Monday, December 9, 2013

A dual education (1986)

From the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

My introduction to wage slavery was in 1933—the year I started work as an apprentice in the engineering trade.

In those days it was custom and practice to put apprentices to work with the best craftsmen in the shop. It was my good fortune to work with old George, who was a first class craftsman, a militant shop steward and a thorough going Marxist. What set him apart from the many other trade union activists employed in the firm was his awareness that the problems which unions attempted to deal with were political both in origin and solution.

There was no gap between George's work as a top craftsman and his activity as a militant and a Marxist. On the contrary, each was the logical outcome of the other. His grandfather, who was a founder member of the union, had been at Peterloo and on first name terms with Engels. George had grown up in engineering—the craft, the pride and the struggles. On the bench he produced the best in the trade. He was in his element in the battle/ He knew about the class struggle, not as an abstract theory, but as an important and vital part of his life. He had grown up with it, and fought it daily in the workshop. From George I received a dual education in Marxism and engineering. He couldn't speak about anyone or anything without putting them in their context in the capitalist system.

Each dinner time (we had one hour in those days) twenty or thirty workers of all ages would gather round our bench, sit on pieces of machinery, boxes and even the floor.  They came to hear George spread the theories of Marx. Right from the beginning, George would take a form grip on that small audience, and with clarity and emotion expound the Marxist position on what was happening in the political arena. The audience daily came back for more.

I will never forget when the management announced, on the works' white board, that, in response to certain disruptive elements in the main machine shop, they had invited a prominent economist (from Oxford no less) to represent the engineering employer in a debate with this Marxist. That is, of course, provided the Marxist could hold his own in debate with this most erudite capitalist theoretician.

The challenge was accepted, the meeting arranged, we were even allowed an extra 45 minutes paid dinner time. Everyone and his brother attended—the whole labour force, labourers, craftsmen, office workers, directors and certain parasites, who previously had only drawn dividends from our employment but now actually attended the site responsible for their wealth. There never had been such a gathering there since Queen Victoria opened the factory. The local bishop chaired the debate.

George wanted blood, and got it. He did a hatchet job on this economist's case. He shredded his arguments and mentally castrated him.

After this debunking of the bosses' hand rag, the shop floor organisation received a tremendous boost. Many workers, myself included, were anxious to get to grips with Marxism. How could we go about it? What could we read? How could we understand it? We bombarded George with these and similar questions. His reply was to recommend and sell us a copy of the Communist Manifesto (price 3p in those days). "Read this, digest it, and we'll start to discuss any points arising from it at dinner time tomorrow", he said.

I can still recall my excitement on reading the Manifesto. It hit me like a blow from Joe Louis. The knowledge of history I possessed, having left school at 14, was through the tinted spectacles of historians solely concerned with the reign of this king or that queen, and the adventures of sea captains. History appeared an endless jumble of great men, of little importance to everyday life.

From the Manifesto I read of the history of class struggle, history stripped of the blare of trumpets, the crescendo roll of drums, of the amorous adventures of libidinous monarchs and their court lackeys. History that showed the working class what the exploited and enslaved classes were before it, and what it is itself, and what it must become.

In the 1888 preface to the Manifesto Engels writes:
In every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the base upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles form a series of evolutions in which nowadays a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once and for all emancipating society at large, from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The Manifesto remains to this day unapproached as an introduction to Marxism.

Recently, at a talk on "Marxism and Trade Unionism" held in Islington, I quoted from the Manifesto. It took me back to those machine shop meetings of 50 years ago, and I thought how pleased old George would be to know what happened to at least one of the workers he taught so much to.
Wally Preston

Enoch Powell: aftermath or prelude (1968)

From the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Alice has stepped through the looking glass. The London dockers have cheered right wing Tory M.P. Gerald Nabarro. Jack Dash has tried to stop a strike. Dockland Communists have taken a couple of clergymen down to the East End for, presumably, moral support. These were some of the immediate results of Enoch Powell's infamous speech.

One of the many ironies in this situation is its central character. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Powell, whose first name is John, should want to be known as Enoch, with its suggestion of an arid crank, too eager to pronounce harsh judgement. (Quinton Hogg once called him "a sort of Mao Tse-Tung of Toryism".)

