Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Real Class Division (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
We’re supposed to be moving towards a more equitable society. Well how come class division is worse than ever, asks Paul Bennett

It was, the newspaper says, ‘an authoritative new study’, concluding that class divisions are worse now than fifty years ago:
“Britain is more class-ridden than in the 1950s, as children from affluent families take the lion’s share of university places and those from poorer backgrounds struggle to climb the career ladder. People born in the Fifties were more likely to escape their parents’ class than those born in the Seventies, says the report, which compares parents’ and children’s incomes over time, and finds that equality of opportunity in Britain has declined” (Observer, 16 January).
This is a fairly typical example of the way in which the word ‘class’ is often defined, in terms of ‘affluent’ versus poorer families, with people ‘escaping’ from the class of their parents by moving upwards on the social ladder. Varying access to education is often accounted for in similar terms. For instance, the Office for National Statistics noted that in 2001-2, 19 percent of children from manual social classes went on to higher education, as opposed to 50 percent of those from non-manual classes.
In a sense, class is a concept that can be defined as one likes. The British government’s Index of Social Class has a scale from routine occupations such as waiters and cleaners, through ‘lower supervisory and craft’ jobs such as butchers and bus inspectors, to higher managerial occupations such as company directors and bank managers. This is based on the factors of job security, promotion opportunities, and the ability and opportunity to work on one’s own and to make decisions about tasks. Of course, since most company directors are capitalists, they probably rank rather higher on these criteria than the average bank manager.
An analysis along such lines may convey a lot of information about society, but at the same time it hides a great deal as well. By emphasising divisions among employees it suggests that they have different interests and statuses, rather than stressing what they all have in common. It suggests that removing inequality is about people climbing upwards within this scale and so doing better than their parents, rather than overturning the whole system. The traditional division between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ also implies that there is a conflict between these two groups, with the middle class being better paid, educated and housed, often at the expense of the working class.
However, there is another way of viewing divisions within society. We can note, for instance, that members of the so-called middle class are as dependent on what their employer pays them as the so-called working class are. It may be called a salary and come in the form of a monthly cheque rather than a weekly wage packet, but its recipients still need it in order to live. From this point of view, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the population are in the same boat: employed, paid a wage, needing to work for a living, at risk of losing their job, pushed around at work, working longer hours and doing less interesting work than they would wish. They shop in the same malls and supermarkets, use the same schools, hospitals and transport systems, are subject to the same laws and government regulations. Above all, they are seen by their employers as a means of creating profit rather than as human beings with feelings and family responsibilities. As far as socialists are concerned, anyone in this situation is a member of the working class, irrespective of their educational background or the accent they speak with.
But not everybody in society belongs to the working class. A comparatively small number of people (the capitalist class) have no need to work or to sign on for unemployment benefit, for they own the means of production, the land, factories, offices and companies. Having a few shares does not put a person into this class, for owning a small number of shares (like having money in a deposit account) does not prevent you from needing to work for a living. In contrast, the capitalists receive enough income from dividends and interest and rents and inflated ‘salaries’ and bonus schemes that not only do they not have to work but their wealth is far beyond what workers can even dream of. In 2004, the top 1,000 people on the Sunday Times Rich List were worth the extraordinary total of £202.4 billion. That’s an average of £200 million each! On the average wage of £21,000 a year, it would take nearly ten thousand years to earn that much. The list includes the Duke of Westminster (worth £5 billion), Philip Green (£3.6bn), Bernie Ecclestone (£2.3bn) and James Dyson (£800 million). These are the people who have several luxury homes in different cities and can afford to stay in swanky hotels and go on expensive cruises. They are also the people who are likely to berate workers for not working hard enough, exhorting us to pull our socks up and put our backs into it.
 And where do these super-rich get their money from? It’s clearly not from the sweat of their brow, because nobody can work hard enough or long enough to be worth a million pounds, let alone several billion. As the saying has it, the rich get rich from hard work – other people’s hard work. Their wealth comes from exploiting the working class, both manual and non-manual workers, whether they toil in shop, factory, office or call centre. Of the wealth that each worker produces (each day, week and month), only a part is covered by their wages – the rest is taken by the employer, in the form of surplus value. Shell, for instance, made £9bn post-tax profit last year (that’s a 9 plus nine zeroes). This is the class division that matters, that between the exploiting capitalists and the exploited workers, not that between workers who are slightly less or more poor than others.
The solution to this situation is not for workers to strive to join the capitalist class, for even if a few individuals manage this, it still leaves the vast majority of workers exploited and subject to capitalism’s wars and pollution. To ‘escape from your class’, do not dream of becoming a capitalist. Work instead for a society in which class divisions no longer exist, just as billionaires and paupers, landlords and homeless, bombs and borders will no longer exist. This is what we call a socialist society, where the means of production belong to everyone, not to a small rich list. Where wealth is produced to meet people’s needs rather than to produce profits for a few. Where there is no social ladder but everyone has the chance to educate themselves in the best and broadest way possible and to do work which is rewarding and enjoyable, without ever defining themselves as a cleaner or a butcher, where everyone has the opportunity to relate to others as human beings rather than as cogs in an uncontrollable economic machine.
Paul Bennett

Do Social Reforms Kill Socialism? (1933)

From the September 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

The "Dole" and the Workers

"What is the effect of the dole upon the mental attitude of the workers? Does it make them more acquiescent towards capitalism"

The question hails from America. This in itself is instructive. A few years ago various prominent English labour leaders and an odd capitalist or two, like Lord Beaverbrook, were advocating the adoption of the alleged "high-wage policy" of American employers. Now the American capitalists are seriously considering the adoption of the British system of State unemployment relief known as the dole. The "high-wage policy," so far from curing unemployment, has, in America, failed to prevent its rapid and enormous growth. Goods have been produced far in excess of the ability of the workers there to buy them back with all their "high wages." We have to note there, as in England, the sharp curtailment of production, wholesale dismissal of staffs, and all the rest of the characteristic methods of the capitalists in the endeavour to weather the "crisis," including drastic wage reductions.

The system of unemployment insurance was not patented in Great Britain. It was adopted nearly a quarter of a century ago by the Government of the day and applied to a few industries on the basis of foreign experiments. A few years previously Joseph Chamberlain had initiated his campaign for Protection, "to cure unemployment." "Look at Germany!" he said. "Under Protection her industries have forged ahead until their products capture Britain's markets." The Liberals looked at Germany, beheld unemployment rampant there as elsewhere, and also observed a State insurance scheme, which they proceeded to copy. It appeared in their eyes to be a more economical and efficient method of controlling the unemployed than the system of parish relief; and, with the dislocation of the labour market following the war, even Conservative Ministers helped forward its rapid extension to the majority of industries.

The system of parish relief, inherited from the days of Queen Elizabeth 350 years ago, was designed to meet a situation long before large-scale production had brought large-scale unemployment in its train. It had definite drawbacks from the point of view of those capitalists who had to pay rates upon property in industrial areas. They sought to spread the burden over the entire master class of a national scheme. From the standpoint of the unemployed the change in practice means no more than this, that they are paid relief out of the national exchequer instead of locally, and they are periodically badgered by courts of referees instead of by boards of guardians. Under the national scheme they now have six months' respite before the badgering starts, but for this privilege they have, while in work, made compulsory contributions. Since the advent of the National Government in 1931, the "means test" has gone far to lessen any difference between the two methods of securing workers' quietude.

