Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“Socialism in Paddington” (1912)

From the October 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

Under the above heading a somewhat demoralising discussion has been carried on in the columns of the local Press, during which the S.P.G.B. in general and the Paddington Branch in particular have been favoured with the biased opinions of certain "well-educated, reasonable people," such being duly appreciated and assessed at their true value.
Undoubtedly much of this anonymous animosity was created by the wilful misrepresentation and historical lies that the cunning Anti Socialist and his co-partner, the Christian Socialist (!) are endeavouring to spread in this locality of extremes. In particular, a "Socialist" curate has been making himself conspicuous in that devilish direction by attempting to discredit our party by stating that "the S.P.G.B. is an obscure little sect, numbering (at the most) some 200 members in the whole of Great Britain."
As several supporters of our propaganda enquired whether such was true, a letter from the present writer was published in the local Press, in which it was pointed out that if the membership of the S.P.G.B. did not exceed 100 that of itself would not prove that the Party's principles were wrong.
It is clear that this genial cleric pinned his faith to numbers and not principles, and that his conception of a Socialist body is one that commences its career with a million members and dwindles down to a few choice spirits to perpetuate the species.
The sycophantic attitude of these "Socialistic" sky-pilots becomes apparent upon reflection. They are Anti-Socialist spies seeking to permeate the Socialist movement with the chloroform of a dead religion. It is all humbug to say that Socialism is based upon Christianity or "the Sermon on the Mount," because neither Theism nor Atheism can be the basis of a social system.
Another correspondent put forward the suggestion that the time had arrived when their united energies should be concentrated against "the only party worth talking about; the party of revolutionary Socialists ; the S.P.G.B." He proposed immediate action being taken to smash the branch up, because he felt convinced that when the S.P.G.B. citadel has been demolished and the rubbish cleared away, the Socialist movement in Paddington will cease to be a fighting force, and will gradually fade.
This hostile announcement acted like a tonic on the branch, who replied by advertising a series of lectures on Socialism at the "Prince of Wales," Harrow Road. It was proclaimed that our object in holding these lectures was to give citizens an opportunity to discuss the question of Socialism and all its implications, and we invited opponents to attend and submit questions, or state their case against us from the platform. With what result ? The week's mission was a great success. Large and attentive audiences listened to the exposition of Socialism, and the collections and sales of literature were very good. And from the enquiries that were made concerning the party the branch confidently expects an increased membership.
Our Secretary is at all times ready to enlighten any wage-worker who is desirous of joining the Socialist Party. If there is any doubt or difficulty that wants explaining, now is the time to have such matters cleared up. Our branch meeting is held for that purpose among others, and we cordially invite our fellow workers in Paddington to bestir themselves, throw off the shackles of superstition and ignorance, and join with us in securing our emancipation from the thraldom of capitalism by the institution of Socialism.
Ben Carthurs

Erich Fromm and Free Access (1972)

