Wednesday, March 12, 2014

LA Law or class war? (1992)

From the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Riots and anger on the streets of LA. What ignited the flame? The frustration of poverty. In the USA today one in five families live below the official poverty line; the majority of these are non-white. The American Constitution claims that all men are born equal but in 1992 black workers stand more chance of being in prison than in college. In Washington DC 42 per cent of blacks between the ages 18 and 35 are either in prison or on parole. In Harlem, New York City, the life expectancy of a black male is lower than in Third World Bangladesh.

The riots have added fuel to various spurious theories about violence in society. White socio-biologists, wedded to outdated notions of human nature as determinants of anti-social behaviour, have argued that rioters are over-endowed with violent genes. For example, Mark and Ervin Violence and the Brain published with the support of the US Law Enforcement Assisance Agency argue that:
The kind of violent behaviour related to brain malfunction may have its origins in the environment, but once the brain structure has been permanently affected the violent behaviour can no longer be modified by manipulating psychological or social influences.
 Perhaps the authors of this crass rationalisation can explain why such violent brain cells seem to evolve amongst poor unemployed hopeless wage slaves and not amongst the rich people, both black and white, in Beverly Hills, Greenwich Village or Knightsbridge.

The long-held racist ideology of the USA is a reflexion of the fact that chattel slavery ended in the 1860s but that wage slavery persists in the 1990s. The brutality of the plantation owner has given way to the profit-grabbing claim to inherent superiority by the capitalist owners and controllers of the means of wealth production and distribution. Capitalism does not have inequality and divisiveness as an accidental and eradicable feature. Inequality and division are endemic to all class societies.

Some black political activists have seen the division in American society in terms of race or skin colour rather than class and in doing so they are avoiding the root cause. As early as 1865 a black convention in Charleston formulated an "Address to the White Inhabitants of the State of South Carolina" which called for an elusive equality amongst all men:
We simply ask that we shall be recognised as men; that there be no obstruction placed in our way; that the same laws which govern white men shall govern black men; that we have the right of trial by jury of our peers; that schools be established for the education of coloured children as well as white; and that the advantages of both colours shall, in this respect, be equal; that no impediment be put in the way of our acquiring homesteads for ourselves and our people; that, in short, we shall be dealt with as others are—in equity and justice.
This statement assumes that there is one human race rather than that society is divided into antagonistic interests on the basis of property possession. In 1965 the Watts riots in Los Angeles shattered the self-deception of American ideologists who thought that they lived in a land of equality where the wretchedly impoverished would never embarrass them by resisting publicly. Vincent Harding describes the Watts riots:
For five days fighting went on; blacks attacked police, firemen, white stores—but no white civilians. The flames from dozens of fires lighted the nighttime sky; bullets, tear gas shells, screaming sirens, shouting of men and women poured out a cascade of sounds closely approximating those of battlefields and it was. When police and 13,000 national guardsmen finally quelled the uprising 34 persons were dead, more than 1000 wounded and nearly $40 million of property had been destroyed.  (The Other American Revolution).
The then President, Lyndon B. Johnson, responded to the display of working class indignation by making pious reformist noises about The Great Society which would be created out of so-called equal rights legislation. The exhibition of police and court racism in LA is proof that the Great Society was a fiction utterly unrealisable within a system which creates economic waste and an environment unfit for human habitation.

The Bush government will not learn from the LA riots nor can it learn except how to contain its subjects more successfully. The rioters will have gained little from the riots but for some looted cheap goods and a sense of being noticed. And the results of the riots are more working class wounds; the enmity of wage slaves against wage slaves, many left dead. Workers will get nowhere fighting each other and calling for capitalist justice. What we must do is unite anger with understanding and turn these upon the real enemy: those who rob us of the fruits of our labour.
Steve Coleman  

Reminiscences of an old member (part 2) (1964)

From the December 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 1 can be read here.

When the 1914-1918 war broke out I was put in an internment camp. The long confinement at least offered opportunities for further enlightenment and discussion on politics. Lectures and meetings were held and prisoners were also free to debate subjects in all kinds of private circles, language classes, etc. Soon groups particularly interested in Socialism were regularly gathering around our platform. The discussion became particularly lively when Comrade Neumann, also an active member of the S.P.G.B. (translator of Kautzky's Erfurter programme) later joined the army of internees. Apart from lectures, a very successful May Day meeting was held with Neumann as the principal speaker. Among the many adherents to the Socialist case were Mundl, Guilke, Bankofsky, who all joined the S.P.G.B. after their release. With others, after I had been deported, I kept in correspondence from the Continent for many years. Most of them have long since died.

