Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Einstein and common sense (1979)

From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Watch out, all you believers in common sense. Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879 and it is interesting to consider the effect of the scientific revolution caused by his theories on the "common sense" view of the world. 

In 1905 (while working in a patent office), Einstein published his first paper on Special Relativity ("On the electrodynamics of moving bodies"—Annalen der Physik). From two beautifully simple axioms (the principle of relativity and the constancy of the velocity of light), Einstein was able to come up with some startling results. One of the best known is the prediction that moving clocks run slow. To quote his original example: "Thence we conclude that a balance clock at the equator must go more slowly by a very small amount than a precisely similar clock situated at one of the poles under otherwise identical conditions". 

Another prediction that violates "common sense" is that the relative velocity of two observers moving directly away from each other, is not equal to the sum of their velocities. For example, if two spaceships move off from the earth in opposite directions at half the speed of light (relative to the earth) then their relative velocity will not be equal to the velocity of light (the answer predicted by classical physics and "common sense") but only 80 per cent of it. The original reactions to these apparently nonsensical theories were mainly hostile. W.P. Magie in his Presidential Address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science dismissed relativity theory, saying: 
"I do not believe there is any man living who can assert with truth that he can conceive of time which is a function of velocity or is willing to go to the stake for the conviction that his "now" is another man's future or yet another man's past."
The hostile reception to his theories meant that Einstein had to work for another four years in the patent office before he got a job as a physicist. 

The first experimental tests of relativity theory (Kaufman, Annalen der Physik 1906) were not compatible with Einstein's theory and favoured rival theories. But Einstein was not unduly worried: 
"In my opinion both theories have a rather small probability because their fundamental assumptions concerning the mass of moving electrons are not explained in terms of theoretical systems which embrace a greater complex of phenomena." (Mach, Einstein and the Search for Reality by G. Holton, p 651/2). 
In other words, Einstein was convinced of the correctness of his theories not because of the empirical "facts" but because of subjective factors such as the simplicity and beauty of the equations. Of course, later experiments revealed flaws in the earlier ones, and gave results compatible with relativity However, the opposition to the theory continued and even when Einstein won a Nobel Prize in 1921 it was only partly for his theory and partly for same comparatively minor work. 

There was also some more fanatical opposition, particularly in Germany and largely on political grounds (partly because he was a Jew and partly because be was thought to be attacking the great German philosophers like Kant). In 1934, twenty five years after the publication of his first paper on relativity, a book was published in Germany called 100 Authors Against Einstein. Typical of the relativity "sensible" attack was that by Professor Strehl: 
"The theory of Einstein is for me a functional deformation of reality, his framework of references, variable space and time coordinates, invariant velocity of light (in spite of variable limiting value) is not to my taste." (Die Naturwissenschaften II (1931) p 234/6). 
The relevant point is that "common sense" is based on generalisation of everyday experience in which bodies move very much more slowly than light, and that therefore the effects of special relativity are negligibly small. Attempts to extrapolate these laws to velocities approaching that of light (300,000 kms per sec) give results which are qualitatively wrong. To physicists working with particles moving with velocities within a fraction of a percent of the velocity of light, the effects of special relativity are so common that the laws of relativity become part of their "common sense". 

An analogy between relativity and socialism should not be taken too literally, but what should be remembered is that the history of science is full of revolutions which violated the prevailing "common sense" view of human nature (humans are innately greedy, aggressive and so on) because this view is based on generalisations made in capitalist society. The extrapolation of this view of human nature to a qualitatively different society — socialism — is therefore completely unscientific. Those people who reject socialism on these grounds are making just as big a mistake as those philosophers who rejected relativity because it violated the internal infallibility of Kant. 
Tony Weidberg

National Liberation (1992)

Book Review from the March 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

National Liberation by Nigel Harris. (I B Tauris, £24.95.)

Capitalism, argues Harris, has now become a single world economy in which international capital finds the frontiers which divide the world into 170 or so political states irrelevant. Governments are forced to take this economic reality into account by pursuing policies that allow the free movement of capital and commodities. 

