Friday, February 5, 2016

Too Much of a Good Thing (1949)

From the December 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

To those members of the working-class who for the past few years have been harassed by a shortage of foodstuffs, the International Sugar Council has something to say . . .  This sub-committee of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation is reported in the Manchester Guardian of October 21st, 1949 as stating at its meeting on the previous day that " . . .  there was not at present any serious world surplus of sugar, and that it was improbable that any burdensome surplus would develop in the crop year ending in August, 1950. It was felt, however . . . that an international instrument should be ready before an emergency occurred.”

The lesson is obvious—a surplus of goods is considered to be “burdensome” under capitalism because it is in such conditions that prices and profits tend to fall, so promoting the rise of a state of panic and industrial stagnation. This, to the capitalist class, is “serious”—it is an “emergency.” In a sanely ordered society, however, in which wealth would be produced for the use and benefit of the community and not with the object of the realisation of a profit by a parasite minority, a surplus of food or any other form of wealth would be no cause for long faces and suicides, but for rejoicing at the prospect of increased leisure and security so realised.

Truly, capitalism can no longer operate in the interests of the majority of humanity—it is “burdensome” in its manifestations, “serious" in its prospects —it is to-day our major problem, and its abolition our principal “emergency.”

"Socialism" in Cuba (1960)

From the September 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Home and Abroad is a news review programme which the B.B.C. regularly stages after the 9 o'clock news. A recent edition of this programme chose as an item for airing the seizure of the oil refineries in Cuba by Dr. Fidel Castro's government.

On one side, Mr. Patrick O'Donovan, for the B.B.C. On the other, Mrs. Lee Hall, an American ready to stick up for her country. It was a very brief interview, with only three points to make up the gist of the discussion. Mr. O'Donovan led by asking Mrs. Hall, was not America too ready to answer back all the charges which Castro's government were making against it ? Mrs. Hall conceded that this may be true, but came back by saying that Americans had to be vociferous, at least, about having their property taken away from them. She followed up by thinking aloud that Cuba may be considering building up a Socialist state—like China, she said, and that the Cubans may find it difficult to operate the oil refineries without help. And things might get tough in Cuba if the U.S.A. were to stop buying all their sugar from them. (Which has, in fact, happened.)

Mr. O’Donovan’s counter was to remind Mrs. Hall that, when Nasser’s government seized the Suez Canal, quite a number of people were convinced that the Egyptians would not be able to work it without British or French help. As it happened, the Egyptians succeeded. Without a doubt, Mrs. Hall was sharp to pick up O'Donovan on his first question: and he was equally fast in clinching the last point. But what about the middle point, which went unchallenged, that Cuba may be building a Socialist state?

In fact, to talk of a Socialist state is to talk in contradictions. For the state is a machine designed to maintain the subjection and exploitation of the large mass of the people by a few. It developed when the production of wealth surplus to the needs of the producer became possible. Its function was to protect the system of the expropriation of that surplus wealth. Thus, it is a very old institution—and now that we live under capitalism, with its exploitation of the working class under modern industrial conditions, it still carries out the same function. Today, as ever, the state is there to preserve and protect the private ownership of the wealth, power and privilege of the relatively small dominant class in society.

Part of the state’s work is in the organisation of the military machine. This is a world in which wealth is produced with the object of a profitable sale. This means that nations are always in keen competition for markets and so forth. In continually seeking to outdo their foreign competitors, they land themselves into all manner of risky situations. These in turn cause the perpetual crises, diplomatic wrangles and international tensions which we all know so well. The armed forces, run by the State, are there to push each nation's interests in these disputes.

And that is the sort of situation which Cuba, Russia and the U.S.A. are in at the moment. Russia has surplus crude oil which she is willing to exchange for Cuba’s surplus sugar. Doubtless, the deal could go on as long as both found it profitable. But the U.S.A. had a lot of interest in Cuban oil refining for a long time and had been buying their sugar at more than the world price. So it seems that the deal between the two powers was done at the expense of a third. A typical capitalist set up, whatever the form of the competing governments—monarchies, republics, autocracies, democracies, dictatorships or any others.

