Friday, September 30, 2016

John Ruskin, 1819-1900: A Socialist Perspective (2000)

John Ruskin
From the June 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

John Ruskin, primarily remembered today as an art and architectural critic, was hugely influential amongst the labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His influence was acknowledged by William Morris, and a poll of the Independent Labour Party, in the first decade of the twentieth century placed Ruskin as the most important figure of influence in the membership.

Ruskin is far less read today than then, and, indeed, many on the left of capitalism are no longer comfortable with many of his views, particularly on issues of race and imperialism (Ruskin was one of few figures to support the savage suppression of the Jamaican Insurrection in 1865). Nonetheless, a good deal has been written about Ruskin this year, the centenary of his death. Exhibitions across the country are also running, including an exhibition "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites" at the Tate in London. This particular exhibition in fact reveals a good deal about the more bizarre side to Ruskin's views on art. Primarily (especially in his early years) the view that good artistic taste was a moral quality as art was the interpretation of divine truth. Representations that were "true to nature", such as J.M.W. Turner's were great, and those that were not were inferior works.

Obviously any reasoning contemporary of his, let alone socialists in the twenty-first century, would see such views as the nonsense they are. The religious obsession of many of Ruskin's contemporaries, however, meant that he rapidly became a respected figure and critic.

So why was Ruskin of interest to the later labour movement and some early socialist pioneers?

The answer, and the reason for Ruskin's subsequent decline as a respectable Victorian art critic, lay in the application of his views to the arena of political economy.

Between 1843 and 1860 Ruskin produced his multi-volume examination of art history, Modern Painters. But he became increasingly diverted by the ugliness of industrialisation, urbanisation, and poverty of a developing capitalist Europe, which seemed contrary to his moral and aesthetic religious view of the world. In the late 1850s, Ruskin's thoughts began to turn from the nonsensical religious analysis of art to an examination of the conditions under which art was produced. He contrasted the works of gothic beauty in Stones of Venice (1851-3) with the squalid uniformity and imitation of industrial British architecture. The relation of labourer to his work in industrial capitalist society meant that production was totally separated from the workers' creative faculties and art had become bastardised displays in private galleries for the appreciation of a privileged few. Ruskin's conclusion that artistic and social decline were due to political and economic conditions produced works that was of interest to later critics of capitalism; most notably the political reformists that emerged from the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, but also early socialists like William Morris.

Ruskin, by around 1860 and the publication of his essays on political economy, Unto This Last, had reached the conclusion that the test of production and consumption was in its impact on human life and happiness. This was opposed starkly to the capitalist society in which he lived, of production for profit and subsequent overproduction amidst a grossly unequal society where the hardest poverty existed next to luxury and opulence. Though a very long way from any sort of socialist conclusions, Ruskin sought, against his inherited Tory political inclinations, to redefine the classical political economy of the era (not fundamentally different from the current orthodoxies). This laissez-faire, free trade political economy was, for Ruskin, a far too narrow reading of human nature, with the motive of human existence being reduced to the lowest terms of private gain and universal, supposedly "enlightened" selfishness. Despite the limited nature of these conclusions from a socialist perspective, they provoked an outcry from Ruskin's contemporary ex-admirers who were alarmed at his straying beyond art in the application of his aesthetic and ethical values. A society which denied production for profit in favour of production for the benefit of humankind, would clearly not enable the privilege of a few to continue. Ruskin, however, never concluded that capitalist ownership of the means of production (whose political economy Ruskin thought was its ideological expression) was the defining feature of the existing condition of production. Instead, he concluded that the relinquishing of paternal responsibilities of industrial capitalists, no longer with a close pastoral tie to its labour force, was the problem (and here lies a possible link to later state capitalists and reformists who wanted the state to fill this role).

In seeking to redefine classical political economy Ruskin attacked its language and terms like "money", "price", "value", "wealth", and so on. Ruskin defined the term "riches" and identified social and political power as depending on economic inequality:
"Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that of electricity acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket."
Ruskin, however, failed to realise the class basis of the "force" and "default" of the guinea in the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources; failing to see a definite difference in interests between those who own property and derive privilege and those who, by their non-ownership of productive resources, are forced to sell their labour power for less than the value of what they produce.

If riches (being the power of the privileged in an unequal society) grew with inequality, wealth did not. "Wealth" defined by Ruskin was not more money or property, but that which contributes to the common benefit of humanity. Great wealth, as opposed to riches, by Ruskin's definition, was therefore incompatible with the deprivation of body and mind of capitalist labour. Ruskin's declared object was:
"to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration".
Socialists would not disagree with this statement necessarily. Clearly, human production should be for the common wealth and for human needs. But Ruskin's belief that this could be achieved by a "noble" class of philanthropic industrialists is misguided in the extreme and a failure whose lesson his "followers" in the later reformist labour movement did not learn. But it is all too easy to see the appeal of this lazy idealism; that people had just forgotten their responsibilities; that the condition of the working majority was naturally one of subservience to benevolent masters. It simply avoids rational reasoning and substitutes it with a sentimental appeal to a past that was every bit as exploitative of the majority as the present (this sort of attitude is present today, particularly in the ranks of the capitalist left, about the post-World War II "golden age"). The twentieth century saw a whole host of reformists, headed by the Labour Party, just like this, trying to provide paternal support for an exploited working majority, robbed blind but expected to be grateful for a state handout when capitalism cannot even provide (profitable) work in a society and economy with potentially boundless useful work to be done.

A further, but equally flawed, aspect of Ruskin's thought and influence was his appeal to nature and the simple pastoral life; clearly an attractive proposition for many workers in appalling living conditions. But the choice is not industrial or pastoral society, but between the democratic control of commonly-owned productive resources and production for profit for the benefit and privilege of the five percent of the population who presently control these resources.

So why the appeal to early socialists such as William Morris?

Here the answer lies in the rejection of much of Ruskin's thought, most obviously much of his religious confusions and more dubious aspects of his political economy, and the acceptance of his aesthetic ideal; that things should be produced beautifully if they can and that art and labour should not be separate concepts. While Ruskin expected this within a pastoral capitalism, William Morris realised that this was only possible when workers controlled their own productive process (see esp. Art, Labour and Socialism) through the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. A conclusion as relevant in 2000 as it was on Ruskin's death in 1900.
Colin Skelly

The Curse of Xawara (1998)

From the June 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The tragedy being enacted in Northern Brazil appears to be moving towards its last act. It is a tragedy that has been enacted throughout the history of private property.

The fate of indigenous people invaded by a more economically developed society makes a sorrowful catalogue of human misery. The Native Americans slaughtered in the United States in the last century, the butchery of the Aborigines in Australia and now the destruction of the Yanomami people in Brazil.

It has been estimated that there were over 100,000 Yanomami roaming the watershed of the Rio Branco and Orinoco rivers in the Northern Amazon basis when the Spanish colonises reached the New World. It is reckoned that they have lived in these tropical rain forests for something like 40,000 years but it is now though that only 22,000 of them survive, 9,400 in Brazil and the rest in Venezuela.

