Sunday, May 24, 2015

Shelley (1981)

Book Review from the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Red Shelley by Paul Foot (Sidgwick and Jackson)

To most people who have heard of him, Shelley will be just another Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Keats or Byron who wrote odes to Grecian urns and wandered lonely as a cloud. It is true that Shelley was such a poet; he did write odes to skylarks and the like but as Paul Foot's book reminds us he was much more than this.

Before the first world war there would have been much less need to remind people that Shelley was a "red". It was precisely for this reason that he was widely read and admired in radical working class circles, and had been since Chartist times. Shelley was born in 1792, the heir to a baronetcy and, if he had been a good boy, to his father's seat in the House of Commons. As befits a member of the ruling class he was educated at Eton and then went on in 1811 to Oxford. But he hadn't been there long before he was expelled for having jointly written a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. He remained an atheist till his premature death in 1822 at the age of 29, in a boating accident in Italy where he had gone into self-imposed exile.

Besides being a convinced (and convincing) atheist, he was also strongly opposed to war, marriage and on the side of the poor against the rich. All these ideas were expressed in his first major poem Queen Mab, written in 1812, and in the notes he appended to it. Because of its atheism, Queen Mab was chosen as a test case by radical publishers in the 1820s to challenge the censorship laws of the time and so earned a certain notoriety. It went through many editions and was very popular among Chartist militants, no doubt for its view that the wealth of the rich came from the exploitation of the poor. Queen Mab can be said be a part of the tradition of radical working class literature in Britain. 

In 1885—when the literary establishment were trying to resurrect Shelley as a harmless, lyrical poet—Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx gave a lecture to the Shelley Society on "Shelley's Socialism". The early Marxist in Britain had no doubt about Shelley's radicalism; but was he a socialist? Aveling and Eleanor Marx claimed in their lecture that he was. Paul Foot says that this going too far, preferring to call him a "leveller" or an "egalitarian"; what Shelley advocated was essentially a levelling of property and an equal share of goods. But, for his time, these were advanced ideas and were shared by most of the early working class militants and others who had been influenced by the more radical elements in the French Revolution. But there can be no doubt at all that Shelley was sincerely for the common people against their oppressors (kings, aristocrats, capitalists and priests). He was a Radical and, as Foot argues, would have been a Chartist had he lived, since he saw the way to his equal society through the establishment of universal suffrage which would then be used by the propertyless majority to abolish the privileges of the rich.
Adam Buick

What! No Money! (1968)

From the September 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Millions of viewers of the BBC programme last June on the students will have heard Tariq Ali declare "we believe in the abolition of money". Someone pointed out that "the others looked very doubtful". As well they might. Even Cohn-Bendit has only called for equal wages, presumably to be paid in money. Tariq Ali himself probably did not understand the implications of what he said. But he did break a leftwing taboo. Normally they don't like to fly so much in the face of popular prejudice and risk being called "utopians". No, normally they like to be seen as r-r-revolutionaries boldly declaring they believe in violence!

Whatever the reason for his lapse Tariq did at least provoke some discussion in the papers as to whether or not it was practical to do away with money. Most people ridiculed the idea but one Guardian letter-writer pointed out that the absurdity of capitalism should be obvious every time you get on a bus and have "to exchange metal discs for a ritual rectangle of paper which an intelligent man was paid to punch".

Of course to abolish money without making any other changes would be foolish. Capitalism produces wealth for sale on a market with a view to profit and where there is an exchange economy money is very useful. The only alternative is barter which would be cumbersome and lead to a drastic drop in trade and production. But this is not what Socialists want. We have always stood for a change in society which would make money redundant. Once the means of wealth production are the common property of the whole community they can be used to turn out wealth directly to meet human needs. When this has been done then everybody could have free access to it and take what they felt they needed. And why not, when the resources of the world can provide plenty for all? It is not those who want to abolish money who are absurd but those who want to keep it.

