Friday, February 7, 2014

Parliament or Soviet? A critical examination (1920)

From the April 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

The self-styled left wing of the so-called Socialist and Labour movement of Great Britain has for some time past been debating the topic of the Soviet as opposed to Parliament as the means of securing the "dictatorship of the proletariat."

The Bone of Contention
Just as the right wing of the reformist Labour Party has condemned the Soviet as an anti-Socialist institution, so the left-wing Anarchists (for in practice that is what they are) have gone to the other extreme and proclaimed the Soviet as the only means of realising Socialism! What has the Socialist Party of Great Britain to say on the matter? The answer is implicit in its declaration of principles.
"The working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government." 
In the "Communist Manifesto" Marx and Engels clearly stated that the form of application of Communist principles would vary according to the degree of development, industrial and political, reached in various countries. It is equally absurd, therefore, to condemn or uphold the Soviet system irrespective of the conditions out of which it arose.

The Soviet Seed-Bed
In Russia the Soviets arose spontaneously in opposition to the Tsarist (and later the Bourgeois) dictatorship. Parliament has never been the supreme power in the State because the bulk of the population had never been industrially concentrated and politically organised. Local councils acting independently to a large extent, and at most never realising the need for more than federal unity, were, therefore, the natural expression of popular opinion. In adopting the Soviet constitution, therefore, the Bolsheviks did not invent a system: they accepted a fact! Their attempt to convoke a central assembly representative of the mass of the people had failed, as it was bound to fail, in a welter of illiteracy and disorganisation. The point is often missed that is it was not only the Bolshevik Party which was in a minority. The whole of the political parties in the Assembly put together were!

Had that not been the case it is difficult to understand the ease with which the Assembly was suppressed. Contrast this state of affairs with that obtaining in the Western "democracies." For generations the working class has been in the habit of supporting capitalist parties, and for a longer period these parties have been controlling, through Parliament, the machinery of Government. Soviets simply did not exist except in the fevered imaginations of the "left-wingers." Some of the latter indeed appear to regard the Trades Councils, etc., as incipient Soviets, but the value of these bodies for the purpose of establishing Socialism is, to say the least, obscure, and the more "advanced" Soviets are opposed to anything short of industrial unions with a programme of "equal wages." But the central factor of the political situation, i.e., the armed force of society, is not controlled by either trades councils or industrial union. It is controlled by Parliament. Parliament represents the powers of government, and not till it ceases to do so will the necessity for capturing it disappear. This much is obvious.

The Sovietites, of course, trust to a revolt of the army against Parliament; but such a revolt would be unnecessary if revolutionists were in a majority therein, and it would be futile (and in the highest degree unlikely) if they were not. The army cannot establish Socialism. That must be done by the mass of society, the working class, who possess the majority of the votes for the public bodies, national and local, and can therefore convert those bodies into revolutionary agencies whenever they choose to do so. Before the army can come over to the workers it must have something to come over to the to! Some alternative to the existing social order must be immediately practicable. In other words the workers must be consciously and politically organised for Socialism. This requires incessant propaganda effort of the educational character. Not merely inflammatory sentiments but illuminating science is necessary.

But this is not what the Sovietites supply. One surveys the field of their practical activities only to perceive a desperate state of confusion. Thus the B.S.P., alleging its adherence to the "third international," remains part of the Labour Party, which belongs to the second! Declaring for Soviets, it nevertheless continues Parliamentary methods, presumably for self-advertisment sake and to provide scope for its adventurers.

The S.L.P. attacks the B.S.P. theoretically for inconsistency, but in practice never tires of trying to come to a working arrangement with it. Likewise, the W.S.F. which pretends to oppose any form of parliamentary action as anti-Socialist. Opportunists all, they cannot do without their immediate demands, to be realised indiscriminately by legislation or the general strike, they are never cleat or united as to which. Swearing by the Revolution, they yet cannot trust it as the all-sufficient and supreme programme. Like the avowed reformers they denounce, they must be "practical"; must always "talk down" to ignorance. Exactitude they deplore as "pedantry"; consistency they regard as "inadaptability." The Socialist Party, however is prepared to go on with its work, knowing that events will prove its attitude to be the correct one.

Capitalism may develop, but its basis and essential character remains the same. The principles, therefore, which are deduced from that basis and serve as a guide to working-class action remain unchanged. As for the application of those principles, in the words of Marx: "The more highly developed country holds up to the less developed the mirror of its own future." It is not, therefore, a question of us following Russia, but it will be a question of Russia having to follow us. The S.P.G.B. never had to leave the Second International: it was never in it! Representing working-class interests, it is hostile to every other party. Only on such lines can Socialism be realised.