Unlike many other tribal groups, the Yanomami have managed to resist integration with modern capitalism. Portuguese exploiters, who attracted indigenous people into their settlements and into slavery, failed to lure the Yanomami from their traditional communal culture. Likewise, early missionaries failed to convert them to their guilt-ridden religious opium. The Yanomami preferred inhaling the Yakuna (a hallucinogenic tree extract) and practising their traditional rites and ceremonies. Modern anthropologists consider them to be one of the last remaining societies on earth that still live in kinship groups and inhabit "malocas" (communal huts). They exist on a staple diet of cassava gathered from their manioc plantations and game from the jungle, such as monkeys and turtles. They live the semi-nomadic life that once was the norm for all of humankind. They are a living example of humanity's communal past. Tragically, they appear doomed. Modern capitalism will probably see to that.

Many of them were killed in the 1970s when the Brazilian military government, in an attempt to open up the amazon to gold speculators and cattle barons, built the first highway through the Yanomami's terrain. The road was never finished but thousands of the Yanomami were. They were killed by the infections, such as Yellow Fever, brought by the road builders. The 1990s were to see an increase in the encroachment of capitalism in their way of life. Their reservation of 9,000 square kilometres was reduced to 2,000 and the government allowed another 256 square kilometres of their land to be exploited for gold mining in 1990. Little attention is paid to "human rights" when capital becomes involved. Some 45,000 gold miners have poured into their land, polluting their rivers with mercury, blowing up villages, and shooting children (they call them "monkeys") out of the trees for sport.

The recent forest fires have devastated even more of their forests. Many of these fires were started deliberately to clear land for cattle. The Yanomami must have to forest to live, without it they must die. There are laws in Brazil that debar the exploitation of the shrinking rain forest area that the Yanomami inhabit, but these are largely ignored by a government desperate to advance the development of capitalism in Brazil.

These last remnants of a former stage of human society have at present little chance of survival. Neldo Campos, the state governor, voiced the insatiable voice of modern capitalism when he said; "There is too much land for the Indians, and the devastating economy of the state will make it inevitable that hungry colonisers will want to move in on the indigenous reserves."

The Yanomami language is a linguistically isolated one with many dialects, making anthropologists believe that they once occupied a much larger area than at present. Their word for disease and epidemics is "Xawara" which they see as an evil spirit that lives in the bottom of the world. They have the same word for gold. They see the "nabebe" (white men") as having an insane desire to bring disease and gold from the bottom of the world.

The working class of the so-called "civilised" world must establish World Socialism very soon, otherwise, the men, women and children of the Yanomami people have little hope of survival. After all, as workers, we also suffer from the curse of Xawara.
Richard Donnelly

The Heroic Tragedy: Civil War and Social Revolution in Spain (2016)

From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Back the revolutionary general strike the very instant anyone [i.e. the military] revolts. We, the people of Catalonia, let us be on a war footing and ready to act. Be valiant. Arm yourselves and do battle. Long Live the CNT! Long Live Libertarian Communism! Launch the revolutionary general strike against fascism.' - CNT statement of 19 July 1936
Eighty years ago this summer, Spain saw an attempted military coup being temporarily defeated by ordinary people in many parts of the country. This was the beginning of what was to be a three year long civil war, resulting in half a million deaths, and followed by the four decade dictatorship of General Franco. This article will aim to describe some of the key features of the conflict, paying close attention to the ‘social revolution’ in Catalonia and Aragon which is of most relevance to socialists.

To understand the outbreak of the civil war it is first necessary to understand some of the background to the conflict. Spain in the early twentieth century was a predominately agrarian society; large scale industrialisation had only taken place in the north of the country and in Catalonia, around Barcelona. In the countryside an entrenched land owning class, of which the church was a significant section, had been resistant to agrarian economic reform, rural workers were locked into a state of poverty, often forced to work for long hours for little more than subsistence wages. Decades of agitation and self education had given birth to a strong and militant anarchist and syndicalist movement. Spain had become the only country where the anarchist ideas of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and others had given rise to a social movement of significant numbers. By the time of the 1930’s the major workers unions where the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) and the UGT (General Workers’Union). Despite ideological differences and occasional conflict there was often cooperation between the two organisations. The CNT was an anarcho-syndicalist organisation that shunned parliamentary elections and advocated industrial direct action as a means of overcoming capitalism. From the late twenties onwards, the FAI (Anarchist Federation of Iberia) had gained influence within the CNT. The FAI pushed for a programme of insurrectional ‘revolutionary gymnastics’with the intent of immediately bringing about anarchism through violent confrontation with the state. These policies clashed with those of the more orthodox syndicalists within the CNT who saw the social revolution as only being possible after a longer period of working class self-education and self-organisation. The UGT was affiliated to the labourist social-democratic PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and pursued a line that was more in favour of winning legal concessions from the government.

The military declaration of 1936, which bought the beginning of the civil war, was not the first time that Spain had faced dictatorship. The dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera came about in 1923 when the government resigned in the face of a similar pronunciamiento from the Army. Following a bloodless coup, Primo de Rivera stayed in power until 1931, when the support of the military and the wealthy classes was lost. Subsequent elections gave victory to anti-monarchist parties, causing the King to abdicate and flee the country, thus bringing into being the Second Republic of Spain.

The coming of the Second Republic saw a sudden rise in working class activity as workers looked to it as a means to finally solve their economic and social problems. Rural and urban workers, even in areas not previously known for their radicalism, began to demand improvements to working conditions, public meetings became commonplace and the church, seen by many to be defending the privileged and the wealthy, often became a target for grievances. The increase in working class militancy, and particularly attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, enraged certain sections of the ruling class. In the election of 1933 a confederation of Catholic parties, the CEDA, operating on a quasi-fascist platform, won the largest amount of seats but not enough of a majority to form a government. Despite this, power was offered to the second largest party, the Radical Republican Party. The Radicals co-operated with the CEDA and in 1934 they ceded, giving three ministerial positions to the CEDA.

In protest against the CEDA entering the government the PSOE declared a general strike on 5th October 1934. In most parts of the country the strike was rapidly defeated as the government declared a state of martial law and the army took over the running of essential services. In Barcelona the regional government declared an independent state of Catalonia. A blood bath was avoided, when a request to arm the workers was refused, and when the military general in charge of re-establishing the authority of the Madrid central government ordered his troops to be ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ towards any provocations. The only place the strike held on for any amount of time was in the northern mining area of Asturias where, unlike in other areas, the strike had the backing of all the workers organisations. There the situation rapidly became insurrectional. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 armed miners took part in an uprising. Civil Guard posts and public buildings were attacked and several towns being successfully occupied. Comunismo libertario was declared with revolutionary committees taking on the social responsibilities of government, the use of money was restricted and ration vouchers were distributed to families. In response the government sent General Franco and the Moroccan Army of Africa, as well as the navy and airforce, to quell the disturbance. Retribution was brutal, around 2000 miners were killed and a further 20,000 to 30,000 imprisoned. Moorish troops unleashed a wave of looting, rape and summary executions on the surrounding mining villages. The Asturian uprising showed a pattern of events that would be repeated on a larger scale two years later, as the civil war took its course.

