Saturday, October 31, 2009

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 118

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 118th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1528 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Levellers or Diggers?
  • Who needs socialism?
  • Not So Honourable Members
  • Quote for the week:

    "In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.

    And the Reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe;so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason..."
    Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    The Socialist Labor Party of America: a premature obituary? (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    By some accounts the Socialist Labor Party of America has ceased to function. It has lost its premises and its paper, The People, has not appeared for many months. Some of its locals are still meeting and its ideas live on in its offshoots and breakaways but that's all.

    Founded in 1876, for the first twenty or so years it was a reformist organisation – at least, it advocated reforms of capitalism as well as its concept of socialism – not unlike the German Social Democratic Party of which many of its founding and later members had been members before emigrating to America. Things began to change with the entry into its ranks of Daniel De Leon and his election as editor of The People in 1892. De Leon campaigned for the SLP to drop its reform programme; which it did in 1900 (which led to a split and the formation of the reformist Socialist Party of America of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas).

    The SLP of America, and its translations by De Leon of Marx's writings, was one of the inspirations of the ‘impossibilist revolt’ within the Social Democratic Federation in Britain against the opportunism and undemocratic practices of its leaders, a revolt which led to two breakaways, the first, in 1903, to found the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain, the second, in 1904, to found us, the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

    During this period De Leon's position on the relative importance of political and industrial action changed. At first he insisted that political action – as action aimed at getting control of political power – was paramount, with industrial organisation as supportive, to back up if need be the verdict of the ballot box as well as to take over and run production immediately after the capture of state power. Later, as the agitation built up that eventually led to the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 (in which he played a prominent part), he changed the emphasis, arguing that it was organisation on the industrial field – to 'take and hold' the means of production – that was the more important, with political action relegated to the role of supporting the take-over of industry by neutralising and disbanding the state.

    The SPGB in effect adopted De Leon's original position while the SLPGB embraced his later ‘socialist industrial unionism’. Even though a casual observer might struggle to detect the subtlety of the difference but would see rather the points of similarity between the two parties, ideological battle raged over this issue for decades between us and them until the demise of the SLPGB in the 1970s.

    In the meantime other, perhaps more important, differences emerged. Like us the SLP of America recognised that socialism was out of the question in Russia in 1917 (though most of the SLP in Britain went over to the Communist Party when it was formed in 1921, providing some of its early leaders). When, however, it was reported that Lenin had made a passing favourable comment on De Leon's ‘socialist industrial unionism’ blueprint as a way to run industry, the SLP took a more favourable view of Bolshevik Russia. In fact, until the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939, the SLP held that Russia was some sort of ‘proletarian regime’ even if its politics were wrong (a bit like the Trotskyist position). Even after 1939 it didn't recognise Russia as state capitalist, preferring to call it ‘industrial feudalism’ or, later, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

    Another difference to emerge was over ‘socialism in one country’, especially America. De Leon had always tried to project the SLP as in the American revolutionary tradition (partly to dissipate its early German-American character), for instance praising the founding fathers of the US and criticising schoolchildren who refused to salute the American flag. His successors continued this and in its publications reference to a ‘socialist America’ and a ‘socialist Britain’ could be found. Even so, the SLP continued to publish material for pre-1914 immigrants in non-English languages (Hungarian, Bulgarian, South Slavonian) until the 1960s.

    Then there was the question of ‘labour time vouchers’. Marx had mentioned these as one possible way of distributing consumer goods and services in the very early days of socialism had it been established in 1875. De Leon and, after his death in 1914, his successors turned this into a dogma, insisting that these vouchers had to be introduced and maintained for a number of years as the method of distribution, despite the fact that the development of the productive forces since 1875 had made it possible to introduce free access more or less immediately after the establishment of socialism. Believe it or not, this is still a burning issue between us and some DeLeonists on internet discussion forums.

    There were similarities too. The SLP had the same definition of working class as us (despite its logo being a working man with bulging muscles wielding a big hammer). It contested elections – every US presidential election between 1892 and 1976 – on a programme offering no reforms of capitalism. It defended Marx's view against the Leninists about the possibility of a peaceful establishment of socialism. Most SLP members eventually came to see Russia as state capitalist and that free access was the socialist method of distribution to be reached as soon as practicable. The SLP also abandoned its policy of setting up rival socialist unions and, like us, joined the existing unions for all their faults.
    The SLP has its place in the history of working class ideas and organisation in the English-speaking world. ‘Names’ such as Jack London and James Connolly passed through it. It made some important mistakes, but was not fundamentally anti-working class like Leninism and its offshoots. Unfortunately, they still survive.
    Adam Buick

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    ‘Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World’ (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The United States ‘intelligence community’ has recently produced a report giving a strategic overview of current geopolitical and economic trends, and mapping out potential scenarios by the year 2025. The U.S. is militarily and economically pre-eminent in the world, and the aim of the report is to guide strategic thinking and inspire political action on behalf of the U.S. ruling class and its allies.

    To make it less incestuous, certain academics, consulting firms and think-tanks were invited to participate. These include the Atlantic Council of the United States, the Wilson Center, RAND Corporation, the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, Texas A&M University, the Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House in London.

    The report is declassified and available to read online (Link), which means it is considered safe for public consumption. The specific plans for action resulting from it will no doubt be on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. There is enough material to fill several issues of this magazine, so we will look at one broad theme: increasing authoritarianism and its implications for democracy.

    The Chairman’s preamble notes that the study seeks to “identify opportunities for policy intervention … (which) … can decrease the likelihood and severity of negative developments and increase the likelihood of positive ones.” So, what do they consider to be ‘negative’ and ‘positive’? The plans do not prioritise, for example, alleviating world hunger, preventing war or cutting the emissions that cause global warming (even though going over the climatic tipping point is recognised as a possibility). No. The ruling class concern is how they can continue to protect their interests as these disasters that their system is causing unfold. Their predictions are to some extent their intentions, and we can stand warned about what to expect from them.

    Nation States
    The global financial crisis is seen as accelerating processes already underway and the report calls for “long-term efforts to establish a new international system.” (p.11) As the Cold War era gave way to a unipolar order of American hegemony, in which the U.S. became the self-appointed policeman of the world, this too may have to give way and be replaced by a multipolar international system, with strong regional blocks centred in North America, Europe and Asia. China and India, in particular, are expected to have further economic growth and greater regional and world influence. However, this is also expected to cause (or exacerbate) certain problems. Concerning oil and gas resources, and also food and water (partly due to climate change), “demand is projected to outstrip easily available supplies over the next decade or so.” (p.viii) It is predicted that nation states will therefore be taking greater protectionist measures up to and including war.

    Capitalism is based on ownership and control by the minority capitalist class, ruthless exploitation of the majority for profit, and thus competition. In this system, the nation state is a mechanism used by capitalists to protect – and extend – their dominion as owners and rulers, and this has always led to international strife. As resources dwindle, due to pollution, overexploitation and climate change - or easily accessible supplies (those that are profitable) are used up - competition and thus conflict can be expected to intensify.

    The report’s authors “remain optimistic about the long-term prospects for greater democratization, but advances are likely to slow and globalization will subject many recently democratized countries to increasing social and economic pressures that could undermine liberal institutions.” (p.87) This is something the rich and powerful know all about. U.S. and U.K. governments have regularly intervened to disrupt and sometimes overthrow democratic institutions and to support the installation of military dictatorships when it has been considered good for making money/establishing strategic positions. Such foreign policy has frequently resulted in pro-democracy campaigners being beaten or shot in the street or hunted down, tortured, and imprisoned. U.S. supported coups (and attempted coups) specifically to remove elected governments include: Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, Nicaragua 1981, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989, Algeria 1992, Haiti 1994-2000, Venezuela 2002, and Bolivia 2008 (for a full list of interventions see here) Interestingly, in Venezuela and Bolivia the elected government has been retained due to popular pressure.

    Democracy is used by the ruling class as both shield and sword: as a cover (legitimisation) for the continuing rule of the minority class, and when useful as a justification for aggression against other nation states. Whilst it was suddenly imperative for oil-rich Iraq to be ‘democratised’ by operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’, non-democratic regimes that are ‘friendly’ to U.S. business, such as Saudi Arabia, are not deemed to be a problem.

