Thursday, August 27, 2015

Marxism and Russia (1933)

From the February 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mrs. Barbara Wootton has a reputation as an economist and is accepted by many people as an authority on the theories of Marx. She holds views on the relationship of Marxian theories to the social system in Russia which are fairly common. In the Highway, organ of the Workers' Educational Association (December), she sets out to interpret Russia for the benefit of non-Russians who wish to understand what is going on in that country.

Her explanation is a simple one:
“The Soviet Mind is a single mind. It is this which gives life in present-day Russia its peculiar flavour. ... In other countries no such common collective purpose is known, unless it be the purpose of making war. . . . The Soviet mind not only knows what it is after; it is also after very strange things. . . . These strange things are, of course, nothing less than those embodied in the philosophy called Marxism.”
Mrs. Wootton describes briefly some of the strange things. Among them is concentration on increasing the productivity of industry, what she calls “the glorification of economic output.” This, she says, leads the Russians to esteem sobriety because the sober worker has a bigger output. He must shun “licentious pleasures.” He must get up early and be punctual.

Another of the strange things is that the Russian child is taught to study phases of the class-struggle in other countries, but not in Russia. (According to Mrs. Wootton the children are taught that the class-struggle no longer exists in Russia.)

These and various other examples are given by Mrs. Wootton to “illustrate the extraordinary unity and consistency of Soviet ideas in every field.”

The whole of this is rubbish. There is no “common collective purpose” in Russia. The “strange things” are not strange. They are perfectly familiar to every student of capitalism everywhere, and Marx is not responsible for them.

Let us first take the “single mind” of Russia. Not a week passes without authoritative reports of the shooting or imprisonment of peasants and others who have come into conflict with the Russian Government. Frequent armed punitive expeditions are sent against rebellious groups of private peasants or members of collective farms. Dissident Communists are disgraced, exiled and imprisoned. At the moment a wholesale purge of the Russian Communist Party is taking place. The “single mind” is that of the Communist officials who control the vast repressive forces of the State. The appearance of unity is like its counterpart in every other country: it is imposed by those who have power on those who have not. Mrs. Wootton's analogy of the alleged “common collective purpose” of the nation making war is not a bad illustration of the absurdity of her argument. The war-making governments had to use conscription, supported by intensive lying propaganda and the savageries of military discipline to drive millions of unwilling or indifferent men into the trenches. Mrs. Wootton thinks that this is a common collective purpose. It did not look like that to the conscripts.

Then for the boosting of big output. Here Mrs. Wootton herself has to admit that the Russian “strange thing” bears a resemblance to the propaganda used in the U.S.A. before the present depression. She might also recall the official British “increased production” campaign of 1919-1920, backed by politicians in the three big parties (Labour included) and made the subject of innumerable newspaper articles, coloured posters in the streets, platform speeches and divinely-inspired sermons in the pulpits of churches of every denomination.

Then there is Mrs. Wootton's discovery that in Russia the children are taught to ignore the class-struggle at home and fix their eyes on the shocking state of unrest abroad. This is precisely what happens in every capitalist country. We are allowed to know that there were class struggles in the past and class struggles in benighted foreign countries, but the educational system does not recognise the existence of a class struggle here and now. There is no need to deal with her belief that the class struggle has disappeared from Russia. The rulers of that country officially admit that it is more acute than ever. That is why they have to depend for protection on their huge police and military forces, and that is why, in spite of Mrs. Wootton's nonsense, they do not trust to the “common collective purpose” supposed to have been derived by the Russian population from the theories of Marx.

Anyone acquainted with Marx's writings would know how he denounced the inhumanity of capitalism, sacrificing the comfort and health of the workers in order to build up huge production plants for the profit of the investors. Yet Mrs. Wootton holds Marx responsible for precisely the same process imposed on the Russian workers by the dictatorship. While the majority of Russian workers tighten their belts the home and foreign bondholders get their 10 per cent, or more on their investments out of the proceeds of the workers' labour, and specialists and bureaucrats draw their high salaries.

Mrs. Wootton shows by her article that she knows little of Russia, not very much about capitalism elsewhere, and understands nothing at all of Marx. Her views are not in themselves of special importance, but unfortunately her misrepresentations of Marx are widely held and do great harm to the Socialist movement.
Edgar Hardcastle

Obituary: Comrade Norman Taylor (1954)

Obituary from the November 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is with regret that we have to report the death of our Comrade, Norman Taylor, who died on August 27th after a life of suffering from one of the most pernicious diseases which this detestable system throws up. Despite this our comrade was active in the initiation of the Croydon Group and subsequently the Croydon Branch, which he was secretary of for many years.

