwar years were characterised by the disastrous Kanto earthquake (Kanto being the area around Tokyo), which killed 100,000, injured half a million and led to widespread rioting. Much of the damage was due to fires following the quake: the Japanese secret police helped fuel rumours of foreign agents and communist malcontents setting fires, resulting in a double win: the deflection of rioting from the government, and the opportunity to round up political opponents, especially anarchists and Bolsheviks. The cost of rebuilding was only the first economic insult. The Japanese suffered from several economic shocks even before the Great Depression, and their progressive exclusion from the world economy. The vast migration of poor peasant workers to the city, first generation proletarians, caused labour unrest and discontent amongst those who remained on the fields. This rural backlash against the cities, combined with a romanticism of past Samurai history, cemented a firm base for nationalism and militarism outside of the cities – a similar pattern of rural support for nationalism/militarism also pertained in German support for Nazism. Politically, crises consistently led to increasing military control over the government.

    Japanese trade was based on the import of raw materials, plus an agricultural sector devoted to silk production, and their working up to produce cheap textiles for the international market. These funds were used to buy what Japan lacked for her heavy industry and military production : coal, oil, scrap steel, and chemicals for munitions and plastics. In short, Japanese expansion was based on women's underwear. The silk trade was devastated by the development of rayon and nylon for stockings; attempts to diversify were more or less unsuccessful. During the Depression, also, the world divided firmly into trade blocs: the Sterling area, the Gold Standard, the Yen Bloc, the Soviets, and the direct transfers that characterised gold-poor Germany. All of these erected strong tariff barriers and strict quotas on goods that they sold themselves: for example, the Sterling Bloc (Imperial Preference) allowed only trivial sales of Japanese textiles due to their own excess production that they expected their colonies to absorb. One of the main reasons for Japanese attacks on China, culminating in the second Sino-Japanese war of 1937, was expanding the Yen bloc and finding markets for their products. The US, insisting on their 'Open Door' policy (basically the legacy of the 'unequal agreements' of the 19th century), imposed progressive sanctions against Japan, culminating in the freezing of Japan's dollar accounts (the most important factor) and the oil embargo. Britain, on the other hand, recognising its weak position vis-à-vis the Japanese, and unable to maintain sufficient fleet assets in the North Sea, Mediterranean, and Singapore simultaneously, was extremely reluctant to antagonise the Japanese, yet forced to stay in step with the US for fear of alienating them in the European struggle. The Dutch were also bullied into trade, but in dollars, and with strict quotas imposed by the US and UK (the UK needed these resources for war; the US wanted to apply pressure).

    Military adventures
    Japanese military adventure overseas was driven by the army, not the cabinet. The method was the long-held Japanese tradition of 'Gekokujo' or principled insubordination by junior officers, Civil government was thrown into chaos as the army invaded Manchuria in 1931 (an easy victory, followed by problematic pacification campaigns; the Korean resistance movement included Kim Jong-Il as early as 1935, when these forces were absorbed into the Communist forces). In 1937 Japan attacked China, forcing the Nationalists and Communists into an uneasy alliance: and in 1939 the Japanese lost a test of strength against the Russians at Khalkin Gol (though the armistice, on essentially the same border, lasted till 1945). In 1940-41 Japan moved to occupy first part, then all of French IndoChina, following the fall of Franc, This gave them bases in range of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

    And so we have the recipe for Pacific war. A country with a strong military, an extremely militaristic government and regimented society, and no resources to speak of, bankrupted both by the slings and arrows of outrageous depression economics and the deliberate screw of US policy in China, bogged down in a China whose defence was being funded and stiffened by US funded war materiel passing through UK and French territory, set out to gain by force what was denied them by the rules of peace. Oil in Borneo and Brunei, rubber and tin in Malaya, and above all the ability to pay for what was conquered with yen rather than now non-existent dollars. All this was well known to the allies. The UK in particular had made its plans to defend against the predicted assault, while desperately trying to forestall it. In short, the Japanese attack was one of the least surprising surprise attacks in history. The US simply underestimated their ability to strike at a distance.
    The rest, as they say, is history.
    Boris Black

    Pieces Together: One To Miss (2009)

