Saturday, August 20, 2016

Marx's Labour theory of value (1980)

From the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Take the theory of water motion. We pipe water, we regulate its flow differently in ordinary wells, in artesians, springs, etc. Is the theory of the flow of water explained by listing the specific bores, drills, pumps, and pipes? No. There is an abstract physical theory of the flow of all water, the science of hydraulics, and this abstract theory ignores the individual forms of the motion of water, describes no particular form of water whatever, and describes no actual phenomenon exactly as it takes place. But its theory describes them and its laws govern them and unless we have this abstract theory we have no means of understanding anything. And this despite the fact that water is abstractly described and yet, in practice, it is always concretely availed of.
    We ask how and where does profit come from? From surplus-value. And that? From labour-time. And how does it flow? Through pipings composed of constant and variable capital. And how is it sprinkled or flushed throughout the economic system? As an average rate of profit. But the law of the composition and flow of value, like that of the composition and flow of water, is the same throughout. If you cannot correlate all the forms of conducting and utilising water exactly in conformity with the governing theory of hydraulics, that unfortunately is the nature of the world we live in and no one can transcend it, not even Böhm-Bawerk.
     That no science is capable of application to every permutation and combination of circumstance, under the exact application of theory, is the weakness of man's mind, of his perception of the world. Is that a reason for repudiating science? Then all political economy (and all knowledge) is equally threatened. We abstract from a hundred appearances to get one common explicatory factor.
[from Elements of Marxian Economic Theory and its Criticism by William J. Blake]

Running Commentary: Betting on ill-health (1980)

The Running Commentary Column from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Betting on ill-health

While some workers fatalistically accept their position in society as preordained (“if it was meant to be, there’s nothing you can do about it”), others consider their status to be largely determined by luck or, more accurately, the lack of it. That capitalism is a game of chance is true only to the extent that those born into the ruling class (odds of about 20-1 against) have a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

This emphasis on luck as the prime mover in human affairs received some support last month. In Britain the Tories, having slashed (no jokes about “wets” and cabinet leaks) public spending dramatically in the last ten months were busy getting their Health Services Bill through committee stage. This is intended to give public health authorities the legal right to raise money through bingo, rummy, find-the-lady and other such games of chance, as recommended in the philosophical writings of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. Now while health, like every service under capitalism, is viewed principally with cost rather than human considerations in mind (you've got to have heart, but not if it’s too expensive), it is doubtful whether, say, cancer treatment has before now had to depend in part upon punters’ stake money.

A cheaper way of financing health services suggested itself in reports of goings on at a hospital in that home of free enterprise, the United States. A group of employees in the intensive care ward of the Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas were suspended for placing bets on how long terminally ill cancer patients would live. This wagering was thought to have led to the premature deaths of at least six people, with oxygen supplies and life support systems tampered with to rig the stakes in favour of heavy wagers (Daily Telegraph 14.3.80).

Now while these two examples of private enterprise in action may not appeal to everyone as solutions to capitalism’s problems, they do have the advantage of being less of a burden on the ruling class. If only workers’ flutters paid for all public services or Littlewood’s prize winners could be persuaded to contribute to the genetic engineering of success, wouldn’t everyone be happy? Unfortunately not; the odds are permanently fixed against wage and salary earners, in health services as in all things, and the chances of any government running the profit system in the interest of human beings are approximately nil.


Connoisseurs of graffiti must be suffering slightly from withdrawal symptoms if London’s tube walls are anything to go by. For no longer are those underwear ads covered exclusively with “Hang Nixon”, “West Ham Aggro” or “This Exploits Women”—what appears to be demented doctors’ prescriptions, all squiggles and dots in the wrong places, have taken over. This phenomenon looks like continuing for some while, for after Iran it looks like Saudi Arabia is next on the agenda.

The autocratic rulers of what is, calculated per head of population, the richest country in the world are facing problems similar in many respects to those experienced by the ex-Shah of Iran. In the past year the iron grip of the Saud tribe has come under increasing pressure, both internally and from leftist forces in the Arab and Third World. A growing number of new generation Saudis, generously educated at overseas universities paid for by oil revenue, are returning home and questioning traditional Muslim values. A ruling class that can delay the opening of a multi-million pound government office block because its layout included unisex lifts, and that puts to the sword members of its own family found guilty of adultery can hardly expect the support of those educated in the “liberal” West. One consequence of this conflict between old and new is that an estimated 4,000 princes are jockeying for position should the House of Saud begin to crumble.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling class is so rich that it could buy all the shares quoted on the London Stock Exchange in eighteen months, or all the gold in Central Banks in five years. Increasing alignment with the West, manifested in enormous IMF deposits, places it in the dock as far as poorer neighbours are concerned. Its military development programme, presently nearing completion and costing £20 million may be a sound financial investment—but then military might alone was not enough to keep the Shah on his throne.

Crown Prince Fahd said fifteen months ago: “If Iran goes, then God help us all”. No longer able to rely upon her neighbours to act as a buffer against “communism”, capitalism’s richest prize is attracting the benign, full-time attention of the CIA and western intelligence services. For if Saudi Arabia “goes”, not only will the Saud tribe suffer but the oil dependent states of the West will feel the cold.

Moscow Olympics

A small revolt by a number of Tory MPs took place in the House of Commons, although the Government carried the day on a free vote.

Our readers might be forgiven for thinking that the revolt is hardly surprising. After all, the Tories came to power on election promises of lower taxes and reducing inflation. There are now nearly 2 million unemployed; money available for schools, health services and housing has been greatly reduced; other amenities have been pared down. However, the slight reductions in income tax have been swallowed up by record inflation and mortgage rates, even for the better off, so-called “upper middle class” who benefitted most from the tax changes.

