Friday, December 25, 2015

The 'Human Nature' Bogey (1975)

From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists, after long argument advocating Socialism, often find that their contestants make the “Human Nature” bogey their last-ditch stand. “That’s all very well,” they say, “but for Socialism to work you would have to change human nature and that is impossible.”

In fact, for Socialism to work, there is no need to change human nature at all; only human behaviour need change, and history is one long record of change in human behaviour.

What are the charges brought to the door of human nature?

One is that human beings are innately cruel: but just what is the evidence for this? Let us at once agree that history shows men and women behaving with almost incredible cruelty. In ancient Rome, a popular entertainment was seeing men torture each other to death or being torn to pieces by wild animals in the arena. Remember the gentle Roman matron who pointed out to her society friends, “Oh, look; that poor lion hasn’t got a Christian!”

More recently, people’s entertainment has been little less savage and “inhumane”. As recently as the late 1800s, the public hanging of criminals provided weekend entertainment for thousands. In the words of Dickens, “thousand upon thousand of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth and callousness that a man had cause to feel ashamed of his human shape.” Hangings, burnings, beheadings, disembowelling and tortures were once among the entertainments of the citizens of London, as of townsfolk throughout the “civilized” world.

Many maintain that some people are inborn criminals and that whatever their early environment their innate dishonesty will out. However, the general types of behaviour that prevail today are the results of the social environment, including its heritage from the past, that is, Capitalism. Because of want or insecurity, or both, men steal and cheat and are capable of the most selfish, brutal and vicious acts. But many break the law simply because of need and the fact that most of the laws of the land relate to private property which would not exist under Socialism.

Harvard psychologists studied the correlations between happiness and criminality and concluded that the old Dutch proverb, “Happy people are never wicked”, had some basis in fact. They found that the majority of criminals came from unhappy homes. A ten-year study on frustration carried out at Yale University brought out that much hostility to others is brought about by our own happiness.

Another charge made against human nature is that it is basically hostile, aggressive and militant. Writers try to give, as the cause of war, man’s innate urge to fight and kill. Capitalists have the gall to put forward this explanation whilst using every method of persuasion, by the mass media of communication, to get men and women to join the armed forces, and when, as in war, advertisement is not sufficient, use conscription to coerce the “natural killers” into the forces on pain of imprisonment.

Again, an oft-repeated accusation against human nature is that man is basically lazy. And yet, where- ever there is a human need it is in man’s nature to meet it. “Creative” work is widely and readily tackled. Many a man, after a day of unrewarding (except for his daily bread) labour comes home and happily gets stuck into “do-it-yourself” carpentry etc. for the benefit of his wife and family. Under capitalism many people hate their jobs, not because they "dislike hard work”, but because they have to suffer boring, arduous toil. Satisfying work is as necessary to the healthy human as leisure. People want to achieve something and earn the approbation of their fellow man. Should there be eleven months’ holiday in a year and only one month of work, we should all be waiting impatiently for our month of work to come round.

At present many people hate their jobs: they are “square pegs in round holes” because of financial, status and snob values. Under Socialism, where security and comfort would be assured for all whatever their job, men would be able to choose freely their own occupation — something they would enjoy because they would be good at it — something rewarding and eliciting the appreciation of their fellows.

On the other hand, football-pool winners of enormous sums of money sometimes opt to carry on with their jobs. In such cases all the pleasures and privileges of the rich are not enough to destroy the urge to “do something useful”. Doctors often encounter, in their surgeries, the dodgers who try to avoid their work (even at the loss of income it costs them) and ask for certificates to draw National Insurance payments. But also, there are many workers who, after an all-too-short period of rest from their toil because of illness, ask for a clearance certificate to go back to work again, because they say they feel bored and useless staying at home.

At this point it is interesting to note the contents of a report put out by the Standing Conference of Voluntary Social Work Organisations in Staffordshire and published in the Evening Sentinel of 8th September 1973. It revealed that “10% of the population of the country are engaged in some form of voluntary work. Each volunteer devotes two hours a week in the service of those needing help in varying form and degree. The result is that an impressive 1,224,000 man-hours are devoted to the service each year.”

So much for laziness, even under capitalism!

