Monday, November 17, 2014

Breaking them in (1967)

From the June 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party has always been unlucky with its youth sections. Before the war it lost control to the so-called Communists and, more recently, to assorted Trotskyists.

By 1960 the leaders of the Labour Party had regained enough courage to set up a national youth section again, this time called the "Young Socialists". That they lost control of this within two or three years was partly their own fault. The Labour Party has no principles or theory. Its policy is shaped entirely by electoral considerations. Indeed party officials tend to be suspicious of anything that smacks of theory. Hence the emptiness of their appeals for support.

Consider this passage from a leaflet now given out by Labour to new electors:
"The Labour Party provides commonsense government with an eye on the future. Modern government, with the conviction and determination to press ahead, making all the changes essential in today's fast moving world. Government with a heart, conscious of the problems of the young and the old, the weak and the needy".
How could this appeal to anybody?

But, worse, the Labour leaders were determined to give no power to the YS in deciding party policy. They tried instead to harness the time and energy of its members to going around cadging for votes. The position is well summed up in a study on "Young Activists in British Politics" by Philip Abrams and Alan Little in the British Journal of Sociology for December 1965:
The Young Socialists, then, are expected to be political but powerless; 'servants of the party' who will carry the burden of constituency work without presuming to meddle with policy. The movement is not allowed to edit its own journal. Its national committee has little contact with Labour leaders and that it has is usually formal and to do with matters of discipline. No notice is taken by the Party of resolutions passed by the Young Socialist Conference unless, again, they are felt to be an occasion for discipline. At the same time, little positive effort is made to supervise the political education of the Young Socialists. The political work wanted from the movement is practical not speculative.
It was against this background that the trotskyists moved in. They filled the theoretical vacuum and gave the YS members a practical purpose beyond vote-catching. Their papers such as Keep Left, Rally, Rebel, Young Guard and Militant—all save Keep Left really produced by YS members—were lively and interesting compared with the stodgy and little read publications of Transport House New Advance and now Focus.

But to give the Labour youth managers their due, they didn't stand a chance against the so-called Socialist Labour League, the premier trotskyist group in Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that for a number of years the national committee of the YS was controlled by the SLL through its nominees. The SLL had a secret organisation, complete with membership cards, within the YS. In other words, in true Bolshevik fashion, it was out to control the YS. The other trotskyist groups didn't stand a chance either. However much they might envy the success of the SLL they could not match its conspiratorial methods (which included violence and intimidation). It os doubtful if they really wanted to for their supporters were, and still are, loose groupings without central discipline or outside control.

Naturally the Labour Party was not going to put up with this for long. They proscribed Keep Left and later, after the 1964 YC Conference, launched an attack on the SLL nominees. Many were expelled. The rest, taking many of the YS branches with them, broke away and held a conference of their own at Morecambe in 1965. The Labour leaders must have been relieved but they still faced the problem of what to do with the remains of their youth section. They forced the unofficial papers to swear allegiance to the Labour Party, further weakened the powers of the YS and change the name to "Labour Party Young Socialists". (It is important to realise that now there are two bodies calling themselves "Young Socialists". One, the YS, is the youth section of the SLL. The other is the LPYS).

However, YS conferences since 1964, even without Keep Left, have continued to reject Party policies and to call for more nationalisation, ban the bomb, support the Vietcong and the like. But the Labour leaders are not worried. They know that there is no closely-knit Bolshevik-type organisation trying to take over. They know, in fact, that slowly but surely they are winning the battle to break in their unruly young members to the ways of Labourism. Abrams and Little well describes how it works:
The Young Socialist movement thus functions as a school of conservatism. It takes the raw material of a new generation of activists—people eager to re-define the terms of political conflict—and teaches them to walk in the established paths. If one agrees to work 'within the Party' one quickly agrees also to accept the Party's terms on policy and procedure. The alternative is a return to the wilderness of sectarian impotence. As he learns to prefer the possible to the ideal the young activist tends to move away from the Young Socialists and to devote his energies directly to the Party.
The sad thing is that, while Labour is changing them, they think they are changing the Labour Party.
Adam Buick

This article was part of a special issue of the Socialist Standard. Other articles in the special issue include:

Marx in Miniature. (1921)

Book Review from the November 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx. By M. Beer. National Labour Press, Ltd. 3s. 6d. net.

