Friday, August 28, 2015

They all go the same way home (1950)

From the January 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

After 14 years of Labour government in New Zealand and eight years in Australia, the general elections in November and December saw those Labour governments rejected by the voters who had earlier put them into power. Some of the political commentators in this country have been speculating about the effect those results may have on the forthcoming General Election here.

They suggest that the British workers may be influenced to vote against the Labour Party because of what has happened in New Zealand and Australia. It is a fallacious view. If the Labour Government here had been able to make a success of its efforts to run capitalism in a manner pleasing to the workers they would not be influenced at all by what has happened on the other side of the globe. It may be that the British Labour Government will next year be returned to power for another five years, though the Labour Ministers are clearly resigned to suffering some loss of votes and seats. What we can say with complete confidence is that sometime or other, either at the 1950 elections or later on, the workers in Britain will turn out the Labour Government. The now lengthening history of Labour governments in many parts of the world shows that they are merely the alternative that the electors choose when they have become tired, sick or resentful of Liberal or Tory government. Just as 19th century Britain witnessed the game of political ins and outs, with never any fundamental change in the position of the working-class, so the 20th century gives us the same game but with the Labour Party in place of one of the older Parties.

Labour Party supporters are often amazed that this should happen. After Labour governments had introduced so much legislation and so many seemingly important changes how can the workers be so blind and ungrateful as to turn their Labour Party friends out of office? That is how it appears to Labour Party members.

It is all a myth. The more capitalism is changed in detail the more it remains at base the same—a system resting on the exploitation of the working class. It is true that, for electioneering purposes, the politicians have to pretend that there is a fundamental gulf between the Parties, hence the pretence that in New Zealand, Australia and Britain the fight is one between capitalism and Socialism. Just the same pretence was made when the contending Parties were Liberal and Tory, yet during war or at a time of acute economic crisis Liberal, Tory and Labour Parties find no difficulty in reconciling their differences in order to form coalition governments.

We are told by Conservatives in this country that the issue in Australia was for and against the continuance of "Socialism". There was no Socialism in Australia and no intention of introducing it. A less glaringly inaccurate description is that provided by Mr. Menzies, the new Australian Prime Minister. He says "the election was fought on the question of freeing the people from an all-powerful State—Nationalisation has taken it on the chin" (Sunday Express, 11.12.49). What Mr. Menzies calls freeing the people from an all-powerful State simply means such things as the promise of the new Government to end petrol-rationing and other controls carried on from the war: but as The Times points out: — "Actually this form of rationing has nothing to do with Socialist doctrine, but is necessary, at any rate in the view of the outgoing Government, to protect dollar reserves" (Times, 2.12.49). It is just as much a distortion to claim that the defeat of the Australian Labour Government means that nationalisation has been knocked out. Nationalisation has nothing to do with Socialism and no government in Australia or Britain which continues capitalism will undo nationalisation. All that is involved between them is whether to apply nationalisation a little more or a little less. In the election the Australian Labour Party went out of its way to assure the electors that its own proposal to nationalise the private banks was now a dead issue because of a legal decision which showed that it would require constitutional to bring it into effect. On the other side Mr. Menzies declared, just as did his Labour opponents, "that if any utility were not being conducted efficiently in the public interest, or were exploiting the public, it should be nationalised" (Economist, 10.12.49).

On the issue of the so-called "social services" the Labour Party asked the workers to vote for them for what has already been done, while the Conservatives slipped in with a promise to give the children's allowance to the first child instead of restricting it to the other children as is done at present.

One of the significant features of the election was the heavy defeat of the Labour Party in Queensland and its loss of votes in New South Wales, both of them former Labour strongholds, and New South Wales a largely industrial State containing much of the coal industry. What undoubtedly helped to produce this anti-Labour vote was the way the Labour Government behaved in the strike on the Queensland nationalised railways in 1948, and in the coal strike in 1949. In both disputes the authorities obtained emergency powers to deal with the strikes and there were bitter clashes between the police and the strikers. Thus does history repeat itself; for it was a similar savage struggle with strikers on the railways and in the sugar industry that preceded the electoral defeat of the Queensland Labour Government in 1929.