    State capitalism
    There is speculation in the report that economic success for China may lead to other countries adopting state capitalist authoritarianism; which means the state taking a more direct and prominent role in economic management. This might be a regional phenomenon, or become more widespread. It is suggested that a trade-off could occur with domestic populations; the promise of more ‘security’ and ‘economic success’ in return for less democracy. In a complex world of economic crisis, environmental catastrophe and war over resources, democracy may come to be (or is already being) regarded as too unpredictable and uncontrollable – and may come to be presented to the populace as such. The report notes a “questioning among elites over the ability of democratic governments to take the bold actions necessary to deal rapidly and effectively with the growing number of transnational challenges.” (p.87)

    This “questioning among the elites” has long since gone over into action in the U.S. and elsewhere. The enhanced state powers that have been taken following the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 marked a speeding-up of processes already underway. In the U.S. we have seen the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and the passing of the USA Patriot Act. The latter has legalised greater surveillance of telephone and internet users, searches of premises without consent or knowledge, access without a court order to financial records, library records etc. and indefinite detention of immigrants. This has been accompanied by an increasingly restrictive appeals process in the U.S. judiciary system.

    Other countries have also been expanding their anti-terrorism legislation and law enforcement powers. Two significant trends are 1) the broad application of terrorist legislation and 2) moves that have been taken to exclude people who have been labelled as terrorists from having the protections conferred by national and international law such as the right to an open trial. Of course, a state of war – and the ‘War on Terror’ will do – anyway allows for martial law to be imposed by democratic governments on behalf of the capitalist class whenever they see fit.

    The report says that “terrorism is unlikely to disappear by 2025.” (p.iv) Given that terrorism is an inevitable consequence of capitalist competition, this is no surprise. And the possibility as well as the actuality of terrorism is a useful propaganda tool. It serves to justify the diminishing of democratic rights – all in the name of defending democracy – and to keep domestic populations sufficiently supportive of state terrorism being carried out by certain liberal democracies (often the U.S. with the U.K. helping) in various parts of the world. We are also told that "counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions increasingly will involve urban operations as a result of greater urbanization,” including domestically (p70). This accords with the present trend for an increasing percentage of civilian casualties in war.

    The capitalist class (or significant sections of it) certainly seems to be preparing to deal with the kind of threats to their system that would be posed by the unrest and disruption that could result from greater societal dysfunction, and also perhaps from the growth of informed types of rebellion that locate the source of our problems as being the profit system itself. The burgeoning of information sharing through the World Wide Web may be something in particular that worries the capitalist class. For a considerable time in the West, propagating deception and distraction has helped to keep the majority of workers compliant, but we should not doubt that the more overtly violent and oppressive techniques that have been used to pursue ruling class interests elsewhere in the world will also be used to control people in the West if it is deemed necessary by the ruling class, and if they can get away with it.

    And, to an extent, they are already getting away with it, including in the U.K. As well as the measures mentioned above – and in some cases in close association with them – trade union rights have been neutered or removed, local government has become even more geared to meeting central government targets than meeting local needs, restrictions have been placed on the right to protest, the incidence of ‘stop and search’ by the police has greatly increased and the length of time which people can be detained without charge has been extended. Generally in the West ever larger numbers of people are being criminalized and imprisoned. Hard-won civil liberties and human rights have been removed or limited by law at an accelerated rate during the last few years, and the process isn’t over yet. There are advanced plans for ID cards, yet more CCTV cameras, and further surveillance of telephone and internet use. For the capitalist class, enemies are not just rival capitalists, capitalist groups or states: the enemy also resides ‘within’ – it is us, the working class majority of wage and salary earners.

    The report notes that “surveys show growing frustration with the current workings of democratic government …” (p.87), which is not surprising given the current level of democratic deficit. Alienation from existing institutions has profound and diverse effects in society, and changes of popular mood and action may be unpredictable. This presents a potential threat to those in power, but for the moment they have been presented with an opportunity. Lack of democratic involvement has itself resulted in growing apathy and lack of political awareness, which in turn results in the unwitting acceptance of democratic erosions and a grudging acquiescence to authoritarian methods. Unfortunately, in capitalist style democracy, it is democracy that is often blamed for not fulfilling the promise, instead of the capitalist structures that place such severe limits upon its function.

    Within capitalist limits, democracy exists in a state of flux; the balance altering according to the relative strength of the contending classes, and to the different forces in the capitalist class. Amongst themselves the capitalist class have found use for democracy in solving disputes. However, concerning wider democracy, the more quiescent we are and the more an alternative to the existing system is deemed to be unrealistic or impossible (the more that capitalist indoctrination is successful), the more we stand to lose that bit of democratic space we do possess. Where it exists, the right to vote has been won through direct pressure, and conceded by members of the ruling class who could see the potential of a more inclusive electoral process conferring legitimacy to minority class rule. Subsequently the use of the concept of democracy in the ideological struggle has helped to establish it around the world. However, since so much propaganda (and hypocrisy) has been expended on extolling its virtues, it might prove difficult to switch off.

    Even the better democracies existing in capitalism come nowhere near to fulfilling the potential of what democracy can actually be. What we have presently is a system in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a minority, who therefore have most of the power – including in the media. ‘Free speech’ in these conditions simply means that the wealthy – the rulers – still get to put their view foremost and have so far convinced the electorate to faithfully return capitalist parties to parliament.

    Democratic theory
    Democracy comes from Greek: ‘demos’ and ‘kratia’. It essentially means ‘people power’ or ‘rule by the people’, i.e. it is about the majority being able to make decisions and put them into effect. Mainstream political theory and practice tries to separate ‘politics’ from ‘economics’. ‘Political democracy’ is allowed in an approved form, but economic democracy is impossible because of economic inequality; the majority are deprived of ownership and control of the means of life.

    As long as capitalism continues the working class will continue to be exploited for profit, and the system will continue to give rise to waste, war, poverty and famine. The capitalist class will continue to claim that the aim of their actions is to relieve us of these dire conditions, whereas in actual fact their profit-making policies only perpetuate them. For all the expected changes indicated in the report, what we see is business as usual. As such, there are tactical decisions to be made, and we can rest assured that other power blocs have similar concerns. What the thieves are bothered about is that other groups of thieves will take their booty – or at least take too great a share – or worse still, that the workers will recognise them for what they are and unite to emancipate themselves.

    ‘Global Trends 2025’ is the capitalist version of the immediate future, but we do not have to be passive recipients of this. It benefits the workers of the world to organise to defend and extend democratic rights; to widen the democratic space as much as possible. For democracy is the way in which we can unite to free ourselves from the insanity of the profit-system and domination by a minority ruling class. We can replace oppression with equality, waste of resources with production directly for use, and systemic competition with cooperation for the common good. We can create the world that we want, fashioned by the majority, in the interests of the majority.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Big Brother and the Robots (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    A few weeks ago we held a meeting in London entitled 'Here Come the Robots'. It was a look at the impact and implications of technological advance on society. A lively discussion followed with various opinions and reservations expressed.

    Few people would deny that among the changes technology has brought there have been tremendous improvements to our productive capabilities, if not always to our personal circumstances, or that in a socialist society modern technology will be vital in making sure everyone gets adequate food, housing and medical care.

    Not everyone is happy with the intrusions and impositions made on our lives by new technology, however, or the fact that many of us seem content to be constantly connected to our computers, mobile phones or iPods. "Don't people read books anymore?" asked one visitor, and he was not entirely reassured when it was pointed out that it is now possible to walk round with a digital bookcase of books in your pocket.

    The question that concerns most of us, of course, is who is in control of all this technology? Under capitalism, it's not us. A couple of stories recently in the papers highlighted the question. Ironically, the first one concerned George Orwell's novel, 1984. "Big brother would have approved", said the article. (Guardian, 20 July).

    In a mix-up over copyright, Amazon, the online booksellers, have, without warning, used their remote technology to erase customers' digital copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. The cost of the books, which had been bought and paid for, was refunded we are assured. But how reassuring is it to know that someone, at an anonymous desk somewhere has the power to do that? In Orwell's novel a device known as a "memory hole" was used to eradicate unapproved literature. Amazon can do the same, it seems, at the touch of a computer keyboard.

    The second story is nothing to do with fiction. It involves the latest must-have military toy being tested by the US army. Unfortunately, this is no high-tech cuddly teddy bear.