Without some form of relief of the destitute, whether on local or national lines, it is obvious that there would be an enormous increase in crimes against property, ranging from petty thefts to wholesale riots. This, of course, would involve a correspondingly large increase in police activity and expenditure in connection therewith. In any advanced industrial country this is the consideration which induces the master class to adopt some form of public relief in the place of haphazard "charity."

There is no evidence, however, that in the absence of the dole, or some equivalent, the workers would become revolutionary. Such a mental change implies much more than mere discontent with the extremes of poverty resulting from unemployment. In spite of the enormous increase of unemployment in America in recent years and the absence of a system of doles, we do not hear of any rapid increase in the number of Socialists there. On the contrary, the very immediate urgency of the needs of the unemployed prompts the non-Socialist majority of them to give ear to those who promise them "something now" —Roosevelt, for example. They ignore Socialist propaganda as they do when in work.

Similarly, in Britain the establishment of the dole has not altered one way or the other the essential obstacles in the way of Socialist propaganda. Just as workers in employment can be gulled into accepting the fallacy that wage reductions are necessary to enable their master to recover their "share of world trade," so the unemployed can, in large numbers, be persuaded that a reduction in their paltry benefit is necessary to "national stability and financial integrity." The election results in 1931 is eloquent of this. Vast numbers of unemployed voted for the Parties which promised to cut their unemployment pay be 10%.

On the other hand, Socialists do not barter their political support for doles or promises of other reforms. The notion that the revolution is being held up by the existence of the dole is nothing short of ridiculous. This notion found expression (in a typically confused fashion) in the general election of the Communist Party for 1929. On page 25 they declared that, "The capitalist class of this country have been compelled, as an insurance against revolution, to introduce many schemes for the amelioration of the conditions of the workers." This, notwithstanding that four pages earlier they had declared that "the struggle for reforms in the present period leads to revolution." However, the existence of the dole can hardly be blamed for the muddle-headedness of those imagine that revolution can be advanced by "struggling" for "insurances against it."

The mass of the workers, employed and unemployed, accept and support capitalism because they do not yet realise that it is based upon their own enslavement and robbery as a class.

They do not realise that wages and doles represent but a fraction of the wealth which they actually produce to-day, and which they could increase and enjoy to the fullest extent under a system based upon the common ownership of the means of living. They do not realise these things because they are slow to think; slow processes, however, have the advantage of being sure. Socialists rely upon the development of the workers' capacity to think, a development which is forced upon them by the incessant class struggle. That struggle grows more glaring and more intense with every step in industrial progress, and when the workers eventually recognise its existence as such, no dole or other reform, nor promises of reform, will cause them to deviate from the revolutionary path.

Sweeping aside the parties which depend upon this type of appeal, they will organise to establish their supremacy in society in order to refashion it in accordance with their needs.
Eric Boden

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Trotskyists in the European Parliament (2000)

From the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
Not many people know this but there are Trotskyist members sitting in the European Parliament. For the 1999 elections two Trotskyists groups in France—Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire—presented a joint list and managed to get more than 5 percent of the national vote, so entitling them to 5 seats. It is this example that has inspired the main Trotskyist groups in Britain, led by the SWP and Militant, to get together as the so-called "Socialist Alliance" in the hope of repeating this performance.
But supposing they did get elected to Parliament what would they do? The French Trotskyist MEPs can provide a clue. In order to get full parliamentary facilities they have had to join a parliamentary "group". The one they have chosen to associate themselves with is the "European United Left/Nordic Green Left" made up of "Communist" and various other left-of-Labour MEPs. Too much should not be read into this as it is essentially an arrangement to get access to meeting rooms, interpreters and funds. The French Trotskyist MEPs use some of their share of the money to produce a "bulletin des députés" (members' bulletin) in which they publish their speeches and details of their other activities.
Lenin was not an anti-parliamentarist (he wasn't wrong about everything) but was in favour of Bolsheviks getting elected to Parliament and using it as a tribune from which to get their message across to workers in the country at large. As good Leninists, this is what the French Trotskyist MEPs try to do. There is nothing wrong with this as such. It is what Socialist MPs and MEPs would try to do too, only the message would be different—very different.
Whereas Socialist MPs would emphasise that capitalism can't be reformed to work in the interest of wage and salary workers who should therefore get together to bring it to an end and replace it by a system based on common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit, the Trotskyist MEPs merely repeat the slogans demanding reforms that they shout on demonstrations and publicise in their papers.
Thus the front page headline in the May 2000 issue of their Bulletin des Députés reads: "IT'S THE BOSSES' PROFITS THAT SHOULD BE TAKEN TO CREATE JOBS". Their speeches seem to indicate that they actually believe that unemployment could be ended by doing this. Here's Chantal Canquil (of LO):
    "It is not that it's impossible to immediately end unemployment but that would require a voluntarist policy which would not hesitate to draw on the profits of the financial and industrial groups and on the personal wealth of the big shareholders."
And Arlette Laguiller herself, LO's perennial candidate for President of France, called for a mass movement
    "to force big capital to take from its profits the wherewithal to create non-precarious jobs, paid at a decent wage".
Alain Krivine, of the LCR, who has often been Laguiller's rival in French presidential elections, even outlined a detailed programme as to how capitalism and capitalists could create full employment and decent wages for everyone:
    "A reduction in working time with the obligation to take on people and without introducing flexible working practices; wages to go up in line with productivity; a tax reform harmonising upwards taxes on income from capital; a Tobin tax aimed at discouraging financial speculation; and finally the implementation of a planned programme of energy saving."
Do they really believe this nonsense about keeping capitalism and being able to force, either by legislation or by strikes and demonstrations, the capitalists to use their profits to create jobs for everyone at a decent and ever-rising wage (anyone who knows how capitalism works will know that this would provoke a massive economic crisis)? Or is it just a populist slogan to attract gullible supporters who they believe they can then lead in an assault on capitalism (in fact to replace existing mixed private/state capitalism by full state capitalism)?
Either way they are condemned as anti-socialist. If they believe this is possible, then they stand exposed as reformists, and naive and unrealistic reformists at that. If they don't believe it, then they stand exposed as dishonest and cynical demagogues perpetuating reformist illusions just to win a popular following. Perhaps Krivine and the LCR believe it and LO don't. The LCR does offer more specific reforms than LO who confine themselves to vague general slogans. On the other hand, the LCR could be the more Machiavellian (or Leninist—the same thing) since it thinks the more practical you appear the better chance you have of attracting a bigger following.
Genuine Socialist MEPs of course would not advocate such reforms or encourage such reformist illusions. They would tell it like it is: that unemployment is inevitable under capitalism and will go up and down depending on which stage of its unavoidable business cycle capitalism happens to be in and that there's nothing that can be done to stop this; that there is no such thing as a decent wage since capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage labour with wages always being less than the value added in production and appropriated by the capitalists. Having said this, we would be less than honest if we didn't concede that occasionally the Trotskyist MEPs have used their speaking time to make the same criticism of capitalism as we would, even if from the perspective of establishing full state capitalism rather than real socialism.
But what about their voting record? This is a tricky one even for Socialists as this has been a subject of controversy within our own ranks. In the early days there were members who argued that Socialist MPs shouldn't take their seats and others who advocated that they should either vote against or abstain in all votes. But the majority position, which is still our current position, was that whereas Socialist MPs shouldn't propose anything (other than Socialism) they might under certain circumstances vote for something proposed by others i.e. a measure considered by the Party to be in the interest of the working class or the socialist movement). So we can't criticise the Trotskyist MEPs for sometimes abstaining, sometimes voting against and sometimes even voting for. For the record, they have generally voted against or abstained on economic issues and have only voted for general anti-racist declarations and pro-ecology measures.
Basically, the French Trotskyist MEPs either are or have behaved as leftwing reformists and so have done nothing to further the cause of Socialism. There is no reason to suppose that Trotskyist MPs in the British House of Commons would behave any differently.
Adam Buick

Monday, September 28, 2015

Social Evolution (1969)

Book Review from the September 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Man's Rise to Civilisation as Shown by the Indians of North America, from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State by Peter Farb. Secker & Warburg, 55s.