A similar view was expressed by many in the Marxist tradition before the First World War. In fact, it was almost the mainstream Marxist view, though only a few like Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek and Bukharin drew the conclusion that this meant that nationalism no longer had any progressive role to play and so should be opposed by socialists. Harris, of course, is well aware of this, and his first chapter is an analysis and debunking of nationalism and its myths. He sees nationalism as we do—as a political creation imposed on people by states (and movements seeking to set up states) in the interest of the ruling class (or would-be ruling class) of those states. 

But in a sense, says Harris, the pre-First World War Marxists were proved wrong in that the war was followed by an increase in economic and political nationalism, not the decline that their theories implied. Indeed, "Marxism" itself came to be associated with economic nationalism so that today most of those in the world who call themselves "Marxists" are nationalists of one sort or another. 

Harris is a long-standing member of the SWP, but his book has been severely criticised by the leadership of that organisation who find its political implications disturbing. For if you hold that capitalism has become a single world economy in which national frontiers are irrelevant, this implies that you should also regard the nationalist programme of economic "independence" as reactionary. Harris, himself, does not explicitly argue that socialists should no longer support nationalist movements, but he does cautiously say that we can expect nationalism to slowly decline and implying that this would be a good thing: 
Thus, if politics were no more than a reflex of economics—as some of the cruder Marxists seemed to imply—the world ought to be within sight of the end of nationalism as a political force. On such a reading, it might survive as a cultural-linguistic concern, but the economic and political issue would be over for all except the economically least developed. Such an eventuality would once more restore the pre-1914 theorization. 
To adopt the pre-1914 Marxist position of opposition to nationalism as economically reactionary is the last thing the SWP leaders want, as it undermines their whole case of supporting such groups as the IRA, the Sandinistas, Pan-Arab Nationalism and the like, as well as support of countries like Iraq when at war with more powerful capitalist powers. They are forced to stand by their dogma that nationalism has some progressive role to play and that state capitalism in one country is something to be supported, so placing themselves amongst those Harris calls "the last quixotic defenders of a world of national State capitalisms, replacing the tyranny of the market with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy". 
Adam Buick

Southern discomfort (1989)

Film Review from the August 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

By any standards Mississippi Burning directed by Alan Parker is a very forceful piece of cinema and watching it made me realise that the horror and despair I experienced, when the three young Civil Rights activists were murdered in Mississippi in the 1960s, were still there.

The three were arrested on a trumped up speeding charge when in fact their 'offence' was to encourage the blacks to take what was in constitutional theory their right—to register to vote. They were held by the police until the local Ku Klux Klan could organise a lynching party and then they were released for the klan to murder them and bury their bodies in the earthworks of a dam. The FBI came down to investigate (the suspected crime was not murder, which had to be left to the State police, but violation of federal rights), found the bodies and brought a number of people to court among them the town's sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff was acquitted, the others went to prison.

Mississippi Burning—Hollywood's version of that gruesome incident—has been criticised for the way it it embroiders and distorts the facts, introducing elements of heroism into a story that was sordidly drab. For example, in the film the case is cracked—the FBI break open the cocoon of silence woven around the murderers by local people—through some subtle ingratiation by Gene Hackman and some not-so-subtle intimidation by his henchmen, which makes for a watchable film but does not fit the reality that it happened through the unheroic process of bribing witnesses. A lot of the film is concerned with the struggle between Hackman, a rough, tough ex-sheriff turned FBI agent, and his boss played by Willem Dafoe who is a serious, sharp-suited college boy. Dafoe tries to insist that the investigation sticks to 'Bureau procedure' while Hackman itches to behave more like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. There are no prizes for guessing who comes out on top and whose methods are eventually used. If it didn't turn out that way it would not have been half as gripping a film and there wouldn't have been so many opportunities for the audience to relieve its tension in vengeful laughter, which swamped out any doubts about means and ends.