The military rebellion
In 1936 a leftist popular front, supported for the first time by the votes of the anarcho-syndicalists, won the election. The victory was partly due to the promise to release the thousands of prisoners who were still being held following the uprisings of ‘34 and to also reverse and improve on wage reductions imposed by the previous government. Determined to put a stop to the growth of working class militancy, anti-religiosity and regional separatism that had accompanied the coming of the republic, a conspiracy of officers in the military sought to reimpose what they saw as being the true will of the nation. A coup was organised to take place in July 1936. The generals hoped that they would achieve a rapid victory. However, this was not to be. In the event, beginning on the 18 July, significant elements in the military and security forces remained loyal to the Republic. The whole of the Navy remained loyal, just over half of the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard –a rural paramilitary police force) as did over 70 percent of the Guardias de Asalto (Assault Guards –an urban paramilitary police force set up during the time of the republic).

On hearing of the military rising the government, in the beginning in denial about the seriousness of the situation, was at first unwilling to arm the workers organisations. So initially through their own initiatives, by raiding gun-shops, digging up weapons stored since the Asturias uprising or by being provided weapons by loyal Assault Guards, ordinary workers began to come out against the rising. In Madrid a crowd stormed the Montanna barracks. In Barcelona factory sirens sounded to warn of the rising and an immediate general strike came into effect. Thousands of people took to the streets, setting up barricades to hinder the incursions of the military. Where the workers movement was strong, and opposition was organised quickly, the rising was defeated. In areas which failed to offer resistance, the rising was successful and the military rebels (henceforth referred to as the ‘Nationalists’) began serving out a brutal repression of the workers organisations and anyone who was seen as being loyal to the republic. Spain was split into two zones, as noted by Raymond Carr ‘those who happened to be in a zone that was hostile to their beliefs had to conform, escape, or risk imprisonment or shooting. Loyalty was often a matter of locality.’Though, where given the choice, the working classes generally supported the Republic and the upper classes, the Nationalists.

The working class in the saddle
The effect of arming the unions meant that the workers organisations were in control. In Barcelona, the CNT was offered full control of the Generalitat (Catalonian regional government) but refused to take it, partly because they did not want to set up a ‘workers’ dictatorship’, and partly because they were not sure how to deal with the situation. Instead they took a place on the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, which was in effect a sub-committee of the regional government. This committee was later dissolved and the CNT took a minority position within the Generalitat. While the CNT held power in the factories and workplaces, a vast swathe of governmental state power, including the administration of military affairs and the overseeing of justice, was left with the Generalitat. This would later be used as a level to prise power away from the syndicalists.

In Barcelona, Catalonia, Aragon and the surrounding areas the CNT enacted their anarcho-syndicalist ideology and set about collectivising large sections of industry, though it was in the countryside that the most far reaching attempts at realising ‘libertarian communism’ where attempted. Following the upheavals, most large landowners in republican controlled areas had fled. With the landowning class absent, rural workers began spontaneously commandeering and collectivising land. Collectivisation meant that access to equipment, resources and labour could be pooled, leading to and increase in output and productivity and an improvement in living conditions. Within the collectives attempts at achieving an equitable distribution of goods and services were conducted in a various different ways. Some, a minority, practised a system of free access where people could simply take what they needed from the communal store. Others printed their own forms of currency or ration cards. As time went on the normal state of affairs gravitated towards that of being paid a fixed ‘family wage’ where collective members where entitled to certain quantities of various household items. To say that money was abolished is to push too far, ‘money’ does not necessarily mean only state minted currency but whatever can serve as a general measure of value and means of exchange. Whilst some agricultural collectives did not pay their workers in state currency, it was still used as a means of accounting between units. Despite the collectivisations the basic economic unit was still that of separate and competing enterprises.
“Anarchists abandoned the idea of a substitute for national money. The agrarian collectives decided to abolish money, only to adopt other systems of exchange…. The difficulties created by local money and the lack of a unified currency soon became evident. Very soon the collectivists of Aragon saw the advantages of a kind of national bank”–Frank Mintz
In Catalonia and Aragon nearly 70 percent of the workforce was involved in the collectives. Across the whole of the Republican territory there were almost 800,000 involved on the land and just over one million in industry.

Industrial collectivisation was not as deep or far reaching as the efforts in the countryside. In the first days of the revolution workers simply seized abandoned factories and restarted production. Workers in a collectivised enterprise would organise themselves into committees, and the committees would be federated regionally. The basic unit of organisation was the factory committee. The requisitions where retrospectively made legal in late October 1936. This was partly in an effort for the central government to regain control of industry. Part of the legislation meant that each factory council had a designated ‘controller’ that was responsible to the government. The vast majority of industry in Catalonia was organised in this way. While the workers certainly had more control over their working conditions than in a privately or state owned enterprise, the industrial situation could best be described as kind of trade-union controlled capitalism; production was still being conducted for the purpose of exchange, both within the Republic and with the outside world.

(to be continued and concluded next month)
Darren Poynton

Monday, September 26, 2016

Too many people? (2014)

Book Review from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Danny Dorling: 'Population 10 Billion'. Constable £8.99.
Yet another book by the prolific Danny Dorling: this one is not about the current state of Britain but the developments in world population, past, present and future.
For tens of thousands of years, the human population grew very slowly, and only in 1820 did it reach one billion. But after that it grew very rapidly, and the rate of increase itself advanced: two billion by 1926 (perhaps slightly delayed by the Great War influenza epidemic), three billion by 1960, four billion by 1975, five billion by 1988, six billion by 2000 and seven billion by the end of 2011. The population ‘explosion’ began in 1851, and Dorling claims that, despite appearances, a slowdown started in 1971.
As for the future, eight billion is likely by 2025, and maybe nine billion by 2045. The ten billion of the title might be reached by 2100, but may well not be, owing to countervailing factors that lie behind the slowdown mentioned earlier. These factors include the widespread availability of contraception; improvements in education (for instance, university-educated women tend to have their first child later and to have fewer children); reductions in absolute poverty (destitution leads to more births, perhaps as a kind of insurance policy). In many developed countries, fertility is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman and the population is only maintained by immigration. Migrants tend to adopt the fertility patterns of the society they have moved to, so the result is not massive numbers of births to migrant women.
Overall, then, there is little need to worry that the human population will increase at ever-expanding rates, leading to a hundred billion of us in a few centuries. One forecast is fewer than nine billion by 2300. And even if there are ten billion of us, will we be able to feed ourselves, and what is the likely impact on the environment? Dorling makes it clear that producing enough food is not a problem: plenty is currently wasted, growing crops for biofuel is a misplacing of priorities, and lots of land is left idle because that profits the owners. Water scarcity is more of a threat, though even here there is much that can be done to promote conservation. And ‘it is . . .  not true that the human environmental impact on the planet is a product of the number of humans’: it is more a matter of how we produce and consume. Car sales have already peaked, and maybe we have to consume less by way of new clothes and so on.
There is much other interesting material here, such as on the various strata within the ultra-rich. Moreover, ‘Our current demographic transition to a steady-state population is almost certainly not possible without a transformation of capitalism’, though unfortunately this does not seem to mean replacing capitalism with a classless society.
Dorling sees himself as a ‘practical possibilist’, someone who neither exudes a bland optimism nor sees the future as inevitably doom-laden. Socialists were once dismissed as ‘impossibilists’ on account of our opposition to reformism, but perhaps Dorling’s label is one we can claim for ourselves. Socialism is a practical and feasible solution to humanity’s current problems and is entirely possible once enough people want it.
Paul Bennett

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Japan and socialism (1988)

Book Review from the November 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Kilt and the Kimono by Ian S. Williamson (The Book Guild, £10.50)

How deceptive appearances can be! This book, with its banal title and dust jacket, looks extremely unpromising yet is packed with valuable information about Japan as well as containing more socialist arguments than any book published for years.

