Thursday, October 15, 2015

After the Election (1910)

Editorial from the February 1910 issue of the Socialist Standard

The General Election is over, and once again the workers have placed the powers of the State within the anxious grasp of the master class. Deluded by the Babel of lies and false issues, the hirelings have again embraced the yoke of wage-slavery. Some voted Liberal—or Labour (same thing)—to keep the "food-taxer" out, while others voted Tory to keep the "Foreigner" out; between then they succeeded in keeping those grand old institutions, the British Empire and the workhouse.

Amongst the Labourites and pseudo-Socialists, compromise and election dodgery have been well to the fore, as indeed was inevitable. We give elsewhere some instances of the game and there are more to follow. The ludicrous posture of the Social-Democratic Party consequent upon the contemptuous rejection of its overtures for alliance ("joining hands," they call it) by the Liberals, have disgusted many of its members, while the pandering to ignorance and the, for the time being, popular, which marked the utterances of its candidates and their prominent supporters, evidently had, in many cases, the opposite effect to that intended. Its own members were dismayed and it polled badly. The "hysterical error of judgement" to which we draw attention under "Election Notes," can have no other meaning. And withal the utter failure of the time-honoured S.D.P. policy even as regards electoral support should go far to convince erstwhile adherents of that organisation of its impotence for ought else than confusion and injury to the cause of Socialism. We fear that after this the good old S.D.P. may not very long survive to "see that the Liberals do not lower the flag", the Union Jack of old England, we presume (happily there are still papa Blatchford and the Boy Scouts).

Also the Labour Party has but slight ground for congratulation, for, as the "Labour Leader" has it, "it has lost proportionately most heavily." The protecting partner, the Liberal Party, has lost ground and with its protege.

The hypocritical pretence of independence is to-day seen through by many who helped form the Labour Party, and so the ground is being cleared for the growth of the genuine Socialist Party - the party of revolution.

The S.P.G.B. has made its influence widely felt during the election by distributing its "Election Manifesto" in different districts over the country. From widely separated constituencies comes the gratifying news that its recommendations to ABSTAIN FROM VOTING—because there were no Socialist candidates in the field—has been followed; the voting papers being "spoilt" by having "Socialism" written across them. Our action has been well appreciated, and will redound to the strength of the Party. Let those who know the day must come when we shall be in a position to put Socialist candidates in the field now join the Socialist Party of Great Britain, for that is the way of success and emancipation.

The role of the state (2004)

Book Review from the October 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Consensus or Coercion? The State, the People and Social Cohesion in Post-War Britain. edited by Ross McKibbin (New Clarion Press. £12.95)

