Friday, March 31, 2017

Words and Deeds. (1923)

From the January 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The time for words is past: now is the time for action.” This is an indispensable aid to the Labour speaker. Introduced with fervour at an appropriate moment by one of the "Billy Sundays” of the movement it never fails to bring the roof down. Any novice at a loss for something useful to say, on any Labour platform, in any quarter of the globe, can depend upon it for “loud and prolonged applause.” The effect of its delivery to an open-mouthed audience of several thousands in the Albert Hall, by that platform acrobat, Tom Mann, is truly wonderful. Don’t imagine, however, that it is something new. George Lansbury has been saying it as regularly as clockwork for twenty years for more; Tom Mann is now over seventy, and it must have been a commonplace with him in his early twenties; and no doubt Moses, by whom he sets his course, was hurling it at the murmuring Israelites in Egypt and in the Desert. Throughout the ages, and in any place where glib tongues have had foolish listeners, this shabby half-truth has been doing service.

Its very use is a denial of its accuracy; for if words were valueless these orators should not orate, and Tom Mann ought to give his gymnastic displays without marring them with speech. Again, to be precise, speech is a form of action. However, let us consider what is intended by those who use this phrase.

Do they mean that any action, just action itself is desirable? Obviously not, for the “actionists” are particularly loud and wordy in their denunciation of those workers, who as police and soldiers, under Government instruction, break the heads and scatter the brains of unemployed demonstrators. Clearly the kind of action is important, and we immediately find that the “actionists,” apart from numerous subdivisions, are divided by a theoretical difference into two main groups. On the one hand are the "realists,” the painstaking, sane and safe plodders of the Labour Party, whose "action” takes the form of administering capitalist laws on national and local governing bodies. They are oppressed with a sense of their responsibility and the need to go slow. They have heaps of fine ideals, but relegate them to the distant future, and devote themselves entirely to “practical” politics.

The other group are the Communists. They are in a hell of a hurry. They are incurably romantic, and aim at living dangerously. They scan the political horizon anxiously, searching for a cloud “the size of a man’s hand” which shall be the sign of the revolutionary crisis. They are like the Adventists, living in momentary expectation of the second coming of Christ; and they have some hopes. They resemble the other group only in this, that both of them are believers in doing things, and are infinitely contemptuous of mere theorising. Their actions, judged by results, are not brilliantly successful. They are always “turning over new leaves,” “formulating new programmes,” ‘‘moving with the times,”' and “learning from past mistakes.” The second of their immutable principles is summed up in another misleading saying, that “people who never make mistakes never make anything.”

The chief activity of the reactionary actionists, between 1914 and 1919, was supporting the war. They didn’t want the workers to have knowledge of Socialism, they wanted them to have practical skill in bayonet thrusts and the like; but there was a curious unwillingness to lead on the part of the hot-air leaders. Almost without exception, they were busy telling the workers to go and fight; but were not able to go themselves. Perhaps, this was due to their modesty.

In fact, on closer examination, the activities of this school appear to be mainly talk. They talk on Parish Councils, on Borough Councils, on County Councils, and in the House of Commons. The Labour leaders talk war in war-time, and peace in peacetime ; they talk big to their office staffs and they talk small at the King’s Garden Parties, they talk slop at brotherhood meetings and wildly at Congress. They never talk Socialism.

The other actionists took the field in earnest when the Russian upheaval occurred. They saw red revolution everywhere. They talked about it, and urged other people to begin it; except when they were run in. Then they assured his honour that there was a mistake somewhere, and appeared to be trying to give the impression that they were only collecting souls for Jesus, or something equally harmless. This they call tactics. Some people believe that the workers will be emancipated by tactics.

There was a constant stream of them travelling to Moscow to tell Lenin that England was hovering on the brink of revolution: none of them ever thought of doing a good deed by pushing her over. This may have been more tactics.

In those days they used to tell the tale about Communism in Russia. As this didn’t quite square with theory, and although they don’t believe in theories, they condescended sufficiently to try to show how Russia unaided could jump from Feudalism to Socialism. They did this in order to explain the fact. Of course, the fact never existed, and in due course Moscow permitted them to say so. Then they laid the blame on the apathy of the workers in West Europe, but Zinoviev has now unkindly exploded. this. A correspondent of the Observer writes (November 19th, 1922) :—
“Very significant also was Zinoviev’s speech at Petrograd at the opening of the Congress, which contradicted the popular Bolshevik theory that the New Economic Policy is due chiefly to the postponement of world-revolution. ‘We are now aware,’ said Zinoviev, ‘that the New Economic Policy was inevitable for Russia, even despite a successful world-revolution.’ ”
Nevertheless, these actionists are still “proving” their unsound theory. 

