Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What will they put in place of Keynes? (1976)

From the November 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Except in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Keynes has for forty years dominated the British scene — the economists and politicians, the Tory, Labour and Liberal parties (including the Labour Party's "left-wing" fringes and hangers-on), the TUC and trade unions, all (with few exceptions) swallowed the Keynesian nostrum that full employment can be maintained and crises and depressions avoided by keeping up "demand": giving people "more money to spend", as the Labour Party defined it. All it meant in practice was "printing more money" — inflation — with the result that prices are now nine times what they were in 1938.

It has received such a battering that its adherents have deserted in droves. Not quite all, however; there are still groups such as the Labour Party "left wing", the Bourbons of the economic world, who still go on mouthing the old incantations as if nothing had happened.

Now however comes their problem. What are they to put in its place? Several new nostrums, or rather old ones revived, have been offered. Sir Keith Joseph, representing one wing of the Tory Party, puts forward his "social market" policy which means going back to a less-controlled and more competitive capitalism but with welfare provision for the needy.

Professor R. R. Neild (The Times, 30th September 1976) leans in the opposite direction. Arguing that British capitalism cannot stand up to competition from Japan, Germany and other more efficient and cheaper producers, he wants the adoption of wholesale, long-period "protection" to keep out cheap imports and enable home industries to be rebuilt and modernized behind a protective wall. He recognizes, as Marx did a century ago, that it is only the cheap producers, able to dominate the world markets, who want "free trade". He thinks that the objections of the European Economic Community can be overcome.

Doubtless the Labour and TUC advocates of import controls will rally round the doctrine. Professor Neild is the repentant Keynesian who wrote to The Times on 26th Feb 1974 announcing that he and other economists had deserted Keynes and had come to the conclusion that "its application in policy making has been a major cause of Britain's post-war economic troubles".

Behind the "Times."
The Times and its Economics Editor, Peter Jay, have also been moving backwards. They want something like the restriction on currency issue exercised in the 19th century by the gold standard, with a Currency Commission to do the job. They have gone a long way from the Times editorial of 15th October 1968 which dismissed as a "crude error" the belief that "price inflation could be tempered by printing fewer notes". Incidentally, Peter Jay (30th September 1976) fears that the Labour government will revert to the "expansionist" doctrine and produce a big new surge of inflation in 1977.

For the moment the Labour government says it has set its face against that policy. The Prime Minister, Callaghan, in his speech to the Labour Party Conference declared: "The option of spending our way out of a recession existed no longer." (Financial Times, 29th Sept.) Promising no more borrowing (followed a day later by news of an application to borrow 2,300 millions from the International Monetary Fund) he also made a cryptic reference to the Labour government having "even borrowed ideas" presumably meaning that he at least has discovered that the Keynesian doctrines are fallacious. But what he went on to offer was the policy of enabling companies to make bigger profits — the same old capitalism.

Against him are other Labour Party groups who think that the remedy is "socialism", meaning more state capitalism; but Jack Jones, General Secretary of the Transport Workers' Union, promptly punctured this belief. Speaking at the Labour Party Conference he said: "If we had public control of the lot we would still need to get the balance of payments, the level of borrowing and investment right before we could get a lasting cure of the inflation problem." (The Times, 30 Sept.) He called it "socialism" but has to recognize that it would be capitalism.

There is of course one idea that none of them has borrowed or will look at — the Socialist idea put forward by Marx, that there are no ways of making capitalism work in a way satisfactory for the working class.
Edgar Hardcastle

What is a Commodity? (1951)

From the October 1951 issue of the Socialist Standard

Often when discussing with friends, sympathisers and others we use the term, "commodity." This seems a very simple word, easy to understand, but we wonder how often it is misunderstood. We fear, very often. Let us therefore examine the question for a while.

The first essential characteristic of a commodity is that it is something produced primarily for sale at a profit. That is the object of its production. For the capitalist, if there is no profit there will be no production.

Commodities must, of course, be useful things, otherwise they could not be sold. But all useful things are not commodities. The air we breathe, for example, is the most useful thing of all, but it is not sold. We can have what we want of it without let or hindrance. We do not doubt if capitalists could monopolise the air, they would do so and we should have to buy it at so much a breathful. Also, when we say that commodities must be useful, this statement is capable of some amplification. It would be truer to say that some people consider them to be of use. Take, for example, patent medicines. It has been shown quite often that some patent medicines, far from being useful are, in fact, harmful. But still, Mrs. Jones buys regularly a bottle of Blogg's Backache Pills which may do her a lot of harm, quite confident that they will make her young and sprightly again. Or take the atomic bomb. This is obviously very harmful to the mass of the population, but for a minority, the capitalist class, it is useful, in that it defends their position of wealth and privilege against rival capitalist powers. And so, the question of use must be dealt with carefully.

