Monday, July 6, 2015

Food for Thought (2015)

From the July 2015 Socialist Party of Canada Newsletter

- In mid-town Toronto a building is being demolished so they can build condominium apartments there. That's nothing new but what is unusual is that some people are upset that this is the only building in the world built during the brief reign of King Edward VIII that bears his logo. To satisfy these outraged citizens, the developers have agreed to preserve the facade. We have global warming, war, terrorism, poverty and hunger, Ebola, and so on, and these people get upset at the supposed disrespect to the memory of a playboy/parasite, a guy who was not up to the herculean task of shaking hands and making boring speeches prepared by someone else, and used his girl friend as an excuse to get out of those onerous tasks. For a system built on 'value', Capitalism sure distorts people's values.

- An analysis by Andrew Powell-Morse of ticket market place Seatsmart showed that lyrics of pop songs have fallen to the intelligence of eight year-olds. This was his finding after analyzing 225 songs that had spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard charts for pop, country, rock, R & B, and hiphop for any given year in the last ten. In the final reckoning, it's a degenerate culture reflecting a degenerate economic system where anything goes as long as it makes money.

- The New York Times of June 21 included an article by a Brazilian commenting on his country's economics in the last few years. He, Like many others were optimistic in 2003 when Lula de Silva and his Workers' Party came to power with the expectation that the old inequality and oppression of previous administrations would blossom into an equal and just society. Now the old disappointment has returned as corruption scandals, an economic recession, and opportunistic alliances with former rivals have returned the working class to virtually where it started. The Brazilians should have known better – as long as you have capitalism, you will have inequality, insecurity, and, of course, the class system.

- Pope Francis has used his position to speak out for the poor and to put an emphasis on serving the poor. He has invited Latin American priests who founded a movement for social change (once scorned by the church authorities as Marxist, can you believe!). Murdered arch bishop Oscar Romero, shot to death in 1980 has bee beatified (?) and is one step away from sainthood. Pope Francis wants to create a 'poor church for the poor' to get closer to the masses. All this, of course, will do nothing to alleviate poverty and cynic might say the church is looking for more people they can frighten into believing.

- The International Monetary Fund has issued a report detailing the high cost of burning dirty fuels (New York Times May 31). It says that many countries are compounding the problem when their governments subsidize the price to below cost and not taxing the products enough to account for the damage that burning fossil fuels causes to human health and to the climate. The IMF calculates that subsidies this year will amount to $5.3 trillion or 6.5% of the world's gross domestic product. Not surprisingly, the biggest polluters such as China and the US account for $2.3 trillion and $699 billion respectively. Staggering figures when we are so short of cash for health, education, proper infrastructure etc. But even worse is the estimate that eliminating subsidies and taxing higher would reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution by fifty-five per cent, or about 1.85 million yearly!

- In the journal of our companion party in the UK, mention is made of the fact that in Qatar thousands of labourers from Nepal are treated no better than slaves. Companies handling construction work for the 2022 World Cup of Soccer infrastructure forced them to stay by denying them promised salaries and withholding necessary worker ID permits making them illegal aliens. The precarious situation created by the employers has forced the workers to beg for food. Thousands of Nepalese workers in Qatar face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern day slavery as defined by the International Labour Organization. So whether its slave labour camps in North Korea, sweat shops in the third world, or workers in Qatar, slavery continues, not to mention wage slavery. Capital will find a way to keep nineteenth century conditions going in the name of profit. Socialists advocate not the abolition of these conditions, but the abolition of the economic system that causes it.

- Bill and Hilary Clinton recently revealed that since January 2014, they have received more than $25 million for giving one hundred speeches. Contrast that with the fact that millions are trying to survive on less than a dollar a day. Surely one must wonder if there isn't something wrong with the way society works. What were the Clintons saying in their speeches? Whatever the content, the theme never changed, 'preserve the status quo'. Socialists say damn the status quo, let's work for a world without such outrageous extremes.