Those whose ideas about North American Indians have been moulded by Western films and novels will find Peter Farb's book a revelation. The author takes his readers on a three-dimensional trip, north to south, east to west, and past to present, calling on all the familiar names like Cheyenne, Apache, Pawnee, Seminole, Iroquois, Eskimo, and Aztec, as well as lots of lesser-known ones. He sheds a lot of light on their customs and behaviour.

When 'white' men invaded America they met a confusing babel of languages and a multiplicity of different social organisations. They experienced varying reactions from the different groups of Indian natives. Some were warlike, others peaceful; some honoured agreements, others broke them; some were passively resistant, others fled; some were regarded as noble red men and others as ignorant savages. Some were organised under powerful chiefdoms with strong military institutions. Some were groups of families which looked to a senior member for advice which they did not necessarily have to take, and in consequence did not consider themselves bound by agreements supposedly made on their behalf. Some had well-defined social classes with a state machine to protect the interests of the the privileged class. Farb classifies these under four main headings: 1. The Band, 2. The Tribe, 3. The Chiefdom and 4. The State—the first two with sub-headings.

Farb shows that the stage of social organisation to which each Indian group had evolved determined its attitude to the white explorers and invaders, from Columbus and Cortes to the Puritan pilgrims and the westward-thrusting farmers and traders. He also explains the effects of the white man's institutions on the native organisation: how fur trading affected the communal organisation of the Indians in the Hudson Bay and Labrador areas and how the introduction of the horse and the gun affected the Plains Indians.

The book attempts to explain social evolution by cultural development and Farb understands culture to be "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Those 'other capabilities' must include technology; in fact, Farb says so later in his book when he refers to cultural reasons as "social, political, economic, and technological" ones.

To explain social organisation by cultural development is like explaining that the reason a man crosses a road is to get to the other side—it leaves us wondering why he wanted to get to the other side. For a more complete understanding of social organisation we must isolate one part of the culture, and without ignoring the other parts see how its influence is decisive in determining social development.

If we isolate the technological aspect we can see how a social group has been able to extend its control over nature by the discovery and invention of tools and processes and we shall see how this aspect is the foundation of all human activities, determining their condition and defining their limits.

Peter does not miss the technological aspect, far from it, but by failing to emphasise its fundamental importance he lessens the weight of his words. By lumping it in with what we would call 'the social superstructure' he blurs what would otherwise be an excellent definition. 

With the advantage of an additional hundred years of archaeological research behind him, Farb shrugs aside the classifications of men like Lewis Morgan and Frederick Engels as being too general to be useful. We appreciate that when people at different levels of social organisation come into contact they absorb aspects of one another's culture and this makes the pieces of the historical jig-saw more difficult to piece together.

Man's rise to civilisation has not been determined by his laws, arts, customs, religions, etc. but by his increasing inventiveness and adoption of more efficient tools, machinery and techniques of production. Although much of what Morgan, Engels, and others of their day wrote is outdated, the historical milestones they uncovered are still there to point the way. If history is to have a meaning it must reveal the motivating factor of social development so that we may gauge progress into the future.

Just as the digging stick and the rabbit snare were fundamental to the social organisation of the Shoshonean Indians, so modern methods of production are fundamental to capitalism and are the driving force towards Socialism.

Farb may be able to prove that man has not travelled the road to civilisation by a strict rotation of steps, there may have been leaps forward or steps backward, but he cannot prove that the type of social organisation of any people has not been limited by the technology of the time and place.

The latter chapters of the book deal with the recent aspirations of the Indians and the attempts at a cultural revival. These read like the story of the Maccabees and other people who have been swamped by a society at a higher level of social development. They looked for a messiah to lead them back to the good old times. But Farb's portrayal of Karl Marx as a messiah, Lenin as a prophet, and Stalin and Trotsky as disciples is amusing.
W. Waters

Obituary: Comrade Bill Waters (1970)

Obituary from the March 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to report the death of our comrade W. Waters after a short illness. 

Bill Waters was 66 and had been a member of the Party for forty years. He was a very active propagandist for Socialism. A good indoor and outdoor speaker as well as a good writer, he contributed numerous excellent articles and book reviews to the Socialist Standard, especially during the forties and fifties. He served for a short time on the editorial committee, was the secretary of the pre-war Dagenham branch and, at one time, our overseas secretary. He represented the Party in the North Paddington by-election in 1953. He was active to the end, ever ready to do a lecture or write an article (the last of which appeared in September 1969).

Our comrade Waters was a bus driver and a very active member of the Transport and General Workers Union, playing a prominent role in the big busmen's strikes of 1936 and 1955.

Bill had many interests other than politics. In his hot house he raised a variety of exotic flowers; he was a keen and skilful photographer and he had a great knowledge of London and its history, which he used in talks on the radio.

We extend our sincere sympathies to his family; we are conscious that their loss is also ours.

Plus Ca Change . . . Aristocracy, old and new (1969)

From the August 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

The French have a saying which, roughly translated, reads: "The more it changes, the more it remains the same thing". This is a very apt description of one aspect of capitalist society. It is constantly changing. Lots of things are very different from what they were even a decade ago, while if a worker of a century ago could come back to life (we're not saying he would want to, of course!) he would, at first at any rate, hardly recognise the dear old system. However, it would not be long before he realised that it really had remained the same thing: society was still divided into two classes and the minority that owned still lived on the proceeds of the exploitation of the majority that did not own. And although he would marvel at the fantastic progress over the last century (after all, when he died only that comparatively short while ago, he knew nothing of cars of planes or nuclear energy or even old-fashioned electricity), he might utter a sardonic comment or two before returning to the peace of the cemetery when he realised that the average worker still left behind him, when he kicked off, more or less the same as he did. Just his bones.

Nevertheless it is sometimes interesting to notice some of the changes which do take place within the system, while not affecting in the slightest its fundamental nature as a system of exploitation. One such change is in the relative positions of different groups of workers in the social scale. Before the war, the upper crust of the working class was generally thought to consist of such people as policemen, teachers, bank clerks and so on. (So much so, that if you met a bank clerk at the tennis club, the odds were that he would indignantly deny he was a member of the working class at all. His white collar qualified him for membership of some vague entity he would call 'middle class'. Nowadays, he would probably not quarrel with the term 'white-collared workers'. Some progress, anyway.)

