Monday, November 30, 2009

Copenhagen: another predictable failure (2009)

Editorial from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

The most recent IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) findings say that rich, industrial countries must cut emissions from 1990 levels by 25-40 percent by 2020 if the world is to have a fair chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

In July the G-8 leaders agreed to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial level at which human civilisation developed.Pre-Copenhagen the EU has pledged 20 percent cuts by 2020, but will increase this to 30 percent if others – like the US – do likewise. Japan has pledged 25 percent reductions by 2020 if others will do the same. Chinese president Hu pledged to cut emissions ‘by a notable margin’ by 2020. The US has given no assurances but a bill Obama has said he supports (the Waxman-Markey bill) would give less than 5 percent reductions by 2020.

Also in July, the findings of a newly completed study by WBGU (a German acronym) – the chairman of which, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, is chief climate adviser to the German government – were given for the first time to an invitation only conference in the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico. The study has since been published. This WBGU study says the US must stop all CO2 emissions by 2020; Germany,Italy and other industrial nations by 2025-30 and China by 2035, with the whole world needing to be carbonemissions- free by 2050. The study would allow the big polluters to delay their slowdown by buying emissions rights from developing countries, enabling possible extension times of around a decade for some. A fundamental principle of the study is the ‘per capita principle’, meaning that the right to emit greenhouse gases is shared equally by all people on Earth. Applied to a world population of seven billion, each person on earth would have a quota of 2.7 tons of CO2, whereas currently US citizens emit 20 tons per capita.

Schellnhuber claims that meeting these criteria will give humanity a two in three chance of staying within that 2 degrees C limit – although there is no guarantee. To increase the odds in favour carbon emissions would have to end sooner; delaying another decade or so before halting all emissions would reduce the odds to fifty-fifty. Odds are that whatever is promoted at Copenhagen there will be much jockeying and positioning, many fine words and ifs and buts by selfimportant world leaders and another decade down the ever-more polluted and climate change-affected road we’ll look back and see another abject failure – just like Rio, Kyoto, Johannesburg, etc. ad infinitum. What more can we expect from a system which makes a habit of fouling its own and everybody else’s backyard as long as it’s making money by blind pursuit of growth? Come 2020 the King Canutes of capitalism will still be trying to hold back the waves with empty gestures.

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 126

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 126th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1563 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • The illusion of freedom
  • WSPUS Manifesto on the War, 1917
  • 1789: France’s bourgeois revolution
  • Coming Events:

    Radical Film Forum

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

    29th November - Sicko

    13th December - Earthlings

    Quote for the week:

    "Scientific socialism considers our views dependent upon our material needs, and our political standpoint dependent upon the economic position of the class we belong to. Moreover, this conception corresponds with the aspirations of the masses whose needs are in the first place material, while the ruling class must necessarily base itself on the deductive principle, on the preconceived unscientific notion that the spiritual salvation and the mental training of the masses are to precede the solution of the social question." Joseph Dietzgen, Scientific Socialism, 1873.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Pathfinders: Gullibility Travels (2009)

    The Pathfinders Column from the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    One has to feel a bit sorry for Graham Mace who, keen to improve his car’s green performance, bought an online ‘hydrofuel conversion kit’ in the hope that it would save 30 per cent on fuel consumption, only to find that it ran on snake oil instead (‘Fuel boost device ‘does not work’’, BBC Online, 19 Oct). After chucking £700 at this miracle device he hadn’t saved so much as a dribble of fuel, at which point a BBC investigation revealed the awful truth. It was a con.

    But one wonders at the thinking here. Didn’t it occur to him to wonder why none of his friends knew about this ingenious gadget, why garages or motor suppliers didn’t stock it, or why it wasn’t fitted as standard at the factory? And what possessed him, after shelling out the original £290 with no success, to spend a further £400 on ‘upgrades’ rather than cut his losses? Even if it had worked, he’d have had to drive to Vladivostok and back to make up for the outlay. What on earth was going on?

    Consumer programmes regularly trot out the old standard: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. But throw in a bit of seductive science and the consumer just seems to melt like warm butter, effectively separated from their money and common sense in equal measure. New Scientist notes that dodgy online companies think they can sell anything if they put the word ‘quantum’ in their blurb, like the ‘quantum pulse device’ that powers a ‘human generator’ and retails for a mere €420,000 (17 October). Hard to believe that anyone is dumb enough to fall for this supposed immortality machine, but you would only need one or two gullible net-travellers and you’d be made for life, so such stuff is always worth a punt to the scruple-free. If people can’t summon the wit to do a bit of comparative research, one feels that they deserve everything they get (or rather, don’t get) for their money.

    Daft pseudo-scientific ideas have been around a long time though. Who hasn’t been assured with huge confidence by someone wearing a copper bracelet that it helps them enormously with their arthritis? But in the first properly controlled trial, at York University, these often expensive jewellery accessories fared no better than placebos (‘Bracelets ‘useless’ in arthritis’, BBC Online, 16 October). What undoubtedly explains the popularity, and durability, of such urban myths is the effect of ‘authority’, whether it comes from one’s peers, one’s elders or one’s newspaper, even though not one of these can be trusted as far as you can throw a grandad or a printing press.

    As the Observer reminds us in relation to current fears concerning the rise of racism (18 October), we are horribly suggestible. We know, for instance, that we would rather give wrong answers than right ones if it means fitting in better (Asch conformity experiment, 1951), that the ‘only following orders’ defence at Nuremberg is more than a mere excuse (the Milgram pain-inflicting experiment, 1961, and the Stanford prison experiment, 1971), and that it’s a whole lot easier to start a Nazi party among liberal students than anyone would believe possible (Ron Jones and the ‘Third Wave’ experiment, 1967).

    It’s not our fault. We’re a social species, with an outsize brain as mad as it is miraculous, and science is about as natural to us as an abacus to a baboon. Gullibility is only another word for ‘faith’ or ‘conviction’, part of the social glue that binds us. It travels by express while reason has to plod on foot. But that’s all the more reason to make an effort with our reasoning capacity, both in buying products and buying into ideas.

    Improbability drivers
    Who would believe - a vegetarian spider and a stingless wasp? Both of these turned out to be true, in a ‘truth is stranger than April fool’ kind of way, as was the story about the Maldives politicians who held a cabinet meeting under water. While this excellent innovation should be made compulsory for all politicians (minus scuba gear) we look forward to a story about a ‘benevolent species of capitalist’ discovered lurking somewhere north of Basingstoke and miraculously still in business.

    Wackier still is the theory put forward by two CERN physicists, that the Large Hadron Collider is being sabotaged by ripples in time returning from some future cataclysm where, oh cripes, they really do find the Higgs boson and nature revolts (‘The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate’, New York Times, 12 October). That’s the thing about quantum theory. It’s so improbable anyway that theoretical physicists, like celebs, can talk any bollocks they like and still get serious media attention. Maybe we should start talking about ‘quantum socialism’ and thereby grab a few headlines.

    Time to call time
    After the runaway success of Europe-wide anti-smoking legislation, much is now being made about ‘passive drinking’ as states gear up for a similar assault on that other popular working-class pastime.

    Despite efforts by the UK government chief advisor on health, Liam Donaldson, to incite a wholesome evangelism among the public by tarring all drinkers as potential wife-beaters or lager louts, the concept of ‘passive drinking’ is just not going to hold its whiskey and water.

    Anyone who’s ever been in a pub knows perfectly well that wild-west saloon brawls do not break out as a rule nor do most customers get arrested or fall off buildings pretending to be superheroes.

    The fact that more than half the UK’s population ignore the government safety limits on alcohol (Observer, 18 October) may be because a), the limits are too low to be of any practical value and b), the government has banned every other drug for spurious reasons so nobody believes anything they say. The half who stay below the limits are probably lying about it anyway.

    It’s not that there isn’t a problem, of course there is. But the bigger problem is a patronising establishment which, not content with screwing workers into the ground, then presumes to lecture us about what’s good for us using dubious arguments they fully intend to ignore themselves. For let’s not be in any doubt, this is not about anti-drinking among the ruling classes. Let them swill their port and champers and snort their coke until they’re cross-eyed and drooling over the chambermaids. This is about controlling the workforce, saving some police and hospital A&E expenses, and cutting absenteeism in the dark satanic wage-mills.

    Maybe alcohol is the fifth biggest cause of premature death and disability worldwide (New Scientist, 14 October), but workers know damn well that capitalism is responsible for the other four, and that’s what drives them to drink in the first place. Capitalists think they can save money by forcing puritanical self-denial on workers, but with the stress of exploitation we face, we don’t need temperance, we need to lose our tempers.
    Paddy Shannon

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    My road to socialism (2006)

    From the May 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

    I first encountered the Socialist Party in a South Wales valley town. It was late 1972, and I was at a loose end politically. Years before, I had flirted with the Communist Party, to the outrage of my parents, despite my maternal grandparents having been CP supporters from the time of the Russian Revolution.

