Sunday, May 28, 2017

Not Piffle but Propaganda for Capitalism (1974)

Book Review from the October 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why We Need a Wealth Tax”, J. S. Fleming and I. M. D. Little; Methuen & Co. 34 pages, 45p.

The authors are described as two leading Oxford economists. Another economist, Mr. Patrick Hutber, in his Sunday Telegraph column (1st Sept. 1974) was moved to near-frenzy when he read it: “Little piffle”, “contemptible”, two dons "giving a passable imitation of the gaga”, and more to the same effect, By contrast the Sunday Times of the same date, while pointing to technical weaknesses, was more sympathetic and regarded it as “an important pamphlet, which could well have a big influence on public policy.”

The central idea is to make a tax on wealth a permanent major basis for raising government revenue, so arranged as to wipe out the very rich. The pamphlet was written before publication of the Labour Government’s “Wealth Tax” and “Gift Tax” proposals. In an interview Professor Little stated that there is nothing in the Government’s proposals that would make them want to alter their much more comprehensive scheme (Financial Times, 2nd. Sept. 1974).

The issue between the authors and Mr. Huther is a simple one. They argue that “in a progressive mixed society” (their nonsensical name for capitalism) “some clever, lucky, efficient individuals have to be allowed to become rather rich. But they do not have to be extremely rich — say, with over £250,000.” Mr. Hutber won’t have this at all: he thinks that millionaires are good for us: “It is better to have 300 new millionaires, and old age pensioners receiving £20 a week, than strict equality and a basic pension of £10.”

While Fleming and Little would not make “the accumulation of wealth more difficult” below the £250,000 level, they would start their tax with 1½% or 2% on £21,000 (at 1974 prices) rising at higher levels to 20%. Their case for having the possibility of accumulating wealth is the old argument of all the capitalist economists, that it provides “incentive” and thus increases the production of wealth “for the community”. (Those who are interested in political curiosities may like to compare the Fleming- Little scheme with that advocated by the Communist Party of Great Britain in its 1970 Election Manifesto: “The introduction of a wealth tax. By taxing all fortunes over £20.000 at an average rate of 3% . . .”)

Much heat will be generated about schemes to plunder the rich or very rich, whether from Fleming- Little, the Labour Party, the Communist Party, or any other would-be reformers of capitalism, but from the working-class and Socialist point of view it is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Socialism is not a scheme to redistribute wealth and poverty under capitalism, but to get rid of capitalism. The working class are exploited by the capitalist class, no less by the “small but progressive businessman” whom the authors want to help than by the tycoons who stand to lose. 

Workers should avoid falling into the trap of supposing that because particular politicians come under fierce attack from some capitalists, what they advocate must be in the interests of the working class. Some of the greatest friends of capitalism and enemies of the working class, for example Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Ramsay MacDonald, have come under the fiercest denunciation from capitalist backwoodsmen who had not the wit to see what was really happening.

This is where Fleming and Little come in. They are not seeking to undermine capitalism but to prop it up. They see the resentment aroused by super-fortunes as a danger to capitalism. They want to dope the workers into accepting capitalism. They hold that “anything tending to lead to greater industrial concentration is undesirable and inimical to capitalism in the long run”. In the interests of capitalism as a whole they want to sacrifice the millionaires.

Of course, with the normal blindness of their kind, they never even consider the possibility that capitalism should be replaced by Socialism.
Edgar Hardcastle

A not very secret service (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

'MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations', by Stephen Dorril. (Fourth Estate, London 2000. 907 pages)

Even before this book had been put on sale in bookshops, review copies had given rise to considerable controversy. Towards the end of MI6 (p.722), Dorril asserts:
"Another MI6 catch was ANC leader Nelson Mandela. Whether Mandela was recruited in London before he was imprisoned in South Africa is not clear, but it is understood that on a recent trip to London he made a secret visit to MI6's training section to thank the Service for its help in foiling two assassination attempts directed against him soon after he became President."
No source is, however, given for the statement. According to the Guardian (23 March), Mandela "reacted angrily to a claim" that he had been recruited as a British "agent of influence"; and he added that "he had never visited the headquarters of any intelligence service". Christopher Andrew in his review of Dorril's book (Times, 30 March) also dismisses the claim that MI6 recruited Mandela. In a letter to the Guardian (24 March), Stephen Dorril's weak reply was "there is nothing implausible in the idea that someone such as Nelson Mandela might have been recruited", as he states in his book with regard to a number of African nationalist leaders.