Ian Williamson is a Scot who has lived and taught in Japan. He is an ex-member and longtime supporter of the Socialist Party and what he has set out to do in this book is to explain Japanese society, with its unique culture and customs, through its history and to dispel the myths and prejudices which most people in the west have about Japan.

Ever since the end of the second world war many western writers and commentators, particularly American, have been trying to explain the complexities of Japanese society by using western standards as their guide They have assumed that the lifestyle, morality, values and even physical appearance of people in the west are the correct ones and criticise the Japanese for not measuring up. Williamson rejects this idealistic approach and easily demolishes the claims made by the "experts" that the Japanese are especially militaristic, conformist and subservient by pointing to the existence at one time or another of all of these traits in the west.

Nevertheless many Japanese attitudes do differ greatly from those held in the west. According to Williamson there is a much greater emphasis placed on the importance of group activity and decision making as opposed to western individualism; there is little or no interest in the concept of life after death or any metaphysical thought, and there is not the clear-cut distinction which most western people make between work and leisure or art and nature, but Williamson shows how all these differences and more can be understood through looking at Japan's history Why, for instance, is politeness such a feature of Japanese life?
In old Japan people were required to sit, sleep, eat, dress and greet each other in a certain manner according to their social position In fact what they ate and how they dressed was severely laid down by law. Anyone who violated the law or rules of etiquette in the days of the Samurai was severely dealt with. To touch a superior, or even to sit in any other than the prescribed way in his presence resulted in a painful reminder that proper behaviour must be observed.
So observing the correct form of behaviour has become an ingrained characteristic of the Japanese which has persisted to this day.

History also explains why Japanese workers apparently show such loyalty to their employers. Because aspects of feudal relations have persisted into modem capitalism in Japan a paternalistic, hierarchical system is still strongly entrenched. This means that besides the guarantee of a job for life for many workers, seniority is very important for promotion prospects. Workers who have invested a number of years in a company know they would have to start at the bottom again if they were to leave and get a job elsewhere, so they tend to stay put and make a virtue out of necessity by being loyal to "their" company.

No opportunity is missed by the author to put across socialist ideas. Our views on class, leadership, war, crime, human nature, nationalism, etc. are featured throughout the book. So besides giving workers here the opportunity to learn about Japan. Ian Williamson has, more importantly, provided Japanese workers with an excellent introduction to socialism. They just might be able to read elsewhere as sound a condemnation of capitalism as the one he provides but where else will they see this description of socialism?
A classless system, where goods are produced for use. not for sale, and because there will be no buying or selling so there will be no need for money, banks, insurance companies, salesmen, ticket collectors, cash-register operators, stock brokers and all the rest of the cumbersome junk and paraphernalia which involves people in soul destroying, non-productive, non-creative activity so necessary in capitalist society. 
And to round things off the Socialist Party and its companion parties are mentioned as the advocates of such a system of society!
Vic Vanni

Poorest of the poor? (1988)

Book Review from the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

James Painter. Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom. Latin American Bureau (London 1987)

In his preface to this volume Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan peasant leader, writes about the majority of Guatemalan people not having "the opportunity to develop and live like human beings". This study examines the reasons that opportunity does not exist and suggests ways in which it might be achieved. To exist in Guatemala is to live in a country of violent repression, hunger and poverty. The country is a stark contrast between a minority living in luxury amid widespread destitution. The armed forces exist to defend wealth and privilege and aid in the repression which ensures their continuation. The emergence of a democratic government under the presidency of Vinicio Cerezo would appear to offer little comfort to any but the privileged minority.

Painter confronts the failure of the Christian Democratic Party, elected in January 1986. to offer any possibility of change. In a country rich in fertile land, oil and mineral deposits it must be questioned why "only a very small percentage of the Guatemalan population does not suffer from the ravages of poverty". The present government may have inherited a dire set of circumstances in which, according to the Government State Planning Council at the end of 1985, as many as 86 per cent of families lived below the official poverty line, yet not even a modest programme of reforms has been suggested. Guatemala has the worst infant mortality rate in Central America with intestinal infections, influenza, pneumonia, measles and whooping cough being major killers; adequate nutrition, vaccination. a proper sewerage and water system would greatly reduce those figures. That may give little comfort in a nation in which 25 per cent of male deaths occurred as a result of political or common violence in the early 1980s. Guatemala's priorities lie elsewhere with spending on health at a minimum but with ever-increasing spending on defence, security and, more recently, debt repayments. The author sees Guatemala's problems as a
direct result of an unbridled "free market" economic system that puts wealth into the hands of a powerful and privileged few and increases the poverty of the many.
To understand Guatemala's poverty it is necessary to examine the economic system which is its creator. This is a country in which, according to the Ministry of the Economy in the early 1980s, 83 per cent of the rural population received 35 per cent of rural income while two per cent received 40 per cent of it. Agricultural wages are desperately low. Labourers are not the consumers of an agriculture whose products arc exported to the rich industrial nations. Food products for the Guatemalan diet have tended to stagnate causing greater reliance on expensive imported food stuffs. According to USAID there are as many as three million acres of idle land, found mostly in the large private estates: 
Decisions about what to grow were made on the basis of private gain, and enough food was only granted to those who had sufficient income or land to afford it.
At the same time any attempt to organise trade unions or co-operatives among workers and peasants has been met by violent repression.

The author suggests a programme of reforms to combat Guatemala's poverty. These include agrarian reform, nationalisation and a more "equitable" reproportioning of the tax burden. Such reforms would merely tamper with a system which exists to perpetuate privilege at the expense of the majority. Reforms are a limited reaction, nevertheless even a suggestion of reform invites the label of "communist subversive" and risks disappearance or death.

Political and economic control of Guatemala lies in the hands of the Guatemalan elite, the security forces and a number of mainly US transnationals and banks. The involvement of the armed forces as an integral component of the economy has escalated since the 1960s. The army has interests in as many as 40 semi-autonomous state enterprises. It controls the ironically named Military Social Welfare Institute which owns its own bank, El Banco de Ejercito. Painter points out that while army involvement in the economy is not unusual in Central America, in Guatemala the officers have "acquired an unparalleled notoriety for . . . corruption, voracity and entrepreneurial zeal". The military has effective economic and managerial control of AVIATECA. the national airline, TAM, military air transport, the main Aurora international airport, GUATEL, the public telecommunications system INDE, the state-owned electricity company, its own television stations as well as such institutions as BANVI (National Housing Bank). DIGESA (Agricultural Services Agency) and INTECAP (Technical Training Institute).

