Friday, February 3, 2017

Where Reformism Fails (1943)

From the March 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard

The dispute between Reformists and Socialists is not a very easy one to disentangle. This is partly due to the variety of arguments put forward by reformists, but above all to the failure of reformists to grasp the Socialist explanation of the problem that has to be solved.

The problem is not that of a social system that is satisfactory on the whole and only needs improvements here and there. If it were the reformist would be on the right road —but then there would be nothing in the Socialist case for the abolition of Capitalism.

Nor is the problem that of a social system which started as capitalist but is steadily evolving towards something fundamentally different, Socialism. If it were there would be nothing in the Socialist explanation of the true nature of Capitalism; that it is a system the character of which is determined by its being based on the division of society into two antagonistic classes, a capitalist class which possesses the means of production, but does not produce, and a working class which produces, but does not possess. The Socialist points to the fact that though capitalism changes in superficial ways, its foundation does not change. The capitalist class are as much the owners and controllers of land, factories, railways, etc., as they were 60 or 100 years ago. Capitalism changes but not in essentials. It does not evolve to Socialism. While the capitalists remain in control of political power they will continue to avert any change which would deprive them of their ownership. They constantly introduce reforms to deal with the most resented effects of their system, but they firmly resist attempts to interfere with the foundation of capitalism which is the cause of the evil effects.

Socialism cannot be achieved without a social revolution, that is a change in the property basis of society, from private ownership to social ownership and democratic control.

In the past most reformists held one or other of the first-mentioned views; either they believed that the social system is essentially sound but needed improvements in detail or they believed that an accumulation of reforms would ultimately produce a fundamental change. We need not here concern ourselves with the first group, since the workers who believe this now are certainly a diminishing number; but the second idea is still the idea that guides the majority of supporters of the Labour Party. The idea is wrong and harmful, not so much because those who hold it labour largely in vain, but because while they continue to hold it they will not direct their efforts to the real task that has to be accomplished.

That the idea is wrong can be seen if a little attention is given to the results of the activities over a number of years. Have those activities been fruitless? If we judge by the very large number of reform measures passed by Parliament in the past 50 years we would say that they have been very fruitful; but if we go to the heart of the matter and ask whether capitalism has become a system in which life is comfortable, happy and secure for the workers we see that the gulf between reformist hopes and their practical achievements is enormous. The legislative changes are too numerous to count but nothing material has been altered thereby. The workers are still poor, still haunted by unemployment and insecurity. The capitalists are still rich, still in control of power. The explanation of this seeming paradox is absurdly simple once it is grasped. It is that reforms do not reform capitalism, nor is that the intention of those who introduce them. Reforms are not positive improvements added to a firm structure but piecemeal measures to alleviate the worst effects of new evils (or old evils grown more acute) as they arise. As each new evil arises or old evils get permanently or temporarily worse the cry goes up that something must be done. The reformers step in with their proposals, but the capitalist State, when it tardily takes action, just does the least that it believes will suffice to patch up the evil. The reform may be a gain for the workers if it is compared with the worst state of the evil just at the time when the reform is introduced, but it may mark a worsening of the workers' position compared with the position a few years earlier when the evil was of smaller dimensions, and still more so when related to society's growing powers of producing wealth. The reformer, however, looks only at the immediate alleviation and forgets that capitalism can go on producing new evils as fast as old ones are temporarily dealt with. As Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and others (most of whom failed to act up to their own knowledge) wrote in a "Manifesto of English Socialists" exactly 50 years ago: "Meantime small improvements made in deference to the ill-formulated demands of the workers, though for a time they seem almost a social revolution to men ignorant of their own resource and of their capacity, will not really raise the condition of the whole people."

These words might well be studied by men and women who to-day acclaim the Beveridge Report as "almost a social revolution."

