Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In defense of capitalism (1995)

Book Review from the November 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds. Essays on the Second World War by Raymond Challinor (Bewick Press)

This book lives up to its title, being a collection of articles written for different journals over the years on working class discontent in Britain during the Second World War.

Challinor is under no illusion as to why the war was fought, not to 'defend democracy' and 'defeat fascism' but to defend the conflicting economic and strategic interests of the ruling classes of the countries involved.

He gives a good account of what these interests were but his main theme is about how warring governments also have to take steps to maintain 'the will to fight' amongst the population they rule over. His contention is that, on a number of occasions in Britain, this was in danger of being undermined, but that this was hushed up - and so successfully contained - by the authorities.

Challinor describes how the Labour Party was a loyal defender of the British Empire (one of the key issues at stake in the war) both before and during the war, even ordering the bombing of tribespeople in Iraq to protect British oil interests there. He reminds us too of the ultra-jingoist position adopted by the Communist Party, though only after the German attack on Russia on 21 June 1941. Before that they had loyally supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact, calling for a negotiated peace with Germany, a demand Challinor shows had more widespread support amongst people (and not just Moscow puppets or Nazi sympathisers) than we have been led to believe.

Challinor writes as a Trotskyist (though at the time he was a member of the old ILP, not that the two were incompatible) and so exaggerates not the discontent itself, but the possibilities of exploiting it for anti-war ends. Despite this, this is a book which will be of interest to Socialists. It also contains a number of well-aimed cartoons, one which we reproduce here.
Adam Buick

Who are the ecologists? (1984)

From the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is broadly accepted that acid rain is damaging forestry, fisheries, agriculture, buildings and public health throughout Europe, Eastern Bloc countries, Scandinavia and North America. For example over 18,000 lakes in Sweden are "acidified"; 4,000 of them are "biologically dead". According to information put out by Acid Rain '84, an ecology group, 34 per cent of West Germany's forests are damaged by air pollution and in 1982 almost 1½  million acres of woodland were designated a total damage area. These are but two examples of widespread damage to the environment which is admitted to be a rapidly worsening problem.

It is also accepted, except by the Central Electricity Generating Board, that acid rain begins with the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly from power stations burning fossil fuels and also from industry. From a total of 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released in Europe in 1982, Britain topped the league with emissions of 4.2 million tons.

In the minds of many people this presents itself simply as a practical problem of pollution, but if this were the case then there would be no difficulty in solving it. The means for preventing these emissions of sulphur dioxide are available, so technically speaking there would be no difficulty in stopping it now. But the problem is not what it appears to be. At a conference held on the environment in Munich in June 1984, the British Government delegation refused to agree to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 per cent, stating that in Britain this would cost 1 billion pounds. This is the real reason why pollution is not stopped and therefore the cause of the continuing problem. It is part of the economic constraints imposed on social action by capitalism.

As a pressure group, Acid Rain '84 have their own economic difficulties. Their leaflets ask for donations to their acid rain appeal. One can give £5 or £10 or more, though it is not clear what they do with the money. Doubtless the 1 billion pounds required for a 30 per cent reduction is beyond the scope of their fund raising campaign but they say that the money will fuel their efforts to protect the environment. The group is part of the Friends of the Earth organisation, which shares the outlook of the Ecology Party, which in its turn seeks to form a government to run capitalism. The question arises, where would an Ecology Party government get the 1 billion pounds to finance a reduction in emissions of sulphur dioxide, or possibly the 3 billion pounds to stop it altogether? In their intended version of capitalism an Ecology Party government would attempt to control the use and development of industrial methods through taxation. They would penalise destructive methods by taxing them out of existence and use the money raised to finance ecologically benign ones.

They would introduce new taxes such as a natural resources tax aimed at conservation and re-cycling of materials; a progressive turnover tax which would penalise large enterprises; and a tax on advertising aimed at "consumerism", although the mass of the population might be surprised to learn that they are guilty of wanton consumerism. They would stiffen capital transfer tax and capital gains tax, and again corporation tax would penalise the large enterprise.

All these taxes, however, are not to be spent solely on ecologically safe projects: an Ecology Party government would maintain armies and armaments production. This is according to the ecological principle that the use of chemical weed killers must be stopped but the use of guns for killing people can continue. As their 1983 Election Manifesto states, "Having unilaterally renounced all nuclear weapons, Britain should continue to possess conventional weapons suited to a defensive role". They do allow that "Overall spending on defence should be progressively reduced", but presumably this is on condition that the other side does it as well, which is usually the view taken by the other side and the reason why it never happens.

The Ecology Party, then, stands for the continuation of capitalism complete with commodity production, rival nation states, armed forces and an horrendous taxation system. Though they might think it is a new idea, in fact the notion that a controlled redevelopment of capitalism can be politically stage-managed through the taxation system is an old and failed idea. It originated in the Labour Party, which in the past imagined that class differences could be removed and worthy social projects initiated by control of taxes. The Labour Party also took the view that arms expenditure could be progressively reduced; in practice they have been one of the big spenders on arms.

No Labour government has ever been able to implement its policies based on tax measures. It was Sir Stafford Cripps who, as Chancellor in the post war Labour Government, brought his supporters back to reality when he told them firmly that he was not in a position to impose taxes in an arbitrary way. The question arises, why has no Labour government ever been able to do it, and why will the Ecology Party not be able to do it in the future?

The central contradiction in the arguments of the Ecology Party is that they would be seeking massive government funds for what they consider to be desirable objectives. Not just 3 billion pounds for the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions but also for many other measures. Yet at the same time they seek to break up the structure of economic viability in energy supply, use of materials, and industrial and manufacturing production methods from which government funds in the form of taxes are derived. In these circumstances, where do they imagine an Ecology Party government would get the money? The structure of commodity production and the particular production methods taken up is not something determined by free choice about what is socially desirable. These production methods are determined by competition in the market.

It is totally unrealistic to imagine that commodity production, whereby goods are presented for sale in the market, can embrace a section of the world capitalist economy which has adopted production methods which are significantly less competitive than the rest. With lower productivity and higher costs the goods produced simply would not sell for a profit and therefore production would not take place. An Ecology Party government would depend for its funds on the prosperity of the national economy and the inevitable result of imposing higher costs on the capitalist economy, either through high taxes or uneconomic production methods, would be collapse and the rapid demise of such a government. If the Ecology Party government seriously attempted to implement its programme it would not last weeks. It would not only be capitalists who would seek to eject them but workers too would quickly want them out.