Hugo Chavez: revolutionary socialist or leftwing reformist? (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
For years, the Left in Britain and elsewhere, have sung the praises of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, ready always to defend the gains of the Cuban revolution as that country withstood everything the US had to throw at it. Now there is a new revolutionary on the block, cast in the Castro mould, flicking the Vs at Western imperialists as he implements social reform after social reform and, like Castro, winning the applause of radicals around the world. His name is Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and he is the mastermind of the countrysocialist” revolution, presenting the threat of the good example that continues to panic the USA.
It is understandable why the left love him when he is regularly heard mouthing slogans and making the kind of demands you normally see in papers like Socialist WorkerAddressing the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, earlier this year Chavez said:
“It is impossible, within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world, and the WSF is a good place to do it.”
By all accounts, Chavez was not inebriated or stoned when he made this statement. He was sober and deadly serious. He had never talked about much socialism before, only about being a “Bolivarian”, a humanist and a supporter of the Cuban revolution. But now he bandies the word “socialism” around with the glee of a five year old learning a new schoolyard profanity, and regularly mentions Marx, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.
“Socialism” is the buzzword of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” (so called after Simon Bolivar who led the army that freed Venezuela from Spanish rule). It is a word Chavez is keen to expunge of what he sees as its negative connotations, namely state capitalism – despite the fact that he seems unclear just what is meant by the term. Speaking recently to senior heads of the country’s military, Chavez asked that they carry the question of socialism ”into the barracks”, to initiate debate and to reassess everything they had hitherto been told about socialism and to help strengthen the ideological offensive.
In the TV programme Alo Presidente, broadcast on 1 September, he pleaded for Venezuelans to “leave to one side the ghosts with which the idea of socialism has been associated” and revealed the result of an independent opinion poll carried out in May and June. He informed his country that 47.9 percent said they preferred a ‘socialist government’, that 25.7 percent said they preferred a capitalist government and that some 25 percent were yet to respond.
Since Hugo Chavez declared that the way forward for Venezuela was to steer towards socialism, this has turned into the main debate within the “revolutionary Bolivarian” movement, and society generally
Chavez’s heart may be in the right place, even if he is somewhat muddled as to the meaning of the word “socialism,” and he may well have decent intentions. But his “socialist” agenda amounts to little more than one vast reformist programme that is largely being financed by the country’s oil, which is currently selling for five times its 1999 price.
The generous profits from oil price rises have gone into financing programmes to improve health, provide cheap food, extend educational access, and to organise some land reform. Chavez has initiated operations aimed at ending poverty and improving the economic and cultural lives of Venezuelans. He is keen on educating the population via literacy drives. He is re-nationalising universities and building new housing. The state has taken over some sections of industry and a TV station has been set up to transmit the “socialist” ideas of the Bolivarian “revolution”.
While Chavez faces a lot of opposition in urban centres, it is clear why, in the poor working class shanties surrounding the city, support for the government is vocal and widespread.
Chavez, is also keen on workers’ cooperatives. In his 1 September TV broadcast he pointed out that the kind of cooperative he is proposing is one that “generates collective wealth through joint labour, going beyond the capitalist model which promotes individualism”. If company owners found the going difficult, he said, the state was prepared to come to their aid with low interest credit, though on the understanding that “the employers give workers participation in management, the direction and the profits of the company.” And which capitalist could resist that offer? Chavez observed that 700 closed companies had been identified with a view to expropriation; that many had assets and the machinery ready to start producing.
Expropriation comes at a cost to worker organisation however. The first company to be taken over was the paper mill Venepal, now renamed Invepal. There, union leaders broke up the union – against the better advice of others in the trade union movement – and now look forward to buying out the state’s stake in the company so they will have sole control over company and profits. Overnight, former militant trade unionists have turned into aspiring capitalists.
As far as the US is concerned with Venezuela, the “good example” that the “Bolivarian revolution” poses is the least of their problems at the moment. The real concern stems from the fact that Venezuela has considerable oil wealth. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world – 13 per cent of the world’s oil comes out of the country – and Chavez controls the largest oil supplies outside of the Middle East.
At a time of rising oil prices, instability in the Middle East, and with China emerging as a major challenge to US economic interests in the near future, Chavez earlier this year signed an agreement with China's vice president Zeng Qinghong, smoothing the way for the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation to invest in the development of Venezuelan oil and gas reserves. Chavez further agreed to sell fuel and crude oil to China at reduced prices to compensate the high shipping costs of oil to East Asia.
Moreover, Caracas recently signed up to a much publicized agreement for a group of sales reps from the Venezuelan state oil company to be trained by Iranian experts on strategies for penetrating the Asian market.
And who else does Chavez cosy up to? None other than arch enemy of US conservatism Fidel Castro. In the past two years, Venezuela has supplied Cuba with vital shipments of subsidized oil to ease the country’s perpetually faltering energy and transport systems, and in return Cuba has sent an army of professionals to Venezuela to help the ongoing social programmes, inclusive of 14,000 doctors, 3,000 dentists, 1,500 eye specialists and 7,000 sports trainers.
And then there are Venezuela’s recent arms purchases – 40 helicopters from Russia, attack light aircraft and 100,000 Kalashnikovs from Brazil – which will no doubt provide the Bush regime with the excuse to channel still more weaponry to neighbouring Colombia, escalating regional tension and the likelihood of future instability.
Little wonder the US is becoming a mite anxious at the ongoing antics of the Latin American upstart Chavez. And just to make matters a little more precarious, Chavez has repeatedly made it plain that if the US starts flexing its muscles at Venezuela then he would not hesitate to cut of all oil exports to the USA.
Pat Robertson, tele-evangelist, entrepreneur, one-time presidential candidate and close friend of the Bush family, undoubtedly expressed the sentiments of many US neo-cons when, speaking on his TV show on 22 August, he referred to Chavez as “a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us badly”.
He went on: “You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he [Chavez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”
Acknowledging that the US had the ability to bump Chavez off, Robertson continued: “I think that the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”
Robertson’s “un-Christian” outburst quickly brought condemnation from the Republican hierarchy, keen to keep Bush away from further criticism. Whilst Robertson may claim not to know “about this doctrine of assassination”, the simple fact is that consecutive US governments have attempted, arranged or supported the elimination of scores of leaders around the world. That Chavez has lasted so long is undoubtedly due to the international attention he has attracted of late.
Not Socialist
Venezuela is no nearer socialism than Russia was when it claimed to have established it. Not only is it the case that it is impossible to establish socialism in one country, but it could never be established by a leader. If Chavez can take his country into socialism, which is downright absurd, then some other leader could just as easily lead them out of it again. Similarly, the reforms he has implemented could be taken away the moment he is removed from office.
Despite his popularity amongst the poor that could well carry him to another electoral victory next year and assure Venezuela of another six years of Bolivarian reformism, Chavez is compelled by circumstances to govern within the confines of capitalism..
The country still has a monetary system. The banks and big business, particularly oil interests, are still in private hands. There have been no seizures of land. International oil companies have bent over backwards to provide new investment, in spite of Venezuela having increased the royalties that they have to pay. There is still commodity production, still exploitation, still trade on the terms laid down by international capital and still armed forces ready top defend the economic interests of Venezuela’s capitalist class.
John Bissett