Thus, it is foolish to think that man is innately lazy. To say otherwise is absurd as the picture of an explorer landing on a desert island where the trees were laden with delicious fruits, with the population lying under the trees starving, and when he asked why they didn’t climb the trees, replied “We’re too lazy.”

Some say that true human nature shows itself to be vicious and sordid in such places as prisons and concentration camps. But this is a false criterion by which to condemn human nature, because such circumstances are not natural and could not exist under Socialism. Of course sordid behaviour can result under conditions of distress. Suffering is not always ennobling as some would have us believe. But likewise, surroundings of hardship often do reveal the innate co-operativeness of people, even under capitalism. Men have given their lives to save others. This too is "human nature".

The writer has seen blood donors giving blood, not even knowing the recipient, for no more a selfish reason than the thought of being useful. (Ironically, some of the donors were "docked pay" by their employer — who later could well have been the recipient of a donation himself — for the time away from his factory spent at the blood bank.)

Surely, given a sane order of society, all goods and services could be supplied for the same gain as for blood donor — for use and the consequent approval. If selfishness is seeking happiness, then of course man is selfish. All he needs to learn is that the most effective and expedient way of being selfish for a gregarious animal such as man, is through Socialism.
R. B. Gill

What Marx really meant . . . (1983)

From the July 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over the years there have been many wide ranging interpretations of Marx’s writings by journalists and academics, most of them littered with distortions and references to nationalist uprisings and guerrilla warfare as "Marxist inspired”. Then there are the cynical statements of those on the political left who seek to use supposedly Marxist theories to justify their own essentially elitist idea of leading the working class to power through violent insurrection, or who attempt to equate the state capitalist dictatorships of Russia and its satellites with the concept of socialism put forward in the writings of Marx and Engels.

The task of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is to cut through the confusion surrounding the meaning of these writings, something especially important in this centenary year of Marx’s death. Let us consider the legacy of Marx to the SPGB and its associated parties worldwide, by selecting some excerpts from the original works which reflect our claim to be the sole propagators of socialism as understood by Marx. This is not to say that we rigidly adhere to Marx’s every utterance — the socialist case stands up on its own merits. Marx's writings are merely a part of the historical process of workers beginning to understand the mechanics of the political system under which we have lived, as a class for 200 years. Karl Marx was no more than one person endowed with an ability to analyse and express this information in a logical and comprehensible way. The questions for those who have studied the economic and social basis of the system of exploitation which we know as capitalism are these:

What did Marx mean by socialism? What does this proposed society entail? How is it to be brought about? To answer the last question first: socialism must be brought about through a conscious, democratic decision — not superior intellectual theorising by leaders. Ordinary working people themselves must use the existing political institutions to take power from the capitalist class, as illustrated in the SPGB's Declaration of Principles which states "That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself”.

This concern for the peaceful use of democratic institutions to gain power is shown in the following extract from a speech made by Marx at the Hague Congress of the International in 1872:
We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England . . . where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means
Although Marx goes on to say that force would still be necessary in most continental countries, a century of social and economic development has made possible the peaceful capture of political power in the majority of the world’s countries. This view is reinforced by an article written in 1852 for the New York Daily Tribune in which Marx asserts that
The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.
While still waiting for this to result in our political supremacy as a class, it is nevertheless clear that Marx's prime concern was for the democratic capture of political power by a conscious majority: that the main task is for workers themselves to grasp that it is they alone who must decide to take the initiative to sweep away the old society of exploitation and degradation and to bring in a new order based on — based on what?

Let us return to Marx’s own writings for an answer. He writes in Capital of “. . . cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production” (Vol. I. p. 79. Allen & Unwin edn ). That this common ownership as advocated by the SPGB is at the very core of Marx’s own conception of socialist society is further illustrated by an extract from his Critique of the Gotha Programme which speaks of a mode of wealth production wherein "... the material conditions of production [are] the cooperative property of the workers themselves” and by the reference, earlier in the same work, to ". . . the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production”.

These ideas obviously have nothing to do with nationalist movements, since it is quite evident that the person who exhorted the working people of all countries to unite realised that it would be ludicrous to propose the existence of a “socialist country" in isolation. That workers must organise and must unite internationally is clear when one considers that, say, steel workers in Britain have more in common with fellow steel workers in France or Germany than with any members of the British capitalist class.

