Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Debate: Labour Party and S.P.G.B. (1934)

From the December 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Debate was held at the Working Men's Club, Holborn, on Friday, October 19th, on the question: "Which Party is working for Socialism, the Labour Party or the S.P.G.B.? There was an audience of 500.

The Case for the Labour Party

For the Labour Party, Mr. G. H. Loman, prospective Labour candidate for Kingston, first congratulated the S.P.G.B. on their analysis of the social system and the class struggle, which was the most clear, lucid, and logical which he had ever read. The Labour Party had the same object—Socialism. Its express aims were peace, freedom and justice among the nations; equal opportunity for all men and women for a healthy, self-respecting existence; and to convert industry run for private profit into a planned national economy.

Industry, however, could be socialised in all sorts of ways, he said—by confiscation or compensation. And the Labour Party had said it will pay compensation, so as to prevent inequities as between different sections of the community, and to avoid antagonising foreign Powers. We want Socialism introduced in as humane a manner as possible, and not to bring starvation in the place of poverty.

Now, said Mr. Loman, the S.P.G.B. says Parliament us the seat of power, but we believe you must first take over the financial machinery—the Bank of England. If the House of Lords were obstructive, we should abolish it as a legislative chamber. And, having a mandate from the people, we should use the armed forces to put down opposition.

Mr. Loman said that he expected his opponent to deal with the Labour Party's past. But it is not fair to quote the words or actions of leaders who have been repudiated by the solid rank and fie of the Labour Party. We have done with the reformism of the past. We are going to the electorate to tell them we are out to introduce Socialism, and to convince them that Socialism is a practical alternative to the present system. We agree that only the working class can achieve the common ownership of the means of production and distribution, and the Labour Party will not accept office unless it has a majority of votes for Socialism throughout the country. But the S.P.G.B. is being idealistic when it  says that the mass of the workers must first understand Socialism. The social conditions—starvation in the midst of plenty—will demand Socialism long before the workers are educated for it.

The theoretical principles of the S.P.G.B. are excellent, but it is not surprising that that Party is so small, since they oppose all other Parties—condemn the Labour Party for administering capitalism; condemn the Russian experiment as State capitalism; condemn the I.L.P., the Co-operative movement, the Communists and the Fascists. The S.P.G.B. may not have much of a past, and they do not seem to have much of a future. If you are going to get the sympathy of the workers you must first find a point of contact. The Labour Party tells the workers what Socialism means in terms of concrete domestic measures.

The Case for the S.P.G.B.

For the Socialist Party of Great Britain, "Robertus" first defined its object as "the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community."

Socialism is necessary because everywhere we are faced with the contrast between untold wealth for a few and a very much-told poverty for the many. Three-fifths of the total income of this country, for instance, is shared by one-tenth of the people, whilst only two-fifths is left to be shared among the other nine-tenths. This contrast is only possible because one class, the capitalists, own the means of production; and the only remedy, therefore, for the poverty of the workers is to convert the means of life into the common property of society as a whole.

To do this, the working class must organise, consciously and as a class, to obtain control of the political machinery (which includes the armed forces). And this task is the task of the working class itself, without regard to leaders of lords (some of them created by the Labour Party!). For the successful termination of the class struggle involves the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of a classless society.

Now let us compare this clearly-defined position with that of the Labour Party. Far from having abandoned their reform programme, they have apparently coined some of the S.P.G.B. phraseology, whilst still attempting to tinker with the effects capitalism—with profiteering, rents, slums, "peace"(!), public utilities—like all the other capitalist and reformist Parties. They call the recognition of the class struggle, "a narrow, class appeal, as all men and women of goodwill should rally . . . . etc." The Labour Party has grown by marrying its old reformist intentions to the unsound ideas of the workers, by studying and manipulating their ignorance. As Mr. Salter, a Labour M.P., has said in the "New Leader":
"There is not a single constituency in the country where there is a majority of convinced Socialist electors. We have plenty of districts, such as Bermondsey, where there is a Labour majority, but it is a delusion to think that the greater number of these people understand what we mean by Socialism. They neither understand it nor want it." 
No wonder the shipping magnate, Lord Inchcape, could say of the first Labour Government, "You have no need to dear these people."