    Rumours have been coming out about the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR for short) an unstoppable military robot that powers itself by devouring any organic material in its path - trees, grass and even, according to some reports, dead bodies on the battlefield.

    Its inventors are horrified that such suggestions have been made. Although the EATR does indeed power itself on organic material, it is not intended to be fuelled by dead soldiers they say. "We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission" they assure us in the Guardian article (21 July).

    The machine apparently has a built-in system which helps it determine the nature of the material being ingested. And according to Dr Robert Finkelstein, one of its inventors, "If it's not on the menu, it's not going to eat it".

    It's all about good taste, then?

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Should we drop the word "socialism"? (1999)

    Correspondence from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Should we drop the word "socialism"?

    Dear Editors,

    Thank you for a friendly, though brief, review of my pamphlet Autonarchy. Allow me to make a few comments on the review and the SPGB generally. I am writing this in a spirit of fraternity, not hostility, and hope you'll construe it in the same spirit. end your review by saying that my definition of Socialism as "State ownership and rule by a Socialist Party" is not what the SPGB would recognise as Socialism, but rather it is State Capitalism.. Having lived in London from 1964 to 1990 I am familiar with the various views on State Capitalism. I know Tony Cliff well, but I chose to be a member of London's Solidarity group, not of the SWP. However, what follows is my personal view and does not implicate Solidarity.

    I am fully aware that all over the world there were (and still are) many small groups of dedicated socialists who for many years denounced the USSR as anything but Socialism. I myself belonged to two such groups, one in Israel, and one in London. These groups deserve great respect for their courage, honesty, dedication, and insight. However, this cannot change the fact that for most people on this planet the term "Socialism" means, and will always mean, "the political system that existed in the USSR, and in all Eastern Bloc states". The reason for this is quite simple: The USSR, with its immensely powerful propaganda means, declared repeatedly that it was the embodiment of Socialism. So did every state of the Eastern Bloc, as well as China, Vietnam, North Korea. This propaganda barrage went on day and night for many decades. Moreover, all Capitalist regimes too denounced the USSR and all Eastern Bloc states as "Socialist".

    Did you ever stop to consider the effect this view, propagated for decades, by every government and media on both sides of the Iron Curtain, had on the vast majority of the world's population? I suggest you do so. Seriously. You and I agree that what existed in the USSR and all Eastern Bloc states was not socialism. But for 99.99% of the world's population these regimes were socialism, because this is what these regimes said and what their enemies said. Any political organisation which today advocates Socialism as an alternative to Capitalism will be considered by 99.99 percent of the population everywhere as advocating the regime in the defunct USSR and the Eastern Bloc states. It is not a regime most people desire, and we know it is a bad alternative to Capitalism.

    Of course you'll say "But our definition of Socialism is different". It is indeed. But what matters is what most people understand by this term, not what 0.0001 percent understands by it. This is what Hegel meant when he said: "world history is world judgement". Your definition of Socialism matters a lot to you, but it is not what the vast majority of the people understand by that term. Actual history hijacked the term "Socialism" and no one can rescue it. I know you'll say: "But this is a travesty of the term". I agree. So you'll continue: "We shall explain to people what we mean by Socialism, and they will accept that". I'm sure you'll explain your version, but it will cut no ice with 99.99 percent of the population anywhere. You'll spend all your time and resources in an everlasting debate over semantics of a term. You might—at best—convince a handful.The majority will accept the meaning which this term acquired in actual history. A minority will be put off by the multiplicity of meanings and endless arguments over the meaning of a word. I am fully aware that all this will not convince a single one of you to drop their allegiance to the term. Fine. Just hear me out.

    Socialists who seriously intend to promote a viable alternative to Capitalism, capable of capturing the hearts and minds of many millions of people all over the world have two problems with the term "Socialism". First, the term has been irredeemably sullied by a long history of abusive practice in the "Socialist" States and is irretrievably associated with this practice. Second, the original, unsullied, meaning of the term has become fuzzy, and dated. Anyone who wants to present an alternative to Capitalism today must spell out in clear, precise, and unambiguous terms, that alternative.

    On page 2 of the Socialist Standard you print the principles of your alternative to Capitalism which the SPGB upholds since 1904. But society has changed significantly since 1904. First there were all the changes after WW1, then all the changes after WW2, then the changes after the '60s. Many ills of capitalism are still with us and that system must be replaced, but being unemployed in 1998 is very different from being unemployed in 1904. The social, economic, and political problems of 1998 are very different from those of 1904. Sticking to a language and a programme drafted in 1904 renders you irrelevant today. By all means stick to the principle of Common Ownership and rejection of Capitalism, but take account of the new socio-economic reality and adapt your language and tactics to it. I am saying this as a person who wants to see you become far more influential in Britain today.
    Moreover, "Common Ownership" is a fuzzy term. How exactly will this "Common Ownership" be exercised? Who is included in this "Commonality"? You must give detailed answers because one form of "Commonality" was implemented in the USSR and people—including those in the USSR—rejected it. Next, you advocate "Democratic Control". How—precisely and in detail—will this Democratic Control be exercised? Here too people will rightly mistrust everyone who talks about the idea without providing detail about its substance.

    Anyone calling her/himself "Socialist"—however that term is defined—will not escape the mistrust induced by the use of this term in the USSR. Anyone offering alternatives to Capitalism must see to it that this alternative is formulated in detailed terms. Otherwise they will be mistrusted. Rightly. The Autonarchy pamphlet provides a new term for the alternative to Capitalism. It preserves and updates the original spirit of Socialism but replaces the term. This relieves one from endless—futile—arguments over "Socialism", and offers a detailed political system based on Direct Democracy in the State, at work, and in sites of education.

    Moreover, the call for Direct-Democracy at the place of work and at the place of education, can start right away, today. It will immediately win adherents in places of work and education. Many will accept the idea and begin to implement it in their daily life. The struggle to implement Direct Democracy in the home, in neighborhoods, at work, in education, and in the State as a whole, does not require the economic collapse of Capitalism! Autonarchy initiates a struggle to implement an alternative to Capitalism right away. Setting up CDDs (Committees for Direct Democracy) everywhere can start here and now.

    Autonarchy is both a long term objective and a tactic to be implemented immediately. It is a mobilizing call for a struggle not over wages but over decision-making authority at the place of work, education, and in the State as a whole. The struggle for Direct Democracy is not something remote from people's daily life. It is a struggle for gaining control over one's daily life, in the home, at work, in education.

    I have no shred of doubt this struggle can win widespread support within a few years. Society is ripe for Direct Democracy, and for the struggle to implement it. Think it over. Direct Democracy is not some utopian scheme that popped up in one mind during a dream. Nine million French workers demanded exactly what the pamphlet advocates when they went on a general strike for twenty days in May 1968.
    AKI ORR, Kfar-Shmaryahu, Israel

    1. As an organisation which campaigns exclusively for socialism (as we understand it of course) we are in a unique position to know how people react to the word. Your claim that 99.99 percent of people think that socialism is what used to exist in Russia is an absurd exaggeration (that would mean that only about 6000 people in Britain take the opposite few). But we get your point. Many more people think that Russia was socialist than agree with our definition of socialism.

    You think that we should therefore give up the word and find some other term to describe our aim. Don't think that this hasn't occurred to us. Various other terms have been suggested—"world co-operative commonwealth", "world of free access". Others, outside our ranks, have come up with "economic democracy", "self-managed society", "free society".

    Our experience is that, when people first hear us saying we stand for socialism, most do indeed take us to be standing for "state ownership and rule by a socialist party" (a far broader concept than what existed in Russia) but, when we explain what we do stand for, quite a number say "oh, you mean true socialism" or "pure communism". Significantly, those who have experimented with other terms are often met with the same reaction.

    This reflects the fact that, despite the former regime in Russia dragging the name of socialism through the mud by associating it with dictatorship, secret police, gulags and the rest, to many people the word "socialism" still retains an association with maybe vague ideas of social justice, equality, democracy, community and production for use not profit. In other words, despite Russia, socialism still has an underlying positive image for many people.