However, it seems that the MPs who did not support the government may have had a better appreciation of the workings of the capitalist system than they are usually credited with. Their revolt was against the bringing of pressure to bear on British athletes to “volunteer” to withdraw ‘from the Olympic Games in Moscow. (Government representatives meeting in Geneva to discuss possible alternative Games appear ignorant of the fact that 12 months' notice of such intentions must be given to the World Amateur Athletics Association, whose permission is mandatory for athletes wishing to compete in international Games.)

The Tory MPs (led by Mr. Terence Higgins, Conservative Member for Worthing) who opposed the Government’s stand, pointed out that the call to athletes to withdraw from the Games rings false while, far from even token withdrawal of diplomatic representation or recommendation of curtailment of trade, the government are actively assisting large-scale deals on machinery to go through. The obvious conclusion (to a socialist) is that Olympic athletes are unpaid amateurs, and even the possibility of a gold medal brings only “glory”, while commercial deals make profits. The fact that many athletes have trained for years to compete in the supposedly non-political Games counts for nothing compared with the ringing of cash registers. Dare we hope that this is an encouraging sign that some Tory MPs are not too brainwashed to see this?
Melvin Tenner

A painful history (1980)

From the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the capitalist system developed, causing the steady decline of the independent handworker and the replacement of manual labour by machinery, the effects on those who worked for a living were so severe that their struggles inevitably centred around wages and conditions. Battles with the employers resulted in the formation of trade unions, while struggles for political elbow-room culminated in political reform movements such as Chartism. The working class were joined by disaffected groups such as small traders and producers, who were sinking to ruin. Some workers may have hankered for a return to the handicraft production of the past, others harboured vague co-operative “socialist" notions, but there was little conscious recognition of the need to bring the powerful new forces of production into the common 'ownership of all society. Workers’ fierce struggles were rooted in the antagonism of interest between capital and labour.

In the mid-19th Century, Marx had unravelled the role of class struggles in the development of society, discovering the nature of exploitation in capitalist production and showing how social production conflicted with the private ownership of the means of production and distribution, resulting in economic anarchy, trade cycles of boom and slump, and capitalist rivalry which could lead to war. However, even those in the working class movement who understood and accepted Marx's analysis, saw the solution as so far off that they looked to reform as a means of ameliorating the suffering and wretched conditions of the working class until the time was ripe for socialism.

The impetus towards social reform was not provided by the working class alone. There were always some members of the capitalist class who recognised the need to improve the conditions of the workers. This was particularly the case when the proposed legislation affected pockets other than their own. Most of the Factory Acts of the 19th Century were brought in by the Tory Party who represented the interests of the landowners. The National Reform Union was set up by Liberal manufacturers with the object of winning support for the Liberal Party by campaigning for workers to have the vote.

The gaining of the vote by the working class signalled a new way to political power-dangling reform measures in front of the electorate. These have been the opportunist tactics used ever since by avowedly capitalist or allegedly labour parties. Whether the proposed measures actually get implemented or make much difference in the long run is another matter, which perhaps accounts for the 30 per cent of the electorate who do not bother to use their votes.

Some of the most successful capitalist enterprises paid wages above the accepted union rate and had due regard for the welfare of their workers. Individual capitalists such as the Cadbury brothers built model housing estates, offered improved working conditions, education, and showed a generally paternalistic concern not only for the bodies of their employees and families, but also for their “souls". Reforms have cost the capitalist class very little for they have received ample recompense in terms of increased production and the stability of their system.

The working class movement has produced factions that claimed it was possible to get socialism without first making socialists. The syndicalist plan was to seize the means of production and distribution by industrial action, by-passing Parliament or its equivalent. Although the movement in its early days had some support, bitter reality has shown the fallacy of their views. Whoever controls Parliament controls the armed forces and police, and in prolonged strikes the suffering of the workers far outweighs any discomfort to the capitalists. But syndicalist ideas still linger on among some left wing groups.

The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 saw the birth of the Leninist theory of revolution. In a predominantly capitalist world and lacking both productive capacity and the acceptance of socialist ideas by the population, the only way Russia could develop was along capitalist lines. A repressive state capitalist regime masquerading as socialism has since developed, adding to the confusion and misunderstanding of workers and thus making the spread of socialist ideas that much harder. There has been similar confusion in East Europe, Cuba, China and so on. These have emphasised the fact that not only must socialism be a world-wide system, but also that the forces of production—the most important part of those forces being the working class—must first be ready.

In the last quarter of the 19th Century the working class movement threw up Social Democratic parties claiming adherence to the theoretical basis of Marxism and the need for revolutionary political action, but which all had reformist programmes with a bewildering variety of immediate demands. The “Gradualist” school of thought, typified by the Fabian Society, claimed that a succession of reforms could gradually change society, that there could be a growth of socialism alongside capitalism until society was transformed. From these ideas grew the ILP and the Labour Party, with programmes of nationalisation and other anti-working class measures.

In 1904 a group of working men and women were convinced that only by dispossessing the capitalist class of the means of production and distribution and bringing them into the democratic control and common ownership of the whole community could a fundamental change in society be made. Rejecting any concept of leadership they saw that it required working class majority understanding and democratic decision before socialism could be achieved. They formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

From the beginning the SPGB repudiated any programme of immediate demands, on the grounds that such programmes do not serve as a means of organising for socialism but thrust the socialist objective into the background, and attract non-socialist elements. While it is true that workers have to struggle over wages and conditions this must be confined to the industrial, trade union field, separate from the political. Some reforms may be of sectional or temporary benefit but this in no way equals the effort required to achieve them. The capitalist class often offer concessions both to improve the productive capacity of workers and to quiet social unrest. But a growing socialist movement will bring more concessions to the working class than any amount of pleading or agitation for reform.

