Monday, January 5, 2015

Backwaters of History - 2 (1953)

From the October 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Babeuf Conspiracy

The prisoners were working feverishly at their tasks on the walls of their prison. The escape had to be made that night or it would be too late. The plans for escape had been well made. The guards had been won over, tools had been smuggled to the prisoners, and their friends outside would be waiting this night with horses to carry them away to some place of safe hiding. There were only a few hours left.

If they could not escape that night they were doomed. Their trial, which had lasted for weeks, would end the next day and none of them were in doubt of the verdict. It would be death for some and, at least, transportation and imprisonment in some penal colony for the remainder. During their trial they had made little effort to defend themselves. Instead, they had used the courtroom as a forum to expound their political views and publicise their activities. Now, it was at an end and this planned escape was their only hope.

They were accused of an attempt to overthrow the government by armed force. To make their present troubles worse, their attempt had almost succeeded and the government was now taking no chances. In fact, a number of the government's political opponents had been arrested and thrown into prison with the insurrectionaries even though they knew nothing of the attempted insurrection, merely because it was a convenient opportunity to get rid of them.

The year was 1796. The revolutionary fervour that had swept France during the past few years was petering out. The wealthier section of the new French capitalist class was in the saddle and was tightening its grip on the reins. In all revolutions where the wealthy capitalists struggle against the feudal aristocracy they rely for support upon their less wealthy capitalist friends and the peasants and workers. They hide their own political objectives and pay lip service to the political and economic aspirations of their supporters. In the early stages of the struggle all these elements are united, but as soon as the feudal opponents are subdued each element strives to achieve its own separate ambitions. The capitalists join hands and use their newly won political power to wipe out any organisations that the peasants or the workers may have created. Thus they stabilise the revolution by checking any tendency to carry it to limits dangerous to themselves.

That was the position in France in 1795. A number of active revolutionaries who voiced the ideas of some of the workers had formed an organisation known as the "Equals." Francois Noel Babeuf, who later called himself Gracchus Babeuf, was the prime motivator in this organisation. During the revolutionary period he had thrown away his comfortable livelihood and reduced his family to poverty in his enthusiasm for his cause. He had published a paper called "The Tribune of the People" mainly at his own expense, and, through its columns, had not hesitated to violently attack most of the leading men of the revolution. Danton, Robespierre and Hebert had experienced the venom of his pen.

Babeuf, Germain, Darthe, Antonelle, Buonarroti, Didier, Massart and others met at the "Pantheon" on the working class quarter of Paris and became known as the Society of Pantheon. The society grew in numbers until the government became alarmed and closed the meeting place and dissolved the society.

Babeuf and his friends then set about building a secret organisation to prepare an insurrection. Their object was mainly communistic. They claimed that political freedom was useless without economic freedom and that could only be achieved by the wealth of the community, in particular the land, being held in common by all the people. They published much literature, most of it written by Babeuf. In the "Manifesto of the Equals," "Analysis of the Doctrines of Babeuf," "An Opinion on our Two Constitutions,: "Triumph of the French People against its Oppressors," "Address of the Tribune to the Army," and other broadsheets, they set out in detail their insurrectionary objectives and their plans for the future society.

In those days the idea of social evolution was little known. Social organisation was conceived to be the result of a contract between the members of society. If the existing contract was unsatisfactory it became necessary to devise a new one.

The plans for insurrection went ahead at full steam. Darthe and Germain were Babeuf's right hand men. They introduced to the secret society a certain George Grisel who was an army captain stationed at the camp at Grenelle near paris. Grisel was given the task of winning over the troops at his camp. Germain secured the allegiance of the legion of police and other military sections became attached to the insurrectionary movement.

Seventeen thousand men, all experienced fighting men, were eventually enrolled and Grisel ensured the support of the troops at Grenelle. In addition the workers of Paris were expected to rise as soon as the insurrection was under way. Men from the provinces joined and a few members of the government flirted with the movement. Supporters were attracted by the claim that the constitution instituted by the Robespierre government in 1793 and since discarded, was to be re-introduced.

All was ready. The organisation was well prepared. Officers and generals were appointed and detailed plans were prepared. Everyone waited. The leaders hesitated. Then came catastrophe. George Grisel proved to be a government agent who was passing on all the detailed information to his employers. The troops at Grenelle were not recruited to the movement and the government struck at the eleventh hour by arresting all the leaders.

A feeble attempt to get the insurrection going without the leaders was soon suppressed and afforded the government the excuse for hunting down all those suspected of revolutionary sympathies in Paris and its environs, and many executions took place.

