Friday, June 30, 2017

Russia 1917: As We Saw It (2017)

From the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

The 'usurper of the Socialist name' who was made Minister of War was Alexander Kerensky.

The position as we conceive it is as follows. The capitalists of Russia, long squirming under the irksome restrictions placed upon their expansion by the feudal nobles, found in the conditions arising out of the war, a situation full of promise and they proceeded to exploit it. The Russian Army, they calculated, essentially an army in arms under duress, could have no love for the powers that drove them to the shambles, while the people at large, groaning under the misery of the universal chaos, would accept the overthrow of the nobility with acclamation. So far they appear to have calculated correctly. They accomplished their coup d'├ętat.

Having got safely so far, of course, the Russian capitalists were greeted with the applause of their fellow capitalists the world over. But, as the history of many revolutions shows, the job is only half complete largely upon a disaffected army and people ― an army and people writhing under the torture of this cruellest of wars, naturally find it no easy matter to keep the war machine a fit and efficient instrument for further prosecuting the war.

The simple Russian soldier, once the hand of the militarist bully relaxed its grip upon his throat, gave expression to his real feelings with regard to the war by fraternising with the "enemy" by battalions, and by deserting in myriads. The simple Russian peasants, to whom "Russian aspirations in the Straits" was a meaningless phrase, and the pan-Slav question empty vapouring; to whom the enemy was the now deposed authority who had directed usurious taxation against them, holding their ungrown crops in mortgage to force them, broken and destitute, from their lands, offered no force moral or physical, to restrain the "unpatriotic" to the path of duty. Hence we find the Provisional Government engaged in the task of hunting around for some force wherewith to compel obedience to their commands, while the capitalist world looks on, its heart torn with anxious fears, wondering if they will find it. (. . . )

As in England and France and Germany the capitalist class have turned to the pseudo-Socialist and other labour fakers to aid them to their bloody victory, so in Russia the enemies of the working class find their agents in the ranks of the working-class leaders. Who fitter than a "Socialist" to harangue an undisciplined army? Who fitter than a "rebel" to lure other rebels from their rebellious ways? Who fitter than a "leader" of "democracy" to represent the shadow of democracy as the substance, and to inflame the "democratic" passions to the defence of liberties which do not exist? So they made a usurper of the Socialist name Minister for War, and sent him, hot-foot, to do work which no Socialist, in any country, could or would do.

So, having secured this agent to divide the workers, the Russian capitalists feel that they are strong enough for a bolder move, and have announced their intention of establishing a sort of travelling Courts with soldiers to execute their orders, though for the moment fear of the Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates Committees constrain them to hold their hands. Meanwhile they are straining every nerve to create a force, both of public opinion and military, powerful enough to strike at those who dare to challenge their right to rule, and when they have secured this, then the butchery will commence ― the real bloodshed of this revolution starts.

(Socialist Standard, June 1917. Full article can be read here.)

The Future Is Yours To Mould (1945)

From the January 1945 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Allied Powers have again asserted their supremacy and are ruthlessly stamping out the opposing forces. It has now become certain that victory is for the Allies on the Continent. As the conflict nears an end, the press, the pulpit and the radio prepare the minds of the people for things to come.

Let us cast our minds back to the “dark days,” when Britain stood alone with her “back to the wall." The capitalist class suddenly discovered there seemed to be some sort of inequality existing among the people of this fair isle (a startling discovery), and began to voice opinions such us, "Why should rich men's sons go to public schools and poor men's not? Why shouldn’t working men and women have a decent standard of living? As a matter of fact, why should there be any unemployed? By gad, sir, something must be done about it! But for this war being in the way, we might get on with the job immediately. Drat those Nazis! Let us all throw our weight on the oars and pull together until such time as we have rid ourselves of this menace."

So the workers fell in and pulled on the oars of the good ship “Kidology," sailing towards the ever-receding mirage of security and plenty.

The time for the pay-off is coining near, but there seems to be a change in the attitude of our saviours; their voices are weak, we can't hear them any more. The opinions of our masters and their henchmen have changed. Now it is, “We will have to work hard for the peace or else we can have no new order." No, your eyes have not deceived you; you did read in a newspaper that unless we find a foreign market for goods there will not be any employment for the working class. Yes, you also read that British shipping would be in a very bad position after the war. “What is this all about? Why, didn't someone say something about this before?"

Someone did tell you about it. The Socialist Party of Great Britain told you, as we told your fathers during and after the last war, that war solved no problems for the working class; that conditions after the war would be the same as before—nay, even worse. War is a product of this system of society, as unemployment is, and all the other miseries the working class are subjected to. No one is going to “save" the workers. No one is going to lead them into paradise. Your fathers fell for that tale after the last war. They left things to leaders, then sat back and waited. Whilst they waited in poverty, the rotten conditions got some of them and they drank themselves to death: others just died the natural death of a worker, in the workhouse.