From the June 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Those confronted with the Socialist proposition that goods and services should be freely available for people to take according to their needs often react by claiming that this wouldn't work because, first, nobody would want to work and, second, people would grab more than they needed so that shortages would again develop.
There are simple answers to these objections. First, the threat of starvation is not, and certainly should not be, the incentive to work. If some work is so unpleasant that nobody would freely choose to do it then it ought to be done by machines or not at all. Second, people only tend to be greedy and to grab in conditions of scarcity. If food and clothing were freely available in abundant quantities people would soon adjust to taking only what they needed just as they do now with tap water.
We are not alone in putting these arguments. For instance in 1966 Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and writer, wrote a short essay in a book called The Guaranteed Income. Next Step in Socioeconomic Evolution? edited by Robert Theobald. This is the idea that, in order to maintain consumer demand in the face of the mounting unemployment some expect automation to bring, every American citizen should be guaranteed a minimum income. This is in fact a futile proposal to try to reform capitalism so that it can cope with abundance. Fromm wasn't too keen on the idea, but did answer the possible criticism that a guaranteed income might reduce the incentive to work. He wrote:
“I believe, however, that it can be demonstrated that material incentive is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. First of all there are other incentives : pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself, etc. Examples of this fact are not lacking. The most obvious one to quote is the work of scientists, artists, etc., whose outstanding achievements were not motivated by the incentive of monetary profit, but by a mixture of various factors : most of all, interest in the work they were doing; also pride in their achievements, or the wish for fame. But obvious as this example may seem, it is not entirely convincing, because it can be said that these outstanding people could make extraordinary efforts precisely because they were extraordinarily gifted, and hence they are no example for the reactions of the average person. This objection does not seem to be valid, however, if we consider the incentives for the activities of people who do not share the outstanding qualities of the great creative  persons. What efforts are made in the field of all sports, of many kinds of hobbies, where there are no material of any kind !”
“It is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy, but on the contrary suffers from the results of inactivity. People might prefer not to work for one or two months, but the vast majority would beg to work, even if they were not paid for it.”
Precisely. The guaranteed income would, however, reduce the incentive to be exploited by an employer — which of course is why it will never be introduced.
Fromm went on to propose what he considered a better idea: "the concept of free consumption of certain commodities".
“One example would be that of bread, then milk, and vegetables. Let us assume, for a moment, that everyone could go into any bakery and take as much bread as he liked (the state would pay the bakery for all bread produced). As already mentioned, the greedy would at first take more than they could use, but after a short time this 'greed-consumption' would even itself out and people would take only what they really needed.”
Despite his good refutation of the objection that free goods and services would lead to widespread grabbing, Fromm is still thinking in capitalist terms as can be seen by his reference to the State paying the bakery money.
Fromm regards himself as a socialist, but is really only a member of the reformist Socialist Party of America. But what we can't understand is why, having taken the argument this far, he doesn't go all the way and advocate Socialism where, on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all the people, wealth would be produced in abundance and voluntary, enjoyable work and where money would be abolished with everyone having free access to what they needed to live and enjoy life. After all, he has no argument to put against this.

Games, Shops and Springboards (2014)

The Action Replay Column from the September 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

They’re called The Friendly Games but they have plenty of rivalry, flag-waving and drug-taking, just like any big international sports gathering. The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which finished early last month, have been hailed as a major success for the city, for Scotland, and for the Commonwealth.
And of course it’s not just, or not even mainly, about sport. The buzz word is ‘legacy’ (see legacy2014.co.uk). VisitScotland, the national tourist organisation, emphasised that the Games would be a boost to tourism in both the host city and the whole country. Tourism is apparently worth £11bn a year to the Scottish economy, but there is hope that that can be increased, with the Games acting as a springboard (in a sporting metaphor, of course) for yet more visitors. £560m has been spent on the Games, with this seen as investment for the future.
On the negative side, Atos, notorious for implementing in a particularly harsh way some of the government’s austerity measures, was chosen as one of the Games partners, which many Glaswegians saw as adding insult to injury. Parking restrictions were suddenly introduced in places, as a further instance of the Games having priority over local residents. Parts of the city have been prettified (street cleaning, planting flowers, etc) but this has been confined to certain spots, such as those on the marathon course.
One of the most deprived areas of Glasgow is the East End, where many of the Games events were held. New houses and hotels were constructed in place of existing buildings, but one resident complained that the result was that there were ‘nae fucking shops’ (Guardian, 2 August). A day centre for adults with learning difficulties was demolished to be replaced by a car park; the council said this was to provide ‘a more efficient service’ (the standard justification for practically every cut or restructuring).
The real test, no doubt, will be to see if the Games, and the Scottish team’s performance, has any effect on voting in the ‘independence’ referendum. Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Yes campaign, pointed out that Scotland had won a record number of medals, as if this would somehow influence people’s voting intentions. Still, it’s probably as relevant to workers as arcane arguments about the retention of the pound.
Paul Bennett

