Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Review Column: Why Students Demonstrate (1968)

The Review Column from the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why Students Demonstrate

As any surviving Suffragette will agree, demonstrators, in their time, are rarely popular—a fact which contains the seeds of its own consolation. Most workers, accepting their lot, are quick to condemn anyone who tries to disturb their apathy with protests drawing their attention away from the television set and onto social problems.

So it is that the students are denounced wholesale, as long haired layabouts who dissipate wildly generous grants in promiscuous sex and punch ups with the police—and their horses.

This, of course, is a maliciously distorted picture. The majority of students scrape by on meagre grants, and have to swot hard for the simple reason that, being workers, they must pass their exams on schedule. Even the small minority who may go in for violent demonstrations are by no means the dirty villains they are made out to be.

It is more than a formality to condemn the violence of some of the demonstrations. There was certainly some inexcusably ugly behaviour from the students when the pro-Smith Tory M.P. Patrick Wall went to speak at Leeds University last month. This sort of activity gets nobody anywhere, although it does arouse sympathy for Wall.

It is not being kind to the students to point out that an inescapable—and useful—feature of youth is its desire to reform the world, confident that it can do better than the mess which, it thinks, its elders are responsible for. At the same time a student has every encouragement to investigate and discuss the world—and under capitalism that means world problems, like nuclear war and poverty.

Perhaps some of the scorn for students springs from the suspicion that they might be thinking, probing and responding more than the ordinary worker in his semi-detached.

But how much cause for concern have they? The demonstrations are at the moment about the wrong issues—about the symptoms of capitalism's malaise instead of its root cause. The real issue, the one worth demonstrating about, is whether we keep capitalism or have a society fit for humans to live in.

The Local Elections

With each successive test of their electoral popularity, the Labour Party falls to undreamt-of depths. The results of last month's local elections almost defy belief; it is impossible to imagine what emergency, what gimmick, would be enough to save them in a general election.

Perhaps we are at a turning point in political history—no less than the break up of a major party of capitalism and a consequent reshaping of the political set-up. It is not surprising that Labour's debacle has come so soon after the triumphs of 1964 and 1966. This has happened before; in 1906, for example, when the Liberals swept in on a landslide on massive promises of reform.

The anarchies of capitalism, its disputes and conflicting interests—and finally the First World War—exposed the Liberal pledges, soured their image and in the end finished them as a political force. What would follow, if a similar fate befell the Labour Party? At the moment there is no sign of a comparable alternative; if none emerges the Tories will be opposed by only fragments—by what remains of the Labour Party, by a few Liberals and Nationalists and, who knows, perhaps by some neo-Nazi M.P.s.

Another major reform party may grow out of the ashes of Labour's defeat, but the experience of this government, if of no other, should have been enough  for the working class. It should teach them that no capitalist party can solve their problems, that capitalism cannot be run in their interest, that this social system smothers and kills the strongest of reformist intentions.

It should be a standing warning against political promises and tricksters, and persuade the workers of the urgency of establishing a new society.

Integration into What?

In the uproar which followed Enoch Powell's odious speech, it was inevitable that certain facts on immigration should be overlooked.

It would be idle to pretend that there no problems connected with a movement of population—within, as well as across, frontiers. But at most the immigrants may aggravate problems in housing, hospitals and schools; they cannot cause those problems because they already exist. Immigration may expose social inadequacies, which can also be uncovered by events like war and slump. And, as usual, the people who face up to the problems and deficiencies of capitalism are the working class; not racialist politicians living in comfort, dreaming of Greek poetry in Belgravia.

We should also not forget that the immigrants themselves may be ignorant of the facts of their situation. They plead for integration; it is pertinent to ask, integration into what? The assimilation of the immigrants would mean that they join the labour market on the same terms as other workers, that they can be legally swindled by the insurance and hire purchase companies on the same sort of agreements as the native born, that they can take on the lifetime debt of a mortgage at the same rates of interest as anyone else.

Their children will be trained, in schools and universities, to take their place as workers alongside others, They will be subjected to the same degrading exploitation. the same poverty, the same waste of their lives in servitude to the master class.

