Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Russia explained (1980)

Book Review from the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Russian Enigma by Ante Ciliga. Ink Links. £5.95 (paperback).

In 1940 an English translation of a book by a Yugoslav who had spent three years in the early 1930s in a Russian camp for political prisoners was published under the title The Russian Enigma. It has long been known to us as an interesting and useful account of the emergence in Russia in the twenties and thirties of a new privileged and exploiting class, ruling on the basis of state capitalism. Its re-publication, in an expanded form to include parts left out of the 1940 edition, is therefore to be welcomed.

Ciliga was a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party who went to Russia in 1926 and who got himself sentenced to three years in a "political isolator" (1930-33), followed by two years exile in Siberia (1933-35), for having supported the Trotskyist opposition to Stalin. He was eventually allowed to leave Russia at the end of 1935 and so survived to give this account of political and social life in Russia while he was there.

Ciliga entered prison as a Trotskyist but left it convinced that Russia was state capitalist (and not a "proletarian State" as Trotsky said) and that the Bolshevik bureaucracy was well on the way to becoming a new ruling class, exploiting the workers and collective farmers and enjoying definite economic privileges (special housing, shops, restaurants). In the end he also came to see that Lenin as well as Stalin and Trotsky was party responsible for the state capitalism that was evolving Russia. Most of the chapter where he describes his break with Lenin, entitled "Lenin Too", was omitted from the 1940 edition and so appears here in English for the first time. It is good enough to be published as separate pamphlet—as it has been in France.

In the early 1930s political prisoners in Russia still enjoyed a special status and were allowed to discuss politics. Ciliga's account of the discussions that went on in his camp make fascinating reading, as every aspect of "the Russian enigma" seems to have been explored: Was Russia state capitalist or a petty-bourgeois state or a "proletarian state"? Was the bureaucracy a class or a caste? Would it require a revolution to remove them or could this be done by reform?

Particularly interesting is the conversation had with a group of Mensheviks he came across in transit from one camp to another. He went up to them and asked why they wanted to restore capitalism in Russia. He goes on:
They were very much taken aback at first by the way in which I had stated the problem; then one of them answered, "It would be perfectly futile to wish to restore capitalism in Russia, for the good reason that capitalism, though in a modified form, exists there and has never ceased to exist"  . . . We were shown with abundant detail that the present system in Russia had preserved all the essential characteristics of capitalism" commodity production,* wages, exchange markets, money, profits and even partial sharing out of profits among bureaucrats in the form of high salaries, privileges and so on (p. 194).
It would be interesting to know whether such ideas, which are the same as ours on this point, still circulate in Russia. Equally interesting—and equally correct—was the view expressed by a certain V. Smirnov on the Russian revolution:
There has never been a proletarian revolution, nor a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, there has simply been a 'popular revolution' from below and a dictatorship from above. Lenin was never ideologist of the proletariat. From beginning to end he was an ideologist of the intelligentsia 9p. 280).
Ciliga himself did not go this far and continued to regard the Russian revolution as having been in some way "proletarian" even though he had rejected both Trotskyism and Leninism. But his book is still important reading for anyone who wants to understand how State capitalism came to Russia.
Adam Buick

* We have corrected, on the basis of the French version, "production of goods" to "commodity production"—a good example of how the English translation is not always up to standard.

Indictment of Global Capitalism (2005)

Film Review from the June 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Darwin's Nightmare, directed by Hubert Sauper

On an elevated plateau in western Africa's Great Rift Valley lies Lake Victoria, the source of the River Nile and the second largest freshwater lake in the world. The lake supports hundreds of animal species found nowhere else on earth - or at least it did up until the 1960s, when commercial fishermen introduced the Nile perch, in an attempt to improve fishing yields. The Nile perch is a voracious predator and within years had completely wiped out many of the native species.