Capitalism is a social set up which produces goods for sale. Socialism will be a society which makes things because people need them. Capitalism has competition, the wages system, the state. Socialism will have cooperation, open access to wealth, democratic freedom. Remember this, the next time somebody airily holds forth on the so-called Socialist state.
Joe McGuinness

Diary of a Capitalist (1989)

The Diary of a Capitalist column from the November 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard


So Manchester United football club is being sold. Or not, as the case may be. Martin Edwards, who owns 500,000 shares, just over half the total, has the controlling interest. How do you get control of a great football club? Perhaps Edwards got up early as a youngster, cleaned the players' boots, laundered the strip, swept the terraces, and saved up all his money to buy the shares one at a time? Well no, actually. His father (a rich businessman) owned the shares, and left them to young Martin when he died.

Now Martin wants to sell, no doubt to put the money into something even more profitable. Though he has done very well out of Manchester United, thanks very much. He draws a “salary" of £85,000 a year (Guardian, 19 August), plus the interest on his shares, for duties which appear to consist mainly of sitting each week on one of the best seats in the ground and watching the most exciting football team in the country. But obviously Edwards thinks his money will do better elsewhere. So he looks round for a bidder. And up pops another businessman, Michael Knighton, who promises him £10 million for his shares. He also has to promise to buy the other 49 per cent plus of the shares on the same terms (as the present take-over law insists), and promises another £10 million to make improvements at Old Trafford. That makes £30 million in all. He then tells the assembled journalists that "£30 million is not a lot in commercial terms" (Guardian, 19 August). That is quite right of course. To any solid capitalist, like myself for instance, £30 million isn't a lot. But I wish to God he wouldn't announce it publicly. Whatever will all the groups of workers presently being offered an annual wage-adjustment of less than the inflation rate (i.e., a drop in pay)—ambulance staff, for example, and classroom teachers— think about that? A worker high enough in the rat-race to receive £10,000 a year (never mind the millions on less) would have to slog his guts out for precisely 3000 years to get his £30 million—assuming, that is, he could get his food, clothes, housing and so on free during all that time. And Knighton tells the world “that £30 million is not a lot in commercial terms".

Knighton will have to cure himself of the urge to tell the truth if he has capitalism's long-term interests at heart.


Now, it seems, Knighton is having trouble completing the deal. At first he claimed he was alone in the purchase: “I am Mr Big, I'm not fronting a consortium" (Daily Mirror, 4 October). Then he had to admit he did have backers. Then it transpires that Knighton's original backers have dropped out, and he is looking for other backers, or buyers. Knighton told the press "he was still seeking partners, as as I said at the start'. In fact that is precisely what he did not say" (Guardian, 5 October). In effect Knighton is hawking round his option to buy Edwards' shares, and David Murray— a millionaire who bought control of Glasgow Rangers—thought he might make a profit of £5 or 6 million on the deal (Guardian, 5 October).

Journalists reproaching Knighton for telling a few small porkies should remember that people don’t make fortunes by adhering strictly to the truth. The real criticism of Knighton is that he is a small boy (in capitalist terms) trying to push in among the big boys—playing out of his league, so to speak. As the Mirror (7 October) said, he tried to buy United "without having the full funds to go ahead with it”; he is “no more than a cheapskate”.

In other words, if he was a dearskate. and could afford it, it would have been all right.


The papers are bemoaning what's happening to Manchester United. This magnificent football club, they wail, centre of dreams and devotion for many thousands, is being auctioned off like a joblot of odds and ends down at the local market.

For example, Pat Crerand, former Manchester United midfield star, in the Daily Mirror (6 October): “I could honestly weep for what is happening to my beloved United...the heart is being torn from the club...distress and suffering...we just can't go on like this”. And why the anguish? Why, "Knighton is just trying to make money". He is merely "coming in to make a fast buck".

Where have these people been all their lives? Living on Mars? In a capitalist society everything that can be given a price is for sale. Food, clothing, houses, and most other things too—you can have them if you can afford them. Honour, virtue, discretion, confidentiality—all will crumble before a big enough offer.

In fact, it’s got to the point where former United footballing stars can make money out of the "distress and suffering” of the club by producing articles in the tabloids.


It reminds me of a well-known story. Two guests at a high-society dinner table start talking. The man says to the woman, "Would you sleep with me if I gave you £5 million?"

The woman was taken aback, but thought it over.

"Well, yes, all right”, she said finally. "For £5 million I’d be mad not to."