Nor is it practical to imagine that all sections of world capitalist producers, either as enterprises or governments, including state capitalist governments, could agree to adopt production methods which were less than the most efficient available. The plain fact has to be faced that commodity production is still using, for the most part, energy sources which began with the industrial revolution over two hundred years ago — the burning of fossil fuels. There can be little doubt that the 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide released into the atmosphere in Europe in 1982 represents an increase over what was released in particular years during the nineteenth century. The undoubted reason for this is that this remains the cheapest energy source.

By accepting that capitalist production should continue the Ecology Party has destroyed the credibility of its best aspirations. Like the Labour Party before them they have made a political appointment with failure and disillusion. Worse than this, they are now diverting concern over desperately serious problems into a political dead end which can only have the effect of delaying real solutions.

The resources of the earth do not represent the natural environment in which human life, as part of nature, must find its own equilibrium. They take on an economic form, functioning as the material elements of capital. The economic drive which governs their use is the accumulation of capital, which is itself governed by the economic laws of commodity production. This inevitably results in the inability of society to consciously regulate its relationship with the natural world. The function of the working class is to apply its labour power to natural resources for the object of profit and capital accumulation. Thus oil, coal, natural gas, metals, the land, seas, forests and atmosphere function economically for the object of capital accumulation. This is the system which the so called ecologists want to perpetuate.

With the abolition of capitalism, in which goods take the form of commodities for sale on the market, and the abolition of the wage labour/capital relationship, socialism will establish direct co-operation between producers and goods will be produced directly for need. This will eliminate the economic constraints which at present severely limit the use of production methods. Production for use will consciously regulate production and this will include a choice of methods limited only by available technique and practicality. Socialism will also eliminate a vast amount of waste and at least double the number of people available for useful work.

In these circumstances, production for need will not be solely confined to material consumption. It is a vital need that human activity should interact with the natural environment in non-destructive ways. Socialism would have no difficulty in applying a principle of conservation production which would include working within existing natural systems without altering them. This would be the only safe way to proceed.

Certainly in the field of energy supply the rapid development of safe renewable sources would appear to present the most desirable option. Though these are at present hopelessly uneconomic under capitalism, socialism would have no difficulty in developing and applying this existing technology. Conservation production would mean employing methods that avoid using up and destroying natural resources. For example, standardised machinery could be designed with the minimum number of wearing parts which, with simple maintenance, could be easily replaced and the materials re-cycled and used again. For parts of machinery not subject to wear, durable materials which do not deteriorate could be used. If for some reason such machinery became redundant, the materials involved could be recycled and used again. The principle of conservation production could establish the practice that once materials became socially available after extraction and processing, they would be available for permanent use in one form or another. Thus socialism would bring into use means of production, permanent installations, structures and goods which would last for a long time, and even when redundant could be re-cycled for other uses. With its shoddy goods, built in obsolescence, and the pressure of the market to constantly renew its capacity for sales, capitalism is incapable of applying this production principle.

The kind of world implied by the aspirations of the so called ecologists is one where society could make definite decisions about how best to provide for needs and then be free to implement those decisions outside the economic constraints imposed by capitalism. There can be only one way to achieve this — through the success of the world socialist movement. It is inconceivable that the life of world society can achieve equilibrium with nature unless it first achieves unity and common purpose within its own organisation.

The fatal error of the Ecology Party is in thinking that the mere winning of an election, and the establishment of their own government to run capitalism, will enable their aspirations to be advanced. The problem does not resolve itself solely as a question of who runs capitalism. The fallacy involved in believing this is the one which has brought the Labour Party to failure and disillusion. They would find that capitalism would run them, as it has the successive Labour governments. The Ecology Party has gained membership partly on the basis of the failures of Labour Governments, but in their turn they have adopted exactly the same erroneous position. So much is this the case that we can already anticipate the weak excuses, the shifting of blame and apologies for their inevitable failures. These will be the state of trade in a possible future depression, a balance of payments crisis, the run on the pound, industrial strife, the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund for granting loans, inflation, renewed war . . . What makes the Ecology Party think that if they were to win an election all these features of capitalism would suddenly disappear?

The continuation of capitalism on its blind and uncontrolled course is a gamble on the conditions of life itself. This is surely within the view of anyone with a serious concern for ensuring a stable balance of natural systems in which humanity can enjoy being part of nature. Who are the ecologists? Socialists are the ecologists. Members of the "Ecology" Party should join us now.
Pieter Lawrence

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Literary lefties in the 1930s (1980)

From the May 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although the furore over Anthony Blunt has died down the question still remains: why did people like him swallow the "Russian Myth" so easily? We might ask this especially about other members of Blunt's generation and social background who were involved not in the visual arts but in the literary world. The pro-Communist sympathies of the literary left-wing did not amount to sustained and covert acts of treason but they allowed their ideology to govern their lives and work for the best part of a decade - and this did not stop at deception and the telling of lies.

In order to explain why these writers mistook Russian Nationalism for socialism it is necessary to appreciate the peculiarities of their approach to politics on the one hand, and the common characteristics of their background and culture on the other. First, who were the protagonists in this political tragedy and what was their contribution to the history and literature of the nineteen-thirties?

At the heart of the 'thirties literary movement, which comprised writers born during the first two decades of the twentieth century, was the Auden Group which emerged from the atmosphere and tradition of Bloomsbury. The group included the poets, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice, along with the novelists, Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward who were attracted to the most promising poet of the period, Wystan Hugh Auden. Malcolm Muggeridge and Kingsley Martin also had strong connections with a definite intellectual tradition, that of the eminent Fabians. Muggeridge by virtue of his marriage to Beatrice Webb's niece, Kitty, and Martin through his position as Editor of the "Staggers and Naggers" - The New Statesman and Nation. Theoreticians such as the Labour politician John Strachey and the bright young Communist Christopher Caudwell contributed to the ideological justification of Communist politics in Britain; the former in his The Coming Struggle for Power and other theoretical works published by the Left Book Club of which he was a leading light, and the latter in Illusion and Reality, which attempted to apply Historical Materialism to the evolution of poetry. Claud Cockburn and the Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler were hard-headed Communists who, under the orders of their Russian masters, sent fabricated news-stories to England during the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, Cockburn wrote under the slightly more proletarian name of Frank Pitcairn, while Koestler kept his membership of the Communist Party a complete secret while working as a reporter for the right-wing Hungarian paper Pester Lloyd. The two heretics of the literary left-wing were Julian Symons who became a Trotskyite during the 'thirties and George Orwell who viewed Stalin and Trotsky in the same critical light and described Russian Commissars as "half gangster, half gramophone".