When we read in the Communist Manifesto of ". . . the Communistic abolition of buying and selling”, and. further, in one of Marx's classic economic expositions Value, Price and Profit, of ". . . the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system”, we can fully appreciate the relationship between people which Marx is proposing. It is a society without classes (that is to say, without sections of the population standing in differing relationship to the means of producing wealth), and without money, since exchange will be superfluous when property is held in common.

To summarise, the real message behind all the volumes of detailed and painstaking scientific enquiry is no more than this — study the evidence, consider the alternative and take action by and for yourselves to bring it about. One of Marx’s better known conclusions is that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it”. It is a message which is as appropriate now as it was in 1845
Paul G Robinson

Reformism: the road to nowhere (1994)

From the August 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists are opposed to reformism, the attempt to reform capitalism to make it a better - or, at least, less objectionable - social system. We have never advocated a single reform, and have resolutely refused to become sidetracked into supporting individual reformist policies. For the Socialist Party to aim for reforms would be to attract members more interested in the reforms than in Socialism, and would mean the effective renunciation of the Socialist goal. Our sole aim is the establishment of a Socialist society.

Two reasons may be put forward for following a reformist programme. One is that the effects of capitalism can be mitigated, that working-class suffering can be alleviated. If politics is "the art of the possible", it is supposedly better to pursue short-term aims which can do some good, rather than to adopt a long-term goal which can be achieved only in the dim and distant future. In fact, some have claimed, that widespread reforms can undermine the oppressive nature of capitalism so that it becomes a free and fair social system, or can even gradually usher in Socialism. The second reason given is that reforms are a way for a political party to gain support and publicity; a successful campaign for a reform will attract new members who can then be won over for Socialism. On this approach, reforms are seen as helping to make Socialists, irrespective of whether they help to solve working-class problems. However, neither argument stands up to scrutiny.

Those who believe that reforms can make capitalism a bit more palatable will point to examples such as the health service, the provision of universal schooling, or housing legislation. Workers have benefited from these, they will say, so reforms can clearly do some good. In responding to this argument, we need to examine these and similar cases to see if they really show what their enthusiasts claim. The example of housing, for instance, in fact shows the inability of reformist policies to solve the problem: housing legislation dates from 1868, but even today there are in England alone 1.5 million homes described officially as "unfit for human habitation", thousands are homeless, and a thousand homes a week are re-possessed by building societies.

Problems not solved
The whole paraphernalia of the post-war welfare state, including the health service, was introduced for the benefit of the capitalist class, not for that of the workers. Politicians and others at the time were quite open about this, and made no secret of their reasons. For instance, Tory industrialist Samuel Courtauld stated in 1943 that social security "will not undermine the morale of the nation's workers: it will ultimately lead to higher efficiency among them and a lowering of production costs" (emphasis added). Likewise, the driving-force behind education reforms has always been responding to the needs and interests of capitalism, not the demands of reformers. William Forster, architect of the 1870 Elementary Education Act, argued that "upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity". So these much-trumpeted reforms were aimed at benefiting the capitalists, and (insofar as they were not detrimental, as they were in some cases) only incidentally advantageous to workers.

Besides revealing the real reasons why reforms are introduced, these examples are instructive in other ways. Firstly, they show that the consequences of reforms are often very different from what their supporters intended. Some housing legislation, for instance, has led to a reduction in the supply of rented accommodation, rather than the intended limits on rents. Secondly, they demonstrate that it is not enough to fight for reforms - it is also necessary to fight to maintain them once they have been introduced. The welfare state, in particular, is currently in retreat, with attacks on pensions and the health service. The ludicrous notion of "care" has led to many mental patients being booted out of hospitals; they often receive no care, and frequently join the growing ranks of the homeless. Many social security payments are likely to be even more rationed over the coming years, so that only the "most needy" qualify.

Reforms, then, cannot cure working- class problems. For one thing, they are not designed to do this. For another, they have to operate within the confines of capitalism and its profit-based economic system. No reform can overturn capitalism's need for profits and its boom-slump economy. The argument that reforms can lead to the introduction of Socialism by stealth is equally nonsensical. Socialism is built on a completely different basis from the present system, and cannot be achieved by gradually changing ever more bits of capitalism.

