Saturday, June 6, 2015

The People You Meet—The Grocer (1950)

From the May 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

He was something apart from the working class. True, he was born in Poplar; indeed he lives there still, but whereas most of his neighbours live in tenements or houses he lives in the dark, cramped quarters above his shop. He is a "small business man."

He recalls the days when his kind were more numerous, when the majority of goods and services requested by those around him were supplied by such as he. Every district had its Welsh dairy, its German delicatessen and Chinese laundry. Now it's the United Dairies, Sainsbury's, Woolworth's, Forty Shilling Tailors, and of course that most villainous of all rivals, the Co-op.

Naturally he is concerned with his future. On one hand the Beaverbrook press tells him that the Labour Party is his enemy; on the other hand the Daily Herald points out that they are the protectors of his kind. He sees evidence on both sides. Beaverbrook has never vehemently attacked the chainstores, and though he has vaguely mentioned the restriction of monopolies, the bite of his venom is directed at the Co-ops and nationalised industries. On the other hand the Labour Party expose the monopolies in cement and sugar but advocate nationalisation and support its child, the co-operative. At election times he runs from one party to the other, completely lost.

Then he met an organisation that told him his kind was doomed, not by the political "right" or "left," but by the very conditions of the capitalist system. That was the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Consider the small trader. Is he a capitalist? He owns a microscopic portion of the means of distribution: Yet he is unable to live without working. Indeed, to avoid the direct supervision of a foreman or boss he works a darned sight harder than the normal worker. He is respected too. Unless he orders so-and-so from a firm they will not sell him this or that. If he deals with one firm another will not supply him with a different variety of the same ware. In other words, the goods he sells are dictated to him by someone far more powerful than himself. As a result he is no more than a glorified salesman working without a basic salary but for a hard-earned commission in the form of a narrow margin of profit upon the goods he sells. To all intents and purposes he is a member of the working class.

The decline of his kind has been a gradual but steady process. In the field of production as well as distribution thousands of small businesses have been killed by competition. One firm introduces a new technique of production. The cost of production falls and with it the price of the commodity concerned. Rival concerns must either do likewise of perish, and as through the years the competition has grown more intense, many have either fallen by the wayside or been devoured by the larger concerns. Still the process continues. The "little man" may fight but the relentless juggernaut of the system which forces capital to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands will beat him in the end.

His answer lies, like that of every other worker, in the establishment of Socialism where there will be no businesses, large or small, but production for the satisfaction of human needs.

The Death of a Socialist Pioneer (1968)

Obituary from the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Comrades,

On the first Tuesday (23 May, 1911) after arriving in Vancouver from Manchester, England, I joined Local Vancouver No. 1, Socialist Party of Canada, and there met, along with a number of other young enthusiastic socialists, "Jack" MacDonald. We became close associates, an association which lasted throughout his lifetime.

In the Vancouver Local of 1911, a Local of approximately 120 members, there were such stalwarts as E. T. Kingsley, D. G. McKenzie, Jack Harrington, W. W. Lefaux, Jack Burroughs, and many others including the mentor of the Economic Class, G. D. Morgan.

The Local at that time conducted a propaganda meeting each Sunday evening in the Empress Theatre with an audience usually of 2,000, an Economics Class on Sunday, a History Class on Monday, a Business Meeting on Tuesday, a Philosophy Class on Wednesday and a Speakers Class on Thursday with a Social Evening on Saturday, together with nightly soap-box street corner meetings usually carried by H. L. Fitzgerald (an orator if ever there was one) and Chas. Lestor—well-known in his last years to the London members of your party.

MacDonald and I together with other young members came to known as the Young Turks, and through our efforts caused the withdrawal throughout the Province of British Columbia (outside of Vancouver) of certain reformist elements which had appeared in the Party.

It might be of interest to note that the SPC was the result of the merging of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada (located on Vancouver Island) and the B.C. Socialist Party (on the Mainland). The Revolutionary and the B.C. were dropped from each group and the Socialist Party of Canada was thus formed.

This was around 1902 and in 1903 twenty-seven Locals existed in British Columbia alone. In that year, 1903, a Provincial Election took place and 23 candidates were put up. To me, most significant of that time was the "Election Platform", the most succinct ever offered and a pattern worthy of copy when one today is accosted with extreme wordiness of some of our election manifestos. The Platform was one short sentence: "THE ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM AND OPPOSITION TO ALL PALLIATIVES".