What can we learn from the long painful history of the working class? We have seen the alleged labour parties gain mass support and political power. Once in government they have found that capitalism cannot be run in the interest of the working class and their actions in office—such as demands for harder work and wage restraint—would not disgrace the most reactionary Tory. Capitalism has expanded to cover the greater part of the globe, has lurched from crisis to crisis, from war to war, and even now production is again being cut back in the midst of widespread poverty and shortage; there is a confrontation between rival capitalist powers that could plunge the world into nuclear war. Unemployment is growing, cuts are being made in education, housing, health and welfare services. Perhaps that is the ultimate futility of reformism. If reforms can be won they can also be withdrawn or reduced.

Workers who are concerned about capitalism’s problems should not waste their time and energy demonstrating against cuts and working for reforms, but instead organise consciously and politically for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. That is our only objective—short-term, long-term—and it is as close as the working class of the world choose to make it.
Alice Kerr

Against capitalism (1980)

From the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Under capitalism the means of production and distribution are owned by a small section of society who thus form a privileged class. Modern industry, however, can only be worked by the cooperative labour of society as a whole. It is this conflict between sectional ownership and social production that causes today’s many social problems since it prevents wealth being produced to satisfy human needs.

Only when ownership and production have been brought into line-by the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means by which society lives-is there any hope of solving problems like war, world poverty, racism, bad housing, poor health and its poor treatment.

These of course are the problems which the other parties promise to solve if only you will elect them to be the government. But they always fail. Why? Because what they are trying to do cannot be done. It is just not possible to solve these problems as long as class ownership is retained. No matter how sincere or efficient a government may be it cannot make capitalism work as if it were a system geared to satisfying human needs.

Capitalism runs on profits and can only work as a profit-making system for the class that owns the means of production. As this class ownership, in preventing production solely for use, is the cause of these problems any attempt to deal with them within its framework is bound to fail.

So capitalism, as a class system that runs on profits, is constitutionally incapable of serving human needs. Socialism, on the other hand, will provide the framework within which these problems can be solved. With the means of production owned by and under the democratic management of the community, there will be no class privileges to stand in the way of production solely for use. With the abolition of the profit motive society can set about solving these problems with the satisfying of human needs as its guiding principle. For it is not as if enough comfortable houses could not be built or enough food for the whole world and more could not be grown. It is just that under capitalism it is not profitable to give priority to basic needs like food and shelter.

This is why we say nothing short of socialism will do.

Capitalism is no accident (1980)

Editorial from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The word capitalism is one which is misunderstood almost as often as it is used. Many of these misconceptions are based on a fallacious attitude towards human society—for example Edward Heath’s famous remark about the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, which implied that there is also an acceptable face, in which all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It also implied that the unacceptable face has features which, although unpleasant, are unavoidable.

Similarly there are those people not usually to be found in the Conservative Party—who regard capitalism as some sort of historical disaster, which might have been avoided with a little more forethought or concern on the part of the human race. These people are well aware of the problems of the system—poverty, bad housing, war, refugees, waste, pollution—but they think of these as being somehow unnecessary. Theirs is a moral standpoint, which judges social and historical phenomena in terms of “right” and “wrong” and which condemns capitalism as one of humanity’s massive mistakes.

The difficulty with this theory is that it leaves too many vital questions unanswered. It does not, for example, tell us why capitalism should be “wrong”; why, instead of being disfigured by widespread poverty it does not realise its potential for abundance. Nor why, instead of being plagued by economic anarchy, it cannot harness its considerable knowledge and technical resources to eliminate the cycle of boom and slump.

These questions can be answered, quite simply, by reference to the fact that capitalism is not an accident and that it is not morally “wrong” nor “right”.

In fact, capitalism is a phase—like all previous societies, a necessary phase-in historical development. It was preceded by other social systems, which were no more “right” nor “wrong”, and in its turn it will be brought to an end. This evolution is itself not an accident, for each social system is a collection of relationships which spring from a particular mode of wealth production and each system has been abolished when those social relationships have become fetters on the developing productive forces.

Far from being a disaster or morally “wrong”, capitalism has fulfilled some vital functions in human history. It has developed and expanded our knowledge and our productive and communicative powers to the point at which abundance in a democratically organised society is an immediate possibility.

Capitalism has also refined the class structure of society, so that there are now only two classes in conflict over the division of wealth and, finally, over the ownership of the means of production. On one side is the class in possession—the capitalist class—and on the other the non-owners, or the working class. As the only socially inferior class, it must be the workers who will bring about society’s next revolution. It has been capitalism’s role to prepare the ground for this.

How does capitalism do this? Firstly, its class ownership must condemn the majority of its people—the working class, who live solely by the sale of their labour power—to lives of varying degrees of poverty. Because its wealth is produced for sale, capitalism must be a competitive society, which means a society in which conflict is endemic, from corner shops trying to drive each other out of business at one end of the scale to world war at the other.

Commodity production must also mean that most of the wealth which is turned out is shoddy; made with an eye to lower, competitive costs instead of for its usefulness to human beings. It means a massive waste of resources; for example the wholesale destruction of food while millions are starving or the maintenance of military machines which produce nothing but which destroy much. It means that society is preoccupied with selling its wealth and with a complex financial machinery when in any sane set-up we would be concentrating on making wealth—and making only the best possible, for human beings to consume and to enjoy.

We can sum up the argument by saying that capitalism has now outrun its usefulness to human development. Having fulfilled its purpose, it now hampers the power of the productive forces which could be at our command. Humanity can have a world in which wealth is turned out in a flood, freely available to everyone a world in which human interests come first in everything.

What prevents this is the continuation of the social relationships of capitalism. To change them needs a social revolution.

This revolution will be the first conscious one, by and in the interests of the majority, in human history. To bring about the change to socialism by a democratic political act needs a working class who are informed and aware about capitalism and about how socialism will abolish the problems we suffer under today.

And one of the essential elements in that awareness is a conception of human history not in moral but in material terms, which sees capitalism not as an accident but as a society which has fulfilled its role and must now be abolished.