Almost as devastating has been the effect on the local human population, which is among the highest-density in the world. With the decline of indigenous fish stocks and the population explosion of the Nile perch, many of the millions of Africans who live and work around Lake Victoria have been displaced from their traditional farming and fishing occupations. Out of economic necessity, they have been forced to accept positions as wage-labourers for large-scale Nile perch fisheries and packing plants. Meanwhile, processing of the invasive perch, whose flesh is much oilier than those of native species, has led to an increase in demand for firewood to dry the meat. This has resulted in widespread deforestation and the pollution of Lake Victoria from runoff.

This sorry state of affairs is chillingly documented in Darwin's Nightmare, which premiered at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival and is now gradually seeing wide release across Europe. Director Hubert Sauper presents us with contrasting images to reinforce the human devastation of the fishing communities in and around the Tanzanian city of Mwanza. We are taken inside the booming fish processing factories, where 500 tons of Nile perch are filleted and packed for export to Europe every day; meanwhile, two million Tanzanians find themselves gripped by a deadly famine. We see fishermen and prostitutes wasting away from AIDS; the local Christian clergy, steadfast in their religious superstitions on sex, refuse to advocate the use of condoms. An animatronic fish in a fat factory owner's office croons out "Don't Worry Be Happy'' while the starving street-children outside come to blows over the apportionment of a meagre can of rice. Those who failed to snatch a handful assuage their hunger by melting down and inhaling the plastic material the factory uses to package its fish.

Perhaps the most memorable and horrific scene in the movie comes after Sauper interviews a factory official on a balcony overlooking the premises. The camera pans across the grounds and focusses on a rickety truck being loaded up with fish offal. "Don't film that truck,'' barks the official. Some days later, though, Sauper secretly follows the truck to a dirty, stinking landfill where its foul cargo is dumped. The air is thick with the ammonia of decaying fish, and hordes of maggots feast upon the rotting carcasses. A group of mud-caked women, crippled and sick from years of breathing the noxious fumes, crowd around the pile of offal the truck has left behind and get to work. Every scrap of fish - no matter how badly decomposed, muddy, or maggot-infested - is carefully collected and hung up to dry on densely-packed wooden frames. The factory-processed perch fillets are beyond the means of most Tanzanians to buy, so millions must instead subsist on this decaying factory refuse.

Impressively, Sauper does not single out any one person or group of people as evil-doers - not even the factory owners. Rather, the interviews and scenes depicted in the film lead the viewer to the inevitable yet unspoken conclusion that the capitalist system of exploitation itself is the culprit. "[W]herever prime raw material is discovered, the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers, and their daughters are turned into servants and whores,''  writes Sauper on the film's website . "It seems that the individual participants within a deadly system don't have ugly faces, and for the most part, no bad intentions.''

If the film has any fault, it is that it offers no solution to the problems it documents. Sauper is not at all optimistic: "The old question, which social and political structure is the best for the world seems to have been answered. Capitalism has won,'' he writes with a depressing air of finality. In doing so he parrots  the old social-Darwinist attitude that class society is merely "survival of the fittest'' as applied to economic competition between individuals, and that capitalism is the natural order of things. It is a discredit to Sauper's talents as a researcher and observer of human behaviour that he has no retort to this untenable point of view. Despite the filmmaker's pessimism,the documentary itself stands up well on its own as a merciless indictment of global capitalism. After watching Darwin's Nightmare, anyone who professes to see no causal relationship between capitalism and the poverty of Africa will be forced to think again.
Tristan Miller

Obituary: Leo McDonald (1995)

Obituary from the July 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

East London branch regret to have to record the death of our comrade Leo McDonald, a member, on and off, since 1938.

