Sunday, February 15, 2015

Where Leaders Lead (1997)

Book Review from the September 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Seizure of State Power by M. Velli. Phoenix Press, London. £4.50

Originally published in 1972 by the US group Black and Red as part of a "Manual for Revolutionary Leaders", this is a skit on the case for a revolutionary leadership put forward by Maoists and other Leninists.

If a bit belaboured (and the fact that it is printed as a 120-page essay with no chapters or subheadings doesn't make for any easier reading), it is nevertheless a good criticism of the Leninist idea of a vanguard party which seizes power supposedly on behalf of the workers and then rules in their name.

The author points to a contradiction in "classical revolutionary theory"which, on the one hand, presents the workers' revolution as an event in which workers emancipate themselves through their own self-organisation and activity, while on the other hand, insisting on the need for a vanguard party to bring the revolution to a successful conclusion by seizing state power.

But, says Velli, if the workers really were organised to emancipate themselves, why would they need a vanguard party to act for them? Surely they would simply go ahead and dissolve capitalism and the state.

The fact is, he argues, that a mass independent conscious working class movement is not a precondition for the seizure of power by a vanguard party. The situation is the exact reverse. It is only where workers are not yet capable of emancipating themselves—because most of them still have a "psychology of dependence" which leads them to believe that they must have leaders to tell them what to do—that a revolutionary vanguard has any chance of being able to seize power.

Historically, Velli points out, this has only happened in economically backward countries which, as a result, only have an undeveloped and inexperienced working class. This, Velli argues, fits in with the vanguard's real role which is, not to bring about the emancipation of the workers at all, but to do what the capitalist class did in the West: to organise the primitive accumulation of capital and break in the working class to industrial discipline and methods of control. But this, the author says, must not be openly stated.

For those who haven't worked it out already the M in Velli's name stands for "Machia".
Adam Buick

The unions we deserve (2000)

Book Review from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

All Power to the Imagination!: Revolutionary Class Struggle In Trade Unions and the Petty Bourgeois Fetish of Organisational Purity by Dave Douglass. Class War Federation, P.O. Box 467, London E8 3QX.

This is really interesting and readable book, despite some horrendous comments on "national liberation", particularly relating to Ireland. The author is a life-long mineworker and NUM activist who is also a member of the IWW and the section of Class War which decided to continue with the CW paper and federation. The aim of this book is basically to attack the argument popular in some anarchist and left-communist circles that trade unions are inherently tools of the capitalist establishment that act to stifle workers' militancy and so on.

This position has led some revolutionaries to declare themselves "outside and against the unions"—though whether in practice they would choose not to join a union is another thing. The point about all this, as is brought home by Douglass, is that unions are essentially about workers uniting to defend themselves within capitalism. To criticise "the unions" for being reformist misses the point, as a union and its membership are one and the same. Workers are not "reformist" because "the unions" make them so; rather the level of political consciousness within a union will be a reflection of the general consciousness of the working class at the time. As Douglass points out, trade unions are not ideological monoliths—the processes of class struggle go on within unions.

If more militant members are losing the arguments then this reflects a wider passivity: something that is hardly surprising given the shattering defeats organised labour has suffered in Britain in recent decades. Trade unions can only be as militant and class conscious (and effective) as their memberships are, which must depend on the wider situation. Though this isn't to take away from the damage done by union bosses, whose frequent knighthoods and other "honours" are tawdry campaign medals minted by the real bosses, whose class interests they have served. However, to create a dichotomy between "the unions" and "the workers" can only lead to a distorted analysis of the uses and limitations of union struggle.

As a way of illustrating the dangers of this "against the unions" position Douglass points to the direct correlation between declines in union membership and the decrease in days lost (or won) in strikes. Hardly surprising—but if "the unions" were really responsible for holding back working-class combativity shouldn't the opposite be the case? In reality, non-union workers have not "broken free" from the unions—falls in membership are symptoms of the hammering the working class as a whole has taken. On the other hand, resistance to the attacks of capital is generally stronger in those sectors where there is still significant unionisation. There are some signs however that union membership and general combativity are rising. And let's not forget that this is vital if our class is to develop some of the solidarity and self-confidence essential for the final abolition of wage slavery.

