Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Rise of Parliament in England (1965)

From the November 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard

In considering the history of Parliament, it is convenient to commence with the events leading up to the Civil War in England, when the institution of Parliament was at a crossroad. In Europe, under despotic monarchs the old feudal Parliaments were falling more and more into neglect. In England, however, as in the Netherlands, Parliament could not only maintain itself against the trend but could also struggle for greater strength.

Parliaments, Kings and Courts are not, and certainly were not, abstract methods of ruling. These institutions represented the administrative power of various economic classes and groups with their different interests in the organisation of society.

James I ruled through a Privy Council and Secretaries of State. The Law Courts, as the financial department, were openly involved in politics. Very few officials were paid; most obtained their money by fees, fines or tips. Patronage was the principal method of advancement as a servant of the Crown. Even foreign countries paid fees to courtiers to keep their interests in a favourable light.

Parliaments were only called into operation at odd intervals, generally in order to sanction new methods of raising money for the Crown. The Kings received monies raised by various means and this was a bone of contention as it made the Monarch partially independent of Parliamentary sanction.

The large landowners, or Lords, were increased in number by the Stuarts in order to strengthen their control over the House of Lords. The largest social group were the Gentry, or smaller landowners; they numbered about three-quarters of the House of Commons. The smaller groups—merchants, financiers and manufacturers—tended to side with the gentry, especially in the Commons. The legal profession was used by the sons of the gentry to gain knowledge of the law and a wider education. Oliver Cromwell was himself trained in this way.

The middle class groupings not only occupied the House of Commons but, as the ballot was based on property, also provided the electorate. Oddly enough, the Town middle class in places like London were not well placed in the number of Parliamentary votes available to them.

The lower social groupings had no political influence and exerted themselves, when conditions were favourable, by spasmodic rioting. The gentry were not entirely dependent on the land and had interests in wool, mining and trading, well as shipping loans. Thus they became more resentful interference by the Crown and Court in matters of trade, finance and taxes, but neither they, nor any other class, had the strength or the desire to remove the power of the Crown and the great lords.

The ideas of men were encompassed by religion and politics were often expressed in those terms. Thus the radical wing of English Society were by definition strict Protestants, who by using the House of Commons as a platform strengthened Parliamentary procedure. The tussles between James I and the Puritans often, therefore, revolved around Church matters. James halted the process of Church lands going to laymen and the Puritans sought to clip wealth from the Bishops.

But Parliament was still weak; between 1603 and 1629 it sat for only three years and four months. While the Crown could force loans, it was dependent to some extent on London usurers. A split arose over James I’s Great Contract, a cloth and wool trading plan which floundered in an economic morass. As a result James dispensed with Parliament for 10 years.

The crowning of Charles I tended to aggravate the simmering conflict. Not as flexible as his father, Charles was influenced by the continental despotisms and saw himself as King by “Divine Right” (an argument which was rather new). In his second Parliament (1626) Charles, in what he no doubt considered a smart move, removed the leaders by making them Sheriffs’ But the gap was filled by the few, eloquent extremists. When the King forced a loan, 70 gentry went to gaol rather than pay up. The Commons wanted intervention in Germany to offset Spain but refused to pay or sanction taxes for its prosecution. The gentry and traders needed a navy to protect their trading vessels but they jibbed at paying “Ship Money.” At the back of this conflict was the Commons' strong objection to money being raised without parliamentary consent, the mistrust of Charles' objects and a fear of England being tied to either Spain or France.

The King’s threat to restore Church and monastic lands, thus bringing the Church nearer to the old Catholic faith, alarmed even the Scottish peers. The King and Court became weaker, while Parliament and the social groups who supported it gained strength The Long Parliament (1640/1) removed the King’s advisers, ordered a Parliament every three years, broke some of the Crown monopolies (some of which Charles had dug up from feudal times), abolished the Star Chamber and ended the Welsh and Northern Councils, bringing the country as a whole increasingly under the control of Parliament.