- A recent edition of "America Unearthed" took place in Rockwall, Texas, so named for the underground wall in a rural area that is thought to have once been above ground. The limestone wall measures three miles by five and a half feet and is seven stories high. Is it man-made or natural? We do not know. Many geologists and archeologists have analyzed it and do not publish their findings because big developers do not want the site to become an archeological attraction, presumably because it could be a lucrative development. Money talks, good intentions walk.

- Here's an example of how a government or an influential (read wealthy) person can get their agenda across to the masses. The Toronto Star (May 30), reports, "Deep inside a four-storey marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside." Known as Kremlin trolls, they work twelve-hour shifts flooding the internet with propaganda aimed at stamping Putin's world vision on Russia and around the world. One worker referred to going to work as entering an Orwellian universe. Bashing out 160 blogposts on each shift, they simply repeat what they are told. For this they are relatively well paid at 40 to 50 thousand roubles a month ($950 to 1,250 Canadian). Obviously, Putin has large amounts of cash at his disposal. This type of activity is used by big capital such as the coal industry in the US touting that coal is clean and environmentally green, or tobacco or sugar soaked food is good for you. The ideas of an epoch are those of the ruling class.

- "Plan to rehire 4,000 Greeks leaves Europeans aghast as a 1.2 Billion Euro bill becomes due." was the secondary headline in an article in The Toronto Star (May 30). Imagine, how horrifying it must seem to the economists that four thousand cleaners and civil servants who lost their jobs to austerity cuts ordered by Greece's creditors, should have a chance to earn a living again! Apparently, according to economic think tanks, German and French families (of four) would be on the hook for 4,350 Euros given that the total figure will be $160 billion of French and German exposure to Greek debt should an exit from the European Union be necessary. Why the families would foot the bill when the capitalists expropriate most of the wealth is another matter.

- The World Health Organization recently reported that air pollution is killing hundreds of thousands of Europeans each year and released figures to prove it. Six hundred thousand died prematurely in fifty-three European countries in 2010 due to fine particles in the air. Nine out of ten Europeans are exposed to a concentration above WHO guidelines. The annual cost to governments is $1.6 trillion due to the premature deaths and related illnesses. That figure represents ten per cent of Europe's gross domestic product. The worst country is Georgia that lost thirty-five per cent of its GDP for this reason. Some point to Sheffield's efforts to clean its air and Sweden's clean-up of its lakes, but it's a case of too little too late. However, it's not too late to support socialism and get cracking on the right track to solve the problem.

- The Toronto Star (May 23) reported that after ISIS took control of Palmyra two hundred and eighty soldiers and citizens loyal to the Assad regime were executed and let their bodies lie in the streets as a warning to all who would oppose them. Shades of Bloody Sunday, Tiananmen square, and hundreds of other atrocities over the years. With a world still divided into competing entities this is bound to continue in one form or another. The end of capitalism and the establishment of socialism will be the end of humankind's prehistory and the beginning of our real history.

- Well, at last we know why there are huge income gaps between the workers and the owning class. A team of (vulgar) 'economists' has put out a research paper that states that income gap is not due to differences between high and low earners in one company, but rather the difference is due to the widening gap in wages between different companies. Take Apple and McDonalds, for example, pay differences are not because the executives are getting greater increases than the ordinary workers but because the average pay at Apple rises faster than at McDonalds. Obviously another attempt by capitalist toadies to explain away the gap. It's still there and getting bigger, but notice no mention is made of the idle investors who are raking in the money faster than anyone and giving no equivalent for what they get.

- It sometimes seems that the environment and global warming have disappeared from the news, from election platforms, from the public consciousness. This is a result of a major planned effort on the part of think tanks and editors in many places. Also, the doubters were handed information from a UN study in 2013 that claimed that warming of the earth was slowing down. Now a research paper from the scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that contradicts the UN report has been published. According to NOAA the rise in temperatures since 2000 have been 'virtually indistinguishable' from the rate of the previous five decades. "A whole cottage industry has been built by climate skeptics on the false premise that there is currently a hiatus in global warming" (Toronto Star, June 6). Strange how that kind of news can get into the media.

