Wednesday, November 19, 2014

School dinners and the class struggle (2003)

From the August 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Party does not oppose reformism because it is against improvements in workers' lives lest they dampen their revolutionary ardour; nor, because it thinks that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as propertyless wage slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms. Any fortune – whether in the form of money payments or subsidised services – that falls into our laps becomes an opportunity for those that live off our labour to lower their costs, and increase their profits. So long as there is a class divided society, it becomes impossible for us to enact measures to benefit the whole community.
A clear illustration of this consequence of class-divided society is the current proposal from the ultra-reformists in the (so-called) Scottish Socialist Party to introduce universal free school dinners. A more noble aspiration could scarcely be imagined – an attempt to eradicate poor diets and consequent poor health of children, in a cheap (they say £175 million) and efficient way, without the stench of means testing or qualification. By providing food, for all, through schools, they say, they could avoid the costs associated with administering most types of welfare, and it is fraud-proof and there is no way of transferring the benefit received to third parties.
It has the added advantage of being an age-old demand, one that "Old" Labour types have long held in high regard. With all this going for it, Socialists should have no complaints, surely? Socialists, however, point to the continuing condition of our class as wage-slaves, and affirm that whatever the gains from free school dinners, the wages system will take away in another form with another hand.
The reason why lies in the very form of wage slavery. We are, collectively, compelled to sell our capacity to work – our labour power – in order to get access to those things which we need in order to live as members of our community – our food, clothes, housing, transportation and the like. The value of this labour power is the cost of maintaining and reproducing our capacity to work – and this entails the cost of keeping and rearing the next generation of workers, our children.
This value is not found by some chemical process of deciding what we need to have to keep ourselves and our families, but is instead found through the struggle between ourselves and our employers, as they try to drive our wages as low as possible, and we try to prevent this or push up the price they pay us. It is not driven by the living costs of any one individual, but by the general costs of living in society.
These general costs of living form a pressure on wages, which can force them upwards, as can the level of class consciousness and understanding of the workers; whereas counter-acting forces, such as the availability of a particular type of labour, general unemployment and the use of state power, combine to create downwards pressures on wages. All of which is to say that our wages are set by class struggle. This is a continuous struggle in which every gain has to be defended, and in which there is no relenting.
If the price of one of our necessities of life falls, this will be reflected by a decrease in the upwards pressure on wages. Without a corresponding relenting in the downward forces on wages, our real wages would begin to dwindle towards a new level (either through direct wage cuts, or by allowing inflation – that is a decrease in the value of money – to eat away at our spending power). Free school dinners would be an example of this process in action.
Those workers with children would be relieved of the cost of providing those meals to their children. This would result in a decline in the monetary cost of maintaining themselves and their family, and thus a decrease in the upwards pressure on wages. The typical wage would then tend to fall towards something nearer to living costs of those of a childless worker. This would thus benefit the employing class, both through cutting the overall direct cost of wages, but also through ending the situation in which childless workers were paid unnecessarily from the point of view of the employers.
The employer could be prevented from gaining from this process by an increase in taxation – whether nominally on the workers' wages or directly on employers' profits; this would serve to cream off the difference between the old and the new prices of labour power. In this way, the free school dinners scheme could be made to pay for itself. This would, though, merely represent a redistribution of poverty for the working class, the intervention by the state into the labour market to ensure a more efficient allocation of the workers' ration, so that children get a protected share.
Indeed, there could be a strong capitalist motive for having free school dinners. Efficiency savings through only paying the wages that are actually needed by their workers could increase their profits (especially as the majority of workers do not have children of school age). As could ensuring a healthier future generation of workers, able to work harder and cost less in terms of medical care. All of which, of course, would be subject to the ongoing profitability of the capitalist system and its current need for labour. The costs of the dinners would have to be watched closely, managers constantly pressured to keep the costs of food provided to a bare minimum.
The SSP proponents of this scheme observe that their draft bill will include provisions on nutritional content. This does not mean that the ongoing pressure will disappear. King Canute passed the well drafted Tides' Direction (Reversal) Act over a thousand years ago, to little noticeable effect. The statute books are littered with Health and Safety legislation that goes ignored and unenforced because the political will and resources are not there to counteract the profit needs of the capitalists to encroach on their provisions.
That is, assuming such a Bill would pass unamended. The SSP only have six members of the Scottish parliament, and their current strategy is to apply moral pressure to Labour and Liberal MSPs to vote for their bill; in the course of which, small amendments here and there from the more openly capitalist parties, on whose support it will depend, could well rob it even of its nominal stringency. Such amendments would be simple capitulations to the reality that the ultimate determinant of policy is the ongoing profitability of capital.
If the free school meals were deemed to be too expensive relative to the benefits and profits accruing to the capitalist class, then heavy political pressure would be added to the situation to reform the scheme. Were a Scottish Parliament to make a fight of it, then capitalists would use their capacity to disinvest in Scotland, as they would anywhere else, to go in search of better profits. That is, the limit of any reforms we could win for ourselves on the basis of the capitalist system will always be circumscribed by the need to keep the capitalist system functioning.
Of course, the SSP could fight to form an executive outright and use control of the political machinery to resist the encroachment of capital trying to claw back any costs of running the school dinners scheme. The net result of that, though, is that after going to all that time and effort, they would simply have succeeded in resuming the class struggle as before, only in the domain of the state, rather than in the workplace. Further, they would have gone to all that effort to fight for the crumbs, when by the very same means they could have put an end to the capitalist system itself.
Our objection to reformism is, then, that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the workings of the wages system. All that effort, skill, energy, all those tools could be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing struggle.
Socialists understand well the urge to do something now, to make a change. That makes us all the more determined, however, to get the message across, to gather our fellows to clear away the barrier of the wages system, so that we can begin to build a truly human society, in which children aren't given a share in a wage-slave's ration – whether at home or at school – but instead receive all the food they need without having to pay. In the face of such potential, why waste time fighting for half measures?
Pik Smeet