There are still other reformists who say they realise that Socialism is the only solution, and that it requires a basic change in the foundations of society after political power has been obtained for that purpose. Their case for advocating reforms is rather different. They argue, as did Shaw and his associates in the above-mentioned Manifesto, that reforms give the workers more leisure and less anxiety so that they are better able to turn their attention to Socialism; or else they argue that the struggle for reforms is part of a valuable and necessary educational process for the workers. Both arguments could with greater justification be made for the trade unions, where the workers wage their own struggle over wages and conditions of work. Where the argument fails in its application to the Labour Party's efforts for legislative reforms is that it overlooks the part played by the openly capitalist parties. Fifty years ago it was supposed that a Labour Party would take the lead in securing the introduction of more or less drastic reforms, up to and including the time when there would be Labour Governments able to take the initiative in drafting bills and pushing them through Parliament. Nothing like that has happened. Can anyone point to any outstanding Act of Parliament associated in the public mind with the Labour Party? Do the workers remember the two Labour Governments for any bold measures they introduced? On the contrary, despite the spade work of the Labour Party, outstanding reforms are associated with their political opponents, particularly Lloyd George and now Sir William Beveridge.

The Labour Party has worked up agitation for one demand after another, only to see them introduced by Liberal or Tory Governments which naturally reaped whatever credit there was to be obtained. Far from educating the workers towards some ultimate goal, the effect has been rather to persuade them that the capitalist politicians are not so bad after all, for do they not introduce measures similar in name if different in detail from those on the Labour Party programme? At the present time we see a spectacle that is still more remarkable, a Labour Party which believes in leadership yet devotes much of its efforts to popularising the leader of the Tory Party, Mr. Winston Churchill, and heaping its praises on a Liberal, Sir William Beveridge. So far has this gone that probably many Labour voters do not even know who is the leader of their own Party.

After all these years of effort by the reformist parties, capitalism is intact and as powerful as ever. It will continue to be so until such time as the workers turn their attention away from reformism to the task of capturing the capitalist citadel—control of the machinery of government —for the purpose of taking over the means of production and distribution for the community.
Edgar Hardcastle

Progress and Reaction (1943)

From the February 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard

Already, before the war, there were numerous critics of the turn which human affairs had taken. The promise which early capitalism appeared to hold out to mankind had not been fulfilled. The industrialisation of the nineteenth century may have seemed then to open up new horizons of unlimited wealth for all. The social stagnation of a feudal agrarianism was swept away impetuously as machine upon machine fertilised man and nature into heights of productivity hitherto undreamt of. Economists and philosophers combined in lyrical praise of the new social order, and predicted that humanity had at long last entered the portals of a social system that could guarantee material well-being to all. "The greatest good of the greatest number” was the assured estimate of the new society's potentials.

But the new avalanche of wealth did not succeed in stifling the critical faculties of all thinking men. These could not help being aware of the fresh, profound social evils which the industrial revolution had brought into being. The newly begotten plenty brought no added comfort to the majority, but flowed mainly into the rapacious pockets of a favoured few. The masses of men and women, many of them forcibly ejected from their meagre but secure existence on the land, laboured unlimited hours amid the stench and filth of factories and mines. Their reward was hunger and disease. Even the children of this modern proletariat were not overlooked by the new class of economic masters in their hunt for profit-producers.

The grievous sufferings of the workers eventually led to opposition and revolt. The working class, “organised and disciplined by the very process of associated labour,” finally succeeded in securing some amelioration by the combined strength of their vast numbers. Trade unions and labour movements appeared all over the capitalist world. The new needs of scientific wealth-production demanded education on a mass scale. Comparative freedom of political expression was fought for and won. Labour organisations assumed increasing importance and influence in the affairs of state. The feeling was widespread that the way was now cleared for uninterrupted and substantial advances along the "road of progress.” As some of the early and most primitive anomalies of capitalism had partly been eliminated, so, it was felt, would, the more deep-rooted problems of poverty, bad housing, unemployment and war yield to the persistent efforts of “practical working-class politics.”

The minority, the Socialists, uncompromising in their advocacy of a social system based upon the Common Ownership of the Means of Life, were dismissed as "Impossibilists.” The doctrines of Marx and Engels, formulated upon the most penetrating and exhaustive investigation into the anatomy of capitalist society, provided scientific foundations for the view of Socialists. They proved conclusively that the expropriation of the capitalists by a Socialist working class was necessary to assure humanity as a whole the advantages held out by the new technique of production. These doctrines were attacked as "fallacies” or ridiculed as "out-of-date” by critics many of whom did not trouble to analyse the theories of Marxism. It was easier and more comfortable to "lead” the workers and in the process share in the good things which capitalism offered to the privileged. The watchword of the times became "The inevitability of gradualness.”