There is, however, little in MI6 on Africa. As the author says in his Preface, "the prime focus is the European continent, and some areas of the Service's operations and intelligence-gathering, principally in South-East Asia and Africa, are not dealt with in any great detail". The author does detail areas of the Middle-East, as MI6 had the dubious task of subverting, and overthrowing governments and organisations who nationalised or threatened British-owned oil fields and supply routes. Furthermore, although the book describes "fifty years of special operations" by MI6, it largely concentrates on the period between the end of the Second World War, and about 1970, when technological surveillance began to take over from HUMIT (human spies).

Within a very short time following the Second World War, the "allies" fell out, the Soviet Union began to consolidate its control over eastern Europe, and the "Cold War" began. MI6 was more than ready to carry out orders to combat and "roll back" what was erroneously called "communism" in the area. It was soon sending spies and saboteurs into Poland, and particularly western Ukraine. Almost all of these, as Dorril demonstrates, were Ukrainian nationalists who had collaborated with, or fought for, Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Most were captured within days by the KGB. Both Conservative and Labour administrations were involved in such activities.

In Greece MI6, supported by Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, backed the right-wing Monarchists; and MI6, together with the CIA, sent scores of agents and saboteurs into Albania over a number of years. Few of them survived or returned to the West. Dorril recounts in considerable detail the, by now well-known, joint-MI6/CIA campaign to overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq, the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. They were successful, but the United States was playing a double game. Anglo-Iranian which changed its name to British Petroleum (BP), was left with 40 percent, and the American corporations got the rest. Stephen Dorril's book also recounts in detail MI6's assassination attempts against Egypt's President Nasser, following his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. Such attempts were both sinister and bizarre. Some of MI6's "special operations" were successful; many were not, but all were carried out in the interests, not of democracy but of British capitalism.

With MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations containing almost 900 pages of reading matter, and being divided into seven sections, the reader gets about half-a-dozen books for the price of one. In the main, the book is well-sourced.

Dorril suggests that "given a work of this size", the reader might wish to "dip into a particular area of interest". A good idea. Inevitably, being the size it is, there are errors in MI6. It would be surprising if there were not.
Peter E. Newell

Housing: An Anarchist Approach (1976)

Book Review from the September 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Housing: An Anarchist Approach by Colin Ward. Freedom Press, £1.25.

This is a collection of articles by the former editor of Anarchy, published between 1945 and 1957: some in anarchist journals, others in architects’ and planning publications. They are informative, and the book can be read as a survey of the housing situation in Britain over the past thirty years. None of the problems has dated, of course. Like the motif of Cathy Come Home, which last month was repeated on television ten years after its original showing, they are still crying out as hopelessly as ever.

The difficulty about the book is in its title. “An anarchist approach” implies that other anarchists would take different views, even opposite ones (the cover describes Colin Ward as a well-known authority, which may well have given some anarchists apoplexy). In fact the approach is a liberal-type reformist one, full of suggestions to the Housing Minister, local councils, and architects’ associations. The book ends with an advocacy of “dweller control”. Though earlier chapters enthuse about the squatter movements of 1946 and 1968 as examples of direct action, in a 1974 article the writer expresses doubt whether seizure of housing is a practical thing to advocate: 
It would certainly save a lot of tedious calculation if we could count on tenant militancy to do the trick, but the possibility, short of a revolutionary situation, is not great. It did not need Clay Cross to demonstrate that in view of the powers of the district auditor and of central government over housing, it needs more than local direct action to win.
The “tenant take-over” advocated comes down, therefore, to self-management under government supervision, or a variation on the principles of the Co-operative Society.

The chapters under the heading “Self Help” give accounts of “cities the poor build” in Latin America, and the shanty-bungalow towns of the Laindon-Pitsea area, in Essex. As Colin Ward says, building regulations and land prices have made sure there won’t be any more of these. He argues that they could provide the guidelines for “a desirable experiment”, helped by the government, to solve the housing problem. Helped by the government, we can guess what it would turn out like. However, these settlements indicate something much more important. If a housing shortage were discovered in Socialist society, it would not constitute a “housing problem”: without the pressures of cost and economic policies, people can create homes and communities anywhere.