In practice, all the actionists talk and write just as we do. They do not act, because the capitalists won’t let them. They have, however, two distinct ways of looking at this fact. The Communists pretend not to see it, and by keeping up a terrific clamour of words they succeed for a time in persuading those who don’t know, even many of the master class, that they are making things hum.
The Labour Party, somewhat wiser in its generation, only chooses to do those things the capitalists permit. This keeps them frightfully busy, and although the products of their activity are nil, because the concessions they get are only those the capitalists would give anyway, they appear to be getting somewhere. This kind of people, now in the Labour Party, and previously as Liberals, have been doing their practical work for half a century, and except that the workers' position is getting steadily worse, they don’t seem to have reached anywhere in particular.

The capitalist class are able to prevent any action useful to the workers and dangerous to themselves, because they control the force which is the deciding factor. The Army and Navy, the police and the law are at their disposal. The power to control these forces is theirs, because their agents are elected to the House of Commons, the central governing body. These agents are elected by the workers. The workers elect capitalist agents because they want Capitalism and not Socialism. They do not want Socialism because they do not understand it. Conditions produced by capitalist developments are preparing the minds of the workers, but they will not obtain an intelligent grasp of socialist principles except through the spoken and written word.

We, and both schools of actionists, are engaged mainly in talking and writing; but we talk Socialism, they do not.

When the workers understand Socialism they will take the direct and simple steps necessary to give them control of the political machinery of society for the purpose of introducing Socialism. Until that time, the only useful action possible is the act of speaking and writing about Socialism.

We are Socialists.

We preach Socialism.
Edgar Hardcastle

Exhibition Review: Art of Solidarity - Cuban Posters for African Liberation 1967-1989 (2017)

Exhibition Review from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Cuban poster art
Art of Solidarity: Cuban Posters for African Liberation 1967-1989, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, 13 January to 18 June 2017
‘Art of Solidarity’ is an exhibition of thirty two rarely-seen posters produced by Cuban group ‘Organisation in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL)’. Posters were created using an offset method and silk screen techniques combining art, photographs and text. Each colour required a day to dry. Quite correct is the comment that ‘This created posters with striking images and strong political messages.’
It slightly glibly goes on to say ‘Designers used the imagery of both traditional and modern weapons to symbolise resistance and political power … Every poster by female artist Berta Abelenda Fernandez includes some sort of weapon from spears to bazookas often in a witty unexpected way.’ OSPAAAL itself used the logo of a clenched fist around a rifle.
‘Solidarity can mean many things ranging from military support to foreign aid. In the 1970s and 1980s, Fidel Castro sent over 60,000 troops, advisors and doctors to seventeen African nations in support of various liberation movements in Angola’, claims one description, adding ‘solidarity can also be expressed through public support, for example, posters’ and the critical role played by Cuba in ending apartheid. These definitions (of ‘solidarity’ and ‘liberation’) and connections might be more ambiguous than is implied here.
On the more unambiguous and positive side, and in contrast to Stalin’s enforcement of the ‘socialist realism’ art style, was Fidel Castro’s encouragement in 1977: ‘Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art.’ And one writer notes that in the Cuban posters, ‘There are few examples of hero worship unlike Mao in China or Lenin in the Soviet Union.’ Writer Lincoln Cushing comments ‘the non-commercial mass poster was the direct fruit of this revolution, a conscious application of art in the service of social improvement.’ It would be hard to disagree that Cuban poster art was anything but flourishing, if the claim elsewhere that Cuba produced some twelve thousand posters specifically means differing designs rather than just prints.
Cuba’s historical links with Africa were real, as during the transatlantic slave trade some half a million Africans were transported to Cuba. There was also a respect artistically, that meant many posters incorporate cultural objects or references dispelling the idea that Africa had no history, art or civilisation prior to European contact. Posters were produced for Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Congo, Namibia, South Africa, Guinea and Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. However, it would be remiss not to mention here that multiple military interventions were made by Cuba in more than one African country.
Should you visit the exhibition, then plan to spare an hour for the film screening (on a loop) ‘Cuba: An African Odyssey’ (directed by El Tahri) and visit on one of the days of the free events (20/3, 13/4, 1/5, 15/5, 5/6). More images of these posters and information can be found in the book ‘Revolution: Cuban Poster Art’ (2003) and the website
As a final comment, as the influential African intellectual, the late Amílcar Cabral said on revolution in Africa: we do not want exploitation, even by black people.