The key to their left-wing sympathies can be detected in the official statistics of the period. It was a decade in which unemployment peaked at nearly three million in 1933; the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that 20 per cent of the nation's children were badly fed and Seebohm Rowntree claimed that 30 per cent of the city of York were living below the poverty line. The social conditions of the 'thirties are more poignantly illustrated in the following three extracts. Greenwood's piece from Love On The Dole was written by someone who was brought up in the conditions described; Orwell was fortunate enough to be a mere visitor to the industrial North; Day Lewis' poem could easily have been constructed by someone who had only read about such things in the press.
" . . . and to find the cost of this present system you only have to at our own lives and the lives of our parents. Labour never ending, constant struggles to pay the rent and to buy sufficient food and clothing. And the houses in which we are compelled to live are as though they have been designed by fiends in hell for our especial punishment. Even at best I say it is not a life." Love On The Dole by Walter Greenwood 
"She looked up as the train passed and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate hopeless expression I have ever seen." The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
"The hooters are blowing,
No need let them take;
When baby is hungry
'Tis best not to wake.
Thy mother is crying,
Thy dad's on the dole;
Two shillings a week is 
The price of a soul."
A Carol by C. Day Lewis.

The nineteen-thirties was the decade of social surveys and "Urban Rides" undertaken by a variety of writers, political activists and social scientists including Orwell, Rowntree, Wal Hannington, J. B. Priestley and Aronld Zweig, to name a few.

Running throughout the work of the literary left-wing - almost without exception - is a pervading sense of guilt which has three elements. The dominant of the three was the over-riding belief that they, born into the homes of small businessmen, shopkeepers and civil servants, educated at public school and in most cases Oxbridge, were, to use Upward's phrase, "Living off the backs of the workers". Somehow they were responsible for the worst features of the capitalist system. It was almost as if one particular phrase of Lenin's was taken to heart above all others.
"How could they be so blind as not to see that our enemy is the small capitalist, the small owner? In the transition period from Capitalism to Socialism our chief enemy is the small bourgeoisie, with its economic customs, habits and position."
The Chief Tasks of Our Times
Lenin, of course, was referring to Russia in an attempt to direct attention away from the bigger and more powerful capitalist institution - the State. here is an example of a political expedient in one country becoming a precept of political theology in another. This aspect of Communist propaganda implanted itself on the already guilt-stricken consciences of the literary intellectuals. For they had already inherited from their school days a sense of shame that they had been too young to test their manhood in the Great War. In addition their childhoods had been scarred by sexual and emotional trauma.

Upward described Repton School - unaffectionately referred to as "Reptile" - as being rotten with "a foul and vicious kind of sexuality" during his time there as a pupil. Orwell recounts the mental and physical cruelty of his Eastbourne prep school in Such, Such Were The Joys. Spender says that his parents might just as well have had him "educated at a brothel for flagellants" and Isherwood claims that his "middle class" upbringing denied affection and taught that sex was "the loathsome charnel house, the bottomless abyss and its natural outcome was paralysis". The political implication of these experiences is succinctly expressed by W. H. Auden:
"The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a fascist State."
The lure of Russia, the call of the Popular Front and the fight against Fascism took on a new and personal perspective. The literary left-wing chose a number of ways to try to expiate their class-guilt (for example Orwell became a tramp), but most chose to join the Communist Party or become fellow travellers. This was far from an easy defection as they all experienced particular inhibitions in their dealings with the "working class". Muggeridge compares the fascination of the intellectuals with the workers to a small dog passing a big dog, half wanting to smell its bottom, and half afraid. It is worth commenting that their political needs were largely emotional rather than intellectual. They felt guilt but they did not "feel" Communism. It was an uncomfortable veneer which did not fit easily, and it required a great deal of their mental effort to convince them that it did.The contradictions inherent in Russian Communism were mentally accommodated but without realising that the paradoxes originated with Lenin not Marx. Therefore when they finally cast off the ill-fitting Communist mantle it was "human nature" that got the credit for the failure of this political exercise, and Marx who got the blame. This conventional conclusion is presented in Martin's autobiography under the heading of "Left Illusions" and in the infamous compilation by ex-Communists, The God That Failed. However their excuses are not historically accurate.

The anti-marxist foundations of Bolshevism have been highlighted in some detail by revolutionaries like Rosa Luxembourg and more recently by academics like Maximilian Rubel[1], Frederick Bender[2], and Paul Mattick[3]. Even raymond Willaims in Culture and Society and Robert Conquest in The Great Terror have been referred to the expedient innovations of Leninism. Yet it is precisely the flawed assumptions of the Bolsheviks which ensured the political betrayal and eventual disenchantment of individuals who could not stomach the rigours of power politics.

Lenin differed fundamentally from Marx, in his insistence that socialism could be established in a pre-industrial economy and that a socialist revolution could be initiated without the participation of the working class as a whole. These modifications required the redefining of socialism and the economic criteria of class so as to fit in with the economic conditions of Russia. It was this last alteration which enabled the Russian Communists to successfully dupe the literary intellectuals.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx declared:
"By the bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labour. By proletariat the class of modern wage-labourers who having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power to live."
If they had read Marx the literary left-wing would have realised that they too were workers by virtue of their occupations as journalists and teachers. Their bourgeois "customs and habits" were not sufficient in themselves to constitute membership of the capitalist class. Like all other workers they stood as "non-owners" in relation to the social means of production.

Lenin insisted that the working class consisted only of industrial labor, a mere section of all wage-earners, and the party that represented their true interests did not consist of "the working class itself" but a minority of professional revolutionaries - Lenin's vanguard of the Proletariat. Lenin's contrived view of class gave rise to further inaccuracy and confusion in the writing of the literary left. In the work of the most promising young neo-Bolshevik, Christopher Caudwell, this revised view of class is taken to its most illogical extreme.
"All classes injured by the final explosion of capitalism - workers, peasants, small farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, artists, specialists, technicians - compose that rebellious mass . . . but only one class is organised by its conditions of life to overthrow the old system and build a new."
Illusion and Reality
The literary left-wing believed for a time that capitalism would finally collapse and that their own involvement was of little importance in the face of the inevitable, but at least they were on the side of history.

It is ironic that contained in the speech that was to shape the political commitment of a whole generation of young artists was the admission that should have exposed Lenin's opportunism for what it was - not the way to socialism, but a road to disenchantment and despair.
"State capitalism would be a step forward for us."
The Chief Tasks of Our Times
 Richard Hales

1. Pipes (Ed) Revolutionary Russia. 1968.
2. Bender F.L. The Betrayal Of Marx. 1975
3. Mattick P. Marx And Keynes. 1974

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Case Against CND (1982)

From the June 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
An edited typescript of the opening statement made by the representative of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in a debate with CND at Islington in October 1981.
In thinking about the kind of world that CND apparently wants, and the world that socialists want, the central issue is one of social control. We don't like what is going on in society; self-evidently, it is not only an appalling mess but it is fraught with the most colossal dangers to humanity. The problem is, how do we bring this mess, with its accompanying dangers, under control, so that we then have a society where these threats no longer exist, where we have solved the problem of war, and where we control society in the human interest?

