Wednesday, July 22, 2015

History—whose story? (1992)

From the September 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

We live in times of great change, uncertainty and bewilderment. For many it is hard to see where it is all leading. Empires fall; economies slump; morals are up in the air; riots; new national conflicts; New World Orders that are more wish than substance. Like in the inter-war years, the ruling class seem to be unsure quite what it is they are ruling—and for how long they will do so. The majority of people are a little numbed by it all. Better the devil you know? The atmosphere is one of expectation—often pessimistic and fatalistic, but the assumption is that everything in the known world might soon be not quite the same.

History is society's collective memory. In times of relative stability (capitalism is never stable, but there are some periods when social chaos is less evident) people do not have to worry very much about his­tory. For the conservative, happy with the present and sure that the future will be much like it, the future is a dull continua­tion of today, just as today is a tedious crawl forward from the days before it. In times of change and manifest social contradiction, such as the period we are living through, history becomes a highly contested area. The conservative needs to manufacture a history which teaches the lesson of keeping things as they are. Others will use history as a weapon to forge a different future. These others need not be positive forces in their enthusiastic future-building. For example, there are now plenty of emergent nationalist forces which are busily inventing histories in order to validate their own petty territorial claims. The romance of an idealized national story of the past is the stuff which gets young kids to enter the madness of losing limbs and leaving parents burying their sons in places like Bosnia or Belfast or Beirut or Palestine. The bullets follow the flag-waving rituals and they in turn follow the legendary histories which inspire a false consciousness of pride in our Land: the historically manufactured homeland which the past now calls upon the present to restore.

Flag-waving rituals
In the powerful nations history becomes a means of winning popular emotions to the cause of stability. An influential and well-funded Nostalgia Industry has long been used in Britain to persuade workers that there is something great about being British subjects. The glorification of war, the myths of national gallantry, the culture which emphasises homely values, the stately homes and the magical qualities attributed to the Royal past are all part of this museum-based ideology which all of us are urged to take in almost with our mother's milk.

The patriotic lager louts, handling their flags like medieval weapons which will be used to put the passing "frog" or "paki" in his place, are not grotesque monsters who came from nowhere; they are the children of a particularly sick historical consciousness (for which read unconsciousness) who are only mimicking the Great British past depicted to them through cartoon cinema and school book. Our rulers might be embarrassed by the drunken excesses of the ugly Briton on his mean hols in Benidorm or in the Heysel Stadium, but by and large this Union-Jack-loving moron is the success story of the conservative history project. Better the lout who will read the latest exploits of "his" Queen Mum in the Sun than anyone with real historical questioning: Why more war? Why have a monarchy? Why government? Why accept the present?

The minority who control this society (the capitalists and their salaried functionaries) are spending a great deal of time and money right now making sure that history becomes History: the story of our masters and their good reason to be our masters. Frank Furedi's Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age is a book which gives a very useful account of this battle by uncertain rulers to use the past. He looks at the history debate in Germany, Japan, the USA and Britain and draws the correct conclusion that in all of these countries fear is generating a return to what the rulers call "traditional values" in relation to history, but what is in fact a concerted effort to make it seem as if there can be no future except for the continuation of business as usual. As early as 1975, before becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher announced her historical agenda:
We are witnessing a deliberate attack on . . . our heritage and our past, and there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting British history as centuries of unrelieved doom, oppression and failure—as days of hopelessness, not of hope. (Quoted in J .H. Plumb, The Death of the Past, p. 18, London, 1986)
By 1984 one of Thatcher's favourite historians, Lord Elton, the Tudor expert, began his History of England by warning that in times of great social uncertainty and crisis people "can do with the corrective of a past that demonstrates virtue and achievement". Note the ideological language used here: Thatcher speaks of "our heritage" and "our past" and Elton writes not of the past but a past, almost confessing to the use of history as a means to an end, regardless of the objective validity of the past, offered as indoctrination. We know that there is now a major government move to censor school history, to ensure that the text-books uphold the official line, to pursue the Jesuit-like aim of taking children and infecting their minds with national imagery before they are old enough to think critically. Is it an overstatement to claim that the battle to monopolize history has been the greatest ideological enterprise of the capitalist class in the past decade?

As Furedi rightly states:
Historical thinking begins with the recognition that human intervention plays a key role in social development: from this perspective the present is no longer the product of an unchanging past but the result of the actions of human beings. His­torical thinking is directly antithetical to History . . . Whereas History argues that there is no escape from the past, historical thinking gives a decisive role to the subjective factor, to the potential for human action.
This is a crucially important distinction. For how many people is history—more precisely, History—a mere story, an objectified account, a process in which they must look on like loyal subjects at a Royal parade. In fact, to think historically is to become empowered; it is to see that out of the darkness of our rulers' past has emerged us—thinking, active, potentially revolutionary beings with a capacity to make our own history. It is beings like that—like socialists—who are the intended victims of the government's new control of History. They realize that while we are spectators upon history we are malleable; historically conscious we are a force that will combine intelligently and overthrow these useless parasites who monopolize the world and its resources.

Her story—not ours
Speaking of useless parasites, it is worth bringing to light a current episode in their History which is illuminating. In June, while the world looked on as futile talks between legalized robbers of the Earth were held in Rio, the British tabloids were filled with a story which it was decided everyone would want to hear. It seems that all is not well in the marriage of the future King and Queen. This is the pointless, empty, devalued History that they want us to be come excited about. Only now the teaching of historical truth is not to be entrusted to the universities and schools, where strange Marxist and feminist figures have been seen to lurk, but will be issued straight from the banner headlines of the Sun, like the old town-crier bringing the Lord's lies to the peasants.

The new historians of capitalism are drunken little low lives from the tabloids who insult us with their Orwellian Newspeak. One such time waster is Andrew Mor­ton, a journalistic errand boy for the Murdoch Empire, and now a rich man thanks to his horrible little book, Diana: Her True Story. Books about the Royals are always nauseating, but they cannot be dismissed with a joke and a dismissive frown; the magic of monarchy is linked with superglue to the myth of History as an everyday story of Them Up There being observed uncritically by Us Down Here.

The endless tales of monarchy and their extra-special goings-on are a classical example of what the historian E.H. Carr called "The Good Queen Bess" version of history. According to this, history is a story of Good or Evil characters and their exploits in a kind of grand, timeless soap opera. Thus it is that we are presented with Histories of Churchill winning the war, Stalin ruining the Russian Revolution, Thatcher causing the crisis or Kinnock destroying Labour's principles. As if these single beings lived in a vacuum and were immune from the laws of causation. Every act is an effect; every cause of an effect is itself an effect of another cause.

