Friday, June 26, 2015

Free is cheaper (1988)

Book Review from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Free Is Cheaper by Ken Smith (John Ball Press, £12.95)

Books which present a lively and contentious critique of capitalism and advocate socialism are unfortunately rare. But here is such a one — a book to learn from and be enthused by, a source of information and argument for all socialists.

Ken Smith usually refers to capitalism as the Market Economy. His book opens by putting the blame for economic and social malaise on the market system, which introduced scarcity and poverty in place of the plenty and comfort of previous social arrangements (a point we take up below). In Britain, he claims, so much effort is expended on buying, selling and policing that only one in ten of the working population is actually producing wealth. This is interesting in that it is a far lower figure than socialists commonly cite for the proportion of workers doing useful work, which is usually reckoned as around one half. I suspect that both figures are really the result of intelligent guesswork, though the important point is of course not at issue.

Most of the book is devoted to exposing the effects of the market economy on various "industries", from food to shelter and disease and crime. The author claims, for instance, that dental caries is an entirely artificial disease, caused by defective diets and unknown among "primitive" peoples. The absurd priorities engendered by the profit system are illustrated by the fact that more people work in house financing than in house building. While the numbers of homeless increases, the quality of new homes deteriorates, with obsolescence being built-in like the wardrobes. Clothes, too, are deliberately made shoddily so as to encourage increased purchasing and fashion-following. The money industry, which produces nothing of any use whatever, is one of the most profitable of all. All the chapters in this section are full of good material. 

The final part of the book proposes that all goods and services are provided free. It is pointed out that many are already provided free to those who want them - police and blood, for instance. People already do lots of things for each other, for friends and neighbours, without expecting any monetary reward, so nobody can argue that such a way of proceeding is impossible or against human nature. A system where people control their own lives is needed to replace the market economy. But people can only free themselves — they cannot be forced to co-operate voluntarily. The need to capture political power is stressed, but, although there are references to the world-wide nature of capitalism, there is no mention that socialism will also need to be a world society. Indeed, an unfortunate reference to "the return of the land of Britain to the people of Britain" suggests a rather insular outlook. But of course a nationally-based socialism is impossible. 

Mention was made earlier of the claim that in pre-capitalist systems, ordinary people were comfortably off and there was a potential for plenty. On this account, the development of capitalism was a gigantic historical "mistake" which impoverished people, rather than creating the possibility of abundance which socialism will finally realise. Some evidence is adduced in support of this view, but it really does seem terribly one-sided. For one thing, it ignores the non-material aspects, the ignorance and superstition of feudal times, which capitalism has fundamentally overturned. The cosy image of peasants contentedly tilling their own land has to be viewed against the backdrop of enormous disparities of wealth and power, the privileges enjoyed by the rulers of church and state. To the extent that feudal agriculture was able to support the population, this was largely due to the very low population density. It is hard to see merit in implied claims that socialism was possible on the basis of the pre-market situation. 

If one wants to make a case that capitalism has been less progressive and "beneficial" than often assured, the best perspective to adopt is to consider its global impact: 
"It is . . . by no means self-evident that there is more liberty, equality and fraternity in the world today than there was one thousand years ago. One might arguably suggest that the opposite is true. The overwhelming proportion of the world's work-forces, who live in rural zones or move between them and urban slums, are worse off than their ancestors five hundred years ago, They eat less well, and certainly have a less balanced diet . . . They unquestionably work harder — more hours per day, per year, per lifetime. And since they do this for less total reward, the rate of exploitation has escalated very sharply." (Immanuel Wallerstein: Historical Capitalism
But these criticisms are fairly minor, and do not detract from the book's worth. Despite the range of sources cited, it is not a dry-as-dust academic work, but a vigorous and always readable polemic. Let us hope it is read as widely as possible and so helps to increase the number of socialists. 
Paul Bennett

It's the Poor what gets the blame (1978)

From the July 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Art Buchwald writes a column in the New York Herald Tribune. In the International issue of 20/21 May, under the heading 'Poor image of the Poor', he took the view that the big political issue in the autumn elections will be what is happening to the "middle class" (his punctuation) in America. The standard cliche of the moment apparently is that the rich and the poor are getting everything and the middle class is being left out in the cold.