We will all, I'm sure, share in expressing our sympathy and condolence with his wife, Comrade Rhoda, who we hope may find some measure of consolation in the fact, that her husband, Comrade Taylor, despite his enormous disabilities, was always on  hand to carry out for and behalf of the Party, which fell within his capacity.
M. A. C.

Exit Oskar the pink (1999)

From the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

In March the man the Sun once called the most dangerous man in Europe resigned as Germany's Finance Minister. The Sun—or rather Rupert Murdoch as a capitalist himself—didn't like him because they thought he had plans to increase direct taxes on profits in Britain up to the same level as in Germany.

Oskar Lafontaine was chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) which returned to power in October after years in opposition. Politicians who are out of office for long periods often loose their grip on capitalist reality—that governments must nurture profits and provide an environment in which they can flourish since they are what makes capitalism go round—and imagine that governments can work wonders simply by political will.

Sometimes, when returned to power after years in the wilderness, they try to put this mistaken idea into practice. The classic example was the French leftwing government, with Communist Party participation, that came into office when Mitterrand was first elected President in 1981. They really believed that they could "relaunch the economy" by "increasing popular consumption" and so they brought in measures to increase the minimum wage (which in France affects all wages since they are tied to it) and social benefits.

The result wasn't long in coming. Instead of economic growth being relaunched, inflation increased, leading to three devaluations of the franc in as many years. Within a year the new government adapted its policies to capitalist reality; they clawed back the reforms they had introduced and imposed austerity as a means of shifting the balance back from consumption to profits. They had learned the hard way that you cannot run capitalism in the interests of the excluded majority.

Since, with Kohl winning election after election, the SPD had been out of power for fifteen years, the big question after their September 1998 election victory was: would they make the same mistake as the first Mitterrand government, especially as they were in coalition with the Greens who also had ideas which if seriously pursued would threaten profits?

Oskar Lafontaine had written a book in which he proposed, as a way of getting Germany out of the current crisis, that wages and salaries should go up in line with productivity. He repeated this in newspaper articles and interviews after the SPD election victory. Since this would result in wages and salaries going up faster than they had been, it was equivalent to the policy pursued by the 1981 French government. And the thinking behind it was the same: if wage and salary earners had more to spend this would create more markets, so stimulating the economy to grow again.

In the event this turned out to be just another electoral promise but it earned Lafontaine the reputation of being "Red Oskar". Red used to signify revolutionary and has always been the fetish colour of Socialists. But there was nothing revolutionary about Lafontaine's ideas. He was merely putting forward the orthodox Keynesian nostrum that in a period of economic stagnation you should increase spending. Of course by the end of the 1970s Keynesianism had proved to be an utter failure on this point, as Marxists had foreseen years previously. But it is a measure of the very narrow margin of manoeuvre of reformists these days that even milk-and-water Keynesian reformism is denounced as "revolutionary" and "red".

Although, as Finance Minister, Lafontaine never tried to implement his idea of tying wages and salaries to productivity he did introduce some new direct taxes on profits and he kept on calling on the European Central Bank to reduce interest rates. He believed that this would help Germany out of the crisis (even though in Japan interest rates are less than 1 percent and they're still in the economic doldrums). For a Finance Minister to repeatedly call for a lowering of the interest rate was seen as out of order or even counterproductive. The ECB, which fixes the minimum short-term lending rate for the whole of Euroland, had to refuse such calls just to prove it did not give in to political pressure.

It was this that was the immediate cause of Lafontaine's downfall. The interest rate reduction which he and the rest of the German government wanted was being held up by his political interference making it difficult for the Bank to do this. So pressure was bought to bear and he left politics to spend more time with his family. Yet another reformist politician bit the dust. Good, or rather good as long as it helps workers in Germany and elsewhere realise that reformism is a dead-end.
Adam Buick

Are you an abstainer? (1999)

From the May 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

This year has been dubbed the "year of elections". This month there are local elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, next month elections to the European Parliament. We're putting up a limited number of candidates, but are you one of those very many people who doesn't see the point in voting, and can't be bothered with politicians? If so, read on, you just might find this interesting.