If Royalty matters it is not for who they are or what they do (they are pointless parasites, they do the occasional useful deed), but for what they represent. Ann Morrow, the Court correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote an odious little book once called The Queen in which she inadvertently made the point:
They are at the top of a structure which is confidently based on enormous amounts of money, lots of land, a lot of horses, based in a way on agriculture, and secure in the slow turning of the agricultural seasons. As an institution, British royalty works. It provides stability and continuity for the British.
It is taken for granted that the "stability and continuity" of this "structure" wherein a few at the top have "lots" of everything and most of us own hardly anything is a necessary and beneficial thing. What seems to have happened to the monarchy, which is essentially a feudal hangover, is that it has be come increasingly exposed to the crude realities of capitalism and has opened its doors, misguidedly from its own point of view, to crude capitalist daughters of millionaires like Di and Fergie. They have found the suffocating confinement of ritualistic life within a household which still imagines it was divinely appointed too hot to handle; they would rather be with their Sloane Ranger friends indulging in all of the uncontrolled and unpublicized indulgences which are the lifestyles of a very small number of extremely rich idlers. Fer­gie has already decided to leave the Royal soap opera and return to a life of endless partying, like a decaying aristocratic excrescence out of a play by Chekhov—who wrote about these useless dinosaurs better than any historian has. Di is in the difficult position of being unable to get out of her awful marriage to a man who, by Morton's account, is an uncaring and selfish swine because she is afraid of losing her children.

It is an irony of history that even Di, this caricature Princess created to bolster the symbolism of capitalist History, has herself become a victim of it. She is so depressed by her pointless life that she has several times tried to end it, is frequently in tears. has a depression-caused eating disorder and turns to the queerest psychic jokers and magicians for "therapy" . Capitalism must be an awful system if even its most elegant heroine can't stand living out her role any more. If she who has whatever she needs and more is miserable, what hope for the woman with two kids who must survive on income support and a husband who knocks her about?

We can make history
What is interesting about the Morton book—more interesting even than its account of Di's extremely rich background (which exposes the lie that she was just another commoner) and the vast number of people in her circle who were active Tories—is the evidence given that she really believed all the crap about her own importance. Morton's book confirms a suspicion that the ruling class really do imagine themselves to have been born with a mission to be special. If Thatcher did go slightly mad, as her critics have dared to suggest, it was for the same reason; after a while these people start to believe the ideological junk which tabloid myth-makers sit in pubs inventing about them. For example, Carolyn Bartholomew, described as Di's best friend, is quoted as saying:
I'm not a terribly spiritual person but I do believe that she was meant to do what she is doing and she certainly believes that. She was surrounded by this golden aura which stopped men going any further, whether they would have liked to or not, it never happened. She was pro­tected somehow by a perfect light.
Or maybe it was just B.O. It is rather sad to think of these people really believing in the fantasy histories which workers are fed in order to make Royalty believable. Such self-deceit can drive a person crazy, and seems to have done so. What use could these people be to anyone in a society of equality, co-operation and useful production? Charles, whose future wife was obliged to address him as "Sir" until the day he announced their engagement, has spent his early manhood making pious speeches from a position where he has never had to do a stroke of practical work which has given him anything but an aloof picture of the world around him.

This Royal diversion is part of a grand diversion which is what History—their story—is all about. It is the story of their gains, their marriages, their Empire, their importance and our deference to all of that. 

As socialists, who do not aim to change the world here or there, but to turn it on its head and cast aside the whole structure of property and its harmful relationships of exploitation and oppression, it is not as a sideline that we study, discuss and prepare to make history. For history is the struggle for the future—for our own future. If it is to be ours we must make it for ourselves, consciously and democratically. There is no other path to socialism. It was a myth of certain vulgar Marxists of the past that all we need to do is wait and inevitably history would deliver the socialist future to us. Change will not come that way. Indeed, the inevitabilism of vulgar Marxism is best answered in a passage by Marx himself:
History does nothing ; it "possesses no immense wealth", it "wages no battles". It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; "history" is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims."(Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 93)
History is too potent a weapon to be left to text-books or tabloids. It is bigger than the trivial lives of the grandest Princess. It is here, it is us, it is electrifying and exciting, and it is ours for the making.
Steve Coleman

Labour and the atom bomb (1985)

From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
Blogger's Note: This short piece was appended to the longer Hiroshima in the Making article that appeared in the same issue of the Socialist Standard.
It is sometimes forgotten that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place under a Labour government. Attlee was British Prime Minister at the time and was a member of the war cabinet involved with the American government in organising the development and production of the atomic weapon. As Prime Minister he had a representative at the bombing of Nagasaki.

In a speech at a Pilgrim's Dinner in London on 21 June 1956, referring to the action of President Truman, Attlee declared:
He had to take the decision about the atomic bomb. It is questioned sometimes. In my view in the light of the knowledge we had at that time, he was absolutely right.
(Daily Telegraph, 22 June 1956.)
One of the reasons given at the time to justify the atomic bombings was that they were necessary as a means of bringing pressure on Japan to sue for peace. However, in a written answer to the Liberal MP Horabin published in Hansard (Volume 431) on 19 December 1946, before declaring that it was known that "the Japanese leaders had previously been considering means of reaching a settlement more favourable to themselves than unconditional surrender", Attlee had carefully pointed out that:
No overtures for peace were made by Japan to the countries with which she was at war, prior to her acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration . . . (our emphasis).
In other words, Attlee admitted that Japan had made peace overtures before the dropping of the atomic bombs. It is also worth recalling that Truman's decision which Attlee regarded as "absolutely right", was a deliberate decision to bomb concentrated civilian populations. As an official American government publication on The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, published in 1946, put it:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population (p. 41, our emphasis). 
No wonder the Attlee Labour government had no qualms about deciding to develop a British atomic bomb and all subsequent Labour government no qualms about keeping it.

Do you Live in Poverty? (1974)

From the February 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Poverty is an emotive word which must be carefully defined. It cannot be defined by any given quantity or quality, whether of possessions or things freely available. Truly, it can only be defined as a relationship between the actual state of things and the potentiality. The native of a primitive tribal society who is free to help himself to the simple food, clothing and shelter of his environment does not live in poverty. As far as he is concerned he could not be richer because everything that he knows is there to be taken. The moment he becomes poor and dissatisfied is when he develops a greater knowledge of the world and discovers things previously unknown to him. He would develop new needs in response to his changed environment as he found new ways and means to satisfy his physical and social desires. If they were not satisfied he would consider himself deprived and living in poverty. 

The above process would occur if our primitive tribesman were suddenly transported to modern-day New York, London or Belgrade. Once he had found an employer (a euphemism for "user") he would now have a vastly greater standard of living but would be living in poverty. He would be denied access to most of the immense mountain of wealth which would be displayed, advertized, and given the hard-sell wherever he went. Despite the motorcars, colour TV, holidays abroad, etc., which provide the illusion of increasing social status, the various forms in which these and all other commodities are marketed shatter that illusion. They range from the cheap imitations and bare utility models (or futility if you expect them to work) and then gradually upwards to the top-class de-luxe models made for jet-set oneupmanship rather than use. This fact shows clearly the poverty that exists in capitalist society. The production lines of capitalism are geared not to producing good quality but to producing the poor quality that workers can afford. 