In time, we of the Young Turks found ourselves in the position of having to carry on most of the Propaganda and MacDonald and I, starting from scratch (with a few others) became speakers and writers. An article of some years back in the Western Socialist, "Other Times." by MacDonald, gives his opinion of those days.

"Mac" quickly developed as a propagandist both with pen and voice. Readers of the Western Socialist must know of his facility as a writer, his subtle humour, his satiric touch, his penetration into the questions of the day, his capacity for socialist analysis. I can testify to his equal powers as a Platform man. And so close did he and I become that invariably Mac would be designated by the Local to be Chairman when I was the speaker and vice-versa.

From Vancouver MacDonald went to the States, made a visit to Australia, and after many vicissitudes and a few menial jobs in and around the Bay Area, he opened a small book-shop in San Francisco, later expanding into a large one and finally into the huge store on Turk. near Market. Mac's store became famous, not only in the Bay Area, but throughout the world. It was often called "The Cross-Roads of the World" and people from many lands were visitors. During this period he organised the Jack London Labor College and many pupils went from there with a socialist education.

He debated with Ernest Untermann and according to those present I understand that Mac's attack was so devastating that Untermann's sister broke into tears.

From his early Vancouver days to the end Mac was an outstanding exponent of Scientific Socialism.
W. A. (Bill) Pritchard, Los Angeles.

Cooking the Books: Property Poverty (2015)

The Cooking the Books Column from the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Property poverty’, read a headline in the Oxford Mail (30 April): ‘Soaring rents leave workers no chance to buy their own home.’ The article explained that workers were unable to save money for a deposit to begin buying a house or flat because ‘soaring housing costs mean Oxford workers are spending increasingly high proportions of their wages on renting a place in the city.’
Capitalism is in fact based on ‘property poverty’ for the vast majority, but not necessarily of a ‘property’ to live in, but property in the means of production, property in assets that yield an unearned income. Workers will never be able to afford to buy enough such property so as to be able to live off the income without having to sell their ability to work on the jobs market.
In that sense, the wage and salary working class is a property-less class even if some do, after years of hard work as an employee, eventually come – by finally paying off the mortgage – to own the house or flat where they live. But even this seems to be becoming ‘unaffordable’ for increasing numbers of better paid workers. Not that owning your own home makes you a capitalist any more than owning your own car does.  Neither are income-yielding assets.
‘Affordable housing’ was a term much bandied about during the election campaign. It’s one of those things nobody can be against: who would not be in favour of lower house prices and rents? But the term also has a precise, legal definition: any rent which is less than 80 percent of the market rate (still unaffordable for many of course).
Property companies building houses and blocks of flats for profit are not going to invest in building any for people who can’t afford to pay a rent that will bring them the going rate of profit. Left to themselves, in the present state of the market they would build only luxury flats. To try to get round this, planning law allows councils to make it a condition for getting planning permission that the property company agrees to provide some ‘affordable’ housing as well. Councils can’t impose this and so have to negotiate it, with the property companies being in the stronger bargaining position as if a council asks for too much ‘affordable housing’ they can simply walk away. In effect, they are being asked to pay for planning permission, a modern, institutionalised, legal equivalent of the backhander that notoriously used to be paid to councillors and council officials.
The Labour Party’s election promise to make housing ‘affordable’ was to bring in rent controls. The proposal was modest enough: no increase in the rent above the rate of increase of inflation for three years (and then the landlord could ask for what the market would bear). It was met by howls of protest by those investing in housing for profit.
‘The Association of Rental Letting Agents (ARLA) said that three-quarters of its members feared the plans would "see landlords exit the market and reduce supply" … The British Property Federation has warned that the rent control plans "could deter much needed investment in the housing sector"’ (Daily Telegraph, 27 April).
But it’s true. Rent controls, by keeping rents below what the market would bear, would mean that there would be less profit to be made out of building or letting housing for rent. Inevitably, given the nature of capitalism as a profit-driven system, this would mean less investment in housing building. Less profit = less production. It’s simple, if stupid.

The Party in Wartime (1974)

From the June 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

I AM OPPOSED TO WAR.  A phrase uttered by hundreds of thousands, including the handful of Socialists — members of the SPGB. To the many an emotive reaction, and empty words when the crunch came. To the few, a logical stand from their Socialist convictions, and as valid in time of war as in peace.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain since its formation has been opposed to war. Opposition because war is the normal development of capitalism. A system based on a market economy; on competition; on a quest for raw materials and outlets for finished products. As we are opposed to capitalism in all its forms, we are opposed to war. A review of the Socialist Standard, particularly during the war years puts on record our attitude. Meetings were held — yes, during the war — putting our point of view. A masterly pamphlet The Socialist Party and War is available from our literature department. No one can doubt our stand.