Powell has always acted the part of Enoch. It is doubtful if many of his recent supporters are familiar with his opinions on issues other than immigration, or would understand what he was talking about if they tried to find out.

How many dockers, for example, would agree with what he wrote about the usefulness—or rather lack of it—of trade unions in the Sunday Times of September 6 1964:
(the remuneration of labour) is rarely affected appreciably, upwards or downwards, by combination; and then the effect is more or less temporary and purchased at the cost of the general public, including other workers.
How many Smithfield porters would support his attitude on price control:
. . . and management had no business to accept any such responsibility for keeping prices stable or reducing them. The duty of every management was to conduct the business in a way which was likely to maximise the return on the capital invested. (The Guardian, 29/1/64.)
How many of those who now think they back Enoch would go along with what he wrote about hospital waiting lists in his book Medicine and Politics:
It might (!) be thought macabre to observe that if people are on a waiting list long enough, they will die—usually from some cause other than that for which they joined the queue. Short of dying, however, they frequently get bored or better, and vanish. 
 Nobody knows if Powell has ever tried to make a joke, but if he has that passage was not one of his attempts. It was written, with much more in the same heartless vein, by a man who was once Minister of Health.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that Powell has an unrepentant contempt for popular opinion. The question is, now, is why he has suddenly played for the mass vote, using the well known demagogue's trick of throwing a mass of mud knowing that most of it will stick? Why did he use forecasts of immigration which were loaded and distorted? Why did he talk about the man who fears that in fifteen or twenty years the black man will have the whip hand over the white in Britain? Why did he trot out the story of the lonely, harassed widow who cannot be found, even by Powell himself?

This was the first case of a prominent British politician—a prospective Prime Minister, no less—stimulating, and appealing to colour prejudice. Powell's was a cunning speech which gave him a hero's reputation but it was a dangerous game he was playing.

What justification is there for Powell's reputation - How consistent and honest is he?

Most of his vociferous supporters have probably forgotten that during his term as Minister of Health the Health Service was eagerly recruiting immigrant workers of all types to plug the gaps in its manpower. They are also probably unaware that Powell has always stood out for the free movement of labour, for example in this speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in February 1964:
We are fearful of the big movement of population and of industry without which industrial progress is not possible. We are timid in the face of change in almost any form.
Immigration, of course, is a "change"; it is also a "big movement of population".

Then there was Powell's famous resignation in 1958, often cited as evidence of his integrity, with Peter Thorneycroft and Nigel Birch. (Duncan Sandys criticised the resigners, Nabarro accused them of "rocking the boat"; Macmillian dismissed the whole matter nonchalantly, as a "little local difficulty".) The point of dispute was the proposal to increase government expenditure during the next year. Powell was quite clear where he stood on this; in a speech to his constituency party after his resignation he aid:
If Mr. Thorneycroft's conviction that Government spending should be limited to its present level could be legitimately criticised, then it should be on the ground that it was too lax, not too strict . . . (The Times, 10/1/58.)
It is instructive to consider what followed this great stand on principle. In 1958, public authorities' current expenditure, that is, the combined central government and local authority expenditure, was £6,524m. This kept in rising until in 1960 it reached £7,441m. On principle, then, Powell should have stayed out of government. But in 1960 he managed to stifle his misgivings and accept office as Minister of Health, Government spending continued to rise—in 1961 it was £8,136m. and in 1962 £8,668m. But Powell hung on to his job.

He did, in fact, get in another resignation of sorts, after the Tory magic circle selected Douglas-Home to succeed Macmillan. Powell gave no reason for his refusal to accept office so it was widely assumed that he objected either to Douglas-Home (unlikely—politicians learn to embrace men they loathe) or to the method of his selection, which so clearly excluded the Powells of the Conservative Party.

Whatever his objections, Powell had no difficulty in forgetting them when he wanted to; after the Tory defeat in October he suddenly found it all right to join Douglas-Home's Shadow Cabinet and there he stayed until Heath sacked him after his Wolverhampton tirade.