As it is, the housing problem in capitalism is neither a shortage nor an architectural poser. It is from first to last an aspect of the poverty problem: huge numbers of the working class are either badly housed or not housed at all because they are workers, their lives’ aspirations bound and gagged by wages. That state of affairs can only be remedied by abolishing the wage-system and establishing Socialism.
Robert Barltrop

A Modern Parable (1948)

A Short Story from the May 1948 issue of the Socialist Standard

There once lived a man, Proletarius by name. He had a bicycle, which was old and therefore had many faults. Whenever Proletarius rode it, he crashed and suffered considerable pain in consequence.

These mishaps induced him to try to solve the problem produced by the faulty nature of his bicycle. He saw a friend, Socialist by name, who knew something about bicycles. He explained to Proletarius that it was old and would not stand much more wear and tear. Socialist said he was unable to do anything himself and explained to Proletarius the need for a new machine. He added that only Proletarius himself is in a position to select his new bicycle and must therefore acquire a sound knowledge of them.

But Proletarius, although he worked very hard for his employer and was always ready to help his wife at home and spent hours toiling arduously in his back garden, was mentally lazy. He was unwilling to acquire new ideas and to get a new bicycle.

So he called at “ Reforms Cycle Repairs Co., Ltd.,” whose proprietor was called Leader. Leader said to him, “Entrust your bicycle to me and I will give it the general overhauling it needs. It will run well enough after I have straightened the front wheel and tightened the screws." After a week Proletarius called for his bicycle, paid Leader the price he charged and found his machine running fairly smoothly.

Soon, however, the screws began to fall out again. Proletarius weighed the matter up and thought, "I have chosen the wrong shop; they cheated me. 'Pseudo-Communistus,' who owns the 'Left-wing,' is a kind man and I trust him to do the job properly for me." He had new screws fixed on and the bicycle ran fairly smoothly for a few days. Meanwhile the brakes had become rusty and failed to perform their function. So when he went down hill his brakes failed; he crashed and broke his neck.

His brother, “Revolutionary," inherited his bicycle. But he knew something about bicycles and realised that the machine he had inherited was too old and worn out for further use. He heeded the lesson he learned from his brother’s experience and realised the need for a new bicycle.

And the various bicycle merchants heard of this and offered him the various makes they had in stock. They offered "Jingoism and Red Herrings, Unlimited," "Demagogy" and "Superstition." They used the press, wireless and the screen to advertise their wares.

But “Revolutionary" examined them and realised they were extremely cranky machines. Knowing something about bicycles, he did not need anyone’s advice, and selected his new bicycle himself, in accordance with his wishes, which coincided with his requirements.

Henceforward he had no bicycle troubles.
F. T.

Lansbury: A Figure of the Past (1940)

From the June 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

With the death of George Lansbury there has gone from the Labour Movement a figure of unusual character. There has passed out a type that will have no place in the future history of the Labour Party. The times that found a place for him have passed away. The necessities of the movement in which he was an impressive personality demand men of a different mould. The world in which we live has driven and will continue to drive that “movement” to place its leadership in the hands of men more able and of opportunistic Inclinations.

Lansbury’s life and work measures to some extent the progress and the place of the Labour Party in the history of the working class. He began his political career before the Labour Party was formed. As a youth, in the early ’eighties he was associated with the radical reform section of the Liberal Party. It was in this period that Lansbury announced his conversion to “ Socialism.” It is said that the conversion took place when, canvassing an East London constituency as a Liberal agent, a door was opened in response to his knocks by a woman whose only clothing was improvised from old sacks. It must be said, however, that this story circulated among those wags of East End workers who were mildly derisive of "Lansburyism.” His early career was devoted to local political activities. The Social Democrat (1900), in a biographical sketch, describes Lansbury fiercely contesting a Guardians election on a programme which included the abolition of skilly in the workhouse and the provision of shirts and drawers for the inmates. Lansbury’s “conversion” led him to the S.D.F. In 1894 he fought an election under their auspices and polled 207 votes: a somewhat ironic commentary on the “Marxist” character of the S.D.F. of the time. Lansbury has been described as a Socialist in the St. Simon tradition. This cannot be substantiated. The St. Simonites produced operative schemes. Lansbury affected a breezy disregard for plans and the details of policy. His last book, “The Way to Peace,” contains a phrase which was the keynote of his approach to all questions. He appeals to all who could adopt "broad principles of action and leave the general plan and details” to look after themselves. It was characteristic of Lansbury and led him to association with all sorts of hole-and-corner reformers and movements with a mission. To Lansbury it was sufficient to possess the urge and the fervour to put the world right.