This is a collection of studies of various aspects of social and political life in Britain from 1945 to the end of the 1970s, covering such fields as television, immigration, housing policy, even the role of the defunct Communist Party.
But what is the state? To most people it will be the centralised administrative machine controlled by the government, which provides various services (health, education, social security, defence) for “the nation”. To Marxists, the modern state is indeed a centralised administrative machine controlled by the government, but one which is used to manage the common affairs of the national ruling class (today, the capitalist owners of the means of wealth production), including the provision of education, health care, etc for the subject class (the majority class of wage and salary workers), and whose ultimate weapon is force, coercion; hence Engels’s definition of the state as in the final analysis a body of armed men.
For the Oxford sociologist, Ross McKibbin, who has provided a foreword to this book, the state “represents the governing elites, both political and bureaucratic, but is distinguishable from (say) the ruling party and has an interest which, although influenced by party-political competition, stands above such competition”. To which the anonymous author of the introduction adds, its role is to ensure the social cohesion of the population of the “administratively defined community” that is the “nation-state”, ideally by consensus but otherwise by coercion.
Although Marxists see, even define, the state as a coercive institution at the service of a class, this does not mean that they are committed to the view that the ruling class rules only by coercion. That would be an absurd view since no “nationally administered political community” could survive if it was held together by coercion alone. A degree, in fact a fairly high degree, of consent is required: the subject class has to agree to being ruled by the class that controls the state. So, one of the important functions of the state is to actively promote such agreement. Obviously this wouldn’t work if the state tried to openly persuade people to be ruled by a ruling class; it has to be more subtle and is done by promoting the idea that all the subjects of a particular state form a national community and are in fact “citizens” rather than subjects. The state is then seen as the management committee, not of the ruling class which owns and controls the means of production, but of all the citizens, who elect the government.
Surprisingly in view of the book’s title, only two of the studies address this question directly, dealing with the question of immigration from the Caribbean and the problem this has presented the state in terms of integrating such and other “non-white” (to use the old Apartheid classification) immigrants into the British “national community”, given the previous definition of this community as being made up of “white” English-speakers. After passing racist legislation in the 1960s to stop “non-white” immigration, the British state opted for extending the definition of “British” to include “non-whites”. It appears to be working, but now their problem is the reaction of a signification minority of “white” people who don’t agree and who may well have to be coerced into accepting it.
A third essay, on the Labour Party’s attitude to Europe in the period 1945-50, does, it is true, touch on another such problem: how the British state is to get its subjects to agree to its policy – in the interest of its ruling class – of European integration. After having successfully inculcated the idea of a “British nation” this is now proving a barrier.
The other essays, even though off-subject, are still interesting in their own right, especially the one on the Labour Party’s opposition in the 1950s to the introduction of commercial television. Everything that was said would happen if this was introduced – dumbing down, commercialisation, the “idiot box” dominating the home – has come to pass, and worse. But it was always going to be a losing battle since, in a capitalist society, the capitalists are always going to get their way in the end.
Conspicuously lacking from the book are studies of how promotion of support for “national” sports teams and the teaching of history and civics in schools work towards sustaining the myth that all who live within the administrative boundaries of a particular state constitute a community with a common interest, whereas in fact in all states there are two classes: an owning, ruling class and the rest of us.
Adam Buick

Early critics of capitalism (1999)

Book Review from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Real Rights of Man: Political Economies for the Working Class, 1775-1850 by Noel Thompson, Pluto Press, 1998.

Between 1775 and 1850 Britain was transformed from a country of largely rural communities into a nation built on industrial capitalism. In 1791 Tom Paine's Rights of Man argued for universal political rights. But as early as 1793 Thomas Spence's The Real Rights of Man countered with the claim that political rights were grounded in economic power. For Spence, the question was no longer about "what form of government is most favourable to liberty" but:
"which system of society is most favourable to existence and capable of delivering us from the deadly mischief of great accumulation of wealth which enables a few unfeeling monsters to starve whole nations."
This is a history of the struggle for an anti-capitalist, but not necessarily pro-socialist, political economy. Anti-capitalist writers such as Spence, William Ogilvie, William Cobbett and Thomas Hodgskin were reactionaries who wanted to retreat from urban squalor to the rural idyll. They were not opposed in principle to class society but to the way "unequal exchange" drove the newly created working class into poverty. Their political economy (not pseudo-scientific "economics") explained working class poverty as the result of a failure of workers to get the full value of what they produced. The "unequal exchange" meant employers paid wages less than the value of the product and so were cheating workers.

Robert Owen attempted to rectify "unequal exchange" by establishing a number of producer and consumer co-operatives around the country, linked by labour exchanges. The guiding principle of these labour exchanges was that goods were exchanged according to their value as measured by labour time, with non-circulating labour notes used to facilitate the exchange of goods. In this way, it was believed, there would be equal exchange and no exploitation. However, these co-operatives were short-lived and had difficulty in providing even basic provisions for exchange against labour notes.

