Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What made me oppose the war (1989)

From the September 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

I was born on 22 February, 1914, a few months before the start of the Great War (as it came to be called), the youngest of an Anglo-German family of five children, two girls and three boys. My eldest brother, Edward, was killed on the Western Front in the last month of that war, after having survived its whole course on active service.

He volunteered for the army at the onset, being then aged sixteen. After about two years' service he was discharged from the armed forces because of war wounds, but immediately rejoined another regiment. Over the years I have often wondered about this conscientious heroism of his. When asked why he had re-enlisted although medically unfit, he would always say that he would have been letting his comrades down who were still fighting in France had he not done so.

Some considerable time before I became a socialist I had come to the realisation that warfare was completely inimical to the human condition. As I became older my reaction to the reality of capitalism was to become a rebel without a cause. A combination of particular experiences, and a process of learning by those experiences and coming to conclusions about them, without (as yet) having an all-embracing philosophy.

For example, my mother had to convince the War Office that my brother Edward would have become a major bread-winner for the family, had he not been killed fighting for King and Country, before they would "award" a compensatory pension. After about a year of legal wrangling, the War Office awarded a sum of seven shillings and sixpence a week (in terms of present coinage this would be 37. pence). Such was the reward of a grateful king and country. With hindsight it came to be considered fortunate by the family that this war pension of 7/6d was allocated to my mother and not my father who died relatively young, aged 56; in which case the pension would have died with him, whereas my mother lived to the age of 75.

Another circumstance which profoundly affected my thinking, something that I learned years later, was that in the section of the Western Front where my brother was killed two of his uncles were serving with the opposing German army in that same section at that time. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that my brother could have been killed by them. These were the kinds of experiences, together with my concern for all of the victims of war, which determined my developing an emotional opposition to war and everything connected with it, rather than an opposition based upon a rational understanding of the material causes of social antagonism and war (this came later in my development).

In the late 1920s when the subject of war came up in conversation, I was often asked by relations and others what I would do in the event of war. My reply was that I would oppose its prosecution, to the best of my ability, and refuse to take part in it as an individual. Their reaction to this was usually to say that it is easy to oppose war in peace-time, but that I would probably change my attitude if war should come.

Another factor in my development from childhood was my experience at school. At the age of five I started my "education" at a church school in London which in those days was a school attached to a parish church with an independent board of school governors, but which was funded by the then LCC (London County Council). The lessons at this school were (with overtones of religion) directed towards teaching the children to read, write and count, so that they would be able to appreciate the benefits of patriotism and blind loyalty to their King and Country, and a willingness to die for them and the market economy they represented if necessary. This included the presentation of history as the past battles and wars in which "their" country had been involved. As a pupil I was very unpromising. I was so slow to learn that I was more or less ignored by the teachers and only had any real contact with them when it was a case of receiving punishment for some misdemeanour I had committed.

There were two days of the year in the school curriculum which were regarded as special events in which the whole school took part. These were Empire Day and Prize-giving day. On Empire Day the whole school was assembled in the playground to sing patriotic songs like "Land of Hope and Glory" and to listen to the reciting of the hackneyed sentiments of a Henry Newbolt poem in which an imperialist bloodbath somewhere in the empire was equated with a game of cricket played by "public" school boys on the playing fields of Eton or Harrow. The proceedings were then brought to an end, until the next year, with a homily on God, religion and the Empire given by the vicar.

In the early thirties I became convinced that the Socialist Party's analysis of capitalist society in general and the causes of war in particular was the only valid explanation of the world's social problems and demanded a world-wide solution. I therefore became a socialist ideologically, but I did not join the party until 1946. The reason for this was that I had decided  to object to military service, and my joining the only anti-war political party in Britain might have been seen as merely a personal anti-war tactic and not a complete opposition to the continuation of capitalism, in peace or war. My refusal to perform military service lasted over a period of about two years of close arrest, court martials and prison sentences, terminating in my discharge from military service.
Harry Walters 


From the Socialist Party of Great Britain website


Burgess Hill war veteran and former Socialist Party of Great Britain candidate Les Courtney this week warned young people not to be taken in by the “fake patriotism and glorification of war that the Government is trying to stir up” during what he said was “its celebration of the so-called ‘Great War’.”

Speaking after a lively public meeting held in the town on Remembrance Sunday, Mr Courtney pointed out that “Ordinary people do not want war and do not cause wars. Governments and the rich and powerful interests that support them start wars. But ordinary people of all countries could stop a new war if only they said: no we will not fight for you.”