"Would you sleep with me if I gave you £5?" asked the man.

“What do you think I am?" demanded the woman indignantly.

"We've already decided that", said the man. “Now we're trying to fix the price.”

Capitalism is a system where almost everything is for sale. It only remains to fix the price.


Journalists have spent most of the last week outdoing each other with vivid turns of phrase to describe the sale of Manchester United football club. One came up with: "Britain's best-loved football club . . . being bought and sold like a box of kippers” (Daily Mirror, 6 October).

Socialists, of course, know as well as I do that kippers are produced and distributed solely by workers (whether managers or shopfloor hands, white-collar, blue-collar, or no-collar). All capitalists do is to seize a profit at each stage, like a gang of blackmailers holding the useful part of society to ransom. They know that it’s only lack of class-consciousness on the part of the working class that allows capitalists to “own” industries, and impose the wage and price system on the rest of society.

So Socialists will want to ask why a box of kippers should be bought and sold like a football club.


Now the story in the papers is that Knighton has not been able to come up with enough financial backing to buy the club, and Edwards and the present board of directors are so embarrassed by the hostile publicity that they are prepared to buy back Knighton’s contract for £11 million. This, if it happened, would give Knighton a profit of £1 million on the deal, which would mean that he had made "£20,000 every day since his bid was made public on August 18" (Guardian, 7 October). Knighton says “I have spent every waking hour over the last three months working on the deal” (Observer, 8 October), implying he is entitled to his profit. But ambulance crews, who have spent nearly all their waking hours for the last three months and longer taking sick people to hospital, would be glad to get only part of the suggested daily profit—as their whole annual salary.

Workers can work all that out just as well as I can. So Knighton would be doing capitalism a great service if he quietly faded from the scene, before attracting more unpopularity for one of capitalism's basic features—buying and selling.


I wish Martin Edwards and the other rich men on the United board of directors could decide what proportion of the shares he owns. On 5 October, for example, at least three figures appeared: 51 per cent (Guardian, page 16); 50.2 per cent (Guardian, page 1); and 50.04 per cent (Mirror, back page). Only one of them can be right. All these figures presumably came from the wealthy directors or their accountants. Since we capitalists like to bamboozle workers by pretending we’re richer than they are because we're so much cleverer, it’s embarrassing when it turns out that we can’t do simple sums.
Alwyn Edgar

The President and the People: Looking Back on Lyndon Johnson (1973)

From the April 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Even Presidents of the United States cannot live forever. Within weeks of each other, two who in their time supervised a great act of organised mass destruction died, quietly at their homes.

A final human touch, this; and human touches are among the expectations which people have of their leaders, at the same time as they hope for elements of the superhuman. Lyndon Johnson specialised in folksy speeches; during his time as Vice President he gave out bail-point pens to the people of West Berlin and he was always one of the world’s champion handshakers. In his superhuman rĂ´le he promised to unravel the tangle of Vietnam and to fashion America into what he called the Great Society — something which, unsurprisingly, is still awaited.

Truman was known as the small town haberdasher come to the Presidency, having greatness thrust upon him. His daughter Margaret was a singer of sorts and as such always good for a joke; Truman once offered to fight a reviewer who had been unwisely frank about one of her performances. At the same time, he was expected to juggle successfully with the new, fearsome crises of a nuclear-armed world capitalism and to survive politically under severe pressures.

The Right Place & Time
An adviser to Richard Nixon informed him in 1967 about the road to political success:
Potential presidents are measured against an ideal that’s a combination of leading man, god, father, hero, pope, king, with maybe just a touch of the avenging Furies thrown in.
Sometimes a President survives the inevitable disappointment of these hopes, as Truman did. Sometimes, like Johnson, he goes under, ending his days sick and apathetic perhaps ready only to die.

Statesmanship is, as we all know, one of the qualities which all presidents are required to possess and to exercise. If the word has meaning, it must be one which includes a large measure of cynicism and political calculation and involve taking decisions which may later be reversed by what will also be known as acts of statesmanship. Truman pushed America into the Korean war (which by the time he died had been renamed a police action) which was hailed as a great example of statesmanship. His successor Eisenhower, happening into the presidency just as the war was exhausting itself and both sides were accepting the need to negotiate, was able to end the hostilities and thereby get himself also hailed as a great statesman.