Now, since Socialism is necessarily international in character, the question of foreign antagonisms does not arise. Nor is there any question, for the S.P.G.B., of either compensation or confiscation: it is a matter of restitution. Restitution to the workers of the world of the wealth which they alone produce. The records of history will testify that the rise of the capitalist class to power was made in complete disregard of compensation.

Here we have, world-wide, the private ownership of the means of life, and the consequent poverty and insecurity of the workers of the world. The Socialist Party of Great Britain declare that there is one remedy—Socialism—the working class must organise themselves as a class to obtain control of the political machinery (through which social power is wielded), and establish the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by and in the interest of the whole of human society.
F. E. 

On the eve of 1917 (1982)

Book Review from the August 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the Eve of 1917, Alexander Shlyapnikov, Allison & Busby

The publication of Alexander Shlyapnikov's memoirs of Bolshevik Party work from 1914 to 1917 is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of what really went on in Russia in those years.

Shlyapnikov was remarkable; a Russian industrial worker, a skilled turner by trade, he journeyed abroad for six years, working in factories in Paris, London and Stuttgart, picking up a knowledge of languages and conditions in Europe before returning to St. Petersburg in 1914 as a "French" emigrant.

Re-starting work in the engineering workshops in St. Petersburg, he rapidly became a "key-man", solely responsible for establishing contacts, building precarious underground organisations and developing an amazing technique for evading arrest by the Ochrana (Secret Police). He never walked down the same street twice, never slept in the same flat two nights running, and never gave his name or any address. His accounts of his hazardous trips to wartime Stockholm, London (where he worked as a turner at the old Fiat Motor Works at Wembley) and New York to raise money by selling reports of Czarist Jewish persecution to wealthy New York Jews, make fascinating reading. The sheer physical stamina of his exploits in Finland and Sweden is astounding. He reckoned the "life" of an active Party worker before arrest to be about three months.

His description of the success of the workers in presenting demands and wringing concessions on conditions of Czarist repression bears out the Marxian contention that not even the most savage oppression could prevent them/

The workers in the munition factories were indispensable. There was a limit to the number of "agitators" who could be slung into uniform and sent to the front, only to cause more trouble when they got there. He gives an excellent account of conditions in wartime (1914/16) St. Petersburg and Moscow, showing the complete breakdown of the system, resulting in famine conditions which made further prosecution of the War impossible. The lengthy manifestos and leaflets of the St. Petersburg Bureau combined demands for the Democratic Republic, higher wages, the eight-hour day, and confiscation of the land, with references to the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.

Shlyapnikov took part in the first "Workers Opposition" to Lenin and Trotsky's Democratic Centralism in 1920, but subsequently made his peace with Stalin only to be arrested in 1930 — something Czar Nicholas failed to do. His end is shrouded in mystery; he disappeared. His international experience may have enabled him to escape back to France. As far is known, he did return to Russia on the invitation of his old buddy, V. M. Molotov, the Foreign Minister, to be driven straight to the Lubyanka Prison. 

For all his battles, hardships and dangers, Stalinism was his reward. The book also brings home forcibly how pathetically backward and remote Russian conditions of political life were in 1914/16.

Comic book Capitalism (1978)

From the October 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

I don't know about you, but no matter the publication, I always read the letters page first. In Debbie a girls' magazine I recently came across a letter that struck a chord. It went on brightly about Blue Peter, show jumping — and then came the gem. "I don't get home from school until 5.30 and then I miss half the (TV) programme. And, knowing my luck, the part I miss is the best part."

Like I said, that strikes a chord. If you are addicted to Debbie with its "Secret of Fear Island", "Up to Date Kate", "Little Miss Featherfeet" and so on, real life is "I miss the best part". As a past victim of "Cannonball Kid", "Trained to Bust-up a Baldy's Team", "The Tough of the Track", I feel that "I miss the best part." Let's fact it; The Hotspur, Wizard, Girls Crystal and the Rover have done us all a disservice. Having learned about the world from them — we always miss the best part. These comic books taught us that life was worthwhile; that it was exciting and dramatic. We were thrown out of school unprepared for that harsh series of cliches that capitalism really offers the young worker.

"You will enjoy it here  . . . This job carries a good pension . . . There are excellent prospects of promotion . . . With this bonus scheme it is really up to you . . . Of course you must believe in the product . . ."