While possibly agreeing about the rich, he had doubts about the poor. As he did not want to wait until the candidates' mandatory walk through the ghetto the week before the election, he decided to carry out his own small investigation. He chose as his source an unemployed man, living in a slum and receiving food stamps to stop his family from starving. Asked by Buchwald whether he was aware of the hostility towards the poor, this man said:
"Well . . . the middle class are mad at us because they feel that their taxes are supporting the poor. They're not half as mad at the rich people because they all hope to be rich someday themselves and they dream of having everything the rich are entitled to. Now, despite the fact that they think we poor are having a ball, I haven't met one person from the middle class who wants to change places with me, though God knows I've made the offer a thousand times".
Buchwald and his interviewee show they understand some of the workings of capitalism. At one stage Buchwald says: "The 'middle class' never thinks it's supporting the rich". When he states that people get angry when they hear that the poor cheat government departments, he got the reply:
"Of course they do. But nobody gets uptight when doctors, military contractors and large corporations rip off the government. They figure that's part of the game".
To his last question about possible improvements to the image of the poor, Buchwald received an affirmative reply, ending with the words: "in spite of our numbers we've never gotten our story over to the people. The rich do that so much better".

To a socialist the column was encouraging and frustrating at the same time. Buchwald apparently recognises that there is no such thing as a 'middle class', yet speaks of the taxes they pay supporting both rich and poor. By this he shows his lack of understanding of how the capitalist system operates. Workers are paid sufficient to maintain their living standards and educate their children to take over similar jobs when they grow up. The effect of taxes and rates on workers' take-home pay is taken into account in the course of wage negotiations. Workers keep the rich in luxury not by taxes they pay, but by the profit the capitalist obtains from employing them. This is the basis on which capitalism works. It is known as Surplus Value.
Eva Goodman 

Abolition of the Wages System, Cuban Style (1968)

From the December 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

During the Summer of 1967 Fidel Castro announced that a communist community was being set up by several thousand members of the Union of Revolutionary Communist Youth on the Island of Pines (now renamed the Island of Youth).
Here (said Castro) we propose not only to revolutionise nature but to revolutionise man, to revolutionise society, it being given that the objective conditions exist on the island for making this possible, for it is a very sparsely populated region, a region that is to be fully technically developed, a region where the most enthusiastic of our youth are now gathering to work and build. We will attempt to transform this region into a social experimental centre where we must try to work out, as far as possible and with the vanguard of our people, the problems which are involved in creating a communist society.
Since then thousands more young people have settled in the area, committing themselves to stay for at least three years, although the authorities hope that most will remain permanently. Forty thousand of them are labouring to build from scratch a thriving agricultural-cum-industrial economy. Prefabricated buildings are being thrown up, hydro-electric complexes constructed and the extensive marshlands reclaimed. 

For the individual, most basic requirements are supplied free—accommodation, food, cigarettes and so on—but low wages are still being paid. They range from 80-130 pesos, which is a good deal less than the salaries earned by workers on the Cuban mainland. According to a recent visitor to the Island these wages are needed by the islanders to support parents and relatives left behind and also for holidays when they return to the money-conscious Cuban mainland.

What are we to make of this "social experimental centre"? The most that can be said for it is that, like the kibbutzim and other utopian settlements, it does demonstrate that people can live on a cooperative basis. But the Island of Pines must be seen within the context of the overall state capitalist economy. The enthusiasm and sacrifice of thousands of young people is merely being used by the ruling class in Cuba to develop the economy of a backward area. The wealth which the islanders are creating does not belong to the Cuban "people" but is appropriated by the state, which in turn is in the hands of a class of party bosses and bureaucrats.