On that occasion, a trade union journal in Australia (The Worker, Brisbane, 7.9.1927) made the revealing comment: —"The impression is getting abroad that it is not possible for a Labour government to govern in a capitalist state, but that seems to be absurd." Here we have the crux of the matter. A Labour Government can certainly govern in a capitalist State, but it can only do so in much the same way as any other Party trying to run capitalism. In the last resort it must use the forces of State to break strikes and force the workers into submission because if it doesn't capitalism will relapse into chaos.

The only road of escape from this dilemma is to get rid of capitalism and introduce Socialism and that is a task for which the Labour Parties have no mandate. It is a task for the workers of the world and it cannot be begun until they understand and want Socialism and organise politically to bring it about.
Edgar Hardcastle 

Socialism before reformism (1983)

From the April 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many objections to the case for socialism are rooted in the argument that, while a social system based on common ownership of the means of production and distribution with free access to wealth is highly desirable, something must be done now about the problems which afflict the human race.

This argument, which on the face of it has much merit, for the problems of capitalism are urgent and horrific, makes a number of concessions to the socialist case. It agrees that capitalism cannot satisfy the needs of its people, that it must continually throw up wars, poverty, famine and the like. It concedes that the customary political parties do little to alleviate the situation; it does not raise any objections that socialism is somehow at odds with "human nature", that people are naturally so divisive, aggressive and greedy that a co-operative society could not survive. It does not waste time in questioning whether a moneyless, classless society is practicable. It accepts that what are now everyday blights on our lives simply will not exist when we have socialism.

But such concessions, though important, are not conclusive to the reformists. Millions dies each year, needlessly, in famines; the world's power blocs possess an obscenely high level of destructiveness, enough to kill each one of us again and again; in this country alone there are millions living in slums, or homeless, or in the direst poverty. Such problems—and there are many others—say the reformists, must take priority over any efforts to revolutionise society. We must act now to get rid of the bomb, to organise food supplies to the famine victims, allow special state benefits to the needy. When we have cleared up these matters it will be time to turn our minds to socialism.

The reformist argument then spells out, often in impressive detail, the current social troubles. It tells us, with the help of graphs, tables, statistics, about the scope of these and their effects on people's lives. Thus CND has a wealth of knowledge about the numbers of nuclear weapons in existence, their destructive power, the area which one bomb could wipe out, how many it would kill at once, how many it would leave suffering a slower, more agonising death, how it would cripple millions of survivors with radiation diseases. As an indictment, an encouragement to question why a modern society should devote such effort to destroying itself, it is impressive and valuable.

From that type of indictment the reformists proceed to an assumption that the problem can be eliminated by applying some piecemeal remedy to it. CND is sure that nuclear weapons can be abolished simply by persuading the government in this country to do just that, on its own. Oxfam workers are convinced that food shortages can be dealt with by rushing supplies of the stuff to the areas which are suffering from famine. It needs, runs the reformist argument, no more fundamental action than that.

In fact, in terms of logical argument, there is a massive, unbridgeable chasm between the indictment and the policies which the reformists put forward as the solution. There is no evidence to support the assumption — for it is no more than that — that capitalism's sickness can be cured by taking each symptom separately without any reference to the cause and to the fact that all the symptoms spring from a common basis.

In the case of CND, despite over a quarter of a century of marches, demonstrations, sit-downs, terms of imprisonment, the weapons are still there, growing worse and more threatening as they proliferate across the world. We live less securely now than we did when CND first came into being. This applies also to the other issues we have here discussed; the most sanguine of reformists can offer no hope that they are diminishing in intensity. Indeed, such is their grip on our lives that the reformist campaigns cannot relax in the assurance of success; all the time they must keep up the pressure and start new protests, each making the same claims as their discredited and exhausted predecessors.

The unbridgeable chasm bars the way because the reformists are following the wrong route. An effective indictment of social problems should lead to an analysis of them and then to their cause. Nuclear weapons spring from the fact of modern war, which is directly attributable to the basic nature of capitalism. A similar approach to the other problems will point to the conclusion that they also have the same root cause. And from there it is a small, irresistible step to the final argument, that only by abolishing capitalism will we rid the world of its problems.