Greatness Thrust Upon Them
Johnson took on the job of expanding the American involvement in Vietnam which Kennedy had begun, which marked him down as a statesman. In 1968, when American workers were growing sick of the war — not so much because of the killing and destruction but because of the apparent inability of America to crush so puny an opponent — Nixon made a statesmanlike promise to end the war. It took over five years for him to get a cease-fire — at any rate on paper if not on the battlefield — but having got that Nixon is assured of his place as one of capitalism’s great statesmen.

Words Appeal
In all of this the working class develop a political blind spot which they can learn to turn so that it blots out any facts which may disturb the golden image of their leader. Of all American presidents, none is more loved than John Kennedy, who was young and good-looking and who had an elegant wife and appealing children. Very human; and all rounded off by his violent end, bleeding onto his wife’s expensive clothes. So Kennedy is forgiven his venture into the Bay of Pigs, his perilous gamble in the Cuban missiles crisis, his beginning the American involvement in Vietnam. He is forgiven his failure to ease the problems of poverty which he made so much of in his election campaign; soon after he died Johnson reported to Congress that a fifth of American families were living in what even he was prepared to describe as poverty.

It need hardly be said that Johnson presented his report as a sort of fertiliser in which a fresh crop of promises could be cultivated. A few months later he gave out the slogan which clung to him for a long time:
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice . . . The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talents.
Changing the Tune
And so on. And so on. And on. Johnson’s conversion to a crusader against “racial injustice” was as abrupt as his elevation to the Vice-Presidential candidacy. As a Senator he was never in any doubt about where he stood when voting on laws which were aimed at curbing the excesses of the racists of the South. Between 1940 and 1960 he voted on such issues 39 times, always as one would expect a good, solid, prejudiced Southerner to vote. He was six times against abolishing the poll tax; twice against anti-lynch laws; twice in favour of racial segregation in the American forces. And so on. And on. And on.

When he became President, Johnson applied all that he had learned about political arm-twisting, and used all the power of patronage he had built up during his time as Senate leader and Vice-President, to push through Congress the anti-discrimination laws which had baffled Kennedy. Johnson did not necessarily like what he did but, as he once shouted at a Senate subcommittee . . this is happening!” He was giving way to the inevitable, to the progressive grind of modern capitalism which the South has resisted for so long. As a simple Senator for Texas Johnson could, indeed he must, pander to the racial bigots and killers of the South, no matter what that meant in terms of negro terror and suffering. When he was in the White House he was acting for American capitalism as a whole and, again with no thought for human suffering, he was forced to do things simply because they were happening.

His success in these ruthless battles and manipulations confirmed the Johnson reputation as a masterly politician, one of the world’s greatest exponents of compromise and double dealing. When he crushed Goldwater in 1964 he might have thought to be set fair for an endless passage of triumph. But Vietnam, for one, proved a problem typical of capitalism — beyond the most skilful negotiator. Johnson’s failure here, and the intensifying fever of American society in the Sixties — the crime, the race riots, the economic crises — finished him. The uproar of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago epitomised the result of Johnson’s presidency and what he, the great unifier, had done to his party. The pay-off came hard in 1972, when the Democrats chose a certain loser for their candidate, a symbolic lamb to the slaughter. Johnson died soon after the debacle of last November.

Selling the Goods
It is usual for political commentators to analyse a politician’s failings in terms of his personal failings, or defects in his advisers, or sometimes even simple bad luck — in fact in any way which evades the facts. They can never explain, why problems which baffle one leader are apparently so easy to another. Why bad luck afflicts one President but not another. Why none of them seem to learn from the failures of their predecessors.

The simple explanation of the inability of politicians to deal with the situations confronting them and to keep their promises to the electors is that they are attempting the impossible. America might, as the protesters demanded, have kept out of the Vietnam war, but it is hard to see how they could save done so without denying the presumptions upon which a modern, powerful capitalist state must work. Johnson might have been able to legislate racism out of existence, if it were possible to wipe out three hundred years of history and the economic drives on which it was based. Nixon might now be able to abolish poverty, if capitalism suddenly stops being a society in which everything is made to be bought and sold.