We said earlier that a commodity is something that is produced for sale. This does not mean that everything that is produced is a commodity. If, for example, with our simple tools we make ourselves a chair at home for our own use, that is not a commodity. It has not been produced for sale. It may be equal in every way to the chairs on sale in a shop, but not having been produced for sale, it ranks only as a use-value.

Commodities are a fundamental form peculiar to the capitalist system. They only existed in chattel slavery and feudalism as by-products, the motive of production being the satisfaction of needs. It is true that under feudalism and chattel slavery there was a privileged class but their privilege came from the ownership of land, not the ownership of money as under capitalism. Under feudalism the serfs could be certain of the means of subsistence, mean as they were. Under capitalism no worker can be certain of them unless he can sell his mental or physical energies for a wage.

We are sometimes asked if rare works of art are commodities. The answer is, No. Another quality that a commodity must have is that it must be capable of reproduction. If an article cannot be reproduced it cannot rank as a commodity.

All commodities are not necessarily tangible things. There are, for example, services. If we purchase a ticket to enable us to travel on the railway, we are really purchasing a commodity, that is, the use of the railway to carry us from one place to another. The same thing applies to services like those of a chimney sweep, or a hairdresser, or a concert singer and many other things. These services conform to the definition of a commodity in that they are useful, they can be reproduced, but they are produced solely for sale or exchange.

Let us now come to what, for the capitalist, must be the most important commodity of all—the labour power of the workers. This is the point at which we disagree with the non-Marxian economists. They do not recognise the existence of labour-power as distinct from labour. We claim that the worker does not sell his labour to the capitalist, but his energies—his power to labour. When we offer ourselves for employment we have no labour to sell but the ability to labour—our labour power. And labour-power is another commodity like all other commodities, with one important exception. It produces more value than it contains itself. It provides the capitalist with his wealth. It produces what we call surplus value, that is, the value over and above what the worker takes in the form of wages. For the capitalist, all efforts are directed towards increasing the amount of surplus value produced by the workers.

We invite you to join with us in ending commodity production. It is the key to all our problems. It can only be ended by Socialism, when again the motive for production will be the satisfaction of human needs. Just us now—quickly.
Clifford Groves

50 Years Ago: Where We Stand (2015)

The 50 Years Ago Column from the June 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists advocate a world where the whole of humanity is united about social relationships of equality and co-operation. The identity of the Socialist even now is not with any national grouping, brand of religion, any alleged ‘race’ or local culture. The Socialist has no loyalties to Britain or America, to Protestantism or Catholicism, to white men or brown men, to Welsh culture or African culture. By his perspective of history, by his knowledge of the economic nature of modern society, the Socialist has gone beyond the shallow allegiances that misdirect the attitudes of those who are still burdened by nationalism, religion or racism. Our argument is that if the majority were Socialists, the security of all men in material comfort in a world of harmony and freedom would at last become a reality.

It is true that the world picture of racism at present is gloomy; it is a running sore of a problem, frequently accompanied by outbursts of physical violence. Apart from its form as widespread prejudice, in some parts of the world it is still maintained as official government policy. Although it is the product of different historical conditions, and although up to now the South African Government has not begun to build gas chambers, apartheid is in direct descent from the Gestapo's ‘final solution’. Racism may be dormant in Hamburg, but its ugliness has reappeared in Smethwick and Notting Hill.

Socialists have no hesitation in taking a stand. We condemn racism. To us it is repugnant. We are opposed to any attitude that discourages the unity of the working class. Even so, our disgust is extended by an understanding of the problem. Disgust without knowledge is impotent. The racists of Johannesburg, Salisbury, Birmingham Alabama or Birmingham, England, are not inherently evil men. They are men who are moved by fear, insecurity, frustration and ignorance, all of which are attitudes conditioned by social forces. The working class of Smethwick have a social history of struggle and insecurity. They are on the defensive, they are anxious to protect jobs, a standard of living, a standard of housing, that they feel has been hard won. Mere condemnation will not help them. They have to realise that they are victims of a universal situation that impinges on members of the working class wherever they exist.

(from editorial of special issue of Socialist Standard on the Race Question, June 1965)

Obituary: Frank Evans (1993)

Obituary from the January 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

Older members will be saddened to learn of the death in October of Frank Evans at the age of 86. Frank Evans was the son of an early Party member who himself joined in 1929. He was one of the handful of members who, before the war, had had a university education. After the war he was active in the old Lewisham branch, contributing to the work of the Party as an indoor lecturer, occasional writer and, above all, as a tutor for the well-attended series of education classes the Party ran for the influx of new members in the immediate post-war period. When he retired from his job with the old London County Council he moved to Somerset where he lived for the rest of his life.