Today, however, when one reads glib phrases in the papers about the 'aristocracy of labour', they seldom mean this type of worker at all. In fact, it is a complaint among policemen etc. that whereas before the war they were looked up to as the lucky ones because they had fairly secure jobs while the spectre of unemployment was always hovering around most groups of workers, nowadays they have fallen a rung or two on the ladder of jostling wage-slaves. Unemployment 'only' affects a couple of million people (including families) at present so that there is no longer a premium on security. Only the actual size of the pay packet counts now and in that sense these groups are not among the aristocrats. Who are the new aristocrats then? Well, it seems dockers are (among others of course). It seems they get the vast sum of about 30 quid a week and while there are still groups of workers, such as agricultural workers, who average less than half that princely figure, the dockers really are rich beyond the dreams of avarice. (It's true that even 30 quid is only about five or six in pre-war money but let's not quibble over details.

'Love on the Dole'
Now, I am a trusting sort of chap and would never think of doubting government figures about that 30 quid. Indeed, not all government figures are automatically false (only most of them), One recalls, for example, that Marx went out of his way to praise certain government factory inspectors whose reports he used in connection with his researches. And it happens that, having lived most of my life in an inland part of the country, I doubt if I have stumbled across many dockers. I have merely read about them as being those difficult chaps who are not satisfied with their good fortune but who on the contrary persist in holding the country to ransom and going on strike. And it seems they they don't even give a damn about 'our' balance of payment problem (which worries the rest of the working class so much) when they refuse to load the ships with those precious exports.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself early one morning in the heart of London's dockland and went into a dockers' 'caff' for breakfast. The little place was crowded with about 20 dockers and they looked anything but aristocratic. In fact, the whole scene looked very much like one from Love on the Dole, the famous pre-war play about the depression years in Lancashire. I have no wish to wring anyone's withers and I am not  saying the dockers looked quite like the pictures from Biafra, but it was impossible to resist the thought that if these were the aristocrats the word has certainly changed its meaning. Or, to put it another way, if these were aristocrats, it was Gold help the peasants.

After I had risked my life by making some corny joke about how honoured I was to breakfast with the new aristocracy, one of the blokes pulled out a crumpled wage slip showing £12 and assured me that he had not averaged more than that in take-home pay for months. It seemed, too, that his mates were in more or less the same case. They were enjoying the benefits of 'decasualisation'. One of the great reforms of recent years has meant that dockers (in return for certain concessions on their part, of course), were guaranteed a 'fallback' wage of around £12 a week in cases where they could not get work owing to the spasmodic nature of the industry. These aristocrats assured me that many of them had to live on that sort of money for many months. And how would I like to do that with the present cost of living in London? It seemed they could not even afford to throw bottles at their favourite Millwall football players because they couldn't afford the beer. But while it is good to see that workers cab still keep their sense of humour in such circumstances, it was difficult to see anything funny in the situation. Even less so a little later when I gave one of the men a lift to his dock a mile away. (When I ventured to remark en route that the general impression was that every docker had at least one car outside the door as a basic right under our 'socialist' government he merely gave me a withering 'do me a favour'.) And there I saw how the dignity of man has been rescued under the new enlightened régime since decasualisation.

A group of dockers stood waiting patiently to see if any of them were going to be privileged to be exploited that day. If they were selected, then presumably they would be able to earn the rate of £30 a week we hear so much about. If not, then not. My friend explained to me that, except where there was a sudden spate of urgent work, there would always be a number who were not wanted each day. And, as one would expect, it was usually the same ones who would be chosen. Presumably the ones with the strongest arms. And the weakest tongues. Under any exploitative system, the exploiters will be bound to want workers who are docile and not those who kick against the pricks. It may well be that the old system was even worse. Which only proves that capitalism remains capitalism and the very act of one class buying the other's labour power for the purpose of exploitation is degrading in itself, no matter whether the exploitation takes place under a (more or less) privately owned economy as in America, a so-called mixed economy like Britain's, or a wholly state-owned one like that in Russia. Reforms are merely surface tinkering. It is the thing itself that must be abolished. The act of employment is in itself a degradation.

And just to complete the picture, by one of those little ironies with which life abounds, on the same morning I read in the papers that a real aristocrat, not a peasant or a docker, called Lord Melchett, was dissatisfied with his wage as chairman of the 'socialised' (ye gods!) steel industry which the Wilson government has bestowed on a grateful working class. It seems he was only getting around £20,000 a year and he needed another £5,000 to make it pay (figures very approximate; workers shouldn't quibble about a few thousand here or there for their masters). And a little more irony here. How did his lordship become an aristocrat and a millionaire? Answer: he inherited both from his grandfather, Alfred Mond, the founder of ICI and in his day as fierce a fighter against trade unions as any capitalist could wish for. And now the successors of the union leaders of those days are happily rewarding Mond's successor with the overlordship of their own ark of the covenant, the nationalised steel industry. It is as though they are trying to make it clear to the workers that the more it changes the more it remains the same. But when will the workers see?

One last item. My docker friend averred that the dockers' position would be a lot worse were it not for their unofficial leader "good old Jackie Dash". And of course it may well be true. The official union leaders have to try to play ball with the government, especially 'our'Labour government. So a 'communist' like dash can easily fish in troubled waters and gain credit for the Communist Party while so doing. I confess I did not even try to point out that if the Dashes had their way, then the rights of trade unions would go the same way as all democratic rights have gone in the CP's fatherland, the Soviet Union. My friend was clearly in no mood for thinking about such things. He had enough problems on hand in trying to make ends meet that day. But until the dockers, along with the rest of the working class, aristocrats and the rest alike, start thinking about Socialism, they must be resigned to accepting all the miseries that capitalism has to offer.
L. E. Weidberg

Russia and the US Face Up Once Again (1998)

Editorial from the March 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the crisis in the Gulf escalates, it is noticeable that the Russian ruling class is busy lining up behind Saddam Hussein`s Iraq. This is not because of any love affair with Saddam, but due to Russia`s transparent need to counter United States influence in the region while simultaneously exploiting divisions between the "old alliance" of the western states.

Just like the French, Russia also wants to bring Iraq back into the world economy (not least of all because Russia wants to recover its Iraqi debts). The current stand-off between the Russians and the Americans--including the recent diplomatic contact--has only served to promote the anti-Yeltsin extremes in Russian politics such as the neo-Fascist leader Zhirinovsky, currently making much noise about "solidarity with Saddam". And these are precisely the type of forces which have the largest influence on the Russian Duma.

But this is not all. The current plan to expand NATO into eastern Europe is highly antagonistic to Russian interests as it considers this to be an incursion into its traditional "sphere of influence". If this situation progresses and NATO eventually grows to include the Baltic states, a latter-day cold war scenario is again on the cards. The recent rapprochement between the Russian and Chinese ruling classes has demonstrated that Russia`s possible membership of the World Trade Organisation (with millions of dollars of aid) and Yeltsin`s observer status at the G7 meetings will not placate a wary Russian ruling class.

Given all this it is no wonder that Boris Yeltsin has indicated that a further demonstration of US firepower in the Gulf could be the precursor to a "third world war". Russia may not be the superpower it once was, but in this apparent phase of each nation state against all, the outlook of its ruling class faced with threats from another imperialist force demands attention from the working class. For the working class have been led sleep-walking into wars before--they should not, and cannot, let it happen again.