Dishonest and dangerous
But what of the other case for reforms, that they can help build support for an organisation? The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that it is fundamentally dishonest for any organisation to try to gain support on the basis of policies which it does not itself advocate. It would be utterly hypocritical if a party standing for Socialism were to try to win members by supporting higher pensions or more state subsidies for rural bus services. Why should workers believe a party which seeks support for a goal it does not itself espouse? Any who indulge in such deceit deserve nothing but contempt.

In any case, consider what would happen if a party with the declared aim of Socialism gained large numbers of members who were in favour of reforms rather than Socialism. These new members would inevitably affect the party’s policies and strategy, so that the reforms would cease to be a mere recruiting ploy, and would instead become its central purpose. Reformist members would mean reformist policies, and inevitably so. There might be an exception if a party were organised undemocratically, with policy the prerogative of some inner circle or central committee from which ordinary members were excluded - but such a party could not be Socialist anyway.

How often have Socialists heard arguments along the following lines: "Yes, I agree with much of what you say, and when the Socialist Party gets large enough to make an impact, or when such-and-such a reform has been achieved. I’ll certainly consider joining. But in the meantime I think it’s better to work for reforms, despite all their inadequacies." The trouble with this argument is that it will always lie "the meantime". There will never come a day when the job of the reformers is done, for capitalism constantly throws up new problems which require addressing. And Socialist ideas will never make progress if those who agree with them opt for reformist activity. Rather than waste their time and effort in advocating reforms, workers should consider the case for revolution and its message of Socialism now.
Paul Bennett

Farewell, Free Marketeers (1989)

From the December 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

To defend Marx against criticism is not to be taken as implying endorsement of everything he said and wrote. The man himself continually updated and corrected his theories. Who are we to foist omniscience upon him? But there are those who behave as if his was the final word upon capitalism, and past history, and the future. One can imagine his scathing reaction to any such flattery. His ruthless abandonment of the beginning and the end of the Communist Manifesto, of the reformism in his earlier proposals in favour of the abolition of the wages system, and of his tidy schema of social evolution so as to accommodate the Asiatic mode of production, these and other changes of direction demonstrate that humility which is the beginning of wisdom.

Feeble Grip on Logic
Marx may well have been the pathologically quarrelsome old sponger that Arthur Koestier claimed. He may have loved his mother and been kind to little dogs. We can leave those concerns to the propagandists of the status quo: the Von Mises and Hayeks and Friedmans and Poppers and Nozicks of this world, who all share a feeble grip on the Logic of Aristotle.

Von Mises charges the critics of capitalism with being merely intellectuals who are jealous of the businessmen's wealth. This used to be called the fallacy of argumentum ad hominen. It was illustrated by the case of a Counsel who returned a hopeless brief to his junior with the advice: No case. Abuse the plaintiffs attorney! And this is the final word of a man who pleads for his economics to be regarded as a science.

His pupil Hayek is an equal master of logic:
It is money which in existing society opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man.
Some voluntary (sic) labour service on military lines might well be the best form for the state to provide the certainty of an opportunity for work and a minimum income for all.
He later repeats the argument in favour of forced labour, where unions resist wage cuts after a war, and all this in a polemic against an unbelievably muddled notion of socialism, called The Road to Serfdom.

Metaphysical Predictions
Hayek's colleague Karl Popper provides the explanation of how the system will benefit us all. It is because of the unintended consequences of all our individual actions which in some mysterious way combine to do good. Popper insists that all theories which cannot be falsified by experience are metaphysical. A. J. Ayer pointed out that this would make a statement “there are white swans” a metaphysical proposition as what experience could show it to be false?

It is equally difficult to see how Popper's own theory could be falsified. Perhaps Ayer saved Popper from the consequences of his own foolishness. He could not save him from the silly argument that all wide-ranging, long-term predictions are metaphysical. Popper should go and tell that to the insurance companies. It was, of course, the rationale for an attack on Marx's view of the future, which was not scientific prediction, he says, but metaphysical prophecy. I predict, you prophesy, he reads tea-cups.

Popper began by pleading for “piecemeal social engineering" as an alternative to wholesale social change. We can sympathise with his emotions when we consider that the book which gave him notoriety, The Open Society and Its Enemies, was written during the Second World War, with the horrors of Stalinism and Hitlerism on everybody's mind, and Popper himself a refugee. With the growing disenchantment of the establishment with any kind of social engineering after the failure of the Heath government, however, he adopted a more Panglossian view, and decided against change, piecemeal or otherwise.