No doubt in the process many of the young people involved will become disillusioned and drift away thinking that they have witnessed the failure of socialism, when all they will have experienced is the "communism" of the barracks.
John Crump

The Staging of Another Pantomime. (1923)

From the July 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

"Internationals" are having a great run these days. A new one has recently come into existence at Hamburg, and from the "Daily News" (25/5/23) we learn that:
"The objects are defined with sufficient breadth to enable the parties within a fairly wide range of differences of view to adopt."
These periodical bursts of enthusiasm for internationals would be amusing if their consequences were not so harmful in keeping the workers' minds occupied with other than the position that really concerns them.

This particular International is so broad in its views that it throws overboard one of the fundamental principles of Socialism—the class struggle
"This phrase, 'class war,' appeared in the German and French translations, but the English substituted in its place these words: 'to foster the independent and industrial action of the workers' organisations as a means of realising that object.'
"Other members of the committee finally expressed a preference for this rendering, and this was adopted."
It will be seen, therefore, that they do not propose anything drastic, but something quite respectable as befits those who are expecting soon to be called upon "to govern." They do not intend to prosecute the class struggle, but only to "foster" independent action! Need we add that Ramsay MacDonald, J. H. Thomas, and Arthur Henderson are on the Executive Committee of this body?

CND—campaign for conventional warfare (1984)

From the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

CND has risen again. Once again the very real anxieties about the use of nuclear weapons have made many people want to do something to stop them. So there are marches and speeches and demonstrations. Will they succeed? Can they succeed?

The last CND campaign failed with a loss of heart among its supporters. The Labour Party Conference in 1960 voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament, only to reverse the decision in 1961 when Labour's shadow ministers argued strongly that they could not survive in government without nuclear weapons. In 1957 Labour's Aneurin Bevan had said, "You will send a foreign secretary—whoever he may be—naked into the conference chamber". What he meant was something like this: "You elect us to run British capitalism, an essentially competitive, profit-making system. Every capitalist nation, including Russia and China, strives to expand its markets, increase its grip on sources of raw materials and trade routes. Powerful nations must be able to provide protection for their shipping and for smaller nations from whom they want oil, copper, sugar, wheat, aluminium, etc. They must make treaties and form alliances. They must sit round the conference tables and bargain for the pickings. And their persuasiveness in the conference chamber depends, in the end, upon their military strength because, when diplomacy fails finally, nations have no alternative but war. Nuclear nations, therefore, win nearly all the arguments . . . " Bevan was right. This is the only way international capitalism can work. And the Labour Party ended up realising it too.

After this, CND support fell away, disillusioned. Many thousands, convinced nothing could be done, dropped out of the movement. Some, however found another, more potent way of opposing war. They realised that, within a system that can only be geared to war, it was futile to try to persuade governments to disarm. They realised that the only possible way to abolish nuclear weapons, as well as all the other vile and gruesome means of death and destruction produced by capitalism, was to abolish their root cause—capitalism itself. So they became socialists. Clearing away all the mystification about our present social system in the media and in education, they recognised that the two hundred year old system of industrial capitalism is already dangerously obsolete. About 10 per cent of the world's population own, or control through the state, the means of producing and distributing the things we need to live. These people form an economic class, the capitalist class. The other 90 per cent, the working class, owning virtually nothing but their ability to work, have no choice but to work for them, either producing goods and services or running the cumbersome administration of capitalism. When wars are declared it is the 90 per cent who are compelled to fight one another and die in millions. The propaganda machinery of their respective governments persuade them to see each other as wicked or subhuman. Yet they have no quarrel with one another. Only the profitability of capital is at stake. This is insanity.

Socialists oppose not only nuclear war, but all war. And they organise to abolish its cause—the private, including state, ownership of all land, mines, factories, oilfields, offices, docks, transport, etc.—so that they belong to everybody or nobody, and are used by the whole of society, democratically, to produce goods for everyone's needs. Frontiers and nations will fall into disuse. War will be an impossibility.