If there was comparative freedom to propagate revolutionary socialism on the Continent for a few years after the first war, it became rapidly more risky with the advent of Hitler. Even here, in Austria, the struggle for power between the two big electoral machines, had become so intense and bitter that it led to that terrible butchery on the Vienna Ringstrasse in July 1927, when nearly a hundred demonstrators were shot dead by Austrian police and army—and to other innumerable victims. Then in February 1934 Dollfuss and the Heimwehr smashed the Social Democratic Party in another, far greater, bloodbath. In 1935 Dollfuss was murdered and in 1938 Austria was incorporated in the German Reich. Then came the Second World War and the four power military occupation, lasting till 1956.

Even what little the few of us did, or rather could do, was not without peril, especially as personally I had, of course, not always kept my socialist light under a bushel before the years that were so fatal for Austrian, German, Italian and Spanish democracy. In Vienna alone more than 1,500 persons were executed by the Nazis for political reasons.

I may be allowed to repeat here what I wrote in a letter to the S.P.G.B.'s International Secretary:
"While the very democratic British government takes the credit for my one and only victimisation for political reasons (they repatriated me to the Continent against my will in 1919 after four years internment as alien-enemy and undesirable subject) the family (wife, mother-in-law and two boys) survived unmolested the fascist onslaught on democracy in the civil war in Austria in 1934, the Anschluss of Hitler in 1938, and the second world war. As a socialist I never lifted a finger in support of those criminal capitalist operations. Though I could not, of course, after the 1934 upheaval continue socialist propaganda (as I had done in England, especially in the Internment camp) and had, until the departure of the occupation troops in 1956, to keep underground, I am proud to share with other comrades the merit of never having allowed the socialist light to be extinguished. My radical politics were known (if not shared) by the colleagues at the office where I worked and in wider circles, so that a really anxious time began for us in Vienna in 1934; especially for my wife, who had never forgotten our fate at the end of the first war. But I was lucky—nobody ever betrayed me or played me a dirty trick, although practically everybody who knew me and mostly appeared to agree with my criticism of things, turned out to have actually been or had become Nazi."
Considering the very troublous times we lived through, we did relatively well and had many good opportunities with jobs here, traveling extensively in Europe. My son Lawrence returned to London before Hitler came; he was greatly helped by the comrades and soon joined the Party, in which he is heart and soul.

My family and I had to leave my job in London at the outbreak of the 1914 war. After my internment in 1915 and repatriation at the end of the war, my London employers offered me a job at one of their enterprises in the Rheinland, with accommodation for my family near the works. If we left the firm and the Rheinland three years later for Austria, it was only to fill a contract I had previously made with the Austrian Krupp Metalworks Berndorf, where we stayed for four years. Our late comrade Fitzgerald visited us there in 1926 and again in 1928. By that time we had moved to Vienna, where Fitzgerald saw me at my final job, with the Austrian Official Tourist Office. Both his visits were fruitful for Socialist propaganda, as arrangements were made for distributing the Socialist Standard in quite a number of bookshops in Vienna. A large number of the pamphlet Socialism and Religion was also distributed at "language courses" I held at the Krupp works. I am sorry that not a single copy of that pamphlet is left in my hands now. Sorry also that interest in Socialism could not easily be revived after the dark years that followed, and that a good number of comrades I had gathered around me dropped out. But new contacts have now been made with a group of dissenters from the big S.P.A. the Bund Demokratischer Sozialisten, which issues a monthly typed paper called the Wiener Freies Wort. Direct contact with the S.P.G.B.'s Overseas Contact Secretary has long been established and it is  our ambition to make the S.P.A. dissenters adopt the Declaration of Principles and eventually to make it a true revolutionary companion party. There is real hope for the future, but we must not lose patience with those  undoubtedly earnest workers. A challenging sixteen page pamphlet and Election Manifesto is being distributed. It contains, of course, the Declaration of Principles.