Immigrants have as much to learn as the rest. As they become integrated into the working class they must realise their social situation. and that no worker can escape the repressions of capitalism.

They must also come to understand what has to be done about it.

Workers disunited (1988)

Editorial from the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who are the workers? People who go to work, of course: those who have no alternative and must work in order to live. The necessity is created by the constitution of capitalist society. There is an owning class, to whom all the means of producing and distributing wealth belong. The fundamental fact of ownership establishes the pattern of life for the remaining nine-tenths of the population. They have to sell their labour-power for wages, on an exploitative basis: to produce surplus-value—rent, interest and profit—for the owners. Outside the minority who live by ownership, we are in the working class, and consequently in the struggle against the capitalist class.

The belief that a lot of workers are not in it because they belong to a "middle" class is a very useful one to capitalism because it is divisive. It was institutionalised in an Act of Parliament in 1864 which commanded the running of workmen's trains. These continued until the second world war. They were early-morning trains whose passengers paid approximately one-third of the normal day fare. The purpose was to hold down wages in industry and the distributive trades, and there was a long list of unskilled and semi-skilled occupations eligible for workmen's tickets. Clerical workers were excluded, and the tickets were not issued from stations further out on the lines. Thus clerks were separated from "workers" and could go to work later. They could also look down on them because workmen's trains were slow, crowded and dirty; and could live in outer suburban districts while the labouring sections were held in the inner cities.

Nevertheless, clerks and the "professionals" are all in the working class. They are as insecure and as vulnerable to the problems imposed by capitalism as all the others in the non-owning nine-tenths; very often, their respectability is a nastier kind of poverty. To realise the solution of these problems, their first and greatest breakthrough must be to [recognise] the fact of their class position. We live in a world of Them and Us, but it is necessary to identify Us.

Does this mean that the labouring poor have got to embrace workers who think they are middle-class as their brothers and sisters? The unskilled and semi-skilled in general know they are working-class, because they are continually told so; what they need to learn is some implications of it. Principally, it is for the "superior" workers to face up to and act upon. They must grasp that they are not superior, that the middle-class is a myth, that all those who work for wages or salaries are in the same boat. When they understand this, they can stop insulting other members of their class—in particular, by romanticising versions of working-class life which are disguised imputations of inferiority.

The left is guilty on this count. Most of those who pronounce the word "worker" with veneration don't think they themselves are workers; they are the educated vanguard who choose to get among the workers. If that conception were true, a person would be much more among workers in a football crowd than in a left-wing gathering. But whose doctrine is this? It reasserts the divide-and-rule outlook and the contemptuous stance of capitalism. The capitalist says the workers are stupid and vicious. He wants this repeated by one section of workers against another; his position depends in it. The reply of class-conscious workers is that they are educated in a sense he can never be, and that their—our—capability will get rid of the wealth-based arrogance of his kind.

Class awareness is the all-important condition for bringing a new world into being. It arises from existence under capitalism; workers become all the time more responsive to their environment, the framework of which is the wages system. The task of socialists is to give precision to those responses. We judge all claimants to working-class support by their attitude to class. Whoever conceals it or distorts its meaning is acting contrary to the interests of the workers. The apparent divisions between social and occupational groups are shadows cast by the real and irreconcilable division between capitalists and all workers. Class rule can and shall be ended, through the understanding of what class is.

Marx and Spencer (2003)

Book Review from the November 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The First Darwinian Left. Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914. By David Stack, New Clarion Press, 2003.

This book is in part a reply to Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Co-operation (reviewed in the April 2001 Socialist Standard) in which he agreed with those who have turned Darwinism into a theory of biological determinism and pleaded for reformists to become biological determinists too.

Stack points out that, when Darwin's theory was first making headway at the end of the 19th century, amongst its prominent advocates were Socialists and leftwing reformists. Only, what they saw in Darwin was not a theory of biological determinism but a theory of evolution that could also be applied to human society.

