Monday, December 30, 2013

Marxian education in the United States (2004)

From the July 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
We continue our series on the spread of socialist ideas in other parts of the world.
A “Socialist Party of America” was first formed in 1901 following a split with Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party. It did not have as its objective – its sole objective – the establishment of socialism but instead was basically a left-wing, social democratic, reformist party with, in the early years of the last century, hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. The First World War profoundly shocked the SPA, with at least some of its members questioning its policies, tactics and objectives. In particular, as early as 1915, the SPA, particularly in Michigan – the centre of the American auto industry – came under the influence of anti-war Marxist elements.

In 1915 SPGB member Moses Baritz moved to Detroit where he soon began to hold lectures and meetings in Duffield Hall. Many who attended were members of the Socialist Party of America, while others were members of the Socialist Party of Canada who had settled in Detroit, partly to get jobs in the auto industry, but also to escape any possible army draft back home. A Marxist “Study Circle” was formed.

By 1916, Baritz had moved on, but before he left Adolph Kohn – another member of the SPGB – came to Detroit. Members of the “Study Circle” began to argue that a new, anti-reformist party separate from the SPA should be organised. Others, such as leading left-wing members of the SPA in Detroit like John Keracher and Dennis Batt, were at first sympathetic, but they felt that Marxists should remain in the SPA for the time being, and swing it towards socialism. The formation of a new socialist party was premature, they claimed.

However, at the urging of Adolph Kohn and Wilfred Gribble, a small group decided to organise separately. At a meeting in Detroit on July 7 1916, the Socialist Party of the United States was launched. At the meeting, 19 members of the Detroit local of the SPA resigned from that party. The SPUS was unable to make contact with other like-minded groups elsewhere in America and, at its formation, had only 43 members. Nevertheless, it decided to continue. Lawrence Beardsley wrote its anti-war manifesto, Gribble became the organiser and Bill Davenport was elected general secretary. The Socialist Party of the United States adopted the Object and Declaration of Principles of the SPGB.

At the end of August, the SPUS sent its manifesto to the author, Jack London, and on September 21, just eight weeks before he died, he replied to the party:
“Please read my resignation from the Socialist Party,  and find that I resigned for the same reasons that impel you to form this new party . . . I congratulate you and wish you well on your adventure. I am not bitter. I am only sad that within itself the proletariat seems to perpetuate the seeds of its proletariat.”
Probably the most enthusiastic recruit to the new party was a former member of the Socialist Party of America, Isaac Rabinowich (or Comrade Rab as he was affectionately called), whose mother and father were revolutionary socialists in Russia before he was born in 1893. In 1921, “Rab” moved from Detroit to Boston.

For a while, Marxist and socialist influences were strong in Michigan. The group around John Keracher founded a journal, The Proletarian (later, Proletarian News), in August 1918, which in fact adopted the object and principles of the SPGB. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party of the United States was informed by the SPA that it had copyrighted the name “Socialist Party” and that the SPUS could not use it. The SPUS, therefore, renamed itself the Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States (WSPUS). The Keracher group, which had become pro-Bolshevik, was expelled from the SPA in May, 1919. Together with a number of other former SPA factions, it assisted in forming the Communist Party. But within a year, Keracher’s Michigan group was expelled from the Communist Party charged with “Menshevism”, as they did not believe that a socialist revolution was imminent in the United States. And whilst they continued to support Bolshevism, they also denied that socialism had been established in Russia. Six months later, they formed the Proletarian Party, which did not advocate reforms. John Keracher was the author of a number of easy-to-read basic pamphlets mainly on Marxian economics, but also How the Gods were Made, which has recently been republished by the SPGB. The Proletarian Party finally disappeared in 1971. The Workers’ Socialist Party felt that it was unfortunate that it was not able to save “these otherwise valuable socialists” from their “infatuation” with Bolshevism. Unfortunately, Marxist and socialist influences declined in Michigan after about 1925.