A few years ago Leo wrote his own obituary, from which we reproduce the following extract: "A couple of refugees came from Northern Ireland to Britain. First to Glasgow, then to East London. They came, not to murder Englishmen, but to raise them—navvies, casual dock labourers (one of them, my father). Now I realise how lucky I was. My family background helped me enormously to fail the 11-plus and so avoid being brainwashed in a grammar school. Is 1,937 a prime number? It was a prime year for me. At the start, I left school, aged 14, and soon found the Communist Party (or they found me). On May-Day I joined their march from the City to Hyde Park. There Harry Pollitt told us what our uncle Joe Stalin was doing to help our comrades in Spain against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. (The Pope's support for fascism had many like my father and me ex-Catholics.) That day, someone in the Park told me about Tony Turner. The next Sunday I heard Tony's brilliant presentation of Socialism. I stopped buying the Daily Worker and read the Socialist Standard instead."

In the Party he served on the ballot committee and also, for a short while, on the Executive Committee. Leo McDonald was a keen Esperantist and used that language to put the case for socialism to people all over the world, as well as arranging for translations for the Party to and from Esperanto. He was also a member of the Marlowe Society (which argues that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare).

At his funeral tributes were paid by speakers from the Party, the Esperanto association and the Marlowe Society.

Party News: Our Election Campaign (2015)

From the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

For the first time since 1997 we fielded more than a single token candidate in a general election. In 1997 it was 5; this time it was 10. Although this was not enough to qualify for a Party Election Broadcast (a party needs over 100 for that) it was enough, at least for the BBC, to grant us a couple of five-minute interviews on the BBC2 Daily Politics Show and on the BBC Parliament channel, respectively at:

At this stage the main purpose of us contesting elections is to put the socialist case to more people than usual as well as to build up and consolidate socialist activity in and around the places contested. A total of a half-million leaflets were distributed, mainly free by Royal Mail, in the ten constituencies. In addition, local members and sympathisers held street stalls, took part in hustings (sometimes attended by over 200 people), wrote to and were interviewed by the local press and radio. A new feature was the number of emails from pressure groups, from 38 Degrees in particular. This provided an audience of self-selected participants. 3000 or so email replies must have been sent (the modern equivalent, and not so time consuming, of knocking on doors).

In terms of votes, these confirmed that only about 1 in a thousand are prepared to vote for socialism. Over 300 in a thousand were not prepared to vote for any of the capitalist parties, no doubt largely because they knew from experience that it would make no difference to their daily life.

The Call of the Almighty-Dollar. (1911)

From the May 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Rev. Dr. Jowett has left Birmingham and gone to New York.

He didn't want to, but a call from God and a big increase in salary pointed his saintly way.

He got only £1,000 a year in Birmingham, because that city makes cheap idols for expensive export. He gets £2,400 in New York, plus a motor-car and a Fifth-avenue residence rented at £1,600 yearly.

I wish I could get a call from God. My telephone number is 5s. 13/4/11, Attenborough.

Before his departure, but after his feed with Georgie Rix (at which there was considerable Wettin), the rev. gent. protested that the New York stipend out not to be larger than the Birmingham "screw." Once in America, however, he found the cost of living so high that, in his opinion, Jesus himself would require £2,400 of Caesar's image, a £1,600 house on Fifth-avenue, and a motor-car.

This explanation aims a blow at the Tariff Reformers. All the Liberal papers therefore have given it prominence.

Dr. Jowett wasn't a Presbyterian in Birmingham; he was some other brand of Christian. But the call specifically mentioned the Fifth-avenue Presbyterian Church as the custodians of the Almighty dollar, so Jowett did what John Burns, Ll D. or Keir Hardie, or any other wise Christian would have done for less than £4,000 a year. He changed his label.