Don't know about you, mate; I was unprepared for it. In the last frame of a Cannonball Kid story our hero is depicted on top of an open-decker bus being driven through cheering crowds. He then reflects — by means of a bubble coming out of his ear —"Ah well scored a hat-trick at Wembley and bust up a Nazi spy ring at school—I wonder what next year will bring."

Unfortunately we are not thirteen years of age for ever. Too soon we are twenty or there abouts. So we start reading the Melody Maker or the New Musical Express. It's the same set-up though. Life is still worthwhile, exciting and dramatic. The only difference is that our villains are a little different. They are not cruel step-mothers who want to stop the ballet lessons (Debbie) or guys with big green heads from another planet (Eagle). Now the villains are the intriguing, mindless, unmusic-loving older generation.

Perhaps after the Beano, Bunty, or Melody Maker you regressed to the Socialist Worker or the Socialist Challenge. The villains there are hard-faced businessmen, multi-national companies or 'right wing' trade union leaders. The heroes are Lenin, Trotsky or some other "working class heroes" who are going to do something for you.

In actual fact, of course, life is not as simplistic as all that comic book nonsense would have us believe. George Orwell in an essay on Boys' Papers once speculated whether it would be possible to change the "right wing" bias of these young working class entertainments to  a more "left wing" bias. No doubt that excited some Maoist to bizarre notions of re-writing "I flew with Braddock" to "I marched with Mao" or some Socialist Worker zealot to contemplate the propaganda value of changing "Trained to Bust-up Baldy's Team" to "Trained to Bust-up Callaghan's Team".

Such notions are best left in the nursery along with all the other junk of childhood. The real villain of the piece is the way that society is organised. Everything that is produced to-day is produced for sale; the whole purpose of production on modern society is to realise profits. Every worker — "Boring old fart" or "way-out revolutionary" included — is a victim of this vicious buying and selling system. The important thing is not to climb Mount Everest in your bare feet (as Wilson of the Wizard did) but to survive in the commercial jungle of capitalism. A man or woman is not judged by how fast he or she can run (I believe Wilson once ran the mile in 3 minutes) but how much he or she owns. The majority of the population own little or nothing but their ability to work, and have got to sell that ability for a wage or salary. No wonder they feel "they have missed the best part". The "best part" is reserved for the owners of the factories, workshops and commercial undertakings.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain wants a new society;  a world where everything is produced solely for use; where the purpose of production is to satisfy human needs; a world without wages, prices or profits. This means a complete revolution in the economic basis of society. It means the whole world's resources are owned in common by the world's population. Such a gigantic transformation can only come about by the conscious act of a majority of the working class. A first step in that process is to leave behind the ideas of "heroes and villains" as portrayed in the comic books of our youth or the political comic books of the "right" or "left" wing.

I started off by saying that I always read the letters page first. Well, here's one I came across in the New Musical Express. The publication was encouraging its readers to send in what they term "smart ass one-lines"; these are usually distinguished by being more than one line and not particularly smart. One of them struck me though as being rather less silly than most; it stated:- "Life is like a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat." On Breadless Ones, ponder such wisdom.
Dick Donnelly

Oscar Wilde and Socialism (1961)

From the January 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde; included in "Essays and Poems of Oscar Wilde". Penguin Books 2s. 6d.

Oscar Wilde died before the Socialist Party had been founded. It would therefore be a barren exercise at this stage to debate whether Wilde was a Socialist in the exact meaning of that term. What is beyond doubt is that there is in this essay much that the Socialist will agree with. and much more that could form the basis of rewarding discussion. There is no need to be off by the title: by "soul" Wilde clearly meant nothing more than mind—his choice of words has no religious implications.

It is true that part of the essay has little to do with Socialism in any economic sense—nearly half of it is taken up by a diatribe against any attempt at dictation to the artist, whether by government or public opinion. But when Wilde keeps to what is directly relevant, it is a joy to read his sparkling prose, and to see how he hammers his points home.