Branch News (1963)

From the February 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Despite the extreme wintry weather, Glasgow Branch have held five successful indoor lectures, this really reflects on the consistent work done by all the members. Fourteen members attended these meetings regularly, average audience 27, collections and literature over £8. After much correspondence with the Bellshill Constituency Labour Party, the Branch is optimistic that agreeable terms can be arranged for a debate sometime in February. The "advance guard" has already started the literature sales drive in North Kelvin in anticipation of the election (local) in May. It is hoped that the Cosmo cinema can be booked for the May Day Rally. There is no doubt that over the Border our Comrades are really consistently working hard for the Party in its work to spread Socialist propaganda.

We are happy to report that on the occasion of our comrade Lawrence's visit to his father in Vienna he met many friends and comrades of the Party and in order to mark the occasion they sent a contribution of £6 to the Party in London. We should like to thank our comrades in Vienna—R. Pechinger, Franz Klas, E. Schuster, Fran Draschinsky and R. Frank for the generous thought and we assure them that their contribution will be used in the best possible manner. We should also like to congratulate them on the work they are doing under quite difficult conditions.

It is with regret that we learn of the death of Fred Clarke of Burton-on-Trent, brother of Charley Clarke who died recently. We extend our sincere sympathy to his brother, J. Clarke who will, we know, continue his good work for the cause of Socialism.

Branches have planned well ahead for propaganda meetings, and 1963 should prove even more successful than last year, when provincial and London branches held regular series of indoor and outdoor propaganda meetings.

Ealing Branch continued its winter programme of films and lectures with two film shows during January. Attendance was good considering the weather. There was also a good response from branch members to Paddington branch's invitation to their lecture on the Common Market at which Comrade Hardy was the speaker. This was the first of the inter-Branch meetings, arranged jointly between Paddington, Bloomsbury and Ealing, and it was very successful.

Members are asked to make special note of the two lectures being held this month—on the 8th and 22nd—at 8 p.m. prompt.

Note. The Socialist Standard is regularly on sale at A. Rowe's newsagents shop at 30 High Street, Woolwich, S.E.18.

Will the following members please contact the Central Branch Secretary as soon as possible as correspondence sent to them has been returned by the post office—S. Killingbeck (Leamington), A. Thomas (Botley, Oxford), A. W. Kent (Aylesbury).
Phyllis Howard

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Thirty Years War (1962)

Book Review from the February 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood, Pelican Books, 5s.

The Thirty Years War was in fact a series of conflicts lasting from 1618 to 1648, which devastated vast areas of Germany. Fought with a savagery that has seldom been equalled even in this bloody 20th century, the war has held the imagination of succeeding generations, whilst other and vaster conflicts have sometimes been forgotten.

Primarily a war between the States that comprised the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire, it was part of a greater conflict between the developing nations of Europe—and it involved most of the Continent and spilled over into the New World. Spain and France, England and Holland, Sweden and Russia, the permutations were endless, but the result was always the same—misery for the mass of the people.

Germany was then the main highway of Europe. As the author states:
Germany was a network of roads knotted together at intersections by the great clearing-houses at Frankfort on the Main, Frankfort on the Oder, Leipzig, Nuremburg, Augsburg. West Indian sugar reached Europe from the refineries of Hamburg, Russian furs from Leipzig, salt fish from Lübeck, oriental silk and spices from Venice through Augsburg, copper, salt, iron sandstone, corn were carried down the Elbe and Oder, Spanish and English wool woven in Germany competed with Spanish and English cloth in the European market, and the wood that built the Armada was shipped from Danzig.
The cities of Germany were more thickly spread than those in any other area of Europe. Rich, a tempting prize to neighbouring ruling classes, its semi-independent states and free cities were loosely held together in the largely unworkable Empire. In the North, along the shores of the Baltic stretched the wealthy trading cities of the Hanseatic League. Once powerful and feared by their competitors, they were in decline as the opening up of the New World swung the centre of trade to the Atlantic seaboard. Sweden, Holland and Denmark better placed geographically, fought a cut-throat battle to capture this trade.

The Holy Roman Emperor was elected to office by an Electoral College consisting of seven Princes and Cardinals, and was usually a powerful landowner with vast possessions outside the Empire. It was with private troops from these possessions that he imposed what authority he could on the states within the Empire. For over a century the Imperial office had been held by members of the Hapsburg family. Their capital at Vienna was to become the centre of the Austrian Empire which dominated Central Europe centuries later.

The Reformation had split the Empire, and an uneasy settlement in the year 1555 had given to each state the religion of its ruling house. Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists each persecuted the dissenting elements within their borders, Surrounded by powerful and grasping neighbours, and lacking a strong central government, Germany went into an economic decline.
Meanwhile German credit declined and dangerous speculation led to the collapse of one great banking house after another. The firm of Manlich of Augsburg failed as early as 1573, that of Haug a year later; the larger business of the Welsers collapsed in 1614 and the world-famed family of Fugger itself could not work out the storm but went into liquidation shortly after.
To the west Spain and Holland, who had been locked in a struggle since 1572, had signed a truce that was nearing its end. Both were manoeuvering for positions from which they could renew the conflict. France was beginning to challenge the power of Spain, and across the channel a newly united Britain was on the brink of the great surge forward that was to make it the dominant capitalist power. In the south-east the Ottoman Empire was pushing on to the gates of Vienna itself. Sweden to the north, with its ultra-modern and fanatical army, looked into Germany and Russia for room to expand. This was the explosive situation in Europe when in 1618 the "key" state of Bohemia rose in revolt against the Emperor and blew the lid off the witches' cauldron.

The Thirty Years War was first published in 1938, when Germany occupied the same position in the popular mind that Russia holds today. In some ways the book reflects the attitudes of that period. Miss Wedgwood traces, with admirable clarity, the progress of a conflict as complicated in its intrigues as it was sickening in its brutality. The war at its very beginning assumed an international character, when Spanish troops moved up to support the Imperial Forces, and a large mercenary army from Turin arrived to back up the hard-pressed Bohemians. In turn, France, Denmark and Sweden entered the struggle, and Germany became the battlefield and training ground of foreign armies—a picture so familiar to us in the 20th century.

The author tells us a lot about human suffering, which was indeed appalling. To the usual horrors of war, the murder, torture and rape of civilian populations as ruffianly mercenaries and the fanatical troops of Sweden and Spain fought over the land, was added a new horror—that of systematic pillage. Armies lived off the land for years. As one area was reduced to a desert, they moved on to new territory. No attempt was made to provision armies and the most successful general was the one who could organise pillage most effectively.

The crowning horror was the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. This rich trading city on the Elbe fell to Tilly's half-crazed soldiery. Its inhabitants were butchered without mercy, and fire reduced the town to a blackened ruin. Whether this was a deliberate act of terror by the Catholic authorities or the action of troops out of control has long been debated. But design or accident, the result was the same to the wretched inhabitants. The news of the outrage inflamed the Protestant world to further acts of counter-violence. Years afterwards, Imperial prisoners asking for quarter were shot down with the cry of "Magdeburg quarter."

