Thursday, May 29, 2014

Confusion in Scotland (1925)

From the October 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

A correspondent sends us the Manifesto of the Scottish Workers' Republican Party, and asks for our opinion of it.

The object of the Party, founded by the late John Maclean is a Workers' Republic for Scotland.

The Manifesto sets out the slave position of the working class, and urges that the workers must carry through the Social Revolution.

The chief fallacy of their position is their insistence upon a Scottish Workers' Republic. This demand is both reactionary and Utopian. The struggle of the workers of the United Kingdom must be a united one. The workers are under the domination of a class who rule by the use of a political machine, which is the chief governing instrument for England, Scotland, Wales, etc. To appeal to the workers of Scotland for a Scottish Workers' Republic is to arouse and foster the narrow spirit of Nationalism, so well used by our masters. Economically the demand is Utopian, as the development of capitalism has made countries more and more dependent on each other, both through the specialisation of industry or agriculture, and also by the force controlled by the Great Powers to suppress or control the smaller nations.

The history of "independent" Hungary, Poland, and the Balkan States shows that the realisation of "political independence" by a country leaves the workers' conditions untouched and actually worsens them in many cases.

The appeal to the worker in this Manifesto to "rally to the cause of a Workers' Republic for Scotland" is made "so that we might win you away from the service of the imperialist gang who direct their activities from London." If the worker is to be won for Socialism, it is by getting him to understand the principles of Socialism, and not by appealing to him to concentrate on Scottish affairs. Socialism is international.

The uselessness of the Manifesto is shown by their anarchist attitude towards Parliament :-
"We claim that no useful working-class purpose can be served by sending men to Parliament."
They advance no arguments to support their claim. They offer no other method. They ignore the fact that the political machine is the instrument whereby capitalists wield power.

Their simple statement is that the workers can exercise "governmental power" because they are the only necessary class in society.

It is very simple. But what are the obstacles to this necessary class exercising the power of government?

The first obstacle is working-class ignorance, which is used to vote capitalists and their agents into political supremacy.

The second obstacle is the force which is used by the capitalists in control of Parliament to keep the workers in subjection.

The stupidity of preaching that because the workers are necessary to Scotland they can exercise governmental control is to invite the butchery of the workers.

Socialist education demands that besides advocating the establishment of Socialism, the obstacles that stand in its path must be pointed out, in order that the workers can march along the road to their supremacy. This Manifesto does not explain how the workers are kept in slavery, and it offers no road out of it. The meaning of the class struggle has yet to be learned by the Scottish Workers' Republican Party, The Manifesto closes with this gem: "Scotland for the Scottish Workers; the World for the World's Workers"!
A. Kohn 

The Rise of Capitalism (2011)

From the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The capitalist system is the most productive mode of production in the history of humankind. In the space of a few centuries the world has been transformed beyond all recognition. Average life expectancies have more than doubled. Technological developments occur at a rate that would have been previously unimaginable. More food, clothing and shelter can be produced using less labour than ever before. It would seem that the material problems of survival have finally been solved.

Yet capitalism is a system at odds with itself. The need for constant accumulation is the driving force of society, determining where and in what way human energies will be used. Instead of humankind controlling the fulfilment of its own development, humanity is at the mercy of an economic system which it has itself created. It is the conflict between the need to accumulate capital and the need to fulfil human want that is at the heart of all social problems today.

Enough food could be produced to feed all of the world’s population, yet people go hungry. Why? Because those in need of food do not have the money to pay for it. Industry pumps pollutants into the environment yet less destructive methods of production could easily be utilised. Why? Because more profit is to be made this way. Vast wealth co-exists with abject poverty leading to an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Why? Because capitalist accumulation is dependent on the exploitation of the wage labourer.

Transition from feudalism
The transition from feudalism to capitalism is often viewed as the result of a gradual and rising progress of technology, urbanisation, science and trade – inevitable because humans have always possessed “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange” (Adam Smith). However, as writers such as Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner have demonstrated, the rise of capitalism depended on very specific and localised conditions and was the result of a process that was far from automatic.

The relatively recent change from a primarily agricultural society of petty producers to a society of commodity production and market dependence required a change in the social relations at the heart of society. The central relationship instead of being between landlords and un-free peasants became one between capital-owners and propertyless wage-labourers. Such a change could only be bought about by a complete rupture with the old relations of human interaction.

By the 17th century trade, mercantilism and money lending had grown and developed in Europe but these by themselves did not undermine the foundations of feudal society. The mere existence of commodity production, merchants’ capital and money lenders capital are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the full development of capitalism. “Or else ancient Rome, Byzantium etc. would have ended their history with free labour and capital” (Karl Marx).