Fellow workers, the moral for you is this:

Stick to your job, if you have one, and be content with your wages when you get any. Your reward will come after death, in the shape of a nice, new, six pedal harp. Verily, it is easier for a needle to go through the eye of a camel than for a poor man to pass the New York Custom House.
A. Hoskyns

Backwaters of History - 11 (1954)

From the October 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The parish constable of the little village of Tolpuddle in Dorsetshire had a most embarrassing and distasteful task to perform. He had to arrest his friend and neighbour George Loveless. It was just breaking day on a cold February morning in 1834 when the constable accosted Loveless, who had just left his home on his way to work, and took him round the village to collect five others, James Hammett, young James Brine, Thomas Standfield and his son John, and George Loveless's brother James. The warrant for the arrest of these six farm labourers charged them with having participated in the administration of an illegal oath. The constable, having gathered them all together, marched them seven miles into Dorchester, where they were brought in front of the local magistrates, Mr. C. B. Wollaston and Mr. James Frampton, who committed them to prison. They were stripped, searched, their heads were shaven and they were thrown like criminals into Dorchester gaol.

Since the beginning of the century the wages and conditions of the agricultural labourers had been getting steadily worse. Prices had risen during the Napoleonic wars without a corresponding raise in wages, The enclosures taking place, together with new methods of farming, were reducing the demand for agricultural labour. Conditions became so bad that landowners and farmers were compelled to do something.

A group of 18 persons, including seven clergymen, met in the Pelican Inn at Speenhamland, Newbury, Berkshire, to discuss the situation. They decided that a fixed sum, based on an allowance of 26 lbs. of bread per week for a man and 13 lbs. for a wife and each child, should be accepted as a necessary weekly income for a labourer. If a man's wages were less than the sum fixed they were to be supplemented from the poor relief. This idea spread and became known as the Speenhamland system. It encourage landowners and farmers to reduce wages and it caused local rates to increase alarmingly. Efforts to keep the rates from rising resulted in a lowering of the labourer's allowance so conditions got worse and worse.

Ever since Waterloo the half starved rural workers had, on occasions and in different places, rioted and indulged in some hay rick burning. In 1830 there was general excitement throughout the country and the rural workers in Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire, East Anglia and some other counties broke out into a general revolt. All over southern England workers met and organised themselves into bands under leaders elected on the spot. The bands marched out to destroy threshing machines, burn hay ricks, take over the control of villages, demand the payment of higher wages and the remission of tithes and rents. In some districts the local overseer was taken for a ride in a manure cart and tipped into the village pond. In the whole of the revolt the labourers neither killed nor wounded one single person.

The newly elected Whig Government, with Lord Melbourne at the Home Office, responded to the urgent and frantic demands of the landowners and sent troops to the affected area to stamp out the revolt. The unarmed labourers had not the power to even attempt to resist. Nine were hanged, 457 were transported and about 400 sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment.

Henry Cook, of Micheldever in Hampshire, a youth of 19, was amongst those hanged. His crime being that he had struck a well known financier named Bingham Baring and damaged his hat. Yet, despite the savagery of the suppression of the revolt, it did not stamp out the secret and sporadic rick burning and machine smashing.

In practically all parts of Dorsetshire agricultural workers received a wage of 10s. a week. At Tolpuddle the wages were only 9s. a week, but when the Tolpuddle landowners were approached by George Loveless on behalf of the local labourers, they agreed to raise to 10s. This agreement was never kept, in fact, a reduction to 8s. was imposed. The labourers appealed to the justices without success and the landowners took revenge by a further reduction to 7s., with a threat to go as low as 6s. if the men were recalcitrant.

Industrial workers in Britain were suffering in a similar manner to their rural colleagues. Wages were kept down in the face of rising prices. The workers' inclination to organise to resist this worsening condition was subdued by the hated Combination Acts. A few illegal organisations were formed but when the Combination Acts were repealed in 1825, Trade Unions, Benefit Societies, and all forms of working class associations, sprang up in profusion.

Early in October, 1833, a national conference of Trade Unions, Co-operative Societies and Benefit Societies, was held in London and here, Robert Owen proposed the formation of a 'Grand National Moral Union of the Productive Classes of Great Britain and Ireland." A start was made and another conference held in Robert Owen's London Institute, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, early in February, 1834, drew up a constitution and adopted the title, "Grand National Consolidated Trade Union." Within a few weeks of launching, this "One Big Union" was boasting a membership of half a million.