The possibility of this kind of social control is pre-supposed by our understanding of problems, so we are saying that we share the indignation that CND expresses, but more than that we say that this must be supported by a clear analysis of how these problems arise in the modern world. We argue that the cause of war is capitalist society.

Under capitalism we have a world which is divided into rival and competing nations, which struggle with each other over the control of markets, trade routes and natural resources. It is this struggle which brings nations into armed conflict with each other because militarism is the violent extension of the economic policies of propertied interests. War and the nuclear threat cannot be isolated from the economic relationships of production or the general object of capitalist production, which is to advance the interests of those privileged class minorities who monopolise the whole process of production.

It follows that no working class of any country has any stake or interest in war, and we have always said that workers should never support war. Our stand since we were established has been to oppose every war. Armed with this understanding of the cause of war we are committed to working politically with workers of all countries to establish world socialism, because that is where the interest of the working class lies. We have never participated in the hideous cause of capitalism at war.

Even amid the hysteria of the first world war, when the nationalistic pressures on the whole population to support the war were very intense, our early comrades sent out this message. "Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands, the expression of our good will and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism."

Socialism means democratic control of society in the human interest. This will be a society where the means of producing wealth and the whole of the earth's resources are held in common and at the free disposal of the whole human family. The object of socialism is fundamentally different to that of capitalism, and provides for a completely different social organisation.

Whereas under present world capitalism, the motive of production is to produce commodities for sale on the world's markets with a view to profit, so that privileged minorities in rival capitalist states can accumulate wealth, in a socialist society this will not be the case. Socialism will not produce commodities, but will simply produce useful things directly for human need; and there will be a shared interest between all members of the human family in that common object of production.

We are saying that socialism is the only guarantee that war will not take place because it will completely remove the cause of war. But we are saying more than this. All the time capitalism exists, war will remain because the threat of military force, and its use, is a necessary instrument of vested economic interests. All the facts of modern history show that tis is why governments maintain vast "defence" expenditures, including the cost of nuclear weapons. It follows then that activity to get rid of war and the nuclear threat must essentially be activity to get rid of capitalism. When we have a look at CND and the arguments it presents, there is no analysis of the cause of war, and no attempt whatsoever to understand war as a social problem.

We have from CND this indignation about the effects of war, and some sort of policy, argued around some slogans, which aims to bring pressure to bear on governments to prevent them from producing nuclear weapons and to make them dismantle existing stocks. This superficial approach cannot possibly succeed, nor does it stand any chance whatsoever of guaranteeing a world free from war or the possible use of nuclear weapons. The superficial approach of CND assumes some general democratic political structure by which populations are able to bring effective pressure to bear on governments conducting a policy of, or preparations for, war. But wars are not planned or conducted along democratic lines. Think back to the last war and the development of nuclear weapons. These things were done in complete secrecy. All governments, in the planning and conduct of war, must retain for themselves a free hand, which is secret, and by its nature without democratic reference to the population at large. Democracy and the conduct of war are anathema to each other. The first casualty of war is democracy.

It must be obvious to anyone who is not politically naive, that no government undertaking or treaty has ever been kept for longer than it was expedient to do so. Even if it were possible to imagine a capitalist government, for their own political purposes, giving to CND some undertaking about nuclear weapons, it would not be worth the paper it was written on. In this connection you might think also how cynically   Labour Party politicians have exploited CND sentiments for their own political purposes, when in practice they have acted quite differently.

It is importnat to remember that the technology of nuclear weapons is here to stay. You cannot now erase from the human mind and experience the ability to make nuclear weapons, and there can be no doubt that stocks will continue to proliferate under capitalism. What is required is such a degree of international solidarity that workers of all countries are firmly resolved not to support capitalist war. But CND is not working for this. It is the Socialist Party that is providing the arguments on which this can be solidly built. That is why members of CND, if they wish to be successful about their objective, should be working for socialism.

As if to suggest that in view of the gravity of the dangers almost any argument will do, CND says that they are in a hurry. Socialists have fewer illusions than anybody about capitalism and we are well aware of the dangers. Nor do we need CND literature to bring to our minds just how horrible weapons of war are, whether they are nuclear or not. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan is well within the memory of many socialists, and those who do not remember it are not less sensitive to the horrors of war than CND. Socialists are in a hurry too.

CND says that we have this appalling threat hanging over our heads and they do not have time to work for a different society. They are in the position of supporting capitalism but finding the consequences of their own actions repugnant.

We have had this kind of argument with reformist organisations and pressure groups similar to CND for a long time. We can go back to the beginning of the century when the workers were slaughtering each other and poisoning each other with mustard gas during the First World War. At the time, our early comrades sent out their inspiring message of fraternal good will. If they had been listened to then, all the vile developments since that time would not have taken place.

During the 1930s socialists had the same argument with the Peace Pledge Union, which also saw itself as monopolising feelings of outrage against war and yet continued to support capitalism. They collected millions of signatures and had tens of thousands of members organised in branches all over the country. They were putting a similar argument; peace was a matter of the greatest urgency, but it was not the time to build a society organised for human need.

Sincere individuals are swept up by movements auch as the Peace Pledge Union and CND; but these movements have no substance and are not acting with a clear understanding of the nature of the problems. Because they do not understand that workers have no country, but instead have a common interest with workers of all other countries in taking over the world for themselves, they become easy prey to the propaganda and divisive sentiments of patriotism. There was not the slightest hope for peace in anything that the Peace Pledge Union said, nor in anything that it did. They created the illusion that something was being done, and on that cross of false illusions the working class crucifies itself time and time again, because politically they continue to support capitalism.

There are great dangers in the position taken by CND. They tend to sweep up the indignation that is felt about war and the nuclear threat and render it sterile by channeling it off in totally futile directions. In this respect they unwittingly act out a political role of stabilising capitalism which goes on as a breeding ground for further wars and renewed international violence.

If movements continue to support capitalism they must be responsible for all the ways in which capitalism develops. Because capitalism cannot be controlled in the human interest, we do not know all the ways in which it will develop. We are in the middle of a gigantic trade depression and we do not know what political effects it will have. Under the pressure of trade wars and unemployment there are frustrations and tensions which are now intensifying and which have an undoubted pre-disposition towards violence. Nor can CND possibly assume that while they continue to support capitalism, the technology of human destruction will remain where it is now. These developments will continue, and CND does not know the further refined techniques of death that will come about.