    I used to read Soviet Weekly, and a lavishly illustrated magazine sent to me direct from Moscow, Soviet Union, full of happy smiling Russian workers on their way to exceeding the norms of the latest Five Year Plan. Nothing about Stalin having murdered thirty million or so of his own people. Nothing about the string of slave labour camps dotted around the Arctic Circle, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, where political dissidents ended up.

    What cured me of Bolshevism was the outbreak of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. My family possessed one of the few televisions in our street in those days. Here was film, direct from Budapest, of Russian tanks slaughtering Hungarian workers, whose only offence was to try to shake off Soviet tyranny. I wrote a blistering letter to Soviet Weekly but, of course, I never got a reply. One of the maxims of capitalist society is obviously ‘when faced with the truth, ignore it.’

    For the next sixteen years, except for one brief episode, I was more or less in the political wilderness. My father was a lifelong member of the NUM and its local predecessor, the South Wales Miners’ Federation, the “Fed” whose subs had to be paid in secret, lest you ended up on the colliery owner’s blacklist, then being unable to get a job in any colliery in the valley. Dad was an admirer of Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Health Minister, a former miner himself, and MP for a local constituency, Ebbw Vale. Bevan’s stock went even higher in our house when he described the Conservatives as “lower than vermin”.

    The watershed came in 1964. For the first time since 1951 a Labour government was elected. But it didn’t turn out to be the promised land that some had thought. Far from it. Labour proved itself incapable of solving the intractable issues of capitalism, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, warfare and a host of other working class problems too.

    Somewhere between 1964 and 1972, still looking for an alternative to capitalism, I joined Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party. Out of the frying pan into the fire! Some forty years later there are only one or two aspects of their policies I can recollect. They regarded themselves as a socialist party, by which they meant state capitalism, and they had the curious belief that the little countries of Europe were all doing better than the larger ones, as if capitalism was particularly considerate in this respect. Of course, it was twaddle. What Plaid didn’t say was that in an independent Wales, the situation of the worker would be no different from in a larger political unit, i.e. they would have only their ability to work to sell, and so would be shut out from the wealth of society, which would be appropriated by a Welsh capitalist class. For the worker, nationalism is a total waste of time.

    And so to 1972. On a November day I picked up a copy of the Socialist Standard in the local library. It came like a political thunderbolt. Here were ideas I had never encountered before. Free access to the wealth of society. Production for use. The workers have no country. Abolition of money. No more governments, no more states, no more frontiers, no armies, no war.

    For the first time in my life, I felt politically free.

    Friday, November 27, 2009

    Stopping short (2005)

    Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Babylon and Beyond: the Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. by Derek Wall Pluto Press

    This is a textbook-like survey of various trends in the anti-globalisation movement. As such, it covers a great deal of material in less than 200 pages, from avowed supporters of capitalism such as Joseph Stiglitz to autonomists like Toni Negri, via Naomi Klein and (but why?) Major Douglas and social credit. There are too many direct quotations, and too many typos (e.g. references to Lenin on imperialism as 'the highest state of capitalism'). But not many readers will be familiar with all the writers and activists mentioned here, so the book does serve a useful purpose, though it is scarcely a full guide to the ideas of particular thinkers.

    On the whole Wall summarises other views rather than expressing opinions of his own, but he does sometimes let his own attitudes show through. For instance, he is sceptical about the ideas of some 'green localists' that a decentralised economy would naturally lead to ecological sustainability and social justice.

    The chapter on 'Marxisms' (note the plural) starts well, with a photo of the Socialist Party's founding conference, but ends weakly with references to Russia, Cuba, etc., as if these dictatorships constituted a valid reason for rejecting Marx's ideas. He discerns a 'pro-globalisation strand of Marx's thought', which is correct to the extent that Marx saw capitalism as expanding into more and more parts of the world, but it is simplistic to transfer what he wrote in this regard 150 years ago to the present day.

    Capitalism has long been a world system and created the potential for abundance, so there is no need for further globalisation and the concomitant wars and impoverishment.

    As a Green Party member, Wall himself seems to support what he calls 'ecosocialism'. Certainly we can accept that Socialism needs to include ecological concerns, indeed that this will be a crucial aspect of a society based on common ownership. We can also agree with his description of the ideas of Joel Kovel: "The use of what is useful and beautiful must be pursued, while exchange values must be rejected. . . . The rejection of exchange values is essential to reducing resource consumption and human alienation."

    Unfortunately Wall stops short of advocating the abolition of the wages system, and it's just not clear what sort of society he does stand for. There are some remarks about "moving beyond the market" and "extending the commons", and some praise for the open source software movement, where software is put on the web for free (Wall suggests that Marx would have used the open source browser Firefox!). This is OK as far as it goes, but it needs to be taken that crucial bit further.
    Paul Bennett

    Babies and bombs

    From the Socialist Courier blog

    The charity World Vision is running an appeal for funds that it calls Child Health Now.

    It recently took a full page advertisement in The London Times (16 November) that illustrated the plight of the world's poorest children. It reported that twins in Zambia had severe diarrhea but that the clinic they attended had only enough drugs to treat one of them. The untreated one consequently died and joined the estimated two million children that die every year of this untreated condition.

    The advertisement then went on to point out "A simple mixture of salt, sugar and water that costs just a few pence can save a child's life, without requiring hospital treatment." The death of a child for the lack of something costing a few pence is shocking enough but the charity then claimed "Today, World Vision launches its Child Health Now campaign, calling for an end to preventable child deaths. ...If the UK government, and the international community, channeled more aid into simple community provisions, like vitamins and rehydration salts for children cut off from health systems, the lives of six million children a year could be saved."

    What the well intentioned World Vision do not understand is that we live inside a capitalist society where the priority is making profit not saving children. As we reported in the July 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard "Military spending worldwide rose by 4 per cent to $1.46 trillion."

    Immense expenditure to protect markets, sources of raw materials and profits, yet millions of kids die for the lack of a few pence.

    Richard Donnelly

    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    Workers State? Pull the other one (2009)

    From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    How could anyone have seriously argued that the workers ruled in Russia?
    Incredible as it might seem millions believed that Russia under Stalin and his successors was some sort of “Workers State”. Most – those in and around the official “Communist” parties – thought it was a workers’ paradise, socialism even. A minority – the Trotskyists – wanted to have their cake and eat it: to claim credit for what they saw as Russia’s achievements but to repudiate the things they didn’t like. They called it a “degenerate Workers State”. One of these was the Belgian journalist and academic, Ernest Mandel (1923-1995), a biography of whom by Jan Willem Stutje Ernest Mandel, A Rebel’s Dream Deferred has just been published in English translation by Verso.

    “Workers State” is a bit of a contradiction in terms, but if it is to mean anything it would have to mean that the workers controlled the state; which could only be done through some democratic mechanism. But the workers never controlled the state in Russia. Within a few years of the Bolsheviks seizing power in November 1917 they had suppressed all other parties and established a one-party dictatorship. While he was a member of the government Trotsky justified the description “Workers State” by arguing that the Bolshevik Party, which controlled the state, was the party of the workers who therefore controlled the state through it. When, however, he and his followers were banned too he could no longer use that argument. So, in the Revolution Betrayed (1936) he came up with another: that Russia was still a “Workers State” because most industry was nationalised, there was central planning and a state monopoly of foreign trade. This, despite his admission that state power was actually controlled by a privileged “bureaucracy” and his producing statistics to show that the workers were badly off and oppressed

    This argument was so absurd that it soon aroused criticism within the ranks of his own followers. Some refused to described a state in which the workers were oppressed and powerless as a “Workers State”. They disagreed about what to call it – some saw it as a new exploitative class society, others as “state capitalism” – but agreed that it wasn’t any kind of “Workers State”, not even a degenerate one. Trotsky stuck to his “degenerate Workers State” theory till one of its agents assassinated him in 1940.

    Mandel had become a Trotskyist while still a teenager and during the war took part in underground Trotskyist activity in Belgium where his family lived. He was caught in 1944 and spent the remainder of the war in labour camps in Germany. After the war he emerged as one of the leaders of the Trotskyist “Fourth International”. One of the photos in this book is of a meeting of six leaders of this organisation in Paris in 1948. Of the six two had or came to regard Russia as state-capitalist. But not Mandel. He stuck to Trotsky’s dogma, and even extended it, describing the puppet regimes Russia set up in eastern Europe as “deformed Workers States”.