The leaders were imprisoned at the Abbaye and Temple prisons and later taken in cages like wild beasts to the town of Vendôme where they were to be tried.

Then, with their trial almost over, came the plan for escape. The digging and scraping was finished; a breach was made in the prison walls and they were ready to make their get-away. Someone had been careless in hiding the evidence of their work on the prison walls. The authorities became suspicious and the attempt to escape was thwarted.

So, the prisoners entered the court room to face the tribunal for the last time. The court was crowded with sad sympathisers of the prisoners. Even the foreman of the jury was sentimentally affected. Fifty-six of the accused were acquitted, five were condemned to the island fortress of Pelée, and Babeuf and Darthe were condemned to death. As soon as the verdict was announced Babeuf and Darthe attempted to commit suicide by stabbing themselves with improvised daggers made in prison. They were seized and only succeeded in wounding themselves. The next day they went manfully to the guillotine and their beheaded bodies were thrown by the executioner into the sewer.

Thus ended one of the first attempts by the workers to give expression to their class interests. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, referring to Babeuf and his movement had this to say:
"The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone. The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form."
(Communist Manifesto, S.P.G.B. Edition, page 88.)

Books for students: -
"The Last Episode of the French Revolution," by Ernest Belfort Bax.
"The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels," by D. Ryazanoff.
"Ten Essays on the French Revolution," edited by T. A. Jackson.
"Blanqui," by Neil Stewart

One of us (1982)

From the April 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

Open Letter to Trade Unionists (1967)

From the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fellow Workers,

Trade Unionists should reject the argument that a policy of voluntary wage restraint is somehow better than one that is imposed. This is like saying that a prisoner is better off if he shoots himself in his cell, than if he is shot by a firing squad. In either case the result is the same.

This also applied to wage restraint, whether it is operated by the TUC or imposed by legal enactment. The end is the same and the politicians get what they set out to achieve at the very beginning, with the added bonus that the bulk of trade unions believe they have gained some sort of victory. Surely it is time that trade unionists, particularly those who claim to be Socialists, stopped to consider exactly where they are allowing themselves to be led.

The balance of payments crisis and the difficulties of increasing exports against foreign competition, which the official excuse for the government's wage restraint policy, is regarded as something new. The truth of the matter in that trade crises, often world wide, have been a recognisable and insoluble feature of capitalism for the past hundred years and more, and will continue as long as capitalism remains. Those politicians who talk of formulating a long-term policy to "put the economy on a sound footing" are ignoring the competitive nature of capitalist society. Even of the workers of this country co-operated 100 per cent with the government's proposals for wage restraint and with all the new productive methods of the employers, it would not solve the problem. True, that in so far as it would result in a lowering of production costs it might enable more goods to be exported, but this would inevitably cause other countries to intensify their efforts to reduce their production costs lower still in order to regain their share of world trade. If they succeeded, the capitalists of this country would be faced with the same problem once again. This is the everlasting rat race of capitalism, caused by the need to find markets for wealth that is produced primarily for sale in order to realise a profit.

The problems which confront us are not caused, as some would have us believe, by the failure of trade unions to change with changing methods of production, but because society itself has not changed. In spite of all the changes that have taken place, capitalism remains basically the same; the overwhelming bulk of wealth and the means of production remain the private property of a small percentage of the population, whose sole interest in the production of wealth is to produce commodities for sale and making profit. Modern production is social in character, the wealth produced is by the common effort of the whole of society, but it is not owned in common — it remains the private property of a few. Only by bringing the ownership of the wealth produced into harmony with the mode of production, that is by changing the basis of society from private to common ownership and producing wealth for use and not for sale and profit, can the gigantic means of modern production be fully employed without causing the upheavals we are experiencing today.

Yours fraternally

J. E. Apling,
Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT).

Obituary: Jack Apling (1997)

Obituary from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jack Apling was an active member of West Ham Branch from the time he joined, in December 1939, until in the fifties when, because of concerns that living in the East End might be detrimental to the health of his children, the family moved to Harlow in Essex. He remained a member of the branch (later named East London), though his attendance was necessarily restricted, and is remembered as a quiet man, who was able to express ideas in a clear and concise manner. A bookbinder by trade, his "Open Letter to Trade Unionists" appeared in the December 1967 Socialist Standard, he signed it as a member of the Society of Graphical and Allied Workers (SOGAT).

Convinced that someone had to give the socialist analysis of current events, Jack made the most of any opportunity to do just that. Over the years he wrote countless letters to local newspapers, and his son has been told by local people that they took the papers in order to read his father's letters.