Lansbury’s “principles of action” were so broad that his activities gained support from the most diverse quarters. He was one of those few Labour leaders whom those masters of scurrilous invective, the official Communists, refrained from attacking. He was "dear Mr. Lansbury” to thousands in the drawing rooms of the minor gentry. He was a lay preacher in the Church of England, and though of the High Church persuasion he was unique in that his broad principles straddled the gaps between the High, Low, and the Broad sections of the English Church, just as they managed to straddle the apparent extremes in the politics of the Labour Movement. Each section could claim Lansbury for its own. In his books, on the platform, in the pulpit, Lansbury preached a mixture of Christian Humanism and politics that could not be identified as anything particular. It was “Lansburyism.” Gossip (possibly originating among the sardonic unbelievers) had it that Lansbury, in his earlier days as a public figure, was a member of the free-thinking National Secular Society! The story may be false. But it could quite conceivably be true. What could there be in the “broad principles” of Lansburyism that could not approve the ethical principles and the human object of the N.S.S.? If Lansbury swallowed the S.D.P. without qualm or consciousness of inconsistency, then the N.S.S. pill needed no sugar. It would be pointless to argue Lansbury's sincerity. Where the capacity for self- delusion is so complete and rides unchecked there can be no test for sincerity. It is meaningless. It says something, perhaps, for the character of the man that he could address a hard-bitten audience of workers on strike in the soul-saving language of the Salvationist without embarrassment to himself or to his audience.

By all reasonable standards George Lansbury should have been shocked by the militant atheism and the methods of the Bolshevist regime. He was not shocked. He visited Russia and talked with Lenin, saw the baby creches, and came back and wrote an eulogy of Russia. He only saw what he wanted to see. According to the “broad principles” and contempt for “details” which constituted Lansburyism sufficient was it that the will to change things existed. Of the historic significance of the Russian movement it would be flattering to Lansbury to assume that he understood anything about it.

His services to the Labour Party were among that Party’s assets in the formative period of the movement. The needs of the early Labour Party demanded missionary zeal and ability, not the qualities of the administrator. Lansbury fulfilled the need and without doubt made many thousands of sympathisers for the Labour Party in the days when (curious thought) it had to make efforts to break down the opposition from the prejudiced and the respectable. His zeal for causes brought a great deal of advertisement to himself and to the Labour Party. In the earlier days this was not unwelcome, to the latter, though in later years it brought a priggish rebuke for “Poplarism” from the pompous MacDonald. In 1912 he resigned his parliamentary seat in the Bow and Bromley division of Poplar and refought it on the Suffragette issue. He lost it. Despite his temperament he was not without shrewdness. On private support he managed to run the Daily Herald independently of the official Labour Party until it was taken over by Odhams and the T.U.C. Against it in pre-1914 years the official organ of the Labour Party, the Citizen, failed to survive. In 1932, by accident, because almost all the leaders of the Labour Party had lost their seats in the landslide against them in the election of 1931, he became the Party’s parliamentary leader. His reign was short. Political and international developments were driving the Labour Party into support for war and into conflict with Lansbury’s pacifism. After a brutal speech by Bevin accusing him of “hawking his conscience from conference to conference,” Lansbury lost the leadership. He was finished. And out went another leader. Another cruel lesson was driven home to him and to thousands who accepted his standards—the lesson that events mould men and movements despite their will.

The Labour Party will have little need or scope for future Lansburys. It will need men of a different calibre to attempt to prevent the disintegration which the future holds for it.

If Lansbury’s life teaches anything it teaches the futility of the reformism which was not only his but was the essential doctrine of the Labour Party. After half a century of fervent reformist zeal he left the world with a working class facing all the old problems existing more intense and numerous than ever.

Labourism and reformism, of which Lansbury was the embodiment, will be as ineffectual in facing those problems in the future as Lansbury’s peace talks with Hitler were in preventing the war.
Harry Waite