You are young, fellow-worker—the future is yours to mould. Are you going to go on in the same old way as your fathers did, or are you going to make an effort to understand the world in which you live? Until you do, you are doomed. You are going to feel the cold, clammy hand of poverty in its worst form. You are going to know what means test investigation is: what it means to stand in a dole queue and wish to Christ you had never been born; see your children grow up and then be snatched from you, to go out and kill or be killed in a war where the bombs will be “better and more beautiful.” War is as sure to come under capitalism as day follows night.

It is quite simple to understand the fundamentals of Socialism. One doesn’t require an awful lot of study to realise there are two classes in society. You, fellow-worker, belong to the working class, the useful section of society— makes all the wealth. You build the palaces, the mansions whose labour, when applied to nature-given material, and the liners. You also build the rotten bug-walks you live in.

The other section—only a small fraction of the population—own and control all the means of living. Only when this section can find a market for their goods is the machinery of production set in motion. Only when this section can find a market for their goods do the working class find employment. When goods are piled high and no market is to be found, the workers are unemployed and go hungry. Goods are produced for profit, not for use.

War results from different sections of the international master class searching for places to dump goods, sources of raw material or trade routes. Whether the country of their birth has a large empire or none at all makes no difference to the working class. They have nothing to sell but their labour-power, which they sell to the highest bidder, the amount received in return is only enough to replace the workers’ energies and reproduce the species, that there may be someone to slave when they are thrown on the scrap-heap, incapable of acting their part as work beasts.

There is only one way by which the workers can escape the hell which they are subjected to, and that is to realise the only solution is Socialism—the common ownership of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people. Socialism will only be possible when the majority of the people understand and consciously organise to capture the powers of government, including the armed forces.

Fellow-worker, you have a duty to perform to your children. Your job is to seek knowledge and organise for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. In years to come, when your children ask you, "What did you do after the last war. Daddy?” don’t let it be said you hung your head in shame and said, "Nothing, Son.” Rather let it be said. "I fought along with my comrades to establish Socialism.” The world is yours to mould.
Bert Vallar

War as Terrorism (2012)

Book Review from the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just War. by Howard Zinn. Charta, €10.00.

Howard Zinn, who died in 2010, was a radical American activist and writer, author of A People’s History of the United States. This volume contains the text of a talk he gave in Rome in 2005, together with some striking photos by Moises Saman. Its strength lies in a combination of personal remarks and more general reflections.

Appalled by what he knew of fascism, Zinn volunteered for the US Army Air Force in 1943, and flew in bombing missions over continental Europe. But once the war was over he gradually came to question what he had been doing. Accounts of Hiroshima showed what the effects of the atomic bomb had been, and Zinn realised that when he helped to drop napalm on the French town of Royan, he was participating in the killing of children. The Second World War might seem to be the extreme case of a humanitarian war, but however just a war against fascism appeared to be, he and others ‘had become unthinking killers of innocent people’.

The defeat of Hitler and Mussolini did not lead to the end of militarism, as there were now two superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons. And war, Zinn argues, is but ‘the extreme form of terrorism’. The US attacks in recent years on Iraq and Afghanistan are motivated by a desire to control resources such as oil. So soldiers do not ‘give their lives for their country’: their lives are taken from them, not given, and this is in the service of the government and the rest of the ruling class. Governments use a combination of coercion and propaganda to get workers to fight for them.

Zinn quotes Albert Einstein: ‘Wars will stop when men refuse to fight’. More accurately, wars will stop when people no longer support the social system that gives rise to them and replace it with one where wars are a thing of the past. In this book at least, Zinn has little to say about how this might happen, though he does refer to a world ‘in which national borders are erased and we are truly one human family’.

So, a slim volume but an instructive one.
Paul Bennett

Class Dismissed - How TV Frames the Working Class (2012)

Film Review from the March 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s almost taken for granted that television doesn’t accurately reflect how we live, but it’s not always easy to articulate how it distorts the real world. Class Dismissed: How TV Frames The Working Class is a useful examination of the ways the goggle-box deceives us. The film was made in 2005 by Pepi Leistyna of the University of Massachusetts - Boston, and is easy enough to find on the internet. It only discusses American television, but the trends are recognisable elsewhere.

To follow the film, you have to tune in to the definitions of ‘class’ used. When its talking heads refer to the ‘working class’ they use the narrower meaning of people with low incomes, little power and less “cultural capital” (or what could be called sophistication). This is contrasted with ‘middle-class’ people who are a notch above on each of these scales. The ‘middle class’ is living the American Dream of gleaming affluence and clean-cut leisure.