Only in England were conditions right for the essential prerequisite to take hold, capitalist relations in agriculture. The later industrial revolution would have been extremely unlikely without an agricultural sector that was productive enough to support it.

These changes can be explained by looking for the ‘prime mover’ in society. In capitalist societies this is the need to accumulate capital. In feudalism the need to maintain class position takes this role.

In order to maintain and improve their position as members of the ruling class and to defend it against their rivals, their underlings and moneylenders, the pressure was on feudal landlords to increase rents. In capitalism surplus wealth is extracted through economic means; it is because of the market-dependency of the wage-labourer that labour-power is sold. In feudal society, as the peasants have their own means of production, surplus must be extracted via ‘extra-economic’ methods through the real or ultimate threat of force, which explains their un-free status.

By the mid 15th century through ongoing resistance and evasion the peasantry of much of western Europe including England, were able to break the shackles of serfdom and gain their freedom. This proved a problem for landlords as they could now no longer depend on arbitrary peasant labour or duties and income from rents fixed long-term by custom, the value of which tended to decrease in the face of rising costs.

In order to counter this tendency in England, more easily than in other western European countries, landlords were able to appropriate peasant holdings that had became vacant due to a falling population. These properties were able to be leased at rates in excess of customary rent.

Another option available to landlords was the imposition of fines and levies. Charges could be made whenever land changed hands or was inherited and many landlords used these as a method for removing customary peasants from their land so that competitive commercial rents could be charged. However this process did not go on unchallenged; widespread and fairly successful peasant uprisings were a recurrent theme for much of the 15th century. This trend continued into the 16th century with security of tenure and the question of fines being core to what became know as Kett’s rebellion of 1549. If successful such events may have “clipped the wings of rural capitalism” (Stanley Bindhoff), but they were not and by the end of the 17th century around 70-75 percent of cultivatable land was under the control of English landlords.

In France the property rights of peasants developed along a different line. The monarchical state had evolved into an independent collector of tax and had the power to draw revenues from the land; it had an interest in curbing the rents of landlords, so that peasants could pay more in taxes. The state was thus in competition with the lords for surplus peasant product and for this reason often intervened to secure peasant freedoms and property. French landlords had a legal difficulty in occupying vacant peasant lots and so the majority of the land remained under customary rents. The state used peasant production as a direct source of revenue and increased its power by intervening in matters between peasants and landlords to guarantee the continuity of the system.

This can be contrasted with the form of state that developed in England during the Tudor period (1485-1603). Here monarchical centralisation was dependent on the support from landlords, evident from the growth of parliamentary institutions of the period. The weakness of the English peasantry deprived the monarchical powers of a means of generating an income independently of landlords. Powerful elements of the nobility and gentry would support the monarchy’s centralising efforts in the hope of achieving the stability and order necessary for their own economic growth. It was however these same elements from the landlord class who had the strongest interest in freeing themselves from customary peasants and replacing them with commercial tenants.

The nature of the two different states can be illustrated by the content of peasant revolts in the two countries. In England, revolts were directed against the landlords in an attempt to protect peasant ownership against the encroachment of capitalistic property relations. In France the crushing taxation of an absolutist state was the source of the peasants’ grievances.

Market dependency
English landlords controlled a large proportion of the best land but didn’t have, or need, the kinds of extra-economic powers that other European feudal ruling classes depended on. Instead they largely depended on the increasing productivity of tenants and required the state only as a means of protecting their private property and enforcing contractual obligations. In England, unlike anywhere else, an increasing amount of rents took the form of economic leases being fixed not by law or tradition but variably priced according to market conditions. For tenants this meant having to respond to market imperatives and taking an interest in agricultural ‘improvement’ and increasing productivity, often involving enclosure of common lands and increased exploitation of wage labour. Both producers and landowners were becoming dependent on the market for their own self-reproduction.

Market imperatives rather than market opportunities were the driving force of the process. Tenant farmers were specialising in competitive production for the market because they needed to in order to be able to continue leasing. This can be contrasted with the peasant who may have had the opportunity to sell surplus product on the market but, as they owned their own means of subsistence, was in no way dependent on it.

Peasants who were unable to keep up with fines or tenants that failed to compete successfully were pushed into a mere subsistence existence and eventually made landless. Some became vagabonds, wandering the roads for looking food or others became wage labourers on large farms. The landless became not only labourers but also consumers as they needed to buy goods in the market which they had previously been able to produce themselves. This was one of the reasons a healthy home market was able to develop in England.

Until 1640 the state operated in the interest of the old feudal order, restricting the full development of capitalist relations in the countryside. During the turbulent events of the English civil war the commercial classes, favouring capitalist development against the traditional rights of peasants and monarchy, managed to take hold of Parliament. The rate of change now rapidly accelerated with the ‘improving’ capitalist tenant farmer becoming typical by 1660. State-sponsored enclosure of common lands increased and became commonplace, forcing more and more peasants into becoming landless wage-labourers.

