Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Letters: The Slump (1999)

Letters to the Editors from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Slump

Dear Editors,

Concerning "Boom goes bust in Asia" (Socialist Standard, October) Robert Bremner in New Left Review 229 points out how the unwillingness of capitalists to write off earlier investments inhibits the purging of excess capacity and overvalued capital. I too think that a 1929-type slump is required if there is to be a sustained recovery. I detect growing opposition on the Right to rescue packages, but the write-off fear factor works against this.

Re the October editorial, if I did not know you better I would be accusing you of predicting the collapse of capitalism. George Sosos's wrong if he is going that far, although I question whether he is. Unless a 1929 repeat leads to the appropriate reaction from the working class, you can safely bet on the continuation of capitalism. Betting on what happens next in the short term is a totally different matter of course, but while many are seeking shelter, many fund managers and others are still having to make decisions which cannot be any better than actually betting on what happens next.

Ted Edge, 
Lytham St Annes

As you point out, of course we don’t believe that capitalism is going to collapse. As we pointed out in the pamphlet we brought out in the course of the 1930s' slump, Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse, capitalism will stagger on from crisis to crisis until the working class organises consciously and politically to bring it to an end and replace it with socialism.

As to Soros (above), since he always talks about the "collapse" or "disintegration" of "the global capitalist system", he probably has in mind a regression to a collection of "national capitalist systems" behind their own tariff walls and exchange controls—Editors

All together?

Dear Editors,

Having just received, and read, an information pack on the Socialist Party I am still convinced that many members of other parties share your basic aspirations. Obviously there exist differences of opinion and interpretation of Marxist philosophy, but I fail to comprehend why the apparent hostility exists towards what I would describe as other left-oriented movements.

As long as those seeking radical reform of society continue to remain divided (on party lines) there, in my opinion, will be no change in the present order. The capitalist classes are totally unscrupulous as to whom they form bonds to oppress and exploit the working class. Can't we all unite under one banner and, if necessary, seek compromise amongst different factions who basically share one common goal?

Christopher Wilkins, 

We wouldn’t deny that members of many parties, and of none, share the "basic aspiration" of wanting a better world. Where the disagreements begin is over the features of this better world, which we say can only be achieved on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources—our definition of the word socialism.

As you point out, there are others who say that their aim is socialism, or make reference to the works of Marx, but few of them mean by socialism what we (and Marx) do. For them "socialism" means state ownership and control, which in our view amounts only to state capitalism. So why should we—how can we—get together with people who don’t have the same aim as us?

As to the much smaller group of people out there who define socialism in the same way as us, they generally disagree with the way we advocate achieving it, i.e. the democratic political action, via the ballot box, of a majority of conscious socialists. Some of them favour violent insurrection or a general strike or a minority dictatorship as a means to get socialism. Others favour going off into the wilderness and setting up communities or advocate reforms they claim are steps on the way to socialism.

We certainly think that all those who want socialism in the sense of a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of resources should get together in a single organisation that concentrates on advocating socialism and nothing else. Our message to them is stop entertaining illusions about minority action or reforms and join us in creating a bigger socialist party—Editors

Socialist Pioneers

Dear Editors,

I would like to add a few additional comments to Colin Skelly's interesting article, "Pioneers of Socialism" (Socialist Standard, November 1998).

William Morris joined the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, [not] in 1883. However, on 27 December 1884 Morris, together with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, E. Belfort Bax and a number of other members of the SDF council, resigned and issued a statement giving their reasons, for "a body independent of the Social Democratic Federation". They said: "We have therefore set on foot an independent organisation, the Socialist League, with no intention of acting in hostility to the Social Democratic Federation, but determined to spread the principles of Socialism."

Unfortunately, as Colin Skelly noted, the Socialist League was taken over by a group of anarchists whose main aim was the destruction of the state rather than the establishment of socialism, which would in fact have resulted in the demise of the state anyway. (For a detailed account of the rise and fall of the Socialist League, mainly from an anarchist viewpoint, see The Slow Burning Fuse by John Quail.)

The main weakness of the Socialist League was that it "had no intention of acting in hostility" to the SDF. And after its demise, a number of its former members returned to the Federation. Even Eleanor Marx held economics classes at 337 Strand, London, the head office of the SDF, during the 1890s. Indeed, it was at the economics classes held by Eleanor Marx, in 1895 and 1896, that Jack Fitzgerald and a number of other members of the SDF learnt their Marxian economics, which ultimately led to their expulsion, or resignation, from that organisation and subsequent founding of the Socialist Party. When the Socialist Party was formed, its members made certain that their Declaration of Principles would include a hostility clause against all other parties (such as the SDF) who advocated "palliatives", not socialism.

Peter E. Newell,

Whatever Happened to 'The Viet Cong'? (2017)

From the November 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the 1960s leftwing demonstrators used to chant 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' and 'Victory to the Vietcong'. We look at what sort of society emerged following their victory in 1976.