The Great(er) Emancipator — Frederick Douglass (2013)

From the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

If Hollywood is ever ready to demystify the Civil War, it should give Frederick Douglass the star treatment.
How can you make a film about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery and leave out Frederick Douglass? Steven Spielberg found a way, apparently, in his recent film Lincoln.
The film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, reportedly said that he had to leave out ‘dramatic scenes with Frederick Douglass’ as a ‘trade-off’ for focusing the plot on Lincoln’s 1865 effort to round up enough lame-duck Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery). Kushner recalled that when Spielberg suggested limiting the film to this topic, both laughed at what seemed ‘an insane idea’ because the ‘whole movie was just going to be a bunch of guys talking.’
The insane part, though, is not the bunch of guys talking—a refreshing change from the bloody bore of the war itself—but the relative insignificance of an abolition debate at the very moment Sherman and Grant’s armies were uprooting slavery in fact. Spielberg chooses the denouement, after Gettysburg and Lincoln’s landslide re-election, and just a few months before General Lee’s surrender.
Spielberg and Kushner, by most accounts, have made the best of their material, but their ‘trade-off’ sounds like a bum deal. Why not keep Frederick Douglass and choose a more dramatic episode? Any number of points during the Lincoln administration could shed a sharper light on his politics and the debate over slavery, and the presence of Douglass in each case would heighten understanding. 
Setting the film even a few months earlier, to look at Lincoln’s re-election campaign, would have raised the dramatic tension: the stakes then were still high. Douglass feared that an election victory for the ‘revived’ Democratic Party, led by Gen. George B McClellan, would prevent a ‘final settlement’ to the conflict, leaving it ‘to tear and rend the country again at no distant future’—and he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln.
Even more interesting is the 1860 Presidential campaign, whose outcome sparked the war. Douglass campaigned for Lincoln in that election, too, but with many reservations. ‘With the single exception of the question of slavery extension’, he wrote at the time, ‘Mr. Lincoln proposes no measure which can bring him into antagonistic collision with the traffickers in human flesh,’ and offered the prediction that, ‘The Union will, therefore, be saved simply because there is no cause in the election of Mr. Lincoln for its dissolution.’ This illustrates the wide gap between Lincoln and the abolitionists at the time. Douglass’s prediction was wrong, of course, but only because, ‘the South was mad, and would listen to no concessions.’
And then there are the eventful months leading up to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A film set then could examine how the war’s necessities, more than high-blown principles, led the Lincoln administration to (finally!) take the first cautious steps toward abolition. Douglass welcomed the Proclamation, but found it ‘extremely defective’ and ‘not a true proclamation of liberty but one marked by discriminations and reservations.’ Including his views would help brush a few cobwebs off Lincoln’s much-praised but half-hearted executive order.
Any one of these settings seems more promising than Spielberg’s odd choice, but there is probably method to his madness. Narrowing his film down to the Republicans’ debate with the demoralized Democrats at war’s end, rather than with principled abolitionists at its outset, would seem to spare the director the ordeal of grappling with Lincoln’s evolving policy. Instead, he can present viewers with the more familiar sight of political arm-twisting and horse-trading over an issue that is, by that point, a near formality. That level of politics may be more ‘relevant’ to our own, but really that is an argument against choosing it, dramatically speaking.
Better Fred than Abe
An even better idea (Steven, if you’re listening): Why not cut out Abe Lincoln altogether and make Frederick Douglass the star?
His life, stretching from 1817 to 1895, is full of gripping, conflict-ridden tales, intertwined with the drama of slavery’s demise and the rise of industrial capitalism. For dramatic plot lines and entertaining dialogue, the screenwriter need look no further than Douglass’s brilliant, overlapping accounts of his own life: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