- Under Ontario's Employment Standards Act, that is now under review, there is no limit on how long a company can employ workers as temporary before giving them permanent status. There is nothing to prevent employers from paying temporary workers less than those on permanent status (if there is such a thing today!). There is nothing to prevent them from hiring their entire work force on a temporary basis if they wish. To quote the head of Toronto's Workers' Action Centre,"If the employer knows he can hire you and doesn't have to pay benefits, doesn't have to pay you a pension, and can hire you for a lot less, there's no incentive for him to hire you permanently." This is especially so as the average wage for temporary workers is $15 per hour compared to $22.40 for permanent workers. Making workers permanent would, naturally, cut into profits. Changes to the above act, if legislated, could improve conditions for some temps but socialists say let's legislate the act to put capitalism out of business where squabbling over meagre handouts from capital will be a thing of the past.

- Barack Obama is calling for federal legislation that would require companies to guarantee workers' paid sick days. At present, forty million American workers do not get paid if they are off work sick. Since San Francisco started sick pay for city employees in 2007, nearly twenty cities and three states have also passed sick pay laws. McDonald's and Walmart stores are both making changes to their sick pay policies. We can only guess that this is to stem the growing discontent among the work force experiencing the stress that capitalism creates.

- The good news from the city of Toronto is that the city has a $190 million surplus from the 2014 budget year. Don't get too excited, though, much of that surplus comes from not hiring staff to fill positions when city workers retire or quit, a total of 1,200 jobs. This fact is not as newsworthy as a surplus so it doesn't make the headlines. Now, transportation services say they cannot repair the roads and Parks and Recreation will not be able to prune the trees. Our services are continually being cut back in spite of greater wealth being produced so that more of the profit can be taken by those who simply hand money over to professional investors and contribute nothing.

- On May 28, political and business leaders from fifty-eight countries came together for an economic conference that included Middle East youth unemployment on the agenda. The rate for unemployment there is the world's highest at 29.5%. As a former Jordanian labour minister said,"If the unemployed do not find a decent living, they look for the alternatives and the alternative is the so-called Islamic State." A delightful choice for the youth anywhere and a typical one under capitalism where those in need do not get much choice at all.

- As a school bus driver for nine years, one SPCer notes that the younger the students are, the more they chat, interact, and enjoy each others' company. Conversely, the older they are, the less they socialize and become engrossed in their electronic devices. With internet, email, texting, etc. people are less interested in each other. That is proved by the fact that membership in historic social clubs has decreased all over the world. The technology is wonderful but has de-humanized us. It is interesting to speculate how this and future technology will be used in a socialist world.

For socialism, John & Steve.

Chicago aftermath (1971)

Book Review from the June 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trial by Tom Hayden. (Jonathan Cape. Paperback. 70p.)

Television gave us almost the ultimate in exposure of the Chicago conspiracy trial. To anyone who saw the box's account of the blatant partiality of Judge Hoffman, the gagging of Bobby Seale, the clowning of Rubin, can a book offer any more? Perhaps; the trial began a determined marketing of its personalities and here is another episode.

In truth Hayden's account of the trial (a small part only of the book) is compellingly written with his anger flooding out of him. Gagging Seale, for example, was an obscene thing to do; now, says, Hayden, they are researching a plastic booth for troublesome defendants.

But apart from the anger what else is there? Well there is the predictable mysticism about youth, which has it that
. . . "youth" is more important than "economic class" in analysing the American struggle.
(Note those quotation marks. Is "economic class" a reality of capitalism or not?) There is confusion over the uses of violence in politics, when the Nazis and the Klan and the Chicago police should have cleared it all up—Hayden writes admiringly of the Weathermen. And there is the customary, wearisome left wing preoccupation with "tactics"—tactics for everything, for the trial, for the day-to-day struggle, for the revolution except that we are so strung up with tactics that we never actually get there.

Hayden makes some suggestions which can only have originated in a left-winger's private cloud-cuckoo land. This, after all, is capitalism; yet he whines that his lawyers should have been allowed to argue, not just about his guilt, but about the merits of the laws under which he was charged.