Has the world changed since I set out? In some respects it certainly has. As I have mentioned before, in 1902 there was no thought or fear of war that was to come; you could travel across Europe without passports, you could work in any country without labour permits. In all my wanderings in Germany, Switzerland, France and England, the first time I ever had to report my presence to a police office was in London at the outbreak of the first war. What a change indeed has come over all this! Today people are hedged in everywhere by frontiers, barriers and police guards, exacting and scrutinizing your personal documents. Some frontiers, made more impassible by barbed wire, often electrically charged, and hidden bombs, run across big cities like Jerusalem, Berlin, and others. There is one thing that has not changed in well over a hundred years, one thing that has so far survived all crises and upheavals, and dozens of major capitalist wars. This one unchanged feature is the fundamental status of the working class of the world, as the disinherited wage slaves of the capitalist class.
R. Frank

Cooking the Books: Labour is All Capitalist Now (2014)

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

In his column in the (London) Times (24 January) former Blair speech-writer Philip Collins recounted how he had met a ‘nameless plutocrat’ in Davos this year who had told him that Labour, despite its protestations to the contrary, was anti-business and that Miliband was indulging in ‘intellectual Marxism’. How ungrateful and how weird is the idea some people have of Marxism.

Collins commented:
‘Mr Miliband does think Marx is a better prophet of capitalism than those who cannot see beyond their own profits. Quite right too. Business people believe in competition just so long as they are benefiting from it. They soon realise competition means somebody else might take their winnings. Echoing Adam Smith on the conspiracies that businessmen practised against the public, Marx pointed out capitalism’s inexorable tendency towards monopoly. Competition, in other words, producers its own grave-diggers.’
This is alright, except that Marx didn’t see all industries as necessarily ending up as a monopoly. He wrote rather of the concentration of production in bigger and bigger productive units and of the centralisation of the control of these by a ‘constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital’ (Capital, volume 1, chapter 32 on ‘The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation). For him, this was an expression of the fact that production had already become ‘socialised’, operated by co-operative labour of the working class as a whole. He envisaged that eventually the working class would organise to bring ownership and control into line with productive reality and ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ ushering in a socialist society based on the common ownership of land and industry with production directly for use not profit. This hasn’t happened but ‘intellectual Marxism’ still has to see this as being the future for humanity.

Labour’s answer to monopoly is not this (of course). It’s more competition. Miliband’s ambition, according to Collins, is to ‘reform capitalism’. Or, as shadow business Chuka Umunna told the Financial Times (16 January):
‘We are all capitalists now. The question is, what sort of capitalism do we want? We embrace free markets but we want competitive and free markets and more responsible capitalism.’

This is the opposite of what socialists want. Labour wants to mend capitalism; we want to end it.

Labour is not anti-capitalist or anti-business at all. Most ‘nameless plutocrats’ and ‘magnates of capital’ will know this perfectly well, but this hasn’t prevented them, and their supporters in the Tory party (the party of the rich, as most people recognise), raising a howl of protest at a rather innocuous Labour promise to restore the 50 percent rate of tax on that part of anyone’s income over £150,000 a year.

There is nothing anti-business about this as it is a tax on personal income whereas the aim of capitalist production is to extract and accumulate profits as more capital. It is not to provide a privileged income for capitalists, though of course it does do this. The ‘entrepreneurs’ (as capitalists prefer to call themselves these days) who London Evening Standard columnist Richard Godwin said he had met were behaving more capitalistically:
‘When they started their businesses, they had neither the means nor the inclination to withdraw a six-figure salary for themselves. They preferred to reinvest’ (29 January).
But the plutocrats and magnates are people and they like their privileged income and the lifestyle it enables them to enjoy. In complaining about an increase in their income tax they are not being pro-business. They are being pro-themselves. As Godwin put it, ‘That’s not entrepreneurship – it’s self-interest.’

Reminiscences of an old member (1964)

From the November 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

To escape from the narrow and limited conditions of existence in my home town in northern Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), where I was apprenticed for three years in a textile factory's office and received private English lessons, I left home in 1902 for a bigger industrial centre in Germany. I worked in Plauen (Saxony) famous for its lace industry, and found excellent contacts there with English, French and American students working and learning in the factories.

As one could in those days travel right across the whole European Continent without let or hindrance, without passports or labour permits, I went a year later to Switzerland, to Lyon in France and eventually to Paris, where I worked during 1904 and 1905. One of the great advantages of my stay in Paris was that I was able to get certified at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy as exempt from military service.