Case Against Racism
Among the film's bits of fable—like Hackman silencing and humiliating the town's most rampant racist thug by grabbing and squeezing his balls (at which more of that laughter)—it makes out its case against racism. Dafoe reminds us that racism is not a local problem but a social curse, rooted in widespread ignorance. Hackman remembers his father, a poor white farmer who enviously poisoned the mule of a more successful black neighbour. Revealing himself in this way helps him win the confidence of the deputy sheriff's wife, so she feels able to burst out with the frustration of trying to be humane when she was surrounded by a bigoted hatred which she had grown up with, and had married.

Compared to the millions wiped out by capitalism every year, compared to what the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships did, compared to what was being unleashed in Vietnam at the time, three deaths seem of little numerical account. The horror stems from the fact that they were part of a long history of repression which had conditioned the people of the South into accepting that anyone with a black skin was fair game for anything white people chose to do them. It stems from the tension in the communal condonement of the murders and in the savage intimidation of any possible witnesses. It is a response to the ruthlessly destructive passion in defence of a diseased and doomed limb of prejudice.

Right to Vote Not Enough
And the despair is born of what has happened since then. In the 1960s segregation was crumbling under pressure from the economic, commercial and military needs of American capitalism. It still needed massive courage by the Civil Rights workers (the three in Mississippi knew exactly how terrible were the risks they ran) until now the American blacks are pretty well established as a voting force, which has had its effect on the face of politics there. All over the country, including the South, blacks are elected to public office. But it is not enough, just to win the vote; it must be used with an awareness of why society operates as it does and a will to change it. The case of the American Negro offers plenty of evidence in support of that argument.

Mississippi Burning is a powerful indictment of racist bigotry but it leaves us with the question: if there was indeed some kind of triumph of human qualities in Mississippi in those awful days, is it really represented now by the likes of Jesse Jackson?"

Blood on their hands (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 7 January this year Pol Pot was toppled from power, and a few days later the founding of the People's Republic of Kampuchea was announced, the president being Heng Samrin. The new government was installed in power with the help of Vietnamese troops, and was very much a Vietnamese creation. The Heng Samrin regime was immediately recognised by the Russian-bloc states, but most countries still regard the Khmers Rouges as the "legitimate" rulers, in spite of the horrors they inflicted on the country and manifest fact that they control no more than a small part of its territory. Norodom Sihanouk, who has distinguished himself solely by often and abruptly changing sides. has prostrated himself before the United Nations, begging for international assistance and support for the barbarians who helped destroy his country. Kampuchea and its people have become entangled in a web of hypocrisy, deceit and suffering which is remarkable even by capitalism's gruesome standards.

China supported and supports the Khmers Rouges, hence those western capitalist states which are becoming increasingly friendly with China and foresee better trade opportunities there are unwilling to upset them by supporting Heng Samrin. The Americans, having done their best to "bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age", as one of their more candid generals put it, raise their hands in horror at the sudden discovery that wars kill people. Meanwhile the Vietnamese rulers have taken a leaf out of Uncle Sam's book and installed a puppet regime in Kampuchea. A treaty signed in March allows Vietnamese troops to be stationed in Laos and Kampuchea, enabling Vietnam (and its Russian mentor) to dominate Indo-China. This is basically what the dispute is about: over the last thirty years a succession of ruling classes have striven for control of Southeast Asia. After the defeat of the French and then of the Americans, the region was up for grabs between Russia and China. In spite of the Chinese attempt to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea by invading Vietnam, the Russians and their satellites have, for the moment at least, won the contest.

The losers, as ever, are the ordinary people, the peasants and workers of Kampuchea. Out of a 1975 population of around seven million, about three million are now believed to have died under Pol Pot. A further two million are currently starving as a result of the disruptions caused by evacuation and fighting. Only five per cent of the the country's arable land is under cultivation, and the food situation is likely to be even worse next year. Millions of pounds' worth of aid has been sitting around unused while presidents and prime ministers play their deadly games. Heng Samrin's regime has refused to allow the Red Cross to distribute aid to the Kampuchean population, on the grounds that this would mean sharing it with the Khmers Rouges and their supporters. And all the while, countless human beings die and suffer horribly, with their safest place the overcrowded and insanitary refugee camps in Thailand.