He is starry-eyed about the emergent capitalism of North Vietnam and about the patriotism of its people (as if that made them right) and thinks that it all has something to do with Socialism. There is a long, rambling section on the "New American Revolution" which talks about "self determination for our internal colonies" and "Free Territories in the Mother Country", which Hayden elaborates as "liberated zones"—if that makes it any clearer or more feasible. One wonders why, when the simple sanity of Socialism gets hardly a mention, such crackpot ideas should be so popular.

And finally there is this statement, which Hayden considers sufficiently brilliant and penetrating to merit italics:
The chief contradiction in America is between a moribund, decadent system and all those people with a stake in the future.
Such vacuity is easily recognised by anyone who understands the contradictions of capitalism and who knows that they can be defined simply and undramatically. While there are people like Hayden to push for other forms of capitalism instead of Socialism, capitalism can hardly be described as moribund.

Read this book only of your boredom tolerance is pretty high, or if you have ever wondered what lefties mean when they talk about crap.

The Cult of the Professional Revolutionary (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

A cult is generally considered to be a group that indoctrinates its members into regarding themselves as a select group different from the rest of society. Some, but by no means all, such groups seek to isolate themselves. A typical example would be the closed Plymouth Brethren who avoid association with “the ungodly” (you and me). But others, such as the Scientologists and the Moonies actively engage with the rest of society in order to gain new recruits.

Cults are organised around a charismatic leader whose views are regarded as authoritative. The leader is surrounded by a group of seconds who transmit his or her views to the other followers. New members are encouraged to break off all relations with their previous life, often to change their name and surrender their property to the group; they are encouraged to identify totally with the group and to subordinate their individuality to it.

In some cases so total is the identification that the followers can be persuaded to voluntarily follow their leader in committing suicide, as notoriously in 1978 when some 900 members of the “Reverend” Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult committed mass suicide in Guyana and in 1997 when 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult did so in California. The 7 July suicide bombers in London could be another example.

But how can humans be persuaded to kill themselves for what most people can see is a delusion? A recent attempt to explain this has been made by Janja Lalich in her book Bounded Choice, subtitled ‘True Believers and Charismatic Cults’ (University of California Press). Her explanation is given in the book’s title: by means of a number of psychological techniques to which the cult members voluntarily, and often eagerly, submit, they come to so identify themselves with the cult that their freedom of choice becomes limited - “bounded” - to those offered by its ideology, however bizarre this might be.

Thus, for instance, in the Heaven’s Gate cult, which is one of her two case studies, the members came to believe that they really were aliens who had assumed human form and who were striving to return to their previous higher level of existence. Given this core belief, it was a logical - “bounded” - choice to decide to leave their human bodies, considered as mere “vehicles”, to await rescue by an alien spaceship their leader told them was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that was then passing by the Earth.

From 1975 to 1985 Lalich was a member of a Maoist group in San Francisco called the Democratic Workers Party. This is her second case study. Having ourselves been many times labelled a “sect” we are naturally wary about the concept of a cult being applied to political organisations. But Lalich makes out a good case for describing the DWP as a cult - in view of the type of organisational and psychological techniques employed, as by some religious groups, to weld the members to their organisation and its leaders - though one, of course, more like the Moonies than the Closed Brethren. And it is true that the Leninist principle of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries does, outside the political context of an openly repressive regime, lend itself to the would-be professional revolutionaries being organised as a cult.

We are of course opposed to Leninist organisational methods but we can see how, in the context of Tsarist Russia, a vanguard party organised on hierarchical and secretive lines would be one political option for anti-Tsarist revolutionaries, even if not a socialist form of organisation. The Bolshevik Party could not legitimately be called a cult; it was a political organisation. But why, in conditions of relative political democracy allowing people to organise openly, would some want to organise on such a basis? Why would anyone want to organise a corps of professional revolutionaries when there was no political necessity to do so?

The DWP aimed to be a party of disciplined, full-time professional revolutionaries under a strong leader, dedicated to serving the cause of “the proletariat” (perceived, in accord with Leninist theory, as being incapable of acting by and for themselves). The party was organised on a hierarchical basis with the Leader at the top surrounded by a small staff, an intermediate level of department heads (appointed and revocable by the top leadership) and the ordinary rank-and-file members.