Since then a world-wide economic depression and two world-wars have shocked the “practical politicians” and many of their supporters out of their complacency. The policies of economic and political lassez-faire have largely been abandoned. On the continent of Europe they have been eliminated by forces whose outlook and methods are reminiscent of the dark ages of a mediaeval world. The spectacle of a continent, which in the past contributed an imposing array of men and movements, who have helped to illuminate the knowledge of mankind, now held in the grip of political adventurers, must on all accounts be a source of depression.

However, this state of reaction cannot be confined to the borders of Germany or the German-occupied countries. Nor can its roots be isolated from recent economic and political events and tendencies throughout the world. On the contrary, they are symptoms of a particularly virulent character reflecting the prevailing impotence of a society unable to solve its problems.

The war has done nothing to bring a solution nearer. The main social issues still await a much-promised settlement. The problems of unemployment and poverty in general still inflict their cares upon the minds of most people. The hideous slums, relics of the barbarous greed of capitalism a century ago, remain a token of the unchanged character of social relationships. The machinery of the “ democratic ” capitalist state bristles with powers of coercion, and the workers find restrictions of every kind drawing an ever closer dragnet around their existence. It may be argued that they are a temporary measure only, dictated by the necessities of war. But against that we have the statements of leading politicians. Thus we hear Mr. Bevin, Minister of Labour, proclaiming:
  Don't Ask for Old Liberty Back Too Soon.
 Mr. Ernest Bevin to-day appealed to trade unionists not to ask for their old liberty back too quickly after the war.
The report quotes him as saying:
  I would appeal to my fellow-workmen to insist that the country carries on some control for a considerable period. We want to do it, because if there is a sudden let-up, if we lose this discipline and control, we may get back into the orgy of speculation and chaos that we had at the end of the last war. (Evening Standard, January 13, 1943.)
We know what is in ruling-class minds. They want to level the economic ups-and-downs of their system through "planning" on national and international lines. They hope that the economic and political arrangements that serve them in war can be modified to serve their purpose in peace. But these "plans" involve many doubtful factors. They demand the agreement of capitalists, nationally and internationally. They need a quiescent working class. So far, capitalism has never been able to achieve such a permanent "truce." The competitive nature of the capitalist order has in the past doomed any permanent arrangements of an international and even national character. And what of the workers? Will they submit to the “discipline” that is the inevitable counter-part of capitalist "planning"? When the victory for "freedom” has been won and tyrants overthrown, what will be the attitude of the class that has born the brunt of the fighting? What will be the feeling of the workers in the defeated and devastated countries, the victims of war and persecution?

Many more questions could be posed. They would show that the capitalists are confronted by a social riddle that becomes more complex as the war drags its destructive way to eventual conclusion. There are some who believe the present conflict to be one of a series of social convulsions marking a revolutionary transition in social affairs. As to the kind of world that will emerge after these bloody "transitions," we are not informed. It may well be asked: "What can be expected to result from years of bloodshed and destruction, from hunger and persecution?"

The answers given by capitalists and their "Labour" supporters are not convincing. They seek to persuade the working class that a modified capitalism will not repeat the catastrophies of the past They expect to dazzle the minds of wage-slaves with promises of permanent doles and better social reforms.

"Progress by Reform" is the only hope they can hold out to a shattered world.
Sid Rubin

Rocky Foundations of the New World (1943)

From the January 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard

The “brave new world" is still news, bat as its vague outlines emerge in the public speeches of allied statesmen and in various articles and statements by prominent people, the new world of dreams recedes farther and farther away. The jokes made by working men on the subject suggest that in general the view is held that the high-sounding phrases which have travelled round the world are but “sound and fury, signifying nothing."