However, the more cautious groups feared riot crazy mobs and the “root and limb” Puritans. The Petition of Great Remonstrance was only carried by 11 votes; the King recovered some of his lost ground. His undoing was the City of London-controlled by Puritans, its citizens having a very low voting quota, the place seethed with riot and revolt. When Charles tried to arrest five members the City gave them refuge; the King's entry into Parliament with soldiers was regarded as the final straw.
The Civil War divided the country roughly into two parts —Parliamentary London, the East and South—Royalist Wales, the West and North. The class struggles were still not clearly defined and it was in the realm of ideas that the divisions of the Civil War were more sharply expressed.

Parliament’s victory soon revealed that it was unable to rule, because the classes who were in power were not strong or developed enough to do so. The Presbyterians aimed to dispense with the Army. The Independents and Levellers feared this as a blow against them. Eventually the Army purged the House of Presbyterians and the strengthened Independents then purged the Army of Levellers. Cromwell, unable to obtain a “Puritan Policy,” ruled as Protector, his powers curbed by a body called the “Instrument of Government.” Thus the aspirations of the Gentry for a strong Parliament linked with a more pliable King came to naught.

Charles II's Restoration was welcomed as a means of overthrowing the more extreme Puritans, and though the King was back in the executive saddle Parliament maintained itself. The coming of James II opened the old rupture. James stood for an absolute Catholic monarchy and tried his hand in a number of illegal moves. But times were changed; there were not enough of the old time Catholic Absolutists to back him up. James was exiled and the Stuarts had backed another loser.

English Parliamentary structure and methods became bedevilled by a fear of change. The gentry saw themselves as the class destined to rule England, a position they jealously guarded until the Reform Bills and the construction of a new electoral system. The Kings still played their role, but the Hanoverians lost power. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet became the key men and the Court more and more of a rubber stamp; the King appointed the Ministers, but they could legislate only with the consent of Parliament.

By the 18th and 19th centuries the social face of Britain was changing. The gentry were involved in the rapidly expanding mines,' and land ownership was not the sole means of wealth. Industry was in a state of technical revolution, factory owners emerged from the gentry. Towns, new and ugly, grew apace, while the old ones decayed and transport advanced, and the far corners of the earth became places fit for plunder. The use of religious terms in politics declined and political labels took their place. A property-less working class grew up and the independent craftsmen were swamped, in the upsurge of capitalism.

The new class of capitalism—manufacture, financier and worker—were confronted with an electoral system that may have been useful in the middle ages, but by the 1820s had become a bad joke. Sheep-grazed hilltops returned two members to Parliament, but new, smoke-laden industrial centres had no representation at all. The voting system was a disorganised fantasy, based on the rateable value of property but much modified over the centuries by local conditions.

The Whig Peers backed up the new ruling classes in the struggle for Parliamentary reform. The Tories were fighting a rearguard action, hoping to ensure that they would not be penalised under the new system. After three attempts, the Reform Bill went through in 1830. Though the new House of Commons still comprised gentry and aristocratic relatives, it allowed the new capitalist class to clear the decks for their ultimate take over.

The next century was one of piece-meal struggle and compromise, as the Commons whittled away the powers of the Lords until in 1911 the Commons obtained the final recognition as the premier body. This period also saw a shifting of ranks, as groups and classes edged from one political party into another. The present Liberal Party no longer contains the descendants of the Great Whig Peers and the Tories are now far more industrialist than landowner.

The emergence of the mass working class as a political and voting force has altered the face of parliamentary tactics. No party can control the machinery of government without some hefty backing coming from the working class. In order to run capitalism in the interests of the privileged few, modern parties have to speak in the name of all and sundry.

In their struggles to better their lot, and for a say in the running of capitalism, the working class have played no small part in the strengthening of parliamentary institutions. The Reform Movement, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes have all been operative only because of working class support. There is now an even greater task for the working class to perform.
Jack Law

Doing their job (1997)

Book Review from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Promising the Earth by Robert Lamb, Routledge.

This is a well-written and very readable book covering the history of Friends Of The Earth (FoE) from its conception (and before) in the 1970s to the present day. It has been produced due to the 25th anniversary of FoE.