There were three levels of membership: trial, candidate and general:

“All General Members had full voting rights and were considered full-time, which meant they were to be on call, at the Party’s disposal, twenty-four hours a day. Trial Members had no rights; they were to learn. If the Trial Membership stage was passed (based on study, level of participation and good behavior), then appropriate leadership personnel commended that the young militant be moved up to the status of Candidate Member, with partial political rights”.

As in the Heaven’s Gate cult, all members had to adopt a new name:

“Once a Party name was chosen, only that name was to be used; and immediately new members learned others’ Party names. Militants were never to reveal their real name to other members, not even to roommates. Party names were used in all meetings or gatherings, in all DWP facilities and in all houses where members lived. For the new member, taking on a name was the first stage in losing his or her pre-Party identity and assuming a Party-molded one”.

And to sacrifice their income and property:

“The dues structure was set up so that each militant gave over all monies received above a group-determined living amount, set at approximately poverty-level standards. All monetary or substantial gifts (such as a car), job bonuses, legal settlements, and inheritances were turned over to the Party”.

The poverty-line income forced members to live together in communal houses, thus making them even more dependent on the party and its leaders. Its leader (one Marlene Dixon) did not have to live on the poverty line, but had other members assigned to cook and clean for her.

The DWP was committed to the Leninist concept of “democratic centralism”. On paper this means that there is a full discussion of some policy document but that, when it has been adopted, all members, including those who voted against it, have to be committed to carrying it out. Some Leninist groups do try to operate on this basis, allowing the preliminary democratic discussion, but not the DWP. According to Dixon, in a document entitled ‘On the Development of Leninist Democracy’:

“[D]emocracy is a method for the selection of leadership and a method of assuring that the most developed and tested comrades, the cadre, the bones of a Leninist party, govern the party”.

What this meant in practice was:

“[T]he leaders would give a presentation on a change in direction of some work, or would open a denunciation of a militant for some error. Each militant present was expected to say how much he or she agreed with what was just said”.

Members were subject to public sessions of criticism and self-criticism in which they had to confess to any “petty bourgeois” failings or lapses the leadership pointed out to them. There were also sanctions for breaches of discipline (and even a security service trained by an ex-Marine):

“Given the emphasis on obedience and discipline members understood that they could be sanctioned for not following rules or for in any way breaking the discipline. Militants were ‘punished’ in a variety of ways besides submitting to collective criticism sessions and writing self-criticisms. More practical sanctions, for example, were increased quotas, extra work duty, demotion from a particular position or function, removal from a practice, and instructions to leave a workplace or cease contact with a particular person. In more serious cases, there were periods of probation, suspension, or even house arrest (which could mean being confined and guarded by security forces)”.

It might be wondered why the members put up with such a regime. Lalich’s explanation is, once again, “bounded choice” in that they had convinced themselves, and had had this conviction continually reinforced by the group’s practices, that such a hierarchically-disciplined party was necessary to further the cause of the proletariat. In the end they didn’t put up with it. When Dixon was away on a trip to Europe in November 1985 the other leaders, including Lalich, met and decided to expel Dixon and dissolve the organisation.

It’s a disturbing story but is one consequence of the application of the Leninist theory of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries in conditions other than a political despotism. All Leninist groups engage in some of the practices described by Lalich, for instance, different levels of membership, leadership-dominated meetings and a willingness on the part of the members to be told what to do. That doesn’t mean that all Leninist groups are cults in the sense that the DWP was. But some are. It is clear, for instance, from their external behaviour that the Sparticist League (who publish Workers Hammer) must be and there is documented evidence that the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière and the 'left communist' International Communist Current are. In his 1999 book La vraie nature d’Arlette (‘The True Nature of Arlette’ - Arlette Laguiller, LO’s permanent presidential candidate) the journalist François Koch describes LO militants as “soldier-monks”, because of their self-imposed life-style (marriage and children are discouraged so that the professional revolutionary has only a loyalty to the group). In 2000 a group of ex-members of the French section of the ICC published a pamphlet Que Ne Pas Faire? (‘What Is Not To Be Done?’) which exposed similar practices to some of those described by Lalich in the DWP (an older, charismatic leader; adoption of a new name; an order-giving hierarchy; interrogations; a security service).