The Adventures of Leigh Burr-Parti (1976)

From the January 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

More on Orwell (1955)

From the March 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

George Orwell is in the news. "1984," written in 1949 just before his death, and "Animal Farm" which he wrote in 1945—and for which he could not find a publisher whilst the war was still on—are now "best sellers." Quite recently T.V. audiences were subjected to the horrors of "Big Brother" and the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love (Miniluv in "Newspeak") on their telescreens; and a film of "Animal Farm" is now running at a cinema in the West-End of London—complete with a less despairing ending! Other books by Orwell such as "The Road to Wigan Pier" and "Down and Out in Paris and London" have sold regularly for many years; although perhaps his best book, "Homage to Catalonia" is less well known. The reason for this is, no doubt, because he puts a view on the Spanish Civil War unpopular both to the Communists and the politicians of the Western Powers of the time.

Why, then, is Orwell in vogue? Partly because he has a message for working people, and partly because his writings, particularly "1984" and "Animal Farm" can be used by the Western ruling class in its propaganda war with the Soviet Union, China and the Iron Curtain countries. To our local propagandists "Big Brother" and "Comrade Napoleon" represent a Stalin or Malenkiv. But surely Orwell's message is that these totalitarian tendencies can and do exist in Britain, America, Spain and elsewhere. In fact anywhere that capitalist society with its coercive state structure exists; anywhere that private property, exploitation, and our so-called "welfare-warfare" system prevails.

Not only Soviet Russia but all countries have their secret and state police, their jails, and their laws protecting private property and exploitation of man by man. Russia has its M.V.D., Britain its M.I.5., America its F.B.I.— and "1984" its Ministry of Love!

Orwell's telescreens and Party informers are not so fantastic either. Soviet Russia has long been the classic home of the informer; although the Soviet authorities have recently attacked the abuses of the system. And McCarthyism and the Un-American Activities Committee are well known to all Americans.

An important aspect of "1984" society is the three slogans of the Inner Party: -
This is the "double-think" of "1984." But is it much different from the double-think of 1955? Are we not fighting for "democracy" in Malaya? Is not Spain one of the "free" nations of the West? Are not the Communists "fighting" for Peace? Is not "New China" a "Democratic" dictatorship? And so on.

George Orwell may not have been a Socialist but he understood more of the contradictions and tendencies of our present society than most people. And although not a "great" writer he was able to pin-point these problems and tendencies in an interesting and popular way. In "1984" and "Animal Farm" he gives a warning to the apathetic "couldn't care less" masses; unfortunately he has no answer to these problems and totalitarian tendencies in capitalist society. Only the Socialist has that.
Peter E. Newell

Is The S.P.G.B. the Party of the Workers? (1907)

From the April 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard

[Report of a debate between J. Fitzgerald, S.P.G.B. (affirmative) and E. J. B. Allen, S.L.P. (negative) at the Engineers' Institute, Plumstead, January 20th, 1907.]