Editorial: Labour Government, Strikes and Arbitration (1947)

Editorial from the February 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

The road haulage strike, which lasted for some ten days in the early part of January, brought out clearly the false position of the Labour Government and the impracticability of its policy.

Having undertaken the running of the capitalist system, the Labour Government is finding that it has got to do it in the only way it can be done. Capitalism will only work if the Capitalists can see the prospect of making a profit, so, in disregard of years of vaguely anti-capitalist propaganda, the Labour Government has had to come out in support of the "profit motive.” Having claimed it would raise wages, it urges the unions not to make wage claims, lest profits should all be swallowed up. It declared for shorter hours, but now says the time is inopportune. It condemned the use of troops in strikes, and has twice used them since it came to power. It declared that under Labour Government strikes were unnecessary because "impartial arbitration” would give all the workers wanted, but has repeatedly seen the workers defying unsatisfactory arbitration awards.

On the use of troops in strikes it is only necessary to recall the motion put forward by the Labour Party in Parliament on May 12th, 1939.

Moved by Mr. Shinwell, a Minister in the present Government, the motion would have freed conscripts from the obligation to “take duty in aid of the civil power in connection with a trade dispute, or to perform, in consequence of a trade dispute, any civil or industrial duty customarily performed by a civilian in the course of his employment.”

Faced with the road haulage strike, the Government used large bodies of troops to do the work of the strikers. Mr. Strachey, erstwhile left-winger and critic of the Labour Party, had the duty, as Minister of Food, of issuing the statement about the use of the troops. He assured the strikers that in using troops he was "not interfering in this industrial dispute” (Daily Express, 11/1/47) and hoped that the workers would not mind. That they did mind very much was soon shown by the fact that men not directly involved in the dispute stopped work as a protest, and by January 15th 35,000 road haulage strikers had been joined by 21,000 sympathetic strikers (Daily Express, 16/1/47).

Government spokesmen and the Capitalist Press made the usual reproach that the strike inflicted hardship on other workers. It certainly did, but then so does every strike in greater or less degree. If the argument is accepted as an over-riding objection it rules out all strikes; but what, then, is meant by the Labour Party’s own claim that it defends the right to strike?

One curious criticism of the strikers was made by the Manchester Guardian, which argued that the men’s grievances "are not substantial,” and “ there is no question of poverty or oppressive conditions of work ” (14/1/ 47). But if the matter in dispute was small, why did not the employers and the Wages Board and the Government promptly concede it? What about their responsibility for indicting suffering over a trivial matter? We can also imagine what the criticism would have been if the men had struck for something really substantial. Then the critics would have got hot under the collar about "unreasonable demands.” 

The Daily Herald did not agree with the Guardian. Their line (10/1/47) was that the strike was “a boiling over of bad blood which has existed for a long time; bad blood created by bad conditions of employment”; hut, argued the Herald, the men should have obeyed the Minister of Labour’s appeal "to go back to work at once and abide by the decision of the Board, with the assurance that it will be reached on the basis of a fair and impartial hearing of their claims.” This argument will not stand a moment’s examination. As the Board had already rejected the main claim and given what the Herald described as "only minor but nevertheless valuable concessions,” what reason could there have been for supposing that a re-hearing of the claim would have any other result, but for the pressure brought to bear by the strike? If the second hearing would have been different from the first, how “fair and impartial” was the first? Events proceeded to blow the Herald's case sky-high, for the men did not go back until a new, quicker-working Joint Industrial Council had been set up to short-circuit the Wages Board.

Lack of space precludes further comments. We will deal more fully with arbitration later. For the moment it is sufficient to say that the whole idea of arbitration as a substitute for strikes is based on an illusion, as the Herald itself once clearly realised. In an editorial (12/4/1924) the Herald pointed out that, "so long as the wage system exists,” and whether the workers are employed by a private employer of by the State, their capacity to "sell their labour-power . . . at a fair price depends on their capacity, through their trade unions, to refuse to work.”

The road haulage strike is just a further pointer to the impossibility of Labourism.

Editorial: The American Miners' Strike (1947)

Editorial from the January 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Lesson for Industrial Actionists
There never was a better time than the present for the American miners to demonstrate just how much effect a strike can have. With little unemployment and an almost unlimited demand for coal they were as favourably placed as they have ever been or are likely to be. Yet they failed. They came out on strike to the number of some 400,000 on November 20th, and they remained out for 16 or 17 days, though towards the end the American Government claimed that the miners were drifting back to work in considerable numbers. When they returned to work it was on the same terms as when they came out.