Because these organisations use some of the same terminology as we do - even to the extent of allowing us to engage in an apparently rational debate with them over the best way to get rid of capitalism - this sort of thing discredits the whole idea of socialism and organisation for socialism. Fortunately, a Leninist vanguard party of professional revolutionaries is not the only way that those who want socialism can organise. There is another way, which we in the Socialist Party have adopted and practice: an open, democratic organisation in which all members have an equal say and in which policy is made by a conference of mandated branch delegates or by a referendum of the whole membership; in which there is no leadership and where the executive committee’s role is merely to carry out policy decided by conference or the membership, apply the rulebook, deal with correspondence, pay bills, etc without having any policy-making powers.

With such an organisational structure it is simply inconceivable that anything remotely like what happened in the DWP could happen nor indeed like what happens in non-cultic but still leadership-dominated Leninist organisations such as the SWP.

Leninists imagine that workers are only capable of reaching a trade union consciousness and flatter themselves that their consciousness as a vanguard is higher. Actually, it’s the other way round. Most trade unions have democratic constitutions, even if largely these days only on paper. The Leninist theory of organisation is a throw-back to political conditions such as existed in Tsarist Russia, and its introduction into more politically-developed Western Europe following the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia has been an unmitigated disaster for the working class and socialism. As a theory of leadership it is anti-socialist and to be rejected on political grounds. In practice it can easily lead to such aberrations as the DWP and so is to be rejected on grounds of human dignity too.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Capital Needs Labour (2015)

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Tories, Labour and UKIP all say that immigration is a ‘problem’. As this is repeated by the media most people seem to think so too. But it is not immigration that is the problem. It’s xenophobia that sees it as one. Even from a capitalist perspective – let alone the socialist one which sees all workers as part of a worldwide class with a common interest – immigration is a good thing. This is well explained in the chapter on the subject in It’s the Economy, Stupid: Economics for Voters by Vicky Pryce, Andy Ross and Peter Unwin.

If workers are migrating to a country that means there are job opportunities there. In other words, that the capitalist economy is expanding there. As the authors point out:
‘ … if an area of the economy is expanding it will tend to have increased job vacancies and higher wages. Most fluctuations in migration levels are economic, and so such an area will tend to attract more immigrants and more incumbent labour’.
If they were logical – or rather, if they weren’t vote-catching politicians – Cameron and Osborne ought to be celebrating the figures showing increased immigration as a sign that the British economy is recovering from the slump. But they don’t, at least not in public.

Most migrants find jobs in the private sector, where employers only take on workers if there’s something in it for them – profit. The authors express this in this way (they are orthodox economists):
‘… immigrants are only employed in the private sector if they produce more than they are paid, so this ‘surplus’ productivity flows back into the rest of the economy’.
In other words, immigrant workers like local workers produce more than their keep, even if this surplus is pocketed in the first instance by their employers who hand over a part to the state as taxes before being able to re-invest any in expanding production with a view to profit.

One person who has openly recognised the link between immigration and an expanding economy is Tony Blair, but he’s no longer a serving politician who needs to think of votes. In the run-up to May’s election he undermined Miliband’s bid to garner anti-immigrant votes by saying, in the words of a headline in the Times (16 March), ‘I was right to let in eastern Europeans’:
‘The former prime minister rejected those, like Ed Miliband, who claim that the party was wrong to open the doors to workers from new EU members in 2004 rather than adopting temporary controls. He argued that, at the time of the decision, the UK economy was “booming” and needed “skilled workers from abroad”’.
Under capitalism labour, or more accurately labour-power (ability to work), is a commodity. Since new wealth, including more profits, can only be created by the application of this commodity a ready supply is essential to capitalism and its imperative to accumulate more and more capital. Before Britain joined the EU in 1974, while Germany, France and the Benelux countries got their extra labour from Italy and France’s colonies in North Africa, Britain got its from Ireland, the West Indies, India, Pakistan and other parts of its old Empire. After 1974 Britain’s source of extra labour shifted to Europe and, from 2004 when they joined the EU, to the countries of eastern Europe.