Political Notes: Food for thought (1980)

The Political Notes Column from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Food for thought

The following interesting information appeared in The Guardian of 4 February:
“The world grain trade is heavily concentrated in the hands of a handful of transnational corporations, including Cargil Inc., Continental Grain Corp., Cook Industries Inc., Bunge Corp., Louis Dreyfus Corp., and Garnac, the first three being based in the US. The half dozen or so companies together control more than 90% of US exports and 80% of the world’s grain market. These companies also handle a large share of the agricultural exports of the Third World grain importing countries, set the price for grains and influence directly and indirectly the diets of millions of people the world over. Furthermore, food aid programmes financed by the US government are also handled by these firms. In times of food crisis (sic), when prices rise rapidly, the grain firms profit considerably. Cook Industries, for instance, increased its yearly profits fifteen-fold between 1972 and 1974, from 3.6 million dollars to 46.2 million dollars. Other firms doubled or trebled their net worth, launched new ventures and expanded into new markets.”
United Nations statistics have shown that one third of the world’s population is malnourished. The reason for this is that starving people cannot afford to buy food from those who own it. It is time to dispossess the owners and controllers of the means of grain production, and all other production, and establish a society in which food is produced for the socially sane purpose of feeding people because they need to cat.

Market madness

The British Datsun Car Dealers’ Association (not the Japanese) are foaming at the mouth and paying thousands of pounds for full-page ads in the national press (refused by The Times) to protest about the Motor Manufacturers’ Society attending a conference with the Japanese manufacturers in Mexico. They claim that British Leyland is supporting restriction of Japanese car imports while allowing large increases in the number of imported French, German and Italian cars. All of which shows the utter absurdity of nationalist policies within global capitalism. Many of the most popular makes of cars nowadays are not made in one country at all, but in three or four different countries. One fact that the Datsun dealers appear to be unaware of is that Michael “Buy British” Edwardes was in Tokyo on Christmas Day, signing contracts for the supply of Honda engines for “British” cars.

No politics, please!

On Wednesday 30 January several members and sympathisers of Islington Branch of the SPGB attended a public meeting on “Cuts and Standards”, organised by the Campaign For the Advancement of State Education (CASE) which was advertised as being addressed by the Shadow Education Minister, Neil Kinnock. In the event Kinnock didn’t turn up (was this a trick to get an audience under false pretences?) and so a stand-in Lefty was wheeled in to tell the audience how awful the cuts were and how they could never have happened under a Labour government. After witnessing one of the dullest speeches ever, the audience was invited to put their questions. Two or three people asked about the cost of swimming lessons and the number of vitamins, to be found in school dinners. Then a socialist was invited to ask a question: “Why do we have cuts at all? Why have a system where you need money to provide the needs of society? Ought not the meeting be considering a new social system based on needs instead of profits?” The chairperson, Anne Madden (Headmistress of Islington Green School) told the socialist questioner to sit down and keep quiet as this was not a “political meeting”. Another socialist who attempted to raise similar points was told that they were irrelevant as they were “political”. We are entitled to ask certain questions of the organisers of the meeting. Is CASE a political organisation? Was Neil Kinnock invited to make a political or a non-political speech? Were people who responded to posters advertising a meeting on “Cuts and Standards” supposed to assume that this was not going to be a political meeting? When the chairperson accused us of being “political” did she not mean that our ideas about political priorities were out of line with the Labour reformism which she and her cronies in the Labour Party wish to perpetuate?

Irish style doublespeak

According to the magazine, Time Out, (25.1.80) the Provisional IRA has debated its policy document, Eire Nua (New Ireland), at its recent annual conference. The result of the debate, claims Time Out, was the adoption of what they call a more progressive, left-wing policy. The nature of this supposed change in political direction was the deletion of a paragraph stating their opposition to both “Western individualistic capitalism” and “Eastern state capitalism”. They have now decided to oppose only western capitalism, ignoring the capitalist system in Russia. It is interesting to note how a nasty, nationalist movement, intent on the creation of Rome-rule in Ireland, can be portrayed by the trendiest of trendy journals as progressive because it no longer dissociates itself from the brutal police State of Russia.

Which class are you?

Those who believe that Britain is no longer an unequal society are referred to the 1979 report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Wealth and Income, which states that the top 1 per cent of the population of Britain own more wealth than the bottom 80 per cent. Supporters of capitalism should consider which of the two statistical groups they fall into and then, when they have faced up to their membership of the working class, they should turn to the SPGB Declaration of Principles and see what can be done about it.
Steve Coleman

Welsh slate (1980)

From the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

As in South Wales it was coal that sustained industrial development and led to the disfigurement of the landscape, so in the North-West it was slate. Poor communications and geographical isolation from the main areas of the Industrial Revolution meant that the North Wales Slate industry was a comparatively late developer. But once the boom was under way, from around 1830, it became an industry of national importance. As Merfyn Jones says:
“The industrial Revolution may have been founded on textiles and powered by steam; it was roofed with slates skilfully wrenched from the Welsh hills.”
At its peak the industry employed about fifteen thousand people and until the close of the last century Penrhyn Quarry, near Bethesda, was the largest slate quarry in the world.

Up to the end of the eighteenth century, a number of the quarries were worked on a small scale by local people, partly for their own needs and partly for sale. By 1800 most such private working had been ended, as the first generation of capitalist quarry-owners began to see the potential that lay in organised, large-scale quarrying. The leases that had allowed the local inhabitants to carry on their own quarrying were not renewed, and partnerships were formed—by landowners, bankers and others—to exploit the quarries and satisfy the demands of the newly-growing industrial towns for slate.