No politician can ever confess to the impossibility of the tasks he sets himself. The gap between promises and reality must be bridged by other means. Sometimes, as we said, it might be by a little bit of luck, like the bit which enabled Nixon to claim, in time for the election last November, to have solved the financial problems of American capitalism. Mostly, the gap is bridged by a more calculated method, which brings the public relations and the advertising men into the picture.

Eisenhower, whose image was of the simple, honest soldier who wanted to serve the people of his country in peace as in war, was one of the first to engage a regular advertising agency to promote him as something the American working class might buy. The Republican national chairman of the time, Leonard Hall, put it without any delicacy:
You sell your candidates and your programmes the way a business sells its products.
The Presidents they Want
Nixon, under a cloud in the 1956 election, kept his place as Eisenhower’s running-mate by a blatantly tear-jerking television appearance with his family and his dog. Probably he never forgot how effective a publicity method television can be. His campaign in 1968 was an object lesson in the skilful use of it, to persuade the voters away from reality. And who better to help in this than the admen, who get their living in that way? Advertising, said Daniel Boorstin in The Image, " . . has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth.” That’s nice, that use of the word “reshaping”. Nixon had admen to help him to do his bit of reshaping.

The occasional exposures of the techniques of political promotion ignore the fact that behind the leaders who are promoted stands a mass of accepting and condoning voters, members of the working class who suffer under the social system they expect the politicians to modify to acceptable human standards. In many ways, this is the root of the problem. American workers, like workers throughout the capitalist world, support a society which must impoverish and degrade them. At present it is painful for them to face the reality of their support for capitalism — to face their own responsibility for Vietnam, for the riots in Watts, for the city slums and the rural destitution.

Yet to face reality, and to live up to our responsibility, is all that it needs. The world has everything now to make it a place of peace and abundance except the political will to make it so. That means people, it means human beings — which is where we came in.

A Hundred Years Since the Charter (1938)

From the May 1938 issue of the Socialist Standard

May, 1838—May, 1938: one hundred years pregnant with profound changes in social and political development. May, 1838, saw working-class discontent and agitation for political enfranchisement reach organised expression in the production of the “Charter" from which the Chartist movement took its name. The Charter was written by William Lovett, an "uneducated" working man who was a leading figure in the London Working Men’s Association, an organisation formed to pursue agitation for Universal Suffrage. The basic demands of the Charter were: (1) Annual Parliaments, (2) Universal Suffrage, (3) Payment of Members, (4) Abolition of Property Qualification, (5) Equal Electoral Districts.

It would be simple enough to declaim on the mistakes of the Chartists, but they were the mistakes resulting from working-class immaturity. In view of the background of the movement the marvel is that it did not make more mistakes, and provide more numerous examples of unintelligent direction. The conditions out of which the Chartist movement grew are familiar to students of history. In the early nineteenth century the industrial revolution, which transformed England from an agricultural to a largely industrial country, had hardly completed itself. The transformation created a property-less working class, which formed the majority of the population. There was intense suffering and misery. Towns had sprung up over-night. Workers were huddled in barrack-like hovels called houses, with little regard for sanitation, light or air. Whole families were brutally exploited by the new propertied class, the factory owners. Hours of labour were from sixteen to twenty a day. Children of an average age of eight years, and some even as low as four or five years, were employed in degrading and revolting conditions in the mines and factories. Many who tried to run away were brought back and chains were riveted on them.

So fiendish and brutal in their lust for profit were the new factory-owning class, and so blind to the social results of their greed, that many of the more farsighted reformers of the older ruling class, the aristocracy, feared a dangerous decline of the working-class population. England seethed in a bitter class-struggle which was crystallised around the struggle for the Charter. Until 1832, the year when the Reform Act was passed, the workers had supported the new industrial capitalist class in its struggle to gain Parliamentary enfranchisement. The Reform Act achieved this, but left the workers without any say in the government of the country. Deserted and left in the air for a few years, the many separate working-class organisations throughout the country which had worked for the franchise soon found themselves welded together in support of Lovett’s Charter. The movement followed a turbulent course for about ten years and then gradually passed out.

The Charter gained considerable support from workers throughout the country. The first petition for the Charter was presented to Parliament in 1839 and was rejected by an overwhelming majority. This failure resulted in increasing support for the “physical force" section of the Chartist movement, as opposed to the “moral force” section. Attempts were made at insurrection. One effort to release a Chartist leader from prison culminated in a riot in which soldiers, firing only one round of ammunition, killed ten and wounded forty Chartists. Several leaders were executed and others transported for life.