The story of his life begins in eastern Maryland, where he was born in a ‘dull, flat, and unthrifty district . . . surrounded by a white population of the lowest order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves, who seemed to ask, Oh! What’s the use? every time they lifted a hoe.’ His grandparents raised him several miles from the plantation where his mother and other slaves toiled, and where he was sent around age seven or eight to begin working himself. Douglass had the good fortunate to be removed from the plantation—‘before the rigors of slavery had fastened upon me’—and sent to the home of his master’s relative in Baltimore, where a somewhat freer atmosphere prevailed. Except for a harrowing period back on the plantation, where he worked in the fields and plotted a (failed) attempt to escape to the North, he remained in Baltimore. And in 1838, disguised as a sailor, Douglass escaped by train from the city to New York.
He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, working on the shipbuilding docks as he had done in Baltimore. Within a few months of gaining his freedom he was a subscriber to The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper of William Lloyd Garrison, whom Douglass met in 1841 at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket. The impromptu speech Douglass delivered there created a sensation and launched his career as an abolitionist agitator, beginning with his work as an ‘agent’ and lecturer for Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society.
Douglass, to the consternation of some, soon outgrew his role as ‘escaped slave,’ which his ever-growing eloquence as a writer and speaker made ‘unconvincing’ to many audiences. He also outgrew, or grew apart from, his mentor, Garrison, rejecting his general aloofness to politics and his insistence that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. After returning from a tour of England, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, away from the sphere of the ‘Garrisonians,’ and in 1847 began issuing his own newspaper, The North Star. He would continue to publish a weekly or monthly newspaper over the next fifteen or so years, under a number of different titles.
There is something thrilling, especially to socialists, about the abolitionist movement around the time Douglass entered it. Unlike typical reformists, with their laundry list of incremental improvements, the abolitionists aimed to uproot an entire (semi) mode of production, and would settle for nothing less! And they set about the task with passion and patience, using the written and spoken word as their weapons.
As the 1850s progressed, the abolitionists found that the tide of history was finally beginning to flow in a direction more favourable to their cause. The great national crisis was coming to a head. These are cinematic years of constant political and social upheaval: the disintegration of the Whig Party, the rapid rise and fall of the Free Soil and Know Nothing movements, and the birth of the Republican Party, while the nation staggered from one patched-together compromise and crisis to the next until the election of Lincoln. The Civil War itself is far less gripping than the decade that preceded it, and no one trained a keener eye on the political currents than Frederick Douglass.
Of course, the story of Douglass during the Civil War is also immensely instructive. His writings at the time and his later reflections reveal how reluctant Lincoln was to do more than merely preserve the Union. From the outset, Douglass urged the President to wage an ‘abolition war’ and was deeply frustrated by how long it was taking the ‘slow coach in Washington’ to get moving in that direction. He berated the Republicans because they ‘fought with the soft white hand, while they kept the black iron hand chained and helpless behind them; that they fought the effect, while they protected the cause.’ But Douglass believed the necessities of the war would turn Republicans into abolitionists, wisely appealing to their pragmatic interests rather than their sense of morality. His analysis proved correct in the end but the war also turned Douglass the abolitionist into a stalwart Republican, which he would remain until his death.
After the war, as Garrison was disbanding his Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass felt that there was still work to be done; that the aim had been ‘not merely to emancipate, but to elevate the enslaved class,’ and that the former slave was now ‘free from the old plantation’ but with ‘nothing but the dusty road under his feet’ and a ‘slave to society.’ But his efforts to aid black workers were hampered by his loyalty to the Republican Party. This blind support for the party of industrial capital painted black workers into a corner, and allowed the Republicans to take their votes for granted. The contradictory position Douglass found himself in, as black leader and diehard Republican, sets the tone for his last three decades—a period of history that revealed how the Civil War freed capital from its chains, too. 
An inspiration to wage slaves