Fitzgerald, in opening, said that to decide which was the workers' Party it was necessary to describe the worker's position. To-day he was an article of merchandise, for he had no access to the means of existence save by selling his energy on the labour market. The means of existence and the wealth produced were owned and controlled by the capitalist class, and this economic cleavage between the two classes resulted in an antagonism of interests. The ruling class were numerically small; how then were they able to retain control over the means of existence and the lives of the workers? When the workers showed signs of revolt, police, judicial, military and naval forces were brought against them. But these forces could not exist on air. The supplies necessary to keep and arm these forces are provided for out of revenue and voted for in parliaments. Thus the control of the political machinery enables the capitalist class to retain their position. The Party of the workers must therefore have for its object the control of the means of existence and the capture of political power as chief means to this end.

The ruling class keep employed a specially trained section for this political work and trickery, but the workers have not the wealth, leisure, or opportunity to acquire the same proficiency in trickery (even if it were defensible). Consequently the only method remaining to the workers is an open and above-board organisation for the capture of political power. Fitzgerald then proceeded to examine various political parties such as the Liberal, Tory, and Labour parties and the I.L.P. and S.D.F. from the above basis, and showed how hopeless they were from the point of view of working-class emancipation. He then dealt with the S.L.P., which while claiming to accept the position already laid down, denied this practically by forming their organisation in an underhand way. This organisation, like the S.P.G.B., grew out of the so-called "Impossibilist" movement in the S.D.F. The movement manifested itself at the West Ham and Birmingham conferences of the S.D.F., and at Blackburn the London and Scottish sections agreed to work together. The London section abided this, but just before the next conference news came that instead of working for alteration of the policy of the S.D.F, the Scottish section had been secretly organising a new party. The London section, recognising that the workers must consciously work out their own emancipation, refused to blindly follow either superior persons from Queen Anne's Gate or self-styled geniuses from Scotland, and continuing their work converted so many that after the Burnley conference the S.P.G.B. was formed in an open and straightforward manner. The S.L.P. had a palliative programme when first formed, while the S.P.G.B. ignored these confusing items. The S.L.P. merely adopted parrot-like the actions and phrases of the American S.L.P. without considering whether they were applicable to conditions here.

E. J. B. Allen in reply said that he had attended the meeting of the London "Impossibilists' after the Shoreditch conference, and Fitzgerald had said nothing about having been deceived, but only that he was not going to help form a party with two dozen. Fitzgerald had said that workers must get control of the political machinery, but hah not shown how this was to be done. Marx had shown that it was those who had economic power that controlled in Society, the political and other factors being based in the economic. Engels had pointed out that with the establishment of Socialism politics would be abolished. The workers must have an economic organisation to enforce their expressions on the political field. A political movement without force behind it was a farce. How were they going to get the economic organisation of the working class which would be a real power? One way was to convert the existing class-unconscious organisations. The other ay was to build up a class-conscious organisation themselves.

With regards to the S.L.P. in England adopting methods from America, why did not the S.P.G.B. produce an economic system of its own instead of taking that of Marx? In America the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance had failed, while in the West there grew up the American Labour Union. This and other organisations met in Chicago in 1905 and formed the "Industrial Workers of the World." This was the union they were endeavouring to establish here. In it the workers would be organised to take and hold the means of existence against the capitalist class. It would furnish the might necessary to enforce the political right, and was therefore the most important. How was the S.P.G.B. going to make the trade unions take up the Socialist position? The S.L.P. intended to form an I.W.W. as soon as they had the strength. They admitted members of various political parties into the Advocates of Industrial Unionism.

He challenged Fitzgerald to show where the S.L.P. had violated the Unity Programme as printed in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD. While preaching the principles of unity the S.P.G.B. denied them for the purpose of keeping their little Party alive. With reference to the straight and above-board position of the S.P.G.B., he had read two pamphlets issued by the Islington Branch, and so far as he could see they had made out their case against the E.C. of the S.P.G.B.