After the failure of the first petition the movement lagged and suffered considerably from the internal disputes between its “physical" and “moral" force sections. Subsequently, the “moral force" section broke away and formed the National Charter Association, which aimed at achieving political reform through association with the Liberals. Thenceforth the “physical force" section was in the ascendant and dominant. A second petition was presented to Parliament in 1842 and was again rejected. This was followed by an abortive attempt at a general strike. In 1848, stimulated by the upheaval in France, Chartism again revived, and a third petition was presented on April 10th, this time accompanied by a march on the House of Commons by thousands of Chartists. O’Connor, leader of the “physical force" Chartists, suffered the humiliation of having to order his followers to disperse on the “advice of the police." When the petition was examined it was found that instead of having the six million signatures claimed for it there were only two million, and a great proportion of those were patent forgeries. It was the death blow for Chartism. But though it died it unquestionably left its mark on working-class politics and exerted a tremendous influence on the reform movement of the time, besides influencing the literary world, as is shown by some of the outstanding writers of those days. Though the movement was left bleeding and exhausted, it doubtless assisted the introduction of such reforms as the Child Labour Acts (1842), The Ten-Hour Day (1847) and the abolition of the stamp duty on newspapers in 1836.

The aims for which the Chartists struggled have now been achieved, with the exception of Annual Parliaments; though Universal Suffrage and the Payment of Members are relatively modern innovations, the one being introduced in 1918 and the other in 1911. The lapse of the years between the struggle for the Charter and the achievement of its objects tends to obscure the important part in working-class history played by the Chartists. The desperate nature of their struggle brought the franchise to the workers more quickly than if that struggle had not taken place. The modern working class has inherited the benefits and the accumulated experience of those struggles. The Chartists fought for democratic enfranchisement, the modern working class takes it for granted and must inevitably fight for more. Bitter experience taught the Chartists the importance of Parliament. Some saw in the acquiring of the franchise an end to all their troubles, a few saw deeper, that their poverty was due to capitalist ownership, and glimpsed the Socialist solution. Nevertheless, the democratic struggle which they fought was part of the historic struggle for Socialism, a struggle that had to be made. The ruling class feared them and their aims. It took many decades for the rulers to learn that enfranchisement for the workers did not of necessity threaten the rights of private property. The struggles for the aims of Chartists were carried on in other forms by men who came after, and partial concessions were made to the workers in 1867 and 1884, before complete enfranchisement was granted to all males over 21 in 1918 and to females in 1930. The nineteenth century capitalist took the measure of the Chartists and their successors, bitterly opposing their aims and granting concessions only when to do so diverted them, from adopting more menacing demands; the modern capitalist class has made concessions in the happy assurance of apparent safety. But are safe?

The Parliamentary machine which they control has reached coercive and administrative perfection. It has reached it through centuries of struggle for dominance between the propertied sections. But to-day there is only one dominant propertied class and only one class, the working class, who can challenge its dominance. At the moment there may appear to be nothing serious to disturb the equanimity of the capitalists. But that means little. The modern working class inherits the lessons of history, half-formed ideas of. the goal towards which historic evolution is relentlessly marching shape themselves in the minds of millions of workers. The seeds of generations of propaganda have been sown, and who knows when and how events which neither capitalists nor workers can control will develop rapidly those half-formed ideas into Socialist convictions and bring to maturity the seeds sown in past generations ? Political catastrophes, like those in Nature, appear to occur suddenly, but they are not sudden to those who understand that they are the culmination of the innumerable past factors in historical development. The Chartists played their part, the modern workers play theirs. Between the two much ground has been cleared, preparing the way for the days when events will show clearly to intelligent workers that Socialism is the only logical outcome of the class struggle and the only solution for their poverty and insecurity. 
Harry Waite

Reformist dead – end (2) (2002)

Book Review from the October 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

The State and Community Action. By Terry Robson. Pluto Press. 250 pages.

With the manifest failure of Labourite reformism and Keynesian economic policies by the end of the 1970s, the sort of people who previously had joined the Labour Party to get reforms designed to benefit “the poor” deserted Labour, setting up and joining instead single-issue campaigning charities and other such organisations to work towards the same aim, although with considerably lowered sights.