What of the do-gooders, for example, who try to alleviate the ills of society by well-meaning charity? Wilde writes:
Their remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible . . . It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
Of the poor, Wilde says:
Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.
As for those of the workers who accept their conditions, who have "made private terms with the enemy":
I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realise some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.
Wilde would have nothing to do with state capitalism that is now often passed off as "Socialism":
If the Socialism is authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.
He saw that a revolutionary change in the economic basis of society was necessary, and that this would have inevitable repercussions in the social superstructure:
When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist . . . Though a crime may not be against property, it may spring from the misery and rage and depression produced by our wrong system of property-holding, and so, when that system is abolished, will disappear . . . Crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness.
Of the future economic organisation of society, Wilde remarks: "The community by means of organisation of machinery will supply the useful things, and . . . the beautiful things will be made by the individual." By individualism Wilde means the full development of man's personality, the possibility of which has been crushed by the institution of private property. The whole essay could be summed up in this paragraph from it:
With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
This essay is a mine in which only half an hour's reading will reveal many Socialist gems.
Alwyn Edgar

The Communists' Reform Policy (1928)

From the August 1928 issue of the Socialist Standard

"The fight against MacDonaldism should be advanced on the lines of unemployment being made a national responsibility with a definite scale of relief; for pensions at the age of 55 years, on a scale something similar to that suggested for the unemployed; the immediate nationalisation of the credit system and the basic industries (banks, Insurance companies, electricity generating supply, mines and transport, cotton and woollen textiles, and the rapidly developing artificial silk industry)."

The above appears in the "Workers' Life" (July 6th), as the Communist Party's demands for the Cook-Maxton alliance to adopt as their programme.

Nationalisation of public utilities, etc., means State-ownership with the capitalists in control and capitalism being carried on.

This demand, together with the scales of relief for unemployed and pensions shows the utter hypocrisy and cant in the Communist attacks upon the I.L.P. which are made in Palme Dutt's "Socialism and the Living Wage." This book, written for and published by the Communist Party, says:
The workers will not be tricked into the fight for Socialism. Certainly the propaganda of Socialism must start from the simplest daily needs of life of men, women and children, and the failure of capitalism to meet those needs. But at the same time it must be shown that no short cut can find the way out, no magic panaceas of pretended reforms, money-control or other trickeries, but only the conquest of the means of production by the working class, and, therefore, as the necessary condition of this, the overthrow of capitalist class power and conquest of power by the working class; and it must be shown that this class struggle will involve heavy fighting and sacrifice, demanding the strongest discipline and solidarity of the working class.
Adolph Kohn

History as mystery (1998)

From the July 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

That’s what our rulers want because while we remain ignorant of our past they remain unchallenged. While we remain indifferent to history they reign supreme

The interruption of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon on Easter Sunday by gay rights activists caused a flurry of media attention that would normally have been absent from such a pointless event. In the ensuing babble about the Church's hostile attitude to gay sex the content of the original sermon was more or less overlooked. Dr Carey's scholarly and sophisticated contribution to the Millennium Agenda was that we have all forgotten our historical Christian values, and that is why the world's in a mess. His view is that we should "remember history".

Funny that the Italians and the French have the same word for "history" as for "story", implying perhaps that both are made up. What the Arch Cant means by history is of course the official Christian revised and approved version, with nasty bits removed or blamed on someone else, and plenty of selfless martyrdom and soft-focus heroic imagery. History as a religious, spiritual and moral work of art, an aesthetic template to guide our actions in the future, an edifying edition of the highlights of past.

But the past didn’t start as "Once upon a time . . ." and end with "happily ever after". It hasn’t ended, for one thing. For another, facts always get in the way of storybook fiction. Christian history, like everyone else's, was bloody, not nice. Christians slaughtered and burned and pillaged and tortured for the faith. The first crusades were against other Christians in Ireland and France. Dissent was ruthlessly suppressed for over a thousand years, while Jesus and the Blessed Virgin climbed into bed with every baron, prince and dictator with money to hire them, with the result that peasants like us spent centuries robbed blind by the kings and scared shitless by the priests. A very handy arrangement for them, but not for 95 percent of the population. Dr Carey seems to want us to "remember" what his Christians said on Sundays, but not what they did the rest of the week.

Who Cares, Carey?
Most people aren't interested in history. It's boring. It's irrelevant. It's just dates and more dates. On the other hand, if you were betting a large sum on a horse, you'd look up its past form, and if you were buying a car, you'd want to know its service record, and if buying a house, you'd be very interested indeed in certain mediaeval by-laws allowing common access through your front room. When buying into an entire social system, however, we seem willing to forgo any such caution or curiosity.