    In 1969, in a polemic against Michael Kidron, of the International Socialism group of Trotskyists (later the SWP) who argued that Russia was state capitalist, Mandel wrote:
    “Ever since social-democratic opponents of the Russian October revolution hatched the theory of ‘capitalism’ continuing to exist in the Soviet Union, supporters of that theory have been faced with a difficult choice. Either they consider that Russian ‘capitalism’ has all the basic features of classic capitalism as analysed by Marx, to start with generalized commodity production, and that it also shows all the basic contradictions of capitalism, including capitalist crisis of overproduction— and then they have a hard time discovering evidence for this. Or they admit the obvious fact that most of these features are absent from the Soviet economy, and they then have to contend that these features are not ‘basic’ to capitalism anyhow, which in the last analysis only means exploitation of wage-labour by ‘accumulators’.” (The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism, p. 11).
    As a matter of fact the social and economic system in Russia did exhibit the basic features of capitalism: minority control of the means of production (via nationalisation); generalised commodity production (i.e. generalised production for sale and the use of money); the accumulated of capital valued in money out of profits; and, in particular, yes, the exploitation of wage-labour by those who monopolised the means of production. Of course there were differences from what Mandel called here “classic” capitalism, due to the specific circumstances under which the system had come into being and developed which had resulted in a hugely increased economic role for the state. Hence state capitalism. In any event, even if Mandel’s narrow definition of capitalism as private enterprise is accepted, that would not make Russia into any kind of “Workers State”, only some new form of exploitative class society.

    After discussing the “increasing rights for factory managers” then being granted as part of economic reforms introduced by the Russian government, Mandel declared:
    “We are therefore convinced that capitalism could be restored in the Soviet Union or in any Eastern European country only after breaking the fierce resistance of the working class. ( …) Given the present constellation of social forces, both nationally and internationally, we think it very unlikely that this resistance could actually be broken under these conditions, and that capitalism could be restored either in the Soviet Union, or in Yugoslavia, or in any other bureaucratically degenerated or deformed workers' state.” (p. 16)
    When this happened (and we, neither, saw this happening within twenty years) the working class put up no resistance to the transition from state capitalism to a more “classic” type of capitalism. Clearly, they did not share the same illusion as Mandel about Russia and its satellites being some sort of workers’ regime and so worth defending. Because Mandel and his Fourth International did believe the workers would resist, they placed great hope in the outcome of events in eastern Europe in the 1980s, trying to establish Trotskyist cells there. According to Stutje, they had some rather limited success in Poland and Czechoslovakia. But the outcome – a full return to “classic” capitalism rather than a regenerated “Workers State” – must have been a great disappointment. In fact, reading between the lines of this biography, Mandel never seems to have recovered from it.

    Earlier Mandel had offered his expert advice as an economists to one of the “deformed Workers States” – Cuba when Che Guevara was Minister of Industry between 1961 and 1964. He visited Cuba a number of times and supported Guevara’s view that enterprises should be financed by direct grants from the central government and not be instructed to balance the books from their own activities. In other words, he was in favour of a much more centralised form of state capitalism than existed (or was eventually adopted).

    Having said this, when it came to writing about “classic” capitalism Mandel was not too bad. In his Marxist Economic Theory (1962 in French, 1968 in English translation) he set out to show, on the basis of contemporary facts (and not just on the facts from the 1850s and 1860s that Marx had used), how Marx’s analysis of capitalism was still valid. The English hardback edition was divided into two volumes, the first of which, dealing with Marx’s theories, can still be recommended (the second part, dealing with the theories of Lenin and Trotsky and the nature of Russian society relapsed into Trotskyist scholasticism). His introductions to the Penguin edition of the three volumes of Capital are also good, as is his short pamphlet An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, even though it introduces the dubious concept of “neo-capitalism”, which he later called “late capitalism”.

    Politically, Mandel was a dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyist, explaining every working class failure by a lack of the right leadership, i.e. of a Trotskyist vanguard. He also practised the dishonest Trotskyist tactic of “entryism”, joining the reformist Belgian “Socialist” Party in 1951, with a view to winning a leftwing following which he hoped to lead out of the party to form an open Trotskyist vanguard party. He achieved some success, even rising to be for a short while the editor of the BSP’s daily paper, Le Peuple. He lost this post when another paper he helped edit, La Gauche, criticised the party’s leadership. La Gauche advocated “structural reforms” of capitalism, basically the nationalisation of the holding companies which dominated the Belgian economy. This was popular amongst many workers in the coal, steel and manufacturing industries of the French-speaking part of Belgium, and Mandel managed to get the support of some of the union leaders and local politicians there.

    According to Stutje, it was not until 1961 that Mandel told one of the trade union leaders that he was a Trotskyist:
    “Until now Mandel had always kept quiet about his membership of the Fourth International. Now it was time to break the silence. He went to Yerna’s office and confessed to his bewildered friend, ‘I need to tell you the truth. I am a member of the Fourth International.’ Yerna was disappointed that his comrade had not trusted him sooner” (pp. 80-1).
    In the end, as later with Militant in Britain, the inevitable happened. In 1964 Mandel and his followers were booted out of the BSP. In a letter to Ken Coates (then a fellow Trotskyist, later a Labour MEP) that year he told him: “A left wing had been built in the Socialist Party from 1961 on, accompanied by an autonomous, clandestine Trotskyist core group (emphasis added).
    According to Stutje,
    “The question of when, where and how to leave the SP was clearly on the agenda from the early 1960s. Mandel had only wanted to make sure they left with a substantial group – and by that he meant thousands” (p. 85).
    In the event, the main trade union leader he had relied on went off at a tangent and embraced Walloon (i.e. French-speaker) nationalism and Mandel left with a few hundred only. But a new bandwagon soon came along – student unrest – and he was able to jump on that, influencing student leaders such as Alain Krivine in France, Tariq Ali in Britain (both of whom became Trotskyists) and, to a lesser extent, Rudi Dutschke in Germany (who didn’t but, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, eventually joined the Greens). Tariq Ali, though no longer a Trotskyist but still an admirer of Mandel, has written the foreword to Stutje’s biography.
    Mandel was perfectly aware of what socialism really was as he had written in his polemic with Kidron:
    “[S]ocialism means a classless society. It therefore presupposes not only the suppression of private property of the means of production, henceforth managed in a planned way by the associate producers themselves, but it also calls for a level of development of the productive forces which makes possible the withering away of commodity production, of money, and of the state.” (p. 17)
    According to him, however, the productive forces had not yet reached the necessary level of development, so socialism was not an immediate possibility. Only a new society – based on nationalisation, planning and a state monopoly of foreign trade – was. He called it “transitional society” but it would only have been a form of state capitalism and state capitalism is not, as the experience of Russia in the last century showed, a step towards socialism. It turned out to be, in the joke circulating towards the end of the regime, “the longest route between capitalism and capitalism”.
    Adam Buick

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    No logic (2003)

    Book Review from the May 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Fences and Windows. By Naomi Klein. Flamingo, 2002.

    The protests in Seattle, London, Genoa and many other places between 1999 and 2001 gave rise not just to labels such as J18 but also to a widespread movement known variously as anti-corporate, anti-globalisation and even anti-capitalist. Naomi Klein's book No Logo came to be seen as a manifesto for this movement, and Klein herself as a spokesperson for it, despite her protestations to the contrary on both counts. No Logo (on which see the Socialist Standard for December 2000 and August 2001) chronicled the rise of massive global companies such as Nike and McDonalds, and of resistance to them. Klein's latest book is explicitly not a follow-up to her earlier work, though inevitably it deals with similar issues.

    Fences and Windows consists of a selection of Klein's journalism and speeches, mainly from 2000 and 2001, and this is both its strength and its weakness. It gains immediacy from having been written in the midst or the aftermath of demos, protests and large-scale discussions, but lacks any overall theme or coherence. Nevertheless, a number of topics that it deals with can be singled out. The fences of the title are the (literal and metaphorical) barriers that prevent people from protesting, from using various resources and from gaining access to education and so on. And the windows are the various kinds of opposition, from mass efforts at direct democracy to landless Brazilian farmers cutting down fences around unused land.

    A chapter written in Prague is interesting for what it reveals of the views of many young Czechs. They see both capitalism and “communism” (read: state capitalism) as centralising power in the hands of a few and of treating people as less than fully human. The issue is not whether the state or multinationals are in power, but of how power is distributed. As argued in other pieces, poor countries are required to follow the economic rules laid down by the rich – who then disregard them themselves when they see fit. Post 9/11, even Canada has been forced by the US to toughen security at its borders, and give up a great deal of control over them to US security officials.

    The power-holders have of course not just sat idly by while the protesters make their protests. As a way to avoid the objectors, they have moved some of their meetings to virtually inaccessible places. More worryingly, protest and dissent have themselves been criminalised, with police violence becoming more or less the norm, with prominent resisters being arrested on trumped-up charges and so kept out of the way during demonstrations, and with all civil disobedience being equated with violence. (This has become worse since the invasion of Iraq, especially in the US, with any protest regarded as helping “the nation's enemies”.)