New York had always been a hot-bed of radicalism; and, during the first three decades of the last century, the Socialist Party of America had thousands of supporters in the city. The SPC and the SPGB were also well-known there. Moses Baritz had addressed large crowds on Coney Island. During the First World War, members of both the SPC and the SPGB arrived in New York, and on January 25 1921, they founded the Socialist Educational Society. During the 1920s, their activities resulted in them becoming an increasingly influential local of the Workers’ Socialist Party. They republished the SPGB’s pamphlet, Socialism and Religion and in 1929 the New York local of the WSPUS began to publish the party’s first official journal, The Socialist.

Almost alone, after moving from Detroit to Boston, “Rab” worked tirelessly for socialism in that city. It was not wasted effort. Indeed:
“During the Depression years the membership grew until it became the largest and most active group within the WSP. In fact, outside of the Communist Party, Boston Local of the WSP was without doubt the most active and widely-known organisation professing to Marxism in New England” (W. Jerome, Western Socialist, No. 4, 1966)
During the 1930s, the Boston Local held outdoor and indoor meetings, debates and economics classes six days or evenings a week. The WSP, however, made little headway elsewhere in the United States, although locals were founded in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1947 the Workers’ Socialist Party changed its name to World Socialist Party because it was being confused with the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist organisation. The change also emphasised the WSP’s internationalism and world outlook. In 1939 the Western Socialist had been moved from Canada to Boston, and, subtitled “The Journal of Scientific Socialism in the Western Hemisphere”, for the next forty years was the joint publication of the SPC and the WSPUS.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the World Socialist Party of the United States entered a period of decline, partly due to a lengthy post-war period of relative prosperity for the working class in America, and partly due to the “anti-red” hysteria of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Of the situation, Jerome comments:
“Dissenters who voiced social criticism were suspected of indirectly assisting the enemy, that is, they were all but guilty of treason. Threats of social ostracism, loss of jobs and government persecution silenced most critics who had any large audience.”
Internal controversies broke out in the WSP, and a number of members resigned from the party. In 1950 the headquarters was transferred from Boston to Detroit, where it remained for some years before returning to Boston. The World Socialist Party of the United States had a difficult task of attempting to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, it continued the work of propagating socialism in a hostile environment and, thanks to the coming of the internet, is enjoying something of a revival. Its journal is now called World Socialist Review which can be found, with other material, on its website.
Peter E. Newell

The Poverty of Popper (1995)

From the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bryan Magee's biography of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, described him as "the most formidable living critic of Marxism". He died last year but his reputation lingers on. He was born in Vienna and after the First World War became friendly with a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. This school founded Logical Positivism, based on the principle that all meaningful statements must be verifiable, but Popper disagreed and went on to formulate his own demarcation between science and non-science. He argued that the test of a scientific theory is not whether it can be verified, since no amount of observations can confirm it, but that it is open to being falsified by experience; a theory is scientific if it fits the facts and is capable of being proved wrong. In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) Popper claimed that Marxism is not a scientific theory since it cannot be falsified, or else when it was falsified its supporters shifted their ground to protect their theory.

Popper was a Cold War warrior. His attack on Marxism was based in the experience of the Communist Party, here and in Russia. Popper concluded that the totalitarian nature of the Communist Party in action in Russia showed that Marx's theories were totalitarian, rather than the more plausible conclusion that the Communist Party's claim to be Marxist is false. The Socialist Party has not shifted its ground and we invite inspection of our record to see the validity of Marxism. For instance, the Socialist Party claimed after the Second World War that the post-war boom couldn't be sustained, that Keynesian economics wouldn't prevent a slump and that capitalism would seek a way out of a slump by attacking the working class. At the time such a prediction could be seen as being very risky (risk was something Popper thought very important to science) but has been more than borne out by experience.