As an example of stern compression and yet lucid exposition of Marx's teachings, this little book deserves high praise. In 132 pages of fair-sized type there is given a sketch of the life of Marx, his development in knowledge and thought, his work in the various movements of the Working Class, his theories of history and class struggles, and his economic discoveries. In addition, a brief account of the Hegelian Philosophy, so far as it deals with the Dialectic, is placed in 19 pages of the Introduction. Marx's connection and debt to this school of philosophy is well shown.

After so clear a summary of Marx's economic theories, it is astounding to find the following statements by M. Beer on page 130:
"Marx's theory of value explains neither the vast and unparalleled accumulation of wealth nor the movement of prices during the last sixty years. Wealth, measured in values, has, in the last few decades, increased by many times the increase in living labour power. In this connection the old formula can be reversed: wealth increases in geometrical, living labour power in arithmetical progression. The greatest difficulty in Marx is that inventors and discoverers, the chemists and physicists, the pioneers and organisers of industry and agriculture are not regarded by him as creators of surplus value. Thinkers who, by chemical researches and discoveries, double the productive capacity of the soil and conjure forth values in millions from the waste products of industry; physicists who place new sources of power and means of production at the disposal of mankind and multiply the productivity of labour; organisers who co-ordinate new methods of working—all this creative and directive work demanding, as it often does, an infinite amount of intensive intellectual effort, is not considered to have increased the total sum of exchange values of the nation."
How familiar, even stale, all this reads to the student of Marx. How long, for instance, is it since W. H. Mallock said very similar things and tried to  justify the Capitalists' ownership of wealth by claiming that it was due to the wonderful intellectual endowment "of the Few."

And in another respect M. Beer is like Mallock and Co.—he is unable to give any alternative explanation. Nay, more; he does not even attempt to demonstrate or prove his case—he merely states it and passes on. Fortunately, there is one author who has met the objection of M. Beer that "creative and directive work" does not count in the theory of value. This author says:
"All combined labour on a large scale requires more or less a directing authority in order to secure the harmonious working of the individual activities, and to perform the general functions that have their origin in the action of the combined organism, as distinguished from the action of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate one."
Further on the same author says:
"As co-operation extends its scale this despotism takes forms peculiar to itself. Just as at first the capitalist is relieved from actual labour as soon as his capital has reached that minimum amount with which capitalist production, as such, begins, so now he hands over the work of direct and constant supervision of the individual workman and groups of workmen to a special kind of wage labourer."
This author's name is Karl Marx, and the quotations will be found on pages 321 and 322 of "Capital" (Sonnenschein Ed.). It is the wage-labourer who provides exchange value, and, as here seen, the organisers, chemists, physicists, etc., are but "special kinds of wage-labourers."

In the matter of prices, Marx was always careful to point out that, while he assumed free and full competition among the Capitalists in working out his theory, the factor of monopoly would make an important difference. This is seen to-day where combinations or trusts exist. Here prices are fixed by what "the market will bear," though the latter will sometimes be affected by the competition of substitutes. The Standard Oil Trust has a practical monopoly of petroleum oils used in Australia; but local substitutes act to keep down the price of petroleum to a certain level. But even in these cases the difference between price and value, and the enormous profits made by many Trusts, are only explainable by Marxian laws—no other explanation fits the facts. Strange to relate, after all the shortcomings of the Marxian theory which M. Beer has discovered, he says:
"However, as far as the distribution of products is concerned, Marx's theory is, generally speaking, correct." -Page 130.
This admission knocks out so much of his previous statement, that one wonders why either—or both—were made.