Nuclear technology as such need not be a danger. If it can be made safe, a society geared to human needs might decide to use it to produce abundant energy. In the present society geared to profit above everything, it can only bring disaster. Capitalism cannot be humanised. It cannot even be controlled. It cannot cope with the nuclear age. Our only hope is to scrap it before it destroys us. Help us organise to replace it with a free, classless, propertyless, democratic world without frontiers—socialism. 

Plague Wars (1999)

Book Review from the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Plague Makers: The Secret World of Biological Warfare. Wendy Barnaby. Vision paperbacks, London 1999, pp 214. £9.99.

This interesting book looks at the history of biological weapons; their development this century; who produces them and why; and the attempts to prevent them from being used.

The Persians, Greeks and Romans poisoned wells by throwing corpses into them and, in 1763, a British captain tried to kill North American Indians by giving them blankets from a smallpox hospital. The crudeness of delivery systems in the past led to a belief that biological weapons were not reliable, but the development of modern techniques has led to this assumption being questioned.

Wendy Barnaby points out that biological weapons can be made much more cheaply than nuclear or chemical weapons and that attacks may be impossible to determine from naturally occurring outbreaks of disease.

The destruction that can be wreaked by biological weapons is frightening: "One gram of anthrax could, if distributed effectively, kill more than 100 millions people." And it is not only governments that develop biological weapons; their cheapness makes them available to terrorist groups. It has been estimated that ". . . a major biological arsenal could be built in a room 15-by-15 feet, with £5,000 worth of equipment".

The Aum Shinrikyo sect, responsible for the nerve gas attack in Tokyo's underground in 1995, had 160 barrels of media for growing clostridium botulinum and members of the right-wing supremacist group, Order of the Rising Sun, had more than 30 kilograms of typhoid bacteria in their possession when they were arrested. They planned to poison the water supplies of major cities to create a master race.

The duplicity of governments is demonstrated by the manufacture of biological weapons despite endorsing the 1925 Geneva Protocol which condemned them. Britain produced five million cattle cakes containing anthrax in "Operation Vegetarian" during the Second World War although they were never used despite Churchill's readiness to wage war with them in 1945, prevented only by the cessation of hostilities. The island of Gruinard was contaminated with anthrax in 1942 and remained closed to the public until decontaminated in 1990. Nevertheless, the UN General Assembly was assured in 1969 that Britain had never produced biological weapons. The American programme was even bigger, employing nearly 4,000 people after the war.

Thousands of American prisoners were killed in experiments by the Japanese, but the perpetrators were given immunity from prosecution provided they shared their knowledge. Barnaby shows how utterly ruthless capitalist politicians are in pursuit of power. The apartheid regime in South Africa had a programme to try to develop vaccines that only worked on black people, and a number of political assassinations were carried out with biological and chemical weapons including poisoning Steve Biko with thallium and poisoning three Russian advisers to the ANC by contaminating their food with anthrax.

Between 1949 and 1969, the Pentagon carried out 239 tests, spraying Serratia marcesens and Bacillus globigii over populated areas. Despite claiming that the bacteria were harmless the army decided not to continue trials in case they affected the health of servicemen. On 26 July 1963, Bacillus globigii was released in London's underground to see how it would spread.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention has had little effect on the manufacture of biological weapons. We cannot know to what extent they are manufactured because of the secrecy with which governments operate. Barnaby states: "a more informed public would want to reinforce the revulsion ordinary people fell about the use of biological weapons" and "a public more alive to the threat posed by biological weapons would back up governments trying to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention". But governments will always operate in secret because the cut-throat competitive nature of capitalism permits of no alternative. Attempts to reform capitalism and make war more humane are doomed to failure because the availability of naturally-occurring bacteria makes it impossible to police the activities of governments or terrorist groups. Only socialism can eliminate war by removing the profit system which is the driving force for competition and conflict. Unfortunately, in this interesting and well-researching book such a solution is not even considered.
Carl Pinel

Our Companion Parties in the Western Hemisphere (1942)

From the February 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recent letters from the Workers' Socialist Party of the U.S.A. give some interesting details of their activities and progress during the past few months.