The Roots of Islam (2015)

From the April 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Groups of Islamic proselytes with trestle tables piled with books and pamphlets is a common sight on our streets these days.  They join the ranks of those trying to win workers over to their ideas.  Occasionally, they might even maintain that Islam is an anti-capitalist idea.  They are right, it is, but not in a good way.
Islam as an idea traces its roots back to the specific social relations of 7th century Arabia.  At that time the Arabian peninsula was in the shadow of two great monotheistic empires: Rome and Persia.  Monotheistic ideas had suited their social arrangements, since by their nature these empires dissolved local tribal bonds, and subordinated everyone to an emperor far away.
Both the deserts of Arabia, and its position between the two empires meant that neither completely dominated it.  At this time, as in Europe with Goths, Vandals and Germans, the nomadic Arabs had wandered to the borders of the Roman Empire, and in some cases settled and been assimilated, or used as mercenary troops for the Empire.  Within Arabia proper, most people lived lives dominated by clan and tribes, without a central state, where custom and the threat of vendetta regulated social life.
There was a basic division between groups of sedentary Arabs, who practised agriculture (usually herding animals or growing dates), and the Bedouin, who moved across the desert either raiding or offering protection to the agriculturalists.  Often relations between groups were managed by the prestige of holy men, at sites of sanctuary, known as haram, often on the borders of rival territories.  The city of Mecca was founded at such a site, and the market there grew up under the auspices of the neutral territory.  Within these spaces, the holy man might also be called upon to settle disputes, and this gave him power.
This status could be passed on through a family line, though it still required the requisite religious achievements in order to maintain it.  Other groups could muscle their way in, and take the prestigious site and office over.  A man named Qusayy, and his tribe, the Quraysh took over the haram of Mecca in the 6th century, and it was under their control, largely, that the city grew up.  This city thus was not based on natural resources, and was entirely dependent on trade and its position on trade routes for its existence.
Muhammad was born into this tribe, and thus into its religious prestige, albeit through a clan, the Hashims, which was in declining status within the tribe.  This marginalised status was compounded in his case, when he was orphaned at an early age, leaving him dependent upon his uncle, and the clan at large.  He managed to marry well, to a wealthy widow older than himself, and spent many years in trade.  It is almost certain that he encountered Christians and Jews as part of his travels, and may have learned some of their ideas.
He earned a reputation for probity, and he must have been possessed of a degree of piety, going into the desert to pray.  It was there, when he was in his forties, that he first heard God speaking to him.  His voice of god is a matter of dispute.  His sternest critics accuse him of madness, or hucksterism.  This seems unlikely.  Certainly those around him were convinced he was sincere, and there was a tradition of divinely inspired revelation within his community already.  It seems most likely that he genuinely believed that he was hearing the voice of God, and that his own thoughts and expressions manifested themselves to him in that way.  Certainly, as time went on, some of his revelations appear to be distinctly self-serving (especially over the question of his many young wives).  That, however, is not so unusual.
The Arabs practised polytheism at that time, and Mecca was full of shrines to various gods. Allah was one amongst them, but the chief deity.  Muhammad simply began to affirm that Allah was the only god.  This affirmation, though, was a threat to the revenues of the various shrines, and to the dignity of the groups who followed the other gods.  He drew a select group of followers around him, chiefly composed of second sons and members of minor clans.  From this time comes much of Islam’s rhetoric of fairness and oppositionalism.  Naturally, the established dominant groups reacted by trying to suppress his movement.  There had been a recent (failed) bid to establish a man as king, so clearly there was political instability, and the growing city was undermining the old clan-based system.
Muhammad must have had a substantial reputation as a wise head, since he was invited to another nearby city, Medina, where he was asked to function as a mediator.  He emigrated there, taking his followers with him.  Medina was a city composed of various groups, including Jewish tribes, and he may have been hoping to recruit his fellow monotheists to his cause (however they rejected his religious advances).  Having no means of subsistence in Medina, the Muslims fell to robbing Meccan desert caravans.  This was a substantial threat to Mecca (because of Medina’s strategic location), and this led to a series of battles in which Muhammad proved (generally) triumphant, and demonstrated that he and his inner circle were competent military commanders.
Muhammad also began a process of taking control of Medina, through a series of strategic strikes against other clans and factions in the city, and through the assassination of political enemies.  The significant change that Islam made was that the Muslims would protect each other across clan and tribal lines.  This was its attraction to members of weaker clans, and part of its success in Medina, as none dare retaliate against the targeted killing.
Additionally, he instituted a principle of charity among the Muslim community.  All members were expected to contribute, and Muhammad administered the fund to support poorer members.  Non-Muslims were taxed.  The society that the Muslims established did not have a state: indeed, it was close to some anarchist utopias: a “natural leader” mediated disputes, while individuals owned their own property and were free to do as they pleased. Muhammad acted as chief, persuading followers to join him in war, and showing largess with the wealth he accumulated through his one fifth share of the booty.