Among such organisations were grass-roots neighbourhood and community councils in areas inhabited by the worst-off sections of the working class. Incredible as it may seem today, some of these activists put forward the idea of “community action” as an alternative to “working class action” not just to get improvements within the capitalist system but even to bring it to an end.

It was never going to work since, despite the personal views of some of those involved, “community action” as such was in the same tradition of piecemeal reform as the Labour Party had been, only even more piecemeal in that whereas Labour had sought reforms at national level the “community activists” were only seeking changes at local level. Some of these charges – better street lighting, community centres, better provision of public services, more information about how to claim state benefits – were unobjectionable in themselves and did improve things a little but the idea that this had anything to do with “challenging capitalism” or “creating a culture of resistance” was, frankly, just laughable.

Robson makes this point in passing, but his main concern is the relationship between community action and the state. Following the riots in the black ghettos of America in the 60s and 70s and in Brixton and Handsworth in Britain a decade later, the governments in both countries decided to actively encourage “community development”. They set money aside to fund local community associations and full-time community workers. Robson accurately describes this as “letting the poor manage their poverty”. The governments' aim was clearly to allay discontent and integrate the people affected into mainstream capitalist existence.

This continues to this day, with the present Labour government's much trumpeted “local initiatives” aimed at ending “social exclusion”. There is also a narrowly financial aspect: letting the poor manage their poverty is cheaper than having this done by civil servants subject to civil service terms and conditions over pay, job security and pensions. In other words, full-time “community workers” are in effect cheapo state functionaries. To imagine, then, that such associations and such workers could form the basis of an anti-state, anti-capitalist movement is just a pipe-dream. Being state-funded these are no more likely to bite the hand that feeds them than the state would be to allow its hand to be bitten.

Robson tries to set all this in a wider theoretical framework by referring to the idea of “hegemony” of the pre-war, imprisoned leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, apparently, observed (not very originally) that capitalist control was not based on mere coercion but also on consent; according to him, this consent was mediated by “intellectuals” who transmitted ideas and values favourable to the ruling class amongst the general population. To overthrow capitalism, he concluded, the working class movement needed to produce its own intellectuals (who needn't necessarily be of working class origin) who would undermine the work of the pro-capitalist intellectuals and lead the working class against capitalism and its state – for Gramsci was, of course, still a Leninist vanguardist.

Robson's conclusion from all this is that while some of the university-trained community workers might have considered themselves to be such pro-working class intellectuals they were just the opposite: intellectuals co-opted by the state to get the worst-off sections of the working class to acquiesce to capitalist rule without kicking against the pricks too much.

It's an interesting theory but this is the least interesting part of the book. It also contains two errors that rather undermine Robson's credibility as a person who knows what he's talking about here. He includes the Bolshevik leader Bukharin as one of the theoreticians of Second International “economistic” Marxism (but he was only born in 1888 and didn't publish anything substantial till after 1917) and he also has the Paris Commune (1871) occurring at about the same time as the Chartists in Britain (1830s and 40s).
Adam Buick

Reformist dead – end (1) (2002)

Book Review from the October 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sovereign States or Political Communities? Civil Society and Contemporary Politics. By Darrow Schecter. Manchester University Press. 224 pages.

German philosophy is still alive and, judging by this book, is just as impenetrable as it ever was. Schecter's basic argument is that while Marx was right to see that capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage-labour and right to say that a real democracy – what Schecter calls “a self-governing civil society” – is only possible on the basis of the abolition of both capitalism and the state, Marx was wrong to say that socialism would involve the end of politics.

This is largely a question of definition. Marx thought that socialism would mean the end of politics because he associated politics with the state and of course there would be no state – as a public institution having a monopoly of the means of legitimate violence within a given part of the globe – in socialism. Schecter, basing himself on various 20th century German political philosophers, comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. Defining politics as the disinterested pursuit of the common good, he argues that it cannot co-exist with the state as states are bodies which, besides being influenced by the most powerful interest groups, seek to contain and manage the various conflicts of material interest and competition for money that go on within capitalist society.

Thus, what is called “politics” today is merely competition between rival parties of professional politicians seeking state power on the basis of promising to improve the material position of those who vote for them. This reduces so-called democratic choice to giving electors the chance of saying yes or no every few years to whether an outgoing government should continue in office. Most people realise this and is what they consciously do when they vote, if they bother to vote at all. It also explains why they see politics as marginal to their lives.