You may have noticed that whoever gets elected, nothing really changes. This is because politicians normally have no intention of changing anything. They're really doing very nicely out of the system as it is, thank you, slump or no slump. While they enjoy their executive lunches, cars and kickbacks, the rest of us miserable suckers are supposed to toe the line, "yes" the bosses, and work ourselves into early graves to earn wages that wouldn't buy one of their bottles of claret.

If you're still reading this, you'll notice it isn't your ordinary run-of-the-mill election manifesto, with the usual vague promises and smiley conman confidence. Well, that's because we're not politicians, and don't let our name, and the fact that we are standing for election, fool you into thinking we are. The fact is, we represent an idea which is most unpopular and unfashionable these days, an idea which is ignored by the media, dismissed coldly by politicians, and avoided by anyone who prefers the status quo to stay put. This idea is revolution.

What are we proposing? Well, you must admit it would be difficult in one short article to prove any case beyond question, especially a case as big as this. All we can do is give you the bare bones, so don't be surprised if it doesn't convince you straight off. We're revolutionaries, not magicians. If you don't have questions to ask at the end of this then we're not doing our job properly, or you're not giving it any thought. And if you have questions, we can only suggest you contact us to ask them.

OK, you know that in our world, private property is king, and that the rich make the rules. You probably know that only about 5 percent of the world's population is rich, while 95 percent does all the work and lives in varying degrees of poverty, debt and stress. You may have concluded that this situation causes everything from street crime to international warfare, and you have almost certainly suffered yourself from the effects of overwork, deprivation and other people's "anti-social" behaviour. Considering that private property society, or capitalism in its developed form, was built by human beings, it is an amazingly anti-social and unfriendly system, and it brings out the worse in us. We treat each other with suspicion and we treat the planet with contempt.  

Undoubtedly this state of affairs is bad news all round, but what can be done? The politicians' response is to ignore the problem and talk about trivia instead, hoping nobody will notice. Look at their manifestos. That's why nothing changes. Our response is direct, and simple: the 95 percent need to sort their act out and abolish the private property principle, that mutual agreement that says one person has the right to own and keep what other people need, even if they should die because of it. And every single day, people are dying because of it. The real enemy of humanity is not a person or a group of rich people, it is simply this agreement.

What comes after capitalism?
Privately-owned property is an anachronism in this day and age. There is enough food in the world to make every individual fat. There are ten empty houses to every homeless person. Technology is producing abundance so fast that commodity prices keep collapsing, yet nobody has yet recognised what this all means. It means that there is a higher level of civilisation, of science, or arts, of culture, of personal fulfilment, waiting to come after capitalism—an advanced society which, because it has abolished scarcity, does not contain all the horrors that have dogged human organisation until now. From the standpoint of such a society, we in capitalism are still living in the Dark Ages, with our wars, famines, pollution and other disasters, and our outlook is suitably bleak. And from our present standpoint, a post-scarcity society seems a dim and distant image, a matter for the 22nd century perhaps, but not now. Lulled by the incessant idiotic chatter of politicians and their meaningless agendas, we do not notice that even now, today, we are standing on the very threshold of that post-scarcity world. All we have to do, as individuals, is take one step.

Revolution is a scary word, but it doesn't have to be a scary thing. If you prefer, think of it as a kind of social "upgrade", like building a better and faster computer. We don't advocate violence, although we can't know of course that the rich will quietly abdicate when they see that the game is up. But there is a personal revolution to face, as well, because a free society requires responsible members, not children who just play "follow-the-leader" and do as they are told. It's true that we get the society we deserve. Revolution consists in learning to deserve better.

Well, you've made it to the end of this strange manifesto. No mention of Europe. No mention whatsoever of local issues. No promises of "I'll do this and I'll do that for my constituents", no flattery, no sweet talk. Maybe now you'll sigh and throw this in the bin. If you vote for us you won't get a wage rise or a tax cut, but then again you probably won't anyway. Just remember, all those other candidates are happy to continue with the private property society you know and don't love, and equally happy to assist it in every possible way. They are selling you out, and your kids, and their kids after them. They are politicians. We are private citizens, democratically organised as a party to advertise revolution but not lead it, to abolish political power not keep it for ourselves, to promote a free society without rulers, and to disband when we have served our purpose. So if you vote for us now, it's not because we've conned you into it with charming lies. It's because you've just taken that all-important small step, the step that begins the journey.
Paddy Shannon