According to Noel Thompson:
"the problems of valuing goods in terms of labour time meant that errors were made and, inevitably, there were goods undervalued in relation to their market equivalents that were quickly purchased, while there were others that were overvalued and just as rapidly accumulated in the exchanges. Only where the labour exchanges replicated the market valuation were there no such problems. In effect, therefore, market price rapidly exerted its hegemony over labour values."
A distinctively socialist political economy did not emerge until the Chartist movement. Ernest Jones, for example, dismissed the demand for "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work", which was to ask for:
"a golden slavery instead of an iron one. But that golden chain would soon be turned to iron again, for if you still allow the system of wages slavery to exist, labour must be still subject to capital, and if so, capital being its master, will possess the power and never lack the will to reduce the slave from his fat diet down to fast-day fare!"
Even though Jones was a friend of Marx and Engels, he and other Chartist leaders still saw exploitation originating in the sphere of exchange, as "unequal exchange." It was not until after the period under review that Marx provided a proper explanation of exploitation: exploitation takes place in the sphere of production. Workers generally get the full value of what they have to sell, their "labour power" or capacity to work sold as a commodity, which the employers buy and put to work. But the employers can extract labour greater than the equivalent of that wage or salary. This is the source of profit that is realised when the commodities are sold. A wage or salary is the market-determined price of the commodity labour power. Generally no cheating is involved: exploitation is the normal function of the capitalist economy.
Lew Higgins

Marxism (1998)

From the January 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Conceptions and definitions are the basis of all thought processes. We call our method "Marxism" because the fundamental theoretical work was in the main accomplished by Marx. Three interrelated principles--the materialist conception of history, the class struggle and the theory of surplus value--worked together to initiate this method.
The materialist conception of history arises out of the use of the dialectical-materialist method in political economy. It is materialist as it recognises the primacy of matter in the surrounding world. It is dialectical because it recognises the universal interconnection of complex and dynamic objects and events within a single form-and-content totality.
It regards motion and development as the result of both the unity and the struggle of opposites. It explains change, reveals causes and analyses effects by locating the source of the motion of the processes within which contradictions are embodied. It shows how these contradictions determine the level of development of these processes, and it brings out the conditions for their resolution.
This method is not a dogma. It too develops in a dynamic fashion and is subject to change within its own framework and is able to understand and review its own basis.
In contradistinction to idealist theories, this universal scientific understanding of the world develops upon the premise that it is not our consciousness that determines our life but our life that determines our consciousness and that consciousness, in turn, influences our life. In other words, being determines thinking and thinking influences being.
This understanding of history is not derived from any philosophical or contemplative premises, nor from any better insight into eternal truth and justice, but from production. In two senses, production of the life of the species itself and its needs together with production of the means to meet those needs.
Progress is ultimately determined by the changing character of human productive powers giving rise to more improved modes of production and resultant social structures, such as primitive communism, chattel slavery, feudalism and capitalism, the latter three being forms of class society.
The origin of class society dates back several thousand years to when private property and the state originated and social relationships were turned into exploitative and antagonistic class relationships with their array of economic categories such as rent, interest, exchange, barter, simple commodity production, buying and selling, market, money, capital, commodity, value and price, profit vis-à-vis wages.
Marxian economics regards relations of production as manifestations of levels of technological progress. But, within a given mode of production, developing productive powers eventually come into conflict with the existing relations of production which from forms of their development turn into their fetters.
This conflict expresses itself in the struggle between two opposing classes, with the owning and exploiting minority class having a vested interest in maintaining the existing relations and a new propertyless exploited class working towards the further development of the productive forces; this requires a revolutionary replacement of the antiquated relations with new ones. Resolution of the conflict is obtained with the seizure of political power by the new class in order to use it to usher in the new mode of production.
Marxists are not ideologues who invent social systems. For us social systems are the necessary outcome of history. Ideas, in all epochs, are basically the products of production. This is not to uphold economic determinism. Ideas do develop also in the realm of "pure" thought and fantasy. But, however they originated, their seed-bed is the economic soil of society wherein only some take root and spread because they correspond to reality.
In a class society the ideas of the ruling class rule over the ideas of the ruled. Thus the social selection of ideas applicable to a given mode of production depends on the class that is in a position to select and on the method it applies.
The historical materialist method is the science of the working class, which consists in the criticism of class economy. As Marx aptly said, "So far as such criticism represents a class, it can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes--the proletariat" (Afterword to the Second German edition of Capital, 1873).
Could it be otherwise? Could anyone ever thinking of grasping the science of the working class without having already rejected the capitalist interest and adopted the working class interest? Certainly not.
Binnay Sarkar (World Socialist Party of India)