The charge of three shillings and sixpence net for a 132 pages pamphlet in paper covers is ridiculously high. In view of the usefulness of the work, the price should be reduced to bring it within the reach of the mass of the workers.
J. Fitzgerald

Connecting the dots (2007)

From the December 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Remember the “Good Old Days” before Nintendo, when the cutting edge of gaming technology was a page full of dots and numbers in some comic or magazine? Starting at 1 a line was drawn sequentially through all of the numbered dots and gradually a pattern emerged until eventually we were presented with an elephant or some other familiar creature, building or wonder of engineering. Sometimes the compilers of these dot-pictures were pretty clever and by adding background or texture they could keep you guessing for ages before the brain sorted the apparently random outline into a recognisable pattern. Most times it was possible to catch on really quickly and the general response was an immediate loss of interest and a move on to the next page of dots and numbers where the pattern would be repeated, over and over.

Understanding capitalism, our answers to it as Socialists and why it’s so important for us to spread awareness of Socialism is, I find, a bit like joining the dots.

The capitalists want to keep everyone on Join the Dots Book 1; get up – open the book – pick up pencil – start – get up – open the book – pick up pencil – you get the picture. The pattern on each page is obvious, easy to see and unchangeable. Getting a little bored? Another chocolate, episode of Big Brother or shopping trip for stuff you don’t need or really want will keep you docile and pliable. Oh! and don’t forget to keep turning the pages and joining a few dots, there’s the rent or mortgage to pay, remember?

As Socialists we’ve moved on from Book 1. We’ve got beyond the “Well, I know the system’s not perfect, but what else is there? There’s nothing I can do” stage. Some of us might still be joining background or texture dots, and we may not have sussed the complete picture yet, but it’s certainly not that same old, tired elephant and, in fact, it’s looking more and more like an albatross.

We workers in the developed world are still slaves to capital, despite some outward appearances. The actual chains and leg-irons may have disappeared but their virtual equivalents are still there in the form of the need to exchange our labour power for the means of survival and to meet our responsibilities to our families.

Think about it. What a clever dot-picture capital has created; in the beginning the slaves were chained to the galley oars and the masters beat the drum and wielded the whip. But how to enjoy the fruits of their labours when every hour was taken up with thumping the drum and keeping the slaves in line? The answer was simple enough, unchain a couple of slaves from the oars, give them status, a title (overseer or manager), and a whip. They would need a set of virtual leg-irons (do the job right or you’ll end up down there with the slaves again) of course, but otherwise capital has got itself a very useful ally and can now retire to the yacht in Cannes secure in the knowledge that someone else’s labour will pick up the tab for the Pimms, canap├ęs and roulette chips.

The ruse is simple and is presently working well enough; if enough of us are kept reasonably satisfied with our lot and reminded often enough of the dangers of bucking the system (loss of income, loss of status, debt, homelessness), if we allow ourselves to be anaesthetised by capital’s drugs of consumption, trivialisation and obsession with personalities, then the future is indeed bleak for the majority of our world.

Moving beyond Book 1 is not a matter of education or intelligence but is a matter of awareness. Understanding the big spin-off for capital from its strategy of divide and conquer, and doing something to counter the lies and propaganda is what our job is all about. In the developed world many think they stand above the majority of humankind, as a foreman or manager, totally failing to realise that there is a common cause among all workers, whatever we earn.

How often do we hear the opinion, amplified in the capitalist media, that “I’ve had to work for everything I have” or “I don’t pay my taxes to give hand-outs to parasites and illegal immigrants” or “Bloody foreigners, taking all our jobs”? The list is endless. Us against Them, except it’s the wrong “Them”. How can we be so stupid that we eulogise about Bill Gates giving away millions to the poor and desperate of the world, without a single question being raised about why the poor and desperate are in that state in such numbers and about the role played by the likes of Gates and his ilk in their condition?

This illusion that we are not in shackles will take some cracking; people earning a wage or salary can’t see them as the chains of capital. They feel so free that they actually think that they are paying taxes for the good of their country when in actuality wages, taxes, social insurance, etc. are all simply an overhead of capital, an overhead well worth carrying in order to buy off unrest and perpetuate the divisions between the workers of the world.

Our challenge as socialists is to help others move on from Book 1 to Book 2 and beyond; to help people see through the mind-numbing illusions to the reality of what Capitalism is; what it’s doing to them and what it’s doing for the capitalists. We need to be bridges for people, helping them to shake off their conditioning, enabling them to find out more for themselves. In the process they’ll join up more dots – and so will we.
Alan Fenn