Monday, November 9, 2015

Letter: Is the Socialist Propagandist Necessary? (1905)

Letters to the Editors from the March 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard


In the last Socialist Standard your correspondent, “Ignoramus,” asks for information on three very important points: a clear understanding of which entails a sound grasp of Socialist philosophy. May I offer a slight attempt at explanation?

I have only space enough, to deal with one of his points—no doubt those better qualified will deal with the others. With regard to the question of the Taxes the answer is just this: to tax a commodity is by no means necessarily to raise its price, in fact taxation is the least important factor in determining prices. In regard to Municipalism, a variation of the same economic fact is brought to light. Municipal enterprise is favoured by the small middle-class because profits derived therefrom are used to “reduce the Rates”—which Rates again are no factor at all in determining the price of house-accommodation and, therefore, no concern of the working-class as such. Certain Socialists, by-the-way, advocate municipalism chiefly because of this rate-reduction, and it is this use of “Municipalisation” or “Nationalisation” as a red-herring to draw the working-class into the mazes and mists of “Reform” that we must set our faces against as fiercely as against any “Fiscalism” or “Laborism” whatever.

But these points will be dealt with doubtless by the better-qualified. “Ignoramus’s” other point needs careful consideration. “Here is the rub,” he says, “the intelligence of the worker can only expand as a result of the alteration of his present conditions. Yet the alteration of these conditions is dependent upon the expansion of the working-class intelligence. The latter must precede the former, yet the former must precede the latter!” Put in this way it certainly looks like a contradiction, but is not “Ignoramus” generalising a little too loosely?

We find reason to complain that the working-class, in general are either satisfied with things as they are or despair of any improvement in their lot. We find them too often caring little for the acquirement of knowledge about anything, and in parts animal in their enjoyments and squalid in their ideals. But will “Ignoramus” or anyone else deny that all this and a 100 per cent, more could be said of the possessing-class? Is not the capitalist-class in general brutal, unenlightened, animal in its pleasures, and squalid in its ideals—and much more so than the average working-man? Are the manners of “Park Lane” so greatly different from the “New Cut” except in outward form?

The average workman fails to realise that the present system is based upon his enslavement. The average member of the “respectable” class considers himself or herself a superior kind of being to a member of the lower orders. Which is the most ignorant? In short, the “ignorance” argument cuts both ways and, argued to its logical conclusion, simply exposes the hideous mockery of our “glorious Civilisation.” That the number of those who really love learning, who ardently seek Truth, or who possess any lofty life ideals is very few, no one who knows anything of Life as it is could deny; but few as they are, I contend and will maintain that their number is made up of actual proletarians and those who work with the proletariat for the Social Revolution.

“Ignoramus” has hardly got the Socialist contention correctly stated. That the hooligan, the drunkard, the imbecile, the physically degenerate, the libertine, the prostitute, the “gospel revivalist,” the blasĂ© rouĂ©, and the Society lady are all hideous products of an obsolete social system is what we contend; and when it is argued that the poor are poor because they “drink,” or because of their “ignorance,” we are easily able to show that they are created what they are by their environment.

Furthermore we are easily able to show that the evils of poverty tend to increase with the development of capitalism. But to contend that the working-class is “ignorant” is to ignore the fact that the whole production of the community is effected by the efforts of wage-labourers. The capitalist as a capitalist contributes not one iota to the useful work of society. The “intellectual” working-man is with us—and suffers from unemployment and the “competition of machinery and women” like the remainder of the working-class. Is a clerk who understands three languages and cannot get employed at any price above 30s. a week to be classed as “ignorant”? He is a proletarian beyond question.

Briefly, the ignorance and apathy of the working-class exists, like that of the capitalist-class, in the shape of “lop-sided” development and is common to our present social system: but this does not prevent the working-man from realising what every day it becomes easier for him to realise, viz., that the present system is based upon his exploitation and enslavement, that his interests and those of the master-class are diametrically opposed, that therefore the master-class will always consciously or unconsciously try to keep him as he is, and consequently that he must act in such wise as to get rid of a master-class at once and for ever.

The function of the Socialist propagandist is to speedily and effectively increase the opportunities for this awakening. The Socialist is produced by present conditions just as much as anything else, and most of all, “Ignoramus,” it only needs ordinary common sense to understand Socialism—otherwise, Comrades Editorial, where should I have been?