    From the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    "His birth was marked by a double rainbow and a new star, he hit 11 holes-in-one in his first game of golf, finishing 38 under par, and throughout his life he has performed heroic feats impossible for mere mortals. When he shouts, ‘huge storms happen’. The life of North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, has long been extravagantly window-dressed by the state's diligent chroniclers, but now it is about to get the full regal treatment with a new movie chronicling his exploits from childhood to living legend. North Korea's state media said this week that the first part of a multi-series documentary about Mr Kim's birth, childhood and early achievements, when he developed ‘military ideas and theories and tactics of [his father] President Kim Il-sung’, has already been produced. Although other propaganda movies extol Mr Kim's boundless virtues – one records that he came down from the heavens accompanied by a huge snowstorm – this will be the first to "comprehensively deal ... with his revolutionary exploits", said the Korean Central News Agency." (Independent, 17 July)

    "The Christian right is making a fresh push to force religion onto the school curriculum in Texas with the state's education board about to consider recommendations that children be taught that there would be no United States if it had not been for God. Members of a panel of experts appointed by the board to revise the state's history curriculum, who include a Christian fundamentalist preacher who says he is fighting a war for America's moral soul, want lessons to emphasise the part played by Christianity in the founding of the US and that religion is a civic virtue. ... One of the panel, David Barton, founder of a Christian heritage group called WallBuilders, argues that the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind including that ‘there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature’, that ‘there is a creator’ and ‘government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual’....Another of the experts is Reverend Peter Marshall, who heads his own Christian ministry and preaches that Hurricane Katrina and defeat in the Vietnam war were God's punishment for sexual promiscuity and tolerance of homosexuals." (Guardian, 22 July)

    "The Dalai Lama may not be the first person who comes to mind for business advice but, as the Buddhist monk wrote in his new book, capitalism can profit from Buddhism's principles and values. In The Leader's Way, published this month by Broadway Books, the spiritual leader of Tibet wrote that both business and Buddhism attach importance to happiness and making the right decisions, and a company without ‘happy employees, customers and shareholders will ultimately fail.’ Citing Buddhist basics such as good intentions, a calm mind free of negative thoughts and a realization that nothing is permanent, the Dalai Lama and co-author Laurens van den Muyzenberg tackle timely issues such as corporate compensation, malfeasance and the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. … ‘When I started this project, I was not sure that companies could act in such a way that they could deserve a thoroughly good reputation. Now I am convinced that they can,’ the Dalai Lama wrote. Profit, for example, is ‘a fine aim,’ but not the main role of business, which is ‘to make a contribution to the well-being of society at large,’ he wrote." (Yahoo News, 28 July)

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Leo Tolstoy: author and anarchist (1987)

    From the May 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Leo Tolstoy is famous not only for his novels but for his moral and political beliefs which have inspired, and continue to inspire, both anarchists and pacifists.

    He was born on 9th September, 1828 into a family of rural aristocrats at their estate at Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula in Russia. His mother, a princess, died when he was barely eighteen months old and his father, a count, died when he was nine. A distant relative, Tatyana Yergolskava, brought up Tolstoy, his sister Maria and his three brothers.

    From 1844 to 1847 Tolstoy studied oriental languages and law at the university of Kazan but failed to take a degree. He returned to his estate, his health in decline because of dissipation, where he stayed until 1851 when he went to live with a brother in the Caucasus who persuaded him to join the army.

    In 1852 Tolstoy's first story, Childhood, met with considerable success and was followed by Boyhood in 1854 and Youth in 1857. His account of the fighting at Sebastopol made him a national celebrity and on the orders of the Czar he was sent back from the front to St Petersburg where his literary fame enabled him to meet the most distinguished writers and poets of that period.

    From 1857 to 1861 Tolstoy traveled abroad, visiting Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and England. During his travels he met the anarchist Proudhon, the author Auerbach (known for his stories of peasant life) and the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen.

    His return home in February 1861 saw the emancipation of the serfs and, encouraged by the reforms of the times, he attempted to carry out educational experiments on his estate which ended in failure after two years.