The author sees FoE as a highly successful campaigning organisation and claims that the environment has been put on the political agenda by groups such as themselves (the Rio summit being the obvious example). The success of various direct action campaigns are also seen as great victories for the environment.

Maybe they are but FoE and all the other environmentalists suffer from the same delusions. The idea that somehow, with enough campaigning and raising of environmental awareness, an ecologically friendly society will be brought about is rooted in the environmental activists' approach but is based on pure fantasy.

Environmental problems and disasters do not occur because of bad or evil men who don’t care a damn for the world but because of the profit motive rooted in capitalism.

Twyford Down wasn’t about the government's disdain for the environment but due to them doing what is effectively their job in capitalist society; serving the interests of those who own the means of production. Congestion on the M3 was holding back profit. The violence used against the protesters shows just what value capitalism puts on diversity of thought if it stands in the way of profit. Environmental campaigners are okay as long as direct action doesn’t touch the bulging wallets of the capitalist; "middle England”, usually courted embarrassingly unscrupulously by Britain's political parties are then quite in line for a baton round the head courtesy, of the police.

Twyford Down, however, has been seen by FoE as a success in terms of unification of groups with environmental objectives and to some extent the media.

The Twyford Down protest did not succeed in getting the road stopped, and the list of other unsuccessful direct actions campaigns is almost endless. Yet FoE claims to make a difference in terms of awareness and altering government approach to sustainable and pro-environment policies. Is this so?
Even if it is. within capitalism it is fighting a losing battle. A success, for example, against the expansion of the nuclear programme (1980, after FoE revealed secret government negotiations) is offset by innumerable environmental problems elsewhere.

If campaigners find a loophole in the Law it is rapidly closed; after all they are playing the game to the capitalists' rules.

If laws protecting the environment are produced, as they have been in the last few decades. they are often unworkable (as the Basel ban will prove to be) or so loosely applied as to be meaningless.

Promising The Earth, unsurprisingly, concentrates on the positive aspects of FoE and its development. It runs through their various campaigns; from their launch and campaigns against Schweppes in 1971 (arguing for returnable bottles) through numerous other campaigns to the recent Newbury by-pass protest and House Energy Conservation Act in 1995. It also deals with internal struggles and difficulties within the green movement and far from paints an entirely rosy picture of the movement as a whole. The author, though, clearly sees FoE and its sister groups as the force for change into an eco- friendly society.

While the non-violent direct action policies of FoE and others may achieve limited success against government policies and lobbying for legislation, at the end of the day they will never be able to combat the motive of profit which is the root cause of the problems they wish to ameliorate and are destined to struggle endlessly against the tide of capitalism.
Colin Skelly

No real understanding of Socialism (1997)

Book Review from the February 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

H.G.: The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot, Black Swan £7.99.

According to its author, "this is a book about Socialism, but personalities will constantly be allowed to intrude". In fact, it is not about Socialism at all; rather, it consists of Foot's defence of one of his political heroes against a variety of crimes that have been laid at his door, from elitism to racism and sexism.

There is no doubt that HG Wells was an enormously influential writer in a number of fields, from pioneering science fiction to social novels, from popular history to political essays. As a one-time Labour parliamentary candidate and member of the Fabian Society, he was naturally associated with left-wing ideas and a variety of reformist causes. There is no denying the power of some of Wells’s depictions of poverty, and I for one love the following passage from The Time Machine, part of a discussion of the potentialities of travel into the future:
"‘One might invest all one’s money, leave it to accumulate at interest, and hurry on ahead. To discover a society,' said I, ‘erected on a strictly communistic basis.’" 
Foot of course doesn't quote this, and instead offers long justifications of some of Wells's conduct towards the various women in his life.