—Yours fraternally,


Not So Wise (2015)

Book Review from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind', by Yuval Noah Harari. Vintage £8.99.
This is not a book to consult for a century-by-century chronicle of what happened in history. Rather, it provides an overview, focusing on some significant events and on what Harari sees as important trends and principles. It is a good place to look, for instance, for a summary of recent research on the origin of Homo sapiens and our relation to other kinds of Homo. And it is instructive to learn that since 1500 the global population has increased about fourteen times, but the value of goods and services produced well over two hundred times.
The Agricultural Revolution about twelve thousand years ago led to a dramatic increase in population but was responsible for worse diets and harder work for most people. Hunter-gatherers were in less danger of disease and starvation than farmers, but it is not clear that this warrants describing the Agricultural Revolution as ‘history’s biggest fraud’.
One point made several times is the crucial role played by co-operation. Humans are social animals and it takes a number of people to raise a child (single parents don’t do so in isolation). We can co-operate in lots of different ways with large numbers of people. Yet Harari also argues that it is money that promotes trust and co-operation, ignoring the fact that there are plenty of instances of co-operation not involving money (such as mountain rescue, Wikipedia and the Socialist Party). And capitalism, with its wages system, involves coercion rather than co-operation.
Though he is well aware of the extent of suffering in both past and present, he is uncritically accepting of the current social set-up: ‘The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension’. But this is only because the state and the market are part of the dominant economic system, capitalism, and almost all production currently has to rely on them. It is human labour that provides food, homes, clothing and so on, not the state and the market.
In some cases his explanation for historical events is purely idealist. In the sixteenth century the Spanish invaders conquered the Aztecs and then the Incas, supposedly because the Incas had a purely parochial outlook and were unaware of the fate of the Aztecs. Nothing to do, then, with the fact that the Spanish had guns and horses, which they did not (horses not being native to the Americas).
Unfortunately, when he discusses economics and anything related to Marxism, Harari goes well astray. For instance, he believes that any factory worker who buys some shares thereby becomes a capitalist. He gives an astonishingly simplistic presentation of the idea that banks can create credit. He sees the ‘Soviet Union’ as an attempt to implement the principle ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’. As this last example suggests, he unquestioningly accepts that Marxism means Bolshevism, and he sees Communism as a religion (defined as ‘a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order’). This ‘superhuman order’ is some unspecified ‘law of nature’ allegedly discovered by Marx, Engels and Lenin. Communism, he asserts, does not call itself a religion but an ideology: this is quite wrong, though, since for Marx an ideology is a theory that offers a distorted view of reality (such as the view that workers are paid in wages the full value of what they produce).
So this is an interesting and stimulating read, but it also contains much that is misleading or just plain wrong.   
Paul Bennett

Death of one of our oldest comrades (1938)

Arthur Evans at the SPGB's 1905 Annual Conference.
Obituary from the February 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Battersea Branch has suffered a second loss in the past few months with the death of another old member, Arthur Jones, who died on December 20th, 1937, having reached his 81st year.

He was originally a member of the Social Democratic Party and took an active part in the early days of the movement, on one occasion being sent to prison for selling literature in Battersea Park.

In 1904 he assisted in the foundation of the S.P.G.B. and served on its first Executive Committee.

Of late years he had been unable to take part in any activity. This, of course, is easily understood, as we know all too well the toll taken of vitality by capitalist exploitation and advancing years. But, for all that, he never wavered in his Socialist convictions and maintained an interest in the affairs of the Party up to the last.

We regret the loss of a consistent Socialist and comrade, and extend to his wife and relatives our sincere sympathy.
E. L.

Sermons in Stone (1956)

From the January 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

To some people the fact that the Socialist Party has existed for 50 years is objectionable. At least, that is what they say. We suspect in many cases they would object equally strongly if it had existed one day, or even one hour. But they try to give their criticism the appearance of reason and logic by saying that the Party must be wrong because it has talked for 50 years and still very few workers are aware of the idea of Socialism.

Modern speleologists, in their delvings below ground, have discovered blind albino fish that have never seen the light because the earth's surface interposes between them and the sun.

Many workers are like these blind fish. They cannot see the light of day because they live in a mental cave.

Our critics would have us believe that the cause of these workers' darkness is the light—Socialism itself. They would deny that it is the reformist worker's abject acceptance of the orthodox and conventional, without even trying to think, which condemns him to monotony.

Because the idea of Socialism has existed many years no more makes it wrong than the idea of flight, or radium or radio. All these things existed as ideas in people's heads for several years before they were actually achieved, and most of the ignorant and stupid mob went on denying their existence for years after they had been working.

In fact the original stuff of the earth from which life itself emerged; water—has existed for ever—yet there are still those whose acquaintances with it might be described as limited.

A most striking example of a commonplace object of this kind which exists in masses almost everywhere is "The Pebbles on the Beach." With this title Mr. Clarence Ellis has produced an utterly fascinating book—the result of an active hobby of collecting and studying pebbles, for many years.

And yet millions regularly loll and sprawl on the beaches during their summer holiday without the beginnings of a ghost of a notion that in the pebbles around their feet lie the secrets of the history of the earth, the formation of the rocks, the different kinds of rocks, the birth of rivers, the existence of ice ages and the reasons which go to produce a piece of jet in Yorkshire, basalt in Scotland or granite in Cornwall. Mr. Ellis points out what an interesting pastime this can become when one starts to make a collection of suitable specimens.

Our critics of the Socialist Party's long existence, were they logical, would condemn the pebbles which have lain on the beach for millions of years and not the ignorance of those who take no intelligent interest in the world around them. The Socialist stands in relation to the working class as the geologist; in this case, Clarence Ellis, to the world at large.

It is the duty of those who know, to make their knowledge available in the easiest form. All that is true. But without the intelligent desire to learn the workers will get nowhere.