    On September 23rd in 1862 Tolstoy married Sophia Andreyevna Behrs and for nearly twenty years he lived a settled life on his estate, raising thirteen children and writing some of his best known novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

    During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, until the end of his life, Tolstoy became preoccupied with moral and ethical questions and much of his later works such as My Confession (1879); The Gospel in Brief (1880); What I Believe (1884) What Shall We Do Then? (1885); On Life (1887); The Kingdom of God is Within You (1889); What is Religion? (1902) increasingly concentrated on putting across his idiosyncratic theological views.

    His last long novel, Resurrection (1899), written on behalf of the religious sect, the Doukhobres, was instrumental in ending their persecution and gaining permission for them to emigrate to Canada, but its hostile and outspoken criticisms of Church and State led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. But even during this period of his Iife when Tolstoy the propagandist had largely taken over from Tolstoy the novelist, he was still able to produce such masterpieces as The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886); The Power of Darkness (1886); Master and Man (1895); Father Sergius (1898); Nedji Murat (1904); The False Coupon (1905.

    Finally, on 28th October 1910, in a dramatic flight from his home, Tolstoy went to the convent of Shamardino near Kaluga, where his sister Maria was a nun. He then traveled towards Novo-Cherkask but developed pneumonia and died at Ostapovo railway station on 7th November, 1910.

    Toistoy's political and ethical views developed partly as a result of his experiences in the Crimean war, his later pacifism resulting from his participation in the siege of Sebastopol. But it was the witnessing of a public execution in Paris in 1857 that led to his opposition to organised state rule. Woodcock states:
    "The cold, inhuman efficiency of the operation aroused in him a horror far greater than any scenes of war had done, and the guillotine became for him a frightful symbol of the state that used it. From that day he began to speak politically - or anti-politically - in the voice of an anarchist." (Woodcock, G. 'Anarchism' 1963, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.)
    Tolstoy was influenced by the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his ideal of the free peasant life; on a trip to Western Europe he made a detour to visit him in Brussels. They talked mainly about education, a subject which had interested Tolstoy from an assiduous reading of his childhood hero, Rousseau. He was also impressed by Proudhon's book 'La Guerre et la Paix' which was nearing completion, the title of which he was to borrow for his longest and best known novel.

    The years of Tolstoy's youth coincided with the economic and political changes arising from the ending of serfdom and the development of capitalism in Russia, which threatened to change the way of life for the landed gentry who found themselves dependent on hired labour in competition with industry.

    Besides the economic threat to the landed gentry Tolstoy saw encroaching industrialisation as a threat to the simple life, close to nature, which he loved and which is described in The Cossacks, written in 1852 but not published until ten years later:
    "Oleninm had entered into the life of the Cossack village so fully that his past seemed quite foreign to him. As to the future, especially a future outside the world in which he was now living, it did not interest him at all. When he received letters from home, from re1atives and friends, he was offended by the evident distress with which they regarded him as a lost man, while he in his village considered those as did not live as he was living."
    But even though the simple life is eulogised in 'The Cossacks', Tolstoy's natural exuberence breaks through the narrative:
    "It's all nonsense what I have been thinking about - love and self-sacrifice and Lukaska. Happiness is the one thing. He who is happy is right", flashed through Olenin's mind, and with a strength unexpected to himself he seized and kissed. tbe beautiful Maryanka on her ternple and her cheek."
    These two opposing tendencies were to plague Tolstoy for the greater part of his adult life. On he one hand was the sensualist; the lover of life; the dissipated youth who failed to obtain a degree at university; the father of thirteen children, with a strong sexual appetite. On other hand was the brooding moralist; the relentless critic of organised religion; the puritanical advocate of celibacy; the anarchist, castigating the rule of law, privilege and power.

    Tolstoy put his own moral doubts into his characters in 'Anna Karenina' which was completed in 1877. The country-loving, goodhearted Levin, after a Titanic struggle to find meaning and purpose to life, eventually finds happiness and contentment with Kitty, whilst the lovers Anna Karenina and Vronsky are crushed by their adulterous relationship, which ends in despair and disaster with Anna's suicide.