    The final section of the book turns to positive proposals. A chapter entitled “Limits of Political Parties” attacks the New Democratic Party, Canada's nearest equivalent of the Labour Party (Klein is herself Canadian, and this piece originally appeared in a Toronto newspaper). Klein notes that the most socially excluded parts of Canada's population support “an idea entirely absent from the mainstream left: a deep distrust of the state”. While the NDP advocates strong interventionist central government, a true left-wing party should “articulate a different vision, one founded on local democracy and sustainable economic development”. The last chapter proposes a merger of two forces, international anti-globalisation activists and community-based organizations.

    But there is still no real picture of a society to replace capitalism, or of what the real implications of local democracy and sustainability might be. These cannot be valued or implemented in a world divided along the lines of class and nation, where profit is the priority. A thoroughgoing change to a world without classes, nations, governments or profit is needed. Sadly, Klein and the rest of the anti-globalisation movement, despite the sincerity and effectiveness of much of their critique of capitalism, have taken the first steps but have yet to see through to the genuine alternative.
    Paul Bennett

    Spot the difference (2009)

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

    The British National Party has an economic policy? Apparently, and it's not just send all non-white people (and Poles) back to where they came from and give their jobs to British workers. Their manifesto for last month's European elections said:
    “All the old parties are in the pockets of the banks and big business. Lab-Lib-Con all pretend to be worried about job losses but have allowed globalisation to destroy jobs and drag down wages . . . We will protect British jobs from cut-throat foreign competition and put British workers first – every time!”
    How they propose to do this can be found on their website:
    “Globalisation has caused the export of jobs and industries to the Far East, and has brought ruin and unemployment to British industries and the communities who depend on them. Accordingly, the BNP calls for the selective exclusion of foreign-made goods from British markets and the reduction of foreign imports. We will ensure that our manufactured goods are, wherever possible, produced in British factories, employing British workers. When this is done, unemployment in this country will be brought to an end and secure, well-paid employment will flourish.” (
    That's easier said than done. Basically, it's a proposal to try to isolate capitalist Britain from the world market. But this couldn't be done without making things worse.
    It is naïve to assume that if a British government imposed a "selective exclusion of foreign-made goods", i.e. protectionism, the governments of other capitalist countries would just take this lying down. They would adopt similar measures aimed at selectively excluding British, i.e. for them "foreign", imports. British manufacturing exports would be bound to suffer. Unemployment would return (if it ever disappeared) and "secure, well-paid employment" would wither not flourish.
    The BNP was not the only party to advocate such a pie-in-the-sky policy as a supposed way to secure jobs and end unemployment. Here is what the No2EU list, led by Bob Crow of the RMT union and supported by the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) and the ex-Militant Tendency Trotskyists:
    “Nation states with the right to self-determination and their governments are the only institutions that can control the movement of big capital and clip the wings of the trans-national corporations and banks. . . . To revitalise the economy, Britain must return to creating wealth based especially in manufacturing, hi-tech and trade across the world . . . To return to an economy based on manufacturing requires massive investment and where appropriate protection of home industries. It is the only way to ensure jobs and a decent safe future for the peoples of Britain.” (
    They don’t explain any more than the BNP where the profitable market for these extra manufacturing goods is to come from. They, too, dream of a national capitalism permanently providing high wages and steady jobs.
    No wonder the groups that made up No2EU refuse to debate with the BNP. When it comes to economic policy, it wouldn't be much of a debate as they wouldn't find much to disagree about, especially as the BNP also advocates "the renationalisation of monopoly utilities and services, compensating only individual investors and pension funds". We, on the other hand, are prepared to debate against both of them (together if need be, to save time) and put the socialist case that, as capitalism is already a world system, there are no national solutions to the problems it causes for workers and that the only answer is go forward to world-wide socialism not back to the Nation State.

    For more on the BNP, see:

  • From the July 2009 Socialist Standard, 'Who's afraid of the BNP?'
  • Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    The death of ideas? (2001)

    From the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

    On the Sunday before polling-day, in his Letter From America, Alistair Cooke commented on the General Election by recalling the time, when against the odds, he correctly predicted a victory for conservatism. This was in 1970 when Wilson, who was expected to win, lost to Heath. Coming up to date Cooke again predicted a victory for conservatism but not for the Conservative Party under Hague. This was to be a victory for the conservatism of the Labour Party under Blair. Cooke has not been the only one to notice that leading politicians are more or less interchangeable. When the Labour Party sought to discredit Hague with a poster showing him with a Margaret Thatcher wig, the Economist replied by showing Blair with a similar Thatcher make-over. In his talk, Cooke described Blair as a “rightist liberal” and it is true that Thatcher, Hague and Blair have more in common than they have against each other.

    Cooke also related these similarities to politics in America where there has been a similar obliteration of differences between the Republicans and Democrats. Both in the United States and Britain ideas and principles seem to have disappeared from the mainstream of public debate. This is being described as a time of “post-ideological politics”, or, perhaps more commonly, as the view that “all politicians are the same”.

    And this was confirmed by the spokespeople of the three main parties who addressed the issues of the election not so much as people with differing ideas about the kind of world we should be living in but merely as accountants arguing over ways of managing the economy. The big questions were “should we have more tax or less tax”. “How can we make the system more efficient?” “How can we reduce tax and still spend more on health, education and the police.” The public view of politicians is already low. They are often seen as careerists and opportunists or even as liars and sleaze merchants. But with all the questions about how best to run the economy and the petty managerial differences that were blown up around them they have added to their dubious reputations by also becoming utterly boring. Never was politics less inspired.

    Tweedledum and Tweedledee
    However, it is wrong to see all this as the death of political ideas. The fact that politicians have become mere state functionaries means they have come to share the same ideas. These assume a continuation of the status quo. During the election, it was massively agreed by all the main parties that whoever won or lost, the future would be capitalist business as usual. And whilst it has become common for politicians to be depicted in the image of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, what we don't see is very much analysis pointing to the reasons why this has come about. It is mainly because governments have to react to economic conditions over which they have little control and these pressures take no account of the aspirations different governments may have.

    This economic framework within which governments have to act, which severely limits their political options and so tends to cast them in the same mould, was acknowledged by Tony Blair himself when he returned to Downing Street the day after polling day. He spoke of the challenge facing Britain in confronting “the forces of global competition and technological change”.

    The capitalist system has swept aside the traditional ways of life of different countries and has grown to become a world-wide structure. This has happened in large part under Labour and Social Democratic governments. Part of the job of these governments has been to protect property rights, to manage the developing system of exploitation in a smooth and stable way, and to ensure that key services such as education and infrastructures are suitably developed so that within the patterns of national and international trade the economy performs as efficiently as possible.

    Always striving for profit the system staggers along, subject to volatile market conditions and moving in an unpredictable way between growth, stagnation and severe slump. It is also subject to the conflicting claims of wages and profits and the need of governments to spend taxes on essential services, dole, pensions and the maintenance of armed forces and police, etc. Within this inherently chaotic system with governments reacting to conditions instead of creating them, short of extreme crisis there is little scope for running it in radically different ways. So its political managers are reduced to arguing out differences which are mostly minor or sham, about how best to spend the money that comes to them, depending on their luck with the economy.

    And those who set out to change society through winning political power and reforms have had to accept what was always inevitable, that reformism is a graveyard for such hopes. This happens not because reforms have never made a difference to the way the system works. For anyone wishing to bring about a new and better world, reformism requires a pact with the devil where the forming of a government means being sucked into running the system. This is what has happened to the Labour Party. It has fallen victim to a corrupting process in which the allurements of government power have ruled out any realistic sense of what can be done with such power. As a consequence, the Labour Party not only accepts the capitalist system but it is now fully committed to managing its continued development.

    Ritual of voting and blaming
    But although the electorate are doing it in decreasing numbers, the ritual of voting one lot in and afterwards blaming them for failure and replacing them with carbon copies, is futile. In part this results from living in a society dominated by vested interests with immense power. This produces a culture of cynicism and blame in which an alienated population feel they have no real powers to bring about change. But the fact remains that in most developed countries governments are in office by consent and this brings responsibility back to the majority of people to do more than just vote and blame. They have to realise where their true interests lie, do their own thinking and act on their own behalf. For this, people have to re-engage with the battle of ideas. Despite the misunderstanding and distortion that confuses political debate, especially about what is meant by socialism, there is a clear contrast between the ideas that support the capitalist system and their political opposite, socialism.
    Some of the language used by Conservatives or New Labour politicians may sound different. Conservatives may claim to uphold the best and most enduring values from the past, speak of the virtues and freedoms of economic individualism, and the merits of life in a property-owning democracy. From the mouth of Tony Blair we hear the aim of social equality expressed as “equality of opportunity” where “everyone gets their chance to fulfil their true potential” in a “meritocratic nation”. But in both cases the language expresses a shared support for the capitalist system whilst putting a gloss on an anti-social society that cannot work in the interests of the majority of people.