All power to the workers—through the Socialist Party!
Eric Boden

Against Capitalism (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

To some people politics is like a football match. Choose your team, then spectate from a distance. Cheer, boo, jump, shout. Up the Arsenal; Vote, Vote, Vote for Maggie—or Michael—or David Roy. Red scarves for the prolies, blue cravats for the gin and mortgage set. Political allegiances flow predictably from the "I've always voted Labour and I always will" of the trade union hack, to the "I'm Tory and proud of it" of the wage slave with one foot in the capitalist class and the other on a banana skin.

When a keen young man with a sociology degree and a clip-board stops you in the street and asks how you'll be voting in the next election, have you ever tried explaining that you are a socialist and there is no slot for you on his printed card? He tries to tick Labour, but you grab his arm. "A socialist", you insist. Not a supporter of state capitalism, of incomes policies, of sending in troops to break up strikes, of partnerships between bosses and workers. Not the Labour Party: I am a real socialist. Eyeing you up and down with suspicion and memories of his idealistic undergraduate youth (he is twenty six), the questioner starts to place his tick in the Communist Party slot. Catching your stare, he stops, crossing out his misplaced tick as he hears your rejection of Russian dictators, production for profit and "socialist armies". Exhausted, he makes for the "Won't Vote" slot. But socialists do vote. Even if there is not a socialist candidate, we write "socialism" across our ballot papers to show what we stand for. We cast our vote for the only political interest which the working class has. Confused sociologist makes his way home with the socialist placed in the slot labelled "Others". If you dissent from the fifty seven varieties of anti-socialism you are an "other" and if you conform you are a "same". It would be easier of elections were simply held between Sames and Others; but then, if all teams wore the same coloured shirts what would be left for the spectators to cheer?

Socialists are totally opposed to the Tories. As such, we are often referred to as Labour Party supporters. Socialists are totally opposed to the anti-socialist Labour Party—just as much as we oppose the Tories. So are we Trots? Socialists are totally opposed to the parties and groups of the so-called Left with their Leninist leadership complexes and their statist reform programmes. If we are opposed to "the Left" are we "Right"? No—socialists are totally opposed to defenders of nationalism, racism, and bigotry of any kind. If we are neither "Left" nor "Right" are we for "the Centre"? No—socialists are totally opposed to the Liberal and Social Democratic parties.

All of this opposition can be summed up in one short sentence: Socialists are totally opposed to capitalism. We are hostile to it; we hate it; we stand solely for ending, and not mending, it.

Socialists are uncompromising. We will only support a party which stands unequivocally for world socialism. In Britain the only such party is the Socialist Party of Great Britain. As revolutionaries we can have nothing but enmity to reformists, even though we may well understand their good intentions. As opponents of the profit system we oppose all who say that production must be for profit. As democrats we reject anyone who poses as a leader for working class sheep to follow. As workers we will have nothing to do with those who aim to disguise the antagonism of interests between the capitalists as a class and the workers as a class.

Sometimes principled refusal to compromise for the sake of popularity is labelled sectarianism and hostility to our opponents is mistaken for senseless aggression. So let it be clear: the Socialist Party is for working class unity—but we can only join together with our fellow workers on the basis of unity of principle. Our hostility to all other political parties is to their ideas and not to individual workers within them. It is not our aim to alienate misguided wage slaves by abuse, but to attack their present ideas so as to direct them to more useful ones.

There can be no socialist revolution without socialists. Unless a majority of workers give up their adherence to a system which enslaves them and deprives them of the fruits of their labour there can be no fundamental social change. The political revolution must be preceded by a mental revolution in the way that men and women see the world. To effect that revolution, workers must cross from the spectators' stand to the pitch. Actively, indignantly, consciously and democratically, we must score our own goal and defeat the enemy. To do that we need a party which is committed to that goal and nothing less.
Steve Coleman

A Modern "Metropolis" (1927)

From the May 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

Concerning a weird picture being shown at a West London cinema, we read, about robots, or semi-human automatons, who slave in the bowels of the earth, to sustain the guilded drones of their day in the sunlit atmosphere of the regions above; We are brought back to reality, however, for from a professor who has studied American life and prosperity (!) comes the information that the automaton business has actually arrived and is threatening contagion: Our prosperity, he says:-
Can only be obtained at a tragic price, not less than the transformation of millions of workers into automatons. "Fordism," which is the essence of American industry, results in the standardisation of the workman himself . . . France has the same instinctive fear of America as symbolised by Ford, as she of the German system on the eve of the war. (Review of a book by Professor Siegfried, Daily News, 13/4/27.)
Among the bogeys with which we have been confronted from time to time, we have often encountered the threatening one that Socialism would make life monotonous and stereotyped; as in other case, so in this we answer: To observe the consummation of that which is vile, loathsome and de-humanising. Look around.
W. E. MacHaffie

School's Out (2014)

Book Review from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

David J. Blacker: The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame. Zero Books £15.99.