The Christian Democratic Party advocates a policy of "communitarianism" in which, theoretically. individuals are fulfilled through "personalism and the common good". In practice the party has operated in the interests of the dominant power groups with little consideration for the needs of the majority: the rights of private property are sacred and not to be tampered with. Cerezo is on record as saying that the party would not pursue reforms as this would be "disastrous for the economy and provoke capital flight" and so the Christian Democratic Party maintains the status quo. The party endorses the rights of the dominant trinity of interests, private business, the military and US transnationals and. equally as important, is accepted and tolerated by those interests. This adds poignancy to Eduardo Galeano’s observation that in Guatemala elections are "a joke on the people who have nothing and decide nothing" Repression still continues and during 1986 the Guatemalan Commission for Human Rights based in Mexico said that there were 126 politically related disappearances and 463 extra-judicial assassinations.

Cerezo's policies are not untypical of the 1980s. He has sought to reduce inflation by printing less money. He has sought economic growth through offering incentives to the private sector and stimulating foreign capital investment. He has also sought foreign aid to supplement the need for foreign exchange and to regularise the balance of payments crisis. In this he is consistent with IMF thinking. Meanwhile, wages were cut by 16.7 per cent between January and September of Cerezo's first year in office.
For the majority the future offers little: 
the removal of the structural causes that create the gross inequalities, the wrenching poverty and the horrendous human rights violations seems even more remote.
Painter argues for a programme of giving land to the peasants and reforming the tax system but the call for reforms fails to recognise that the structural causes of poverty must themselves be removed if the majority are to have access to the wealth they have created. Painter argues that what minor reforms have been applied "can be nothing more than palliatives" but does not recognise that his large scale reforms are themselves at best palliatives. This may seem a bleak vision but it is a direct consequence of a nation committed to a system in which the profits of the few are pursued regardless of the consequences for the majority.
Philip Bentley

A Tale of Two Parties (1964)

From the February 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once upon a time there were two Communist Parties. One was in Great Britain and was called the Communist Party of Great Britain: CPGB for short. The other was in New Zealand and was called the Communist Party of New Zealand: CPNZ for short. Ordinary simple people could see no difference between the two parties. But one day while they were watching their flocks they saw three wise men coming from the East, from Peking. The wise men said there was a difference. One was “revisionist” or bad; the other was “revolutionary” or good. So the simple people tried to guess what this could be. They knew the CPGB was nationalistic for they had read in a pamphlet on the Common Market:
Members of Parliament should be told in no uncertain terms that they were not elected to sell out British trade interests and British independence.
But they knew that the CPNZ was nationalistic, too, for it said it stood for “New Zealand Socialism.” One of its pamphlets, What Will Socialist New Zealand be like? said.
In every way our Socialism will start on a one hundred per cent. New Zealand basis. It will bear the trade mark of our very adaptable and resourceful people— “Well Made, New Zealand! ’’ 
and the simple people laughed when they read:
We have produced athletes like Lovelock, Halberg and Snell, who can take on the world's best and beat them hollow. Our All Blacks are feared throughout the Rugby world.
For a moment they thought that a “revolutionary” Party supported the All Blacks while a “revisionist” Party supported the British Lions. But the wise men said no.

Then they remembered that the CPGB wanted a Labour Party government and a few Communist Party M.P.’s. Perhaps this was the difference, they thought, perhaps the CPNZ is against its Labour Party. When they remembered that the leader of the Labour Party in New Zealand had once said, “there is no place today for what used to be known as the class struggle," they were certain. The CPNZ must be “revolutionary” because it opposed the Labour Party. But they were wrong. For someone told them that in People's Voice, the CPNZ’s journal, they had read:
Our policy is to work for the return of Communist M.P.’s to Parliament and in electorates where no Communists arc standing we will support the return of the Labour candidate to defeat the National candidate. (6.11.63).
Now they were at a loss. What could this difference be? And then they notice something. They noticed that whenever there was a recession the CPGB used to say that trade with Russia was the answer while the CPNZ used to say that trade with China was. At first they thought that there was nothing here. After all, they said, Great Britain is nearer to Russia than to China and New Zealand is nearer to China than to Russia. But then they found that Russia and China were quarreling and that the CPNZ again thought that China was best. Then they understood. What makes a Party “revolutionary" or “revisionist" is not whether it is internationalist or nationalist, not whether it opposes or supports the Labour Parties, but whether it supports China or not. How wise these wise men were, they thought. And the wise men agreed.

The Chairman of the wise men then said, “Yes, we are wise. We don't care what the home policy of a Communist Party is so long as it backs our foreign policy. You see, we don't really care about theory. We are just using it to win support for our foreign policy in Communist Parties which are hostile to us. I will be frank. Our dispute with Russia is not one of ‘revolutionaries' and ‘revisionists.’ It is a sordid and cynical struggle between two States." (Thunderous applause and cheers. Standing ovation).

The simple people went away a little wiser.
Adam Buick

Cappuccino, Skiffle and Spaghetti (1957)

From the May 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fifty or sixty years ago this writer’s grandfather spent six out of seven evenings a week in a public house. And most working men did the same. Today, many pubs, are almost empty from Monday to Saturday. This is partly due to the fact that more men stay at home, watching the T.V., listening to the radio or reading, and partly due to a change in drinking habits.

What, then, do we drink today when we don’t drink beer? And where do we go?

Coffee Bars
Millions of gallons of tea are drunk in restaurants and roadside cafés. And soft drinks like “coke” and milk shakes are sold in the now declining milk bars. But neither the roadside caff nor the milk bar can take the place of the pub. The public house was—and to a lesser extent still is—a meeting place for working men, and women, after a day’s work. But neither the café nor the milk bar can be that, though many milk bars and some restaurants boast of a juke box. The milk bar, with its high chrome stools and numerous mirrors, is no place for social drinking.

But during the last few years a new kind of place— with “ atmosphere’’—has come into being. It is the Espresso coffee bar.

About five years ago an Italian dentist who came to Britain, so we are told, to sell mouth-mirrors, so hated British coffee that he introduced Espresso coffee machines, which, by steam pressure, pump water through ground coffee to make a fresh cup of coffee for each cup. When the coffee is topped with the foam of milk heated by steam, it is called Cappuccino. Within a year, hundreds of Espresso coffee bars had sprung up in London arid elsewhere.

In most coffee bars the lights are low—very low; the walls are covered with Piccasso-like murals, and the waitresses lode like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield! And all for ninepence a cup! This was the place that a fellow and his girl friend could sit in for hours on end— for a few shillings. But the coffee house proprietors soon found that coffee on its own or with the occasional gateau did not bring in the profits that they expected. Groups of working-class teenagers drinking possibly two or three cups of Cappuccino in an evening was of little use to them.

New and different clients had to be catered for. Coffee and gateau was not enough.

Spaghetti and Steak
A number of Espresso coffee bars began to add spaghetti to their menus; some came into existence as restaurants and coffee bars. Some are now licensed, and sell both coffee and spirits.

Another coffee bar “gimmick" is the skiffle group—three, four or more “musicians,” playing guitars, homemade string basses, etc., and singing, with pseudo-American accents, folk songs of Tennessee and the Deep South. A cover charge is made for such entertainment.