Knowing Hollywood, and its hankering for hagiography and historical melodrama, it’s just as well, perhaps, that Douglass hasn’t been given the star treatment; I would hate to see him reduced to a saint or superhero. The curious are better off going straight to the source by reading his autobiographies.
All three books bring the history of nineteenth-century America alive. But what makes them even more powerful is that while slavery may officially be dead and buried, exploitation and class rule are very much alive. You may pick up one of his autobiographies with the intention of learning about the past, only to encounter passages that remind you of your own lack of freedom as a worker—a wage slave.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to ignore the differences between a wage worker and chattel slave—starting with the auction-block tragedies that broke up slave families—but Douglass himself noted the similarities: ‘The white slave had taken from him by indirection what the black slave had taken from him directly and without ceremony. Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers.’ We need to think of ourselves as wage slaves, not to belittle the past horrors of slavery, but to keep in mind our real position under capitalism today.
The great ‘advantage’ the slave has over the wage worker, although rooted in a bleaker situation, is in having no illusions about being free. Ever since Douglass, as a little boy, learned about a ‘mysterious personage’ named ‘Old Master’ who owned his grandmother and ‘all the little children around her’ (including himself), his state of bondage was a transparent fact, and gaining his freedom an obsession. This early revelation left young Frederick with ‘something to brood over after the play and in moments of repose.’
His restless, probing mind went straight to the heart of the matter, asking himself: ‘Why am I a slave. Why are some people slaves and others masters?’ The stock answer he was given—much like today’s ‘That’s just the way it is’—was that ‘God, up in the sky’ made everybody and ‘made white people to be masters and mistresses, and black people to be slaves.’ This struck Frederick as an odd thing for a benevolent God to do, and the source of the knowledge was unclear (‘Did they go up in the skies and learn it?’). Also, he knew of many whites who were not masters, and blacks who were not slaves.
But he wasn’t long in making his first great discovery that there were slaves brought directly from Guinea and those whose fathers or mothers were stolen from Africa. ‘It was a kind of knowledge,’ he recalled, ‘that filled me with a burning hatred of slavery, increased my suffering, and left me without the means of breaking away from my bondage. Yet it was knowledge quite worth possessing.’ From this he knew, ‘what man can make, man can unmake.’
How many workers today are asking themselves: Why am I a wage slave? How many would even accept that self-description? We can learn from the attitude of the young Douglass who already was scrutinizing his social world and taking the first steps toward emancipation.
Another great lesson Douglass learned at a tender age—dispelling the ‘painful mystery’ of the ‘white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man’—was that slavery had to enforce ignorance. The lesson was driven home by his master in Baltimore who forbade his wife to continue teaching Frederick how to read, saying in front of him: ‘Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world.’ Douglass drew the appropriate conclusion from his master’s ‘exposition of the true philosophy of slavery,’ knowing from that moment knowledge is ‘the true pathway from slavery to freedom.’
Along with his hard-fought struggle to develop his mind as a tool for confronting slavery, Douglass throughout his life had to fight to protect his dignity—even as a ‘freeman’ in the North, where he confronted segregation on trains and in restaurants and hotels. Douglass ignored such ‘rules’ and if necessary physically resisted attempts to enforce them, believing that the ‘way to break down an unreasonable custom, is to contradict it in practice.’
His ‘take-no-crap’ attitude dates back to his earliest experiences as a slave, from which he learned, ‘He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest.’ The great turning point in his own life, wonderfully narrated in his autobiographies, came the day he physically resisted the ‘Negro-breaker’ Edward Covey’s attempt to beat him into submission. Douglass fought back, giving his attacker (who never laid a hand on him again) the worst of it. ‘I was a changed being after that fight,’ he recalled. ‘I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN.’
That fight (and the example of Douglass’s entire life) recalls lines from Byron that Douglass loved to quote, and which speaks to the working class today:
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free, must strike the first blow?
Michael Schauerte