If we are able to go back to the 1930s and had the argument over again with all the people who were then protesting about the effects of capitalism and who said then that there was not time to work for a different society, they would have to accept a measure of responsibility for the things that have happened since that time. We now know the whole story: the second world war, death camps, the development and dropping of the atomic bombs, many more wars since then, the Korean War, Vietnam, millions of people being killed, the development of al the horrendous weapons that exist today, and the obscenity of millions starving while technology, social labour and resources are squandered on the indefensible objectives of capitalism.

After fifty years we are in exactly the same mess that we were in then. When will it be the time to change society? Do we really have to have another fifty years of human misery just so that privileged minorities can continue to control society in their interests?

We invite members of CND to join with us now in building a better world. They must build on the concern and indignation and broaden their horizons. They should not place their faith in governments; that is a sure recipe for disaster and disillusion. We come back to our first question, how do we control society in the human interest? We must not make pathetic appeals to governments to do something on our behalf. We must take the world into our own hands.
Pieter Lawrence

Cooking the Books: Socialism in One Village? (2012)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month Graham Keeley, the Times correspondent in Spain, reported on a visit to Marinaleda, a small village in Andalusia near Seville, under the headline “Viva la revolución: Spain’s tiny answer to a crisis of capitalism” (5 May). He met the mayor who told him that “the village proves that Marx, not Adam Smith, was right”.

He is not the first journalist to have written about this village of 3,000 inhabitants whose website proclaims it to be “a utopia through peace” ( Its claim to fame is a council-run farm established on land that originally belonged to a local aristocrat and a housing scheme under which people can rent houses cheaply as long as they help build them themselves and help others to build theirs. The farm provides employment for local people and support for any becoming unemployed.  It also generates an income to build and maintain local amenities. There is no local police force and villagers clear the streets and do repairs on a voluntary basis.

“It just shows,” the mayor told Keeley, “that when people own the means of production they get more back.” It certainly shows that the competitive individualism that capitalism seeks to impose is not the only way to live, even under capitalism, and that Adam Smith was wrong to assume that it is “human nature” to want “to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”. But is this “village socialism” a real “answer to a crisis of capitalism”? The mayor himself doesn’t make this claim, only that his village council is a “counterpower” to that of the “bourgeoisie” and the “big landowners”, protecting land workers from them and their policies. It may well be (anarchists should note that this involves using the ballot box), but clearly the problems facing workers in Spain cannot be dealt with solely at village level – or even at national level.

Spanish capitalism is in deep trouble and it’s the workers who are paying the price. As the BBC reported on 27 April:
“Spanish unemployment has hit a new record high, official figures have shown. The number of unemployed people reached 5,639,500 at the end of March, with the unemployment rate hitting 24.4%.... Official figures due out on Monday are expected to confirm that Spain has fallen back into recession. Earlier this week, the Bank of Spain said the economy contracted by 0.4% in first three months of this year, after shrinking by 0.3% in the final quarter of last year. Other figures released on Friday showed that Spanish retail sales were down 3.7% in March from the same point a year ago - the 21st month in a row that sales have fallen. In the first three months of the year, 365,900 people in Spain lost their jobs. The country has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union and that rate is expected to rise further this year. It has risen sharply since April 2007, when it stood at 7.9%.”
With unemployment up from 8 percent to over 24 percent in five years (and growing), this is a slump of 1930s proportions. The mayor is right. The solution does lie in the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production but, since capitalism is already a world system, this has to be on a world level. A “global village” 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Socialism and the left (1986)

From the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is opposed to "left wing" movements because they are reformist organisations which, if they achieved political power, would enforce the basi features of capitalism through the repressive machinery of state. They distort the language of socialism, obscuring all its objectives, and they are conspiratorial and authoritarian in ways which leave no doubt that work for socialism would come under serious threat should they ever realise their aims.

There is a proliferation of such groups sharing a general outlook, distinguished from each other only by points of detail and varying loyalties to different leading personalities. Since they are all given to frequent use of the word "socialism", it is useful clearly to define what the Socialist Party means by the word. This can be summarised under three main headings - common ownership of the means of life; democratic control of society; and production solely for human need.

Common ownership means a relationship where the means of producing goods and services, and the earth's resources, are held in common by the whole community. This is distinguished from minority class ownership of the means of production under capitalism, in either its privately owned or state monopoly forms.

By democratic control we mean a system of administration through which the whole community would be able to make democratic decisions about the use of productive resources, the general arrangement of social affairs and the immediate priorities and long term objectives of social action. This is distinguished from the operation of systems of government which impose decisions on the wider community through the enforcement of law. By their nature, governments express class interests.

By production solely for human need we mean direct co-operation between people in producing goods and maintaining services directly for need. This requires the abolition of the market, including that for labour power in socialism, production would not begin with an economic exchange of labour time for wages and salaries, but would arise as social co-operation in direct response to community requirements. Free access by the community to available goods and services would replace the present restricted access to goods based on buying and selling, and the use of money as a means of exchange.

This is what socialism means and the Socialist Party has consistently held this as its sole object since its formation in 1904. It was not, however, originated by the Socialist Party but taken up from the struggles and ferment of ideas of the nineteenth century, when there was more common agreement about the meaning of socialism than now. The clarification of the meaning of socialism was not, unfortunately, an end to the debates between those who wished to replace capitalism with the new system. On the contrary, it opened up a new debate about how to get from one society to the other, an argument at the heart of the matter of reformism versus revolutionary socialism and one which is highly relevant to the socialist criticism of the various left wing movements today.

The stand taken by the Socialist Party arose from a Marxian analysis of capitalist society and the limitations of political action within capitalism. It worked on the self-evident assumption that any means which were inconsistent with the socialist objective would in effect be hostile to it. It is impossible to establish socialism by seeking to form a government to run capitalism of any kind; to abolish the domination of society by capital by retaining it and accepting all the economic consequences; to abolish the wages system by continuing its operation. Similarly, it is impossible to establish production solely for need and free access to what is produced by retaining the market system of buying and selling which has the sole objective of realising profit.

Each and every one of the so called left wing governments which have come to power in the name of socialism from the British Labour Party to the Russian Bolsheviks, have retained and further developed the basic features of capitalist society. They share the common aim of working for a system of state capitalism, though they dress this up in the language of socialism. Perhaps they retain some remote thought that political power would enable them to manage capitalism and control the direction of its development - presumably towards socialism. No credible theory of such political management has ever been produced; on the contrary, it is a fallacious idea which is now thoroughly discredited by experience.