The popular theory of why workers live in poverty (i.e. the capitalists, Tory government, shopkeepers etc., putting up prices). is an indication of support for capitalism rather than opposition to it. It implies that if we only had such things as "fair" prices and "fair" wages we could all live in splendid affluence. Without inflation the working class would still live in poverty as they did before inflation "became" the cause of all our economic woes. The poverty of the working class is caused by the exploitation that takes place at the point of production and not by any robbery at the point of distribution, and Marx's Labour Theory of Value explains clearly how the exploitation occurs. 

The legalized, and in that sense perfectly "fair", robbery takes place when the worker, having sold his labour-power (ability to work) to some member or section of the capitalist class, gets to work with the machinery and raw materials already purchased by his employer and produces a new commodity. This new commodity has a greater value than the sum-total of its original components—the raw materials, the machinery, and the labour-power that produced it. This surplus value which is created comes solely from the unique character of labour-power which creates new value in the course of its use by the purchaser, the capitalist. The basis of exploitation lies in the fact that the value of all commodities is determined by the quantity and quality of labour required in their production. 

Surplus value is created because the capitalist does not pay for the workers' labour but for his ability to labour. Once the worker starts to labour, the work that he does no longer belongs to him; the capitalist has already bought his labour-power for a contracted period of time, and everything produced in that time is the capitalist's property. The value of the worker's labour-power is, like all other commodities, determined by the quantity and quality of labour needed for its production. This, simply stated, is the food, clothing, shelter, etc., that allows the worker to keep himself reasonably fit in mind and body for his work and also allows for the raising of children to eventually be fit for this purpose. The result of this is that: 
The worker receives means of subsistence in exchange for his labour power, but the capitalist receives in exchange for his means of subsistence labour, the productive activity of the worker, the creative power whereby the worker not only replaces what he consumes but gives to . . . [the capital laid out, on men, machinery, and materials] . . .  a greater value than it previously possessed,  (Wage Labour and Capital. 1970 Moscow ed. Page 30). 
This means that the working class must always live in poverty. Having no access to any means of production of their own, in order to live they must sell their ability to work to the owning class and produce a surplus. The increasing of this surplus is the inexorable motive-force of all capitalist production. It determines which sections of the capitalist class will best be able to expand and crush their competitors, and inevitably leads to the constantly increasing rate at which this surplus is extracted from the working class. No matter how high their living standards may increase, the workers' relative poverty only increases (profits, which give a deceptively low indication of the true rate of exploitation, increased at approximately double the rate of wages during the past year). 

To end this exploitation, whereby the working class gets ever poorer and the idle class ever richer, a revolutionary transformation in the whole basis of society is needed. The present class ownership of the means of life and the relations resulting from it must be completely abolished. Everything in the earth and on it must become the common property of the people of the world to be used to satisfy their needs and wants. Only by this can poverty be ended. 

The resources, the organizational ability, and the technology to do this exist today. What is lacking is the social organization that could control and utilize the productive forces in the most effective way. In capitalism a large proportion of these forces are used in the negative capacity of maintaining the divisions in society. The money system, which regulates exchange between owners and non-owners, would be totally unnecessary in a society where all the means and instruments of production and distribution would be commonly owned. The police forces, armies, navies, air forces, and all their expensive ironmongery which is used to maintain the ruling class's supremacy at home and abroad, would have no place in a society without classes or borders. 

Finally, the profit motive of capitalist production ensures that many of society's productive forces are never even used. All production is geared to what economists call "effective demand" which is not what people want but what they can afford to buy. This is why factories are closed, men made redundant, and automation plans shelved while people are still obviously still in need. In fact, one of the greatest problems of capitalist production is to avoid producing so much that prices will fall to unprofitable levels and warehouses and stores start to fill with unsaleable goods, 

The popular conception of Socialism (or Communism) is of sharing-out poverty by retaining the present social organization but dividing up the existing wealth equally among everybody. This idea is a moralistic fantasy that would probably end up in more vicious divisions than before. The poverty that exists today can only be ended by a real revolutionary transformation — the establishment of a world-wide community of free men and women in total control of the productive forces of society. This is what Socialism means, and it can only be established by your active participation in a world Socialist movement that accepts no compromise with poverty.
Con Friel

Hiroshima in the making (1985)

From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

The idea that the material world is composed of enormous numbers of exceedingly small entities called atoms was first propounded about 450 BC by the Greek philosopher Leucippus and his pupil Democritus. It was not until 1911, however, when Ernest (later Lord) Rutherford published a paper putting forward the nuclear model of the atom, that the proposition gained general acceptance. It may seem hard today to realise that the paper caused no commotion in the world of physics — Rutherford himself does not appear to have considered this discovery as the epoch-making event it turned out to be. In fact, this is not surprising since no commercial application could be envisaged for the work, unlike x-rays and radium which had obvious medical uses and were soon seen as potential sources of profit. 

Where no such profitable application appeared the research was funded largely out of universities' private resources and co-ordination between researchers depended largely on their own individual efforts. This situation was not to change until the stage had been reached when it began to look as though this decomposition of matter, occurring naturalIy in the radioactive materials, could be achieved artificially in a controlled manner to the extent required for a large explosion. The relevant work between the two world wars led to the discovery of the fission process and the possibility of a chain reaction. 

It would be too long a story to detail the steps by which these discoveries were made, but it is worth noting that the whole process, even if unco-ordinated, involved a large number of scientists of many nationalities. En route the dream of the old alchemists, of transmuting one element into another, was realised although the end product was not as they had envisaged, By 1939 it had been shown that nuclear combustion, releasing a million times the energy of chemical combustion, was indeed possible. 

When war broke out the scientists involved expressed considerable scepticism about whether an atomic bomb was feasible. The politicians were even more doubtful. Margaret Gowring recalls that Churchill at this time was more concerned that the so-called "fifth column" might exploit fears about "a terrible new uranium explosive" to force Britain to accept a surrender! (Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939-45, Macmillan, 1964.) Many scientists were directed to other vital war work at places such as the Royal Aircraft Establishment, although some uranium research continued at a very slow pace. A change in attitude was brought about as much by the fear that Germany might get a head start as any more rational consideration. A number of scientists who had fled from Nazi persecution gave assistance to the Allied powers and the teams competing in this grim race were truly international both in the sense of their composition and in the debt they owed to past knowledge. 

Eventually, in early 1940, the British government set up a small sub-committee under the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Warfare — which was to be known by its code name of the Maud Committee — to examine the available evidence and report back to the government on the chances of success. Their report, issued in July 1941, gave a positive answer and was remarkable in its prescience. Only in two respects was it deficient: it was two years early in its forecast of when a bomb would be ready and it erred in its assessment of the prospects of plutonium as a fuel (the Nagasaki bomb used this method). 

