Thursday, April 2, 2009

Northern Ireland: a return to violence? (2009)

From the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Two British soldiers shot dead at Masserene Barracks in Northern Ireland, and a policeman shot dead in Craigavon, by dissident Republicans who want to re-draw the present political frontiers. Instead of dividing the six counties from the rest of Ireland, the frontier (they demand) should be moved and instead divide Ireland from the somewhat larger island to the east, containing the capitalist entity known as Great Britain. But socialists do not want to re-draw any frontiers: they want to abolish frontiers. Frontiers are entirely artificial boundaries, whether by land or sea. All a frontier does is to mark out one bit of the Earth’s surface where one ruling class has power from the next bit of the Earth’s surface where another ruling class has power. Since socialism would put an end to the ruling class of every state, frontiers would cease to have any meaning, and would therefore cease to exist.

No violence, no death or injury, will bring socialism any closer. Socialism will be brought about when the great majority of the world’s people want it to be brought about. We want to change people’s ideas. Violence will not make people into Socialists. Banging a cudgel down on someone’s head is not going to alter the ideas inside that head, at least in any worthwhile way. Rational discussion will finally make Socialists. We believe that by considered argument we can show how co-operation and mutual assistance will achieve what we all want to achieve – a peaceful, harmonious, and contented existence. Violence we leave to others.

People who support a capitalist state, people who support a capitalist party, are led remorselessly into supporting violence. But it is interesting how often politicians and journalists who steadfastly support violence when it comes from what they think is “their own” side, nevertheless quickly explode with anger when it comes from someone else. One columnist on the Times, David Aaronovitch, champions Israel against the Palestinians; he therefore has had to write torrents of words trying to show that the deaths of well over a thousand men women and children in Gaza, killed by Israeli bullets and bombs, are excusable, because it is only in retaliation for the Israeli civilians killed the rockets fired by Palestinian militias. He also supported the invasion of Iraq by the Americans and the British. So he has had to write more floods of words defending the deaths of some hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as well as many British and American soldiers, because all that was merely a by-product of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator who was hostile to the Americans. (Let’s not mention all those brutal dictators friendly to the Americans, who the Americans have propped up.) It’s hard to say how many Iraqis have died, of course. As the American general who led the attack on Iraq said about Iraqi casualties, “We don’t do body counts” (though American casualties were reported with great care). But the lowest figure that the most dedicated warmonger has come up with is 100,000. Other people have said the number of violent deaths since the invasion is 600,000 – some contend that the true figure is a million. And that is not counting all the other hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been injured, but have survived, all the maimed and the handicapped, all those who will never walk again, all those who will never see again. The boy whose whole family was killed, and both of whose arms were blown off by a bomb, was still alive, so did not himself add to the total of deaths. Never mind! If you support one capitalist state against the other capitalist states, supporting violence is what you have to do: and that is what this columnist has had to do.

After writing reams of comment justifying the deaths, the injuries, and the destruction in Gaza and in Iraq, and no doubt having felt very uncomfortable having been forced, by his political beliefs, to do it, he has leapt with avidity on the deaths of the two British soldiers in Northern Ireland. (He wrote his column before the death of the Craigavon policeman.) Now, at last, he obviously feels, he can be on the side of the angels (Times, 10 March). The two deaths are “terrorism”, and a return to “the ‘armed struggle’ ” which is only “a euphemism for strolling up behind someone and blasting their brains out all over their children”. He poured scorn on the idea that any “grievance” that “springs from real social and political conditions” can ever justify such “an act of terror”. The suggestion that the shooting might be revenge for the recent re-introduction into Northern Ireland of “army intelligence” operators, or perhaps “spies” as some might call them, led to an eruption of anger on the columnist’s part. “Rubbish. Really, absolute rubbish.” This action merely shows that “violent republicanism is back in a new, potent, death-dealing guise”, a “return to killing in Ulster”. This is merely “the first atrocity in a desired new cycle of attacks, arrests, martyrdoms . . . and crying children”. Those supporting the killing are merely “unattractive men with bald heads and pallid skin”, who “imagine themselves to be Wolfe Tone or James Connolly reborn”, or else “middle-aged matrons, brought up in the purple of Republicanism, but now with roots showing through the dye”. Any supposed “grievance comes second. The desire to hate and kill comes first, and then grubs around in the shit for its excuse.” Strange to think that in 1798 Wolfe Tone, and in 1916 James Connolly, would have been the target for similar attacks by writers in the respectable newspapers, though perhaps this writer has broken new ground with his scatological language, and his fevered imaginings about the supposed physical unattractiveness of his opponents.

The shootings at Masserene Barracks and at Craigavon were indefensible, the deaths were indefensible, the motive (the redrawing of capitalism’s frontiers) was indefensible. But how a man can write many pages justifying the deaths of half a million or more, and then work himself up into a rage of furious indignation over the deaths of two, defies any rational explanation. People who oppose all violence, all killing, are at least being consistent: but people who support capitalism, who support this or that capitalist state, will find that they are defending violence, and defending killing, whether they want to or not. So they cannot help sounding hypocritical when they then jump over the fence and try to denounce violence.
Alwyn Edgar

What is socialism? (2009)

Editorial from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

This may come as a surprise to regular readers of the Socialist Standard, but apparently “we are all socialists now”. A claim made (incorrectly) on various occasions during the last century has resurfaced.

On both sides of the Atlantic, western-style capitalism has supposedly succumbed to a socialism of sorts. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a socialist again according to some in the media, and not only the new US President Obama, but also some of the final regulatory activities of the Bush administration have been deemed in some quarters as “socialist”.

The Socialist Standard and the World Socialist Movement have however decided not to shut up shop in triumph at this speedy success. This use of the term socialism to describe a few mild amendments to capitalism is of course just lazy thinking and sloppy journalism. It is also partially the legacy of a century of supposed revolutionaries and radicals – from V I Lenin to K Livingstone – who have viewed state control of productive resources as somehow a part of a genuine revolutionary project, and who have in the process served to confuse the case for socialism as a genuine alternative to capitalism.

The “socialism” being referred to relates then, to nothing more than the fact that governments in North America and Europe have bailed out the banks and are in the process of doing the same for the car industry and various other struggling sectors of the economy.

This attempt to position socialism as a mere version of capitalism – rather than a fundamental alternative to it – defuses it. This is why we strongly argue that these terms should be used accurately. World socialists argue – and have done consistently for over 100 years – that nationalisation of sectors of the economy (e.g. manufacturing, mining, oil and gas extraction, power distribution, transport), or “socialisation” as its termed in the US, is a measure used to differing degrees by every capitalist economy in the world.

Indeed, far from somehow being in some sort of contradiction with capitalism, government ownership is in reality an absolutely essential aspect of capitalism in all regions around the world. Some parts of the economy are simply too central, too important to all the other parts of the economy, for their survival to be left to chance or the vagaries of the market.

For example, during the First World War, many pubs located close to munitions factories were nationalised. This wasn’t an example of early government concern with the binge-drinking menace that is currently preoccupying politicians, but was undertaken in order to enable the watering-down of the beer and other means of controlling consumption by workers in these factories, thereby minimising the risks of accidents with serious consequences for this critical industry in time of war. Left to its own devices, the market system would bite off its own (invisible) hand and happily unleash drunk workers into explosives factories.

For world socialists, socialism means a moneyless, wageless, classless and stateless society. Socialism is not just a “nice idea”, nor a change of name. It doesn’t refer to tinkering on the margins of the profit motive, but – in contrast to the phoney ideological debate over “nationalisation” – represents a genuine alternative to capitalism.