Reformists, such as Ramsay MacDonald of the ILP in Britain and Edouard Bernstein in Germany, saw Darwin's theory of evolution, when applied to society, as backing their case for a gradual reform of society. According to them, since society was a sort of organism it could not be changed mechanically or forcibly by a political revolution but could only change gradually, organically, through slow evolution. Hence Bernstein's agreement to call the English translation of his 1899 criticism of Marxism, sponsored by MacDonald's ILP in 1909, Evolutionary Socialism. All this is examined in detail by Stack.

But it wasn't just reformists and gradualists who were influenced by the idea that society was an organism and that it, too, evolved. In fact, this did not come from Darwin himself at all but rather, in Britain, from the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). The early members of the Socialist Party were influenced by Spencer, as can be seen the volumes of his Principles of Sociology, inherited from an early member, lying unread today on the shelves of our party's library. There were also favourable references to Spencer in the 1910 SPGB pamphlet on religion and in early articles in the Socialist Standard: e.g., the front-page article of the December 1906 issue was entitled "Is Society an Organism?", to which the unequivocal answer was given: "Herbert Spencer and others have so firmly established the fact of the organic nature of Society that one is surprised to find it brought into question".

How did the revolutionaries refute the gradualists' arguments for evolution? Seeing society as an organism, they saw it too as having to survive by adapting to its environment (i.e., to the technological way in which its members got from the rest of nature what they needed to survive). Society in its capitalist form was based on the private ownership of the means of production, while the production process had become socialised or collective. This arrangement was ill-adapted to its environment and so society had to change, or rather had to be changed by the revolutionary action of the working class.

The view that Darwinian evolutionism did not rule out revolutionary change was given a boost, by a passage in his presidential address to the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cape Town in 1905, by one of Darwin's sons, Professor George Darwin:
"The physicist, like the biologist and the historian, watched the effect of slowly varying external conditions; he saw the quality of persistence or stability gradually decaying until it vanished, when there ensued what was called in politics a revolution. These considerations led him to doubt whether biologists had been correct in looking for continuous transformation of species. Judging by analogy, they should rather expect to find slight continuous changes occurring during a long period of time, followed by a somewhat sudden transformation into a new species, or by rapid extinction".
This passage was quoted on a number of occasions in the Socialist Standard. It has to added, though, that Professor Darwin was an astronomer and mathematician not a biologist himself (though he does seem to have anticipated Stephen Jay Gould's theory of 'punctuated equilibrium').

Stack makes the point that pre-WWI Marxism was hardly influenced by the ideas of Hegel. As the pun put it, it owed more to Haeckel (a German Darwinist) than to Hegel. He offers this as a criticism but it is open to question whether Hegel would have contributed anything more, or any less, useful than Spencer. (The only people in England at the time who read Hegel were a group of Idealist philosophers in Oxford.)

Stack's book throws some interesting light on the intellectual life of the period during which our party was founded and which inevitably had some influence on it. One curious omission is any reference to Anton Pannekoek's Marxism and Darwinism that was published in English by Charles Kerr in Chicago in 1908, so falling within the period.
Adam Buick

A Darwinian Left (2001)

Book Review from the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Darwinian Left. Politics, Evolution and Co-operation. By Peter Singer, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson.

This book is based on the mistaken assumption that Socialists are not Darwinians. Right from the start, Socialists embraced Darwin's theory of the evolution of species through natural selection, and propagated it in the face of religious obscurantism. Indeed, a number of well-known early Marxists came to socialism through Darwinism, Karl Kautsky in Austria and Edward Aveling in England for instance.

What Singer has done is to accept the hi-jacking of the terms "Darwinian" and "Darwinism" by rightwing ideologists who see both nature and human societies as involving a competitive struggle for survival between selfish individualists. Singer does concede that Socialists accept Darwin's theory, but criticises us for refusing to extend it from nature to human societies. Socialists do indeed say this (after all, Darwin only claimed to be a biologist, not a sociologist) and have been saying it for a hundred years now, ever since we had to confront the "Social Darwinists" of the turn of the last century who used Darwin's theory to justify the rugged individualism of US capitalism during the age of the Robber Barons. Typical of such people today are the editors of the series of which this book is one, "Darwin@LSE".