Interestingly, one of the few sources quoted with any sort of approval by Douglass is the October 1994 edition of Spartacus, a publication put together by Socialist Party comrades in Norwich. He generally agrees with the case put in an article called "Socialism and Trade Unions":
"[T]he essence of the trade union is workers uniting to protect their interests in the workplace, and . . . ultimately the union and the workers are one and the same thing. If these workers have reformist outlook on life, i.e. believe that capitalism can be made to run in the interests of all, the unions must therefore have the same outlook; on the other hand if there were more revolutionary workers in the unions—and in society generally—then the unions would have a more revolutionary outlook, no longer harbouring any illusions about 'common national interests' or other such rubbish. That would not in any way alter the essential nature and role of the trade unions as the defensive organisations of the working class; but it would make them far more effective fulfilling that role" (p.10 - quoted from Spartacus).
Ben Malcolm

Wall Street (1988)

Film Review from the August 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

For once a film that has been a box office success is worth going to see. Wall Street is a thoroughly believable portrait of the world of the New York stock market. It has excellent acting performances by Michael Douglas as the ruthless corrupt tycoon Gordon Gecko and by Charlie Sheen as Gecko's young conscience-ridden apprentice. Both have slick but convincing dialogue to deliver and scenes which, while having loads of technical detail about financial dealings that go right over your head, are so tightly held together as to keep you riveted for the whole two hours.

The film has social messages too. And what better way to deliver them than to make them part of a powerful human drama? The director, Oliver Stone, has already shown his moral and political concerns with films like Salvador and the recent one about the Vietnam war, Platoon. Wall Street, it has been said, is a condemnation of the capitalist ethic, of the institutionalised greed the market system represents. In one key scene in the film, Gecko addresses a hall full of shareholders and, making no apology for his ruthless dealings, says of the market:

"Greed is right. Greed is good. Greed clarifies." Of course, coming from the mouth of an absolute stinker, this is a speech whose message to the filmgoer can only be the reverse of what was intended.

But does the filmgoer actually leave the cinema thinking the market is bad? Well, yes and no. In the end the apprentice escapes the clutches of his sorcerer and helps deliver him to justice. But the justice he delivers him is a law that classifies as illegal some of the dealings Gecko has been involved in, so-called "insider dealings". So, from this point of view, profit-making through the market is seen as fine as long as it takes place within the rules laid down by the profit-making system. Yet, at the same time, in its representation of the way in which the millions of people who run society are powerless pawns of the market and can see their livelihoods and futures upset by it at any time, Wall Street will set many people thinking that there must surely be a better, saner way of organising the way we live and produce. The film itself doesn't go so far as to suggest one, but then if it had it would probably have been more didactic, less watchable, and no doubt less of a box-office success.
Howard Moss

Terms and Terminological Inexactitudes (1940)

From the July 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

All of the opponents of the S.P.G.B. have at some time or other twitted us with being hidebound to terms. What we insist—as we invariably do—that Capitalism and Socialism are different and distinct systems of society, both of which have predominant features that can be defined and described, we are told that because certain feudal remnants remain in Capitalism or because the capitalist state imposes restrictions on the freedom of action of the capitalist, therefore complete definition is impossible, and all definition should be abandoned. Where such looseness of thought has led can be seen in the depressing spectacle of social reformers who year after year hopefully propose new modifications of Capitalism believing that it will some day cease to be itself and become its opposite. They can only cherish such vain hope because they do not know how to recognise what are the basic, unchanging, features of the Capitalist system of society.

There are others whose inaccurate use of terms is due to indifference rather than ignorance; they change their terms to suit their policy. Thus, during the past few years, as policy has changed the same persons have been able to describe Russia as Socialist and as Capitalist (the Express newspaper is a case in point); others have looked round Europe and have been able to discern democracy in this or that country where earlier and later they could see only dictatorship. Hitler and Mussolini have been much to the fore in this verbal juggling. Both have claimed at times to be upholders of revolution and at others to be guardians of tradition. Both have pretended in some places and at some times that they stand for Socialism and working-class interests against Capitalism and the "pluto-democracies." Hitler, after years of hostility to Bolshevism, chose last year to discover close affinities between the Nazi and Bolshevist systems. Mussolini, likewise, while building warships for the Russians, declared that Fascism is a bulwark against Bolshevist encroachments on Christian civilisation. On the other hand, he has at times denounced Bolshevism, not for being anti-Capitalist, but for being "State super-Capitalism carried to its most ferocious expression" (The Times, November 2, 1936). All of which brings us to a point which needs no labouring in the utter confusion of thought which clouds political discussion at the present time, that there can be no progress towards the goal of a better social system without a clear perception of the nature and laws of the system now in being.