The Islam of Medina took up existing Arab religious practices, such as praying at sun down and sun up.  It also had to negotiate and control the existing customs on marriage and vendetta.  Muhammad put a premium on limiting vendetta among Muslims (restricting vengeance to the direct malefactor, and sometimes paying the blood price to stop the feud himself).
Eventually, Muhammad became reconciled with the ruling elite of Mecca.  After a show of Muslim force, the Quraysh allowed him into Mecca on pilgrimage.  In return, Muhammad allowed Mecca to continue as a place of pilgrimage, so long as Allah was the only god worshipped.  The Quraysh leaders retained their positions, and indeed flourished as the Islamic empire spread.
Muhammad had to mount expeditions to defeat rival prophets who had united different Arab tribes in the deserts.  Whether they were imitators or had come to the same place as him independently doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the time was clearly ripe for a unifying leader of some sort.  Of course, once the Arabs were unified, this meant they could no longer raid against fellow Muslims, and so outward expansion became necessary.
Whereas the kings of Roman successor tribes in Europe found Christianity a ready-made tool for helping take over the Empire, for the Arabs in the south the fact that they were taking over both Persian and Roman lands (as well as encountering Jewish and Christian groups under Persian domination) meant they were exposed to ideas from different sources, and so developed a unifying religion of their own.  The abstraction of a universal god allowed them to absorb clans and tribes without racial distinction, and the policy of tolerance of other religious communities allowed them to both collect the taxes and find willing subjects in rival empires.
The achievements of Muhammad were in synthesising an Arab religion that unified and overcame tribal divisions, as well as creating an expression for individualism in terms of a personal relation with God.  Further, in insisting on writing down his revelations, he ensured their permanence and durability: even as this came round to bite him as he had later to revise pronouncements to overcome inconvenient rulings.  That, and the clear strength of the team around him allowed his religion and state to go on smoothly, even after his death.  As the Islamic state spread, and became more complex, it required new rules, interpretations of rules and ideas.
Islam might represent a form of romantic anti-capitalism, and be able to draw upon its oppositional rhetoric and a form of egalitarianism and mutuality under a divinely ordained destiny.  It is, though, harking back to an age before associated production, where the question was of distribution of surplus rather than the direct application of labour to transform the world.  It is an idea that socialists must oppose, not in the name of rationalism, but through the need to promote instead ideas that can aid the class struggle.  The materialist method allows us to understand both how humans come to create the ideas they hold, and how to change the world for ourselves.
Pik Smeet

Editorial: Classless Britain: a major fallacy (1991)

Editorial from the January 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

After the 1987 election Thatcher looked as impregnable as the Berlin Wall. It turned out that she was. At the Tory conference last year she told her witless followers that she and her government would create a "classless society". It turned out that her colleagues had something else in mind: a Thatcherless Tory party.