The stage had now been reached when uranium research was no longer the exclusive concern of a few individuals in universities. The horrors of atomic warfare could be envisaged fairly clearly, even though practical demonstration was still some way off. The Maud Committee were able accurately to compare the devastation expected from an A-bomb with known effects of TNT and they also had a reasonable understanding of the effects of radiation. They commented: . 
It is very difficult to estimate the extent of their [fission products] effect especially as the most important substances would be those of long life, which are the hardest to study under laboratory conditions. It does however seem certain that the area devastated by the explosion would be dangerous to life for a considerable time.
The conclusions of the Maud Committee and similar work in America led to a decision to manufacture. After Pearl Harbour, America went onto a full war footing, and they no longer saw any need to share their secrets with the British. Already they were looking ahead to the post-war world and resumed industrial competition — an attitude which led to considerable friction within the Alliance. The American capitalists saw the chance to supplant British interests in the latter's erstwhile colonies and Roosevelt appeared to side with Stalin against Churchill at some of the wartime conferences. The British reluctantly had to accept a very junior role in the A-bomb project, and virtually none in the decisions about dropping one in anger. 

Before any bombs were ready, however, Germany and Italy had surrendered and so the question was whether the weapon should be used against Japan. The politicians and militarists were still riddled with scepticism and it did not therefore figure prominently in their strategy. At first the British and Americans wanted Russia to enter the war with Japan. There were obvious problems about Russian entry, as clearly Stalin wanted to strengthen Soviet influence in Manchuria and in the territories lost to Japan in the 1904-05 wars. The Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek was party to negotiations over these issues and any agreements reached at the Yalta conference were clearly of an unstable nature. 

The first successful test on 16 july 1945 caused a change in the attitude to Russia, as the possibility of forcing Japan to surrender without help now loomed. Considerable disagreements surfaced over how Japanese resistance could best be ended. As early as September 1944, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that "when a bomb is finalIy available it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender ." (Gowring, M., op. cit., p.370). In May 1945 a brief but heated debate began in America, involving scientists as well as politicians and the armed forces. The case for warning Japan was argued in front of President Truman himself, A "harmless" demonstration of the bomb's power, perhaps with Japanese observers present, was proposed but the idea foundered on two main counts: there was still no certainty that the bomb would work, or that if it did it would induce surrender.

Deep divisions still existed after the successful test and it was impossible to get a consensus view in the necessary time. This may have been the reason why Truman later came to exaggerate and indeed to glory in the personal part he played. When Robert Oppenheimer regretted his part in the project, saying that he felt he had "blood on his hands", Truman told Dean Acheson. "Don't you bring that fellow around here again. After all, all he did was to make the bomb. I'm the guy who fired it off' (Pringle, P. & J. Spiegelman. The Nuclear Barons, Sphere 1985, p.95). 

One factor that is often understandably underplayed by official accounts was the strength of the "Peace Party" in Japan. It is quite incorrect to think of the country as completely dominated by a military caste headed by an autocratic Emperor. Gowring reports: 
The Peace Party had emerged within the Japanese Cabinet as early as April 1945, but it had to move with extreme circumspection in the face of fierce opposition from the military. However in July, while the Allied leaders were assembling at Potsdam, the Japanese Emperor himself authorised peace feelers through Russia. Japan, it was emphasised, would never accept unconditional surrender but was anxious for discussions about a negotiated peace. Stalin gave Mr Churchill an accurate account of these approaches . . .
Determined efforts to encourage the Peace Party were hindered by disunity in the Allied camp, and the Potsdam Proclamation to Japan, following the conference of that name, was a solemn warning of the destruction to come if they did not surrender forthwith. However it did not describe the new weapon and when Truman, after yet more internal debate, informed Stalin he merely said that America now had "a weapon of unusually destructive force". The Russians and Japanese, through their intelligence networks, probably had a good idea what was meant, but they could not say so openly. The Russians had in fact already started work on their own atom bomb. 

Three days after the Potsdam Proclamation, on 29 July, the Japanese Prime Minister announced that his government would ignore it, but four days later further peace feelers were sent through Moscow with "qualified admission of the Potsdam Proclamation as a basis of discussion". This however brought no response before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped on the now infamous 6 August a further appeal for surrender followed, failing which more bombs would be dropped 

The Japanese militarists had in the past been accustomed to dictate terms to the Emperor; now however Hirohito sided with the Peace Party against the influence of the armed forces. The Japanese cabinet was hopelessly split, and even Hiroshima did not break the deadlock. Communications had been cut and the hawks refused to believe what they had been told and had to visit the area themselves to be convinced. No agreed statement could be made. The Allies responded by advancing the date for the bombing of Nagasaki, which coincided with the entry of Russia into the war. The last stand of the armed forces was at an end. The atomic bomb which fell on Hiroshima killed 64,000 people within four months and the bomb on Nagaski 39,000 people. In addition, 72,000 people were injured in Hiroshima and 25,000 in Nagasaki. At Hiroshima four square miles were totally devastated and nine square miles were very badly damaged. 

It is futile to speculate on how the destruction compares with what might have occurred had non-nuclear options been adopted — all the alternatives were terrible in terms of the killing and maiming of workers on both sides. Such conjecture would merely encourage the notion that saving lives was a major consideration. 
E. C. Edge

The Class Struggle (1975)

From the July 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The major problem that most people face today can be summed up in one word — poverty. They are denied access to the wealth of society which would enable them to develop and enjoy themselves to the full. They have to make ends meet and make the best of it. The result is a life-style of frustration and boredom — getting up in the morning, the buses, the trains, the traffic, the shop, the office, the factory, the boss, the canteen and so on ad nauseam. 

Not everybody has the life of a battery human. There are a small minority who have a life of wealth, ease and luxury. In a recent divorce case, the counsel for a textile magnate's wife who was claiming maintenance, explained to an incredulous judge: "The wife of a millionaire is liable to go to Paris at any time and spend £1,000 on a dress." (Glasgow Daily Record, 19th March 1975) Doubtless, she would leave dinner in the oven and do the washing-up when she got back. 

There is no natural reason for this division between rich and poor. Both classes include every biological and psychological facet of humanity — you find the black and the white, the jew and the gentile, the lazy and the industrious, the aggressive and the timid, the intelligent and the dull, and the philanthropist and the skinflint. The only difference between them is one of ownership. 

The vast majority of people own practically nothing but their ability to work and the little that they do own — some clothes, some furniture, perhaps a house and a car — is dependent on their continuing to possess and exercise that ability to work. Unable to do so through sickness, old age or unemployment, they will quickly be reduced to the level of pauperism. They are the working class because they have to sell their working power to live and to such an extent that they are virtually living to work. 

This lack of ownership among the many is paralleled by the immense wealth of the few. In fact, they own practically all the means by which the wealth of society is enabled to be produced and distributed. They are the capitalist class because they live on the income from their capital which, as well as the means of production and distribution, includes the labour-power, the mental and physical energies, of those workers hired to operate them. 

The capitalist class do not give workers jobs out of charity. If they did not make a profit out of the deal, they would soon be left in the same position as the workers. They only employ you if your abilities can be exploited to provide some of the wealth which secures their life of ease and luxury. If not, your much vaunted "right to provide for home and family" becomes your right to whistle for it. This is what is happening in many industries just now. All over the world, there are large stockpiles of unsold goods with many either wholly or partly unemployed. 

These situations give the lie to the false notion that Hard Work will solve all the worker's problems. If the people in these industries worked any harder they would just be out of a job so much the sooner. The market that they produce for is on the downturn, their masters cannot profitably sell all they are capable of producing, and so there is no work for the wage-slaves. 