But what of the individual members? In 1914-18, pro-war hysteria, blatantly whipped up by the Government, Church, etc, rebounded on our members with their "unpopular views". Many went on the run, Some ended up in prisons. Our organization was stretched to its limits. But we came through determined more than ever to uphold the Socialist cause.

In 1939-45 most members of military age registered as conscientious objectors. We argued our case at the Tribunals — a political objection to war. Not the namby pamby attitude of the pacifist or the hypocritical stand of the religious. Our was not an easy task. Tribunals often found it impossible to accept the Socialist objection to war, and so again, members refused to obey the Courts.

Some went to gaol; others on the run — no identity cards, no ration books. Some finished up as land workers. The fields of East Anglia were the scene of many a discussion between our members and the traditional agricultural workers. Again, not an easy time for the Party organization. A bomb put paid to our Head Office and we moved to a temporary home in the plushier W.1 district. Those members still around carried on with indoor and outdoor meetings. The Socialist Standard never missed an issue. Some members were killed — bombs have no respect for political commitment.

In this special issue a few personal reflections. A spell in Wormwood Scrubs Prison; two other party members also in residence but in a different wing — no communication. Outdoor meetings at Beresford Square, Woolwich, where 75 per cent. of the audience were in uniform, listening sympathetically to the Socialist case and this included our attitude to war. A screaming bunch of Communists in Hyde Park, voicing their opposition to the war. They had not heard the radio announcement of Hitler's invasion of Russia, and the consequent change of policy by the Communist Party, now in favour of prosecuting the war with all speed. Meetings in Hyde Park brought to a sudden halt by the sirens and bursts of gunfire. The use of Lyons Corner House (unknown to the management) for many a meeting of the Propaganda Committee.

We all have our stories to recount. But above all the SPGB never wavered in its opposition to WAR. And its opposition to the greater problem — capitalism. The only voice for Socialism was heard loud and clear.
Cyril May

"The Year of the Bomb" (1955)

From the February 1955 issue of the Socialist Standard

Friday, the 31st December, 1954, saw the publication under the above heading of one of the most blatantly tendencious articles that has ever appeared in the Manchester Guardian. It was like the Daily Worker in reverse, and we feel sure it is an augury of what the Soviet bloc must expect throughout the coming year in the verbal war between East and West.

The article points out the terrible effects of the H-bomb, in particular "that the biological consequences are uncertain. Some scientists say that radiation may cause the birth of deficient or deformed children . . . " The article then goes on to point out that people "have begun to grasp what these bombs mean. They have begun to ask whether any government could ever use such weapons. The answer, a bitter and unhappy answer, is that some governments might. We cannot count on a Communist Government respecting the interests of common humanity." The article also mentions the millions murdered and imprisoned in Soviet labour camps in Northern Siberia.

No one could detest the Russian system more than we Socialists—and what was said about Russia is quite true, but it is equally valid for the Western Powers. Apart from the fact that the first concentration camps were set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer War, and the slave labour in the Crown colonies, it is also a fact that the first atom bombs were dropped by the Americans in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effects of the bombs at the time were unknown but it was known that they would be devastating. The biological consequences in the case of the Atom bomb were and still are uncertain. The same held good for the Atom bomb then as for the H-Bomb now, And who knows what genetical monstrosities may not turn up in the future, caused by the Nagasaki and Hiroshima handiwork? Yet all this was done ostensibly on behalf of "Democracy" and the "Western Way of Life". There was little respect for "the interests of common humanity" in that particular instance.

All this of course contrasts rather strangely with the one-sided article in the Manchester Guardian. The truth of the matter is that when property is threatened governments everywhere fall over themselves in their haste to protect it, and use every weapon at their disposal in that endeavour.

Who drops the H-bomb first, and where, is dependent upon whose interests are threatened and how much—and it might be the Western powers who do the dropping again! Whoever drops the H-bomb (if it is dropped), East or West, we can be sure that it will be in the interests of "Peace", the Eastern or Western "Way of Life".