The other leg of Popper's criticism of Marxism stood on a mis-quotation in his book The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Popper attacked the notion that there are laws of human development, and that these laws enable us to predict the future course of human history, and he quoted from Marx's Capital, where the aim is "to lay bare the economic law of motion of human society". Marx, however, actually wrote that his aim was to lay bare the economic laws of motion of "modern society" - capitalism. The economic law of capitalism, Marx's law of value, is in fact quite specific to capitalism and it enables the Socialist Party to make the kind of predictions indicated above. Marx's theory of social development, the materialist conception of history, is a method for interpreting history with a view to taking informed political action  by the working class. It does not claim to predict the future course of human history: it is a guide to the present.

Whatever may have been his merits as a philosopher of science, it is clear that his grasp of Marxism was extremely poor, though par for the course in academic circles. May his criticisms of Marxism rest in peace.
Lew Higgins 

Impossibilism in Canada (Part 2) (2004)

From the May 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
  The second, and concluding, article on socialist ideas and organisation in Canada. Next month we move on to the United States
On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun. Two days later, the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Canada issued its Manifesto to the Workers of Canada. It stated that, in the modern world, wars have their origin in the disputes of the international capitalist class “for markets in which to dispose of the stolen products of labour”, and that the anticipated struggle would be of no real interest to the international working class. The Manifesto ended with Marx’s words: “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains: You have a World to gain”. Many of the Party’s members suffered repression for their opposition to the war in general and conscription in particular. The only war that the Socialist Party of Canada supported was the class war.

The war caused considerable problems for the SPC. The repression did not destroy the Party, but it seriously weakened it. The so-called October Revolution, the Bolshevik coup d'état did not help either. As elsewhere, the workers in Canada did not really know what was happening in Russia. Officially, the SPC, and most of its propagandists, were aware that  a socialist revolution had not occurred in Russia, and that such a revolution was not possible. However, a quite considerable number of its (largely younger) members enthused over and, at least for a time, supported Bolshevism. Ultimately, some of them joined the Communist Party. Other members of the SPC were in favour of the party affiliating to the Communist International, the Comintern; but, as with the Second International previously, the Socialist Party of Canada refused to join. Furthermore, the party’s journal, the Western Clarion, was banned by the government in November 1918. The ban was not lifted until January, 1920. By this time, many members of the SPC were scattered all over Canada, as well as the United States and Australasia. Even travelling orator Charlie Lestor returned to England for a while.

The General Strike in Winnipeg, in May 1919, also had a traumatic effect on the Socialist Party of Canada. The strike began with the building and metal trades’ employers refusing to negotiate with the workers. By May 15, more than 25,000 men and women were on strike. Within a few days, thousands of workers throughout western Canada came out in sympathy The SPC as such was not responsible for the strike, although it supported the workers, and many of its members were actively involved and five of the eight jailed members of the strike committee – George Armstrong, Richard Bray, Richard Johns, Bill Pritchard and Robert Russell – were also members of the Socialist Party. Many members of the SPC, including Armstrong, Johns and Pritchard, were instrumental in forming, the same year, the anti-craft union,  One Big Union.

Nevertheless, as Jim Milne wrote in his unpublished History of the Socialist Party of Canada, “the Party had taken a battering”. Indeed, by 1922, its many enemies had largely destroyed the SPC. With the beginning of the postwar slump and the emergence of mass unemployment, most Canadian workers looked to reformist parties for their “salvation”. The Western Clarion ceased publication in July 1925. And the same year, the SPC also ceased to exist as a properly-organised political party. It seemed to be the end of the road for the socialist movement in Canada. But not quite.

A number of groups of former members of the old Socialist Party continued to meet; a “Proletarian Club” came into being in Vancouver, and a “Science Study Club” in Winnipeg. And in June, 1931 a number of former members of the SPC, including George Armstrong, and Alex Sheppard who had been living in Chicago, came together in Winnipeg and formed, or re-formed depending on various viewpoints, the Socialist Party of Canada. After some discussion, they decided to adopt the object and declaration of principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, rather than the old Platform as they felt that it was a better statement. The Party soon rented a hall, and started holding public meetings.