These manoeuvres can be simply explained if we forget the theory that Powell is a man of rock-;like integrity and accept him as a normal, ambitious capitalist politician. His withdrawal after Macmillan's retirement came after a struggle for the Tory leadership. He came back into the Shadow Cabinet—and perhaps, in his own estimation, into the leadership stakes—when Douglas-Home was clearly on the way out and subsequently he stood, with little hope, in the election which gave Heath the job. Now Heath's standing is in doubt; there is strong criticism of him in his party for not making the most of Labour's predicament. If Labour begin to pick up their support again this criticism will intensify. This is typically a time for Powell to strike and now that he has done so we may be sure that a fierce and ruthless battle is raging behind those urbane Tory exteriors.

The danger is that Powell has started something which he will not be able to control. The appetite of racialism grows by what it feeds on; each tightening of immigration control in this country has come after a political panic—Smethwick, Duncan Sandy's scare over the Kenyan Asians and so on. What will happen if other politicians join Powell's bandwagon and if the working class begin voting in any numbers for organisations like the National Front and Union Movement? Already it is possible, and reasonable, for The Observer to comment "We must only be calm, but must also be willing to have our teeth knocked out in defence of tolerance." (28/4/68). In this atmosphere it cannot be said that it can't happen here. 

Parallels can be taken too far, but there are undeniable similarities between the present political situation in this country and that in Germany in the Thirties, There is a discredited Social Democratic party, whose responsibility in the failure to solve a chronic economic problem has brought widespread disillusionment with democratic politics. There is a popular impression, as the troops come back from East of Suez, that this country has suffered a military defeat.

There has not yet been a slump to rival the pre-war crash, but there are signs that a catastrophic collapse need not be far off. (The Economist of May 4 cheers us all up with its opening words: "It is possible that there will be another international currency crisis within the next few weeks.") There is an easily identifiable racial minority to take the blame for all working class problems and frustrations. Finally, there are now politicians in power or close to it who are trying to exploit the situation, as Schleicher and Von Papen did in Germany.

One fact that seems to have been overlooked is that Enoch Powell, an openly declared enemy of the working class, is no more than another capitalist politician. There is no reason to think that he will succeed where others have failed; a Powell government—or even a Powell dictatorship—would no more solve the problems of the British working class than have the Wilson government or the Hitler dictatorship did the problems of the German workers.

The abiding question is what the working class may be willing to go through before Powell is no longer their hero. We are now living in the unpleasant aftermath of his venomous speech. Is it a prelude to something even nastier to come?

Sex, class and socialism (1980)

From the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Russian novelist Turgenev once said of George Sand: 'What a good man she was and what a kind woman'. Rousseau argued in Emile that education was a male prerogative, that women should devote themselves exclusively to the pleasing of men. Aristotle had been somewhat ruder: in his view 'women were, as it were, deformed males'. The hostility of some modern feminists can be explained in part as a reaction against views of this kind; and yet it is incontestably true that to be a good writer at certain periods in history—indeed, a good almost anything at all—one had to be male. Napoleon's Civil Code of 1804 neatly summed up the relationship of the sexes: 'Woman is given to man in order to have children. Woman belongs to man as the fruit tree belongs to the gardener'. The view that women were created for the use of men was given its most extreme expression much earlier, however. Eve, according to Moses, was one of Adam's ribs.

Evidence of modern inequality of treatment between the sexes is more prosaic. In 1976, 71 per cent of the world labour force was male while 45 per cent of unpaid family workers were women. The percentage of illiterate women was higher than that of men. In the social sciences 25 per cent of the workforce was female, in law 15 per cent, in engineering 5 per cent and in the armed forces 2 per cent. However, half of all elementary school teachers were women. (Quoted in Elise Boulding: Women in the 20th Century World.)

There is firm evidence, then, that women and men have been treated unequally throughout history. The feminist and socialist responses to the questions of how this came about and what should be done about it differ fundamentally.

The Cause
Early feminists considered lack of education and an inferior position in law as the causes of women's subordination. If, they argued, women had certain rights, such as that to be killed, then they ought to have others. The early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft put it thus: 'If women have the right to go to the guillotine they can have property rights'.