An article in The Spectator (October 30, 1942), under the title "The Quest for Aims," put as definitely as anywhere else an interpretation of governmental view on the subject. Discussing the criticism that Russia and China “were not sure whether we knew what we were fighting for," the writer goes on :—
    Russia and China are both fighting because the soil of their country was wantonly invaded, the United States because her fleet, lying in a harbour of one of her oversea possessions, was made the object of outrageous and treacherous aggression. We, as a plain matter of history, because not our own territory, but that of Poland, which we had pledged ourselves to defend, was attacked by Hitler. Having entered it we have bound ourselves to make no peace till Hitler, and all he stands for, is swept away, and till Japan is finally crushed. That is a simple and sufficient statement of war aims.
    Peace aims are another matter. We did not go to. war, and never should have, to reconstruct the world, but so much of the structure of the world as it existed before 1939 has been destroyed by war that reconstruction is essential, and the task of planning that enterprise and carrying it out will tax all our wisdom and all our energies. Here it is a question of proceeding from the general to the particular, from agreement on principles to their application. The difficulty of even making a beginning is illustrated by the vigour of some of the protests against the apparently innocuous statement that we are fighting for the defence of Christian civilisation. That, it might be supposed, was of the nature of a truism, or near enough to a truism, to be incapable of being an irritant. A Christian civilisation is not a condition of life in which (to quote from last week's debate in the House of Commons) belief in the Athanasian creed is forcibly imposed. It denotes rather a regime, based on common conviction and consent, in which the virtues, Christian, but by no means exclusively Christian, of justice and truth and good faith and freedom of conscience and defence of the weak—the very antithesis of the qualities inculcated in the Germany of to-day—are accepted as the guiding principles of national as of individual life. 
We regret the length of the quotation, but the elusiveness of the ideas hidden in clouds of words makes it necessary in order to extract something concrete.

Here we see that the war is for the purpose of defending Christian civilization and the peace aims to reconstruct it from the ruins of war. In the first place reconstructing is rebuilding what has existed, not building something new, and secondly, justice, etc., etc., was the alleged object of the French Revolution, the American Revolution and various other upheavals since. The civilization we got from these was first of all the factory system with all its early abominations of child labour and so forth, and in recent years all the evils that church dignitaries and statesmen are now holding forth upon as ugly features that must never reappear.

As, however, the social system of pre-war days (Christian civilisation) based upon private ownership of the means of production, which involves the two antagonistic classes of capitalist and worker, is to be reconstructed then it requires no great thinker to prophesy that the evils of pre-war days will be with us in the future like old but disreputable friends.

This forecast is substantiated by the plan for the post-war world drawn up by 120 leading industrialists, who are, of course, typical representatives of the capitalist outlook, and, moreover, are the type of people who in the past have determined social policy and are economically and politically strong enough to continue to do so.

The signatories to the plan are interested in various industries such as banking, chemicals, munitions, engineering, coal, steel, etc. Among them is Lord Melchett, Lord Perry, Sir Samuel Beale, Sir Francis Joseph and Mr. J. V. Rank.

The Daily Express (November 11, 1942), discussing the plan in an article entitled "120 Big Business Men Plan their Post-War World," says it is “ based on the first essential: Private enterprise must stay,” with the profit motive included. They are against the extension of State ownership and operation in peace time, which they contend would he a national calamity. And further:
They do not think it is "theoretically possible” for “big combines and amalgamations to retard invention, restrict production, or maintain or raise prices unduly. It would, however, be checked,” they say, "by public opinion.”
This project of the “new world,” as sketched by influential capitalists, has a far better chance of reflecting reality than either the hazy promises of politicians or the groundless expectations of well-intentioned reformers.

An American writer, examining the future position of Britain in an article entitled “Can Britain Live in the New World Order” (Asia, October, 1942), has no illusions about the shape of things to come. To him it means an alteration in the balance of competitive power with Britain taking a back seat and helped along like a lame dog, as the following extract illustrates, and the lamest part of the dog is represented by the workers :—
No doubt the British will have to reorganise their economy. They will probably find it necessary to reduce the national standard of living. They will simply have to consume less and to produce more. British industry will have to be modernised and placed on a competitive footing; it will have to change to different lines of production. Britain will have to rely less and less on the traditional export stand-bys:—cotton goods, bulky iron goods, simple consumer articles, coal—and turn increasingly to the production of industrial machinery for export, machine tools, chemical products, complicated consumers goods, high quality textiles, including textiles of artificial fabrics. Above all, Britain will have to rely less on income from interest, banking and insurance services. Local agriculture will have to produce more of the foodstuffs consumed by the population. Finally it may prove necessary to resort to planned emigration.
It may be thought that the above unpleasant forecast is an over-statement by a prejudiced "foreigner,” but it also has a fair chance of representing the grim reality, and we may once again witness, as happened after the last war, posters on public hoardings with pictures of labour leaders embellishing exhortations to “produce more” in order to enable industry to get back on a paying basis.