Even if British capitalism withdraws from the EU it will still need an outside source of extra labour. In any event, we will risk a prediction: Cameron won’t be able to cut back the movement of the commodity labour-power to Britain to the levels he has pledged, at least not unless he is prepared to hold back the accumulation of capital in Britain.

How the Liberals Lost London (1968)

Book Review from the March 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London 1885-1914 By Paul Thompson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 63s.

From the passing of the Third Reform Act to the First World War the Liberals in London depended for funds and local organisation on Nonconformist tradesmen and for votes on the working class.

As Thompson puts it:
The Liberal Party . . . was based on a working class majority and a middle class religious minority interest. Its difficulty was to rouse the enthusiasm of the one without alienating the funds of the latter.
This book is the story of their failure to do this. They came to be replaced by the Labour Party, a thoroughly opportunist outfit which stood for much the same as them but insisted that "Labour" be represented in parliament and on the local councils by people independent of both Tories and Liberals. The best hope for the Liberals lay in the development of the "Lib-Labs", drawing trade unionists into their local organisations. Their greatest success in this was in Battersea where former Social Democrat John Burns, of the engineers, became the Liberal MP and later the first member of the working class to enter the Cabinet. There were also those who called themselves Socialists—the Social Democratic Federation, the ILP and the Fabians. So there was a chance that the Liberals might have been replaced by a working class party openly claiming (as Labour did not till 1918) "Socialism" as its aim. The Fabians, as Thompson shows, have been able, thanks to loudmouths like Shaw, to inflate their own significance in this period both on the Liberals (for at first they stood for "permeation") and on Labour.

The working class in London was largely indifferent to religion. It had no nonconformist background. Quite the contrary, for there was a long tradition of secularism amongst politically minded London workers. It was this, argues Thompson, that opened the way for the SDF with its crude Marxism as the most successful "socialist" party in London rather than for the ILP with its moralizing that went down so well in the North. The working class in London at least saw through that and the ILP found their nonconformist vocabulary out of place. The SDF was a peculiar organisation. It was set up in 1884 with Hyndman as leader; it accepted the class struggle and pioneered the spread of Marxist ideas amongst the working class in Britain. It had two great drawbacks from the Socialist point of view: Hyndman and its programme of "stepping stones" to Socialism. These immediate demands differed little from those of radical Liberals. When the Labour Representation Committee (to become the Labour Party in 1906) was set up in 1900 the SDF was affiliated to it but withdrew the next year. The SDF then tried its luck at becoming an independent force. This was not unrealistic since it was clear that Labour really depended on the Liberals for seats in parliament (We now know that for the 1906 election there was a secret pact between Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone to let some Labourites in if they would stand down in other places). However, the SDF attacks on Labourism were a little disingenuous since on the local level they too made deals with Labour and the Progressives (as the Liberals called themselves for municipal politics).

In 1904 some former SDF members set up the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain which rejected such opportunism, had no "reform programme and declared that the party seeking working-class emancipation must be hostile to every other party". When it contested local elections there were no deals or compromises (Incidentally Thompson is wrong when he says that the Socialist Party scorned trade unions: we have always considered the economic side of the class struggle necessary though limited).

Off the Labour bandwagon the SDF failed to make headway. In 1907 it changed its name to Social Democratic Party and in 1911 became, with a few ILP branches and others the British Socialist Party. By 1914 it was back in the fold but by now it was clear that the Liberals were to be replaced by the non-Liberal, non-Marxist Labour Party.

When the war came the BSP split, with a majority against. These later disappeared into the so-called Communist Party. The others formed their own National Socialist Party and later became the SDF again, lingering on till 1939. The Socialist Party of course opposed the war and is still an independent party.

Thompson's book discusses the subject in great detail, perhaps in too great detail for the ordinary reader. Nevertheless it will be useful to all students of working class history. Interesting is his argument that "London with its lack of working class nonconformity and its secularist traditions offered no strong resistance to Marxist theory". For, for good or ill, our Party is in this London working class tradition with our complete opposition to anything that smacks of religion, our emphasis on understanding, education and rational argument, our leaderless democratic organisation, our opposition to all censorship and our open meetings.
Adam Buick