This is all happening despite the fact that the commodities they produce — cars, houses, electrical appliances, etc. — are still needed by many workers. This is because, in capitalist society production does not take place for the purpose of satisfying the community's needs but for the purpose of satisfying the needs of the capitalist class at the expense of the rest of us. 

The working class produce all the wealth of capitalist society but they only get back a part of it. The rest goes to the capitalist class — first, to provide for the continuation of production and the maintenance of the conditions by which the working class are exploited, and second, to keep them in the manner they are accustomed to. This is the basis of the class struggle in capitalism. It is the real Socialist struggle which has hardly started due to the lack of class consciousness on the part of the working class. They are divided against each other and can only dimly react to the actions of their class enemies. 

Politically, the capitalist class are supreme but, economically, they need the working class. Much is made of the wealth of the capitalists "providing" jobs for the workers. The only way that they can put their wealth to effect is by hiring the labour-power of those with no wealth. 

In terms of playing a social role in production, the capitalist class are redundant. At the dawn of their epoch, they were instrumental in razing to the ground the anachronistic restrictions of feudalism and developing the means of production and distribution on an enormous scale in their drive for bigger and better profits. Today, they only take part on a small, individual basis and have been replaced by paid managers and various other hired hands. The only role left to them is that of consuming the finest fruits of a society run by the working class. 

The workers in capitalism are in a similar position to that of the bourgeoisie in feudalism. Economically, they are the most important class but their efforts on their own behalf can only reach fruition by taking political power from the class who seek to maintain an order built to work in their own particular interests. To achieve their ends, the bourgeoisie had to become revolutionary and set out for the complete overthrow of the whole structure of feudal society. In order to do this they had to gain political power — control of the bureaucratic, military and legal apparatus of the state. The working class, to achieve their ends, will have to follow the path of the bourgeoisie and declare for revolution. But there the similarity ends. 

The Socialist Revolution will be fundamentally different from all previous revolutions. What was at stake before was the freedom of one class to exploit the rest of society. Today, working class emancipation from the bonds of capital will mean the emancipation of all mankind. The production of wealth is the cooperative effort of untold millions and the potential capacity of that production is unprecedented. No person need go short of anything. Under capitalism, productivity has increased dramatically but the fruits for the producers have only been slow and grudging: for this is a capitalist world and the ruling class can only be expected to look after their own interests. We must look after ours, by working for Socialism.
Con Friel

Too old to work, too young to die (1988)

From the June 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a capitalist society goods are produced to make a profit and workers are viewed primarily as economic units who can be exploited for their labour power. The elderly, having withdrawn from productive work are, therefore, at an economic disadvantage. 

Hardship in old age is not a recent problem: pre-capitalist societies also recognised, and tried to legislate for, withdrawal from work. The Statute of Labourers in 1349 recognised that poverty might be the result of disability or old age. Although the Act regarded 60 years as the age at which a man might be expected to stop working, the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 35 years so the number of peasants surviving to old age was quite small. 

Each parish became responsible for its own poor and helpless with the passing of Queen Elizabeth' s Poor Law Act in 1601. This Act distinguished the sick and aged from the able-bodied. Further legislation followed in the industrial era with the passing of Gilbert's Act in 1782, which enabled parishes to combine into unions and establish reformed workhouses to care for the elderly, the sick and infirm. George Crabbe, in his poem, The Borough, written in 1810, described the reformed workhouse as: " ... a prison with a milder name, which few inhabit without dread or shame", The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 obliged the destitute to enter an institution. And as many of the destitute were sick or elderly, these institutions were quite unsuitable. 

The lack of pensions allowed few people to retire voluntarily. And, in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, two thirds of men aged 65 were still working. One in ten of the population over 65 years was a pauper, one in five at age 70, and one in three at age 75.

The fear of the workhouse in the 1880s has been described by Flora Thompson:
As soon as he realised where he was being taken, the old soldier, the independent old bachelor, the kind of family friend, collapsed and cried like a child. He was beaten. But not for long. Before six weeks were over he was back in the parish and all his troubles were over, for he came in his coffin. (Flora Thompson, Lark Rise, 1939)
The Poor Law was abolished in 1929 but many of the old buildings remain in use today as geriatric hospitals. Apart from the fact that these outdated buildings are devoid of comfort and entirely unsuitable for modern nursing, they retain a stigma of punitive discipline, shame and degradation that is remembered by the elderly. 

To prevent the elderly becoming a burden on the parish a pension of five shillings (25p) a week for people over 70 years of age, subject to a means test, was provided in 1908. 

Retirement age has fluctuated according to the need for labour: in the 1950s, at a time of acute labour shortage, politicians urged workers to retire later and warned that giving up a working routine caused premature ageing. The sociologists of the period pointed out that the increase in the proportion of the elderly population had been accompanied by a decrease in the proportion of the working population, and that the trend would continue for the next 30 years. In 1954 the Phillips Report suggested that the retirement age should be raised. 

By the 1970s the need for labour was considerably reduced as a result of economic recession, and financial inducements were offered to older workers to retire earlier. This happened despite an increase in people aged over 65 years from ten per cent of the population in 1951 to 12 percent of the population by the late 1970s. But this was consistent with the needs of capital for, at a time of recession, surplus labour was being discarded as no longer profitable to employ. 

Low-paid, tedious work is often all that is available to those who have been compulsorily retired at the statutory retirement age and during periods of recession even their ability to form a pool of cheap labour declines. Women have been regarded as marginal to the labour force and permitted to work in mainly part-time and unskilled jobs when there is a demand for labour, only to become unemployed and expected to stay at home and care for sick and elderly relatives when public services are cut during a recession. 

The role of older women as a reserve labour force has been demonstrated in hospitals prior to 1974 when there was a 20 per cent shortage of nursing staff. Women over retiring age formed up to ten per cent of the nursing establishment, particularly in the bigger hospitals in the larger cities, in the less popular branches of nursing such as geriatrics, mental illness and mental handicap, and in nursing auxiliary or nursing assistant grades. But with the closure of hospitals, reduction of beds and the availability of younger women prepared to work in hospitals as a result of unemployment, the services of older women were no longer required and they were compulsorily retired.

Workers forced into premature retirement by being made redundant often lack financial security in old age. "Too little to live on, too much to die on; too old to work, too young to die", may be the harsh reality of early retirement.

Elderly women often suffer greater hardship than men as they are less likely to have had the opportunity to participate in index-linked occupational pension schemes. The loss of a spouse and joint income is more likely to affect women because of their greater longevity and this often creates financial difficulties. 

Property lacking in basic amenities and sub-standard housing are much more likely to be occupied by the elderly. Increases in suicide rates, deaths from tuberculosis, mental disorders and hypothermia are all associated with poor house design. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of poor housing, being more likely to suffer from hypothermia. Elderly men have higher suicide rates than young people, and mortality from tuberculosis is more common in old age. The link between poverty and accidental hypothermia in old age is well established, one in eight pensioners are cold both by day and night in winter, and a study carried out ten years ago found that 700,000 people were "at risk" as a result of physical disability, low income and poor housing. 