Having served in North Africa and the Middle East during the Second World War and losing his brother, a Spitfire pilot, his experiences led Mr Courtney to become a Socialist. When Britain again went to war in the 1950’s, he refused to be called up to take part in “more senseless and ridiculous killings”, and was accepted as a ‘conscientious objector’.

Held to discuss ‘Lessons of the First World War’, the meeting heard speaker Steve Clayton remind his audience of the words of Harry Patch “the last fighting Tommy of WW1” who said: “War is a licence to go out and murder for the British government” and “isn't worth one life, it is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.”

The meeting was told the scale and duration of the slaughter the war brought should have been no surprise as Frederick Engels warned in 1887 that “the only war left will be a world war, a world war moreover of an extent the violence hitherto unimagined” which would “strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism.”

Mr Clayton said The Socialist Party had opposed every war in its history and in August 1914 had warned the public that “there were no working class issues at stake in the war: rather, it was fought as a consequence of rivalry among capitalist powers for markets, trade routes, raw materials and politico-military influence.”

Rather it declared in its paper the ‘Socialist Standard’ in September 1914 that: “Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.”

Concluding his talk, Mr Clayton argued that “Socialism will mean the end of war. There will be no more trade routes, markets, property or profit to fight over. If everyone owns everything or, to put it another way, if nobody owns anything, then there is nothing to fight over. With production for use, to meet human needs, the era of real peace will have arrived.”

Earlier this year the Socialist Party of Great Britain stood its first candidates for Sussex in the European elections, when Les Courtney joined Howard Pilott from Lewes on the Party’s list.

For more information: contact www.worldsocialism.org/spgb or phone 0207 622 3811.

Obituary: Eva Torf Judd (1941)

Obituary from the September 1941 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Executive Committee of the Party deeply regret to announce the death of Comrade Eva Torf Judd, who was a victim of a recent air raid.

Comrade Judd had been a member of the Party since 1935 and was well known to the London membership.

Born in London of Lithuanian immigrants, her early childhood, which she remembered vividly, was spent in the dingy Metropolitan borough which bears the pleasant name of Bethnal Green. Later, Comrade Judd emigrated with her parents to the U.S.A., and it was there that her interest in Socialism was developed.

Before the last war; whilst living in Boston, Mass., she took part in the struggle for Trades Union rights for the garment workers of that city. But it was in San Francisco, during the post-war years, that she first played an active part on the political field by lecturing at the Labour College.

Although not agreeing entirely with the I.W.W., Comrade Judd gave lectures on Socialism for that organisation in San Francisco and Seattle. Also she addressed many meetings in other cities in the U.S.A.

Returning to London after a sojourn of nearly 25 years in the U.S.A., our late comrade made contact with the Socialist Party, whose members welcomed her valuable assistance in the work of spreading Socialist knowledge. During her residence in London she addressed many successful outdoor meetings for the Party and was a shrewd and lively contributor at Party Conferences.

From 1938 until the time of her death she was active in the Party's cause in Southampton, in which town she met her tragic end.

About two years ago the MSS. of her autobiography was completed, and, in the opinion of those who have read it, it deserves a niche in the records of working-class literature.

To her husband in Southampton, England, and her daughter Judith in Los Angeles, Calif., the Executive Committee, on behalf of her comrades and many friends in the Socialist Party, express their deepest sympathy. Comrade Judd was another good comrade we are sorry to lose.
H. G. H.

But is it Really Capitalism? (2014)

From the November 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Can it truly be the case that capitalism no longer exists? We examine some claims along these lines.

Socialists argue that the dominant economic system today is capitalism, characterised by class ownership of the means of production, wage labour and commodity production. A very small part of the population (perhaps just one percent) own and control the land, factories, offices, raw materials, patent rights and so on. These people form the capitalist class, and the rest of the adult population – the working class – have to sell their working abilities for wages in order to live. Goods and services are produced for the sake of profit, hence the general rule of ‘no profit, no production’.

At the same time there are those, mainly on the so-called political ‘right wing’, who claim that what exists nowadays in much of the ‘developed’ world is not really capitalism at all. Let’s leave aside those who consider that present-day society is socialism or some strange mixture of socialism and capitalism. Instead we shall focus on those who use some such term as ‘corporate’ or ‘crony capitalism’ to describe the social system. Underlying this is a claim, sometimes explicit, that everything would be fine if we could get back to ‘proper capitalism’ rather than the ill-functioning spin-off that has taken its place.

