Monday, September 28, 2009

Leo Tolstoy: author and anarchist (1987)

From the May 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting in the morning (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 113

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 113th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1528 friends!

Recent blogs:

  • Message for filesharers
  • Goodbye Mr Socialism
  • Politics is too important to leave to politicians
  • Quote for the week:

    " .....a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation... " Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 16, (1867).

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    > Robert and Piers

    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Alan Milburn – Days of Despair (2009)

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

    The aftermath of polling in the general election will be a stressful, disorientating time for us as we struggle to adjust to the loss of so many of those we have loved for their readiness to turn back on their promises and distort hard facts. Particularly to be mourned in this way is the Right Honourable Alan Milburn, ex-Secretary of State for Health and Member of Parliament for Darlington. Milburn will not suffer the predicted humiliation at the polls because he announced in June that he would not be standing for Parliament again after a career, notable even among MPs, for its labyrinthine application of the arts of politics. As a child in the little County Durham town of Tow Law, once dependent on its iron works and its coal mines until it was devastated in the slumps of the 1970s and 1980s, he never knew his father and was cared for by his mother. From that – often unpromising – start he blossomed into one of the highest paid Labour MPs with a six figure income from his “extensive outside business interests” (which is perhaps what he meant when he told his constituency Labour Party that he was resigning the seat to give him “the time to pursue challenges other than politics”)

    Haze of Dope
    “Challenge” is a word too easily used by politicians – especially those who have something awful to disguise. For Milburn, it has been a varying concept, as became obvious when he left Tow Law for the wide, hard world where words mean what the user needs them to, for as long as is useful. He went to study history at Lancaster University (not then feared for any rigorous application in its standards of scholarship). His next challenge was to try for a Ph.D at the rather more expectant Newcastle but this proved beyond his powers of endurance and he gave up – which he ascribes not to any lack of tenacity on his part but to his aversion to studying on his own. So in his twenties he could be found, appropriately shaggy and bearded, jointly running a left-wing bookshop in Newcastle. This hive of delusion advertised itself under the name Days of Hope which was popularly translated as the Haze of Dope.

    Declaring himself to be a Marxist or a Trotskyist according to which was the more challenging in the circumstances, Milburn became active in CND and helped run a campaign to save the doomed shipyards of Sunderland. Applying the kind of insidious skills to prove later so useful in the jungle of Westminster, Milburn oozed charm and a consummate ability to exploit the attention of the media. Perhaps he and the other campaigners – not to mention the desperate shipyard workers – were impressed by all of this; if so they overlooked the fact that their opponents could use similar, but more cutting and decisive, methods. Bankers in the City at first offered the workers reason for hope but then abruptly withdrew. Prospective buyers from abroad turned out to be nothing of the kind. The bitter confusion of doubt was finally settled on 7 December 1988 when the Tory minister Tony Newton told the Commons that the yards would close – “reluctantly, with great regret” he said but then he would, wouldn't he. Days of Hope it was not.

    This episode might have been instructive for Milburn as an example of how capitalism operates, producing wealth such as ships not as a favour to human beings but as a means of profit for a minority class, so that employment is not a social service but the imposition of wage slavery. This system works in disregard of someone like Milburn and his delusional ability to charm and manipulate. Faced with this cruel reality he chose to blame the failure to defend the shipyards onto his lack of influence, which he would remedy by joining the Labour Party. Moving up the Greasy Pole, from trade union official to MP to junior minister to a seat in the Cabinet he used his “influence” in ways which dismayed many people who were unwise enough to have believed in him; among other labours he oversaw energetic privatisation of Labour's sacred state health service. Stolidly he supported the war on Iraq, the replacement of Trident, student tuition fees... In this way he earned the recommendation of “leadership material” from the embittered bruiser Charles Clarke but whether this was helpful is a matter for doubt.

    Whatever theories Milburn may have spouted to the bookworms of Haze of Dope about influence rightfully stemming from the democratic decisions of the people did not prevent him, after he resigned from being in charge of the Department of Health, taking a £30,000 a year job as consultant to Bridgenorth Capital – a venture capital firm with big interests in the financing of private health companies breaking into the NHS. Notable among these was Alliance Medical which in June 2004, just a year after Milburn had left the Department of Health, was awarded a £95 million contract to supply and operate 12 mobile scanners to the NHS over five years. This nice little earner was signed up to by John Hutton, Milburn's successor at Health, at a time when many scanners were lying idle because the NHS Trusts could not afford to run them, forcing some patients to travel as much as 20 miles for a scan. A year later the whole scheme was being denounced by doctors as a “disaster” and panicky Labour officials were trying to stop MP Kevin Jones asking questions about it.