Returning to Austria in 1905, I worked in Vienna for four years as foreign correspondent with a large export firm, and in 1909 went to try my luck in England. After a three week search, I found a job in an important commercial concern in London, where I soon felt securely enough established to get married. Before I made that plunge I made another, to join the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1910. I was a member till 1919 and have kept in happy and close contact to the present day, with the exception of the second world war years. It has been my great ambition from the very day I set foot on the Continent again to found here a companion Socialist organisation. If greater success has so far been denied us, the stalwarts of the SPGB will, in view of their sixty years' experience, readily understand our difficulties.

My contact with Socialism really dates back to the turn of the Century when, in 1898, my father had already taken me to a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Social Democratic Party, going in our home town under the name of Lichstrahl (Sunbeam). Teenager as I still was, I hardly knew what they were talking about. I remember that evening lectures on Darwin and Marx were often advertised in the local party press, but my mind at that time was bent on my job, on learning English, going dancing, enjoying cycling and skating, etc. No political contact worth mentioning was made afterwards in Germany or in France. In Vienna from 1905 to 1909 contact with people interested in Socialism had been quite by accident, not by design. Occasional talks with party members there were not stimulating. I went to "Socialist" meetings but their propaganda also was far from arousing sufficient interest even to envisage joining the movement. It is then remarkable that within a few months of my arrival in London, my views and interest in social affairs should have undergone so swift and radical a change that by 1910 I felt impelled to join the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Living near Finsbury Park, I strolled on one of the first Sunday mornings over to where public meetings were in progress. My particular attention fell on the political platforms—the Labour Party, Social Democratic Federation, Christian Commonwealth, etc. I found the speakers lustily criticising and attacking each others' policies for which I had at first little understanding. My interest had, however, been so deeply aroused that I went again in the afternoon, when I discovered an additional platform with the name SPGB. No sooner  had a speaker mounted the platform than the bulk of the audience of most of the other speakers rushed over. Listening attentively, I was surprised to hear the speaker showing up not just one or the other opponent, but the lot of them for misleading and confusing the people on vital issues concerning their lives. In my bewilderment, and anxious to better understand, I bought all the papers I could get hold of—Labour Leader, Justice, Christian Commonwealth, and the Socialist Standard. At home I began studying them all, and on the following Sunday I was early around the platform of the SPGB again. Much wiser, I now enjoyed even more what the speaker out for. I also go to know his name—it was Anderson—and it was evident that the impact of what this speaker had to say, in his rare and convincing way, was as decisive on many listeners as it was on me. I heard other speakers from that platform on many following Sundays, with the result, as I have already mentioned, that I applied for membership of the party they represented, and was enrolled in the Islington branch.

At Head Office I joined a class on economics with Comrade F. C. Watts as teacher. I met there young comrade Gilmac, who remains my life-long friend to this day. Soon I knew a great number of equally inestimable and unforgettable comrades, among them Fitzgerald, Adolf Kohn, Jacobs, Jacomb. Gostick and wife, Sandy Pearson.

Anderson sometimes came to my home. I remember a Christmas party my wife gave to some children, including Anderson's. At the end of the party Anderson (an inveterate teetotaller) thanked us very much, especially for the "wonderful lemonade"—the "best he had ever drunk in his life." My wife afterwards smilingly confessed to me that, of course, she had mixed some spirit with it, as she invariably did.

Anderson was a born speaker and an eminently able man, invaluable for the only cause that is worthy of the fervour and devotion of such a rare and unforgettable character. He was evidently happy on the platform and excelled in ready and witty answers to questioners. "What about the missing link?" somebody once shouted from the audience. "The missing link," promptly retorted Anderson, "is not far away."

Becoming a Socialist meant that I rapidly changed my whole outlook and attitude on such questions as "earning your living" by a "fair day's work for a fair day's wage," on "social justice," ethical and moral codes, religion, etc. What I had been taught about history had to go by the board, to be irremediably replaced by the Materialist Conception—the scientific theory of the evolution of society. Words like value, price, the source of interest and profit, and the true role of money and capital; why wealth was produced for sale at a profit instead for the sole purpose of satisfying human wants and desires, etc.—things I had never explained at school—all received thorough attention. The knock-out blow was delivered to falsehoods and fallacies. And all this, be it noted, before the two world wars, during which churchmen were doing overtime blessing the guns and the fratricide.
(To be concluded)
R. Frank