History is certainly boring and irrelevant in schools. This is not accidental. If you were in charge of a prison and you had to choose videos for the inmates to watch, you'd be unlikely to pick Colditz or The Great Escape. Similarly, when the owning class, represented in Britain by the CBI, exercises its considerable control over the national school curriculum, it is not keen to emphasise the historical struggles that have continually taken place between owners and the vast majority of the dispossessed. Instead it emphasises the historical struggles that have taken place between owners and other owners, a subject not nearly as relevant to most of us. Thus, people leave school baffled and bored by history, and the owning class gets its workers cut-price and docile.

I didn’t grow up a socialist because I didn’t know the idea of socialism existed. I distinctly remember being taught the Franco-Prussian War in school, but no mention of the Paris Commune, and the Crimean War, but nothing about Chartists. Marx was some hairy German yob who wanted us all to wear uniforms and shoot each other. The nineteenth century may have been boiling with revolution right across Europe but to me it was drawing rooms, cucumber sandwiches and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Even where the history syllabus could have been potentially worthwhile, the dreary school culture would always manage to rob it of any significance, and the bored, passionless delivery of the time-serving teachers was enough to convince us that knowledge of any sort wasn’t worth having, except for job purposes.

What we call our history is mostly false but we do everything that we do because of it. Our state-approved history is the reason we get up and go to work all day, pay bills, buy holidays, vote the usual way and generally follow in our parents' footsteps . . . all the way to the grave. And a fake sense of past has bequeathed a fake sense of present. With the contempt of long familiarity, we don’t really look at the present as what it is, an unique passing moment, but as a wallpaper for our individual habitat. Big things don’t change in this bland continuum we decorate our private worlds with wisdom. Banks don’t crash. Princesses don’t have fatal accidents. Revolutions don’t change society.

No Industrial Revelations
If the present in all its technological sophistication was sprung upon us suddenly, as if for the first time, like a revelation, perhaps we would see the exciting possibilities in it, but history, or the popular sense of it, has inoculated us against any sense of this potential. History disguises the present moment as a veil disguises a face. We can shout and protest with the passing anger of the moment, but we cannot presume to pit our puny voices against history's relentless vast yawn.

If, instead of being the motive power of revolution, history has become the pale and feeble provider of excuses for the status quo, if instead of a springboard it is a tether that keeps the future out of reach, maybe we should just forget it altogether. If the little is not enough, maybe nothing is better.

School-kids wouldn’t complain. No dates, no stupid kings and queens with numbers for surnames, no essays marked C-minus "Must try harder". The only losers would be historical theme parks, quiz compilers and all those keen to escape the present through books but unable to get on with science fiction.

Amnesia is Easier?
A human memory only one-day-old would annul long-lasting conflicts, old scores, disputes, campaigns, epic struggles and endless fiascos and tragedies. The wars of the world would be called off through lack of interest. Capitalism would collapse as people forgot who owned what and why it mattered anyway. Jew and Arab would tell each other jokes in the sun. Catholic and Protestant would share their Guinness and wonder what all the silly Parade outfits were for. Soldiers would forget how to shoot, prison guards wouldn’t bother to lock up, policemen would wander off and pick wild flowers . . .

Oh dear. A pinch of salt is called for I fear. In truth it is impossible to forget what once you have learned. Even if it were possible to be more ignorant of history than we already are, it would simply mean that the owning class would treat us worse than they do. They have it their own way as it is. While we remain ignorant of our past, they remain unchallenged. While we remain indifferent to history, they reign supreme. While we watch football instead, they laugh at us.

But there is room in our culture for a better understanding of history (and football too, if you insist). What they school out of us, we can bring back again. What they don’t tell us, we can find out. What they ignore, we can discuss. It is not just that we would have a stronger sense of ourselves in time and place. It is also a revolutionary process, because it means overturning old ideas and beliefs in a ceaseless effort to reinvent our present, and design our future.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's idea of history may exclude the venerable and well documented history of homosexuality, but it also excludes the venerable and even better documented history of class struggle. Dr Carey just doesn’t want you to know about those embarrassing bits. The owning class too would like to cover certain things up, or at least gloss over them. That’s why, for a revolutionary, it is always important to be curious. If we are to succeed as a class in emancipating ourselves, we must know the history and tactics of those who are against us. That way, when next they attack us, we will not be unprepared.
Paddy Shannon