    Besides, we are part of an unbroken tradition going back to those who first used the word and which has retained the original meaning they gave to it despite and in face of Russia and Labour and similar governments. Why should we surrender the word, especially as Russia has failed and Labour-type parties are now openly pro-capitalist? The field is now free for us to assert the word's original meaning.

    Having said this, we don't make a fetish of the word. On occasions we are prepared to use some other term to express what we stand for since what is important is what we stand for and not what it is called. So we have and do use alternative terms such as "world co-operative commonwealth", "world of free access" and "free society". However—sorry, we must be honest—we don't think we'll give "autonarchy" a go; take it from us, it would be a hopeless non-starter. "Anarchy", or words associated with it, tends to have an even more negative image among the working class than "socialism" or possibly "communism".

    2. You also suggest that because we stick to the same basic principles as when we were set up in 1904 we are irrelevant since today things are very different from then. But are they? Read—taking into account the declamatory political style in vogue when it was written, of which it is a fine example—what our principles say: that present-day society is based on the ownership of productive resources by a small minority class; that there is a conflict of interest between this minority and the majority class whose work produces the wealth that keeps society going; that this conflict can only be ended by the majority organising consciously, democratically and politically to make the means of production the common property of the community under the democratic control of all the people.
    What's wrong with that? Is or is there not a minority who own and control the means of production? Is or is it not the work of the majority that keeps society going? Is or is there not a conflict of interest between the dominating minority and the rest of us?

    It is true that there have been tremendous advances in technology that have transformed everyday living (telephones, television, cars, etc) and that consumption levels for most workers in certain parts of the world have risen (even if less than profits), but work is still employment by another and just as alienating and stressful and unemployment just as devastating and excluding.

    3. You ask us to be clear as to what we mean by "common ownership". Well, for a start, we don't mean state ownership; what you call the "commonality" is all the people not the state which represents only a section of society. At present the ownership of the productive resources by which society lives is divided up amongst separate individuals and institutions (firms, states, even co-operatives). Common ownership is the opposite of this situation: it means the absence of any such sectional control over access to and use of productive resources.

    With common ownership, nobody or no institution exercises exclusive ownership rights over resources; it is, in effect a condition of "no ownership". Such resources are simply there at the disposal of all the members of society as a whole, to be used in accordance with their decisions. To make such decisions—i.e., to exercise democratic control—the members of society need to set in place procedures which allow every member of society the chance to have an equal say in the way things are run. Although this can be envisaged as involving "direct democracy" in neighbourhoods and workplaces, for wider decisions (as we pointed out in our review of your pamphlet) it would also have to involve "indirect" democracy via elected delegates.

    If such procedures for exercising "democratic control" did not exist, then it would not be possible to talk about "common ownership" either, since, in that case, ownership of the means of production would be in the hands of those who did have the power to make the decisions about how to use productive resources. So, for us "common ownership" and "democratic control" of the means of production by all the people are one and the same thing; they are in the end just two ways of describing the same situation.

    Further, with common ownership, what is produced, as well as the means to produce it, is commonly owned, so that it does not need to be sold. It, too, is simply there, to be distributed to where it is needed, whether this be another workplace for further transformation into a finished product or a distribution centre to which people can come and take what they need. Common ownership means the disappearance of buying and selling and so also money, markets, banks, wages, profits and the rest.

    4. We knew Solidarity of course. One of our disagreements with them was precisely because they didn't regard "common ownership" and "democratic control" as being one and the same thing. They put all the emphasis on "democratic control" or, as they put it, "self-management", and believed that this could be achieved without ending the money-wages-profits system which is the essence of capitalism.

    In 1972 Solidarity published under the title Workers Councils and the Economics of A Self-Managed Society a long article originally written in 1957 by Cornelius Castoriadis (who went on to become a French intellectual guru in his own right). This pamphlet painted a picture of factories and other workplaces being controlled by elected Workers Councils in the context of the continuation of the money-wages-profits system. Thus, in a given factory, the workers would elect a Council which would decide on the level of wages, the price of the product, the amount of profits to be re-invested, etc. This was Solidarity's conception of "socialism"; echoes of it can be found in your view that the struggle today is over "decision-making authority" in society (rather than over the ownership and control of the productive resources by which society lives). It was the completely impractical idea of direct workers' control of a capitalist economy.

    If Solidarity had also envisaged the end of the whole money-wages-profits system this would have been socialism. But then "workers council" would have been a misnomer since socialism, being a classless society, involves the disappearance of the working class just as much as of the capitalist class. "Democratic councils" would have been a more appropriate term. A society where the means of production belong to everybody and run by democratic councils, that's socialism
    - Editors.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 117

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 117th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1524 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • The Battle of the Somme
  • Democracy as a way of life
  • Stepping stones to nowhere
  • Coming Events:

    Radical Film Forum,

    Sundays 6pm - 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN.

    1st November - The Fog of War

    15th November - Matewan

    29th November - Sicko

    13th December - Earthlings

    Quote for the week:

    "It is a tribute to the humanity of ordinary people that horrible acts must be camouflaged in a thicket of deceptive words like "security," "peace," "freedom," "democracy," the "national interest" in order to justify them." Howard Zinn, On War, 2001.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Mr Brown (2000)

    A short story from the November 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

    On a dark and rainy day, recently, a representative from the Department of Social Security called at our home. We had been warned by letter that a visit was imminent and though we knew what day it was to be we didn't know exactly what time the interview was to take place. Then at precisely 9.30am there came a ring on the front door bell. Enter Mr Brown.

    Once ensconced in an armchair in the sitting room Mr Brown lost no time in telling us that due to a "discrepancy" on the computer our long-term claim for benefit had not only to be cancelled but we were also in debt to the department for a large, but as yet unspecified, sum of money. You can say what you like about the wonders of the computer. It didn't do us any favours. Big Brother had been watching us.

    The seventy-five pence awarded to pensioners by Tony Blair's "listening" government had done little to boost our respective pensions. We live modestly and buy our clothes from charity shops yet it had not escaped our notice that though we scraped by each week never going hungry, owing money to nobody, we were never going to go on a world cruise and if the boiler went kaput tomorrow it would make more than just a dent in our bank balance. This estimation of the nature of our standard of living was not something that obsessed us; it was no more than mere fact. Now the shattering news that our claim for benefit was withdrawn and that, meanwhile, we had been building up another debt had us mentally reeling.

    Whilst Mr Brown went on doing his stuff I wondered about him. I am reluctant to describe his appearance. Smartly dressed, well-scrubbed politicians long ago sent me the message that a wholesome, outward exterior has little to do with what is going on inside a person. Let me just say this: his tones were reasonable. He didn't gloat. He even apologised for being the bearer of bad tidings. His manner was mild, his visage pleasant. He was somebody's son, brother, partner, father, nephew, uncle, I tried to remember. None of it was personal. His salary was the justification for the meting out of this kind of treatment. Had it ever crossed Mr Brown's mind that we had toiled all our lives on a restricted income only now to find ourselves in our sixties and still relatively poor? Was the representative from the DSS aware that there were rich, idle people who, though celebrated, made little, if any, contribution to this society except to flaunt their wealth? And did he know that there were businessmen who had embezzled thousands and nothing very detrimental had befallen them as a result?

    Across the planet there are millions of Mr and Mrs Browns carrying out orders without ever thinking to question them. It is a common enough problem. What it all comes down to is your wages and salaries, your cars, your mortgages and your holidays abroad and if doing your job means that a few people must go to the wall then that is only what capitalism has taught us from birth. What matters most is the survival of the fittest and that attitude goes hand-in-hand with never stopping to think, never attempting to question the ethics of the work you are doing, why you are doing it and for whom? And because so few questions are asked wars are waged and people who have no vested interest in fighting them are killed or maimed and still children are dying of malnutrition.

    Mr Brown tidied his papers, put them back in his briefcase and made ready to leave. "Now I will leave you in peace," he said. Because I am without words I wrote on my slate "PEACE" and held it up for him to see. He took a squint at it and said, "Sorry, I don't understand." Exit Mr Brown.
    Heather Ball

    Pioneers of socialism (1998)

    From the November 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

    The Socialist League, a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was established in the 1880s by William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and other pioneering socialists, was remarkably close to the Socialist Party in its ideas and aims. However its confused position on parliament and the ballot box despite its correct opposition to campaigning for reforms led to it being overrun by anarchists and to the resignation of genuine socialists such as Morris.