Remember Tony Blair and his ‘Education, education, education’? That was how he set out his priorities in 1997, supposedly as a way of improving people’s lives and also making British capitalism more efficient and competitive. But with the recession leading to cuts to education budgets, things have not quite worked out that way.

David Blacker’s title is a nod to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the view that, as technological progress continues, the proportion of constant capital (machines, buildings, etc) to variable capital (paid out in wages) will rise – see here. But as it is only labour that produces surplus value and so profit, it follows that the rate of profit (profit as a proportion of total capital) will fall. However, there are so many counteracting forces that this is at most a tendency. One consequence of technological progress, though, is a reduced demand for labour power, including educated labour power. Hence, according to Blacker, not just increases in unemployment and part-time jobs but ‘an abandonment of the ideal of the universal distribution of education’, or ‘the falling rate of learning’.

His book has a mainly US focus but the general points are more widely applicable. One response has been to see education as itself a source of profit, with widespread privatisation. Another has been to transfer much of the cost of higher education to students/workers themselves, by means of loans and debt. US student debt is now well over $1 trillion, and debts pursue many workers throughout their lives, since (unlike with credit cards) education debt is not discharged by personal bankruptcy. But if attending college and being weighed down by debt is an unpleasant prospect, not gaining a degree is even worse, as it can lead at best to a minimum-wage job (‘the fear of McDonalds’).

Blacker classes medical bills together with educational loans as ‘existential debt’, which can haunt people for decades. They should, he suggests, be a focus for protest, part of a campaign for free higher state education. At the same time, though, he argues that educational activism is a waste of time, on the grounds that reforming schools will not usher in serious social and political reforms. It is certainly true that schools and colleges essentially reflect the society around them, and that it is only a revolution in the way society is organised that will lead to proper changes in the function and content of education.
Paul Bennett

Cooking the Books: Who Controls the World? (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some people think that a sinister elite controls the world from behind the scenes. Candidates for this role range from the Bilderberg Group (which does exist) to the Elders of Zion (who don’t). These conspiracy theorists would be heartened by a recent headline in the New Scientist: “Revealed – the capitalist network that runs the world.”

A study of 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs) by a team of systems theorists from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich  revealed: ‘a core of 1,318 companies with interlocking ownerships. Each of the 1,318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What's more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1,318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms - the "rear economy” - representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues. When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a "super-entity'' of 147 even more tightly knit companies - all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity - that controlled 40 per cert of the total wealth in the network. "In effect, less than 1 per cert of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network".’ (

‘Runs the world’ is too strong as it implies that the ‘super-entity’ is actually in control of the economy whereas its components have to operate within and accept the constraints of the uncontrollable world market.

Nor is any conspiracy implied. It is rather a description of the structure of the world economy. Systems theorists see it as a typical pattern of complex systems. For Marxists, it’s confirmation of Marx’s view that the tendency of capitalism is for the concentration and centralisation of production and ownership.
The researchers claim a practical outcome from their research: that, as the New Scientist put it, it could help identify ways of making capitalism more stable’.

The assumption seems to be that if one of the 1,318 gets into financial trouble this will affect all those others within the network with which it has links. But the links that are relevant for the workings of the economy are not so much ownership and control as suppliers (sellers) and buyers (users). If, for instance, because of overproduction in the industry, a steel plant has to close, then the suppliers of all its materials will be affected; as will its workers and those of its suppliers and the stores and shops which sell them consumer goods. That’s the way overproduction in one key industry spreads to the rest of the economy.

The researchers’ proposal – ‘global anti-trust rules … to limit over-connection amongst TNCs’ – wouldn’t solve this problem. In fact it might make it worse by encouraging more, inevitably chaotic competition. In any event, it is only intended to prevent the initial shock spreading so fast and so far. Since capitalist production proceeds by way of series stops and starts such shocks are inevitable from time to time. There’s nothing governments can do to prevent this. Conspiracy theorists misread this as showing that governments are beholden to a shadowy elite.

They can relax. The world economy is not controlled by an elite (even if there is an easily identifiable elite that benefits from it). It is not controlled by anybody. It’s an uncontrollable economic mechanism that can only be ended by making the Earth’s resources, natural and industrial, the common heritage of all.  A ‘New World Order’, if you like, but a democratic one.