According to Leistyna, ‘middle class’ characters on television are depicted as empowered, independent and sassy because the social and economic forces which often prevent these traits are downplayed. These characters only need to struggle against aspects of their personality which might stop them living the American Dream. Programme makers are less interested in showing issues relating to wider social forces or being dealt with collectively.

So, TV tells us how we should define success and that this is to be achieved individually, rather than through political action. An exception to these trends was Roseanne, an early nineties sitcom which retained some left-wing ideas thanks to the persistence of its show runner Roseanne Barr. However, even in this show, the family ‘made it’, and became wealthy. A British equivalent would be the Trotters becoming millionaires in Only Fools and Horses.

Leistyna gives another example of how ‘middle-class’ culture is shown on television in ways which hide wider problems: if a television show depicts a well-off black family, then this disguises the real inequalities that exist between communities. Programme makers would see it differently, of course. They would say that minorities can be shown in a positive way to challenge stereotypes and to improve how they are represented. However, Leistyna would reply that television only depicts successful characters from minority groups in ways compatible with ‘middle class’ values. He’s saying that television tolerates minorities as long as they are living that American Dream.

This depiction of those who have ‘made it’ differs from how ‘working-class’ people are presented on television. When a ‘middle-class’ character makes a mistake, it’s seen as an aberration from the confident, successful person they should be. When a ‘working-class’ character makes a mistake, it’s because that’s just what they’re like. Leistyna reels off a list of characteristics associated with ‘working-class’ people on television: bad taste, lack of intelligence, reactionary politics, poor work ethic and dysfunctional family values. Imagine a racist Homer Simpson who pushes Marge around, and you get an amalgamation of these traits. Leistyna describes how the ‘working class’ is portrayed as an underclass of hillbillies, rednecks and trailer trash whose lives are there to be ripped open on The Jerry Springer Show. Or its closest British counterpart The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Leistyna’s argument could be boiled down to saying that television reinforces ‘middle-class’ ideology as an attack on the working class. This is television as propaganda to sell the American Dream and distract us from thinking about how capitalism really works. While his argument has merit, it would be more accurate to say that the mindset Leistyna associates with a ‘middle class’ is just mainstream capitalist ideology. ‘Middle-class’ people are also alienated and exploited within capitalism, even if they don’t always have the same pressures as those lower down the social scale. The film ends by recognising that changing the ideology presented on television requires changing the society which creates that ideology. And that’s something else worth switching off your television for.
Mike Foster

Cooking the Books: Women, Work and Wages (2017)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
In an interview with the magazine section of the Mail of Sunday (26 March), the author and playwright Fay Weldon provocatively claimed that, through women going out to work,  'the feminist revolution' had led to 'halving the male wage, so it no longer supported a family.'
It is of course absurd to attribute women going out to work to feminism. That resulted from capitalism's need to overcome a labour shortage. In fact, if anything, it will have been women going out to work that led to the rise of feminism. In any event, there is nothing wrong with women going out to work, apart, that is, from under capitalism this being as wage slaves (Weldon's objection is the old-fashioned one that this means that children are brought up by nursery staff rather than their mothers).
This said, is there any substance in her claim that women going out to work has reduced the male wage? This is not as implausible as it might at first seem. In Marx's day and for many years after, when few married women went out to work, men's wages had to cover the cost of maintaining a wife and children. So, Marxian socialists defined the value of labour power as what it cost for a male worker to reproduce his working skills and also to maintain a family.
In time those administering capitalism came to realise that this meant that unmarried men were being paid too much, and a campaign was launched for 'family allowances' as a payment from the state to workers with children. The trade union movement was wary about this as they realised that this would exert a downward pressure on wages, by relieving employers of the need to include an element in wages to cover the cost of maintaining a family and raising a new generation of workers.
We in the Socialist Party had something to say on the subject in a pamphlet we brought out in 1943 Family Allowances: A Socialist Analysis. This endorsed the trade unions' reasoning, pointing out 'that once it is established that the children (or some of the children) of the workers have been 'provided for' by other means, the tendency will be for wage levels to sink to new standards which will not include the cost of maintaining such children.'
Once married women went out to work, drawn into it by capitalism's need to make a fuller use of those capable of working, the next logical economy for employers in the payment of wages would be to no longer pay married male workers enough to maintain a non-working wife. In this sense,  married women going out to work would exert a downward pressure on male wages.
Nowadays, the wage paid by employers has come to be enough to maintain only a single worker, whether man or woman, married or not. The norm now, for raising a family, is for both partners to go out to work and pay for this out of both their incomes. To this extent Weldon has a point but it is an exaggeration to say that male wages have been halved, if only because equal wages for men and women has yet to be achieved. It will, however, have had the long-run effect that wages will not have gone up as much as they would otherwise have done.
This is not an argument either against women going out to work or against equal pay, but rather one against the whole wages system under which workers, male and female, have to sell their working abilities for a wage or salary reflecting costs determined by market forces.