Now that the boy apprentice, Major, has taken power he is uttering as equally nonsensical promises as his deposed mistress. Major promised, in the course f the "friendly" backstabbing contest with Hurd and Heseltine, the ex-public school chappies, that he would lead Britain to become a classless society. He went further—this new "classless Britain" would be established by the year 2000.

Major's promise is undiluted nonsense. Britain is a small part of the world capitalist system. Under this system there are two classes: those who possess the means of wealth production and distribution (less than 5 per cent of the world's population) and those who produce all of the goods and services: the overwhelming majority of people, the working class. The capitalist owners live by exploiting the workers. Class exploitation is the sole source of rent, interest profit. Major and his party are fundamentally committed to the defence and perpetuation of the profit system. They are the guardians of the sacred right of capitalists to exploit wage and salary workers. They are as wedded to the class division which characterises present-day society as fleas are to a dirty dog.

When Major speaks of a classless society what he really means is a casteless society. In Britain there has always been a reluctance within the old, aristocratic ruling class to admit the newly-rich capitalists into its ranks. The remnants of feudal power who wanted to deny the industrial capitalists the right to vote in 1832 are still put out by the presence of such vulgar new admissions to the robber class as Thatcher, Tebbit or Major being in their company. The old money exploiters like Heseltine regard the New Money crowd as being in a lower caste. But Major, the lad who left school at sixteen and was turned down for a job on the buses because he could not read properly, wants a capitalist class which robs on equal terms with one another, without distinction of origin.

There is a parallel. In the USA in the 1930s there were several established robber gangs which dominated the criminal scene in cities like Chicago and New York. New gangs of Italian or other immigrant robbers came on the scene and there emerged a massive inter-gang warfare. For a time the police could just sit back while the robbers stabbed and shot one another. Similarly, in recent times the caste struggle in the Tory party has allowed the Labourite Tory reserve team to sit back and enjoy the intra-Tory warfare.

The class struggle in society is between the wealth makers and the profit takers. We are many. They are few. We have a world to win!

Interpreting the World (1973)

Book Review from the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

From Marx to Hegel by George Lichtheim. Orbach and Chambers £2.95

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world. But the point is to change it", wrote Marx in 1845. Lichtheim is one of those who, looking at the failure of the two great movements which proclaimed Marxism as their theory—German Social Democracy and Russian Bolshevism—thinks that the attempt to change the world having failed the point is once again to interpret it. A sort of return to Hegel.

In these book reviews written for the Times Literary Supplement and similar journals over the past ten years, Lichtheim sees himself as using Marx's method to examine Marxism and concludes that in practice Marxism has been the ideology of the bourgeois revolution in Central and Eastern Europe where the bourgeoisie was too weak or too frightened to carry through its own revolution against autocracy. A not unreasonable conclusion when you examine the practice, rather than the theory, of both German Social Democracy and Russian Bolshevism—and, for that matter, Marx's own policy of supporting bourgeois revolutions everywhere.

But Lichtheim argues that both these movements misinterpreted marxism, the former in making the case for Socialism rest solely on the operation of impersonal "scientific laws" and the latter in making it depend on the will and determination of a "vanguard party". He blames Engels as the first to misinterpret Marx by making his materialist conception of history a doctrine about the nature of matter which he called "historical materialism" and Plekhanov later called "dialectical materialism". For Marx, according to Lichtheim, dialectics was not a theory about the ultimate nature of the universe but a method of subjecting the world as it is to the critique of Reason. On this view the case for Socialism would rest on the fact that capitalism does not allow mankind to live the free rational life which advanced technology had made possible.

The evidence would seem to back Lichtheim's interpretation, though Marx was also a "materialist" in the sense of adopting the methods of empirical science in his economic and historical studies. But all this is only of academic interest. For what does it matter if Marx and Engels had differing reasons for being Socialists? In fact what does it matter what their reasons were at all since the case for Socialism does not stand or fall by what they thought?

There is also a good essay on Georges Sorel and his Reflexions on Violence.