An early problem was that of transport. New harbours were founded by the owners of the largest quarries to serve as ports for their own enterprises: Port Dinorwic for the Dinorwic Quarry, Port Penrhyn at Bangor for Penrhyn Quarry, and Portmadoc for the mines and quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Ports and quarries were linked by railways, horse-drawn at first but later powered by steam engines. Though the ports declined later in the nineteenth century, after the railways had provided the quarries with easier access to the industrial areas of Britain, they remained important for the export trade. Under the new regime the quarries expanded. Those in Caernarvonshire (now part of Gwynedd) produced less than twenty thousand tons of slate in 1786 but over ninety thousand tons in 1831. In this latter year, after a vigorous campaign by the owners, the government abolished the slate duty, and thus the industry’s fifty ‘‘golden years” began.

Golden years they were for the quarry owners. A handful of wealthy families dominated the slate-producing areas, providing employers, landowners, magistrates and Members of Parliament. Some of their enormous profits were sunk in splendid residences, mostly situated by the sea and far from the grey and monotonous quarrying villages. As late as 1894, Penrhyn Quarry was making an annual profit of £100,000. The average wage in the quarry was six shillings a day.

The quarrymen earned starvation wages in return for doing a job that was at once skilful and intensely dangerous. They differed from their exploiters not just in gross inequalities of wealth and power, but also in religion and language (“the rock does not understand English”, as one of their songs put it). Above all they valued their supposed independence, the fact that they were to some extent in charge of their own work. For one thing, the physical conditions of quarrying-men working in the open, spread over great distances— discouraged close supervision by managers and foremen. For another, their prized “bargain” system left the workers to toil largely at their own pace.

Under this arrangement, a group of workmen acted as partners and took on a specified amount of slate rock. They agreed with the manager a piece rate for the slate they made from this area, the rate varying with the difficulty of the rock to be worked. It was then up to the quarrymen how hard they worked—their working hours were largely of their own choice, and if they wanted the day off they just took it. Of course, the “freedom” granted by the bargain system was illusory, and it did not avoid the degradation and exploitation found in any form of wages system. Nevertheless, the quarrymen saw themselves as in some ways independent of the owner’s control and were prepared to defend this independence.

For the quarry-owners’ opposition to the bargain system steadily increased. They disliked the consequent irregular working hours and the men’s tendency to take a holiday whenever a fair was being held locally. Attempts were made to replace the bargain system by a more straightforward version of the wages system. These met with resistance from the workers, who had since 1874 been linked together in the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union. The nineteenth century' saw many strikes for higher wages and better working conditions and in defence of the bargain system. But the big struggle came at Penrhyn in 1900-03.

The owners had progressively nibbled away at the bargain system, for example by forcing the workers to accept the manager’s ruling on the operative piece rate, with no bargaining allowed. They had also installed a contract system, whereby the quarryman was simply the employee of a middleman who subcontracted part of the quarry and employed a gang to do the actual work, pocketing in the process part of what would have been the quarryman’s wages. The men’s opposition to the contract system resulted in two contractors being beaten up at Penrhyn Quarry in 1900. The owner, Lord Penrhyn, had twenty-six men arrested, and soldiers were called in to control the situation. On 5 November, all the quarrymen marched to Bangor for the trial, and Lord Penrhyn suspended them all. The great Penrhyn lock-out had started.

The men’s demands included recognition of the Union, a minimum wage of 4s 4d (22p) a day, an annual holiday and abolition of the contract system. In June 1901 the quarry was reopened, without any of the demands being acceded to, and about four hundred men returned to work, attracted by a small pay rise and the “gift” of a gold sovereign. Soldiers had to be called in to the streets of Bethesda to protect the blacklegs from the wrath of those still on strike. Eventually the men were literally starved into submission. On 14 November 1903, broken and defeated, they voted to return to work on Lord Penrhyn’s terms. The workers had lost, and never again could they pride themselves on their independence and autonomy.

The twentieth century has seen a steady decline in the slate industry. This was partly halted by increased demand after the First World War, but on the whole builders tended to use the cheaper tiles, instead of slate, for roofing. Dinorwic Quarry closed in 1969, and only a handful of quarries remain open, employing less than a thousand people in all. They have however given birth to a tourist industry: the workshops at Dinorwic now house the North Wales Quarrying Museum, and the Llechwedd mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog is also open to visitors—both eloquent tributes to the quarrymen and the industry they formed.
Paul Bennett

Main sources
Jean Lindsay: A History of the North Wales Slate Industry, David and Charles, 1974.
Raphael Samuel, ed.: Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977 (articles by Samuel and by Merfyn Jones).

Letters to the Editors: Ruskin quotation (1980)

Letters to the Editors from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ruskin quotation

The writer of “Work and Play” in the February Socialist Standard mangled the quotations from Ruskin, Wilde and Marx. Enthusiasm for his argument does not excuse the disregard of the actual words of the quotations, and the joining together of disparate sections without indicating that there are gaps. Readers can turn to pages 705-9 of Marx’s Grundrisse and enjoy the full text. Wilde would, perhaps, have been amused by the mishaps to the first of the two short extracts from The Soul of Man under Socialism—apart from the omissions there are four changes of words, and even one major addition! But as to the Ruskin quote, there can be no excuse. This is part of one of the most magnificent utterances of the English language (would Horatio rewrite a Shakespeare Sonnet?). This is what Ruskin actually wrote:
“We have much studied and much perfected of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,-sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is,—we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,—that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.
S Lion 
London SE24


I should like to express my appreciation for your letter of 11th November and the review of “VODKA-COLA” in the November issue of the Socialist Standard.

I also very much appreciate your positive comments on “VODKA-COLA”, which will be the core conflict of the ’80s between democratic socialism and authoritarian state capitalism.