The S.P.G.B.'s insistence on the value of definition of terms and clarity of thought has never been more necessary than it is at the present critical juncture.

Is It Work We Want? (1923)

From the January 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

"It is work we want, not charity," said a spokesman of the unemployed at a street corner meeting. This sums up the outlook of the average worker of to-day. He can see no other method of life than toiling or existing on charity. The fear of having to beg for bread, or go into the workhouse, spurs him on to find a job, though the conditions of work become ever more degrading.

How strange that such a view should find general acceptance among people already worn out with work; and at a time when wealth can be produced with such ease and abundance! It is stranger still that some must work hard and spend niggardly, whilst others work not and yet spend lavishly. If the former cease work for a brief while they come suddenly to the end of their resources; the latter buy palaces and furnish them brilliantly, live in magnificence, and yet at the end of their days they are more wealthy than at the commencement.

Who brings the rare jewels from far lands? Who sows and reaps that we all may live? Who drives the flying locomotive, the liners, the great cranes, the electric plant, and the plough? Who toils in sorrow and wretchedness that others may enjoy the best fruits of this wonderful old earth? Who is this strange being that makes possible for others an almost unlimited pleasure, beauty, and luxury, and takes for himself what is miserable, ugly, and poor? Who else but they who are born with the curse of slavery upon their brows?

Day after day, week after week, and year after year, thousands upon thousands of human beings do little more than eat, drink, sleep, and work. To the mass of the people the solitude of the mountain pass is unknown. Each day they—the "lucky" ones—must be at work to perform their allotted tasks.

Is it a pleasure to toil until limbs refuse to perform their accustomed tasks? Is it healthy to eschew fresh air and sunshine and pass the greater part of one's life in poisonous atmosphere? Is it intelligent to stagger with work-worn limbs and work-dimmed eyes along the thorny path of toil in order that parasites may prosper?

Through thousands of years a large part of the earth's inhabitants have fretted out their lives in slavery. Yet slavery, though hoary, had a beginning at a definite stage in the evolution of mankind. There was a period far back in the past when slavery was unknown. Just as certain definite social conditions in a past age brought slavery into existence, so other definite social conditions will bring it to an end.

It is leisure and idleness the worker needs (leisure to enjoy and idleness to recuperate), and yet he pursues work like a hound on the trail. How high above him, in one respect, is the "ignorant" savage of Herman Melville's "Typee," who worked little and laughed and sang long? And yet the worker does not pursue work because he loves the burden of toil; he does so because, as a rule, unless he works he cannot obtain the wherewithal to live. It is not a fault of his, but a misfortune—he is born into slavery.

So powerful is the influence of a part of his environment upon the worker, and so heavy is the weight of more recent tradition, that he believes slavery to be an eternal institution. A mighty thinker of the past, one Aristotle, shared this belief; but he made a profound qualification—there would be slavery, he said, until tools and machines were self-operating. We are now at the period when this is possible. With a touch of the hand mighty masses of machinery are set in motion which perform astonishing evolutions and accomplish wonderful results. With proper organisation little work on the part of man is required to turn out vast quantities of the necessaries of life.

Through succeeding ages, a privileged class has thrived upon the produce of an oppressed class, and it is the same to-day. In the past conditions were such that could not promise ease and comfort for the many, except where nature was particularly liberal and the population comparatively small. The needful things were produced by simple tools with much labour. Now all is changed. The needful things are produced by complicated tools with little labour. The conditions are such that they promise ease and comfort, leisure and luxury, to the many. But this promise can only be fulfilled when the many own the product of their energy.