Lichtheim is always worth reading, even though his analysis of the modern world seems somewhat pessimistic: that the most we can hope for is that philosophers can preserve a few human values in the face of the ruling bureaucrats and technocrats.
Adam Buick 

Italy and its Criminal State (2015)

From the May 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the run-up to the 2015 Universal Exhibition that opens in Milan this month, the mainstream media carefully resumed the image of the old mafia boss, Toto’ Riina, dispensing death sentences from his prison cell. This concealed the real criminal power of the Calabrian mafia, Ndrangheta, which has deep roots in the Italian political machinery both local and central.
During the scandal about Expo 2015 politicians of the left and right have been convicted of collusion with the mafia. They had been buying votes and doing ‘favours’ to secure the juicy Expo 2015 public contracts.  The Calabrese mafia has huge amounts of capital to re-invest. According to a convicted Lombard entrepreneur:
 ‘If the mafia sees something that works, they invest in it, no bullshit, maybe they also do other stuff, sure! I know that! However, if it’s a serious business, the Mafioso sees it just like me, in the same way. He has the means to invest and he doesn’t need to go crying for money to the Bank, because he invests his own money’ (Monzin from ‘Ndrangheta in Lombardia: in manette politico Pd, infiltrazioni in Expo, Il Fatto quotidiano, by A. Bartolini and D. Milosa | 28 October 2014).
The mafia has the cash and has infiltrated the State machinery. No wonder that Italy is a country where its President  has recently testified about the so-called State-mafia negotiation of the 1990s.
What is the mafia?
How did the Italian ruling class get so entangled with organized crime? Moreover, what is the mafia in the first place?
The mafia is not a cool young Robert De Niro gaining respect in his block among southern Italian immigrants in New York at the end of the 19th century. Even Bill Bonanno, son of legendary American mafia boss Joseph, who had every reason to cultivate a myth of his world, said that ‘The Godfather’ film gave a romantic image of the mafia. This image, though, still influences the behaviour of some young ‘Goodfellas’. The mafia is much more complex than a strong Italian accent, a big ring and a bulldog face.
A good overview in English of why organized crime was and is so nested into the Italian political and social structure, and why the mafia system has become so successful globally is given by John Dickie in his Mafia Republic. For those who read Italian Salvatore Lupo’s Storia della Mafia is definitely a must.
Nowadays, mafia is a general term used to identify a secret organization which operates according to its own set of rules that are outside the legal order of the bourgeois State. The means that the mafia makes use of are: violence (retaliation), intimidation, extortion, corruption, collusion of bourgeois institutions. Violence is usually the prerogative of the bourgeois State, but the mafia not only uses it, but counts on it to obtain silence from its own victims (omerta’). This silence is not a cultural tradition, as is often believed.
The mafia had its origin in a bargain struck with the Bourbon rulers of southern Italy and Sicily who were too weak to maintain internal as well as foreign order, combined with the weakening of the aristocratic class. During the occupations of the Italian peninsula, first by Republican and later Napoleonic France, the Bourbons did not mind using outlaws or brigands (briganti) to organize resistance. The Bourbons also made use of field wardens (campieri) as rural police (Compagnia d’Armi) to control public order, often giving weapons and power to common criminals. These emerging henchmen, either rural, in Sicily, or urban, in Naples, kept the Bourbons’ hated enemy, the liberal bourgeoisie, underdeveloped. Times were changing fast and the old regime had to keep up. Whereas in England Cromwell’s revolution had prepared both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to cope with the emerging capitalist system, the old French, Spanish, Austrian and Neapolitan regimes were either crumbling or struggling.
The second even greater bargain that the southern Italian mafia entered into came with the Piedmontese occupation of the South of Italy (an occupation also called the Unification of Italy) after 1860. The political role that the occupying power gave to these secret groups during the Unification was vital. It set them up in the post-Unification capitalist era. A clear example of this can be found in how Garibaldi’s regime in Naples, represented by Don Liborio Romano, police prefect of the city, administered public order, nominating as City Guard the Onorata Societa’ della Camorra, namely the head of a band made up of little tyrants, loan sharks and racketeers. As Alexander Dumas wrote at the time, ‘Camorra’s power is the only real power Naples obeys’.
Not the same today
However, it would be a mistake to think that mafias, in Sicily called Cosa Nostra and in Naples called Camorra, were what they are today. Lupo captures this very well: the mafia
‘determines…internal hierarchies, independent from the general ones of the economy and politics, but throughout the entire first part of its history it remains a minor power compared with the power of major landowners and notables… the mafia during the liberal era or during the first republican period did not think at all to determine the content of the laws, leaving this type of problem… to major notables‘ judgment or… to local lobbies’ judgment. Then, things changed…  big landownership disappeared as a political and social entity… the notable gave way to the party machine… mafia affiliates… had much more freedom to interfere with politics itself, because politics redistributes the growing flow of resources it manages, by doing so paralyzing the administrative, public security and juridical apparatuses of the State’.