There is no doubt that capitalism has undergone a number of changes since, say, the late eighteenth century, when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, changes surveyed in Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide. In Smith’s day, most capitalist firms and factories were owned by individual capitalists or small partnerships, people who were closely involved in supervising production and, for instance, individually combating strikes. Nowadays, factories, offices, etc are mostly the property of companies, which are themselves owned by large numbers of shareholders; as one example, Superdrug is wholly owned by the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, which has a number of other brands too. Corporations now are often huge, with Walmart, for instance, having over two million employees. With lots of different competing firms, eighteenth-century capitalism supposedly knew far more competition than today, when in some cases a small number of companies are enormously powerful in particular areas (as with Amazon and Boeing in ebooks and aircraft, respectively). The state, too, has a much larger role now, with everything from regulation of competition to the welfare system and investment in infrastructure. But the question is to what extent these changes have altered the basic nature of the economy.

One writer who distinguishes between capitalism and corporatism is Michael Labeit (see here). In his view of the world, capitalism is based on the recognition of individual rights, including that to private property; hence theft and murder are illegal. Capitalism involves the free market, ‘the vast network of voluntary exchanges of property titles to intermediate and final goods’.

Under corporatism, in contrast:
‘the government intervenes aggressively into the economy, typically with political instruments that benefit large corporations and enterprises to the detriment of smaller businesses and private citizens. … corporatist authorities seize control of land and capital goods when they feel it is necessary to do so without regard for private property rights.’
Subsidies, tariffs, anti-trust laws and licences are all seen as examples of government working in the interests of large companies and so against the interests of small capitalists and ‘ordinary’ people. Note that corporatism and government interference do not mean state ownership.

Here is another, very sanitised, depiction of ‘genuine capitalism’ (from here):
‘Capital is invested by individuals to further ideas and enterprises that the investor thinks will create a return on the money invested. If the enterprise in question is a good one, both investor and business owner win. If not – better luck next time.’
The Economist  (15 March) developed a crony-capitalism index, focussing on industries that are particularly vulnerable to monopoly or to heavy state involvement, such as banking, defence, infrastructure and energy. They looked at how rich the billionaires in these crony sectors were, as a percentage of GDP. Top by some margin was Hong Kong, followed by Russia, Malaysia and Ukraine. Britain was only fifteenth, the US seventeenth, China nineteenth and France twentieth. Apparently, ‘French and German billionaires … rely rather little on the state, making their money largely from retail and luxury brands.’ As the magazine pointed out, the data were not always reliable, so the precise results needed to be treated with caution. And the claim of people like Labeit is that the economy as a whole, and not just particular sectors, is subject to cronyism.

So is there any real difference between crony or corporate capitalism and ‘the real thing’? As far as the working class are concerned, the answer has to be, very little. All forms of capitalism involve wage labour and exploitation, and it is of minimal relevance for workers to what extent a capitalist company depends on government interference. And of course all companies benefit from the government’s defence of private property and class rule, its anti-worker legislation and its fighting of wars to protect trade routes and access to markets and raw materials.

The descriptions we have cited above all focus on the capitalist class and how they obtain their wealth, whether simply by investment or by relying on government facilitating their profit-making (by licenses, zoning, import duties or whatever). None of them recognise workers and their unpaid labour as the source of the wealth of the capitalists, or the role of exploitation in profit-making. Big capitalists no doubt exercise more sway with the state than smaller ones, but that should not make us feel sorry for the latter, or accept that they have the same interests as workers. Those who criticise corporatism can be seen as standing for the interests of the owners of small businesses (a point that has also been made about the Tea Party movement in the US).

And what of the free market? Many leftist economic commentators have argued that the recession which started in 2007–8 came about because of the free market and the unregulated nature of the financial industry. Thus Seumas Milne of the Guardian wrote in 2008 that ‘it is the free-market model, not capitalism, that is dying’. But the view of those discussed here is that the market prior to then was not truly free, as there was plenty of government regulation. This position, however, inevitably leads to the conclusion that there never has been a free market, since government has always defended the interests of the capitalist class as a whole: in 1700, for instance, the British government banned the import of cotton textiles from India in order to boost the native textile industry. Tariffs, government regulation and war played a crucial role in the growth and spread of capitalism.

Capitalism can take various forms, including state capitalism, where the major industries are owned by the government. The degree of government interference can vary in its extent and its nature, but whichever variant exists it is based on class ownership, commodity production, the wages system and exploitation. So yes, it really is capitalism, and it needs to be done away with as soon as possible. 
Paul Bennett