The mines, though privately owned, have been operated by the American Government since last spring. John L. Lewis, the Miners’ leader, was demanding that the miners should receive for 40 hours’ work the same pay as they are at present getting for 54 hours, to compensate for the increased cost of living. Mr. Arthur Webb, American correspondent of the Daily Herald (November 21st, 1946), cabled:—“The Government wants to force Lewis to keep the men working and to enter negotiations with the mineowners for a revised contract, although the pits are still being run by the State. But Lewis says that the Government must agree to his terms before it hands the mines back to private enterprise.”

At that time, when the strike was just beginning, Mr. Webb was vastly impressed by the power of Lewis and the miners: “ For although the United States boasts that it is a Republic, it is still ruled by ‘King Coal’—and Lewis is the man behind the throne.” 

What was it then that caused this potentate to surrender? He surrendered to those who really govern America, the ruling class who are in possession of the machinery of government—the Democratic Party President, and the Republicans who gained a majority in the recent election and who backed the President’s action against the miners.

The strike is the workers’ only weapon under capitalism, a useful weapon but strictly limited when it meets the power of those who control the State. The President had applied for, and obtained, a court injunction holding that Lewis’s action in calling the strike was illegal. The court sharply backed up its order by fining Lewis £2,500 and his union £875,000 for contempt of court.

Faced with this what did the “man behind the throne” do? He paid the £2,500 into court and his union paid the £875,000 into court (Daily Herald, December 12th, 1946). And the next day, without consulting the miners, he ordered them back to work at least until March 31st, so that negotiations can go on with the Government or with the owners. In the letter to his members he informed them that the union representatives would “act in full protection of your interests within the limitations of the findings of the Supreme Court of the United States” (Observer, December 8th, 1946, italics ours). Political power had defeated industrial action.

The emancipation of the working class will not come by industrial action but only by gaining control of the machinery of government, through the vote, for the purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing Socialism. The American workers, like the workers everywhere have not yet learned this lesson. At the recent American elections the great majority of them, being non-Socialists, voted for the two parties of capitalism, Republicans and Democrats. Neither represents working-class interests, though the self-styled leaders of the workers pretend that one party is less “reactionary” than the other and more deserving of support by the workers. Many trade unions helped the Democrats in the elections, while others helped the Republicans. The “Call" organ of the reformists “ Socialist Party,” offered as one reason why the Democrat, President Truman, went all out to break the strike that he was emboldened to do so by the recent electoral victory of his political opponents, the Republicans (“Call,” New York, November 25th, 1946). Yet Lewis, as the Daily Herald reports (November 21st, 1946), himself supported the Republicans and helped them to victory. It illustrates on the one side how the capitalists in rival parties unite when it is a question of defending their interests against the workers, and on the other the futility of the workers voting their exploiters into power in the hope that they will share in the benefits of their masters’ electoral victories.

No Alternative (2017)

Book Review from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism'. By Richard Swift. (New Internationalist Publications. 2016)

In this revised, second edition one-time editor of the New Internationalist Richard Swift surveys various attempts to counter capitalism over the years. He begins with USSR-style state capitalism (which he misleadingly calls state socialism) and Social Democrat parliamentary reformism. Of the former he makes the point that:
‘In retrospect it could easily be claimed that orthodox state communism was not really an alternative to capitalism at all but merely a transitional form of it that allowed certain large ‘backward’ societies, hitherto blocked in their development path, to move towards their own peculiar model of autocratic capitalism.’
As to the Social Democrats and Labourites, they evolved as mere alternative managers of traditional-style capitalism.

He goes on to dismiss Marxists for still talking about the class struggle, anarchists for living in the past, and Italian autonomists for being too vague (he could have added for being incomprehensible). What he likes are movements in the South (Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil) and indigenous communities resisting the impact of capitalism.

Despite the title, most of the book is taken up with describing opposition rather than alternatives to capitalism, and not so much to capitalism as such but to ‘untrammelled’, ‘rapacious’ and ‘unregulated’ capitalism. It is not until page 156 out this 184-page book that he makes the point that ‘people need to know what you are for rather than just what you are against.’

A valid point but, as in so many books like this, what is proposed is disappointing. In Swift’s case, ‘degrowth’ (reducing production and consumption), ‘bringing finance under control’, and a universal guaranteed minimum money income. There is no understanding that, to be able to control ‘growth’, whether to stop, increase, or re-orient it towards meeting needs – and to end what he had earlier called experiencing ‘the economy as a kind of external force disconnected from human will’ – ownership of the means of production will have to pass to society as a whole, with the consequent disappearance of the market and market forces.

All Swift comes up with about ownership of means of production is vague talk about co-operatives operating within a system where there is still finance and money incomes – which wouldn't really be an alternative to capitalism.
Adam Buick