Within their limitations, the Stantons in the United States and the Pankhursts in Britain achieved a measure of success. Laws were passed giving women rights of property, and today their counterparts press for the strict implementation of equal pay and equal rights at work legislation. The trouble with this kind of programme, however, is that it fails to explain why women have been treated as inferiors. It mistakes a symptom for a cause. This superficiality led to a mindless militancy, typified by the suffragette Ida Alexa Ross Wylie:
“To my astonishment I found that women could at a pinch outrun the average London Bobby. Their aim with a little practice became good enough to land ripe vegetables in ministerial eyes, their wits sharp enough to keep Scotland Yard running around in circles and looking very silly. The day that with a straight left to the jaw, I sent a fair-sized CID officer into the orchestra pit of the theatre was the day of my corning of age. . .”
An indication of the depth of these women's thinking was the almost total collapse of the movement after the achievement of the vote.

In the United States and elsewhere in the late 1960s, a new women's movement arose which attempted to fill some of the gaps in the programme by identifying the cause of female subordination. Under the influence of the 'counterculture' many groups in society — black people, students and others — became disenchanted with some of the effects of advanced capitalism. They thought that people were becoming the passive recipients of the 'ideologies' of advertising and the mass media. Particularly relevant to women was the exposure of the way that capitalism exploited women's sexuality in order to sell its products. Formed with the general and rather vague aim of doing something about the position of women in society, the movement has grown considerably and embraces persons of many different political persuasions and parties.

Sexual Reality
One influential, though small, group within the movement centres around the ideas of Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex. According to Firestone, Marx's Materialist Conception of History ought to be extended into the realm of the sexual, for 'beneath the economic, reality is psycho-sexual'. There are, she claims, two basic classes: men and women; and the origin of this division lies in biology.  'Sex class sprang from a biological reality: men and women were created different and not equal.' Before the advent of birth control, women were at the continual mercy of their biology with menstruation, menopause and wet nursing.

Firestone 'extends' Marx and Engels’ analysis simply by altering their words Here is her version of part of Engels' Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:
“Historical materialism is that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historical events in the (economic development of society) dialectic of sex: the division of society into biological classes for the purposes of procreative production and the struggle of these classes with one another: in the changes in the modes of (production and exchange) marriage, reproduction and child care created by these struggles. . . ”  
(The italicised words are Firestone's insertions; Engels' original text appears in brackets.)
Instead of the economic, Firestone argues, the sexual-reproductive area of society furnishes the real basis upon which the superstructure of economic. juridical and political institutions arises.

What, then, is to be done? If women's subordination is biologically determined, the consistent answer would appear to be: change female biology. Firestone agrees. Just as for Marx a condition of socialism is working class control of the means of production, so for her a condition of 'classless' society is women controlling their means of reproduction. And this means ceasing to bear as well as rear children. for 'pregnancy is barbaric: it is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species'. It is proposed instead that test tube babies (made possible by developments in embryology and cybernetics) will facilitate a 'qualitative change in humanity's basic relation to both its production and its reproduction'. These new relations will make possible the destruction of the class system and of the family.

The difficulty with this proposition is that it explains social and cultural differences between peoples in biological terms only. More importantly it fails — as it must — in the attempt to transform a theory by altering some of its concepts but not others. According to the Materialist Conception of History, the economic base of society determines the nature of juridical and political institutions and the consciousness that a people has of itself. Further, changes in the economic base are explained in terms of class struggle and the conflict between developing forces of production and the relations of production. Feudalism disappeared because its social relations were not in the interest of the rising bourgeoisie; capitalism will be replaced by socialism when, with a sufficiently developed technology, the working class becomes conscious of its interests.

Firestone wants to argue that 'sexual-reproductive' reality conditions the economic, the ideological and other social phenomena. What, then, could correspond to the forces and relations of production within 'sexual-reproductive' reality? And what could correlate with the class struggle? If we are to be literal, the forces of production are replaced by the sexual organs — the 'tools'. For the analogy to hold we need to say that as the sexual organs change and develop so they come into conflict with the relations of reproduction. Maybe the male organ grew much smaller with the change to the Punaluan family and smaller still with the institution of monogamy. But all this is approaching the realm of pure fantasy. And the analogy is clearly invalid when we examine family relations over the course of history, The early changes were due to the simple operation of a survival mechanism and can be explained in terms of biological evolution, while the later came about through the operation of social constraints.