Frank Evans will also be remembered for his controversial contribution to the ferment of ideas in the Party in the early and mid 50s. In a series of articles entitled "The Nature of the Socialist Revolution" that appeared in Forum, the Party's internal discussion journal, he developed a frankly gradualist conception of the coming of socialism. According to him, society, thanks to increasing productivity, was evolving in a more equal and human direction; exclusive property rights, class privilege, the coercive state and money-commodity relations were gradually withering away. The end-result of this process would be a society of common ownership and production solely for use. From this he drew the conclusion that what socialists should be doing was to identify, and identify with, these tendencies rather than seeking to get the working class to take their class struggle against economic exploitation a stage further and establish socialism as a revolutionary political act.

Today few would argue that society is evolving in a more equal and humane direction, let alone a socialist one, but the then recently-established welfare state, the growth of the state sector and state control generally, and the (unexpected) post-war boom gave this view a superficial plausibility in the 1950s. In one sense this was an attempt by someone from a Marxist background to grapple with developments within capitalism which Marxist theory didn't expect to happen, in particular not just the non-appearance of a slump after the war (which was widely expected in the Party) but the actual improvement of the living standards of most workers leading to an attenuation rather than the accentuation of class antagonisms.

Needless to say, these views were highly controversial as they challenged not just the Party's theory of socialism coming through the class struggle but also its refusal to advocate reforms. They were shared, however, by a number of other members, most of whom left in 1955. Frank Evans himself did not leave until 1958 and, no doubt because his father had been a member and his sister still was, always retained a sentimental attachment to the Party and kept in touch with members.

A Knight exposed (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Ted Knight, leader of Labour-controlled Lambeth Council, is a politician whose lips produce a stream of radical cliches. Presiding over one of the most impoverished boroughs in London, Knight's response takes the form of left-wing posturing and bureaucratic exercises in reformist futility. Knight and his fellow Labour councillors have a relationship with their NALGO and NUPE workers which is widely acknowledged as one of the worst in London. This is not unrelated to Knight's autocratic style of power, which currently depends on the defection of one councillor to the Labour Party from the SDP; there was no election after the defection and Knight is therefore ruling Lambeth despite the fact that most of the councillors elected were not of his party.

On 28 April the Socialist Party of Great Britain set up a literature stall inside the Friends' Meeting House in Euston, London. The rally which were attending was called A New Social Order For Britain and, in addition to the opportunity to sell and give away socialist literature, over an hour of the meeting section of the event was due to be allocated for speakers from the floor to state their case. So seventeen Socialist Party members entered, talking to people at the literature stall, visiting the other stalls and seeing what ideas they had to offer and preparing to have our say in the discussion period.

From the start, it was a strange event. The politicos were there alright: Camden Labour Party, the Peace Pledge Union, CND, SERA and the Ecology Party. As a group of us entered we saw immediately that this was no ordinary lefty set-up: a procession of harmless-looking folk were doing a "sacred dance" around the hall. While they did the Greenham shuffle, apologetic stewards tried to get the admission fee out of us: £2 to get in ("Well, you do know that Tony Benn's speaking, don't you?") and 70p. for the unemployed, old, young, ill, oppressed—they ended up owing one of our lot £1.40.

Once inside it became clear that this event was an occasion for all sorts of people to search into the recesses of their minds for peculiar ideas to present to those who would listen: Pagans Against Nukes, the Vegan Society, Kingston Natural Healing Centre, Celtic Friends of the Trees, Playworld. Socialists are not unwilling to listen to and learn from such people and, to tell the truth, many of their ideas were considerably more practical than the conventional wisdom of non-fringe thinking which workers are taught to revere. Of course, there were astrologists and religion-pushers and the odd con-man who was clearly there only to earn a few quid by exploiting the gullible. But it was a pleasant atmosphere and it was right that a socialist presence was there to counter the distortions being handed out from the Labour Party stall.

At about two o'clock the public meeting was due to begin in the main hall. Socialists spread ourselves around. A few hundred workers listened as Joan Andrews, the organiser of the event, made it clear that we were here to make plans for an "Alternative Britain". On the platform were Tony Benn (head in hands), Rex Andrews (Quaker), Helen John ("a Greenham woman"), Jonathon Porritt (Ecology Party), Angela Warner (anti-vivisectionist), Guy Dauncey (trendy writer) and, in the chair, Ted Knight. Ted stood up. So did the four rows sitting behind me. Ted cleared his throat to allow a few radical cliches to ascend to his mouth, but before he could do so the people behind were shouting him down: "We don't want Ted Knight to chair this meeting. He's an enemy of working-class people. He evicted us and our mates at four in the morning from our council flats in Brixton."