It is taken for granted that Britain's carrying trade is gone beyond recovery, but it may well be, owing to war time concentration upon the production of the huge transport aeroplanes, that competition for sea trade will be replaced by competition for aerial transport, and thus a fresh fight for economic supremacy be inaugurated that will blot out the bulk of the present New World ideals.

Shape of things to come (1981)

Book Review from the September 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee? Langley Technical Services, 1980.

This is a tantalizing, awkward but informative little book. The question that Cooley does not answer is whether and in what way a socialist society could use the new technology—that is, automation, chips, computer aided design, computer-linked robotic production and so on. But he skirts around it and answers a hundred other related questions, so that all may find something useful here.

Cooley was a design engineer with Lucas Aerospace (he was sacked quite recently for taking time off work to propagandise the views in this book). His own attitude to modern technology shows an interesting evolution; he began by assuming that technology was neutral—that computers were inherently useful but that their use was perverted by what capitalist society demanded; he now thinks that the technology of any society is an integral part of its politics. The last point is worth labouring. Cooley holds that with a change in the politics of capitalism the uses of technology could change. Correspondingly, he holds that with a change in society the shape of technology must change. Consecutively, he holds that the drive to change society is linked with the drive to find socially harmonious uses for the new technology. For him these sum up the human/technology relationship. Such a position has led him to champion the Lucas Aerospace Corporate plan—a trade union-backed series of alternative production projects that are offered to industry, like vehicles for spina bifida cases in place of nuclear weapons.

Cooley thinks that something has been lacking in the socialist analysis of science and technology. We concentrate too much on the contradictions of distribution (poverty amid plenty) and neglect the contradictions of production (technological systems that produce an abundance of products by degrading skilled work). As a corrective he suggests that we should question the assumptions embodied in science and technology and find out whether the ideology of capitalism has helped to determine the experimental designs and theories upon which they are based. This balanced analysis would help us to determine the types of technology that would be compatible with a socialist society.

Computer aids to production have become very sophisticated over the last decade and a wide range of engineering components can be produced, inspected and delivered under continuous data processing control—including the design and planning of the product. It is important not to miss the last point. Gone are the days when a master craftsman suggested a new idea to a draughtsman and worked in conjunction with him to develop its design, materials, process treatments, properties and conditions of use. With data processing engineering there is only the draughtsman who draws the original design on a digitally coordinated board, translates this spatial information into numerical terms and types it into a central processor; the computer then specifies the entire sequence of movements required by all the machines under its control that are used in the making of the product. The other point not to miss is that this system works only for the range of product types and production operations that are given in the control programme, innovation outside this range is impossible; for that the system has to be re-programined, rebuilt or even replaced. The outcome is not merely that creative and co-operative work among craftsmen and designers is redundant, but that in factories with engineering data processing it becomes impossible.

The problem for a socialist society using this equipment would be to recognise when the process was destroying the potential for creative labour, or impeding technological innovation, or both. On this matter there can be no other guide than the tacit knowledge, skills and expertise of individuals; but on the face of it these may not be acceptable, because when this computer-controlled equipment produces a design for a component at the limit of its control programme, a craftsman may see it and only be able to say “it doesn’t look right to me”. Whereas the writer of the control programme and the system designers can produce masses of technical argument to prove that it will work, just by pressing the read-out buttons. Moreover the new components may function for several years before they fail and justify the craftsman’s intuition. The problem resolves into a social question—how much influence respectively do you allow the technical expert and the practical craftsman over production decisions when they are in dispute? In simple terms—who has the power to decide and how? If socialist society were to use present technology then its democracy could be tested by controversies about technics versus skill.