At present, Espresso coffee bars—plus spaghetti, steak, brandy and skiffle—are booming, but to a large extent they are changing. At first the Bloomsbury “intellectuals"and the Bohemians with their sandals and corduroy trousers frequented them, and then later the more typical working-class youngsters, but now many coffee bars cater exclusively for the upper-income types; others are squeezing the poorer group out with their three cups of coffee per evening.

Espresso is becoming bourgeois. Earls Court moves into Mayfair.
Peter E. Newell

The cult of leadership (1999)

Editorial from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The cult of leadership
In 1997 Britain emerged from the dark days of Tory rule, liberated by the Labour Party—their path to victory illuminated by the dazzling smile and radiant glow of sincerity from Tony Blair, who promised "Things Can Only Get Better!" If only the People would trust him to lead them. It was He, and He alone, with his charm and iron-willed leadership, that brought victory to the Labour Party. It was He, and He alone, who could save Britain. It was He, and He alone, who was fit to give us leadership.
The Cult of Tony was born!
And the members of the Labour Party, from the knockers-on-doors to the MPs in Westminster, to the people who owed their very jobs to Tony, saw how He and He alone brought them victory. And they believed. They believed it was Tony what won it, they believed that Tony could do it, they believed they owed it all to Leadership. And they looked out into the darkness in the world, the places where Tony's light—alas!—did not and could not shine, and they knew what was the one thing needful.

The Cult of Leadership was born!
MORE LEADERS! More leaders was the answer. Wherever the darkness of poverty, inefficiency, despair and degradation existed in the Land, leaders were the solution. Things can get better, things must get better, but only if the resolute will of a Leader can be brought to them. But, how to find these great leaders? How to bring the resolute will to bear? Then, the London Bells spoke, and all became clear: new elections were needed.

The Cult of Elected Mayors was born!
Don't quite buy it? Well, neither do we. It seems a nice idea—everything running smoothly, no hassles, no delays, no backroom haggling or party politicking, simply One Man charging through the wilderness solving problems at a stroke. It is, though, just a fantasy. Leaders spend a lot of time, money and effort, trying to persuade us that someone, someone at least, is in control, and that we have some real control in our own lives, through (of course) them.

The truth is that no elected politician can control the market—which operates for the private gain of a tiny number of owners. As long as the market exists we cannot have control of our own lives, run things in our own, and our own communities' interests, because that would threaten the profits of the tiny few. Leaders can't change that. Only we can, by acting together, without leaders, to end the whole profit-driven, market system.

Questions—and the answer (1992)

From the May 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the last issue of the Socialist Standard, in an article directed at people who are too young to have a vote, we raised three questions that we thought our young readers might like to consider. We also suggested that they might like to pass the questions on to their teachers or clergymen, their Member of Parliament, leaders of the political parties, and others of that respectable fraternity who give credence to the idea that there’s not a lot wrong with our world that can not be put right with a dollop of sensible planning.

We also advised our young readers that we would contribute answers to our questions in this issue.

The questions were:

1. Governments of different political parties, Tory, Liberal or Labour, governments of the Right, the Left and the Centre, come and go in different countries. But all the basic problems remain despite the fact that political parties achieve power on the basis of their electoral claims to be able to solve these problems. Why is this?

2. In this country—indeed throughout all countries—homelessness and slum dwelling is a permanent feature of life. At the same time, there are vast numbers of workers, skilled in the various aspects of building construction unemployed. Why are building and construction workers idle when millions of people desperately need decent homes?

3. In every country, poverty, in one or more of its forms, exists. Some 15 million children (averaging about 42,000 every single day) die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. At the same time, massive amounts of foodstuffs are dumped or stored— much of it until it goes rotten—and governments deliberately restrict food production. Why do you think this is?

Why politicians fail
The answer to Question 1 is that all political parties, with the exception of those within the World Socialist Movement, contest election on the grounds that they are able to run the existing system better than all the others. Such a claim must be underpinned by the arrogant notion that they have got something that none of the others have, or ever had! They are elected on this basis, because the electorate believe that they have the skills, the honesty, sincerity or whatever other quality is required to put things right. As the question states, they always fail.

It is not the fault of the politicians and their parties that they fail; on the contrary, it is the fault of the capitalist system, the buying-and-selling system, which the parties, whatever they call themselves, choose to organise and administer. Capitalism is firmly rooted in the exploitation of the working majority by a parasitic minority. Its function is not to produce goods and services for the use of society as a whole but only to produce these things if, and when, they ensure a profit for the capitalists.

The basic problems that the politicians fail to solve arise inevitably out of the contradictions of capitalism. They are problems peculiar to capitalism and, as such, are ineradicable while that system lasts. That is why the World Socialist Movement does not campaign on its ability to solve problems like poverty, unemployment, crime etc but, uniquely, calls on the working class to organise for the democratic overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.

Why needs are not met
The answers to Questions 2 and 3 are implied in the foregoing but to demonstrate our point we will take a brief look at the socialist alternative to capitalism, where not only would the problems set out in 2 and 3 not exist but where, along with the other myriad problems of capitalism, they could not exist. Socialism, as proposed by the World Socialist Movement, is defined in our Object as:
a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the. whole community.
In the world envisaged in this definition. every human being on Earth would have the opportunity to co-operate in the production and distribution of wealth and, again, every human being would have free and equal access to the means to satisfy their needs whether or not they had co-operated in production. Obviously, if enough people declined to partake in the productive processes it would be impossible for everyone to avail themselves of the things they need. That is why socialism can only be built upon the conscious democratic decision of a majority of socialists and why the fullest democratic control would have to prevail in a socialist society.

All people engaged in the wasteful functions that now exist in the world of capitalism, functions like selling, banking, insurance, armed forces, advertising and marketing, together with the unemployed, on the dole and on the stock exchange, would be available to help in the task of producing and distributing. Obviously, in such circumstances, where things like “investment” and “cost” would no longer exist, problems such as slums and homelessness could be quickly corrected.

Whereas today the purpose of food production is the maximization of profits without regard to the damage caused to the land and the prospects for future generations, in socialism the primary consideration will be producing enough food for ail in a manner consistent with the preservation of the land. The concept of socialism is wholly inconsistent with the idea of poverty or hunger for any minority on Earth however small that minority might be.

Today, it is a relatively small number of human beings who perform the work of providing essential goods and services; the rest of the working class, as we have noted, are engaged in functions that are meaningless outside the wasteful world of capitalism. It follows that, in socialism, the task of producing all the goods and services required by humanity can be accomplished with comparatively little effort. That which we now call employment—workers working for wages—will have ended with the abolition of capitalism so, effectively, there can be no unemployment.