Ted tried to talk over them, but there was a victory of real feeling over empty rhetoric and the demonstrators were drowning them out. Their story, it seems, is that Lambeth Council used riot police, accompanied by dogs, to burst into the flats of these workers and evict them from their homes. Who could blame them for wanting to see Knight off a platform debating a "new social order"? For nearly an hour the row continued. At one point Guy Dauncey and a few other trendy nice-guys grabbed the microphone and vainly urged the audience to sing a song of peace to drown out the dissenting shouts.

Socialists argued with the demonstrators that the best way to proceed would be to destroy Knight in argument rather than destroy the meeting. One socialist suggested to Knight that the only democratic and honourable thing for him to do would be to leave the meeting. Knight insisted that he would stay and that, despite there having been no vote electing him to the chair, he would tolerate no vote to remove him. Before very long four van-loads of police were on the scene. A vote was taken as to whether they should be brought in; socialists voted against and the vote was lost overwhelmingly.

There was one card left to play as far as the platform leaders were concerned: bring Benn to the microphone. Everyone would listen to Benn. And sure enough, they did. Even the evicted workers—who had been thrown out of their homes on the order of Benn's party—were silenced when the radical opportunist stood to address them. At first the old performer had them eating out of his hands. He had been at a meeting in Brixton with Ted Knight the previous week and collected £2,000 for the miners. It was outrageous to suggest that a leader of Knight's quality could be anything but an upright socialist. Applause greeted his every word and even one or two of the evicted workers of Lambeth felt the revival of blind faith. And then Benn made the big mistake: if the miners were here, he said, and if they could see the behaviour of these noisy disrupters over there, they'd soon sort them out. A threat. "Well, the bloody miners aren't here, mate" shouted a voice and within a few seconds Benn's microphone had been smashed, the stewards were fighting with the demonstrators and the boys in blue rushed into the meeting to defend Tony Benn against the attack of those he incited to violence by making threats on behalf of workers who were not present. (Had the miners been present maybe they would have supported the evicted workers rather than the radical Viscount.)

Benn finished his speech with the microphone volume at full blast and the disruptors safely locked away in Metropolitan Police vans. After Benn came plenty more reformist waffle: Porritt the Ecology-man spoke about the importance of spirit and the Greenham woman was so self-righteously stale that it was painful to listen. Angela Warner of the BUAV made an informative and emotionally stirring speech, showing how capitalism finds it profitable to cause pain to animals and humans for the sake of profits. Of course, her conclusions were reformist, but it would be a great step forward if we could persuade her and her movement to join the real campaign against the profit priority. Guy Dauncey's speech sounded like a psychotherapeutic confession and, in the middle of it, he asked us all to sit for two minutes in silence so that we could contact our inner selves (which, after my lunchtime vegetarian curry, I had been thinking of doing during Tony Benn's speech). Socialists love organised silences because they provide us with an opportunity to do some talking. So, several hundred workers sat in silence while several of us shouted out that "Silence is what the bosses want. It's time to speak up for yourselves". "Knight, Benn and the Labourites are not socialists, but mere defenders of state capitalism. They have no alternatives to offer." "Socialism means a world of common ownership and democratic control. A world without buying or selling or money. The abolition of the wages system." It was an educative silence.

Then came the discussion period. Knight agreed to let each contributor speak for three minutes at the microphone. A few christian lefties complained about the earlier disturbance and said that they had come to be energised and were now feeling bad vibes. A woman who seemed to be from the Bloomsbury Circle advocated Henry George's scheme for land reform. Then came the first socialist, who used his time to expose the anti-socialist case of Knight and Co. Then came a spiritualist from Devon who spent two minutes saying that he felt angry about society and then spent what seemed like a long weekend singing a song which proclaimed that socialists are Anti-Christs. We advised him not to give up his day job. Then, by luck, another socialist was invited to have his say. Bob Moran made clear what sort of a society he wanted to live in and urged those agreeing to find out about and then join the Socialist Party of Great Britain. After listening to five more contributions—including an interesting one from a socialist sympathiser who had met us during the last election campaign and another from a man who said that the only way to end the problems of society was to abolish money—it was my turn.

Let us be in no doubt: there are very many workers who are ready and willing to listen to the case for world socialism and to take it up with enthusiasm. Optimistic we may be but socialists have a message which is irresistible and the most urgent and exciting task of the moment is to work for a speedy termination to the system which enslaves the majority class.
Steve Coleman