Comrades in Colchester Branch, to which he transferred when in his eighties, have gained inspiration from his determination to keep Socialism on the agenda, a commitment which was not diminished by old age or terrible illness. As recently as March, when his weight was only a little over five stones, and he could hardly push a pen across a page, he was still writing to local papers. He died on 7 July after a courageous fight against cancer. We extend sincere sympathy to his family.

Material World: The Price of Oil and Fracking (2015)

The Material World Column from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Revealing developments are going on at the moment on the world energy market. Coal has seen its price halved in the past year. The price of oil has fallen, by more than 40 percent since June, when it was $115 a barrel. It is now below $70. This comes after nearly five years of stability and some oil-producing countries want the OPEC cartel to restrict production so as to put up prices. The question being asked is why Saudi Arabia hasn’t cut back production as they have done in the past. There are, of course, a number of conspiracy theories. 
According to the Economist, curbing output to once again raise its price would benefit Iran and Russia, which Saudi Arabia does not want to happen. More likely, but not necessarily solely, the reason this is being opposed by Saudi Arabia is that it wants to keep the price low so as to discourage fracking. Saudi Arabia can tolerate lower oil prices quite easily for quite a while. It has $900 billion in reserves. Its own oil costs very little (around $5-6 per barrel) to get out of the ground. Low prices stem investment in other sources of oil, such as Canada’s tar sands or America’s shale, and this means more demand for low-cost ‘dirtier’ coal in future.
The US is producing over 3 million barrels a day more than it did several years ago. And it is fracking that is doing it. According to the Institute for Energy Research ‘Nearly every barrel of new U.S. oil production can be attributed to the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies.’
In fact, the International Energy Agency has predicted that the United States will produce more oil next year than Saudi Arabia; the US might even pass Russia, which, at ten million barrels a day, is the world’s biggest producer. The US already produces more natural gas than Russia.
Over the past four years, as the price hovered around $110 a barrel, US corporations set about extracting oil from shale formations previously considered unviable. Their manic drilling—they have completed perhaps 20,000 new wells since 2010, more than ten times Saudi Arabia’s tally—has boosted America’s oil production by a third, to nearly 9m barrels a day, just a 1m b/d short of Saudi Arabia’s output. US domestic demand has apparently plateaued so this extra production is going on to the world market.
The boss of Continental Resources, Harold Hamm (whose fortune has dropped by $11 billion since July), has said he can cope as long as the oil price is above $50. Stephen Chazen, who runs Occidental Petroleum, has said the industry is ‘not healthy’ below $70.
The pain of this competition will be borne more by those new players who wish to enter the industry as many companies in the UK seek to do. Wells that are already producing oil or gas are extraordinarily profitable, because most of the costs are sunk. But the output of shale wells declines rapidly, by 60-70 percent in their first year, so within a couple of years this oil will stop flowing. It is far less clear if the industry can profitably invest in new wells to maintain or boost production. With their revenues now dropping fast, they will find themselves overstretched. A rash of bankruptcies is likely.
Nevertheless, the global oil economy, despite the ‘green’ goals, will be around for several decades. As two green pundits note pertinently:
‘The largest companies in the energy industry have concluded that policymakers are unlikely to act quickly enough to strand their current fossil fuel assets or make it unprofitable for them to continue exploring for new reserves. The oil and gas sector, in particular, is gambling on a business-as-usual model that projects out to a roughly $14 trillion investment in new reserves by 2035. This investment would correspond to a staggering amount of wasted capital should policymakers decide that these reserves cannot be burned’ (, 9 December).
What this shows is the impossibility of a rational energy policy under capitalism as energy use under it reflects the relative prices of the various sources (coal, oil, gas, shale oil, etc) and changes as they vary. It highlights the utopianism of those environmentalists who think that shaping the market is a solution. There are just too many variables, most of them market-driven. Prices of fossil fuels collapse, demand for them then starts to rise and the market need for alternative sources such as renewables falls. But when prices for fossil fuels rise other fossil fuel sources then become profitable. Either way there is no significant reduction in the burning of fossil fuels and so no reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
There's also a lesson for those who want to campaign against the use of fracking under capitalism. They should be careful what they wish for. They may get fracking slowed but not replaced by renewable sources as these are too costly, with a movement instead towards  . . . oil and coal.
We can concede that the present oil price war poses more questions than answers as the game is played. In the end, who knows how it will pan out? But, unlike those green economists, we never claimed that capitalism can be predictable or offer the solutions to climate change. We were never delusional enough to believe capitalism had the answers.