Obviously, in a wageless, moneyless world where people freely avail themselves of their needs and are not required to work long hours for protracted periods of their lives, there will be much time for leisure. Speculating on how human beings might use that leisure, in a frontierless world where transport and accommodation, like everything else is free, might well be a further question worth discussing.
Richard Montague

Friday, September 23, 2016

Lack of Momentum (2016)

From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Labour leadership election between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is a battle for the heart and soul of the Party; we examine what is really at stake.
A few years ago the idea that Jeremy Corbyn might be leader of the Labour Party would have been as likely as Lord Lucan appearing in Kensington High Street riding Shergar. But such is the disillusionment with much of what the Blair and Brown governments stood for – including the Iraq War – that the Labour Party seems to be a rather different place these days.
There are, of course, positives to this. Large numbers of Labour members and affiliated supporters are questioning the received wisdom of Labour’s role as one of being a more effective management team for UK PLC than the Conservatives – an effectiveness, it was argued, that would enable Labour governments to be more caring and generous to the poor. After 13 years of Labour government people rightly began questioning why this transparently didn’t happen, with inequality in Britain being at least as bad now on most measures than it was when the Blair landslide happened in 1997. Then there was the Iraq War and attempts at a potentially similar intervention in Syria, which left people disgusted with evidently spurious justifications of warmongering.
That people are questioning these things (and have been now for some time) is undoubtedly good. That many have now rallied around a hitherto highly marginal, left-wing Labour politician as the antidote to what has gone on before is rather more questionable, and herein lies much of Labour’s current woe.
Trade unions
Since its formation in 1906 out of the trade-union inspired Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party has had one, clear overarching aim. This is to secure political office – by contesting elections for parliament and local councils – so that it can enact reform measures that are in the interest of wage and salary earners (‘labour’ in the broadest sense). As such it has largely been the political arm of the trade union movement and the trade unions have been historically its main financial backers, as well as providing a proportion of its elected MPs. In terms of its entire ethos and ideology (reflected in its internal constitution) Labour as a political party has no other purpose than this.
The main charge against Corbyn and his supporters from those challenging his leadership is precisely that this purpose is being disregarded. Corbyn has spent his entire political life as a serial rebel against successive Labour leaderships, mainly with a penchant for supporting single issue protest groups (CND, anti-apartheid, environmentalism, etc). The charge is that he is turning the Labour Party from being a potential government that can enact reforms to being a cheerleader for grassroots single-issue campaigns, drawing large numbers of members into the Party from these types of single-issue interest groups.
Corbyn denies this and claims – however unlikely it may sound – that his goal is to be the next Prime Minister. But if he really believes this, what we can say is that the evidence is not on his side.
Weathercocks and signposts
Corbyn’s political mentor, Tony Benn, always claimed that the main choice in politics is over whether you are a weathercock blowing with the political wind, or a signpost pointing towards a new direction. Genuine socialists, being interested in securing a fundamental change in the way society is organised, are obviously in the signpost category. The equally obvious problem is that this is a signpost most people cannot see and when on occasion they do see it, it points down a path they are not usually inclined to explore that far. This has been the dilemma at the heart of the broader labour movement in the UK and elsewhere for well over a century – what became known originally as the disagreement between the ‘possibilists’ and ‘impossibilists’. The possibilists argued that you can only put forward ideas and policies that are likely to be broadly acceptable to the working class given their current ideology, while the so-called impossibilists have advocated the maximum programme of ‘socialism and nothing but’ as a way to change people’s minds towards the need for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.
The Labour Party is the ultimate possibilist political organisation and what Corbyn and his supporters are certainly not doing is advocating a turn instead to what the Labour Party has always derided as impossibilism (of the sort, for instance, advocated by us). They just want to advocate a form of possibilism through reform-campaigning that seems historically less likely to attract support and hence political power than the more conventional form advocated by more mainstream Labour – if you like, a form of utopian possibilism, a phrase which sounds like it should be a contradiction in terms.
The pro-Corbyn activist organisation set up a month or so after his initial leadership victory in 2015 seems to grasp little of this. Momentum appears to be an amalgam of supporters of a variety of single-issue causes and is largely full of people who have joined Labour in only recent times – swelling the Party membership to over half a million. This is a significant increase on recent years but well below the peak of over a million Labour members achieved in 1952-3 and which was followed by two heavy successive election defeats (which just goes to illustrate that activist political membership and the wider popular vote are very different things).
Persistent rumours of Trotskyist infiltration notwithstanding, at Momentum’s core are a number of people (such as its main driving force, Jon Lansman) who have long been known on the hard-left Bennite wing of the Party. Some of them like Lansman himself had been part of the left-wing core of activists who set up the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and other groups in the 1980s supportive of Benn and his key positions – such as a massive programme of nationalisation of industry, radical Keynesian economics, import controls, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and opposition to membership of the then EEC. They had a significant influence on Labour policy under Michael Foot, culminating in the Alternative Economic Strategy that was at the heart of the Labour manifesto for the 1983 General Election (dubbed by then Shadow Cabinet member Gerald Kaufman as the ‘longest suicide note in political history’). This led to a 1983 Labour vote share of 28 percent, still the worst Labour performance in the post-war period, even worse than those since achieved by Brown and Miliband.
The electoral lessons learnt from this disastrous defeat in 1983 led over a period of years from Neil Kinnock and John Smith through to Tony Blair. This drift to the political centre was also in broad alignment with the significant economic changes that occurred over these decades that rendered the 1983 manifesto obsolete, including the free movement of capital across borders, the internationalisation of industry (which rendered direct state ownership of business difficult if not impossible), the collapse of Soviet Russia’s empire and the end of the Cold War, and so on.
What Corbyn and Momentum now want to do is effectively turn the tide back to the inglorious days of 1983 in the hope that the ‘anti-establishment’ feeling among sections of the electorate at present can give them the type of radical surge that failed to happen in the 80s. But there is little if any evidence that this is likely to happen.
Examining the record
To some, Corbyn has done better than expected in his electoral tests so far. This is actually true, though only because most people’s expectations have been so low to start with. In the local government elections this May the Labour lead over the Conservatives was 1 percent, the same as it was in 2011 one year into Miliband’s leadership, with the Labour share of the vote only slightly up on the 2015 General Election. In the parliamentary by-elections that have occurred under Corbyn’s leadership, where more volatile swings occur with often low turnouts, the average swings have tended to be around 8 percent to Labour, almost identical to those achieved by Miliband. This perhaps suggests that the ‘Corbyn effect’ is actually less than either his supporters or detractors maintain.
Either way, it is not indicative of a radical upsurge and there is no indication that the increase in Labour Party membership is mirrored by an increase in popular support for their ideas more generally. Labour is trailing badly in the opinion polls again too, despite recent turmoil in the governing Tory Party. And as Cowley and Kavanagh have recently pointed out in The British General Election of 2015 ‘Almost all psephological analysis of Labour’s support between 2010 and 2015, as well as what we know of non-voters, the UKIP vote or indeed the nature of support for the SNP, would indicate that the Corbyn strategy is a route to an electoral brick wall’ (p.384). It is for these reasons that the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – arguably more in touch with the wider electorate and their views than they are with the Party’s activist base – have said ‘enough is enough’ and are supporting Owen Smith in his leadership campaign.
If Owen Smith doesn’t defeat Corbyn (or at least come close enough to justify another push next time) there is a real possibility of the Labour Party splitting. This is partly because the attitude to reforming capitalism from the PLP and much of the more long-standing membership is a rather different one to that of Corbyn and Momentum. It is also because – and this is partly the attraction of Corbyn to Momentum supporters – he is not a traditional political leader in either his utterances or demeanour (almost what marketing geeks would call a self-consciously ‘non-brand’ brand). To extend the analogy with 1983, the same could have been said of Michael Foot.
The Labour Party has split before of course, in 1981 when elements of the right-wing in the Party decamped under pressure from the left-wing activists then in the ascendancy, and founded the Social Democratic Party. This is what partly led to Labour achieving its lowest post-war vote in 1983, though today the portents are worse. The Labour vote in 1979 was 37 percent and then fell to 28 per cent. In 2015 it was under 32 percent and so is already at a lower base. And this time in terms of splitters it is unlikely to be as few as the 29 MPs who eventually threw in their lot with the SDP. On that occasion, the vast majority of the right and centre of the Party stayed (including heavyweights like Healey and Kaufman) whereas this time the vast bulk of the PLP is in rebellion, not a small minority of it.
If a split of this type occurs, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party in its current form can survive or what its purpose would be even if it did. People can join all sorts of single-issue groups and advocate particular reforms, but unless there is an electable political vehicle to put these reforms into action, it becomes a sterile and narrow form of campaigning around individual hobby-horses. And people can do this (and have done for decades) irrespective of whether they are in the Labour Party or not.
Socialist standards
This current confusion and division in the Labour Party – as well as a general political climate that seems more sceptical about political leaders – should be an opportunity for socialists. While there are concerned, decent and genuine people in all sections of the Labour Party (and other parties too for that matter) Labour as an organisation has repeatedly failed to defend the interests of wage and salary earners – hence the reason it repeatedly disappoints and gets kicked out of office. In truth, the ‘possibilism’ that has long characterised the Labour approach is really not so possibilist or realist at all in the sense that capitalism has never been fundamentally changed by reformist Labour governments elected into office (if anything, it has been changes within capitalism over decades that has helped change Labour instead).
Labour in government has sent troops in to break strikes, backed all of the major wars engaged in by the UK this last century (and has initiated a few of them), and has repeatedly attacked working class living standards to ensure the profitability of British industry. There is nothing to suggest that either Corbyn or Smith, despite their radical phrases, would behave any differently in office – all national governments are there to administer their particular section of world capitalism, and as Syriza in Greece found out soon enough, have very little control over the market economy as events unfold.
Momentum activists will no doubt argue that Corbyn is a decent man with a track record of opposing war. But this misses the point about how capitalism entraps those who seek to administer it. And while Corbyn may have opposed the senseless butchery of the Iraq War, he is a man (along with John McDonnell) who has sought to apologise repeatedly for the nationalism and terrorism of organisations like the Provisional IRA and Hamas. Men like these who commemorated IRA terrorists and who refused to condemn some of the most anti-working class atrocities in UK history (such as the Birmingham pub bombings and Enniskillen) are men whose peaceful and socialist credentials deserve to be viewed with quite some scepticism.
What is of importance now is that people who may identify with wanting to create a genuinely socialist society of common ownership, democratic control and free access to wealth, don’t get suckered in by a radical-sounding, ‘populist’ reform movement that has yet to prove its popularity anywhere beyond the already like-minded. The attempt to reform capitalism by so-called benevolent governments has always been a disaster and there’s nothing to suggest it would be any different next time under either Corbyn or Smith. Socialists have always been content to leave the Labour Party to the reformists – and the more we think about it, the more they are welcome to it.
Dave Perrin