    In 'Anna Karenina' Tolstoy put political opinions into the mouths of his characters in addition to his moral views, in the character of Levin:
    "You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition. All the profits on their labour, by which they might better their condition, give themselves some leisure, and consequently gain some education, all this surplus value is taken away by the capitalists. And our society has so shaped itself that the more the people work the richer the merchants and landowners will become, while the people will remain beasts of burden for ever. And this system must be changed."
    His views on education are also voiced by Levin:
    "Schools are no remedy, but the remedy would be an economic organisation under which the people would be better off and have more leisure. Then schools would come."
    But although 'Anna Karenina', 'The Cossacks' and also 'War and Peace' portray Toistoy's love of the countryside. a life' close to nature, his distrust of industrialisation and an occasional attack on capitalism they are not anarchist novels or propagandist novels in the same way that most of his later books were.

    In 'What Shall We Do Then?' published in 1885, he attacked money:

    "Money is the new form of slavery, distinguished from the old solely by its impersonality, by the lack of any human relation between the master and the slave.
    ..the essence of all slavery consists in drawing the benefit of another's labour force by compulsion, and it is founded upon property in the slave or upon property in money which is indispensable to the other man."
    In his last long novel Tolstoy enlarged upon moral attacks under capitalism:
    "People usually imagine a theief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, knowing their occupation to be evil, must be ashamed of it. But the very opposite is true. Men who have been placed by fate and their own sins in a certain position, however irregular that position may be, adopt a view of life as a whole which makes their position appear to them good and respectable. In order to back up their view of life they instinctively mix only with those who accept their ideas of life and their place in it. This surprises us when it is a case of thieves bragging of their skill, prostitutes flaunting their depravity or murderers boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because their numbers are limited and - this is the point - we live in a different atmosphere. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e. of robbery; when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories, i.e. on murder; and when those in high places vaunt their power - their brute force? We do not see that their ideas of life and of good and evil are corrupt and inspired by a necessity to justify their position, only because the circle of people with such corrupt ideas is a larger one and we belong to it ourselves."
    In 'The Kingdom of God is Within You' Tolstoy's anarchist ideas and his opposition to organised religion is clearly stated:

    "Christianity in its true significance abolishes the state, annililates all governments.
    Revolutionary enemies fight the government from outside; Christianity does not fight at all, but wrecks its foundation from within."
    He attacked power in the same book:

    "All men find themselves in power assert that their power is necessary in order that the wicked may not do violence to the good, and regard it as self-evident that they are the good and are giving the rest of the good protection against the bad. But in reality those who grasp and hold the power cannot possibly do the better.
    In order to obtain and retain power, one must love it. But the effort after power is not apt to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities, pride, craft and cruelty. Without exalting self and abasing others, without hypocrisy, lying, prisons, fortresses, penalties, killing, no power can arise or hold its own."
    In response to the inequalities of wealth and the injustices of the capitalist system Tolstoy proposed that the remedy should be:
    "If you are a landlord, to give your land at once to the poor, and, if you are a capitalist, to give your money and your factory to the working-man; if you are a prince, a cabinet minister, an official, a judge or a general, you ought at once to resign your position, and, if you are a soldier, you ought to refuse obedience without regard to any danger." ('The Kingdom of God is Within You')
    Three years earlier, in 1890, Tolstoy had tried to put his principles into practice by renouncing his property, although he continued to live in comfort on his estate, the management of which passed to his wife. In the following year he gave up the posthumous rights on his books written after 1881.

    To the end of his life Tolstoy continued to propagate his views regardless of his personal safety, for it must be remembered that the Czarist government frequently imprisoned political opponents without trial for periods of twenty years more. The reason why Tolstoy remained unscathed is unclear but it is possible that the police did not wish to make a martyr of a writer of such international fame. Whatever the reason, Tolstoy took advantage of the situation to attack the government at every opportunity.