    The reality behind the gloss is class ownership of all the means of producing goods and all resources. It means markets and profit deciding what can be done, a widening gap between rich and poor and the certainty that most people throughout the world will continue to live in poverty. It means the shackling of all the powers of human labour to exploitation and private gain. This is the out-dated world and the ideas that justify it that Labour, Tory and other reformist politicians now hold in common.
    These should be contrasted with socialist ideas which emphasise and aim to build upon one human ability which is universal. This is the ability of every person to co-operate with others in a world-wide community of interests. Beyond the world of class divisions and its sub-divisions of colour, religion and nationalism, socialists uphold the ideas of unity, emphasising what we all have in common, and how on a basis of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs, we could release all that is best in the human make-up for the benefit of ourselves as individuals and others.

    It is the ideas of capitalism that are dead because they have nowhere to go and represent an ideology that is incapable of being developed as principles for a better world. But the ideas of socialism are rooted in the constant need of all people to live in peace with each other and to co-operate in creating a life of material security. For this reason they will remain indispensable not just for clarifying the nature of problems but for setting out the only way to solve them.
    Pieter Lawrence

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 125

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 125th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1551 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Capitalism or Socialism?
  • A Man Before His Time - Gerrard Winstanley
  • The Myth of Soviet “Socialism”
  • Quote for the week:

    "Money is a new form of slavery, which differs from the old form of slavery only in its impersonality, its annihilation of all humane relations with the slave." Leo Tolstoy, What to do?, 1887.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Smash Cash (2004)

    From the June 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
    The following article was originally published in 1968 in issue 17 of the counter-culture magazine, Oz.
    At the time of writing its author, David Ramsay Steele, was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This transcript is taken from the June 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard, which was a special issue given over to marking the hundredth anniversary of the SPGB.
    400BC: Hey all you thirsty people, though you've got no money, come to the water. Buy corn without money and eat. Buy wine without money and milk without price. (Isaiah).
    1652: There shall be no buying and selling . . . If any man or family want grain or other provisions, they may go to the storehouse and fetch without money. (Gerrard Winstantley).
    1968: The Abolition of Money. The abolition of pay housing, pay
    media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education, pay clothing, pay medical help and pay toilets. A society which works towards and actively promotes the concept of "full unemployment" . . . (Yippie election leaflet).
    Abolition of Money! Down through the ages this wild and visionary slogan has been whispered by a subversive few. Ever since human beings discovered cash, they have hated it and tried to rid themselves of it whilst their own actions have kept it alive. In this respect, money is like syphilis.

    Today the whisper has become a shout though still the shout of a tiny minority. Tomorrow it will be the roar of the crowd, the major topic of discussion in every pub and coffee house, factory and office.
    The abolition of money is an ancient dream, the most radical demand of every social revolution for centuries past. We must not suppose that it is therefore destined to remain a Utopia, that the wheel will simply turn full circle once more. Today there is an entirely new element in the situation: Plenty.
    All previous societies have been rationed societies, based on scarcity of food, clothing and shelter. The modern world is also a society of scarcity, but with a difference. Today's shortages are unnecessary; today's scarcity is artificial. More than that: scarcity achieved at the expense of strenuous effort, ingenious organization and the most sophisticated planning.

    The world is haunted by a spectre the spectre of Abundance. Only by planned waste and destruction on a colossal scale can the terrifying threat of Plenty be averted.

    Money means rationing. It is only useful when there are shortages to be rationed. No one can buy or sell air: it's free because there is plenty of it around. Food, clothing, shelter and entertainment should be free as air. But the means of rationing scarcity themselves keep the scarcity in existence. The only excuse for money is that there is not enough wealth to go round but it is the money system which makes sure there cannot be enough to go round. By abolishing money we create the conditions where money is unnecessary.

    If we made a list of all those occupations which would be unnecessary in a Moneyless World, jobs people now have to do which are entirely useless from a human point of view, we might begin as follows: Customs officer, Security guard, Locksmith, Wages clerk, Tax assessor, Advertising man, Stockbroker, Insurance agent, Ticket puncher, Salesman, Accountant, Slot machine emptier, Industrial spy, Bank manager, before we realized the magnitude of what was involved. And these are merely the jobs which are wholly and utterly useless. Nearly all occupations involve something to do with costing or selling. Now we should see that the phrase "Abolition of Money" is just shorthand for immense, sweeping, root and branch changes in society. The abolition of money means the abolition of wages and profits, nations and frontiers, armies and prisons. It means that all work will be entirely voluntary.

    Of course, the itemizing of those jobs which are financial does not end the catalogue of waste. Apart from astronomical sums spent on the Space Race, and the well known scandal of huge arms production, we have to realise that all production is carried on purely for profit. The profit motive often runs completely counter to human need. 'Built-in obsolescence' (planned shoddiness), the restrictive effects of the patents system, the waste of effort through duplication of activities by competing firms or nations these are just a few of the ways in which profits cause waste.

    What this amounts to is that ninety per cent (a conservative estimate) of effort expended by human beings today is entirely pointless, does not the slightest bit of good to anybody. So it is quite ridiculous to talk about "how to make sure people work if they're not paid for it". If less than ten per cent of the population worked, and the other ninety per cent stayed at home watching telly, we'd be no worse off than we are now.

    But there would be no need for them to watch telly all the time, because without the profit system work could be made enjoyable. Playing tennis, writing poems or climbing mountains are not essentially any more enjoyable than building houses, growing food or programming computors. The only reason we think of some things as 'leisure' and others as 'work' is because we get used to doing some things because we want to and others because we have to. Prostitutes despise love. We are all prostitutes. In a Moneyless World work would be recreation and art. That work which is unavoidably unhealthy or unpleasant, such as coalmining, would be automated immediately. Needless to say, the only reason these things aren't done by machines at present is because it is considered more important to lower the costs of the employer than to lower the unhappiness of his slaves.

    The money system is obsolete and antihuman. So what should we do about it? In years to come, with the increasing education and increasing misery of modern life, together with growing plenty, we can expect the Abolition of Money to be treated more and more as a serious issue, to be inserted into more and more heads. The great mass of individuals will first ridicule, then dare to imagine (Fantasy is the first act of rebellion Freud), then overthrow.

    In the meantime, as well as propagating the notion of a Moneyless World, those of us who see its necessity have a responsibility to sort our own ideas out, in order that we may present an intelligible and principled case. We must stop thinking of the Moneyless World as an 'ultimate aim' with no effect upon our actions now. We must realise that the Abolition of Money is THE immediate demand. A practical proposition and an urgent necessity not something to be vaguely 'worked towards'.

    Unfortunately those who want the Moneyless World frequently wade in a mire of mystification. Above all it is necessary to understand the workings of this society, capitalist society (Moscow, Washington and Peking are all in the same boat) if we are to know how to destroy it.

    For example there is a commonly held view that Automation is going to settle all our worries, that money will expire automatically as part of a "natural process of evolution". This is quite wrong. As pointed out above, this society only automates to increase profits and for no other reason. Employers even take machines out and put workers back in if they find that labour-power is cheaper. Any gain from automation these days is more than cancelled out by the waste explosion. Do not imagine that the slight increases in living standards of the last twenty years are the beginning of a smooth transition to Abundance. Another huge world slump is approaching.

    A different illusion, also popular, is that cash can be abolished by example, by opening giveaway shops or by starting small moneyless communities which are parasitical upon the main body of society. These experiments accomplish little. Those people, for instance, who open stores to give and receive books without payment, face a predictable result: a large stock of lousy books.

    These projects stem partly from a belief that we need to prove something. Relax. We don't need to prove anything. The defenders of this insane society, it is they who stand accused, they who have to supply the arguments arguments for poverty and enslavement in a world of Plethora!

    All theoretical constructions which relate to wages, prices, profits and taxes are ghosts from the past, as absurdly outdated as the quibbles about how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. 'Incomes policy' is irrelevant we want the abolition of incomes. "Fighting crime" is irrelevant we want the abolition of the law. 'Workers' control' is irrelevant we want the abolition of 'workers'. 'Black Power' is irrelevant we want the abolition of power over people. 'The national interest' is irrelevantwe want the abolition of nations.

    And let no one raise the banal cry: what are you going to put in their place? As though we would say to a research scientist: "And when you've cured Cancer, what are you going to put in its place?"

    Then there is the myth of the small-scale. We cannot go back to being peasants and we should not want to. Keeping several thousand million people alive on this planet necessitates railways, oil wells, steel mills. Only by intricate organization and large-scale productive techniques can we maintain our Abundance. Do not be afraid of machines. It is not machines which enslave, but Capital, in whose service machines are employed. McLuhan represents the beginning of the New Consciousness of man-made artifacts. Computors are warm and cuddly creatures. We will have a beautiful time with them.

    Many of the worst errors which retard the development of the New Consciousness, the Consciousness of Plenty, are to be found in Herbert Lomas' piece on "The Workless Society" in International Times 43. This at least has the merit that someone is putting forward a case for the removal of money in specific terms. Unfortunately, they are specific non-starters.