Joining the Game in the Middle
Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia, argues for maintaining the status quo but with minimum interference by the state. He lays great store by the right of private property, but he joins the game in the middle and does not seem to be aware that the game was started by a great act of violent dispossession backed by the state. His position is therefore one of ignorance or lack of scruple.

Friedman is another who argues that we only act from selfish motives but that the unintended consequences of our actions are that everybody benefits, that Adam Smith's “invisible hand” sees that we are all alright. Many people in 19th century Britain and 20th century wherever might be puzzled by this claim. In any case, Friedman casts doubt on his fidelity to this belief when he says that it does not apply to academics. They act, apparently, just to secure the approval of their fellows. Whether this unselfishness deprives us all of benefits, he doesn't say.

Booed off the Stage
It was the collapse of credibility in the Keynesian and Fabian consensus that brought these propagandists of the Free-Market to the front of the stage in the 1970s. They had been waiting a long time, ever since the 1930s. The Great Crash had destroyed the plausibility of the argument: the US until 1929 was about as free an economy as was ever likely to arise in a real world, and it produced catastrophe, needing a long time to forget. The reaction was state-intervention everywhere. The most complete Keynesian of them all was probably Adolph Hitler.

With the intellectual trashing of these interventionists by the increasing economic crises —stop-go, stagflation— as the Second World War receded, the scene was set once more for the Free Market to be offered up as the solution to all our ills. And what better place to try it out than Britain? As Galbraith pointed out, there was no excuse if it failed. A sober, almost phlegmatic population, almost designed for the “we can take it" role.

The innings has been a short one, a mere decade. This might well turn out to be the excuse the next time round. It recalls the Irish nonagenarian keening over the death of her seventy-five year old son: "I didn't have time to raise him. I didn't have time to raise him."

Any time now the roof of the world economy could fall in, though only a fool would put a date to it. The otherwise prescient City tipster Bob Beckman sold his house in Regents Park in 1983 anticipating the crash and missed the greatest rise in property values in history. The Free-Market act is going to dance off the stage to the boos of its erstwhile supporters. But what is next on the bill? Are memories so short?
Ken Smith

Quare Phenomena (1958)

TV Review from the December 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Another month come and gone, and the writing of these notes an almost frightening reminder of how many hours of the best years of one's life have been spent in glassiness before the screen, a woodbine-smoking Lady of Shalott gazing in one's Magic Mirror.

Not every month, however, yields two plays of such quality as The Quare Fellow and The Greatest Man on Earth. The Brendan Behan piece came over well in its television version, in spite of the condensations of both text and space. A tremendous indictment of prison-keeping, this, all the more because it never explicitly indicts at all: only shows the stupidity and barbarity and humbug, and what it does to everyone concerned.

The Greatest Man on Earth was fun to make you think. In case anyone didn't see it, its situation (developed from a James Thurber story) was simply the dilemma of American heads of state when a suddenly-sprung national hero turns out to be also hoodlum, illiterate, sex-fiend and general loudmouth. The pace and the amusement never let up, but it seemed as if a point were being made all the time and someone was slyly telling us that this wasn't so far-fetched, either.

What else? Well, there is the news that someone has been appointed to supervise the children's programmes: a beam of hope for the anti-cowboy zealots. Much less hope, however, of any falling-back in the main, most depressing trend in children's television. This is not gunplay and rough-stuff (except possibly the reiteration of the appalling Popeye cartoons, with their interminable beatings-up), but the steady intrusion of juvenile editions of quizzes, panel games, and the rest of YV "light entertainment."

It is about a hundred years since children began seriously to be educated as future wage-workers and soldiers. The last few years have seen a new addition to the prospects: educating them as future consumers as well. Here it is on the telly, the view presumably being to produce a younger generation which no longer wants to be sheriffs and engine-drivers, but wants to watch "Dotto" instead.

There has also been the shattering allegation that quiz contestants are primed beforehand. Nobody so far has made much of a reply, and one wonders why they should. There is a good deal to be said for it. The questions themselves (What is a Zulu? Which way is south?) are insulting enough; why add humiliation by revealing that the subjects in a good many cases don't know the answers?
Robert Barltrop