In socialist theory, the history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggle. Under capitalism, it is in the interests of the ruling class to extract as much surplus value from the workers as possible, and one way to do this is by keeping wages low. The interests of the working class are necessarily the opposite. If we interpose Firestone's theory, however, it is only with couples like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (as they were) or in partnerships where the woman gets satisfaction by ensuring that the man gets none, or vice versa, that the interests of the sexes are necessarily opposed. Firestone's theory therefore rests on shifting sands and is of no use in the struggle to change the inferior social status of women.

Class Division
For the materialist there is no blanket exploitation of women by men. The subordination of one sex to another was coincident with the division of society into classes. Prior to the beginning of civilisation-the period of written history — there existed primitive communist societies in which nobody was afforded superior status. The period from primitive communism to the beginning of civilisation saw the growth of taboos, first on child-parent relationships and then on those between brother and sister, culminating in the 'pairing' family. (For one vital source see Engels: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) Monogamy, however, arose as a consequence of social evolution. This form of family, based as it is on the supremacy of the man, arises alongside the advent of private property. Women's biological commitment to child bearing meant that it tended to be the man who acquired property and instruments of production, and once men had these things they wanted to keep them. So the monogamous family has as its aim the begetting of children of undisputed paternity and women's role is essentially a childbearing one. So, to quote Engels: 'The first class antagonism which appears in history (it begins at civilisation) coincides with the development of the antagonism between men and women in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male'.

It should be emphasised once more that we are not talking of a consistent oppression of one sex by another. In the early stages of capitalism, for example, women enjoyed certain rights and privileges which they later lost. In early 17th century Britain, where some production was still organised in accordance with guild regulations, women in certain trades were protected against male competition. These rights often related to the work of women in the household, for at that stage domestic and industrial work were not clearly distinct. 'Spinster' meant not an old maid, but a woman who supported herself by spinning; a 'brewster' was a woman who supported herself by brewing beer. Moreover, in spite of Puritanism, women were not thought of as sexually inferior, as is borne out by this 17th century proverb: 'Women are saints in the church, angels in the street, devils in the kitchen and apes in bed'.

With the increases in the productivity of labour and with changes in the organisation of production these protective features disappeared. The wives of those who owned property were educated to please men, while those who were married to wage slaves simply cooked and looked after the children. The man's wage sufficed to maintain his family as well as to reproduce his own labour power. Then, in the 19th century, when capitalism began to need a greater workforce, part of the worst exploited sections of the working class was composed of women. Being physically weaker and previously out of work, they provided a cheap source of labour. In Capital Marx cites the case of a milliner who died from overwork (she laboured sixteen and a half hours a day in 1863). He further mentions that women were used instead of horses for hauling canal boats because:
“the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, whereas that required to maintain the woman is below all calculation.”
The capitalist nonetheless needs labour power—he cannot have part of the workforce dying off. So these extreme conditions were altered and laws were passed improving the conditions of the working class.

Class society, then, creates the conditions for women's inferior treatment. If the wives of the property owning class are restricted to the home, it is all too easy for the men to reap the benefits. For the same reason, the working man's wage must suffice for himself and for his family. Whatever form the subordination of women has assumed, it is a consequence of the class division of society; in the case of capitalism, the division between owners and non-owners of the means of producing wealth. Before the advent of class society there was no reason for one sex to treat the other as inferior because there were no owners and non-owners of property, and therefore no need for competition.

It is important to point out that there are female members of the exploiting class. Working class women, by contrast, share with others in their class the condition of wage slavery. Whichever form it takes, whether it is real prostitution or working on the assembly line, they have to sell part of themselves —  their labour power — in order to live. As Marx put it: Prostitution is only the specific form of the universal prostitution of the working class'.
Instead of criticising men, women ought to be criticising capitalism and working for socialism, a classless society of common ownership. In such a society there is no reason to suppose that women will have to become men or men women.
Alison Waters