This is a book that can be read with profit by all who wish to increase their knowledge of the world in which Modern Europe, the Europe of capitalism arose.
Les Dale 

Tenners for fivers (1990)

From the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

The privatisation of the water industry has seen "tens of thousands" of individual buyers cashing in by selling their shares at the first opportunity. This merely repeats what has happened in every previous privitisation. When British Gas was sold off in 1986 there were 4.2 million shareholders. That figure is now 2.6 million. Of the original 650,000 who bought British Steel shares in 1988 only 400,000 remained six months later. British Airways can boast the most spectacular fall—from 1.2 million shareholders down to just 420,000 in only months. And it's the same story with British Telecom, TSB, Jaguar and the others.
Research shows that between one quarter and one third of all investors in previous privitisation issue have pulled out within the first six weeks. (Guardian, 20 December, 1989.)
Why, then, do these sellers buy shares in the first place? Simply to make some easy money. After all, the government is so anxious to make sure that each flotation doesn't flop that it sells the shares well below market value and this has been well described as "selling tenners for fivers". Indeed, buying shares in privatised industries is such a sure money maker that people withdraw savings from building societies and even borrow to buy the shares, and this, more than any belief in the "enterprise culture", is what accounts for the growth in share buying.

Of course the government has other reasons for selling privatised industries cheaply. One is the genuine desire to get government out of business. Another is to raise cash to give away in tax cuts before general elections, but the most important is the wish to create "popular capitalism" in which a shareholding population will identify with capitalism and, especially when they have shares in the company they work for, never go on strike for higher pay in case this harms their dividends. This dotty idea ignores the fact the workers depend primarily for their living in their wages and salaries which far outweigh any puny dividends they may get. Anyway, owning shares in the company which employs them didn't stop workers in British Telecom and Jaguar from striking for higher pay.

The myth of "a nation of shareholders" isn't new. Back in the mid 1800s The Economist claimed: "Everybody is in stocks now. Needy clerks, poor tradesmen's apprentices, discharged serving men and bankrupts—all have entered the ranks of the great moneyed interests." This drivel is quoted by Colin Chapman in his excellent book, How the Stock Exchange Works. And during the boom in the American stock market in the 1920s which led to the Wall Street crash the popular the popular notion was that everyone, from housewives to waiters, was "in the market". J. K. Galbraith exposed this nonsense in his book, The Great Crash 1929:
Then as now, to the great majority of workers, farmers, white-collar workers, indeed to the great majority of all Americans, the stock market . . . was in every respect as remote from life as the casino at Monte Carlo.
Supporters of popular capitalism argue that buying shares could become a national pastime if it were made easier by having American-style "share shops" in every high street much as there are betting shops now, but these share shops haven't stopped the decline of individual share owning in America.

Can Britain ever become a nation of small investors? First of all, dealers in the City don't want it because it produces a vast increase in unprofitable, small transactions and try to discourage the small fry by charging them double commission on deals. meanwhile the dealers have halved charges for the big institutional investors which own two thirds of all company shares. However, the main obstacle is that most people couldn't buy shares even if they wanted to. Peter Morris of MORI, the research and opinion poll agency, confirms that at least half the public are excluded from buying because they have no cash (Colin Chapman).

Of course there will be more privitisations in the future and if the government continues to sell the shares cheaply then many of those who buy will take the money and run but, like every other scheme for soothing working class discontent within capitalism and eliminating the class struggle, it hasn't got a hope.
Vic Vanni

What We Mean By Revolution (1927)

Editorial from the April 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we say that Socialism means revolution and that we are revolutionaries, experience leads us to expect that we shall be misunderstood unless we take care to make our meaning plain. On the one side it will be assumed that we are advocating violence and anti-democratic methods, and on the other side, as we are frequently told by those who do advocate these things, our refusal to do the same stamps us as non-revolutionary. What then do we mean by revolution?

Our aim is to abolish working-class poverty and subjection to the owners of the means of living. We see that the workers are poor as a class because as a class they do not own the machinery of wealth production and distribution. Those who live by owning are living at our expense, and are effectively hindering the most economical use and development of the productive forces. Nothing will serve to secure the desired end, except the abolition of the private ownership of these instruments. But private property is the corner-stone of the existing laws and the very foundation of capitalist society. So that, in order to abolish private ownership, we, the workers, must obtain control of society. Revolution consists in using the power we shall then possess, for the purpose of destroying the present property rights and refashioning society on the basis of common ownership. As our aim, Socialism, can be accomplished only by this revolutionary change, we are revolutionaries and our method is revolution.

It will be observed that no mention has been made of the use of violence. We need to control society but we believe that this can be done through the existing political machinery. We believe that the working class can, when they so desire, use constitutional methods to make themselves masters of the situation, and can use their power for the purpose of instituting socialism just as easily as they use it at present for the purpose of returning the Conservative or the Labour Party, whose only difference is an inability to agree as to the best method of administering capitalism. The workers are the overwhelming majority of the electors and can, when they wish, use their votes for Socialism.

We do not intend to use violent methods because under existing conditions in this country they would not help us to obtain socialism. The presence or absence of rioting and bloodshed is merely incidental. A revolutionary end, that is, the displacement of a ruling class, may take place in an orderly fashion, but it is none the less revolutionary for that. The Socialist differs from the supporter of the Labour Party in this respect that the latter seeks to gain control of the political machinery for non-revolutionary purposes, while we are aiming at gaining control in an equally constitutional way, but for a fundamentally different object.

And just as revolution may be free any show of violence, so violence may frequently does occur where is no revolutionary object being sought and resisted.

The pre-war suffrage agitation was marked by the completest disregard for laws and property rights, but its aim was in no sense revolutionary. Strikes and lock-outs are often accompanied by conflicts with the police and even with the armed forces, without there ever being at issue more than some trifling question of wages or hours which could be settled by the employers entirely giving way, without in the least endangering their position as a privileged class.

We avoid these things deliberately, not only because they are chiefly a source of danger to those who practice them, but also because they would mislead the workers and obscure our larger aim. If we preach violence we should first have to devote time to explaining that violence cannot gain power for a minority and a majority can gain power without it. Secondly, we would be allowing our opponents the opportunity of side-tracking the main issue. If we advocated unconstitutional methods our energies would be taken up in debating the issue of constitutionalism, whereas we want to preach Socialism.

The Socialist Movement to-day is weak for one reason only, that is because of the small number of Socialists. There is no lack of believers in violence and opponents of it and no lack of friends and enemies of constitutionalism. If we added unnecessary confusion to the Socialist case by delving into these other less-important controversial questions, we might add to the numbers of muddled hangers-on to the fringes of the Socialist Movement, but that is not our aim. How true this is can be seen from the recent experiences of the Communist Party. Forgetting that their prime object should have been the  furtherance of Communist propaganda, their energies have been absorbed in fruitless endeavours to combat the misrepresentation to which they were subjected immediately they associated themselves with illegal and anti-constitutionalist activities. Had they stuck to the essentials of their case they could have argued it on its merits. As it is, their case has almost disappeared under a mass of almost irrelevant charge and counter-charge relating to side issues.

Everyone has heard of the Communist Party through the capitalist press, but hardly anyone now knows what the party really stands for. It is opposed by people who learn what Communism is from the Daily Mail, and it is supported by others who are not much better informed on the points that really matter.

We then are revolutionaries because Socialism involves a revolutionary transformation. Violence cannot assist us, and we therefore reject violence.

The great need of the moment is more Socialists. Socialist can be won only by the steady propagation of Socialist knowledge. This is dull, plodding work, but it is the only way. In carrying on that work in spite of all temptation to aim at cheap and fleeting popularity , we are performing a task which is an indispensable prelude to revolutionary action.