Robert Owen had ideas for using this Union to achieve a co-operative commonwealth but most of the delegates to the conference were concerned with fighting for better wages and shorter working hours. Rule XLVI of the G.N.C.T.U. reads:
"Although the design of the Union is, in the first instance, to raise wages of the workmen, or prevent any further reduction therein, and to diminish the hours of labour, the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity by . . . bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent parts of society only shall have the direction of its affairs."
(Quoted by Allen Hutt in British Trade Unionism. page 18.)
The G.N.C.T.U. was formed by federating a number of national trades unions most of which were organised into local lodges or branches. There were shop-assistants and journeymen chimneysweeps; Ploughmen's Unions and Shearmen's Unions; the Grand Lodge of Operative Bonney Makers; the Lodge of Female Tailors and the "Ancient Virgins"; carpenters, brewers, bricklayers, engineers, calico printers, cabinet makers, spinners, weavers, dyers, pottery workers, and, to remind us of London's rural surroundings, a union of the agricultural labourers of Kensington, Walham Green, Fulham and Hammersmith.

It is not a matter of surprise that the idea of forming a union percolated to the little quiet village of Tolpuddle. George and James Loveless got in touch with men who were propagating the "One Big Union" idea and then set about forming a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. In the days when such organisations were illegal an elaborate system of initiation ceremonies had grown up, with handgrips, signs, blindfolding of initiates and swearing of oaths. Although this process of making the society a "mystery" was no longer necessary, it had become customary and was still widely adopted. In consequence, the Tolpuddle workers ordered a large size painting of a skeleton, obtained a Bible and a white sheet and took a room in the cottage of Thomas Stanfield for their Union meetings.

A rule book was prepared in which it was stated that the entrance fee was 1s. and contributions 1d. a week. There was to be no obscenity, and no political or religious subjects were to be discussed during lodge hours. Members were bound not to strike for more pay without the consent of the Grand Lodge but if a master reduced pay they must all walk off together after finishing the work in hand. Everyone was pledged to cease work in support of any member who was victimised for his Union membership. Rule 23 shows the views of the founders:
"The object of this society can never be promoted by any act or acts of violence but, on the contrary, all such proceedings must tend to hinder the cause and destroy the society itself. This Order will not countenance any violation of the laws."
(Quoted in The Martyrs of Tolpuddle published by the T.U.C. page 23.)
The growth of trade unionism throughout the country, together with a recognition of the power of a nation wide union of all workers, caused a panic amongst the employers. A number of fierce and violent strikes in London, Oldham and the Potteries, added to their fears. The landowners and farmers around Tolpuddle were going to take no chances; they intended to suppress trade unionism. The justices of the Dorchester Division of the County of Dorset issued a proclamation threatening those who induced others to join unions with transportation for seven years for committing a felony.

During December, 1833, the Tolpuddle trade unionists admitted to membership of their lodge two men, John Lock and Edward Legg. These two turned out to be informers and, on the basis of their statements, the six Dorchester labourers were arrested. They were imprisoned till Saturday, March 6th., when they were removed to the County Hall for the trial which lasted four days. They were charged under the Mutiny Act, 37 of George III., cap. 7, with administering an illegal oath. This Act was passed in 1797 to deal with the naval mutinies at The Nore and had no relation to legal trade union organisation. The indictment was prepared by Sergeant Wilde, M.P., who stated later that he was entrusted with the job of conducting the prosecutions instituted by the Government on that circuit. 

The whole trial was a travesty. The justices were local landowners and employers with outspoken prejudices against the accused; the jurymen were fearful for their livelihood; the judge put words into the mouths of witnesses. The six men, who conducted themselves courageously, were sentenced to seven years transportation and within a week were packed off in convict ships to Botany Bay and Van Diemen's Land. Their sufferings on the ships and in the convict settlements of Australia and Tasmania are a story in themselves.