In fact neither Wells nor Foot show any understanding of Socialism. Wells wrote a number of books set in the future as he imagined it might be. or hoped it would be. Broadly the same sort of picture is presented in these writings. and there is little doubt that in essentials it represents Wells's own ideas about how society should be run. Firstly, there is a naive acceptance of technological and scientific advance. and the benefits this will bring. Secondly, there is an end to nationalism and the establishment of a world state, run by a global government. Thirdly, there is an élite which administers this world state in a dispassionate and altruistic way. In A Modern Utopia (1905) this élite consists of the samurai, a "voluntary nobility". Foot notes that the young Wells thought scientists more reliable and disinterested than politicians, and the samurai is a projection of Wells's faith in knowledgeable and public-spirited people as the most suitable to run society. Foot's defence of Wells against the charge of élitism is pathetic: Wells was “avidly read. say. in the Workmen’s Halls in Wales” and so cannot have been an élitist!

It was Wells who coined the phrase "the war to end war” as a description of the First World War. He had often warned against the possibility of a global conflict, but he saw war as being caused not by economic considerations but by militarism and nationalism (which was one reason for his advocacy of a world state). In fact he supported the First World War. on the grounds that the enemy was German militarism, and he offended many friends by putting this view in the jingoistic gutter press. Even Foot has trouble excusing this.

The following passage from A Modern Utopia gives a good idea of the functioning of the world state as envisaged by Wells:
"It will maintain order, maintain roads, maintain a cheap and efficient administration of justice, maintain cheap and rapid locomotion and be the common carrier of the planet, convey and distribute labour, control, let, or administer all natural productions, pay for and secure healthy births and a healthy and vigorous new generation, maintain the public health, coin money and sustain standards of measurement, subsidise research, and reward such commercially unprofitable undertakings as benefit the community as a whole ..."
This is a clear depiction of state capitalism, and there is little doubt that this is what Wells stood for. Foot's study has to be seen as an attempt to defend such ideas now that the Labour Party has abandoned any commitment to nationalisation or a comprehensive welfare state.
Paul Bennett

Russia re-defines socialism (1985)

From the June 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

With the aid of the Oxford Student's Dictionary of Current English, Russia has officially re-defined socialism (Daily Telegraph, 8 April 1985). Why they felt it necessary to do so is another matter. Russian capitalism, controlled by the state, is beginning to lose favour with that section who regard state interference in the growing black market economy as a fetter on their activities. However, the old ideology of revolution weights heavily like an incubus on the mind and, for the time-being, politics and not economics dictates the pace at which this change is taking place.

Socialism is not an issue because the Russian working class are not socialists. After nearly 70 years of state capitalism even the state-salaried spokespeople are finding it difficult to explain the difference between the Russian system and Western capitalism. Now they have secured the services of the highly respected Oxford University Press, who have recently sold over 100,000 copies of the new dictionary to the Russian government. It appears that one of the conditions of the sale was the re-definition of certain words, including socialism, specifically to meet the needs and desires of their Russian clients. The OUP were unable to explain how it happened, but it's really quite simple: their commercial interests overwhelmed their literary integrity.

The new definition describes socialism as a "social and economic system which is replacing capitalism". We do not know where this is taking place but certainly it is not in Russia. The definition does not define anything; that was the whole point of the exercise. The Russian working class does not understand socialism and if they were provided with an accurate definition they would at least be able to compare the existing conditions with the terms of the definition and have a target to aim for. It is in the interests of the Russian capitalist class to conceal the target. References to socialism will be left vague and obscure.

It is worth noting that the Russian dictatorship. even with all its powers of propaganda and censorship, unencumbered by free speech and democratic practice, has to move some way towards providing excuses for the social conditions and the antagonism of the Russian workers to them. Like many a government in the past, it is finding out that the class struggle cannot be censored or, to use Marx's phrase, got rid of by "bold leaps or legal enactments". Certainly, there is no shortage of the latter.

Some clue as to the Russian government's intentions may be gleaned from the existing definition of socialism in the Oxford Dictionary, which was previously accepted but is now discarded. This describes socialism as "a theory or policy of social organisation, which advocates the ownership of the means of production, capital. land and property by the community as a whole". This is a contradiction. Capital is an integral part of the private property system and cannot be separated from that system. Common ownership and capital are diametrically opposed as capital is the very essence of private ownership, including state ownership. The point is. why is this definition no longer acceptable? Contradictions and impossible propositions have never worried or embarrassed the Russian dictators before. Their whole regime is a grotesque travesty of socialism yet they persist in calling it socialism.