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Between the Lines: Death, hypocrisy and videotape (1992)

The Between the Lines column from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Death, hypocrisy and videotape

Has nobody told Stormin' Norman about East Timor? Were we not told by the trigger-happy hypocrites who gave us the Gulf War that the invasion of one country by another was intolerable and must be defeated by force? First Tuesday (BBC2, 7 January, 10.45pm) told the hitherto unexposed story of the ruthless butchery of the Timorese people which has gone on for sixteen years.

In 1975 East Timor became independent from Portuguese control and elected its own government. That year Indonesia took over East Timor, outlawed the elected government and began a process of imposing control by means of brutal coercion. It is estimated that one in three of the population have been killed since the Indonesian take-over. In sixteen years as many as 250,000 Timorese workers are said to have been done away with. This is legalised terrorism on a mass scale. It is virtual genocide.

So, where are "our boys" whose task is to defend "the good" against "the evil”? (Remember all that "Free Kuwait" rubbish? The Kuwaiti dictatorship now presides over torture and mass deportations of its subjects.) The answer is that the only American and British arms being sent into the area are being sold to Indonesia.

The governments which claimed to have fought a war in the Gulf against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait are selling to Indonesia the means to unlawfully colonise East Timor. The alleged atrocities committed by Iraqis against Kuwaitis are being committed by Indonesian state thugs against the Timorese workers as a matter of course, but, despite several detailed reports by Amnesty International, the governments of Britain, the USA or Australia (the latter being a major trading partner with Indonesia) just stand by. Of course, hypocrisy is as attached to capitalist politics as fleas are to a dirty dog. How else can the cynical, anti-human policies of defending profit and damning need be justified?

The well-made First Tuesday documentary contained shocking footage of the 12 December 1991 funeral demonstration where Timorese workers were burying a man killed by the Indonesian army. At the funeral Indonesian troops fired on the crowd, killing one hundred mourners, others died on their way to and in hospital.

Indonesian brutality has given rise to an ill-equipped campaign of military resistance by desperate Timorese workers. Such counter-violence is futile: semi-armed guerrilla fighters will be no match for American-backed Indonesian state thugs, and anyway, killing Indonesian workers in uniform will not make anyone free, just a few more graves full.

The tragedy of East Timor reflects vividly the crass hypocrisy of Western celebrations about the coming of "Freedom" and the decency of King Capital's New World Order. It shows just how much the Gulf War was fought for oil profits and just how true it is that if Kuwait would have been as relatively poor as East Timor and if Iraq had been Indonesia things would have been different.

Aah, Freedom

The government has deregulated the law relating to TV, so now we are "free" - if we pay for it (in short, capitalist freedom) - to watch two new pom channels: After Midnight and Adult Channel. Behind the Headlines (BBC2, 8 January. 10.55pm) had a discussion on what such "freedom" will mean. In future viewers will be sold little plastic cards which they can slot into their TVs in order to watch sleazy movies made for sleazy men.

The programme also discussed the new 0898 sex lines on which consumers with such desires can pay 45p a minute listening to out-of-work actresses pretending to be naughty schoolgirls or busty nurses. There is even an 0898 number on which a genuine rape victim has been paid £3,000 to give a recorded account of her rape ordeal. Sweet freedom, eh? The poor woman is "free" to sell her pathetic story and men who are excited by rape (the stealing of the sexual commodity) can listen to her for just over a quid an orgasm.

Meanwhile Decca has announced that in February it is to release a video of the most salacious bits of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial - yours to enjoy in complete "freedom" for £10.99 a copy.

If this is freedom, then it is a lunatic's conception of what it is to be free. It is the freedom to sell, to exploit, to degrade, to abuse, to drag humanity through the dirt. Perhaps someone could market an 0898 number with recordings of children being tortured in East Timor; there might be a few bob to be made out of the screwballs who will get off on that.
Steve Coleman