    The strategy of Morris and the others was the "making" of socialists who understood and wanted an end to capitalism and wanted the establishment of a socialist society. This ran counter to the object both of anarchists who simply wanted to destroy the state, and of those "socialists" who wanted to concentrate on building a large party with its roots in the trade unions which could somehow reform capitalism out of existence. Some fourteen years after the Socialist League was overrun by anarchists in 1890, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded. Like the League, it was a breakaway from the SDF but, while echoing the League's call for revolution and nothing less, addressed the issues which had led to the League's failure.

    Revolution not reform
    The Socialist League was founded in 1884 after the resignation of a number of socialists from the SDF which had taken the position of working gradually for socialism through the winning of reforms, so-called stepping stones to socialism. Disgruntled with the undemocratic nature of H.M. Hyndman's leadership and seeing the absurdity and inevitable failure of trying to change capitalism and its essential profit-making drive through legal changes, William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Belfort Bax and others established a separate body committed to socialism and nothing less. Morris wrote:
    "The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt to bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side."
    The Manifesto of the Socialist League, drafted by Morris and Bax and adopted in 1885, stated firmly the stance of the League against reformism and for social revolution and nothing else:
    "As to mere politics, Absolutism, Constitutionalism, Republicanism. All have been tried in our day and under our present system, and all have failed in dealing with the real evils of life.
    Nor, on the other hand, will certain incomplete schemes of social reform now before the public solve the question.
    Co-operation so-called—that is, competitive co-operation for profit—would merely increase the number of small joint-stock capitalists, under the mask of creating an aristocracy of labour, while it would intensify the severity of labour by its temptations to overwork.
    Nationalisation of the land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value inevitable under the Capitalist system.
    No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes; until the workers are in a possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism.
    The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation."
    After a century and more of failed attempts at reforming capitalism, the position of Morris and the League has been proved correct, as has its position against what they called "state socialism" (more accurately described as state capitalism) which has only succeeded in dividing the working class and replacing the issue of class with the issue of supporting one capitalist "nation" against another.

    The ballot box
    The League, however, was opposed to the idea of achieving socialism via the ballot box and parliament. This was not on the grounds of wanting to lead the working class to revolution in the belief that a socialist majority could never exist, but on the grounds that campaigning for election to parliament inevitably meant advocating reforms of the present system. This mistaken conclusion was drawn due to the number of so-called socialists in this period who were turning away from social revolution and towards gradualism. Parliament, according to the League, was a capitalist institution which would only be strengthened by reformist policies and which would subvert a socialist party from a body which campaigned for social revolution to a corrupt body which would inevitably campaign for election on a reformist programme. Even so, Morris did envisage that, at some stage, socialists would enter parliament as rebels to dissolve capitalist power:
    "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 to pass palliative measures to keep Society alive."
    It was its opposition to the use of elections by connecting them to the policy of reformism which was the weak link in the League's armour. Opposition to parliament and elections led to the increasing membership of anarchists, who saw the problems of society not as connected to capitalism but to the institution of the state itself. They did not seek to remove capitalism (the disease) by making socialists but sought to destroy the state and authority (the symptom) by acts of violence. It was this section of the League which grew in strength and eventually displaced the genuine pioneer socialists who had established an organisation and produced literature which still remain an inspiration to socialists today. It has to be said, however, that many of these pioneer socialists were beginning to turn to gradualism themselves, as the working class seemingly turned to this course (but in reality only opting for small improvements now rather than any conscious socialist idea).

    The Socialist League collapsed in the early 1890s with the departure of William Morris in 1890 (who formed the Hammersmith Socialist Society). After this its publication Commonweal, with the party in general, declined to an ignominious mess after control passed to the anarchists whose squabbles were an irrelevance to the working class.

    Thus, the voice of socialism (despite the League's few inconsistencies) was lost until the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 and its solving of the problems of earlier socialists. Formed after a group of socialists grew disillusioned with the reformist stance of the SDF (as the League pioneers had been twenty years earlier), the Socialist Party solved the problem of reform or revolution by a unique commitment to the use of the ballot box and the democratic sending of socialists to parliament with the sole aim of abolishing the profit system; a possible socialist minority in parliament being committed to opposition to all policies that would help prolong capitalism.

    The Socialist Party has stood for socialism and nothing but ever since. A bastion of socialist consciousness in a political wilderness of capitalist party against capitalist party; free market or nationalisation, private ownership or state ownership, left or right, tweedledum or tweedledee. 

    Capitalism is capitalism whichever mask it is attempting to wear and the Socialist Party is the only party to have stood for socialism throughout the twentieth century despite the diversions of Lenin, Keynesians and a host of others attempting to change capitalism without a socialist majority that understands and desires it. Capitalism's appearance may have changed in the last hundred years but no amount of tinkering can change the essential labour-fleecing and profit-seeking which makes it tick and which socialists understand must be removed before socialism can exist. Socialism remains as relevant for humanity today as it did then.
    Colin Skelly

    Crassness (2009)

    From the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    An educational dialogue explaining the workings of modern capitalism and rebellion, based on genuine events.
    Scene: An alternative bar in North London. Cool movie posters plaster the walls. Electronic music pumps out unusually quiet from speakers – it is a week day evening.

    Enter Pik Smeet, wearing broad brimmed hat, trying to look like a Puritan. He approaches the bar, buys a bottle of cider, and sits at his chair of many years usage. After him, come two middle-aged male punks, spikey haired, leather-clad with tattoos and chains strewn around their bodies – back from smoking outside. They sit around the corner of the bar from Comrade Smeet.

    Punk 1: …So, my boss says, when you’ve got all the money in, that's it, you can go home.
    Punk 2: Gah! Like I need another reason to hate you – easy street.
    Punk 1: Yeah, I hate me too. We own market places all over London. Go round, collect the cash, nice little job.
    Punk 2: Bet you get a stack of griping from all the stallholders.
    Punk 1: That’s why I don’t hang around after I’ve picked up the rent.
    Punk 2: Too right. You have many places?
    Punk 1: Yeah, Camden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus. All over the joint. Going to be more now, we’ve just bought out a former Woolworths store, now they’ve collapsed.
    Punk 2: Oh, really, what you going to do with that?
    Punk 1: Well, unless a big firm comes along and makes us an offer, we’re gonna turn it into small units. You make more money breaking big stores up into units, see. Could get you a place if you fancy one.
    Punk 2: Well, I’m only interested as a customer.
    Punk 1: Ah, well, then, you’ll like our night clubs. They’re good money too – we have a chain of clubs, you know the ones, one near Farringdon.
    Punk 2: Oh, them – the strip places?
    Punk 1: Well, call them night clubs, but, basically, well, they’re brothels. Then, that’s where the money is.
    Punk 2: Yeah – you should try working in making porn films, I make good money shooting them.
    Punk 1: Well, I used to, but I got out because the money isn’t there any more. And, y’know, that’s why you do it, I mean, it’s fun, you get to travel the world, but the bottom line is the money. If you’re not making any, there’s no point doing it.
    Punk 2: You reckon?
    Punk 1: Yeah. You see, America – yer biggest market, y’know, they won’t allow you to import films any more. And you can’t get a visa to enter the states and shoot the films. That’s it, no point being in the game any more.
    Punk 2: Well, I still make good money – hand over fist – I think you should have stuck with it, mate, it’s a good game – so long as it’s not the only thing you can do.
    Punk 1: That reminds me – one girl, we were driving her round London, showing her some sites, got to Trafalgar square, I said “And that’s Nelson’s column” she said to me “Who?” I mean, totally dumb – nothing else she could do that be in the business.
    Punk 2: Was she English?
    Punk 1: Perfectly, girl next door. The quality product, not one of your Eastern European girls.
    Punk 2: Ooh, the very thing. Mind you, when I was living above the brothel your English birds would last until lunchtime, and when there wasn’t plenty of food forthcoming, they be off out the door. Least the eastern birds have to hang around.
    Punk 1: On our shoots we’d have about four hundred quid a week to just send out to Sainsbury’s for food. We were a big crew, so, you know, we’d all need feeding. Twelve hours a day we were doing – a laugh. I know, half hour bursts of work, but we were there for the whole long day. Great fun.
    Punk 2: Have you tried flogging your stuff over the internet?
    Punk 1: That’s just it – who wants to pay forty quid for hardcore pornography when you can download stacks of it for virtually nothing.
    Punk 2: Well, you get to control your own business, from beginning to end – production and distribution – everything except the credit card payments – you need someone else to do that –
    Punk 1: Usually from Russia.
    Punk 2: You have to be careful with them, but, yes, the Russians can helps you with the financial side of things.
    Punk 1: Y’ See, I mean, the technology is out there, anyone can make porn – and it’s the home-made look, with the girl next door, that really draws in the punters.
    Punk 2: That’s what we’re good at doing – your punters want realistic-looking sex, and we do home-made look quite well. It’s a skill to achieve that look. That’s what we bring – technology is cheapening the production process, but we still add value through our skills.
    Punk 1: Well, the value we add gets less all the time, I reckon I’m better off collecting the rent. Right, next fag.
    Punk 1 stands up, on his shirt is sewn a badge with a picture of Karl Marx, over his heart. He pulls on his studded leather jacket, and goes out for a smoke.
    Smeet (to himself): Well, that’s punk for you, rebellion within capitalism – non-conformity can be highly profitable. Reckon I’ll go home and write all this down – a little morality play full of symbolic resonances and the like.
    Pik Smeet