The reason may be that within that definition, capital and socialism are not incompatible. Both can exist alongside each other. When such an unworkable and nonsensical definition is given official backing, it is liable to all sorts of interpretation. Individuals will have their own ideas of what it is supposed to mean and how to implement it. Some of the individuals will naturally include those groups who wish to promote private enterprise. The use of capital and its accumulation would be regarded as a desirable "socialist" objective.

At the moment, the Russian government is apprehensive about encouraging, or even allowing, the development of private capitalist enterprise. To begin with this could mean an increase in the production of consumer goods leading eventually to an increase in consumption. The workers' aspirations would expand and there would be pressure for a general rise in wages to meet the cost of a growing standard of living. The present policy of the Russian government is to restrict consumption and to keep wages down.

Any definition of socialism, however absurd, which allows for the independent development of private capital, apart from upsetting the existing state monopoly, is not likely to get a warm welcome in the Kremlin. Far better to change the definition so that socialism is a social and economic system which is replacing capitalism.

The socialist movement has always been plagued by ignorant definitions and descriptions of socialism and dictionaries have played no small part in this deception. An objective test of socialism is contained within its two cardinal principles: first, abolition of the system of private ownership of the means of production and distribution and its replacement by a system of production based on common ownership; and, arising from this, the abolition of the wages system and capitalist exploitation. This is the revolutionary approach to politics which workers, including those in Russia, will have to think about rather than allow themselves to be misled by definitions written by commercially-minded academics.
Jim D'Arcy

Cooking the Books: Capitalism Goes into Space (2016)

The Cooking the Books Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek, once wrote that because the Earth’s size was limited so would capitalism be, implying that when capitalism had extended to the whole of the globe it would come to an end. This conclusion might have been reassuring, but it was never a rigorous argument. The Earth’s size has nothing to do with the lifespan of capitalism. But, if it had, Pannekoek had overlooked the possibility of capitalism extending itself beyond the Earth; surprising since he was a professor of astronomy, but he was writing in 1942.
Fast forward to today and an online article on 25 November (tinyurl.com/nq9csxn) suggests that we too might be behind the times when we talk of ‘world’ socialism:
‘President Barrack Obama today put his signature on a law supporting the rights of space miners to extract, use and sell resources from asteroids, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.’
The US law exploits a loophole in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which banned weapons of mass destruction (but not other weapons) in space but which also laid down that ‘outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ This meant only that no state could claim territorial rights over parts of space but did not rule out corporations or individuals exercising private property rights over them.
The 1979 Moon Treaty did attempt to prevent this, declaring (Article 11) that ‘the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind’ and banning any state, corporate or private individual ownership of them. Since this treaty was not signed by the US or by any other country likely to send a mission to the Moon this clause was without effect. Now the US has enacted a law permitting the exercise of private property rights there and beyond.
It was passed as a result of lobbying by capitalist corporations that are already investing in the possibility of exploiting the natural resources of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids.
They were over the moon about it. ‘This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,’ exaggerated Eric Anderson of Planetary Resources. ‘In the long view of history,’ enthused Rick Tumlinson of Deep Space Industries, ‘it is the sort of positive action that changes civilization’. It, added Hannah Kerner of the Space Frontier Foundation, ‘extends our free market values into space.’
Actually, in the long view of history, it is more likely to be seen as a disaster and a disgrace as extending into space private property rights and the production for profit that caused such havoc on Earth. There is nothing wrong with making use of the natural resources of the Moon, Mars and asteroids. It’s an exciting prospect and will be an advance in human civilisation, but it will only be done rationally and in the interest of humanity if carried out under conditions where these resources, together with those of the Earth, really are ‘the common heritage of mankind’.
These are conditions which Article 11 of the Moon Treaty could be adapted to describe:
‘Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Earth, the Moon or other celestial bodies, nor any part thereof, shall be the property of any state, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.’
Fortunately, Pannekoek was wrong about capitalism having physical limits since space is so vast that, if he’d been right, capitalism would potentially be able to last forever.