    Social Mobility
    Milburn's last fling, before he leaves Parliament in time to evade the ban on MPs holding other jobs, was to chair the grandly titled commission on social mobility, which purported to investigate, and make proposals about, the chances of improving a person's life prospects. To the customary media hysteria, the commission concluded that a person's “social mobility” was related to their level of poverty. There is a wealth of evidence which reaches the same conclusion – about education, health, ambition... So what was the point of yet another dead-end enquiry into the ravages of this abominable social system? To provide a discredited Labour leader with the illusory comfort of “influence”?

    Death Panels; Science Silenced; and the Twittering Classes (2009)

    The Pathfinders column from the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Euthanasia? Line on the left, one needle each...
    It’s not often that nature obligingly weighs right into a political row to decide the matter within a month or so, but in the wake of the recent anti-NHS row across the Pond it might do just that. As you will recall, the usual internecine sniping between workers, managers and policy-makers within the British NHS was suspended as the country went into a collective fit of the conniptions over the defamation being perpetrated in the American press. According to the rabid opponents of Obama’s modest health-care reform bill, we in Britain have enforced euthanasia and face ‘death panels’ of officials who decide which of us get to live. You wouldn’t think even redneck republicans would buy this, but their own political bosses obviously think otherwise, and they’re the ones with their fingers on the arrested pulse of American political consciousness.

    It’s not cricket, is it? We can slag off the Health Service all we like, after all it’s the national sport. But do it on American TV, as self-promoting neocon-licking uberturd Daniel Hannan MEP did, and out comes the Dunkirk spirit and a flurry of statistics to show why a), the NHS kicks America’s butt over every Key Performance Indicator, b), 47 million Americans with no health insurance would rather live over here and c), Daniel Hannan should present himself before the next available death panel.

    Everybody, calm down. Just wait and see. Swine flu is back this month, so it won’t be long before we’ll have hard evidence about which health system copes best, or least worst. The word on the wards is not optimistic, though, judging from a recent poll of health experts of whom over half ‘seriously doubted that their health authorities would be able to cope’ if the virus became more virulent, as is widely expected (New Scientist editorial, 15 August). Half, too, had ‘stashed away their own antivirals’, even though Tamiflu and Relenza are not likely to do much good for adults and none at all in children under the age of twelve (New Scientist, p 4).

    Not to be accused of pessimism, Pathfinders would like to offer its own handy list of flu-busting tips for worried readers everywhere. First, lay in a stock of food and don’t go out for five months. Alternatively, remove yourself to the Seychelles for the winter. Keep large reserves of water, wood, coal and gold for barter in case society breaks down altogether. Always have a large well-armed staff at your disposal to run errands and catch diseases on your behalf. And of course, have your own doctor, preferably married into the family, with access to the best private hospital your banker’s bonuses can buy.

    Well, that’s the owning class taken care of, which is the main thing. For the rest of us, well, let’s keep things in perspective. A big die-off will create a labour shortage and that will raise wages and foster strength and unity among what’s left of the unions. No more worries about unemployment and recession – or euthanasia.

    Meanwhile Daniel Hannan has been ‘rebuked’ by David Cameron, and many are expecting the disloyal swine to be flushed down the Tory Party’s private Swine Flue for being so off-message. Of course, Hannan was only saying what many in the Gentlemen’s Gestapo privately believe, which is that the Health Service is a giant drain on corporate profits at a time when workers are ten a penny. The American ruling class also know this, which is why they’re keen to tell the American proles that the British euthanise all their old people by leaving them out for the vultures, and pack their sick babies into Soylent Green factories.

    Bang goes the science media
    Ben Goldacre at the Guardian must be wondering if his Bad Science column is turning into Bad Business, when science journos are being laid off from papers all round the globe as part of a ‘dumb down and ditch it’ campaign to cut staff costs and gloss up the lowest common denominator sections that require the least thinking. Newspapers are in terminal decline due to the internet, and in the Balloon game that editors are playing, the boffin-hacks are getting tipped over the side first. Of course, they all go online and start blogs, but then they’re in competition with a million other blogs touting all brands of ‘science’ from creationism to alien telepathy – and losing. In the ‘Best Science Blog’ section of the 2008 Weblog Awards, Pharyngula, an anti-religion sceptic’s site, lost first place to a climate-change denial blog (‘Unpopular science’, The Nation, 29 July).

    Is science really so unpopular? The BBC seems to think so. Its new science programme, Bang Goes the Theory, tries ever-so-hard to be cool, with three young presenters prowling a loud CBeebies-like studio set and conducting experiments carefully selected for their ‘wow’ factor. The breathless pace effectively rules out any real depth, and the hook appears to be not the science itself, as in Horizon or dear old long-lamented Tomorrow’s World, but whether the presenter is going to get seriously injured. If you’re in your teens you’ll feel too old for this show.

    Meanwhile in recognition of the fact that many scientific breakthroughs have initially been knocked back, a new open-source academic journal called Rejecta Mathematica has gone online, consisting of papers rejected by peer-review (‘Huddled Maths’, Economist, 29 July). Let us be the first to recommend to the BBC their next piece of prime-time fluff: Science – The Out-Takes.