The brutality of this sentence and the new problem it caused for the Trade Unions, gave rise to a storm of protest. The G.N.C.T.U. organised the largest of a series of demonstrations. On Monday, April 21st, 1834, at 7 o'clock in the morning workers began to gather in Copenhagen Fields (behind the present site of King's Cross Station), in preparation for the march. The numbers have been variously estimated at from 100,000 to 200,000. A petition to the King, requesting the granting of a pardon to the Tolpuddle men, signed by a quarter of a million people, was carried by 12 trade unionists and the monster procession, organised behind the banners and flags of its many societies, moved off. Through Guildford Street and Tottenham Court Road, around the West End of London to Whitehall, it wended its way. Whilst the petition was being present to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who refused it, the main part of the procession went on to the Elephant and Castle and Kennington Common, where it dispersed at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Agitation for a pardon for the Tolpuddle labourers spread far and wide during the next two years. As trade union were realised to be less harmful to the interests of the employers than had at first been anticipated and, as mass demonstrations appeared to some people to be a potential threat to property, the Government finally relented and on March 6th, 1836, the King signed a pardon. It was another two years before the Dorchester men arrived back in England. Out of funds provided mainly by trade unionists they were presented with farms at Greensted Green, near Chipping Ongar, in Essex,and eventually they emigrated to Canada.

The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union had a short life. Strikes were many and violent, but the employers, helped by the Government, resisted stubbornly and, after a number of set-backs, the workers lost heart and membership of the G.N.C.T.U. fell away. Finally it refused to sanction strikes and passed out of existence before the end of 1834.

There are still men who think, as did some of the founders of the Grand National, that by industrial organisation the workers can achieve a revolutionary social change. Events in England during the decade, 1830-1840, provide a few examples out of many to show that whilst political power is in the hands of the ruling class, the subject class can do little more than squirm.

The Martyrs of Tolpuddle, published by the T.U.C
The Tolpuddle Martyrs, by M. Firth and A. Hopkinson
The Village Labourer, by J. L. and B. Hammond
History of Trade Unionism, by S. and B. Webb
Trials of British Freedom, by T. A. Jackson
W. Waters 

‘I Love The Smell Of Rubbish In The Morning’ (2015)

The Proper Gander Column from the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
There’s a lot of trash on the telly, especially if you tune in to BBC2’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Wastemen. This lifts the wheelie-bin lid on how we deal with the rubbish we chuck out and then forget. Every hour, Britain produces enough refuse to fill the Albert Hall, which someone has to deal with. Wastemen follows the various scrap merchants, bin men, wardens and waste processing plant staff who handle what the people of Newcastle throw away.
1,200 tons of rubbish arrive each week at the Byker Waste Processing Plant, where it gets sorted by hand, by magnets and by sieves, and then composted, recycled, or turned into fuel to produce electricity. Oddly, there isn’t a local market for this fuel, so it gets exported to Sweden, which can’t produce enough rubbish for its own waste-to-electricity power plants. The cameras also follow the official and unofficial scrap dealers who try to make a living from what others leave behind.
The programme reminds us that even waste can be a commodity, like anything else that gets bought and sold. Waste has more value if it’s reused, but recycling facilities vary according to levels of investment across the country. Not many waste processing plants are set up to recycle as much as the one in Byker. And these days, councils are likely to be cutting funding for recycling rather than increasing it. If services aren’t there for people to use, then more rubbish will get illegally dumped. Newcastle council tackles this with its neighbourhood wardens and the snappily-monikered ‘Enviro-crime’ team. They try to identify flytippers from CCTV footage of tyres and furniture being hoyed out of vans, and by snooping through bin bags for something showing an incriminating address.
So, the way we manage our rubbish is shaped by market forces and dictates from the state. We’ve got the technology to reuse and recycle much of what we throw away, but its use isn’t encouraged enough by our current system. Before we can find more sensible and practical approaches to using our resources, capitalism itself needs to get thrown on the scrapheap.
Mike Foster