May Day Reverie (1956)

A Short Story from the May 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

An old man sat watching the fire burn away. His scarred features and heaving chest marked him as one of many to be found in the coal-field—men who had sold their strength and virility whilst it lasted and now, having nothing to sell, were on their way out.

Another May Day was passing—quietly—almost unnoticed except for old timers' like Evan Hughes. May Day was, after all, the traditional day of rejoicing, bringing once more the promise of warmth, plenty and a new life to the peasant folk of early times and Evan was a descendent of such people. Over a century ago they had come flocking into the valleys with the soil of the fields clinging to their trousers. Freed from the shackles of the Squire and Landlord, they took upon themselves, willingly, the fetters of their new masters the Coal Owners. Even had grown up in the valley. He had seen the coal barons, like the feudal lords of an earlier age, push out their frontiers; the lengthening grey ribbons of industrial barracks that served as houses; the black pyramids of slag that grew higher as the newly formed conscripts of Capital hewed their way into the virgin coal seams.

The valleys were a hard training ground, and it is not surprising that hard, tough men emerged. Yet, with it all, gentleness and kindness prevailed everywhere and the periods of distress and suffering were shared in common. It is little wonder that from these valleys poured men who were masters in the world's boxing rings, whose oratory from platform and pulpit thrilled the nation; whose singing lifted the heart. Yes, there were giants in the old times. Men there were who had led their comrades in fight after fight for "a living wage," "work or maintenance," and a hundred and one things that Evan had now forgotten and his grandchildren had never heard of. It had all passed, and now, May Day was fading with the light. The clock ticked on relentlessly in a silence broken only by a cinder falling from the burnt-out fire. The old man in the chair seemed to portray the futility of it all.

Evan, and those like him, are passing away. What can we say for them? That they were sincere fighters for a better world there can be no doubt. We charge them with no crime. They were, after all, the victims in a tragedy—unaware of the nature of the society they sought to better. They were often caught in the moment of the grand oration, duped by the opportunist slogan. Responsive with a dog-like devotion to their leaders whom they sent to Parliament, where in time they achieved the cherished but empty dream of Nationalization. And now?

The story continues, though Evan is no longer interested. The ranks of the "old contemptibles" are rapidly thinning, leaving the present generation to carry on the struggle for the life that is as far away as ever. There are today no shortages of leaders, the slogans continue to pour out, the orations are to hand for the occasion. The workers in the valleys and everywhere else on May Day, 1956, still find themselves spinning around the fulcrum of Capitalism, dancing to the latest tune their masters care to play. Is it any wonder they are dizzy?
W. Brain

Out of Step With the Left and Right (2012)

From the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Americas political landscape is drearier now that two cantankerous radicals are gone.

Late July saw the deaths of Alexander Cockburn (b. 1941), a radical muckraking journalist, and Gore Vidal (b. 1925), historical novelist, essayist, playwright, and two-time political candidate. Each was something of a one-man political tendency –viewing himself as of the Left, as it’s called, but willing to question leftist assumptions and engage with those inhabiting that other imaginary political zone, the Right.

To the purebred liberal or conservative, with feet planted squarely on the either bank of the Mainstream, the politics of Cockburn and of Vidal could seem irresponsible, irrelevant, or just irritating. Loyal Democrats never forgave either man for supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election.

The liberal magazine American Prospect still nurses that wound; its editor Harold Meyerson bluntly titled his Cockburn obituary, “The Man Who Hated Liberals,” writing that, “contempt for liberals and social democrats was a hallmark of Cockburn’s work . . . it informed, if that’s the word, [his] attacks on Al Gore and his paeans to Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign.”

The (more or less) liberal New Republic gave Vidal an even rougher going-over in its obituary, “Where Have All Our Racist Aristocrats Gone?” –and reminded readers of old Vidal feuds related to his criticism of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians; a position he shared with Cockburn, and which earned them the label of “anti-Semite.”

Conservative magazines were not especially sad to see them go, either; The Weekly Standard, begins its obituary of Vidal with guns ablaze: “The most puzzling thing about the career of Gore Vidal, who went toes-up last week at 86, was the reverence in which he was held by people who might have known better.”

Yet there were also those on the Right who were fond of Vidal or Cockburn: some liked how they regularly laid into liberals, while a few thought that behind the radicalism was a true conservative yearning to breathe free. “Libertarians” (anarcho-capitalists), in particular, viewed Vidal and Cockburn as kindred souls. Justin Raimondo, founder of the libertarian website,, praised Vidal as the “last Jeffersonian”. And he questioned the use of the term, “radical leftist” in obituaries of Cockburn (who was briefly an columnist): “He was radical, all right, but as for the ‘leftist’–I have my doubts”; describing him instead as “a paleo-radical who had survived long enough to be considered a reactionary.”

The obituaries of Vidal and Cockburn written by the “radical leftists” themselves were full of praise and a few criticisms. The International Socialist Organization hailed Vidal as an “uncompromising critic of America’s rulers” on its website (, while noting that his “politics were not without their flaws.” The same organization praised Cockburn as a “modern-day muckraker” who “never stopped speaking truth to power,” but proceeded to list a number of “points where we . . . disagreed with him, sometimes very sharply.” Indeed, Cockburn deviated sharply from the radical Left a final time just weeks before his own death when he pronounced the Occupy movement dead of its own incoherence.

This talent Vidal and Cockburn had for winning friends and enemies across the Left and Right divide struck many as contrarianism in the style of Christopher Hitchens, their erstwhile comrade. But their politics were more radical and coherent than Hitchens’s ever were, even in his lefty prime, and their apparent “contrarianism” was more a result of sticking to their guns than seeking attention for its own sake (although both relished a good fight).
The populist and the radical
Vidal and Cockburn were not political clones by any means. A difference between them in background and generation clearly affected their politics. Vidal’s starting point was the Democratic Party at the tail-end of the New Deal, while Cockburn came out of the radicalism of the 1960s. One noteworthy similarity is that the politics and personal ambitions of each were strongly influenced by a close family member.