But abolishing capitalism is not the end of it; as human society must continue, what is to replace the system of class ownership of the means of life, of war, famine, poverty, avoidable disease, insecurity? The only other basis possible is the opposite of private ownership — it is communal ownership of the means of production and distribution and their democratic control by the entire human race. That is socialism.

An examination of capitalism, then, leads by a series of logical steps to the conclusion that socialism is the next, necessary, step in social evolution. Capitalism is critically sick and there is need for urgent treatment. The human race need not continue to suffer the nuclear threat, or endure famine and poverty and we must act at once on that knowledge. Only socialism will answer human needs; only socialism will enable us to build a world which allows the people to live co-operatively, in abundance and freedom and to contribute to the limits of their abilities.

The priority is socialism.

Greasy Pole: Darling turns the screw (2000)

The Greasy Pole Column from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

When New Labour came to power, it was assumed by many that knee-jerk government was over. But as Labour climbed the greasy pole, "principles" and beards were quickly shed

The governments of John Major and Margaret Thatcher did not go down in history for creating a harmonious country free of poverty, stress and disease but they will be remembered for a few other things—handbagging opponents, rampant unemployment and sleaze. And in response to these things, knee jerk policies—the rushing out of a parliamentary bill or some other measure after some sudden, media-motivated panic about a problem which, until then, had existed for a long time unmolested by any attention from frantic ministers. The idea of the knee-jerk was to give the impression that the government was alert to the concerns of the voters and would act on them with all possible speed. What really happened was that polices were trotted out which quickly ran into trouble precisely because they were so badly designed and so had to be withdrawn or reshaped, to the acute embarrassment of their originators.

When Blair's Labour Party came bounding into power in May 1997, overflowing with youthful vigour and optimism and fresh ideas, a lot of their supporters assumed that knee-jerk was a thing of the past, with the rest of the nightmare of Tory rule. From then on every government action would be weightily considered, carefully worked out after proper consultation and responsibly presented. It was, they triumphantly assured each other, the only way of dealing with any problem. New Labour, New Sobriety.

Well it did not work out like that. Just like the Tories before them, the Blair government gives every sign that they are not in control of the situation, that they are in a continual state of panic, cobbling together policies as each emergency hits them in a desperate attempt to keep the voters' confidence until it is time for the next election. We have seen several examples of this recently, as things get worse and worse for the government. We have seen Jack Straw's infamous crackdown on asylum seekers and his blundering attempts to reduce the crime statistics. We have seen Tony Blair's astoundingly mad suggestion to give the police powers to drag public order offenders to the nearest cash dispenser to pay an on-the-spot fine.

Another knee-jerk which has caused the government some embarrassment is the attempt to suspend state benefits for people who breach community penalty orders. The government's original idea was that the matter should not be tested in the courts, where the breach would have to be proved. It would need only a probation officer or a community service officer to allege that there had been a breach and to summons the offender for the Department of Social Security to cut the person's benefit—entirely in the case of Job Seekers' Allowance and partly in the case of Income Support—for up to 26 weeks.

A predictable objection to this proposal was that to cut the benefit of a person who had no other means of support was more or less inviting them to go out and commit a few more crimes just to get by. The Tory peer Lord Windlesham who, as a past chairman of the Parole Board has some experience in the matter, condemned the measure as ". . . rooted in deep ignorance of deviant behaviour and the most effective ways of countering it". The Penal Affairs Consortium described the proposal as ". . . retrograde, counter-productive and bound to increase crime". Such arguments did not impress the government, who are among the small minority who, in face of overwhelming evidence, deny that there is a link between crime and the levels of poverty. Nor were they impressed when it was pointed out that cutting benefit would not affect offenders who are in employment and who could therefore breach their community orders without fearing a cut in their income. The lawyers' argument, that courts, and not some government agency, should deal with breaches of their own orders was similarly dismissed.