The third basis of the mafia was its discovery of America, and in particular, the Prohibition years. As a result of the colonial policy of the Piedmontese in the South of Italy, to which should be added the natural impoverishment caused by capitalism (described by Marx for England and Ireland in Capital), a huge mass of peasants who could not find jobs in the very few local industries, such as the salt and sulphur mines, nor in the northern industries, had to look for fortune overseas, mostly in America.
During the USA prohibition years, Italy was ruled by the fascist regime. The main reason why fascism reached power in 1922 was to stop workers and peasants causing trouble, which had characterized the years after the end of WWI. During WWI, in 1917, a self-proclaimed workers’ revolution succeeded in Russia and in 1919, for a few months in Germany and Hungary. Worker and peasant protests were widespread over the whole Italian peninsula. There were occupations of factories, such as Fiat in Turin, and of land, and mutinies of army regiments in Trieste and Ancona. The ruling class (upper bourgeoisie, landowners and industrialists) felt the need to suppress such movements. Thus, the violent acts of fascist squads against the workers and peasants were tolerated, and often welcomed, by the national and local authorities.
These fascist squads’ actions occurred mainly in the north and centre of Italy. In the South, and in Sicily in particular, the repression of workers and peasants was carried out by the local mafias. However, when the fascist regime won executive power it engaged in a campaign to destroy the mafias. There is general agreement today that only the lower layers of the mafias were touched by this. This was because the top layer was in bed with the political elite and so untouchable. In any event, many mafia affiliates moved to the USA, where business was good. Prohibition laws became the best business opportunity ever for the American mafia. It gave the American mafia led by families of Sicilian origin the chance to become the first organized crime network in the USA and to make a huge amount of money.
The Allies’ invasion of Sicily and the consequent second post-war period meant a real triumph for organized crime in the South of Italy. As Lupo points out, it is plausible that the Sicilian mafia organized itself at the end of the fascist era round the American model of Luciano, Coppola and Genovese, who had been expelled from the USA. Lupo thinks that without this American component the Sicilian mafia would have died out. But once more, the mafias in Italy acquired a political function.
At the end of WWII fascism had formally collapsed, while the Russian bloc had not. Worker and peasant conditions were the same as, if not worse than, before the war. There was a real risk that workers would again organize the same movements suppressed by the fascists between the two wars, and bring the country to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The risk was so stark that the US intelligence service was actively organizing prevention plans (e.g. a coup d’√©tat).
It should not surprise anyone that there was a link between freemasonry, politicians, upper class members and mafia bosses. In the South, it was common for the Allied forces to put ‘men of honour’ in charge of local municipalities. Moreover, the suppression of those backing peasant struggle was carried out by the local mafias. In Sicily, the mafia killed 4 leftwing activists in 1945, 6 in 1946, 8 in 1947,  not including the 11 victims of the Portella della Ginestra massacre. The number of killings to suppress the peasant turmoil decreased only when in the 1950s agrarian reform brought about the systematic dismantling of the peasant cooperatives. Even so, it would be a mistake to think that at this stage the mafia had a political plan. Its aim was just to gain full control over its territory.
Business enterprises
The post-war reconstruction period (Marshall plan) was a key moment in the history of mafias in Italy. The mafia ‘does not make distinctions between sectors: agriculture, construction, commercial. What is important for the mafia is its monopoly on certain activities, first of all control, it is important that this is reserved to the gang (clan)’ Salvatore Lupo, Storia della Mafia). During this period, the mafias went through changes. They become less and less linked to the rural heritage and more and more to the entrepreneurial spirit, following the American model. Where the large landed estate system (latifundium) was dying, the mafia transformed itself, taking possession of public funding for reconstruction. Although this was a parasitic entrepreneurial system, entrepreneurship became a mafia speciality. This is the time of il sacco di Palermo (sack of Palermo), where ugly buildings would appear anywhere like mushrooms. The now republican State did not oppose this criminal entity, but actually became a tool of development for the mafia phenomenon. This is captured by Paolo Borsellino’s statement:
 ‘Mafia and politics are two powers, which rely on the control of the same territory: either they fight each other or they reach an agreement. The ground on which they can reach an agreement is the division of public money, the illegal profit on the public works’.