    According to Herbert Lomas, a political party is to be formed which will take power and proceed as follows. Useless workers in industry will be gradually be laid off and paid for not working. The process will be extended until money can be abolished. In the meantime, those being paid for doing nothing will do what they like. To begin with many of them might play Bingo; eventually more and more would aim at higher things.

    What is wrong with this projection? Many things, but chiefly two. First, it fails to take account of the systematic nature of society. Second, it assumes that present-day society exhibits a harmony of interests.

    In the first place, Lomas says: "Why are these people working? They are not working for the sake of production, for the truth is that if they were removed production could be increased beyond measure". He concludes that they are working because of their attitudes, the attitudes of their employers, the attitudes of the rest of society. But the fact of the matter is that these workers are working for the sake of production not the production of goods but the production of profits. The reason why things are "made with great ingenuity to wear out" is not because of the attitudes of the people involved. The management may think it's criminal but they are paid to optimize profits. If they produced razor blades to last for centuries, the firm would go broke. It is not the attitudes which are crucial, but economic interests. If a teetotaller owns shares in a brewery, it does not make booze less potent.

    Which brings us to the second point. Today's world is a jungle of conflicting vested interests. The Abolition of Money will represent the liberation of slaves, yes but also the dispossession of masters, i.e. the employing class. We cannot view the government as an impartial panel which looks after the best interests of everybody; it is an instrument used by one set of people to oppress another.

    On one point Herbert Lomas is correct. The movement for the Abolition of Money must be political, because when we destroy money we destroy the basis of the power of our rulers. They are unlikely to take kindly to this, so we must organize politically to remove them.

    For the moment though, what is needed is more discussion and more understanding. We must be confident that the movement will grow. We must think, argue, and think again but never lose consciousness of the one, simple, astounding fact: Plenty is here. The Moneyless World is not an ultimate millennium. We need it now.

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    TV Debates - much ado about nothing (2009)

    The Greasy Pole column from the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    If the general election is to go down in history it will not be through encouraging any prospects for the vital revolutionary, invigoratingly therapeutic society – but for the leaders of the tedious, outworn and discredited parties surprising everyone by agreeing to display their reactionary absurdity in a televised confrontation. That is, supposing the debates ever happen; there is likely to be some time before the election and a mass of obstacles to be negotiated before the leaders' agreement has any meaning. There is, to begin with, the likelihood that the idea sprang from their panic, which convinced them that they had nothing to lose. For Gordon Brown there is the fear that the exposure of New Labour's blundering chaos will lead to their practically disappearing come polling day. David Cameron will be anxious that his gamble on trying to replace his party's Thatcherite reputation as the Nasty Party with one for being Caring Conservatives may not come off in time. And Nick Clegg must be suffering anxiety about the fate of his pose as the real alternative way or running capitalism – with the unasked-for help of Vince Cable – and the effect of any failure on his ambition to make him the new brand of British politics. A crisis on any one of these could fatally undermine the debates.

    Meanwhile it is not only TV soap addicts who wonder why viewing time should be allocated to the debates when there is already face-to-face confrontation in Prime Minister's Questions. Can there, it may be asked, be anything more, anything different, to be said about trying to tame and administer this strife-torn, repressive society? One response might be that anyone devoted to the ructions of Coronation Street would find much to divert them in the weekly posturing and screeching in the Commons. But witnessing at first hand the behaviour of our law-makers at their work may be encouraging them to, in more than one sense, switch off. Which would mean the wastage of all the meticulously detailed preparation being poured into the debates – the jockeying and the intrigue, the anguished rows about who will speak when, who will moderate, be in the audience, decide where everyone sits, winds up the will be more than just a matter of assuaging some massive egos. Then there will be the analyses, with all parties claiming to have won the debate even if they lost the vote. A lot of this will revolve around the hope, by each participant, for the kind of seminal exchanges in debates between the candidates in previous US Presidential Elections which were widely supposed to have crucially affected the result.

    Kennedy vs Nixon
    The first example of this was in 1960, when Kennedy ran for the Democrats against Richard Nixon – both of them hardened, ruthless political operators with a suitably determined machine looking after them. In the first of four debates, watched by 80 million people, Nixon took part although he was still recovering after hospital treatment for an infected knee injury. His appearance – weary, sick and pale – was made worse by his refusal to wear the usual make-up, which drew attention to his facial stubble. He seemed shifty and hesitant so that Kennedy, whose image was rested, fresh and healthy, impressed the millions of voters who preferred leaders who looked like that.

    The following debates were not so damaging to Nixon and in any case it was doubtful whether his sorry appearance had any crucial effect on the election because Kennedy won by the smallest of margins – 0.1 per cent of the vote – and even at that there was strong evidence of fraud in Texas – where Vice Presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson held sway – and Illinois where Mayor Richard Daley could always get the vote out by hook or by crook. In any case Nixon, stubble and all, eventually bounced back, winning the Presidency in 1968 and then, emphatically, in 1972 until his being sucked down into the Watergate affair exposed how shallow and saleable are what our leaders like to call their morals.

    Carter vs Reagan
    Another, less startling, example was in the election of 1980 when Ronald Reagan presented as a relaxed and fluent ex-film actor (albeit mainly in B movies) against the anguished born-again christian President Carter. Reagan took to the debates like – well, like any seasoned Hollywood star. The media loved it when he dismissed Carter's attack on his record of voting, as Governor of California, against Medicare and Social Security benefits, with the contemptuous phrase “There you go again!” Reagan ran away with the election, with nearly 10 per cent more than Carter of the popular vote. This was called the “Reagan Revolution”, which ran into the following election and to some extent carried George H.W. Bush into the White House in 1988.

    The debates, in America and here, are intended to promote the idea that leaders are crucially significant and that workers should vote for them and not for what they and their parties represent, in denial of the real experience which points to the leaders' impotence in face of the inexorable demands of capitalism. So when the debates are staged here we cannot look forward to anything more constructive, nor even interesting, than the customary, tedious drone in feeble response to the system's persistent crises. It may be that some wretched participant will try to wriggle out of a particularly difficult question by imitating the Reagan approach – Brown satirising Cameron covering his ineptitude in assumed sincerity; or Cameron raising a laugh with Brown's memories of being brought up as a son of the manse; or both of them savaging Clegg's ambition to be treated as more than a querulous upstart. In doleful times it might get us chuckling, amid our contempt for the exhausted excuses which, even now, are probably being written into the script.

    Pollution and profits

    From the Socialist Courier blog

    Every vote seeking politician in the world waxes elequent about the urgent need for a curb to be placed on global emmisions. They fly hither and thither across the world addressing congresses about their deep concern for the planet's future. Behind these vote catching antics however lies a more pressing problem - how to compete against international rivals in obtaining a larger share of the profits. At a recent meeting in Singapore those politician showed where their real priorities lie:

    "A key element of the international plan to address climate change is in jeopardy after several of the most powerful nations failed to confirm a previous commitment to halve gas emissions by 2050. The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum, which includes the US, China, Japan and Russia deleted their commitment from the final version of the official communiqué issued after a two-day meeting in Singapore. ...Most climate scientists believe that a 50 per cent reduction in global emissions by 2050 is the minimum needed to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic change." (London Times, 16 November)

    For national governments to reduce industrial pollution would be economic suicide. Their costs would go up and they would not be able to compete with other nations that had not reduced their pollution. Inside capitalism in the battle between less pollution or more profits there is only one winner.

    Richard Donnelly

    Saturday, November 21, 2009

    Socialism in the Space Age (2007)

    The Pathfinders Column from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Anyone over the age of forty-five will remember very clearly two things from their school days. One was the moon landings. The other was the clear and certain knowledge that whatever it was that killed off the dinosaurs would remain eternally one of life’s unanswerable mysteries.

    When in 1980 the geologists Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered a thin layer of iridium stretching from Italy to Colorado, dated to a period corresponding to the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago, they knew something pretty severe must have happened. Iridium lies deep in the core of the Earth, and is only found on the surface as a result of asteroid strikes. This one, they reasoned, must have been a humdinger, but where was the crater? Something that big couldn’t just erode away. Eventually, it was found, under the sea, off the coast of Mexico, a hole so big it must have taken a meteorite roughly the size of Brighton to create it, about 23 square miles.

    Recently on a socialist discussion list, someone referred to the ‘failed experiment’ that was the dinosaurs. Failed perhaps in the sense that they are dead and we are not, but let homo sapiens survive and prosper as a race eight hundred times longer than we have so far managed before we can claim to equal their success. And the chances are, on current performance, we won’t get anywhere near.

    The power-elites in capitalism are as keenly aware as benighted commoners just how vulnerable the Earth is to a giant meteor strike, and while the next close pass by a large lump of rock is still thirty years away, are even now debating what to do about it. For, even if the impossible happened and the capitalists worked out some ingenious way to stop destroying the planet themselves, there’s no accounting for the vagaries of chance in outer space.