The financial help available to the elderly to assist them with fuel costs is poorly publicised, hopelessly inadequate and confined to the poorest pensioners in receipt of supplementary benefit. The link between poverty and malnutrition is well known, and the DHSS estimated that three per cent of the elderly suffered from malnutrition in 1972. 

A lot more could be done to educate the elderly about the dangers of hypothermia, and dietary advice could be given to the housebound elderly as the body's requirements are altered when a person is unable to synthesize ergosterol in the skin, to produce vitamin D, by contact with sunshine. The money spent on health education is inadequate to inform the public properly, and is derisory compared with the massive advertising campaigns which accompanied the sales of nationalised industries. 

Legal sanctions can be resorted to under section 47 of the 1948 National Assistance Act to deprive elderly people of their rights. 
Society applies lengthy proceedings before the liberty of an individual is taken from him for other reasons. Yet the liberty of an old person who fails to achieve the standards of cleanliness and behaviour considered suitable by doctors, health visitors and social workers, can be quietly taken away with no one to come forward in the defence of the old person." (F. Barrowclough, "The elderly in institutions", Nursing Mirror, 1977) 
The rising number of old people has severely strained health and social services, and although more efficient use of resources has been made (by exploiting health and social services workers) the fundamental problem — that non-producers rate low priority under capitalism — has not been resolved.

Private residential homes for the elderly have profited from the lack of adequate public services, assisted by government grants to cover the cost of residence. But the elderly have pressure put up on them to sell their own homes to pay for private care when they become "long-stay" patients in hospital. The state retirement pension is also considerably reduced for hospital in-patients — a further indication of their loss of rights and status. The standards of care in private residential and nursing homes are scrutinised (in theory) by each local authority. But local authorities are under pressure because they have to accept responsibility for the residents of homes that they close, which severely strains their limited resources. 

Pressure groups try to improve conditions for the elderly but ultimately they fail because they try to reform capitalism instead of changing it. When workers decide to abolish the wages system and produce for human needs instead of profit, then hardship and insecurity in old age could become a memory of capitalism's barbaric past. 
Carl Pinel

Vietnam—who has won? (1975)

From the May 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

We again take the opportunity provided by one of capitalism's bloody wars, to reaffirm the fact that no war is worth the shedding of a single drop of working class blood.

We repeat again: there are no issues or interests involved in any war that are the least concern of the working class. This vile madhouse called capitalism has created an endless succession of wars. Since this Party was formed in 1904 we have condemned them all.

The SPGB stood alone during both world wars, in opposition to both sides and to all parties to the slaughter. We took our stand then on the ground of the common interest of all the world's workers: the need for world class-unity to abolish this plundering system which constantly throws up war.

We argued that the commerce of capitalism, its ceaseless quest for profits, the rival economic interests of the international capitalist class (backed by their gangster politicians), their struggles for markets and resources, was the driving force for war. It was then. It is now.

Whether the scene of mass extermination and devastation be set in Europe or the Middle East, in Russia, Algeria, Bangladesh or Vietnam the Socialist case remains the same. We deny absolutely that workers have national interests. Which section of the world capitalist class rules, makes scant difference to the ruled. Victor or vanquished the worker remains a wage-slave. A member of a subject and exploited class which owns no country — no markets — no vested interests.

Surely, of all people, this bitter lesson should have been thoroughly learned by the workers and peasants of Vietnam? They have been ruled by the French, the Japanese, the British and their home-grown despots. Always their position has remained the same, Whether they endure their misery under the yoke of dictators like Marshal Ky, Diem and Thieu, held in power by the armed might of America — or switch masters and suffer the same horrors under the sons of Ho Chi Minh backed by the armed might of state-capitalist Russia and China, there is no difference to the victims. The only difference is, which gang gets the spoils. That is really what it's all about. You can put the pretended differences of ideology in a pig's eye.

A succession of American Presidents have submerged themselves in the blood of Vietnam. Kennedy, still widely remembered as a man of peace, escalated the war. Johnson did the same with a vengeance. He coined the inhuman phrase "quotient of pain" and tried to bomb the North into submission. Nixon vigorously supported the mass bombing policy of the Johnson administration. Writing in Readers Digest January 1966 Nixon argued that
A real victory — one that guarantees independence for South Vietnam — will take two years or more of the hardest kind of fighting. It will require stepped up air and land attacks.
He also showed himself to be well aware of the hard strategic and economic motives behind the war:
However, if Vietnam is lost, China would gain vast new power. The rest of South-East Asia, including most importantly Indonesia, would inevitably fall under communist domination. This would mean that within five years the Chinese would be infinitely stronger economically with 200 million more people as well as half the world's rubber and half the world's tin under their control.
When he became President in 1968 his two more years of bombing and fighting were gone. Faced with a militarily impossible situation and a growing climate of opposition to the war at home, coupled with the desertion of thousands from the armed forces in Vietnam, he went to the conference table.

Ground forces. were withdrawn after many months of haggling, while the blood still flowed. After the "settlement" vast amounts of military equipment continued to pour in: America supplying the South, Russia and China the North.

For nearly thirty years, wanton waste and ruthless destruction of human life and of the earth's resources have been pursued with grim dedication by all sides. The indigenous population, whose "liberation" the pundits claimed to be their only aim were butchered in their hundreds of thousands. No winners here.

Just as loud-mouthed belligerence and bellicose nationalism formed the basis of American propaganda and that of their southern puppets, so the same crude utterances were trumpeted by the left wing (CP and assorted Trots) in support of the North.

Not only have successive British governments (Labour and Tory) supported the American war effort, the post-war Labour government were first to start fighting in Vietnam when British forces took over from the Japanese in October 1945. "Hey hey LBJ how many kids you killed today?" was chanted at Johnson by Americans. But some of the napalm with which the kids were incinerated was supplied by British governments. Running capitalism leaves no room for the squeamish.

Whatever the outcome of the present situation, the baby-lift and the evacuations are passing incidents. If the so-called communists hold their ground and consolidate their powers, how long before it all starts up again? How long if the "reds" win, before America comes to terms with the new regime and starts doing business? Even if indirectly through their contacts in China? .

There are no principles higher than profits and no permanent alliances under capitalism. The changing alliances and the on-and-off wars in the Middle East make the point.

It is high time the workers of all lands finished killing and dying for capitalism, and proclaimed their own class interest by establishing Socialism.
Harry Baldwin

Russia's Afghan hound (1980)

From the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the high days of flower power, Afghanistan lay at the end of the hippie trail and Kabul was reputed to be a fabulous city where a peace-lover could live, as free as a bird, on little more than cannabis. It might have been, like Neville Chamberlain's Czechoslovakia, a far off country of which we know very little—except to the few million Sid James fans who faithfully went to see Carry On Up The Khyber. The Russian invasion—swift, brutal, remorseless—was a blast of harsh reality to blow away the fables. 