The argument between Socialists and such people is not about the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution but about the evolved biological nature of humans. Are humans an animal whose biologically-evolved brain allows them to adopt a great variety of different behaviours depending on the social and physical conditions they were brought up in or is there something in their biological makeup that restricts their behaviour within a relatively narrow range which Singer lists as "greed, egoism, personal ambition and envy that a Darwinian might see as inevitable aspects of our nature"?

Certainly, humans can and do exhibit these traits, but the question is: are they innate and are humans capable of behaving in other ways too (answer: yes, of course they are)? Also, the view that the main feature of human biological nature is behavioural versatility and flexibility is no less Darwinian than the opposite view. It is in fact the more accurate, given the evidence accumulated to date by anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists.

Although we don't like the term a "Darwinian Left" exists and has done for over a hundred years, arguing that humans are a biologically-evolved species whose behaviour is socially, and no longer biologically, determined and that the societies which groups of humans live in evolve on a quite different basis from that of the evolution of biological species. For a start, it is a key principle of Darwinism that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited; that was the view of Lamarck which Darwinism replaced. When it comes to social and technological evolution, however, Lamarck rides again: acquired characteristics can be passed on, by non-biological means of course; which is why such evolution is much more rapid than Darwinian biological evolution, and why in fact humans have had to adapt to many different types of societies since we first evolved without our biological nature changing hardly at all. Fortunately, that nature includes precisely the capacity to adapt to different social environments.

What Singer is seeking to be is a leftwing biological determinist, a left-wing Social Darwinist. Singer, however, is not a socialist but a reformist—his hobby horse is that animals have abstract "rights" and that this should be enshrined in law—so has no problem seeing himself as the leftwing of an essentially anti-socialist ideology.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: ‘I’m Not Going First’ (2014)

The Cooking The Books column from the January 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

’I don’t want UK to be at the forefront of tacking climate change, says Osborne’, ran the headline in the Guardian (28 September) reporting on an interview George Osborne gave just because last year’s Tory conference. His exact words were:
‘I want to provide for the country the cheapest energy possible, consistent with having it reliable, in other words as a steady supply, and consistent with playing our part in an international effort to tackle climate change. But I don’t want to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.’
Given capitalism, and given his position as a member of the government of one of the many states into which the capitalist world is divided, his logic was impeccable. If Britain alone imposed stricter conditions than its rivals on releasing CO2 from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere, this would increase the cost of energy to firms producing in Britain and undermine their competitiveness on world markets. The governments of other states follow the same logic. So nothing effective gets done to tackle climate change.

The main source of CO2 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to power industry and transport and to provide heating and lighting. The trouble is that different states have access to fossil fuels more, or less, than others and each wants ‘the cheapest energy possible.’

So, any international scheme to reduce CO2 emissions that involved, for instance, cutting back on burning coal would disproportionally effect states for which this was the cheapest source of energy. It would increase the cost of production across their whole economy and make its products less competitive. The government of a state in this position will therefore oppose or seek to delay or water down any such scheme.

The same applies to oil. Of the fossil fuels burning gas emits the least CO2. So, a scheme to favour this at the expense of burning coal or oil would favour states with easy and cheap access to gas.

It is these conflicts of interest between capitalist states with different energy supply conditions that is preventing agreement on doing any effective to reduce even the rate of increase of CO2 emission let alone the absolute level.

It is also why no one state is going to unilateral measures to do this. Greens who campaign for their government to be ‘out there in front of the world’ on this are being na├»ve. Any government which did this would, by undermining the competitiveness of its industries, provoke an economic slowdown with increased unemployment and so likely be voted out of office.

Global warming is a world problem requiring a world solution. This is not going to happen under capitalism. Something may well be attempted, but it will be too little, too late. The only framework within which the problem can be solved is where the Earth’s resources have become the common heritage of all. Then there will be no capitalist vested interests standing in the way nor any market forces working against a solution.