    October 4 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1, the first venture of humanity into space. A few more efforts, a dead dog, some nasty accidents and a few dead astronauts later, the world was dazzled by the budget-busting glory of the Kennedy administration in putting a man on the moon, putting one over on the Russians, and fixing the global gaze skyward instead of at Vietnam. Previous generations had lived through the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the steam age and the Tupperware age, but anybody alive in 1968 and watching the silver men on screen pogoing in slo-mo on the surface of the moon would have sworn they were living in the space age. The future was bright. Humanity was on the threshold of the stars.

    But what a disappointment it all turned out to be. For once, the geometric acceleration of science seemed to falter. After the Apollo missions, there was no more. The moon was forgotten. Mars remained beyond reach. The engineers all retired, and took their knowledge with them. The stars seemed further away then ever, twinkling in cold amusement at humanity’s punctured hubris.

    Sure, the world sent out a lot of probes, some of which didn’t crash, malfunction or get lost, and many fascinating pictures and much interesting knowledge was gained. But the two Big Questions remained unanswered. First: Is there anybody out there? And second: Even if there isn’t, can we get off this rock before it blows?

    Capitalism invests in space research the same way it gambles on the rest of science, by backing every horse in the race, sure at least that one of them will come in eventually, bringing with it untold new knowledge and wisdom (aka big bucks and even bigger bucks). It isn’t really interested in existential anxieties about being alone in the universe, but when it comes to advanced communications and especially the military capability of peering into everybody else’s back yard, then filling the orbital paths with beeping space junk seems a superb notion. More ambitiously, the possibility of colonising other planets offers an unparalleled alibi for recklessly destroying your own. Space Capitalism: a sort of galactic venereal disease.

    Meanwhile, George Bush’s Kennedy-like attempt to swivel the eyes of America away from Iraq and up to Mars is unlikely to outlive his incumbency. The cost of a manned mission is just too ludicrous, the risk (in lives but, more to the point, in credibility) not worth the gamble, and the scientific returns probably insignificant, given no conclusive sign so far of any organic material on that almost certainly dead planet.

    Some scientists, playing a dubious numbers game, have famously calculated that the probability of there not being intelligent life out there, given the billions of galaxies, is virtually zero. Others have responded by calculating the probability of us ever having contact with any of these lifeforms, given the brain-shreddingly large space-time distances involved, as being also virtually zero. Capitalist Earth, being uncontrollably in the grip of a mindless and suicidal orgy of self-destruction, would love to find some comfort and company out there, feeling as it does that the prospects of life down here are diminishing like sand through an hourglass.

    But what of a socialist Earth? Suppose that humanity has a moment of sanity and takes its affairs in order by abolishing capitalism before it’s too late, what then? Obviously expeditions to Enceladus would be somewhat down the priority list at first, as issues like food, water and shelter took the lead. But would a socialist world eventually develop a space programme? Perhaps so, if by then the depradations of capitalism had reduced the planet to an unsalvageable toxic tar-pit from which we had no choice but to escape. Hopefully though, we will have taken control of our common abode and our common responsibility much earlier than that. Then, living as free custodians of a newly green and pleasant planet, we may not feel such anxieties about our cosmic isolation, but in fact bask pleasurably in our unique biological identities and our uniquely fulfilling way of life. Children, though, will always gaze at the stars and wonder what is out there. Socialists may debate whether they could or should ever ‘export’ socialism to the cosmos. They might also, perhaps more pertinently, wonder when some of the cosmos is likely to pay a visit here. Among its other priorities, socialist Earth would be wise to remember what happened to the dinosaurs, and make contingency plans for the next Brighton rock.
    Paddy Shannon

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 124

    Dear Friends,

    Welcome to the 124th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

    We now have 1547 friends!

    Recent blogs:

  • Out of control
  • Conspiraloons
  • Free is cheaper
  • Quote for the week:

    "Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims." Harry Patch, WWI Veteran.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Out of control (2009)

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

    Some people are looking to China as the motor that will pull world capitalism out of its current slump. This ignores the fact that China’s double-digit rates of growth were led by exports, in large part to America and Europe. When these parts of the world entered the slump China, too, was affected. As the London Times reported last year (17 October):
    “In the northern Chinese port of Quinhuandao, a dark mountain formed by nearly nine million tonnes of surplus coal soars from the dockside. By the end of the next week, the famous storage area – a dirty barometer of Chinese industrial demand – could be completely full of unwanted fossil fuel . . . [T]hose swelling piles of surplus coal, which is used for most of China’s electricity generation, indicate falls in demand for energy, a key measure of economic activity.”
    In response the Chinese government decided to try to spend its way out. Some 4 trillion (a million million) yuan of stimulus money was injected into the economy, mainly in the form of lending by the State banks. But things didn’t turn out as planned. Most of the money was used to expand productive capacity without regard for the chances of selling the extra output (though some seems to have gone to fund a property and stock exchange bubble). In an article headlined “Beijing moves to halt growth juggernaut as supply starts to run away from demand” (1 October), Times Asia business correspondent, Leo Lewis, reported:
    “China's State Council calculates that the impact of this year's 140 billion yuan (£13 billion) investment spree in steel mills will be to lift overall national production capacity some 40 per cent above the country's entire annual demand. The same dynamics reportedly apply to cement ( . . .) The astronomical levels of corporate investment, warn senior economists, place the booming Chinese economy at increased risk of a sudden collapse in growth.”
    So, the brakes are being applied:
    “The Government of China has launched an attack on overcapacity in its heavy industries with a series of stinging curbs on new factories, smelting plants and port-building projects. (…) In the absence of such controls, said the statement from the Chinese Cabinet, ‘it will be hard to prevent vicious market competition and to increase economic benefits, and this could result in facility closures, layoffs and increases in banks' bad assets.’”
    It’s the same old story of headlong capitalist expansion, financed in this case by government funding, leading in the end to overcapacity and overproduction in relation to market demand. The Chinese government’s attempt to spend its way out of the slump is risking the very thing they were trying to overcome: “a sudden collapse in growth”.

    Which goes to show that governments can’t control the way capitalism works and that, if they try, the chances are they’ll make things worse. Capitalism is an uncontrollable economic system that gets its way in the end, one way or the other.

    To buy, or not to buy? (2002)

    From the April 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

    A hundred people go into a supermarket, stick all the things they need in their trolleys, and at the checkout the cashier asks each one: “Do you want to pay or take these for free?” Given that choice, how many would choose to hand over payment? Five? Three? Less? Anyone claiming most would opt to part with their money is clearly an idiot.

    Of course, under capitalism, the choice not to pay for goods and services produced by waged employment does not exist. The store's shareholders pay for their supermarkets' construction, rents, electricity, products on the shelves, adverts, employees' incomes etc, and they want back their costs plus as much profit as the market will allow. The same goes for other businesses.

    That people will avoid paying for their needs, given the choice, is obvious. Money matters, and if you can freely choose to go home with a week's shopping buckshee with no chance of any retribution whatsoever, who wouldn't? What about when you're expected to pay, but avoid doing so?

    The record industry's recent efforts to prevent people obtaining free singles and albums by shutting down Napster's pioneering internet file-sharing facility, while introducing new paid-for music services, has so far failed miserably. Those denied free digital downloads from Napster have instead switched to more elusive net services like Gnutella, Aimster and Morpheus, and saved their money.

    For defying society's laws, millions are called “pirates”, “thieves” and “cheats”. Accusations that big record companies also engage in thievery by cheating workers and music fans to grossly reward big shareholders can be ignored since this piracy is “legitimate” within today's economic system. Eventually, business measures, state legislation and enforcement in defence of capitalist property rights, markets and profits will probably crush this determined “dot.communism”.

    Fare dodging, TV licence shunning, vehicle tax evasion. If people can get away without paying, they will. But why merely settle for endless conflict, just occasionally 'getting away' from restrictive and iniquitous laws unbeatable as long as capitalism exists, or alternatively compliantly paying up zombie-style, when we possess the power to be rid of them permanently?

    If we want and enjoy having goods and services for free, there's only one obstacle – capitalism. If we choose to replace it with socialism, free access to whatever we need becomes reality. People don't have to buy goods and services when they directly own and control the means of producing them. Analogously, by collectively owning the bakery you own the bread, cakes and biscuits too, with the unrestricted ability to produce as much as is required.

    Would people work co-operatively to produce the goods and services this moneyless free-access socialist society needed, in a similar way that a hundred million or so internet users are presently working together to provide and share free music? Or, conscious of the differences between the capitalist present and a socialist future, would they choose to continue working and living within the money-wages-profit system, where incomes for most are insufficient to meet needs; involve a longer, harder, exploitative working week just so profits can be extracted from labour to sate the owning class's greed and selfishness; involve constant annoyance, time-wasting and worry from money-related mortgages, debts, bills, income tax returns, welfare benefit form filling, price comparing, insurance selecting, utility switching, queuing to pay, burglaries, car thefts etc; inadequate health care and public transport; environmental destruction and pollution; endless food scandals; political sleaze; terrorism and warfare?