It was argued at the beginning of the century, for example by some of those who helped form the Labour Party, that a "working class government" could be formed to run capitalist society in the interests of the working class and to carry out measures which would gradually change the structure of society. First of all, it was argued that such a government would immediately enact a programme of reforms to improve conditions of work, create shorter working hours, and continuously expand health and education services. There would be a massive programme of house building and generous pensions for the aged, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Unemployment would be abolished and the production of required goods and services would be continuously increased. At the same time nationalisation would be the beginning of common ownership of the means of production. Tax measures would ensure that the rich would be taxed out of existence. All this was to be carried through by an alliance of working-class political organisations in control of the state and unions operating on the industrial front.

When this put forward at the beginning of the century the early members of the Socialist Party said that it was completely impractical, a very dangerous illusion. They pointed out that these left wing reformists had failed to take into account the lessons of the Marxian economic analysis of capitalism. Then it was a matter of theoretical debate, now it is also a matter of bitter experience. The fallacy of its general theory has been acted out by left wing reformists themselves time and again, both in this country with the Labour Party, in Russia following the Bolshevik take-over, and in many other places.

The reality is that in any system of commodity production and capital accumulation, irrespective of whether it is privately managed or run by the state, there is an irreconcilable conflict between the value factors and the socially useful factors of production, in which the value factors must always predominate. The driving force is capitalist accumulation and this works within a set of constraints which limit time action in every social, economic and political sphere. Whatever may be done in any of these spheres is conditional on the governing factor that capital should accumulate through the economic exploitation of workers involved in the exchange of labour time for wages. Workers generate value over and above the value of their own labour power and this surplus value is realised through the sale of commodities in the market. In this way the original capital investment is expanded and realised in its money form. It makes no difference whether it is state capital operating through a state enterprise or private capital operating through private enterprise, the profit motive and the conditions of the world capitalist market limit the social possibilities of society under capitalism. In the light of this hard economic reality, the reformist dreams of left wing movements are shown to be completely impractical.

In addition to the false ideas about what a "working class government" could do, there is the survival of a further article of faith arising from Leninism - the belief that socialism would emerge in some generally unspecified way from the class struggle in a time of acute crisis when capitalism breaks down in chaos. In this situation, it is said, a "revolutionary vanguard" could take political control and then form a "working class government". The logic of this idea is that left wing movements should intensify the disruptions of the class struggle with a view to bringing this acute crisis about. So we see all about us, Trotskyite groups attempting to use industrial conflict for their political ends.

This is another dangerous misconception made all the more so because it is founded on an element of truth. It is obviously true that socialism arises from the class division of capitalism and will be the outcome of the class struggle. It is also true that because it is based on class antagonisms capitalism will continuously produce chaos in the form of strikes and other disruptions such as riots. But the task of the revolutionary socialist is to show by analysis and persuasive argument that whatever form such struggles may take they arise continuously from one basic cause, which is capitalist society. The positive socialist role is to clarify the cause of struggle, equip it with socialist consciousness and thus direct it on a course of practical political action aimed at dispossessing the capitalist class of their ownership of the means of life and establishing common ownership.

Without socialist knowledge, working-class struggles will always be fought on a battle ground where the forces of capitalism will always win. A crucial factor is the power of the state. While capital retains control of the state and commands the forces of repression - the police and the armed forces backed by the law - workers must always face ultimate defeat. On the other hand a socialist majority would win because it would, in the most determined democratic manner, take political power and bring all the powers of government under its own control. It would then enact common ownership and replace the state with a system of democratic administration, concerned solely with the organisation of production for use. A socialist society can only be established and operated by a majority of men and women who have decided that a world organised solely for human needs is the world they want and prepared to act on that basis. Therefore socialism can only be established by a majority of conscious socialists.

If in some time of acute economic and political crisis a left wing movement was able to take control of the state, nothing would alter except a change of political bosses. It would be state capitalism with the forces of capital still dominating the lives of workers and confining the life of society within the demands of profit as against need. All that would change would be the individuals in the governing positions of power and privilege. In power, as we have seen over and over again, a left wing regime would mean the now entirely discredited policies of nationalisation, the retention of capital, the wages system, commodity production, the market and the profit motive. It would mean all the sectional privileges arising from this, imposed on the working class by the forces of the state.

In their present state, despite their illusory pretensions about acting in the interests of workers, the left wingers wait in the political wings of capitalism, ready to pounce on any opportunity for the continuation of capitalism on the basis of their own control. While they remain contained they are a political gift to the capitalist class, tending to stabilise the exploitative pattern of capitalist relationships by providing a sterile refuge for the frustrations of class society. In this way they are useful to capitalism because they channel working class struggle into a political dead end.

The idea of a revolutionary vanguard mirrors the elitism of those in power positions of capitalism, who justify their privilege with an inflated self-image based on the view that workers are incapable of running society. This is the inverted prejudice of the left that workers can only ever be the tools of change, never the democratically organised and politically conscious agents of it. Acting on the Leninist belief that workers can never go beyond trade unionism, the left wing elitists see themselves as the political manipulators able to convert industrial disruption into political change.

The fact is that everywhere about us we see workers running every useful part of production and necessary services. In the modern world the knowledge required for this is certainly no less than the socialist knowledge required to run the entire structure of industrial organisation and administration in their own interests and through their direct co-operation. Throughout the world there exists a highly developed structure of useful production which is available to be developed solely for human needs.
Pieter Lawrence

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Naff Caff (2000)

A Short Story from the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dillon's Diner stands in a narrow alleyway in the centre of the city. At first glance it is a mean-looking building nestling between a baker's shop and a trendy gift shop (the latter frequented by tourists and those people who are eager to fritter their money away on largely useless items). It sits there solid as a rock, the wood surrounding the huge windows painted a workhouse green. Dillon's Diner is better viewed from within. The café is known locally, though not by the proprietors I hope, as the Naff Caff.

Smart people or tourists seldom visit the Naff Caff. From my place at a table inside I have a clear view of anyone stopping by to study the menu and to peer into the steamed-up windows; either they don't like the look of the people inside or the blatant message of the menu—sausage, egg and chips, bacon sandwiches, chicken nuggets, tea at thirty-five pence a cup, has no attraction for them as few of them ever come in. The clientele includes city buskers, Big Issue sellers, students from the local school and people who like me who welcome a cup of tea and a plate of chips cooked in vegetable oil. The Naff Caff is known by reputation or by those who, years before, wandered in on a wet day and got hooked on the atmosphere.