Anyone who thought that the defeat of American imperialism would lead to peace and prosperity for Southeast Asia has now been disillusioned. Post-"liberation" Vietnam has turned into such a paradise that hundreds have been prepared to risk drowning in order to escape, after the government has thoughtfully reduced the weight of the ships by relieving them of large sums of gold. Capitalist states like Vietnam and China are now exposed, to all but the willfully blind, as hypocritical murderers and oppressors no more deserving of support than Britain or the United States.

An "independent" country is simply one where a home-grown ruling class lord it over their subjects, to whom the nationality of their exploiters should be of no concern at all. Under capitalism, all countries are forced to behave like predators, including those that have but recently thrown off the "imperialist yoke".

No one who has seen, on their television, or in newspapers, the walking skeletons of Kampuchean children could fail to be moved. The instinctive response may be to dig into one's pocket, but charity will not prevent such horrors happening again and again. Starvation may be rare in industrialised countries nowadays, but for a large proportion of humanity it is it is either an everyday experience or an ever-present threat. It is capitalism, with its inequalities and its wars and its artificial shortages, that is responsible for this situation.
Paul Bennett

Editorial: Capitalism unleashes war (1991)

Editorial from the February 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

So capitalism has again unleashed the horrors of war. The Socialist attitude is clear. Wars are never justified from a working class point of view. They are fought by capitalist states over sources of raw materials, trade routes, markets and investments. None of these are issues of concern to wage and salary workers, the majority in society.

The present war in is a particularly blatant example of the sort of issue wars are fought over under capitalism. What is at stake for both sides is quite clearly control over oil supplies and trade routes. Everybody knows this, and the propaganda machines of the Western powers are having great difficulty in portraying it as a war for "democracy" and "our way of life". With the official war aim being to restore the filthy-rich Al Sabah dynasty to rule over and exploit the the people in the puppet-state of Kuwait and with mediaeval and religious fundamentalist Saudi Arabia where women are not even allowed to drive cars as the main local ally, this is hardly surprising.

Iraq is being attacked, under the flag of convenience of the United Nations, because its emergence as a strong regional power with expansionist ambitions represents a threat to Western domination of the area and a challenge to the security and free flow of Western oil supplies "at market prices".

This gives the Iraqi ruling class a propaganda advantage. They can truthfully present the war as one waged by Western powers to protect and further their imperialist interests. But Iraqi workers should not be fooled. They are members of the international working class who have been conscripted by a particularly brutal local ruling class to fight for its interest in having a secure trade outlet to the sea and in building itself up as the dominant regional power. Issues, once again, that are not ones of concern to them as wage and salary workers. Iraqi workers, like those of the Western countries and their local allies, will be dying for interests which are not theirs.

The outbreak of any war is an unmitigated disaster for the working class. It is the workers who are hired or conscripted to do the fighting, the destroying, the killing - and the dying. It is workers and their families who suffer from the bombings, the destruction, the restrictions, the famines and the epidemics that accompany all wars. War brings nothing but suffering and misery.

This is why, as Socialists representing the working class interest, we are opposed to all wars. always. We are not prepared to support under any circumstances the killing and maiming of our fellow workers in the pursuit of capitalist profits. Ideally, from the point of view of the working class within capitalism, it would have been better if the capitalists had settled this conflict peacefully and, now that the war has started, it should stop immediately. Unfortunately this can only be wishful thinking. Capitalism does not work that way. War will always be a policy option invoked by capitalist states from time to time.

We denounce the war as yet another example of the barbarous nature of the capitalist system and call upon our fellow workers in all countries to unite even more urgently to bring the war-causing capitalist system to a speedy end by establishing in its place a world socialist society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth's resources by all the people of the Earth.