In Vancouver, in 1932, the Independent Labor Party, a reformist organisation, decided to change its name to the Socialist Party of Canada, despite the fact that it was aware of the existence of the genuine Socialist Party of Canada, based in Winnipeg. Because of its name, some ex-members of the original SPC decided to join the bogus Socialist party, as “entrist” revolutionaries. After a while the revolutionary group persuaded a majority of the Vancouver local of the spurious SPC to secede and become the Vancouver local of the Winnipeg-based Socialist Party of Canada. They even managed to take over the hall and furniture of the bogus SPC which, some time later, founded the British Columbia section of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and, much later, the New Democratic Party of Canada.

In October, 1933 the Socialist Party of Canada began publishing its official journal, the Western Socialist. Throughout the 1930s, the SPC came into conflict with the Communist Party, many of whose members attempted to attack and break up Socialist Party meetings, and it clarified its analysis of the Soviet Union as being not socialist or communist, but a dictatorial form of state capitalism.

In September 1939 war again broke out in Europe. As with the SPC in the first world war, the Socialist Party of Canada opposed the second. On September 3 1939, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, the Dominion Executive Committee published its manifesto “on the war”, in which it quoted clauses one, two, three and six of its principles, and then stated, as in 1914, that:
“The Socialist Party of Canada further declares that no interest is at stake in this conflict which justifies the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, and it extends its fraternal greetings to the workers of all countries and calls upon them to unite in the greater struggle for the establishment of socialism, a system of society in which the ever-increasing poverty, misery, terror and bloodshed of capitalism shall be forever banished from the earth.”
As the SPC heard rumours that the Canadian government intended to suppress the Western Socialist, it decided to move the journal to Boston in the United States, where it continued to be published throughout the war, In June, 1941, however, the Canadian government’s press censors banned the Western Socialist from the country because of anti-war statements in a number of articles.

Writing around 1969 in his History of the Socialist Party of Canada, Milne concluded:
“The party has carried on with the message of socialism through the years, exploring all avenues in spreading its views. Meetings indoors and outdoors have been held. Radio talks have been arranged. On rare occasions it has managed to be on television. It has contested elections, funds permitting, in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria. It has steadily circulated the Socialist Standard and Western Socialist and published, including a sixth edition of the Manifesto of the SPC, the name changed to The Socialist Manifesto. It has also published many leaflets, a series of these during 1957 and 1959 being produced in hundreds of thousands . . . In recent years the head office was moved from Winnipeg to Victoria.”
Since then the Socialist Party of Canada has had its ups and downs, including the formation in the 1960s of a short-lived, breakaway World Socialist Party of Canada. Between 1968 and 1984 the SPC again published its own journal, Fulcrum, and in 1973 began the publication of a journal in French, Socialisme Mondial, 13 issues of which were produced in Montréal until 1980 when publication was transferred to Europe. The SPC’s current journal is Imagine (viewable on line)
Peter E. Newell

Impossibilism in Canada (2004)

From the April 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
This month we begin a series of articles on socialist ideas and organisation in other parts of the English-speaking world
The first political party in Canada claiming to be socialist was the Socialist Labor Party, an offshoot of the Socialist Labor Party of America. The Canadian SLP was formed in 1896 and was thoroughly reformist, as was a breakaway United Socialist Labor Party of British Columbia, founded in 1899. During 1898, former members of the SLP, together with supporters of  John Ruskin’s “Christian Socialists” and a number of Canadian Fabians, founded the Canadian Socialist League. It soon made rapid progress; but it was a loose federation of locals (branches) and, like the SLP, was a reformist organisation.

In the summer of 1901, members of the Canadian Socialist League, together with some former SLPers, founded the Socialist Party of British Columbia. Its Platform contained a long list of reforms and palliatives. In 1902, a Socialist Party of Manitoba was formed; and in 1905, a Socialist Party of Ontario too. Both advocated reforms, as did a Socialist Party of the Yukon founded some time later.