    A postscript to the article is the following discussion of its content at the recent Autumn Delegate Meeting of the SPGB, and the response by the writer on the Spintcom discussion list:

    "Another example of an article was 'Crassness'. Report of dialogue between punks. Apart from anyone else it's boring. (May 2009 Socialist Standard). Makes a lot of assumptions. Moral is the punks are all stupid because they don't understand the Socialist case."

    1) It was a genuine report of a real conversation, that I thought illustrated some of the failings of punk rebellion, viz.,

    2) It in no way implies stupidity on their part - far from it, it implies that they know how to get on under capitalism, and make a quid or two. I can't see how the implication of stupidity can be read into it, because the text makes no mention of the socialist case, at most the irony of the faux-rebel, who's just spent ten minutes talking about collecting rent, living off prostitution and and pornography, wearing a Karl Marx badge, is mentioned.

    3) The point was that the rebellion of punk is in no way anti-capitalist, but in fact ultra capitalist, in that being prepared to go into ways of earning money considered outside "normal" mores they are able to make a fine living.

    4) It touched on how even the porn industry is subject to the cheapening of the means of production, and the cold hearted business case at the bottom of the industry.

    5)The moral, if there was one, was that punk is rebellion within capitalism, and not a rejection of it.
    I'm sorry that [the comrade] it boring, but it was only meant as a light piece, and was submitted with my expressions that I thought it only had an outside chance of seeing print. I should add, though, that boring was part of the point - here were two people in full punk regalier, and large swathes of their conversation - about collecting rent, retail opportunities, etc. could have been heard from any golf club bar room bore in slacks and loafers. That was my chief inspiration to write it down as soon as I ear wigged it.

    That said, further incidents in the same pub, which I've blogged about elseplace, did lead me to thinking about submitting for a regular column of such stories entitled "As soon as this pub closes"...
    Pik Smeet

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    This year's Nobel Prize for Economics

    From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back:

    Every year the Bank of Sweden awards a prize to some economist, often called the Nobel Prize for Economics even though it wasn’t established by the old merchant of death himself. It has in fact only been going since 1968. Usually the prize goes to some obscure economist for work on some obscure aspect of the market economy. Sometimes it goes to a big name such as the Keynesian Paul Samuelson (1970) or the Monetarist Milton Friedman (1976). Even the mad marketeer Baron von Hayek got one, in 1974.

    Very occasionally it goes to someone who has done some interesting work, as when in 1998 it went to Amartya Sen who had shown that famines were caused by a collapse in legal access to food (via money or direct production) and not by any actual shortage of food or overpopulation. This year, too, it has gone to someone whose work sounds interesting – Elinor Ostrom whose 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action refuted the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” parable that is often used to try to show that socialism wouldn’t work.

    In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin conceived of a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would only make matters worse. Called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, his parable went like this: assume a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle; in these circumstances each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons and, in the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation.

    Hardin’s parable was completely unhistorical. Wherever commons existed there also existed rules governing their use, sometimes in the form of traditions, sometimes in the form of arrangements for decision-making in common, which precluded such overgrazing and other threats to the long-term sustainability of the system.

    One of the conclusions that governments drew from Hardin’s armchair theorising was that existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions. Ostrom took the trouble to study various common property arrangements some of which had lasted for centuries, including grazing pastures in Switzerland, forests in Japan, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.

    According to The London Times (13 October),

    “Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, she asserts that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest”.

    In other words, common ownership did not necessarily have to lead to resource depletion as predicted by Hardin and trumpeted by opponents of socialism. The cases Ostrom examined were not socialism as the common owners were private producers. In socialism the producers, the immediate users of the common resources, would not be trying to make an independent living for themselves but would be carrying out a particular function on behalf of the community in a social context where the aim of production would be to satisfy needs on a sustainable basis. But the rules they would draw up for the use of the grazing land, forests, fishing grounds and the like would be similar to those in the cases she studied.

    Adam Buick

    New roots of conflict (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    We have had two world wars and countless local conflicts over the struggle for raw materials, trade routes and spheres of influence. Capitalism is a competitive society and the logical outcome of the resultant conflict is military violence.

    The first world war was based on the struggle for colonies as well as access to the coal, iron and steel of Europe. It led to the collapse of governments, thrones and empires, and the redrawing of national borders. More importantly to the world's working class it led to mass destruction, death and injury. It was depicted in this country as a war against militarism and in defence of freedom. Shortly after the cessation of that war the British working class was to enjoy the freedom of the labour exchange and slum housing. The "war to end all wars" saved the British capitalist class from the encroachment on its markets and empire by its German rivals.

    The second world war with its advanced armaments was to bring the horror of war home to the civilian population as never before, with cities wiped out and whole countries razed to the ground. Again this was depicted as a war against the evils of dictatorship and in defence of democracy and freedom. The fact that Britain was united with the dictatorship of Stalin's Russia against the dictatorship of Hitler's Germany was conveniently overlooked. This war like the previous one was fought for economic reasons not ideological ones.

    Ever since 1945 the world has experienced local conflicts. Korea, Suez, Vietnam, India/Pakistan – the list is endless. There has not been a day since 1945 when the British army has not been engaged in some sort of conflict, and every one of them has been depicted as something to do with freedom, democracy or some such laudable purpose. The present tensions in the Middle East, however, with its struggles for access to oil so nakedly obvious it has become increasingly difficult for governments to disguise the economic basis of the disputes.

    Capitalism is a dynamic system and yesterdays struggle for coal and steel may have been somewhat overshadowed by the conflicts over oil. This in its turn may give way to another source of military dispute – lanthanide metals. "Global supply of the rare-earth metals, which are vital to the mechanisms of hybrid cars, wind turbines, iPods, lasers, super-efficient light bulbs and radar systems is 95 per cent controlled by China. The country's dominance of the market is the result of a deliberate 20-year bid by Beijing to cast itself as the ‘Opec of rare earth metals’." (London Times, 28 August)

    One of the countries that has a supply of lanthanide is Australia and they are at present considering an offer from China to buy a 51 per cent share of their source. This has caused real concern to the Japanese capitalist class who have threatened to take up the matter with the World Trade Organisation. "Chinese export quotas of rare earth metals fall below Japan's demands, forcing even the largest consumers there to rely on smuggled materials to meet about a quarter of their annual needs. A draft of the Chinese plan has been seen by senior executives at several of Japan's largest trading houses and has sparked fears that China is aiming to step up dramatically its programme of quota reductions. Beijing has cut exports by about 6 per cent annually over the past decade." (London Times, 28 August)

    It is impossible to foretell how capitalist rivalries will develop but the growing monopoly of the rare metals market by China is a potential source of economic conflict that could lead to a future military struggle. Capitalism by its very nature breeds competition between nations over such sources of raw materials. This produces threats and counter-threats which leads to ultimatums, trade boycotts and eventually to military action. The awful truth is that it is members of the working class who own no part of these resources who take part in the resultant conflicts and suffer the resultant tragedies of war.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 116

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 116th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1523 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • The problem that never went away
  • A salaried economy, no thanks
  • Hunting in the morning
  • Quote for the week:

    "Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever." Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1932.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    The rise and fall of the ILP (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    With proposals to set up a united leftwing party to challenge Labour, we look at a previous attempt at this.
    The Independent Labour Party was born on 13 January 1893 in the Labour Institute, Peckover Street, Bradford. The birth was the culmination of a series of efforts dating back to the creation of the Scottish Labour Party some five years earlier. From the spring of 1891 local ‘Labour Unions’ were formed, with the similar Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party following in May 1892. The party and its predecessors were primarily the offspring of James Keir Hardie, ILP chairman 1893 to 1900 and long time (1887-1904) editor of The Labour Leader. Hardie had launched his paper (it remained his personal property until 1904 when it was taken over directly by the party) in January 1887 and it would remain the focus of the ILP activity through several renamings (becoming The New Leader in 1922 and The Socialist Leader in 1946) until its termination in the late ‘70s. Essentially the party was a radical split from the Liberal Party and its ideology and outlook were determined by this.