As Socialists we have continually pointed out that the only solution to A-bombs, H-bombs, and all the other horrible instruments of modern warfare is to get rid of this capitalist system, and replace it with a society in which the means of living are held in common and equality of access prevails. Then, and only then, with the abolition of this system, with its racial, religious, national, class and individual antagonisms and prejudices, can we live a life where social harmony and equality will be an established fact; and war, poverty and insecurity a thing of the past.
Jon Keys

A Scottish Red Herring (1939)

From the August 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard

The self-styled democratic champions of the British Empire are wont to ignore the violence and intrigue which have contributed to its upbuilding, not only abroad, but in these islands.

When their attention is called to these factors by foreign dictators they take refuge in the feeble excuse that it all happened a long time ago; an excuse which seems to make very little impression upon the spokesmen of movements for "national liberty."

In the case of Ireland we have had violent examples, recently, of the bitterness which still survives (in spite of a partial self-government), as a result of centuries of oppression. In Scotland a similar sentiment takes a more pacific, but none the less definite form.

The Scottish National Party is endeavouring to enlist the support of workers there, on the ground that they are worse fed and housed than their fellow-slaves in England, and that there is a larger proportion of their number out of work. It proposes a whole series of reforms for the special benefit of workers in Scotland, such as increased wages, shorter hours, better housing, and public works, holidays with pay, etc., and with this avowed end in view, calls for the restoration of the Scottish Parliament, which voted for its own extinction some two hundred and thirty-odd years ago.

Our readers will notice the extremely moderate nature of the claims and proposals of this Party. It dare not, in face of patent facts, suggest that the position of the English workers is a happy one, in spite of centuries of self-government and generations of working-class enfranchisement. It does not claim that Home Rule for Scotland will abolish unemployment, slums, underfeeding, etc; it merely hints that they can be reduced thereby to the English level. Scottish workers may well ask themselves whether it is worth their while to go through so much to get so little. Other reform parties in the past, such as the Liberal and Labour Parties, both in England and Scotland, have at least held out a more glittering bait than this. Hence, perhaps, no stampede of Scottish workers to the National Party has so far been recorded.

Moreover, the logic of the Nationalists, even with regard to their limited claims, is decidedly faulty. It is notorious that there are several districts in England, chiefly in the North, knows as depressed areas. These areas can show more intense degrees of poverty than obtain in certain other parts of the country. Is this to be explained by saying that the Government is concentrated in the hands of Southerners or is situated in the South? Would the state of affairs be appreciably altered if an independent seat of government were set up in Barnsley or West Hartlepool?

In their leaflet "Crisis!" the Scottish National Party bemoan the extent to which work has been transferred from Scotland to England soil by the railway companies, and the number of factories which have been closed in the former country as compared with the latter. It may not be out of place to remind them that English capitalists do not hesitate to close works in Lancashire and open others in India or China, when it proves profitable, and no British Government has shown either ability or willingness to interfere with this process. Capitalists are not primarily concerned with geographical boundaries or the nationality of the people whom they exploit.

On the other hand, the Scottish nation, whether independent or united with England, is divided into classes, as is society elsewhere. It is this division which accounts for the existence of the evils from which the Scottish workers suffer. English rule did not account for the fact that the depopulation of the Scottish Highlands led to the congestion in its industrial slums. The Scottish chieftains themselves turned out their own clansmen in order to make way, first for sheep and later for deer, in order to fill their own pockets. The notorious Duchess of Sutherland, for example, had 15,000 people hunted out in the six years 1814-20, and called in British soldiers to enforce the eviction. The political union merely facilitated the development of capitalist robbery with violence.

Thus the history of Scotland, while differing in detail from that of England, followed the same general course. By their divorce from the soil, a nation of peasant cultivators were converted into wage-slaves, exploited by a class ready to convert the world into one gigantic market. The forces of competition thus let loose may be held in check to some degree by national legislatures, but no final solution for the havoc they create can be found along such lines. The problem is essentially an international one, and must be internationally solved. That, however, calls not for National parties, but for parties in all countries which clearly recognise the common interest of the workers of the world, namely, to achieve their emancipation as a class.

When the workers get upon the right track of understanding their position they will cease to worry their brains over comparatively trivial differences in their conditions, whether as between nations or between districts or separate towns. They will recognise that they suffer varying degrees of poverty because at present they exist merely to produce profits for their masters, and that it is a matter of comparative indifference to them whether these masters are English or Scots, Germans or Japanese.

Their aim will be to abolish masters of every nationality and to organise the production of wealth for their common good.
Eric Boden