Early in 1902 (it may even have been late in 1901), members of the Socialist Party of British Columbia, mainly from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, who objected to the SPBC’s reform platform, resigned and, shortly after, formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada. Its members included Eugene T. Kingsley (a former member of the Socialist Labor Party of America who had fallen out with Daniel De Leon), Parker Williams, and James Pritchard (a former member of the British Social Democratic Federation who had, at one time, worked in the Ermen and Engels textile mill). The Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada was different from all the other aforementioned parties: its sole object was the abolition of capitalism and the wages system - and no immediate demands or reforms. On December 1, 1902, a writ for a by-election was issued for North Nanaimo. Parker Williams contested on behalf of the RSP on an anti-reformist platform, He received 155 votes against 263 for the Conservative candidate. Some old-time Canadian socialists have claimed that Parker Williams was the world’s first revolutionary socialist parliamentary candidate, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada the world’s first genuine anti-reformist, “Impossibilist” political party. It probably had about 60 members.

The Vancouver local of the SPC, circa 1913

During the latter part of 1902, members of the SPBC and the RSP came together to discuss the re-merger of the two parties, a new constitution, the scrapping of the SPBC’s reformist policy, and the adoption of a new, anti-reformist Platform. A convention of the new united Socialist Party of British Columbia, held on September 8, 1903, confirmed this action in a resolution, carried unanimously, that the party “absolutely opposed” the introduction of palliatives or immediate demands, and stood “firmly upon the one issue of the abolition of the present system of wage slavery for all political organisation”. A new Platform was drawn up which stated that labour produces all wealth; that the capitalists own the means of production, and are the masters; that as long as the capitalists remain in possession of the reins of government, the state will be used to defend their property; that the interest of the working class lies in freeing itself from capitalist exploitation by the abolition of the wages system, and that there is an irrepressible conflict, a class struggle, between the capitalist and the worker. The Socialist Party of British Columbia, therefore, called upon all workers to organise under its banner “with the object of conquering the public powers for the purpose of setting up and enforcing the economic program of the working class”. The SPBC called upon the workers to establish “as speedily as possible production for use instead of profit”. The Western Clarion of October 8, 1903, claimed that the SPBC “stands upon the clearest and most uncompromising platform in the world”. This was more than six months before the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Between the beginning of 1903 and the latter part of 1904, there was considerable pressure, mainly by the socialist parties of central and eastern Canada, to form an all-Dominion Socialist Party. The Socialist Party of British Columbia was less enthusiastic, however, as it had increased in size and influence; it also had three of its members elected to the British Columbia Legislature. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1905 all the various parties united into one Socialist Party of Canada and, despite the obvious reformism of at least two of them, the new party accepted the anti-reformist Platform of the former Socialist Party of British Columbia. But the SPC had created problems for itself.

For more than a decade, the problem of reform versus revolution bedevilled the Socialist Party of Canada. The party was a revolutionary, “Impossibilist”, organisation, yet had many social democratic reformers within its ranks. Over the years, however, the majority of them either resigned or were expelled from the SPC. The Socialist Party of Canada’s official view on unions appeared to be monolithic, but in fact it contained a fairly broad range of views. The official SPC policy was that unions were products of capitalism, struggling against its inevitable effects. Some members were particularly critical of the American-controlled craft unions which dominated the labour movement at the beginning of the last century. Nevertheless, almost all members of the SPC were also members of unions and some became prominent union leaders.