Computer aided design presents more problems still. There are now systems where a designer works with a light pen directly onto a video display unit, linked to a computer programmed with a design package. The designer has a basic idea for a building, he draws the rough outline on the screen and then gets the computer to manipulate this basic material with the set of subroutines in the programme. Effectively the computer can turn a few lines into a fully drawn Greek temple, or turn the basic specification for a tower block into a picture and project it on the screen in dramatic perspective. It can construct and display a picture of a non-existent structure in an architectural setting so that you can judge whether the proposed building will harmonise with the environment and will even give you a picture of what the outside world would look like from inside a building that was only an idea in your head a few minutes before.

“Terrific!” may be your first response to all this. Cooley suggests that “ugh!” may be your second. It hardly needs saying that the use of this equipment to capitalist society is to reduce reliance upon a range of architectural, draughting and civil engineering workers; resulting in redundancies, cutting of costs, increasing output and so on; bringing the design process under the “scientific management” of capital.

But what use would this equipment be to a socialist society? Once again there could be clashes between those who felt that architectural aesthetics were being obliterated in computer simulations and, however good it seemed on the screen, it wouldn’t be right to build a Centre Point on the Acropolis—or a Centre Point anywhere for that matter. Such disputes might be the stuff of life for a socialist society. Imagine two sets of protagonists flinging themselves into such architectural discussions with the zeal of William Morris in his crusade against industrial architecture, and the propagandist power of the Futurists for modern architecture. When they had exhausted themselves, a socialist society could count heads and do what the majority wanted.

But would the battle over ideas in such cases be an equal one if computer aided design takes over? It’s an interesting question and provides the core of Cooley’s book, although he doesn’t answer it.

The trouble with computer aided design is that on a large scale it will replace intuition, creativity and the sheer tactility that goes with the craftsman’s approach to the physical nature of production. As it does so the popular notion of good design becomes just a completed decision sequence in machine code. In one way computer aided designs can always be justified, because the programmes work with a simplified model of reality that raises no decision problems. While in the sophisticated reality of the craftsman all decisions arc reached in the face of bewildering complexity. The craftsman can rarely explain how he is able to identify and locate faults in a complicated machine just by listening to it running. But the programmer can explain in a million steps how his impoverished model of reality will yet deliver the goods. As victories for computer aided design go up, says Cooley, so does our hold on reality go down and with it the direct interaction between production systems and the real world. If this technology is utilised unchanged in a socialist society then the development of production will be out of control in fact, even with the purest form of democratic control being exercised over it.

Information and understanding are the obvious keys in solving this problem. Provided that the population of a socialist world are aware of the situation then that society can provide self-adjustment processes and if they don’t work then it must abandon the technology. We must take the craftsman’s approach—suck it and see!

Cooley takes the leftist approach and strives to construct a theory of socialist development based upon current popular reactions against unemployment, nuclear power, the degradation of the natural environment and so on. The Lucas Aerospace Corporate Plan above mentioned is an example. Socialist society, says Cooley, becomes possible as the workers can conceive of an entire range of socially useful products to replace the destructive garbage that capitalism turns out. This would be an interesting point to discuss, but Cooley ruins it by describing the Russian revolution as a socialist transformation that went wrong, because Lenin introduced F. W. Taylor’s work measurement and control techniques after 1920; socialist production was thus supposed to have been converted back into capitalist toil. Howlers like this make you doubt whether he’s been talking about the same things as you all along. Particularly when he says that other countries are striving towards socialism.

How useful would computers be to a socialist world? The current crop of machines and programmes are laughably inadequate to represent even the noddy view of the capitalist system professed by bourgeois theorists. The original simulation of capitalism on a computer programme, written by Forrester in the late 1960s, was developed by Meadows, et al, in their doom-laden prophecy called Limits to Growth. Even in later sophisticated forms—Mesarovic and Pestel, Mankind at the Turning Point—it still does little other than predict that what is happening now is going to continue.

Cooley may well be right in a way he doesn’t realise. Computers are electronic aids in the production of surplus value. The design and languages of electronic processors stem from and are geared to quantitative assessments of production in units of currency-business languages. Can the current range of machines be used with programmes designed to sense human needs? Can the current-programming skills of computer personnel encompass the idea of production for use and free access? Let’s all become socialists and find out.
B. K. McNeeney