I also appreciate your comments in the utilisation of the term “socialist” and the loose handling of “Marxism” in the text. I share entirely your definition of the USSR as an example of state capitalism -and not socialism. And, of course, the entire tenor and objective of “VODKA-COLA” is to confirm what you state that the means of production and the distribution of its output have now largely been accumulated by small elitist minority groups whose interests converge on the exploitation and the expense of the majority of the population, and especially those who relate to society through their earned incomes.
Charles Levinson

Social workers need help (1980)

The Briefing Column from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1968 there was a White Paper and in 1969 there was an Act, and the Act was supposed to help children who were in trouble with the law. It was called the Children and Young Persons Act and it made a number of provisions which excited the sort of people who always get enthusiastic about proposals for some trifling reform of one of capitalism’s nastier features.

Basic to the Act was the replacement of the concept of punishment by that of care. This “care” was to encompass a comprehensive investigation into the problem child’s family background and a hoped-for improvement of it under the benevolent guidance of a local authority social worker.

This was a part of the social workers’ Golden Age. Fertilised by the reorganisation resulting from the Seebohm Report (1968), each local authority was empowered to set up a big-spending department with the stated aim of caring for all the specially disadvantaged from the moment of their birth until they died.

Well it has not turned out quite like that; the Golden Age was short-lived and now social service departments are being forced, under the programme of government cuts, to fight for many of their cherished schemes. Homes for old people and for handicapped kids; funds for equipment needed by the physically disabled such apparently desirable things are among those which are under the axe.

Even worse, the social workers’ strike last year in some areas did nothing to strengthen their case; it merely provoked a searching debate on whether they were doing a useful job for their wages. About a year ago, social work was almost a swear word among Members of Parliament.

In the case of the young offender, much of the Children and Young Persons Act is likely to wither away like a disused limb. The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 has not been, and is not likely to be, implemented. The powers to abolish Detention Centres and incorporate them into Community Homes have never been taken up. Now the Tories are planning to brutalise the Detention Centres rather than get rid of them.

The failure of the Act to arrange for young delinquents to be “treated” in their own communities is starkly illustrated by the numbers in Borstal and Detention Centres. In 1969 there were 3,046; by 1977 it had risen to 7,692.

Social work was once hailed as an effective ameliorative to many of capitalism’s problems, as a way of reconciling workers under stress to the irreconcilable. Like so many similar schemes, cruel reality has exposed it.

Mr Jenkins' poodle (1980)

A Short Story from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

On April 1, 1984, Mr Roy Jenkins, ex-Labour Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and failed contender for the Party leadership, finally succeeded in forming the new British political party of the Centre. At the inaugural meeting of the Conmore Party, Jenkins welcomed the audience of 14 (including two dogs and a talking parrot). He said the party was being formed to fill the gap in British political life at the radical centre, a gap created by the failures of both the Labour and Tory parties. The new party which intended to field over 600 candidates in next month’s General Election, when St Margaret of the Cuts finally went to the polls, would propose fundamentally different policies having a wide appeal to all those concerned about the state of Britain.

There was a distinguished panel to address the meeting on this auspicious occasion of the inaugural party gathering. The first was ex-Labour Foreign Secretary, Dr David Showem (superbrat). As spokesman on foreign affairs, Dr Showem said that we needed to build up our foreign defences. To this end the Conmore Party would establish military bases in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Bermuda and the Isle of Mull. He also had a plan to invade the Equatorial Rain Forests of South America by night so as not to be spotted. The exploitation of the huge reserves of fallen leaves would enable the British rate of tax to be cut by 2p in the pound and the dog licence fee to be reduced by half (prolonged bark of approval from the hall). But his main plan for Britain was a secret scheme. Although he was not at liberty to reveal full details, this involved parachuting the Salvation Army into Moscow and overrunning the Soviet capital with brass bands and soup kitchens. This would completely disarm the Soviet nuclear capacity. Thus, said Dr Showem, we would be making a real and meaningful contribution to world peace.

The next distinguished speaker was Reg Apprentice. Mr Apprentice started by remarking that he had left more parties than members of the audience had eaten hot dinners, but that despite this he had never betrayed any principle. As spokesman for Home Affairs, he said he often had affairs at home and in other places too. He did not think it was right to commit the party to detailed policies, but he did say he would strengthen policemen’s truncheons, improve street lighting and clamp down on immigration. He said he would also raise the quarantine period to twelve months. The parrot objected to this, but was ruled out of order. This, said Apprentice, would be a real and meaningful contribution to British life.

The following speaker was Lord Kildore. He was the Rudyard Kipling Professor of Jungle Stories and Economics at Cambridge, and formerly a government adviser. As the Conmore Party’s spokesman on financial matters and the potential Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Kildore argued that the British economy was in serious financial difficulty and that the reason for this was the failure of British politicians to manage the economy. He had, however, worked out a special formula. This was X2 + Y2 = A2 + B2. He said that the application of this formula (taking into account oil prices, the gold standard and the direction of the prevailing wind) would ensure a reduction of general price levels, increase wages and cure the common cold.

The final distinguished speaker was Cyril Bigg, who had suffered from Liberalism for most of his life. He said that as an old Parliamentarian he had supported many policies such as war, peace, inflation, deflation, high taxes, low taxes, high employment, low employment, boom, slump, often all together. He said most of the time his liberal tendencies meant he did not know what he was doing or why. It was most important (he said) that this element in British political life continued, which was why he was throwing his weight behind the formation of the Conmore Party based on these principles. What he disliked most was people with new ideas since he had never had one in his life. (Mr Bigg sat down to a loud and prolonged cheer.)

Mr Jenkins then concluded the formal business of the meeting by urging the British working class to support the Conmore Party, which was the only party with a real and meaningful policy to deal with the current problems of inflation at 73 per cent, mortgage rates at 49 per cent, unemployment of 5 million, three world wars and the Home Rule for Eastbourne movement. He exhorted all members of the audience to work for a Conmore victory to ensure, as he put it, Britain made a real and meaningful contribution.