Most immigrants to Canada came from Europe but as early as 1880 there were Asian workers in Canada, mainly in British Columbia and the west of the country. Hostility towards them occurred almost immediately, and there were riots against them for two decades. Many trade unionists objected to Asian workers, as they generally were prepared to accept lower wages than European workers. Reactions by members of the Socialist Party were mixed. The reformers and social democrats tended to be anti-Asian and racist; the revolutionaries, the “Impossibilists”, were generally anti-racist and argued that all workers, from Europe and Asia, were “all slaves together”. In April 1911 the Socialist Standard publicly dissociated itself from the anti-Asian stand taken by some SPC members:
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain is not identical with the Socialist Party of Canada. We are not sufficiently informed to be in a position to discuss in detail the action of their members on local Governing bodies, but remembering that the interests of the workers are the same the world over, we do not hesitate to condemn such actions as the advocacy, by members of the Socialist Party of Canada, of the exclusion of our Asiatic fellow-workers from British Columbia”.
As the reformists either resigned, or were expelled, from the SPC, the party was then able to declare unequivocally that it looked upon all workers equally, irrespective of their origins.

Some members of the Socialist Party of Canada, particularly former supporters of East and Central European social democratic parties, proposed that the SPC affiliate to the “International Socialist Bureau”, that is the Second International. The SPC, however, refused to affiliate, stating that the ISB admitted to membership non-socialist bodies such as the British Labour Party. The SPC never joined the Second International, which collapsed at the beginning of the war in 1914.

Socialists in Canada soon found themselves persecuted by the state. As early as 1903 the police prevented members of the Socialist Party of Manitoba from holding meetings in Winnipeg. In 1908, in Toronto, the police used clubs “in brutal Russian Cossack style”, to break up Socialist Party meetings. The party declared its “determination to fight for the right of free speech on the Toronto streets”. Meetings in Vancouver were broken up by the police. SPC and IWW speakers were arrested for refusing to move and a number were jailed for refusing to pay fines. The Salvation Army, however, was not subject to such harassment.

By 1911, the Socialist Party of Canada had rid itself of many social democrats and reformists, but a number of members in Toronto, influenced by a member of the SPGB living in the city at the time, Moses Baritz, did not consider that the SPC had moved away from reformism, in that part of Canada, fast enough. The entire Toronto local, therefore, resigned from the SPC and formed the Socialist Party of North America, which adopted the object and declaration of principles of the SPGB. The SPNA, however, did not grow and it dissolved after a few years with its members, or at least some of them, rejoining the Socialist Party of Canada, feeling that their original differences with the party did not justify a separate socialist party in Canada. In 1915  the SPC officially adopted the SPGB’s Socialism and Religion pamphlet as its own policy on religion.

(Next month: developments in Canada after the War broke out in 1914)
Peter E. Newell

Between the lines: Neil Kinnock and Tomorrow's 'Socialism' (1994)

The Between The Lines Column from the March 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tomorrow's world
BBC2 has given former Labour leader Neil Kinnock an opportunity to expound his views on socialism in a two-part series shown on February 5th and 12th.

In Tomorrow's Socialism—jointly written by Kinnock and political commentator Peter Kellner—an attempt was made to assess the relative success and failures of allegedly socialist movements both in Britain and abroad. This was on the basis that the key tp understanding the problems of today partly lies in an intelligent understanding of the past.

To this end Kinnock began with the undoubtedly correct statement that the very idea that socialism has had its day is strongly associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure of the Soviet system was amply illustrated by a visit to a Russian city still suffering the effects of state capitalism. It was cast permanently under a cloud of thick black smoke belched out by factories producing low-quality goods for wage-slaves who could afford little better. Conditions were grim indeed, and Kinnock concluded that the "Soviet" system had been a disaster whose totalitarianism and notorious inefficiency had sullied the name of socialism.

Hard labour
After rightly dismissing the USSR as a viable model of socialism, Kinnock then turned his attention to the reformist parties of the Western industrial nations such as the British Labour Party and the German SPD. Kinnock claimed that their record in power was much more successful. The statist interventionism was based on a certain pragmatism rather than on "ideology" and they had, by working "in partnership" with the market, contributed to the overall well-being of the working class in a way that the Leninists had only dreamed of.