For Gore Vidal, the influential figure was his grandfather Thomas Gore, a Democratic Party senator for the state of Oklahoma (1907–21; 1931–37). As a child, Vidal spent countless hours reading to his blind grandfather from weighty tomes on bimetallism and constitutional history or from The Congressional Record. Through this political education Vidal assimilated the political outlook of Senator Gore, which had been shaped by his participation in the short-lived People’s Party (‘Populist’) movement of the 1890s. This had arisen out of southern farmers’ anger against the power of northern railway monopolies and banks. Even after joining other Populists in ‘fusing’ with the Democratic Party, Gore continued to oppose banking and railroad interests, and he voted against the party leadership at crucial times (to his own political detriment): he opposed Woodrow Wilson’s call for involvement in World War I and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. On top of this, he was an unabashed atheist. But whether Thomas Gore belongs on the Left or Right is anyone’s guess. The senator’s fiscal conservatism would win cheers from today’s Tea Partiers, certainly, but his blaspheming the Holy Trinity (war, banks, and God) would sound like ‘commie-talk’ to the ears of the Republican and Democratic faithful.
By the late 1940s, when Gore Vidal gained fame as a novelist, there were not many populists in the mould of Thomas Gore left in the Democratic Party. But Vidal remained a Democrat, even running for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1960 (on a platform of taxing the rich) and in a Senate primary in 1982. Vidal did not simply inherit his grandfather’s beliefs: he was no foe of the welfare state, as was clear from his campaigns. Yet the general influence of the old Populist politics is unmistakable. And in interviews Vidal often described his politics as Populist, bewildering anyone who knew his patrician ways better than his politics.
In the early 1970s, Vidal co-chaired the anti-war ‘People’s Party’ coalition, and was already saying around the time that, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” In subsequent years, Vidal in his political activity and writing was consistently opposed to American militarism and empire-building. The gradual transformation of the United States from a “republic into an empire,” as Vidal puts it (as do libertarians), was the central theme of his Narratives of Empire series of historical novels, for which he is best known as a writer.
For Alexander Cockburn, the influential family member was his father, Claud, a radical journalist who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and stayed with that outfit until 1947. At the time of Alexander’s birth, Claud was editing a muckraking newsletter called The Week, described by Graham Greene as the intellectual inspiration for Private Eye, which Cockburn also edited, in the 1960s.
Cockburn idolized and modeled himself after his father, whom he called the “greatest radical journalist of his age”; this influence determined his decision to enter journalism. In the 1960s, Cockburn worked for the New Statesmen and other publications in London, where he was also on the editorial board of New Left Review.  In 1972 he moved to the United States, where he wrote first for the Village Voice and later for dozens of other publications, including The Nation, for which he wrote his long-running column, Beat the Devil (named after Claud Cockburn’s pulp novel of the same title). And in the 1990s, he also started to edit the muckraking newsletter (and website) CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn tended to make light of Claud’s rather long time spent in a Communist Party, usually by recounting one of the humorous anecdotes his father had told him of that experience. He recalled, for instance, how his father once encountered a jargon-riddled passage in the Daily Worker: “The lower organs of the Party must make even greater efforts to penetrate the more backward parts of the proletariat,”and worried it “would be construed by the masses as a dirty joke.” Such anecdotes seemed intended to underscore how Claud was a most unorthodox Communist –and, of course, to get a laugh.
But the joke falls a bit flat when we see how the dead weight of dear old Dad’s “Old Left” dogma held Alexander back, at times. For all his exposure to Sixties radicalism, there was a soft spot in Cockburn’s heart for Communists and he quoted Lenin enthusiastically right up to the end. Worst of all, he mistook some of the state-capitalist countries for post-capitalist ones, an assumption that was fatal to his ability to understand the meaning of socialism. Cockburn’s criticism of the Occupy movement just before he died applies equally to his own reform-focused politics:
“There also seemed to be a serious level of political naivety about the shape of the society they were seeking to change. They definitely thought that it could be reshaped –the notion that the whole system was unfixable did not get much of a hearing.”
And often the twain shall meet
Despite their different political backgrounds, there are key positions that Cockburn and Vidal held in common. First, both opposed US militarism and its wars around the globe. They also denounced the erosion of civil liberties and authoritarian abuses of the state. The third principle that animated their politics was an opposition to ‘corporate power’ –particularly the power of large banks.
All three of these positions would seem to merit the Leftist label for them, but a second thought (and the memory of Senator Gore!) might even raise some doubts on this score.
Anti-war would seem a Lefty view, certainly, but the ‘isolationists’ were associated with the Right. And in the eyes of Leftists, there have always been good and bad wars. Opposing corporations would seem a sure mark in the Left column, again. But the old Populist’s opposition to banking and railroad giants reflected the interests of agricultural capital. And today as well, opposing big business can be the ideology of the small-fry capitalist struggling to become a big shot. Even in the case of civil liberties, one could point to how Leftists often lead the charge against ‘hate speech’ and call on the state to limit the expression of ‘dangerous ideas.’
The dividing line between Left and Right on a specific issue seems clear at a given time, but it is always shifting over time, revealing the essential meaningless of the two categories. None of that seems to matter much to reformist activists on both sides who judge your politics according to what positions are taken on the ‘hot-button’ issues of today, adding up the checks in the Left and Right columns to calculate your political score.
The positions Vidal and Cockburn took on some of the issues of the day certainly had Leftists scratching their heads in confusion, or their chins in suspicion.
One example was their indifference (but not outright opposition) to gay marriage, which both found a boring issue. Vidal’s position came as a surprise to many, for he was an open “homosexualist” (with prickly precision he thought the term ‘homosexual’ should only describe the act and not define the person), had fought against homophobia long before it was a popular cause and lived for decades with his partner Howard Austen. The reasons Vidal and Cockburn gave for their position were the exact opposite of the right-wing view that gay marriage “threatened the sanctity of marriage.” Vidal quipped that “heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why would anyone want to imitate it?” And Cockburn said it would make more sense to “figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony,” while ridiculing the Right’s notion gay marriage would, “bring the whole edifice of Western civilization crashing down.”Even though their position on gay marriage is glibly expressed, and its practical consequences for individuals are dubious, it was nonetheless based on a radical view of marriage (in general) as a reactionary institution.
Another jaw-dropper for Leftists was Cockburn’s position on global warming, namely his belief that, “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.” This is of course a scientific issue, not a narrow political one and must be judged on scientific grounds. But however cranky his science, Cockburn’s political reasoning on the issue is, again, that of a radical. He described the “turn to climate catastrophism” as “tied to the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme” and its belief that the “emergency response [to a catastrophe] will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice”; whereas Cockburn believed “environmental catastrophism will - in fact it already has - play into the hands of the sinister-as-always corporate interests.”
Even at their cantankerous worst, which was when their wit was often best, Vidal and Cockburn held positions that were arrived at through independent thought. But in reformist politics the reasons a person gives for a position matters less than the political company he or she seems to keep in holding it.
Not radical enough?
Why is a question the media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful.”(Gore Vidal)

The willingness to ask that question, even when it might lead in an uncomfortable direction, brought Vidal and Cockburn into conflict with Leftists, not to mention liberals and conservatives. That is not to imply that they always arrived at a convincing answer. (Vidal in particular was far too willing to flirt with conspiracy theories during his last decade.) In posing dangerous questions, though, they shook many out of their complacency; in their writings, one senses an independent, probing mind in action.
Yet despite this fearless questioning of assumptions, I don’t think either asked enough (or good enough) “why questions.” Even when they grasped why something had happened, they did not necessarily “become thoughtful”enough to recognize why similar somethings kept happening, over and over. Not why this or that war occurred, for example, but why war itself continually springs from the soil of capitalism, or why economic crises reoccur ever few years. Instead, they were too prone, as they tirelessly raked through the muck of American society, to pin the blame on rotten individuals or a public too apathetic to stop them.
By not asking the second, third, or fourth “why” question”so as to dig down to the root of a problem, Vidal and Cockburn were not as radical, in the literal sense of the word, as they should have been; they remained reformists who only sought to reshape capitalism. Vidal and Cockburn could have learned useful things from genuine socialists about questioning their own political and social assumptions.
But socialists have much to learn from Vidal and Cockburn, too. Their way of expressing unpopular or controversial ideas with verve and confidence is worth emulating; as is their ability to write in jargon-free English for a wide audience without spoon-feeding the content or sacrificing wit; and having skin thick enough to weather criticism, and a pen sharp enough to pierce it. All of these qualities are useful to ‘contrarians’ propagating the still unpopular idea that capitalism must be replaced by a new form of society.
Michael Schauerte