    The early ILP’s conception of socialism was a bit of a joke. In 1896 Hardie defined it as “…brotherhood, fraternity, love thy neighbour as thyself, peace on earth, goodwill towards men, and glory to God in the highest” (Justice, 6 June 1896). While, in a 1903 letter to Edward Carpenter (quoted in Stanley Pierson’s British Socialism) John Bruce Glasier, a near-forgotten ILP bigwig, more obscurely referred to socialism as “a power that began with the beginning of the world and permeates infinitude”. I fear he may have been confusing socialism with some form of quantum physics.

    Despite its talk of peace and brotherhood, this is what Glasier, then Party Chairman, said at the 1903 Conference:
    “Our foreign trade is flagging; our internal freedom and external defence are less secure; our military glory is dimmer; our national character, our literature, our science, our inventions are in less repute; our young and virile population is quitting the country as if it were a sinking ship, and we are getting in pauper aliens and rich predatory aliens instead.”
    The ILP was oriented towards parliament from its inception. Hardie had been elected for West Ham South in 1892 but it was not until the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 that the real breakthrough occurred. The LRC, renamed the Labour Party in 1906, was essentially a tactical move of the formerly Liberal-orientated trade unions but until 1918 the political input was very much from the ILP. In 1906 the party scored seven MPs with a further eleven being trade union endorsed members.

    The early strongholds of the ILP were as one might expect in the old industrial zones of West Yorkshire and South Lancashire with considerable support in Leicester, Norwich and Merthyr Tydfil. Scotland, later known as the heartland of the ILP, was to develop later during and after the First World War.

    First World War
    If the ILP ever got anything right it was by accident and this is seen most obviously in its attitude to the First World War. Opposition to the 1914-18 war was clearly the correct policy: it is now generally admitted that it was an imperialist war, fought not for ‘freedom’ but for economic reasons. During the early months of the war Ramsay MacDonald (as might be expected) but also Keir Hardie (as might not be) encouraged young men to enlist. Despite this wobbling the ILP should be acknowledged as the largest organisation in Britain in opposition to the war and both Hardie and MacDonald came out against the war. However its policy originated in a faulty concept of what the war was all about. In a contemporary leaflet the ILP argued that the war was “a diplomatist’s war, made by about half-a-dozen men…we sit down and ask ourselves… ‘Why has this war happened?’ the only answer we can give is, because Sir Edward Grey has guided our foreign policy during the past eight years.” (Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left, p. 45). That Sir Edward, what a bastard.

    Such a conspiratorial theory blended well with the wet pacifism endemic in the lower ranks and the antagonism to Tsarist Russia. But the diplomatic cause theory was to cause problems for the ILP, as it attracted a host of golden daffodils in the shape of the Union of Democratic Control. The UDC essentially consisted of Liberals, some high ranking, who wished for a more democratic and open foreign policy. They also viewed the war as caused by secret diplomacy. The bourgeois intellectuals of the UDC, including HN Brailsford, migrated into the ILP diluting the Northern spit and sawdust of the early party and providing the germ of the London based ‘intellectual’ (wobbly) ILP of the 1930s and after.

    The First World War saw the ILP gain a Red reputation with its somewhat half-hearted backing of the Russian Revolution and its incidental association with the ‘Red Clydeside’ strikers. The war also saw the death of Hardie in late 1915 and the rise of James Maxton.

    Golden Age
    Before the First World War the ILP and the Labour Party were pretty much identical. The ILP leaders, notably Ramsay MacDonald (ILP Chairman 1906-9), were also those of the Labour Party. The 1918 constitution, particularly through the introduction of local Labour Parties, redefined the Labour Party not just as a political wing of the trade unions but as a party in itself. As a result the ILP had to redefine itself and in the 1920s its role came to be that of the left wing of the Labour Party. At first such a role was of considerable use to the party. Boosted by the ‘successes’ of the Labour Party, the ILP reached unprecedented heights in 1926 with an all-time high of 60,000 members in 1075 branches and a New Leader circulation of 70-80,000. Three years later the ILP had 37 MPs plus another 123 who were members of the party standing under other endorsement.
    In 1924, to mark the new left turn, the ILP issued the report of its Socialist Plan Committee. Also known as “Socialism in our time”, this became the basis of ILP policy. It defined socialism as the establishment of “a minimum living income” and the “nationalisation of the pivots of capitalism” (i.e. “the banking system, land, mining, electrical generation and distribution, and transport.” (Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left, p. 148) In other words a typical confection of Leftist pseudo-socialism. With the exception of nationalisation of land and the minimum wage this was essentially the programme adopted by the Labour Party in the late 30s and carried out by the 1945-51 government. Given this it might well be asked, “what was the point of the continued existence of the ILP?” The answer is not a lot as we shall see.

    Something very bizarre happened to the ILP in the early 1930s. Ordinarily the left wing acts as the shock troops of the Labour Party, brought out at election time to do donkey work for a small pay off after. Despite grumbling this usually works well. However occasionally the left gets ideas above its station - the Militant case is typical - or revolts at the unpleasant doings of the Parliamentary party. In this case the particular left of the era receives the order of the boot. They never want to go despite the sniping and grumbling and the parting is acrimonious. After the McDonald debacle however the ILP left voluntarily. This turned out to be a ghastly mistake from their point of view.

    Officially the issue at stake was over Standing Orders - whether ILP MPs should without fail follow the Labour Party line. The ILP MPs, led by Maxton, essentially wanted freedom of action - to justify their separate existence as much as anything else. The PLP wanted (as well it might) loyalty in exchange for endorsement (which essentially meant actually getting elected). Neither side was willing to give way, leading to an inevitable break. However behind this was the looming shadow of MacDonald. Disaffiliation occurred in the summer of 1932. MacDonald had formed his National Government with his power-hungry toadies and the Tories the previous year. The Labour Party was badly split and in severe disarray. A major realignment seemed certain. To the ILPers it seemed as if their time had come.

    After disaffiliation the ILP clearly didn’t know what to do. Archibald Fenner Brockway, darling of the old left and big cheese of the ‘30s ILP, remarked: “Since 1932 the Party has been a crucible of the change from reformism to revolutionism” (Inside the Left, p. 237). ‘Revolutionism’ clearly meant desperately jobbing around for popular leftwing causes. In the course of the seven remaining years of the 30s the ILP:
    “experimented in many directions, at one time approaching the Communist International, and at another moving towards the Trotskyist position, at one stage attaching its hope to united fronts and at another reverting to purism, at one period going all out to prepare for Soviets and at another recognising again the value of Parliament.” (Inside the Left, p. 237)
    Reflecting this uncertainty of orientation and plagued by internal factions (pro- and anti-CPGB and Trotskyist) membership plummeted. Immediately before disaffiliation the ILP had 16,700 members in 653 branches. By 1935, just three years later this was down to 4,400 members in 284 branches. This was a particularly dramatic decline given the ongoing depression which had boosted almost all other left wing groups and the ILP’s relatively firm handling of Spain (sending a contingent including George Orwell) and fascism (giving important backing during the Battle of Cable Street).