    The choice is as difficult as deciding whether to pay or not at a supermarket checkout
    Max Hess

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    The Myth of Soviet “Socialism” (2009)

    From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    An analysis from Russia makes many of the points we do.
    On all sides we hear it said that “after 1917 a Marxist utopia was realised in our country,” that we had a “communist regime” or “socialist state,” that “we were building socialism and communism,” and so on. This makes it essential for us to grasp the true essence of Marxism, to understand what socialism and communism are.

    From a scientific – in particular, Marxist – point of view, communism (or socialism, as Marx and Engels rarely distinguished between these two concepts) means an absolutely free society of universal equality and abundance, in which all people work – more precisely, seek self-realisation – voluntarily, in accordance with their abilities and inclinations, and receives goods in accordance with their needs.

    This is the second stage, the phase of socialism or communism (or communism, strictly speaking). The first stage (or, more rarely, socialism in the narrow sense) means almost the same, with the sole difference that there is still some connection between how much labour an able-bodied person has given society and the quantity of goods that he or she receives.

    But for Marx and Engels, as a rule, the words “socialism” and “communism” were synonyms.

    And so, socialism or communism is the complete liberation of each person and all humanity from any form of exploitation and oppression! The government of people is replaced by the administration of things. The absence of any state power over people!

    Socialism in a single country?
    Marx and Engels categorically denied the possibility of establishing socialism or communism in a single country or in a few countries. They even denied the possibility of the sustained victory or success of a workers’ revolution in a single country – let alone in a backward or not very developed country. For a whole number of serious reasons.

    Let us start with the fact that such concepts as “socialism” or “communism” are absolutely incompatible with the concept of “the state.” For a real Marxist, the very idea of a “socialist” or “communist” state is empty nonsense, the height of absurdity.

    Of course, so long as another, hostile system exists, especially if it dominates the greater part of the planet, there can be no question of the state dying out. Let us imagine a state in which a workers’ revolution takes place but is not soon followed by a world revolution. That state is forced to compete with other states in the surrounding world in the accumulation of armaments, heavy industry, and so on.

    But competitive accumulation – of capital, in the final analysis – runs counter to the popular need to give priority to consumption. It prevents expansion of the conquests of the revolution and makes it necessary to preserve the state. Giving priority to consumption would require abolishing a fundamental feature of capitalist society – accumulation for the sake of accumulation. For this two conditions are needed: workers’ self-management (working people themselves taking control of production) and the elimination of national borders (that is, of competition on a world scale). The latter also requires abolition of the state.

    From the elementary foundations of Marxism it follows that such phenomena as commodity-money relations and the law of value are absolutely incompatible with socialism. For capitalism, according to Marx and Engels, has two chief defining defects. First, goods have to be produced as commodities (for sale), in the form of commodities, thereby giving social relations a fetishized, mercantile character. Second, the basic purpose of production is the extraction of surplus value, which is the source of the exploitation of man by man.

    It is self-evident that money and the state can only die out together. Commodity-money relations cannot exist in the absence of state structures. For money is backed up by the assets of the state bank. Given commodity production, competition, the necessity for each state to compete economically with other states, a common measure of some sort is needed to calibrate inputs and outputs in comparison with other countries. Therefore, prices inevitably exist so that records can be kept of value. Finally, some way is needed to monitor the effectiveness of economic activity.

    In order to realise the specifically capitalist tendency of accumulation for the sake of accumulation, two things are necessary. First, workers must be alienated from the means of production and from the results of their labour. Second, there must be competition between capitalists. In the absence of workers’ revolution on a global scale, the pursuit of surplus labour in the world as a whole inevitably thwarts any attempt to establish socialism, even if it is undertaken in a highly developed and wealthy region.

    Socialism – a world system
    Thus, socialism or communism can only be a world system. In this respect it resembles capitalism, which also arises at the international level, becoming a world system as it expands to absorb the pre-capitalist periphery. According to Marx, capitalism is characterised by the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few, the organization of labour as social labour, and the creation of a world market. In principle, two world systems cannot exist simultaneously.

    “Dictatorship of the proletariat”
    For a long time the Bolsheviks justified their dictatorship by calling it “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx used this term to mean not dictatorship as a repressive political regime but social dominance of the working people as a counterweight to the exploiters (while they still exist) – a workers’ semi-state. He put forward this idea in opposition to the idea, popular in his day, of the dictatorship of revolutionary leaders.

    The democratic power of the working class, the conquest of true, broad democracy, and not the power of any leaders – that was and is the meaning of “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Undoubtedly, such a regime is not socialism. It is still capitalism, although of a milder and more democratic variety.

    The Bolshevik party dictatorship
    The Bolshevik party dictatorship has its origins in the upheaval of 1917. After the fall of the autocracy, Russia won great democratic freedoms and became (for a short time) the most democratic state in the world. However, the provisional government failed to act. It did not begin peace negotiations and made no attempt to get out of the war. It did not embark on agrarian reform. It took no measures against the forces of reaction. The people got neither peace nor bread nor land. What is more, despite all the rights and freedoms, strong democratic institutions (apart, perhaps, from the Soviets) were not created in the country. Thus, there was nothing surprising about the Bolshevik takeover. A reactionary military dictatorship was also a real possibility at the time.

    The Bolshevik regime claimed the mantle of a workers’ state. However, in a workers’ state (more precisely, semi-state) there would have been the broadest freedom and human rights, with political power exercised democratically through Soviets, trade unions and competing political parties.

    The actual situation, alas, was nothing like this. Political power was exercised mainly through a dictatorship of the Bolshevik party and vanguard, with all forms of democracy restricted from the very first months. Yes, in the early years there were progressive, humane laws in various spheres. (To what extent they were observed is another question.) But the main trends were negative: further curtailment of democratic rights and freedoms, consolidation of the one-party system, secret police repression even within the ruling party, formation of a hierarchy of officials appointed from above.

    Stalin’s industrial revolution
    The Stalinist faction, which in 1925 had introduced the anti-Marxist conception of “building socialism in a single country,” gained full control by the end of the 1920s. The chief concern of the ruling group was now the forging of a “great power”; this required expansion of the industrial base through unrestrained exploitation of the working people – for the sake, above all, of successful competition with the outside world, with foreign states. In practice, this meant the rapid accumulation of capital.

    By the 1930s the authoritarian state had evolved into a totalitarian state. It was precisely at this period that the gap between the higher-ups and the masses deepened into an abyss. By means of so-called “collectivisation” the peasants were either, in essence, enserfed or driven from the soil and turned into a reserve labour force for industry. (Those who managed to get to the cities became, as a rule, hired workers.) Repression intensified, filling the rapidly expanding Gulag with prisoners.

    During the first five-year plan, real wages declined by at least half, while the working day lengthened. Thus, the living standard of the absolute majority of the population fell substantially and exploitation sharply increased.

    The Stalin regime was totalitarian state capitalism with significant elements of serfdom and slavery (which weakened but did not disappear even after the tyrant’s death). In practice, it accomplished an industrial revolution – that is, the accelerated accumulation of capital. To a large extent, this was primitive accumulation. We find pertinent parallels between industrialisation under Stalin and the path followed by Japan from the bourgeois “Meiji revolution” to World War Two. There too, capital grew rapidly. There too, despotic methods were used to modernise the economy, create an industrial base and strengthen military might, with the state playing a major role.
    Thus, both under Stalin and later we had in Russia a right-wing dictatorship with a state monopoly over the economy. Stalinism is a broader concept than the Stalin regime. In the USSR, the Stalinist era lasted from the late 1920s until the collapse of the “Soviet” “socialist” system in 1991 (with various changes and modifications, of course).

    Bureaucratic state capitalism
    Stalinism is bureaucratic state capitalism. The bulk of direct producers did not own means of production and so were forced to sell their labour power to the real owner of those means of production – a special group called the nomenklatura. The members of this group belonged to a hierarchically organized system for the appropriation and distribution of surplus value. The ruling class of the Soviet Union was therefore a state bourgeoisie. It was an exploiting class that through the possession of state power owned the means of production, the whole of the so-called “national economy.”

    In this way the traditional ultra-conservative status quo was re-established and the Russian Empire restored.

    For several decades, both under Stalin and after his death, the ruling class or state bourgeoisie governed the country through a powerful and ramified bureaucratic apparatus. They relied on the age-old traditions of the Russian Empire and out of inertia continued to make formal and hypocritical use of pseudo-socialist, pseudo-communist, pseudo-left and pseudo-Marxist slogans. Such slogans were a convenient means of masking their real aims and playing on the sincere faith of many people, both inside the country and abroad.
    (Translated by Stefan)
    Vladimir Sirotin, Moscow