The emergence of the landlord/capitalist tenant/wage-labourer triad made the agricultural revolution possible and laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution. Growing agricultural production provided rising incomes for not only the middle but the lower classes, fuelling the growth of the home market. “Industry fed on agriculture and stimulated in turn further agricultural improvement – an upward spiral that extended into the industrial revolution” (Robert Brenner)

Worldwide market
Once English capitalism reached its industrial phase the world-wide market with its competitive pressures became the means for the spreading of capitalist social relations. Economies that depended on trade would be subject to the market imperatives of competition and increasing productivity. These market imperatives transformed social property relations leading to a new wave of dispossession and commodification of labour-power, both small agricultural and independent industrial producers faced the same fate. As more and more people were brought under the sphere of market dependence the strengths of these imperatives grew. Capital was able to remake the world in its own image.

The social changes of the 17th century freed technology and science from the shackles of feudal backwardness, making possible the advances that began in the 18th century. Yet the direction of technological development is dictated by the profit motive, the need to accumulate capital for its own sake. Could the 21st century see a further period of social change, where humanity as a whole takes control of the productive powers and where human need becomes the guiding force for a new age of technological and scientific progress?

By studying capitalism we learn that human society is not the result of some eternal logic or divine laws but is created through our own actions as we produce the things we need as use every day. The historical conditions that set in motion the social changes that have transformed the world were in no way inevitable. We must fully understand the full power of market imperatives, of the need to accumulate capital and of the need to raise the productivity of labour. We must also have a clear idea of their origins. Once we can begin to answer how and why society works in the way it does we are already some way towards understanding what could be done to change it.
Darren Poynton

Angels and Demons (2014)

From the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Unlike birds, bats, bugs or any other flying creatures, of which there are numerous varieties, no in-depth study seems to have ever been carried out on the various species of angels which, according to the Catholic Church, flutter around us on a daily basis.

Our scanty knowledge of angels comes mainly from the renaissance painters and their masterpieces which indicate that there are, indeed, several kinds. The tall blond ones with what appear to be sleek, aerodynamically perfect, goose feathered wings which, in the paintings, they wrap protectively around weeping women in distress; the chubby little four-winged ones, whose wings have evolved, perhaps, to enable them to hover at low altitude and feed in mid-flight; and the biblical ones (see Isaiah 6:1-2) which have six wings, two of which they use to cover their faces, two to cover their feet, and two more for the actual job of flying. (Although, as there have been no reported sightings of these for many years, we fear they may now be extinct). Apart from this we know very little, and nothing of their natural habitat, their feeding patterns or their mating habits.

Fortunately a conference on angels has recently taken place in Rome, and one of the Vatican’s angel experts, the knowledgeable but unfortunately named Fr Renzo Lavatori has brought us up to date with the Church’s latest thinking on the subject. And he started by dropping a bombshell. ‘Angels’, he told us, ‘may not have wings at all’. They may actually be more like ‘shards of light’. ‘You do not see angels so much as feel their presence’ he reported, ‘they are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase’. Well, that’s all very nice but he didn’t really go much further. What most of us would like to know, for example, is what do they actually do all day?

Fr Lavatori, who is also a ‘demonologist’ did, however, add that ‘we need them now more than ever before. This is because increasing secularisation and materialism in society have left an open door for the devil’ he explained. ‘There is a lot more interference from diabolical forces. That is why you see queues of people outside the exorcist’s offices in churches’.

Well yes, that is very worrying. It was only a couple of years ago that Rome’s chief exorcist, Fr Gabrielle Amorth, explained to us that practicing yoga and reading Harry Potter books was satanic and would lead to evil. And his predecessor, Fr Candido Amantini, was said to have spoken to, and battled with demons for 36 years. And now a Polish priest, Fr Slawomir Kostrzewa, has identified the latest satanic scare–Lego bricks.

Lego, he explained, is all about ‘darkness and the world of death’. (And there was us thinking that that’s what the Catholic Church was all about). In a move that might, we must assume, enable toddlers to unleash satanic forces against their parents Lego have extended their range of happy little interlocking characters with a series of ‘monster fighters’ one, of which, is ‘Lord Vampyre’, a Dracula-like character with fangs.

It’s their little, moulded facial expressions that Fr Kostrzewa is concerned about. They show ‘satisfaction with their evil deeds’ he says. Although to be honest, that could also be said about the toddlers who play with them. But no, this is serious. It will ‘destroy their souls and lead them to the dark side’ he insists. And in case you think Fr Kostrzewa may just be one brick short of a plastic house, rest assured. He also warned us about the spiritual dangers of ‘Hello Kitty’ and ‘My Little Pony’.