The unreal and meaningless charade came to an end. As a footnote, the Conmore Party failed to gain any seats at the May 1984 General Election. Capitalism continued unharmed.
Ronnie Warrington

Confidence trick (1980)

From the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

No socialist can be a christian, for the former’s ideas are based upon material knowledge and the latter’s upon idealist belief. The rational ideas which materialists have about the world can be verified by philosophical methods which can themselves be verified. That is not to suggest that materialists can establish scientific, unchanged and absolute truths but that we can make statements capable of scientific testing which can lead us to believe that a statement is probably factual. Thus, materialists argue that ideas are responses to matter and we can demonstrate our claim by analysing history. Christian beliefs are of a different kind. Faith is the central feature of Christian thought and need not be tested by external criteria. It is true that the Catholic Church once laid down the dogma that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason, but there are few Christians who have survived for long when they have tried to verify their beliefs by rational means without the assistance of faith. Faith cannot be disproved because its criterion of truth is not material, but supernatural. Belief in the supernatural force can only itself be verified by accepting the supernatural force as the means of verification. So the circularity of the Christian argument is that A is true because A says it is true and we must not doubt the word of A because A informs us that it is sinful to do so.

Socialists are not atheists, insofar as we are not concerned to deny the existence of a phenomenon of which there is no proof, but materialists; our purpose is to explain the nature of the world and the position of human beings in it by means of reason and not faith. Socialists are not in favour of the banning of Christianity or other religions simply because they conflict with our ideas, although we note that Christians have not been so willing to extend such democracy to their opponents. What the Socialist Party of Great Britain is against is the well organised and costly propaganda of Christian faith through the schools, the churches, the media and all of the major institutions of capitalism. We recognise that capitalists do not pay out money for Christian propaganda unless it is going to be of use to them in their struggle to maintain ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution. Christianity is a political force which is supported so as to condition workers to support the social system which exploits them. As socialists wish to see the working class establish a fundamentally different system of society, based upon the common ownership of the means of living, the equal standing of human beings, free access to all wealth and the absence of leadership, it is in our political interest to expose the pernicious nonsense of Christian faith.

The first clause of the christian Declaration of Principles states “That human behaviour patterns are inherently sinful and they can only be changed by seeking forgiveness from an unprovable supernatural deity”. Humans, we are told, are naturally greedy, aggressive, selfish, uncooperative, prone to base temptations and in need of strict discipline. Left to themselves, people will kill, rape, torture and plunder without a moment’s consideration for other people. Christians tell us they are sure that this is so because they all are aware of their own sinfulness and feel sure that if it wasn’t for their faith they would all be going about raping women and mugging the aged. The reason for this sad state of human nature, incidentally, is that the first man ate a forbidden apple and the all-loving god of the Bible has since punished the entire human race.

The irrational idea that humans are inherently nasty is one which will not conform to the experiences of most people and is certainly one which is disproved by the numerous anthropological reports of primitive communities which survive without the anti-social behaviour patterns of modern capitalism. If humans have one natural characteristic it is that which motivates them to survive, and human beings will work to survive either socially or anti-socially, depending upon the way in which society is organised. In the rat-race of the profit system people will behave like rats; in a socially harmonious society, where the system is based upon securing the survival and comfort of all, there will be no need to behave anti-socially. The mind is a response to material phenomena; a new-born baby is not inherently anti-social. Christians try to overcome this point by claiming that the most important part of the human anatomy is not the mind, but the soul. For two thousand years Christians have failed to locate the soul.

The “human nature” argument is a very useful defence of the reactionary suggestion that human beings cannot cooperate, so we have to have bosses and governments and imposed morals. Christianity tells workers to be humble, to conform, to obey and never to question that which they cannot understand, for there are some things which only God and the capitalist class must know about. The carrot at the end of the stick is that if workers stick to the guidelines of Christianity while they live, they will go to Heaven when they die instead of being eaten up by maggots like the rest of us. The present writer would like it to be known to the powers that be that, if there are such places as Heaven and Hell, he is eager to be sent to the latter where he can enjoy some stimulating discussions with his comrades, instead of being stuck for eternity with a crowd of creeps.

Clause two of the Christian catechism is “That the first cause of matter and energy was a supernatural force called god”. God, we are informed, was the creator of everything, such as starvation, cancer, earthquakes, wars and, of course, the Devil. Opponents of the idea of god point out that energy is infinite and that it was never created and cannot be destroyed. (This is known in scientific circles as the first law of thermodynamics). But Christians are not satisfied by such an explanation and insist that everything must have been created by something. When they are told that if God is the something which gave rise to everything, there must have been a something which gave rise to god, they tell us that god is infinite. If there was a gold medal in the Olympic Games for philosophical acrobatics, then the church would have even more gold to add to its treasures.

The philosophical con-trick of the god-idea is of great political significance. For if god is omnipotent, and humans are merely his (or her?) creation, then humans are relatively powerless to change that which god has made. In short, if you are a Christian you must acquiesce to the design of god. The materialist conception of history teaches that people have made their own social environment, without the assistance of supernatural phenomena. The social revolution from capitalism to socialism will be created by conscious human beings. When they have established the new social order, the majority of humanity will abandon the gods which they had made in their own image.

The third and final clause of the Declaration of Ignorance is “That there was once a man called Jesus Christ, who was the son of a virgin, died and was born again, and whose moral virtue should be an example of perfection to us all”. We can ignore the fact that there is not a scrap of historical evidence for the existence of this legendary guru. Even taking the legend at its face value, who will not conclude that Jesus Christ was not an incomparably intolerant, fanatical, revengeful, illogical, superstitious, arrogant madman? It was Christ who said that those who do not believe in him will be “eternally damned”. Eternal damnation means that they will be sent to burn in the unceasing fires of Hell, not only for twenty years, but for infinity. Even Adolf Hitler only sentenced his opponents to the cruel fate of the gas chambers where they would die, and then feel no more pain, but this mad messiah of the ancient world threatened a fate which, to the innocent and ignorant people who accepted him, make the crimes of Hitler seem kind. It is the morality of such a man which millions of impressionable children are being taught in schools all over the world. It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that religious education is the only subject which British schools have a statutory obligation to teach.