Real democracy, says Schecter and we would agree, involves people actively participating in decision-making about general issues; which assumes that meeting their material needs is no longer an issue since these are adequately met by other means – which can only be on the basis of socialism. Which is why a real democracy can only exist in socialism.

Schecter also investigates how such a desirable situation could be brought about. At one time the working class movement – the trade unions, a mass party calling itself socialist – was seen as the instrument of this but now, says Schecter, this movement has accommodated itself to capitalism seeking only better conditions within the system and even being integrated into the state administration of labour and welfare matters. He sees a potential replacement in what have been called the “New Social Movements” – “feminist, peace, ecological, gay rights, indigenous peoples' rights” groups – though only insofar as these pursue politics (in his sense) by seeking to represent, not the sectional interests of their constituencies within the state, but the whole of “civil society” against the state.

Although he realises that these NSMs (as, apparently, we have to call them) are just as liable to accommodate themselves to capitalism and to be co-opted and integrated into the state as the Labour Movement was, he vastly underestimates this. In fact he seems to ignore the extent to which this was essentially all these movements ever wanted and indeed the extent to which it has already happened (women can now become trained killers in the armed forces, open gays can sit as Tory MPs, and in America they've got a black Secretary of State).

What is disappointing (if only because Schecter was for a short while a member of the Socialist Party and so should know better) is that he calls the regimes such as used to exist in Russia “state socialism” rather than state capitalism. He also (p. 52) misquotes Marx. Marx did not write in connection with the 1871 Paris Commune that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. What he actually wrote was “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes” (Address of the General Council of the IWMA on the Civil War in France, 1871, beginning of section 3, in Marx The First International and After, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 206, emphasis added).

In other words, the working class can lay hold of the existing state machine but not “simply”, i. e. it must first change it by, in the occurrence, lopping off its militaristic, bureaucratic and other undemocratic features before wielding it to abolish capitalism thereby making itself redundant.
Adam Buick

Ellen Meiksins Wood and ‘Political Marxism’ (2016)

From the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 14th January 2016 Ellen Meiksins Wood, a prominent Marxian historian and political economist, died. Her book 'The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View' presented a compelling argument that the roots of our present system of society lay not, as is often presumed, in  a steady and inevitable increase of mercantilism, but instead with the historically specific conditions that existed in 17th century rural England, where traditional fixed rights to land gave way to variably priced market based leases. For tenants, this meant having to respond to market imperatives by taking an interest in agricultural ‘improvement’ and increasing productivity, which often involved the enclosure of common lands and an increased exploitation of wage labour. The effect being that producers and landowners became solely dependent on the market for their own sustenance.

This set the dynamic through which our world has been transformed, with market imperatives rather than market opportunities being the driving force. Tenant farmers specialised in competitive production for the market because they needed to in order to be able to continue leasing. Those who failed to compete successfully were eventually made landless. The landless became not only labourers but also consumers as they needed to buy goods in the market which they had previously been able to produce themselves. And so began the cycle where more and more people, and eventually the whole world, is brought under the sphere of market dependence.

Along with Robert Brenner and other colleagues, Ellen Meiksins Wood was associated with ‘Political Marxism’ which was developed in reaction to more mechanistic and teleological tendencies in Marxism. Political Marxism seeks to highlight the importance of the class struggle and the active social role that groups played within this as they reshaped society. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was the result of a process that was far from automatic. Such a change could only be brought about by a complete rupture with the old relations of human interaction, by forcibly removing the rights that peasants had to their land. The subsequent dependence of both the producer and consumer on the market, something which is specific to capitalism, creates the conditions in which all social struggles are fought.

In order to simply avoid being driven out of the market, employers must maximise profits and cut their costs; this means that there is a constant pressure to cut expenditure on wages and other employee benefits. It is the logic of the market, not the greed or callousness of executives, that causes the interests of the capitalist and the wage worker to become mutually antagonistic. Far from being a neutral place where good enterprise is rewarded, the market is a highly coercive mechanism which dominates both capitalist and worker.

Her other work included studies of ancient Greek society and an Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize-winning criticism of postmodernism. For anyone interested in history and modern society her work remains an essential resource.
Darren Poynton