It is difficult to understand how even the hippies came to think of Afghanistan as a lotus-land. In fact it is one of the world's greatest inhospitables, with a climate which swings from one extreme to the other. The North endures long, harsh winters of impassable snows while in the south the summer temperature can reach 120°F. There are swarming flies and dust storms which are whipped up by fiery winds. The nights are intolerable as the rocks give off the heat they have absorbed during the day. Nor is it a peaceful land, being populated by tribesmen and brigands who are habitual, ruthless fighters. And as a final endearing touch, these same athletic warriors suffer from chronic bowel disorders, said to be caused by their injudiciously heavy intake of fruit. 

A Cruel People 
So the Russians have not gone there, with their tanks and artillery, for the good of their health. The invasion is the latest episode in a long saga of conflict and bloodshed which has been Afghanistan's history since the emergence of capitalism and its international rivalries. 

Afghanistan first became an independent country in 1747. A century later as British capitalism, an established power in that part of the world, met the resistance of Imperial Russia, the geographical position of Afghanistan ensured its role as a buffer. The two opponents became absorbed in what was euphemised as the Great Game—the diplomatic deceits, the espionage, the threats—in which Afghanistan was the unwilling playing area. Between 1838 and 1919 Britain fought three wars there, the effect of which was to set up a succession of rulers whose power rested upon British bayonets. Those wars were notable for the pitiless atrocities committed by both sides; in 1842 the British garrison in Kabul was forced to abandon the city and of 4,000 men there only one survived. "There is no doubt that we are a very cruel people", commented Winston Churchill in 1897, after watching British soldiers shooting prisoners and razing villages along the frontier. 

Britain's withdrawal from India in 1947 marked an historic decline of its power and influence in the area and in the 1950s its place in the Great Game was taken over by America. By that time Afghanistan had become more than a buffer state; its strategic importance was complicated by the development of the oil fields of Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The American Cold War strategy of containing Russian ambitions erected a delicate framework of tenuously related states, in which Afghanistan was doomed to play a vital part. 

Bloody Coups 
Until the early 1970s, Afghanistan existed in a condition of uneasy division, north and south, between Russia and the USA. In the north the Russians built roads, drove the Salang Tunnel beneath the mountains of the Hindu Kush and flooded the country with "advisers". In the south the Americans poured in massive amounts of aid, building airfields ominously capable of handling the largest military aircraft. Whatever stability this balance imposed upon the country was first threatened in 1973 when Zahir Shah was overthrown in a coup led by the "Red Prince" Daoud who was himself replaced—and, almost as a matter course, killed—in another coup in April 1978 when Moharnmed Taraki, the first outright Russian puppet, took power. 

The actual organiser of this last coup was Taraki's deputy, Hafizullah Amin. The reforms which the Taraki government attempted to impose provoked a rebellion among the landowners and tribesmen and an uneasy Moscow advised the elimination of Amin, whose support for Taraki was not wholehearted. In the event, last September, it was Taraki who was killed, in a gun battle after which Amin took over. Now Amin has himself been ousted and—some reports say after a "trial"—put to death along with many relations and associates. The new puppet, propped up by the Russian tanks and guns, is Babrak Karmal who will presumably last just as long as he pleases his masters in Moscow. Amin fell because he failed to put down the rebels; the Russians moved in to take over the job, which many observers are saying will be as tough, as enduring and as costly as the American attempts to beat the Vietcong. 

Bloodshed and Hypocrisy 
Through all of this has run an unbroken streak of bloodshed. Since April 1978, for example, many people—running into tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands—have been murdered by whichever government has been in power. The insurgent tribesmen have preyed mercilessly on the Russian "advisers", nearly a thousand of whom have been shot, publicly tortured to death or flayed alive during the past year. One retaliatory act to Amin's brutalities was the beheading of 35 Russians and the parading of their heads. And behind all this has loomed the vaster, perhaps the ultimate, violence of capitalism's dominant nuclear powers, competing for control over this barren but vital corner of the world. 

The Russian attack—their first direct operation of this kind outside of Eastern Europe—was in many ways similar to their move against the Dubcek government in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Then, too, there was a dissident movement offering a threat to the Russian grip upon the country. There was political unrest in nearby Poland, as there is now in places like Iran, where the Islamic religion is a cover for a rising political force. The Russian tanks went to Prague, as they have gone to Kabul, first to depose the figurehead to the unrest, then to crush the insurgents, then to set up a government on which Moscow can depend. In classical Communist Party vocabulary, this is an example of capitalist imperialism; but of course the Russian press describes it as a necessary move against a counter revolution. 

This was typical of the nauseous hypocrisy, from all sides, which greeted the invasion. Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was able to forget Vietnam and Cambodia—not to mention American capitalism's numerous other outrages—and protest about " ... an independent Moslem country on which the Soviet Union is trying to impose its will by force". The murder of Amin came only a few days after Pravda had approvingly reported his account of his happy relations with the Kremlin. And of course, whenever it has suited its case, Russia has readily denounced other capitalist states for "interfering in the internal affairs" of smaller nations. Then there is one final, illuminative irony—that a country which claims to have thrown off, in a socialist revolution, the cynicism of Tsarist imperialism, should itself so ruthlessly continue that self same imperialism. 

Capitalist Interests 
In this war, as in those which have happened before, it is ordinary workers and peasants who will be suffering and dying. Under the delusion that some interests of theirs are involved they will willingly take arms, they will kill and be killed and they will wreak upon each other the most frightful atrocities. When it is all over and the dead have been counted no worker will have gained anything from it; the victors will be one group or other of the capitalists whose interests are at stake in the struggle. 

While the immediate reasons for the conflict in Afghanistan are complex, even obscure, the basic explanation is simple and apparent. It is the same reason as applied to the two world wars, to Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia . . . Capitalism is a society divided into a mass of rivalries—companies, states, power-blocs. It is a society which has to be competitive, which cannot work cooperatively. The conflicting interests which are at work over Afghanistan are massive and to protect them each participating power has an elaborate machinery of diplomatic intrigue and as destructive a military force as it can support. The great powers of capitalism, who need to involve themselves in almost every dispute wherever it happens, now have the capacity to wipe each other out. Capitalism has created a dangerous world. 

The invasion of Afghanistan will not improve that world; it will not make human beings better fed, more secure. At most it will draw fresh battle lines to mark the wars yet to come. In the course of capitalism's conflicts Afghanistan has suffered over centuries and there is no reason to believe that its future will be any more peaceful.

So we have been here before and we will be here again. It may happen next in a different country with another set of statesmen to peddle their lies; or new political analysts to pronounce their instant solutions. And there will be other workers to die and to suffer, in spite of the mouldering graves of those before them which testify to the futility of it all. 

Africa – Starvation and Speculation (2011)

From August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Starvation – the inability to buy the things to sustain life – is still stalking Africa.