    In 'Christianity and Patriotism'(1894) he stated:
    "Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable mneaning is nothing but an instrument for the attainment of the government's ambitious and mercenary, aims, and a renunciation of. human dignity. common sense. and conscience by!the governed, and a slavish submission to those who hold-power, That is what is really preached wherever patriotism is championed. Patriotism is slavery."
    And in his 'Address to the Swedish Peace Congress' in 1909 when he was turned eighty, he was still able (despite the emotional turmoil of his domestic life) to write eloquently in support of his views:
    "...the military profession and calling, not withstanding all the efforts to hide its real meaning, is as shameful a business as an executioner's and even more so. For the executioner only holds himself in readiness to kill those who have been adjudged harmful and criminal, while a soldier promises to kill all whom he is told to kill, even though they be dearest to him or the best of men."
    Tolstoy's influence is difficult to sum up: he advocated giving up one's personal wealth to help the poor in spite of having realised that it is the exploitation of workers' labour power which is the cause of poverty; he was a pacifist, but in practising non-violence his supporters were slaughtered and imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in the years following the Russian revolution; he wrote of "Christian love" but had a chauvinistic attitude to women and advocated celibacy which would lead to the extinction of the human race instead of its advancement; his simple, rural existence may be to the taste of some people but it avoids the problems of capitalism instead of solving them.

    The most enduring Tolstoyan community has been the Catholic Worker group which was established in the USA in the 1930s. And in Britain the Christian anarchists who held meetings at St. Paul's Church, Bow, in East London in 1967 all belonged to established churches. And though this may seem surprising in view of Tolstoy's hostility towards organised religion, his own rationalist religious beliefs were so individualistic that they have been accepted less readily than his other teachings.

    Socialists wish to end capitalism, only it will not be done by individuals withdrawing from society, but by the mass of workers understanding, wanting, and working for socialism.

    Socialists reject religious beliefs because they postpone the struggle to achieve a better life in the hope of finding rewards in a mythical after-life. Such practices stop workers from questioning their exploitation, hence their enthusiastic endorsement by the state.

    The literary gifts of Tolstoy have assured him of a place in history. His work is rightfully admired by all who appreciate good literature, and will continue to do so for generations to come. But Tolstoy, the pamphleteer. is rapidly being forgotten and already many of his religious and political tracts are unobtainable.

    Towards the end of his life Tolstoy said to Gorky:
    "I write a lot and that's not right because I do it from senile vanity, from the desire to make everyone think as I do."
    Perhaps that is why his pamphlets are being forgotten, because the imperious aristocrat in Tolstoy's personality dominated how he would have wished to be, and people do not like being bullied.

    Nearly·eighty years after his death we can admire the moral courage of Tolstoy and his literary genius, and continue to do so long after Tolstoy the prophet has been forgotten.
    Carl Pinel

    Hunting in the morning (2009)

    The Cooking the Books column from the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    It was a good idea. To take Marx's passing comment in the German Ideology that in a communist society (socialism) he could "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic" and put it to the test. The trouble was that this was done by a free newspaper, handed out at London tube stations, aimed at twenty-somethings whose usual interest is the goings-on of celebrities.
    According to Andy Jones who carried out the test:
    "A mantra drawn from the teaching in Marx's 1867 book Das Kapital (but sexed up for the modern reader) tells how he predicted the working classes would increasingly buy expensive goods and houses until their debt became unbearable. And when all this went belly-up, the State would have to turn to communism as a way out. In the ensuing communist Utopia, Marx reckoned the average working man should be able to go fishing in the morning, work in a factory in the afternoon and read Plato in the evening". (The London Paper, 17 April)
    Actually, this wasn't Marx's exact suggestion but it could have been and Jones seems to have enjoyed himself engaging in his three activities in a single day.

    But where on Earth did he get his version of what Marx is supposed to have taught? Certainly not from Marx himself as it bears no resemblance to anything he wrote. What Marx actually wrote in Capital about how he thought the end of capitalism would eventually come was:
    "Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Volume I, chapter 32).
    Nothing here about workers getting more and more into debt by buying expensive goods and houses. Rather the opposite if anything.

    We do in fact know the source of Jones's nonsense. It was this hoax email that did the rounds:

    "Can you believe that this was said by Karl Marx 142 years ago (1867)!
    What do you think, doesn't it apply today???!!! PRONTO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    'Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.' Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867"
    The suggestion is that this false quote was made up either as a joke or by someone opposed to the Bush/Obama policy of the state acquiring a majority stake in banks. Which of course was state capitalism and had nothing to do with communism (or socialism, the same thing).