    Despite this the ILP retained local predominance in parts of Glasgow with numerous local councillors and a range of MPs. This was partly due to an electoral pact with Big Labour and lasted until around 1950. There were other residual centres of strength including Merthyr, Bradford, Norwich, Derby and rather bizarrely Great Yarmouth (where one LF Bunnewell was ILP councillor from 1937 to after 1975).

    Second World War and after
    The ILP recognised the Second World War as basically a conflict between rival capitalists. However confusion remained. The ILP’s ‘Peace Terms’ were: 1. Self determination of ‘peoples’, 2. Subordination of nations to ‘international unity’ and 3. “The establishment of an international economic organisation for the distribution of the world’s resources according to the needs of all peoples”. All of which displays the ILP failure to recognise that whilst the world’s resources are still owned and controlled by the capitalist class, conflicts between sections of that class are inevitable.

    The 1945 election was rather successful for the ILP with three candidates, James Maxton, George McGovern and the Reverend Campbell Stephen, elected (one more than the Communist Party). Fresh with a new influx the ILP seemed set for revival. The success was not to last

    Maxton died little less than a year later. The following year his replacement, James Carmichael joined up with Big Labour. As did McGovern and Campbell. Fenner Brockway also took the jump, in 1947. Maxton had clearly been holding the party together and without him the thing fell apart. Re-affiliation might have saved the day. In 1945 it had knocked on Labour’s door, asking very politely for re-affiliation, but Labour (sensibly) didn’t open it.

    Left out in the cold the ILP fished around for other potential alliances including with us. At the 1947 Conference a motion proposed ‘loose links’ and joint campaigns (peace, colonial freedom and other ‘causes’) with the Anarchist Federation, the Commonwealth Party and the SPGB. We said no. Further proposals were made in 1954 (“Need for a United Socialist Party”) and late 1957. We debated representatives of the ILP, including in 1928 Maxton himself, on numerous occasions throughout its career, the last being in Bolton in 1972.

    The ILP gradually faded from view. It soldiered on however until someone let it back in. In 1975 it re-entered the Labour Party as Independent Labour Publications. Actually this was a bit of a cheat as individual members joined up and on 31 March 1975 the party as such declared itself terminated (a similar thing happened to the trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949).

    Despite the fact that the Independent Labour Party does not now exist, its ghost may be found haunting Left wing shindigs and the like. It remains well thought of by Leftists of a historical bent, but clearly not well remembered.

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Funny Money (2009)

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

    We have received a letter from Paul Grignon, of Canada, ( challenging the analysis in our article “The Myth of Magic Money” in this column last December. He enclosed for review a DVD of his "animated movie series ‘Money as Debt’ which”, he says, “has been viewed by millions worldwide and universally praised as the best explanation of our money system ever produced”.

    Sorry, but we can't join in the chorus of praise as the DVD incorporates all the myths about money and banks that currency cranks have been propagating for years. It even has a top-hatted banker taking off his hat and using it to produce money out of it just as a magician produces a rabbit.
    Apparently, all you need to start a bank is to deposit a sum of money with the central bank and, hey presto, you can start lending out nine times that amount and charge interest on it to boot. Obviously this is nonsense. It's the familiar mistake of assuming that a 10 percent cash-to-other-assets ratio means that, for a given amount of cash deposited with it, a bank can lend out nine times that amount whereas what it means is that it can only lend out nine-tenths of it as it has to keep 10 percent as cash.
    Banks are no different from anyone else who lends money – individuals, pawnbrokers or loan sharks – they can only lend what they've got (either because it's theirs or because they've borrowed it themselves). Grignon’s confusion is partly the fault of academic economics which teaches that bank loans are a form of money in addition to the money the bank already has (Grignon is right about one thing: money deposited in a bank is a loan to that bank).

    In his letter Grignon quotes from an explanatory booklet Modern Money Mechanics, first issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in 1975, which says that from an initial deposit of cash the banking system can go on to eventually make total loans of nine times its amount. Quoting this booklet seems to be obligatory for modern currency cranks, but they could just as easily quote from any economics textbook (except that they see US Federal Reserve as their main enemy).

    This theory, however, does not say or even imply that the extra loans have been created out of nothing by a mere stroke of the pen or, in Grignon’s contemporary version, by "the flash of a few keystrokes". If you follow the theory carefully you will see that each extra bank loan has to be preceded by an extra bank deposit of which only nine-tenth can be re-lent. Grignon accepts this for when the first loan supposedly "created out of nothing" finds its way back to the banking system. The bank receiving this, he says (correctly), can only lend out nine-tenths of it. Logically, he ought to accept this for the first deposit and the first loan too.

    His ideal is a capitalism in which banks have become like savings-and-loan institutions in the US (building societies would be the nearest here) and where the state has a monopoly in the creation of interest-free money. What he doesn't realise is that this is the actual situation: banks are glorified savings-and-loan institutions and the only the state bank has the power to create money out of nothing. And cash is interest-free.

    Sunday, October 4, 2009

    Voice From The Back (2009)

    From the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    As various pieces of legislation pass through the US governmental machine it is often observed that the process is torturously slow. An example of this tardy procedure has recently been revealed in the proposed Health Bill. No such delay is evidenced when it comes to military budgets. "With hardly any debate, a powerful Senate committee Thursday approved President Barack Obama's $128 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the budget year beginning in October. The move came as anxiety is increasing on Capitol Hill over the chances for success in Afghanistan and as Obama weighs whether to send more forces to the country. The war funding was approved as the Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for a $636 billion spending measure funding next year's Pentagon budget." (Huffington Post, 10 September) The health of the American working class is obviously of less importance than the military needs of the owning class.

    Capitalism is a poisonous society. Thousands of coal miners have suffered lung diseases, thousands more in shipyards and factories have been maimed by asbestos. In the mad scramble for more and more profits the owning class have endangered the health and even the life of the working class. From China comes this latest example of the profit system's murderous nature. "More than 2,000 children have been found to have lead poisoning because Chinese factories greedy for profit have spewed out pollutants without carrying out even the most minor environmental monitoring. Officials announced yesterday that 1,354 children under 14, who had been living and going to school for more than two years within a few hundred metres of a manganese smelter, had excess lead in their blood. Local officials said that the numbers could rise when further tests were carried out." (London Times, 21 August)

    In the past when Southern Californian fruit growers were faced with a glut and falling prices they let the fruit rot on the trees. When castigated for this apparent madness they pointed out the quite logical capitalist argument that they would have to pay pickers wages for fruit they couldn't sell. When again they were taken to task for this argument they were offered by some charitable organisations the prospect of them supplying free labour and they would distribute to the needy. Again the fruit growers had an answer to that. "Every year charitable organisations buy at cut-rate prices our unsold surplus. Giving it away would even spoil that source of income for us." The fruitgrowers may have appeared heartless but from an economic standpoint letting the fruit rot seemed the logical action. A similar solution is being followed today by French wine producers. “Hopes of a glut of cheap champagne are set to be dashed when vineyards meet next week to agree on a big cut in production to prop up prices. With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market." (London Times, 29 August) Capitalism is a crazy system, obviously inside socialism we would deal with the problem by drinking more champagne.

    The newspapers are full of stories of unemployed workers suffering the indignity of their homes being re-possessed. Every day we hear of the crashing property market and the resultant misery suffered by hard working families. The story is completely different for members of the capitalist class of course. "At £10m it must be the most expensive sea view in Britain. A Russian multi-millionaire liked a plot of land on the coast at Sandbanks in Dorset so much that he was happy to pay £5m for it. The plot was already occupied by a substantial house, but he did not much like it so is paying the same again to have it knocked down and replaced with something better. The purchase last September by Maxim Demin, 39, a petrochemicals trader, shows that at the top end of the property market lavish spending has survived the slowdown." (Sunday Times, 13 September) There is nothing unique about the property market. In every market – housing, education, medical treatment, holidays and entertainment – "lavish spending has survived the slowdown".

    Away back in the bad old days we had ruthless dictators with over-bearing ideas of their own importance but today's leaders are much more modest fellows. In the past we had people like the despot Stalin who regularly polled over 100 percent at "elections", nowadays in "democratic" Belorussia we have more self-effacing creatures at the helm of state. "The Belorussian strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, admitted that he rigged the 2006 election because, he said, his popularity was so vast that the true margin of victory was unbelievable and had to be cut from 93 to 80 per cent." (London Times, 28 August)