George Soros is one of the great men of capitalism. He’s the Chairman of Soros Fund Management, a Hedge Fund that is estimated to have assets of approximately $27 billion, and the vehicle that has enabled him to become the 35th richest person in the world. He’s admired in the financial world as the “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England” when he pocketed a reported $1 billion in 1992 from the Black Wednesday UK currency debacle. He’s renowned for his philanthropy and as a supporter of liberal ideas. He has been described as a “distinguished thinker”. Consequently people take notice when he asserts that: “Most of the poverty and misery in the world is due to bad government, lack of democracy, weak states, internal strife, and so on” (

It’s fortunate that Soros decided to become one of capitalism’s speculators rather than a doctor, because his diagnosis of poverty and misery is simply a list of a few of their symptoms. The business Soros is a “respected” member of, and his charitable interest in Africa through the Soros-affiliated organisation, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, coincided with a BBC report last year (8 June) that: “Hedge funds are behind ‘land grabs’ in Africa to boost their profits in the food and bio-fuel sectors… Hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa – an area the size of France”. The word ‘profits’ in the BBC’s report is the cause of ‘poverty and misery’.

Global food prices have hit all-time highs during the past year, which is the driving force behind the African “land grab”. The BBC reported (23 June) that: “The World Bank says that since June last year, rising and volatile food prices have led to an estimated 44 million more people living in poverty, defined as under $1.25 (£0.77) a day. It estimates that there are close to one billion hungry people worldwide”. The G20 ministers two-day meeting in Paris in June did nothing to resolve any of these problems, as the same BBC report went on to say: “They have agreed to look at new rules to tackle food price speculation. However, it remains to be seen whether these will be adopted. This is because any moves to target speculators in the food commodity markets will have to be agreed by G20 finance ministers at a later date.” Not very good news then if you’re starving now.

Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam GB gave his appraisal of the G20 meeting on his blog ( “Verdict on G20 food summit? Dismal, please try harder.” And Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement said: “The UK government’s stance in defence of excessive speculation is untenable. It must put its weight behind European plans for regulation, putting the needs of hungry people before the profits of banks like Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital”(

Africa is the embodiment of capitalist exploitation. For almost four centuries it has been systematically plundered for its raw materials and human labour. Although the African slave trade dates back to the 7th century with the Muslim conquest of the southern Mediterranean basin, and was also a well-established part of the institutional structure of African society, it never gained any real economic momentum until it came into contact with European traders. 

By the middle of the 17th century capitalism was throwing off the fetters of European feudalism. Britain was at the forefront of that change. The agrarian capitalist of the past few centuries was giving way to the industrial capitalist, and the African slave trade played a leading role in the growth of that embryo.

At the start of the eighteenth century the British trade in slaves was dominated by London-based merchants, but after 1730, Bristol and finally Liverpool saw the majority of slave ships sail from their ports to acquire their human cargo. The returning cargoes were the product of the slaves’ labour: sugar, tobacco and the industrial input – raw cotton. This set in motion a dramatic expansion in intercontinental trade, vital to the development of capitalism. The importation of sugar, tea and tobacco were the foundations of consumer expansion, as was their re-export. As was to a larger extent the production of cotton, which was a significant factor in America's primitive accumulation of capital and their advance towards a capitalist state.

The trade in human labourers thrived until the early nineteenth century. Throughout this period the death knell for slavery was steadily being rung by the growth in wage labour. With slavery the slave is the commodity, with wage labour the labour-power of the worker is the commodity, the buyer of which is the capitalist and the seller is the labourer. The price of that labour-power is the wage paid to the labourer. 

The emergence and expansion of waged labour was the defining element in the growth of capitalism. Within the space of a few centuries a substantial segment of global society had undergone a transition from one means of feeding, clothing and sheltering itself to another. The trade in African slaves and the concomitant growth in consumer commodities created new capital, new markets, new technology, new mercantile methods, and helped to bring about the exponential growth in waged labour.  However, the conclusion of the legalised trade in African slavery simply led to a new quest for profits. 

The historian J R Seeley argued in 1883 that “Britain acquired an empire in a fit of absence of mind”. Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium must also have been visited by the same malady, and at exactly the same time. Most of Africa was colonised by the European powers by the time of Seeley’s book. New markets and new materials to profit from have to be continually sought. When located they must be protected by the state. That is the logical solution to an economic imperative integral to capitalism. State-backed capitalists and speculators, like Soros, throughout Europe had common aims in the late nineteenth century – expansion into Africa.

The natural resources freely available in Africa were a prize that most capitalists would logically covet. An illiterate and unorganised labour force was an added incentive. Draconian work methods were imposed on the workforce to extract those resources that made contemporary European factories seem almost genteel.

There’s an Ibo saying “when two Brothers fight, Strangers always reap the harvest”. That encapsulates the aftermath of European imperialism in Africa. From Algeria to Zimbabwe almost every African state has been affected by war for decades. The control by small elites of natural resources remains the prime cause for much of the slaughter, poverty and misery which are by-words for the daily lives of many, many Africans. Western capitalists and speculators, remain as firmly entrenched in Africa today as they were during Cecil Rhodes’s era who summed up the capitalist view of Africa: “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories” [].

Modern land grabs
A new impetus is driving capitalism’s elite – how they can profit from mass hunger. The Observer reported last year (7 March) that a “land rush” in Africa: “ has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union's insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015… Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world's cheapest land.” But it isn’t just land that’s of interest: “the Saudi investment company Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi investors, plans to spend $1bn buying land…but is also securing for itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource of the next 100 years”.

Even the academics are not shy when it comes to turning a profit, as the Guardian reports (8 June): “Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.” 

China began its search for raw materials much earlier as the BBC reports. “In almost every corner of Africa there is something that interests China. The continent is rich in natural resources that promise to keep China's booming, fuel-hungry economy on the road. There is copper to mine in Zambia, iron ore to extract in Gabon and oil to refine in Angola.” But like all such reports the writer is compelled to include the benefits for the workers: “Many Chinese firms employ large numbers of local workers but wages remain low. However, there is evidence that workers are learning new skills because of the availability of Chinese-funded work. Taking advantage of low labour costs, the Chinese are also building factories across Africa. Observers say Beijing appears ready for the long haul in Africa” (26 November 2007). And why wouldn’t they have every intention of staying? Cheap, unorganised labour, and an abundance of nearby natural resources is the fulcrum that creates new capital. A few Chinese capitalists will enrich themselves, but the African workers who produce those riches through their labour power will live out their lives in poverty and misery.

Slavery is still with us or what is nowadays termed “forced labour”. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labour worldwide; 660,000 of those in Sub-Saharan Africa. As much as slavery is alive so too is the slave mentality – imploring the master to be kind. However, the master is capitalism and it is out of any organisation’s or individual’s control. It cannot be legislated away. There is no lever to be pulled or button to be pressed that can make it more humane. 

The World Development Movement asks its supporters to become involved by cycling from London to Paris, recycling your phone, putting WDM in your will, getting green energy, and investing ethically. I’m sure that George Soros and his class are trembling in fear at their proposals. 

Starvation caused by poverty – the inability to be able to buy the commodities that can sustain your life – seems to be looming large for a great many of our fellow human beings. Anyone who genuinely wants an end to poverty has to confront the cause. The cause is the profit system. Capitalism. The only cure is a socialist revolution, not a bicycle ride to Paris. 
Andy Matthews