Almost everyone talks uninhibitedly. At one oilcloth-covered table a group discuss Unidentified Flying Objects and crop circles, whilst at another politics are more the priority. Occasionally people sitting at one table will leave it to join those sitting at another table if the conversation sounds more inviting. Sometimes voices are raises and raucous laughter fills the air. We all take it in our stride and most of the time so does Mr Dillon, the proprietor though he is idiosyncratic to say the least. He has strong political opinions mainly about the iniquities of local government. He will deliver speeches at the top of his voice either from behind his counter or standing at a table to harangue customers over their chips and baked beans. He rarely pauses for breath and his language is colourful.

One day Mr Dillon ordered a man off his premises for making racist remarks about a young Asian man. But on another day he banished a young woman because of her Mohican hairstyle and the three tiny rings she wore through her nose. She came into the café with her mother and her young son and sat quietly at a table waiting for a place of chips to be served to the little boy. Mr Dillon told her that "this is a respectable establishment and you will frighten my customers with that weird hairdo". This in a café where long hair and beards, ragged jeans, anoraks and appearances suggestive of lurking poverty are the order of the day. I witnessed the incident but it all happened too quickly for me to intervene. I chided myself for days afterwards for not having lifted a finger to protest.

The Naff Caff is cheap but it isn't chic and the grub is unremarkable. Even its nickname is derisory so why do so many people have an affection for it? Well, it is unpretentious, honest and clean. And it is alive. The clientele can either converse animatedly or sit silently over a cup of tea for two hours and nobody will give them any hassle. Within the walls of the Naff Caff dwells a little bit of socialism. The prevailing environment speaks of comradeship, mutual respect and social harmony. It was the customers who long ago created this idea. In what other public place have I come across people who will unashamedly eavesdrop on a conversation where a tricky and personal problem is being aired and make it their business to offer helpful solutions? And the astonishing thing is that nobody seems to mind. Perhaps it is that showing an interest in and caring about the fate of others is always preferable to indifference. The Naff Caff responds to a need in our society. Every city should have one.
Heather Ball

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Editorial: Voting Against Austerity (2012)

Editorial from the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

The people of Iceland did it first. Twice. In two referendums they rejected a deal their government had negotiated with international creditors. They even put a former prime minister on trial. It didn’t make any difference. Now they have been followed by voters in France and, more dramatically, in Greece. It won’t make any difference there either. Because, in capitalism in a slump, there is no alternative to falling living standards for the majority.

Nobody wants their standard of living to be reduced, whether as cuts to their wages or their pensions or as the reduced income unemployment brings. But that’s what they get, even though they might vote against it. It’s understandable that, given the chance in an election, people should vote to reject austerity. At least it shows they are not prepared to accept things lying down. For the people of Greece to have voted back those promising yet more austerity would have been to brand themselves as gutless.

To imagine that electing another set of politicians is going to make any difference, though, is an illusion. It assumes that governments control the way the capitalist economy works whereas in fact they have to govern on its terms of ‘no profit, no production’. They have to give priority to profits and profit-making. In a slump that means imposing austerity.

Henry Ford is reputed to have said that you can have a car of any colour so long as it’s black. Capitalism in a crisis is like that. You can elect any government, but that government will impose austerity. Even if Greece defaults and withdraws from the euro, the cruel fact is that any government, even one elected on an anti-austerity basis, would have to do this.

The fuel that drives capitalism is profits. A slump means that capitalist businesses are investing less than before because it’s not so profitable. The only way capitalism can get out of this is if profitability revives. This happens spontaneously in a slump. The assets of failing and bankrupt firms pass cheaply to others, who can therefore use them more profitably. Interest rates fall, allowing firms that borrow money to invest to keep a larger proportion of their profits. Increased unemployment exerts a downward pressure on wages, increasing the share of profits in new production.

Left-wingers and trade union leaders think that the way out of a slump is to increase spending. Get the government to spend more, they say, and that will get production going again. But it won’t. For the simple reason that the increased wages or government spending would have to be at the expense of profits; which would make things worse. Some governments may start off trying to do this but they are very quickly obliged by the economic laws of capitalism to effect a U-turn and impose austerity.

That’s the way capitalism works, and it’s the only way it can work. Capitalism is a system that puts profits before people and cannot be reformed to do otherwise. The only way forward is not to vote for a change of government policy or to reform some aspect of capitalism, but to act to replace capitalism with socialism so that the Earth’s resources really can become the common heritage of all and used to serve human welfare.

Rising in the Valley (1980)

Book Review from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Merthyr Rising by Gwyn A. Williams (Croom Helm)

By 1831, forty per cent of the pig iron produced in Britain was being made in South Wales. The centre of the industry was Merthyr Tydfil which, with a population of some 27,000, was the largest town in Wales. Merthyr was dominated by four great iron companies, which together employed at least nine thousand workers, who lived lives of wearisome toil, grinding poverty and nagging insecurity. These workers carried out an insurrection that spread its shock waves well beyond their native valleys, left over two dozen of them dead, and provided Wales with its first working class martyr. The insurrection is chronicled by Gwyn Williams in a vivid and detailed book now available in paperback.

From 1829 there was a severe economic depression in the Merthyr area, as the market price of bar iron fell drastically, and the employers were forced to cut wages and lay people off. This led to many working-class families into debt with shopkeepers and thus into the clutches of the Court of Requests, a special local institution whereby bailiffs were entitled to confiscate a debtor's property and sell it in order to pay the shopkeeper.

The economic crisis coincided with the agitation over the Great Reform Act of 1831. A leading local advocate of Reform was William Crawshay II, owner of the giant Cyfarthfa iron-works. Crawshay mobilised the iron workers and miners he employed into action against his Tory opponents, only for them to discover that Reform by itself could not abate the depression. For while he spoke of Reform and democracy, Crawshay was giving notice of wage reductions and lay-offs.

On May 30 1831, a great working-class rally was held outside Merthyr at Waun Fair, ostensibly in favour of Reform. But it was a meeting with many strands and many influences, the more so as there were no obvious "leaders". One motion demanded the abolition of the Court of Requests, and one speaker demanded that the Court be brought down. The next day saw the first defiance of the law and act of rebellion; people in the village of Penderyn used physical force to stop a Court of Requests  distraint on one of their neighbours, Lewis Lewis, who was to become prominent in the insurrection and its aftermath.

It was on the morning of 2 June that the insurrection proper broke out. A crowd moved through Merthyr from house to house, locating goods that had been sequestered by the hated Court of Requests and returning them to their original owners. The action continued in the afternoon, and in the evening the workers sacked the house of the Court's President. Faced with such attacks on private property, the local magistrates, traders and employers could not stand idle. They installed themselves in the Castle Inn in the High Street and sent for soldiers.