What Kinnock didn't address was why, if these parties had run affairs to the general benefit of the working class, as he claimed, did they lose so many elections? Are the workers simply ungrateful swine? Or is it the case, perhaps, that workers' memories are rather better than Kinnock's?

Kinnock maintained that his own "life chances" had been drastically enhanced by the actions of past Labour governments. What he didn't mention was that he spent most of his formative years under the Conservatives, or more importantly, why the "life chance" he spoke of, such as a university education, grew apace during the entire post-war era across the industrialized countries, whether they had a Labour government or not, due to the particular requirements of developed capitalism for a more skilled workforce. Neither did he explain how the "life chances" of the working class were enhanced by Labour's development of the British atom bomb, or its support for the Korean and Vietnam wars.

While Kinnock claimed success for Labour in the past, he realizes changes are now necessary. Convincingly Kinnock explained why much of Labour's earlier economic programme, based on state planning and nationalization, is now obsolete. He argued that the inter-connectedness of world production and the growth of multi-national corporations had rendered Clause IV of the Labour constitution meaningless. What was needed was a new direction to meet today's changed situation.

Back to the future
Kinnock labelled his recipe for socialist renewal "ethical socialism". In attempting to define what he meant by this term he mouthed some platitudes about the market and "sound responsibility" and listed a series of re-hashed policy proposals on "earmarked taxation" and of "worker directors" that even Bill Clinton or David Owen could feel comfortable with.

The abiding impression given by this tame stuff was that if this is the future for socialism, then its future is as black as the clouds over Russian factories. While Kinnock seems to have well understood why yesterday's capitalism became today's capitalism, and how the Left became isolated and confused as the world changed around it, his vision of "Tomorrow's Socialism" amounts to little more than capitalism with a human face, giving an impression of fairness where none really exists. In truth, Kinnock's vision is little different from sad John Major's dream of warm beer and village cricket on a Sunday afternoon. It is capitalism without its rough edges, capitalism without crime and unemployment, war and famine, a rose-tinted and soft-focus view of a society that breeds social discontent like its going out of fashion. Not Tomorrow's Socialism at all, in fact, but a politician's dream of today's dreary old capitalism where the life chances of the many are, as always, subordinated to the privileges of the few.

Paul Foot and the vote (2005)

The Greasy Pole Column from the September 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Paul Foot who died last year was always a readable journalist. He was also a member of the Trotskyist SWP. When he died he was working on a book about the vote, a curious subject, it might be thought, for the political testament of a member of an organisation which favours armed insurrection and mass strikes rather than the vote as the way to gain control of political power. Called The Vote, How it was Won and How it was undermined, it is basically about the tension between Democracy (as universal suffrage) and Property (as accumulated wealth).

During the English civil war a famous debate, presided over by Cromwell, took place in the church at Putney, in London, where the issue was thrashed out amongst representatives of all ranks in the parliamentary army, of the ordinary soldiers as well as of the officers and the high command. Soldiers who were Levellers argued that the vote should be given to every man (or at least to every man who was not a servant or on the Poor Law; there was some ambiguity on this point). They were opposed by Commissary-General Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, who argued that only those who had a real stake in the country by virtue of being owners of land should have the right to vote, i.e. to decide what laws were made, what taxes were levied, etc. It fell to an officer with the appropriate name of Colonel Rich to spell out what might happen if men with little or no property were given the vote:
“It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted, that there shall be equality of goods and estate”.
This remained the standard argument against democracy until the end of the 19th century. Both Gladstone and Disraeli were declared opponents of democracy, and in fact in Europe democracy was seen, by both its opponents and supporters as a revolutionary demand. Marx himself hoped that, with the universal male suffrage that the Chartists demanded, what Colonel Rich had feared would come about. “Universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England”, he wrote in August 1852 in an article in the New York Tribune quoted by Foot. “Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class”.