Fitzgerald then said that he had insisted so much on the swindling of the Scotsmen at the "Impossibilist" meeting that one present had tried to minimise Yates' admission that the Scotsmen had been building up a new party during two years.

The workers' greatest difficulty would not be to get a parliamentary majority but to get control of the positions of the permanent officials. Regarding Engels' statement that the political state would die out, Engels had defined the political state as the expression of the ruling class; but so important did he consider the capture of political power that he italicised the sentence "The Proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property."

The political machinery was the means whereby the businesses and collective needs of Society were co-ordinated, and which would under Socialism become their co-ordination for the benefit of all. The economic organisation could not take and hold the factories, etc. while the capitalist class controlled the armed forces, for by these the workers could easily be dispossessed.

They accepted any scientific truth or discovery, whether it originated in America or Germany, but a thing was not necessarily correct because it was adopted in America, while we should probably learn as much from the mistakes of other countries as from their truths. From the time of the formation of the S.T. & L.A. right up to 1904 the position of the S.L.P. was that the political arm must dominate the economic: but with the formation of the I.W.W. a complete change occurred, for it is now said that the economic arm must  dominate the political. If this were true why form a political organisation at all? If economic organisation furnishes the might and the method why do not the advocates of I.W.W-ism proclaim themselves the Anarchists they are and give all their attention to the economic organisation? We could not make the trade unions do anything; we could only educate them until sufficient had been converted to make possible the acton we desired. The S.L.P. had violated THE SOCIALIST STANDARD unity programme by their violation of the principle that the workers must consciously emancipate themselves at the very formation of their Party. With reference to the two Islington pamphlets, he had challenged and was prepared to meet Lehane.

Allen then said regarding the economic organisation "taking and holding," the Government were once unable to hold the naval manoeuvres because the South Wales miners were on strike. Under the industrial form of organisation the workers could prevent the transport of troops. If the workers refused to make the weapons, etc., there would be none for the soldiers to use against the workers. Fitzgerald's definition of the political machinery under Socialism was merely the federal council to supervise the economic departments. While he himself and all other Socialists that he knew had been educated from the political side, Allen considered it easier to teach the mass through the economic organisation. They were not Anarchists because the Anarchists denied the need for organisation. The occurrence at Portsmouth showed the shaky position of the capitalist class regarding the armed forces.

The workers had often to migrate for purposes of their employment, and this disenfranchised a large number: he was therefore not sure the workers had a voting majority. Fitzgerald had asked how a man could claim to accept the revolutionary position and yet remain in the I.L.P., but Fitzgerald was not born a member of the S.P.G.B., he had to develop. They of the S.L.P. had never said "We alone are the holy ones. No one can be a Socialist who does not join us." The difference between the S.L.P. and the S.P. was a difference between theorisers and men prepared to join hands with the working class and get them to take united action. No matter what organisation a man belonged to, if he accepted the revolutionary position as laid down by the A.I.U. he was welcomed.

Fitzgerald in his last speech said, as the workers refusing to supply the soldiers with arms and ammunition, that town could give a significant answer. In Woolwich Arsenal seven years' war stores were supposed to be kept, and visitors could see that great stocks were there. Against these years of supply the workers had only empty pockets and empty cupboards. In Italy the places of striking railway men were taken by armed soldiers, by whom such transport as was essential was carried on. He denied that it was easier to teach the workers from the economic side, for there the petty interests arising from the daily struggle hinder the recognition of the class position. We stood upon the correct basis of continuing the education of the workers inside and outside their unions so that the Socialist political and economic organisations may be built up that will accomplish their emancipation.

Allen in his closing speech said the railway strike in Italy was a not a general strike, nor were the men revolutionists, so that what happened there did not disprove his case. If, as Fitzgerald maintained, the capitalists controlled all these stores, how were you going to vote them out? The statement that the political organisation was not concerned with the petty details of the workers affairs showed the error of the position of the S.P.G.B. Such a party degenerated into a side show of word spinners and logic choppers and will inevitably be split into fragments as it was doing now. All the world over Industrial Unionism was growing with Socialism. You must have economic unity before political unity. He knew it was a longer road to organise the workers economically for their emancipation, but they were prepared to face the difficulties and were going on with the work.

The Chairman, H. Stiff (S.P.G.B.), said in closing the meeting it was the first time that revolutionary Socialism had been preached in that hall.

There was a good attendance and the literature of both parties was on sale.