About eighty Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived from Brecon on the morning of the following day and halted outside the Castle Inn, where a crowd of up to ten thousand gathered. After a fruitless attempt at negotiation, the crowd became restless and were ordered to disperse. From an upper window, Crawshay offered to redress his employees' grievances if they would send delegates to see him in a fortnight. Angered, the crowd surged forward and seized the muskets of the front rank of soldiers. After further skirmishes, the soldiers were ordered to fire. They did, again and again, right into the crowd. By the time the street was cleared, some twenty-four workers had been killed.

The masters realised that they were prime targets for revenge and so removed to Penydarren House, just outside the town, and sent for more soldiers. By the evening of 3 June, Merthyr had been abandoned to its workers. A full-scale insurrection was now under way, with workers arming themselves, setting up road blocks in an attempt to isolate the town, and sending spokesmen to Monmouthshire to gain support. Some of the soldiers trying to get through to Penydarren were intercepted, disarmed and sent packing.

Of course it could not last. The efforts to spread the insurrection elsewhere were fruitless and gradually the military - numbering about eight hundred by now - regained the initiative. On 6 June the movement collapsed: crowds dispersed, men buried their weapons and returned to work. The prominent rebels were arrested; by the end of June, twenty-six of them were housed in Cardiff jail.

The Home Secretary decided to avoid provocation and not prosecute any of them for treason, and in the event only four cases came to trial. But that was enough for four sentences of transportation and one of the death penalty. The latter was on Richard Lewis (otherwise known as Dic Penderyn), a miner, who was found guilty of wounding a soldier at the Castle Inn confrontation on 3 June. Despite a petition to the king for mercy, and the extremely flimsy nature of the identification evidence against, Dic Penderyn was hanged at Cardiff on 13 August. The government had been determined that someone should die for what had been done at Merthyr. In choosing Dic Penderyn they murdered not a leader but a man who was, and represented, the ordinary worker. In Williams' words:

"it was not any 'leadership' which made him a martyr; it was his very innocence, his innocuousness, his sense that he 'was only doing what thousands of others did'. He did literally 'die for thousands'."
Unrest did not cease with the putting down of the rebellion or the execution of Dic Penderyn. In August 1831 the first trade union lodges were formed in South Wales. Two of the large Merthyr ironworks demanded that workers leave the union on pain of dismissal, and began lock-outs. It took until November for the workers' will to be broken and the union smashed. Merthyr ended 1831 still under military occupation.

The Merthyr Rising deserves a place on every worker's bookshelf, just as the event merits a place in any working class history. The insurrection must not be built up out of proportion, for it was not and could not be the beginning of a revolution. There was no way in which the Merthyr rebels could have "won". But that does not stop us noting their solidarity in the face of vicious ruling-class brutality and saluting their courage.
Paul Bennett

Labour capitalism (1989)

Editorial from the October 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party is not and never has been a socialist party. As we record in this issue, most Labourites have seen "socialism" as either nationalisation or some milder form of what exists in Russia. They have, in other words, confused socialism with state capitalism. Some, it is true though more in the past than in recent times, have like us wanted a society based on common ownership, democratic control and distribution according to need, except that they saw this as coming about through a series of piecemeal reforms introduced by Labour governments.

This attempt to introduce within capitalism what will undeniably be features of socialist society - such as free public services and the abolition of unearned income from shares - was bound to fail as it took no account of the fact that capitalism cannot be reformed to work other than as a profit-making system governed by blind economic laws. The economic operation of the capitalist system has meant either that these reforms have eventually been undermined or that they have had unintended side-effects. At the same time Labour governments, having come into office under capitalism, have had no alternative but to preside over the running of the capitalist system in the only way that it can: as a system in which profit-making takes priority in all fields over meeting needs.

Aneurin Bevan once described the National Health Service as "pure socialism". He was wrong, but for the right reason. Wrong because you cannot have bits of socialism within capitalism, but right because health care in socialism will be free. The free NHS began to be dismantled, under economic pressure of capitalism, even by the Labour government that had introduced it, and the free aspect has been whittled away ever since as successive Tory and Labour governments have introduced more and more charges.

Earlier Labour theorists, such as R. H. Tawney, saw Labour's role as to suppress unearned income, correctly regarded as a tribute levied by property-owners on the rest of society, by gradually taxing it out of existence. As, once again, socialism will indeed be a society in which shareholding will have no place, the higher taxes on unearned income by Labour governments were sometimes presented, wrongly, as a step towards socialism.

Now such pretences are to be dropped. The Policy Review document to be adopted at this month's Labour Conference shows that the Labour leaders, eager to get their hands on the reins of office, are preparing to accept capitalism as it has evolved in Britain -  a profit-driven market economy providing unearned income for those who own the means of production - and to abandon the attempt to impose on it isolated features of a socialist society.

The document has to be read to be believed. It opens with an introduction by Kinnock in which he states that Labour's aim is to help "make the market system work" and goes on to talk about Labour's priority being to establish "an internationally competitive economy", achieving "success in the marketplace", and creating "a new partnership with business".

This does not represent the abandoning by Labour of its socialist principles (that would be difficult since it never had any), but rather the tacit recognition by Labour of the failure of the strategy of gradually trying to reform capitalism out of existence which, at an earlier period, was accepted by many in the Labour Party. Not only have the actions of Labour governments not brought socialism one step nearer, but instead of Labour gradually changing capitalism it is capitalism that has gradually changed the Labour Party.

As socialists who predicted this failure, we draw the lesson that the only way to get to socialism is to work to build up a political movement dedicated to ending capitalism by bringing all the means of production, in one go and without compensation, into common ownership by all the people. For us, the failure of gradualist reformism vindicates the need for a social revolution, to be carried out by essentially peaceful, democratic means, from class ownership and control and production for profit to common ownership, democratic control and production for need.

The Labour leaders, opportunist politicians that they are (but then, as professional politicians, their main ambition in life has to be to achieve ministerial office), have typically drawn a different conclusion. They want to abandon the failed reformist strategy, but in favour of accepting capitalism as it is, market, unearned incomes and all.

This is not a development that need surprise since ideology can always be expected to sooner or later come into line with practice-and Labour's practice when in office has always been to accept capitalism and its logic. Every Labour government has worked with private business and has accepted that capitalists must be allowed to make profits (indeed, has taken steps such as freezing and restraining wages to ensure that they did). It is just that at this year's Labour Party Conference we shall be witnessing the precise point in time at which the gap between ideology and practice which has existed up to now will be closed, with Labour accepting a new ideology that conforms to what has long been its practice.