Christian Democracy (Democrazia Cristiana, DC) represented the ideal political party with whom to share reconstruction money. The DC-mafia machine was just perfect. It was based on the old clientelism and patronage. This machine formed in a few years a huge inflated service sector, while industrial development remained paralyzed because of the mafia regime. This was a colluded Keynesianism, where public money went to Cosa Nostraand Cosa Nostra ensured DC political domination. Now ‘the mafia associate does not camouflage himself as entrepreneur: he is an actual entrepreneur, who makes use of the additional advantage of being part of Cosa Nostra’ (Giovanni Falcone e Marcelle Padovani, Cose di Cosa Nostra).
Beside the big public funds business,  in that period the business of the century -- drug trafficking -- grew. Sicily became a central hub for the refining and distribution of drugs. This was because of their preferential channels of distribution with the American families (clans) of Sicilian origin. This huge amount of money soon needed to find laundering outlets. It was no coincidence that during this period, the ‘60s and ‘70s, financiers, entrepreneurs, and constructors emerged from nowhere. In short, this was the time for people like Sindona and Berlusconi.
Not just Sicilian
Mafia in Italy does not mean only Cosa Nostra. In the ‘50s and ‘60s we see other criminal societies emerging, such as the Calabrese Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra. But these mafias should not be understood separately from Cosa Nostra. They already existed from the second half of the 19th century, but they too now follow the Sicilian-American model and have become modern. Even though those three mafias are fairly independent from one another, they are still interconnected.
If we analyse the last 30 years we can see three main transformations in the mafia world: the decline of the Sicilian mafia in favour of the Calabrian Ndrangheta; the capillary expansion of the mafia into the North of Italy; the infiltration into the State apparatus -- the Anti-State that becomes the State.
The myth that the mafia is a problem only in the South of Italy is indeed a myth. Mafias expanded systematically thanks also to the forced exile of convicted Mafiosi to the northern regions of the country, such as Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Liguria. This showed the poor understanding of lawmakers of the mafia phenomenon. The mafia no longer depended on the control of the poor rural territory of the South. The mafia was a form of violent and rule-less entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. The North was an ideal virgin land for them. The Ndrangheta, in particular, was very effective in this expansion, because unlike Cosa Nostra, it clones itself, looking for the same basic criminal structures as the original. For example, Lombardy is also the name of the criminal organization bound to Ndrangheta, which has the same rites, language, customs, structure and hierarchal order as the Calabrian Ndrangheta (Atlante delle mafie. Storia, economia, societ√†, cultura, a cura di Enzo Ciconte, Francesco Forgione e Isaia Sales, Vol II).
In the North the mafia, and in particular Ndrangheta, has evolved from the criminal point of view, in its ambitions, projects of control of the entrepreneurial and economic activities; broadening its relationships with public officials and public security and becoming attractive partners to earn votes in the elections. Ndrangheta is now present on the five continents, in particular in Canada, USA, Colombia, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany. Today Ndranghetais the world leader of cocaine trafficking.
We can now see why the Italian ruling class got so entangled with organized crime. It has always been and on several occasions has made political use of organized crime to accomplish its own aims. The mafia changed itself and became an integral part of the State. It is clear that the mafia is a criminal organization that today has only one interest, profit.
So the question arises: What is the actual difference between the lobby system and the mafia system? It is the code of written and non-written laws, but these two systems have the same aim. Both are based upon exploiting non-paid work. Both systems make use of force. The mafia system, on the one hand, is less predictable, but, on the other hand, it still needs thebeneplacito agreement of the bourgeois State, which has a repressive capacity hugely bigger than the mafia itself.
Finally, will the ‘legal’ bourgeoisie be able to defeat the mafia or will it accept it as an expression of itself? The problem is not only a moral one but also an economic one. At the moment the ‘legal’ bourgeoisie has used or has collaborated with the mafia, allowing the mafia to grow and to become competitive even in the ‘clean’ sectors. Since the bourgeois State has in principle the tools to annihilate the mafia, but so far has not done it, this suggests that it does not want to; but on the contrary, that it wants to make use of it.
Nowadays, the mafia has infiltrated the structure of control of bourgeois power, so things have become rather complicated. A pure repressive action may no longer be sufficient. It is a bit like the situation that the fascist regime had to face. In Italy, as well as in other countries, destroying the mafia means also amputating a part of the bourgeois State itself. The mafias have worsened workers’ quality of life and even working conditions, and the bourgeoisie did not, and does not, hesitate to make use of it to exploit or repress worker and radical movements. Therefore, the struggle against capital means also struggle against one of its peculiar expressions, which is the mafia, regardless of the ruling class’s moral crisis.