    Competition for the Twittering Classes
    The latest fad for micro-blogging is coming under fire, with a study showing that 40 percent of ‘tweets’ are ‘pointless babble’ and only 8.7 percent pass along ‘news of interest’(BBC Online, 17 August). Considering the gargantua of garbage which is the printed book output, this is not a bad batting average. However, keen as ever to raise the bar of public discourse, Pathfinders proposes a competition for the best expression of the Party Case in 140 characters or less. Brief reflection offers: ‘World for the Workers, not the Rich W**kers’ however you are sure to do better than that. Emails or letters to our Clapham office. Closing date 10 November, for our December issue, and best ideas will be printed. First Prize will be, of course, comradely adulation, as we socialists are trying to move away from material remuneration systems.

    Harry Patch and the First World Slaughter (2009)

    From the September 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    ""War is organised murder and nothing else” . . . “It was not worth it, it was not worth one let alone all the millions” (Harry Patch)
    Two of the last known surviving combatants of the first World Slaughter died in July. Both were over a hundred-years old. The second of the two, Harry Patch, had some very enlightening views on the subject of the slaughter. Not surprisingly some sections of the media, not wanting to upset the military and other dealers in death, were not inclined to give some of his views the prominence which they deserved.

    The “Great War” (great for whom? Undertakers? Arms salesmen?) was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Given that there has not been a single day since 11 November 1918 when there has not been some armed conflict going on, it can only be said to be a failure in this respect. This can hardy be a surprise to anyone with even the slightest grasp of socialist principles.

    In 1914 many people were led by propaganda to think of themselves as belonging to the same “nation state” as their so-called “betters”. Kitchener’s famous poster of “Your Country Needs You!” is simply put down by the socialist maxim that the workers of the world have no country. Alas, countless thousands were intimidated, bullied, coerced or simply blindly led to the slaughter. Those who have chuckled at the antics of Rowan Atkinson as captain Blackadder might like to reflect that behind the humour there is more than a grain of truth in these episodes.

    This article is not written to dwell on the horrors of trench warfare, the introduction of gas and tanks or the futility of the mass bloodshed to gain a few yards of Belgian mud. There are countless other articles doing this. Suffice it to say that even though the trenches were an insult to humanity most troops actually gained weight whilst in the army, not that army rations were so good, just food at home was so poor or non-existent. Others covered also the horrors of conscripts, many who had lied about their age to enlist and who should have been back at school, being shot at dawn for cowardice.
    Harry Patch’s point was that the war was simply a family squabble which was not worth the shedding of one single drop of (working class) blood for. In that most of the (unelected) royal houses of Europe were related by marriage and blood, he was correct in this respect. Not without good reason were the Empress Maria Theresa and later Queen Victoria known as the Grandmothers of Europe, their children and grandchildren having married into Europe royal houses.

    It may or may not be true that Victoria thought submarines were unsporting and ungentlemanly and shouldn’t be used or that her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm was being a naughty boy. It may also be true that the monarchy and their hangers-on had more influence then but the war was simply a continuation of business by other means.

    Wars would not be fought unless the profits of some important section of business was under severe threat. The capitalist (ruling) classes are not daft enough to allow their workers to be killed without good reason. And, taking a lesson from the slave owners, they did not expect soldiers to fight well if their stomachs are empty. No access for business to markets, resources or investment outlets = no profits = war. That is the simple logic which condemned so many men and women to death. A fight with other workers who in most cases did not even have a common language, let alone a quarrel with them. Workers who on both sides would rather have been with their families or going about their everyday (peacetime) tasks. Almost 100 years later nothing has changed.

    The profit motive shows its head even further. In the current events in Afghanistan troops have been killed because allegedly their equipment was not sturdy enough or up to scratch. Should we or they be surprised? Of course not. The ruling classes want to win their wars as quickly and cheaply as possible and if that means a few more casualties so be it. (Arms manufacturers of course want the war to be as long and expensive as possible).

    Harry Patch’s bravery was a type that some might not recognise. His gunnery team made a pledge not to shoot at the “enemy” (with whom they had no personal quarrel or animosity) unless absolutely necessary and then only shoot at their legs to wound them and not kill them. (In subsequent wars weaponry has been designed not to kill but to cripple; wounded combatants coming home minus limbs is bad for moral – ask Thatcher why the wounded of the Falkland’s were not allowed to appear at the “victory” parade – and tending the wounded when they are back home “wastes” valuable resources which could be preparing to kill or maim more people).

    Harry Patch described war as “organised murder”. I would go a stage further and call it “legalised organised murder”. When opponents of socialism cite objections to socialism by way of what would we do about murders and robbers, point out to them that capitalism by its very nature is a system based on legalised murder and legalised robbery.

    Harry Patch may not have been a socialist but we should salute his courage and conviction in telling the truth, so embarrassing that may have been to the authorities.