After the Second and Third Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, the majority of electors in Britain came from the working class, even though only about 30 percent of the adult population had the vote (no women and only 60 percent of men). This remained the situation until after the first world war, when the vote was extended to men over 21 and women over 30. Universal suffrage did not come until 1928 when the vote was given to women too at 21.

The extension of the vote did partially realise Colonel Rich’s fear and Karl Marx’s hope in that it did lead to the formation and rise of the Labour Party as a “working class party” with as one of its aims a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the working class. But this didn’t happen. The second part of Foot’s book is devoted to explaining why Democracy did not lead to any significant inroads into the rights of Property, in other words, why Labour failed.

One thing he had neglected in his account of “how the vote was won” was the extent to which an extension of the vote increasingly became a necessity as capitalism developed and as the administrative work of the capitalist state, at local as well as national level, grew and became more complex. It was clear that some, in fact most, of this work would have to be done by persons who were neither aristocrats nor capitalists. The working class had to be got involved in the administration of capitalism. To do this they had to be brought “within the constitution” by being given full citizenship rights, as represented by having the vote. The more far-seeing of the supporters of capitalism realised this; some actively campaigned for it even in Chartist times. The bourgeois-democratic republic (or constitutional monarchy) is in fact the ideal political form for the rule of the capitalist class.

However, just because universal suffrage and formal democratic control of the machinery of government was in the overall interest of the capitalist class as a whole didn’t mean that this was going to come about automatically. As Foot points out, it had to be struggled for. Both the First Reform Act of 1832 (which extended the franchise to the “middle class”) and the Second Reform Act (which extended it to most urban workers) were accompanied by riots and demonstrations by workers that persuaded the House of Lords not to use its veto. In between, as Foot recounts, the Chartists demonstrated and rioted and even stage some armed uprisings to try to achieve universal male suffrage, unsuccessfully as it turned out, but with the aim of transferring political power to the working class.

When it comes to the second part of the book (“how the vote was undermined”), Foot seems to be suggesting that Labour failed because its leaders, when in government, weren’t determined enough in their use of parliament to bring about, in the words of the Labour Party’s manifesto for the 1974 general election manifesto, “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of working people and their families” (yes, believe it or not, that what’s they actually were promising as recently as that). This, despite the fact that his own descriptions of what happened to the various Labour governments - “bankers’ ramp” in 1931, “sterling crises” in 1947 and 1949, “gnomes of Zurich” for Wilson in the 1960s, and “IMF conditions” for Callaghan in the 1970s - bring out the fact that capitalism is a world system and that no government of one country, however determined, can isolate the economy from the workings and pressures of the world market.

It might be thought that Foot as a Trotskyist (he was in the SWP) would have realised that “socialism in one country” is impossible. But, although Trotsky did proclaim this, it didn’t mean that he thought nothing could be done in one country; if a vanguard was ruthless and determined enough it could, he argued, establish a “Workers State”, based on nationalisation and planning, i.e. that “state capitalism in one country” was possible.

It is what had happened in Russia and Foot gives the impression that the Labour Party could have done the same in Britain if only its leaders had been prepared to stand up to the gnomes of Zurich and other international capitalists. Actually, as a Trotskyist, Foot doesn’t believe this, as it is the Trotskyist view that the sort of full-scale state capitalism that Foot thinks the Labour Party should have bold enough to have pressed on towards can only be established after a successful armed insurrection led by a Trotskyist vanguard (“There is no parliamentary road”, says “What the SWP Stands For”). It is thus rather odd that Foot should have chosen to write a book about The Vote at all since for him the vote is only of relatively minor significance, serving merely as a potential means of access to a tribunal from which to spread Trotskyist views (“At most parliamentary activity can be used to make propaganda against the present system”).

This is quite a different perspective to that of the more clear-sighted Chartists - and Marx who was influenced by them - that universal suffrage, once achieved, could be used as a means of winning control of political power so that, in the words of Colonel Rich in 1647, “the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property”.
Adam Buick