Slavery and the US Civil War (2013)

From the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

150 years ago President Lincoln proclaimed the end of chattel slavery in the United States.
The Proclamation of Emancipation freed slaves in the southern Confederate states that were fighting to secede from the Union. Up until this point the declared war aim of the northern states was to preserve the Union against the attempt of the southern states to secede. The war had always really been about slavery but it was only with the Proclamation of Emancipation of 1 January 1863 that it become openly so. Slavery had always been controversial in the US and had come close to being abolished in all states in 1787. By the early nineteenth-century it was outlawed in all states north of the Mason-Dixon line (which separates Maryland from Pennsylvania) but the growth of the cotton industry in the southern states gave slave-holding a new impetus. By the 1850s these states were seeking not just to defend but to expand slave-holding.
Lincoln was against slavery but was a moderate and pragmatic politician and he hoped first to restrict slavery to those states in which it already existed but ultimately to enact a policy of abolition with compensation for slave-owners. With the victory of Lincoln and the new Republican party in the 1860 elections the long-term survival of slavery was threatened. Unable to expand production into avenues that did not depend on simple labour, slave-holders required new land to expand production and avoid land exhaustion. Without the ability to expand into new territories, southern slave-owners were doomed to a slow decline. The future of slavery in the US depended on the secession of the southern slave-holding states and so began the U.S. Civil War, a war in which around 750,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians died over the rights of a narrow oligarchy to own slaves (300,000 were slave-owners, 1.5 percent of the total US population).
A short new book by James Heartfield,  British Workers and the US Civil War (ISBN 978-0956806123, £4), looks at the attempts of the British government to intervene in the US Civil War on the side of the Confederates. Though not overtly pro-slavery this intervention was aimed at denting the power of the USA in North America and drew on anti-democratic sentiment prevailing in the British establishment at that time. The British press and politicians were overwhelmingly in favour of intervention on the side of the slave-owners. They were unsuccessful, however, in creating a casus belli to assist the Confederate states despite efforts to do so. The case being made was one of supporting a fledgling state in its attempts at independence. In this context an attempt was made to mobilise the cotton mill workers of the north-west of England in support of intervention on the side of the Confederate states on the grounds of the state of their trade due to the shortage of cotton imports from the southern states. This shortage was due both to a blockade of southern exports by the Union navy but also deliberate withholding by Confederates to provoke such intervention. Unemployment and short-time working impacted heavily on British cotton mill workers, but they refused to support the cynical attempts to engage their political support in favour of slave-owners.
With the working-class radicalism of the Chartist movement still within memory for many, a counter movement emerged to support the Union cause. This was focused on the radical Union Emancipation Society which contained a core of working class supporters. By contrast the far more establishment British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society refused to take sides in the civil war. The popular support for the Union anti-slavery cause was assisted by Lincoln’s astute political move of issuing the Proclamation of Emancipation which made the war openly about the future of slavery. Thereafter it became politically impossible for the British government to intervene in favour of slavery. Having played an important part in preventing the possibility of war in support of the Confederates, the pro-Union anti-slavery agitation fed into a renewal of British working-class radicalism which helped to secure the 1867 Reform Act. Heartfield’s book is a timely reminder of how, decades after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the British ruling class had few qualms about intervening in a war that would have secured it elsewhere for their own ends and how working class radicalism played an important part in preventing it.
Marx and Engels considered the US Civil War to be the second revolutionary phase in the history of that country, involving the end of slave labour and the expropriation of slaver-owners. The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the US constitution abolished slavery with no compensation to the slave-owners, granted citizenship to all those born or naturalised in the US and granted the right to vote and hold public office to all citizens. From its struggles with the expansionist southern slave-owners the northern industrial capitalists had emerged truly dominant in the US. With ‘free labour’ now the unchallenged form of exploitation, independent labour politics could develop in the US. As Marx put it: ‘Labour in white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in black skin.’ By the late nineteenth-century labour and socialist movements appeared to be flourishing in the US. However, we know what happened next. The history of the twentieth-century was one of the failure of labour politics and state capitalism and the marginalisation of revolutionary socialism. The US was the scene of a long battle against the rampant racism that still prevailed in the wake of slavery. It remains for the cause of the emancipation of labour to renew itself in earnest.
Colin Skelly