Slowly bit surely their journal, the Western Socialist, is reaching an ever widening circle of readers. New contacts have been made in Colorado, Missouri, Tennessee, etc., and their journal is finding its way even to such remote places as Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands

Debates and Meetings
The Catholic Worker sent their co-founder, Peter Maurin, from New York City to Boston on November 14th, 1941, to debate with the W.S.P. on "Catholic Communism versus Socialism." The W.S.P., commenting on the debate, state: "We analysed the Labour Encyclicals of the Pope in which the Catholic Worker claims to base its action. The general idea behind this organisation is to foster co-operative farms, soup kitchens, Catholic trade unions, and plenty of prayer. It is meant to attract the awakening Catholic workers and to emasculate their efforts for social emancipation." The attendance, and the resulting sales of literature were fair.

On November 23rd they debated successfully with the "Socialist Party of America," whose representative declared: "There are going to be wages paid in the Socialism I want" . . . "Investment banking and money will be absolutely necessary." The W.S.P. had no difficulty in dealing effectively with such nostrums. The Boston local, under whose auspices the debate was held, report that literature sales and the collection were excellent.

Harvard University sent three speakers in December 14th to debate with the W.S.P. on "Only Socialism can abolish war." The U.S.A. had already been a war a week, and despite the general excitement which prevailed, the attendance was satisfactory, and the literature sales were good.

Their outdoor propaganda season was the best record. It was brought to a close of November 9th with an informal debate with the American Action Associates (a Catholic Action—isolationist group). This took place on Boston Common, and although the day was cold and drizzly, our comrades state: "We held an enthusiastic crowd of three hundred for almost three hours."

The Western Socialist
The latest issue of the Western Socialist has reached us, and although it was published before the American-Japanese clash, it contains a revealing article on the reasons why the clash of these two rival powers was inevitable.

Exceptionally good articles dealing with the status of the negro population of the U.S.A., and the position of the Jews in Capitalist society, are an attractive feature.

There is an outstanding article entitled: "We who are about to Live." It epitomises the attitude of that section of international youth which is becoming aware that only Socialism can remove the causes of the poverty, wars, and frustration, from which they suffer.

Free Offer
W.S.P. offer a free specimen copy of the Western Socialist. We urge our American readers in particular to take advantage of it, and for their convenience we set out below the address to which to send requests. For the benefit of our readers who are disposed to become subscribers at once, we also set out particulars of subscription rates.

News from Canada
Since the war started, our companion Party, the Socialist Party of Canada, has undergone many vicissitudes. Activities in most of their locals have been curtailed very severely, but contact is maintained with the headquarters in Winnipeg, and the locals undertake the distribution of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD in their respective territories.

Recent information from the General Secretary of the Party, however, reveals that activity is on the increase, notably in Victoria and Winnipeg. In the latter city the local has commenced an economic class which is proving attractive to members and sympathisers.

It is a source of great satisfaction to us in Britain that the S.P. of C. is continuing its support to the W.S.P. of the U.S.A. by means of financial aid, and articles for the Western Socialist.

To our comrades in the Western Hemisphere we extend our fraternal greetings, knowing that they will carry on with the only task worth while—propagation of Socialist ideas.

In a later issue we hope to bring our readers news of our companion parties in Australia and New Zealand.
H. G. Holt, Overseas Secretary.

Please send your requests for a free specimen copy of the Western Socialist to Workers' Socialist Party of the U.S.A.,
                       12, Hayward Place,
                                 Boston, Mass., U.S.A.

Subscriptions, which should be sent to the above address, are as follows :—

  • 18 issues (postage included)       . . . . . . 1 dollar 
  • 12 issues         ditto                      . . . . . . 75 cents.  
  • 4 issues         ditto                      . . . . . . 25 cents.