Darling's beard 
The person with the job of implementing the policy is Alistair Darling, who glories in the title of Secretary of State for Social Security. In fact there was a time when Darling had strong reservations about the proposal but these were not based on any principled objections, nor concerns about the welfare of people whose only income he wanted to take away. Darling was worried about which ministry was going to have to pay to administer the measure. When he lost that battle he enthusiastically supported the idea. Which is just what would have been expected of him for he is a man who might politely be described as a pragmatist but more realistically as an unprincipled, ambitious climber. Just how ambitious was illustrated in the matter of his beard which, when he first came onto the political scene, was almost as luxuriously dense as Frank Dobson's. Darling liked his beard; his wife liked it a lot. But in 1996, when he was opposition spokesman on Treasury and economic affairs, Darling was visited by some of Gordon Brown's heavies who tactfully informed him that the beard had to go. It did not, apparently, inspire trust in what is known as the financial community (the people who make profits and losses from useless fiddles like selling and buying currencies all day long) and so could work against Labour's interests. Of course Darling, who is rumoured to have once been a Trotskyist, could have told these people that he had not come into politics to butter up financiers, except that that was why he had come into it. So gradually, over a short period, the beard came off. So Darling kept his job. And got promoted.

And the "financial community" was very happy. "In opposition," said the Financial Times on 14 June 1997, "Mr. Darling was widely praised for his handling of his City brief . . ." The admiration for him did not flag after the election, when Darling got into government, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury: "He is about as unscary as they come . . . Just the sort of person the City could deal with . . ." rhapsodised one senior banker. "Flexible on regulation and willing to listen . . ." burbled a City chief executive, who may have been nervous about what regulation might do to his firm's profits. With those kinds of commendations, Darling was not likely to lose sleep over measures designed to drive desperate and alienated people even deeper into impoverishment and despair.

When the attacks began on the proposal to deny benefit to people who breach their community penalty orders Darling did not show up so well; his admirers in the City would have been disappointed. Apparently devoid of any valid argument to support the cuts, he fell back on a spurious one: “Surely it is not unreasonable to say to someone if they enter into an agreement they should stick to it? . . . We are all responsible for our actions. Society is built on a contract. There are rights, yes, but there are responsibilities too” (Guardian, 24 June 2000).

That argument may have pleased one or two Labour dummies (one noble lord moaned "Why can't these people toe the line when they know the issue with which they are faced?") but it did not answer the case. As a lawyer Darling should know about the desirability of a contract being between equals. This would not have been the case with many community penalties, which are imposed on an offender waiting trembling in the dock to hear their fate from a judge or a bench of magistrates sitting on high. Community penalties were designed by the law to be direct alternatives to imprisonment, which brought an element of coercion into the acceptance of the "contract". In any case the ex-solicitor Darling seemed to have overlooked the fact that the need for an offender to agree to a community penalty was abolished some years ago; courts can now make such an order whether the defendant agrees or not.

But enough of Darling as a lawyer. What about him as a politician? Society is indeed built on a contract—or rather this society is built on the "contract" between the class who monopolise the means of wealth production and distribution and the rest of us, who "contract" to be exploited in order to live—and to lubricate and maintain the whole system. This is another contract between unequals because the working class have the choice to submit to their own exploitation or live on, or below, the bread line. For example, as Darling himself has pointed out (Guardian Special Reports, 22 August 1999), of the 2000 children born every day in Britain a third will be born into what is officially known as poverty. Left as it is, he said, many of these children will not only be born poor but will die poor. That is a fair measure of the effects of the capitalist society which Darling and his party support.

When parties like New Labour present themselves to us at elections, wheedling and cajoling, they offer to enter a contract with us: give them our votes and they will organise capitalism so that it behaves as if it were not a society of privilege and exploitation. For some reason this kind of appeal, from Tory as well as Labour, is seductively successful at one election after another. It was effective in 1997, when millions of people contracted with Labour over its promises, for example to provide " . . . better schools, better hospitals, better ways of tackling crime . . . one nation, with shared values and purpose . . ." The Labour Party did not say then that their part of the contract would involve the deeper humiliation of the more vulnerable members of the working class while they fawned on wealthy capitalists and "celebrities". They did not say that, in knee-jerk policies and many other ways, they would run British capitalism in a style distinguishable from the Tories only because, as in the case of Darling's benefits cut for offenders, it would be even harsher.