People become Christians because of fear and ignorance. Schopenhauer wrote that “religions are like glow worms; they shine only when it is dark”. It is easy to force children to swallow the hateful customs of the property system by telling them that it was created and is presided over by a wise old man in the clouds. Christian morality creates repressed individuals who are taught to hide their natural and pleasurable instincts; it has led to innumerable lives of unhappiness because of its self-hating morality ; it has justified wars in which millions have been killed.

The Christian who is impressed by the idea of socialism must make a political decision. Is he to organise with the fellow members of his class to work for human self-emancipation or is he to continue to defend the submissive idea of humanity which serves to keep the workers on their knees? Those who lose sleep worrying about passing through the eye of a needle when they're dead reap the rewards of the Christian intellectual enslavement which will be ended by rational consciousness and not idealistic fantasy.
Steve Coleman

Running Commentary: Concentration camp art (1980)

The Running Commentary Column from the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Concentration camp art

Culture lovers and those looking for sound investments from which to pay the next gas bill will have found the Art Sales columns of the Daily Telegraph of 6 February interesting reading. Their correspondent was reporting the forthcoming sale at auction of a collection of concentration camp money, including notes issued at Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the “show camp” Theresienstadt. Believed to be the best of its kind, with 1944 Auschwitz creations expected to fetch a top price of £875 each, the collection included an exquisite example of the yellow cloth "Jud” badge which Jews were forced to wear. Noticeably absent were the unique specimens of lampshade design of the period, although this does not appear to have deterred potential buyers. The lot was purchased by the auctioneers, Stanley Gibbons, at the knock-down price of £20,000.

What could more accurately reflect the spirit and values of contemporary capitalism than this? Who said that art (whatever that is) is dead?

Iron-Curtain gold

One of the prime beneficiaries of the recent rise in gold prices has been the Soviet Union. Not only is the Russian ruling class moving in militarily on a grand scale, but they are also engaging in some pretty big extracting. Their gold mine at Muruntau in the south west is now the biggest in the world and despite their halving in volume, sales of gold to the West totalled 2,500 million dollars last year. The rise in price means that less Russian gold is required to pay for much needed technology and grain, and it increases their ability to intervene in the world market to the detriment of, in particular, American currency. The Americans fear that the Russians, now the second biggest source of physical gold in the west, will become increasingly capable of using their gold in a play against the dollar. Perhaps Chinese “communist” gold production, presently third in the world league, will expand to support the “imperialist” dollar.

The same cannot be said of Russian sugar beet production, which suffered a severe setback last year. The harvest dropped from 93 million to 76 million tonnes, compelling them to make substantial purchases from the west. This shortfall is one of the underlying factors in the continuing strength of the commodity on the world market, which in turn may be one reason the world’s most famous soft drink will never be quite the same again. Coca-Cola of America recently announced its decision to cut its sugar consumption by 50% by using corn syrup.

Could all this be part of a vast conspiracy by the American Government and Coca-Cola to prevent the dollar further depreciating in value? One theory bandied about in leftist circles is that the Americans are attempting to keep the dollar price from falling by reducing the corrosive content of Coca- Cola, which will in turn lessen the need for gold fillings in teeth. This will have the effect of maintaining the value of gold and propping up the dollar. Well, not really. Speculation in gold is not a result of conspiracy, but flows directly from the inherently anarchical nature of capitalist production. Governments have no control over the workings of the economic system and can only respond to trends as they become apparent. Karl Marx explained the present panic buying of gold more than 100 years ago in Capital (Vol. Ill, p. 673): “As soon as credit is shaken and this always appears of necessity in the cycles of modern industry-all the real wealth is to be actually and suddenly transformed into money; into gold and silver, a crazy demand which, however, necessarily grows out of the system itself.

Apocalypse soon

While by far the best defence against nuclear missiles is not to be there when they go off, this happy situation is not always possible to guarantee. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that the British government, in the face of increasing international tension, has laid elaborate plans for your survival should a holocaust turn up. The only qualification is membership of the Civil Service hierarchy or of the Royal Family (on either side). Your chances outside these ranks are roughly the same as those of escaping unhurt after being struck by lightning—unless you can get to Switzerland quick.

Swiss Civil Defence is not of the impromptu sandbag variety. As one of their protection Service officials reassuringly put it (Daily Telegraph, 6 February): “We cannot afford to be as slipshod about survival as you are in Britain”. (Well, thank goodness we can afford to be; I was worried for a minute.) The Swiss ruling class, hardly naive when it comes to investment, has contributed three-quarters of the cost of the provision of underground fallout shelters for the entire population. Not only are these now compulsory they have 4½ million of them, all air conditioned—but the first of a planned 22 underground emergency hospitals capable of treating 450 victims was recently opened in Geneva. Close behind the Swiss come the Russians, whose every day-time industrial shift has a vast underground bunker within a few feet. In Britain the government contributes nothing to the cost of fallout shelters (in line with the philosophy that we must “stand on our own two feet”), and even charges VAT on the handful constructed for those rich enough to afford them.

Those of us who have, up to now, been “slipshod about survival” appear to have limited choice: either join the Swiss capitalist class (difficult): marry Prince Charles (more difficult still): or join the daunting struggle for a society in which the causes of war—nuclear and conventional—will have ceased to exist. Those who dismiss as utopian the socialist solution to capitalism’s greatest horror story should reflect upon the history of failure to curb capitalist armaments production. It is not socialists who are remote from reality but those who seek to eliminate the worst effects of the capitalist system while continuing to support it. We will not argue for more shelters, but for an end to the obscenity of capitalism itself. This can only be achieved by workers realising their class position and uniting to end their exploitation. Let Lord Denning try ruling against that.
Melvin Tenner