In 1956, during a brief relaxation of censorship, a Vietnamese literary journal published a story by Tran Duy entitled The Giants. The giants in the story are created by God to help mankind fight the devils, but they end up trampling and killing more people than devils. The allegory was readily deciphered: the giants were the 'communist' party leaders, while the devils were the hated French colonialists, recently defeated at Dien Bien Phu (1954).

The history of the 'communist' movement in Vietnam cannot be summarised in a short article, but the timeline will help the reader place events in context.

Top-down organisation
The Vietnamese 'communist' movement emerged from the struggle against French colonial rule as a top-down organisation. The leadership was a self-appointed and self-perpetuating group from the very start. The process of party formation began among Vietnamese emigrés in Canton – the French Sûreté (security police) made it too risky to place the central leadership inside the country. In 1925 Ho Chi Minh, backed by the Comintern, put together a group called the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League, personally recruiting its members and deciding which of them should sit on its Central Committee (CC). In 1930 the League merged with other small groups to form the Indochinese Communist Party, later renamed the Vietnam Workers' Party or Lao Dong.

As with other vanguard parties of the Bolshevik type, the internal functioning of the Vietnamese 'communist' party has always been guided by the principle of 'democratic centralism'. Lower bodies are strictly subordinate to higher ones. Debate is allowed only until a definite policy is adopted, after which all members must support and implement that policy.

In practice, local party branches in Vietnam in the 1930s seem to have had considerable autonomy due to the difficulty of maintaining communication between them and the CC in China. However, once the leadership returned to Vietnam in 1945 control was tightened.

The activity of rank-and-file party members has almost always been confined to tasks assigned from above. On training courses they might be invited to raise objections to the policy of the leaders, but the purpose of this is merely to convince them that the leadership is right. Only during the brief thaws of 1956 and the late 1980s have they had greater freedom to criticize party policy.
At higher levels there has been freer discussion at certain periods, permitting the emergence of conflicting factions. (The most persistent though not the only important factional division has been that between supporters of a pro-China orientation and advocates of closer ties with European 'socialist' countries.) Such periods, however, alternate with others in which a narrow clique imposes rigid control. Thus the 'anti-revisionist' purge of the mid-1960s, in which hundreds of critical party and government officials and military officers were imprisoned without charge, inaugurated the 'rule of the two Le's' – Le Duan (general secretary) and Le Duc Tho (head of the CC's Organisation Department, in control of appointments, and negotiator at the Paris talks). This was just one of recurrent purges that frighten people and inhibit debate.

Relations with other political groups

The 'communist' party was not alone in fighting against French rule. There were also various 'bourgeois' nationalist parties, Trotskyist organisations and religious sects. At times the 'communists' judged it expedient to cooperate with this or that group. At other times they ruthlessly suppressed rivals who did not seem susceptible to their control, even resorting to assassinations and betrayal to the Sûreté (also a source of funds).  

Especially dramatic were relations between Stalinists and Trotskyists. In the early to mid-1930s the 'communists' in Saigon cooperated with local Trotskyists – a practice denounced by the Comintern in 1937 and Ho in 1939. After the Vietminh took power in Hanoi in 1945, Trotskyists were hunted down as 'traitors' and they were almost all killed.
A sole survivor, Ngo Van, escaped just in time to France, where he wrote a valuable memoir (In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary, AK Press, 2010). His political views evolved in exile: he rejected Bolshevism and became a council communist.
The 'communists' again cooperated with other 'patriotic' forces in the fight against the Americans. Most members of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the South were not 'communists' (the moniker 'Vietcong' – Vietnamese Communists – is misleading). After victory the NLF was suppressed (see: Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, Vintage Books, 1986). NLF veterans remained a disgruntled group in society. Taking advantage of the thaw of 1986, they set up a Club of Former Resistance Fighters, with a journal entitled Spirit of Resistance.    
Outer and inner power elites

Within the party we can identify an outer power elite of 150–200 members of the party's Central Committee (CC) and an inner power elite of 15–20 top leaders – members of the Politburo and occupants of important positions in the CC apparatus. The top leaders have chauffeur-driven cars and live in luxurious villas with guards, servants, and personal libraries. Other members of the CC have lesser though still substantial privileges, such as use of a special store in Hanoi stocked with goods not available to ordinary mortals and a spacious apartment (most people live in very crowded conditions).

There is also a graduated system of access to information. Certain periodicals are published specially for the power elite. A digest of the world press has a fairly wide circulation. Some documents like Politburo minutes, however, are restricted to the inner elite.

Ho Chi Minh

A few words on 'Uncle Ho'. He was the creator and symbol of Vietnamese 'communism' but he was not a dictator like Stalin or Mao, nor did he have any pretensions as a theorist. His power declined over time. In her novel The Zenith, Duong Thu Huong portrays the aging Ho as virtually a prisoner of his colleagues. Like Lenin, after death he was embalmed and placed on public display in a mausoleum in defiance of his expressed wishes (he wanted to be cremated, just as Lenin wanted to be buried). His last testament was published but in censored form (thus his call for a moratorium on the land tax was deleted).   

Doi moi

After Le Duan's death in 1986 the Vietnamese leaders embarked on a policy called doi moi, meaning 'renovation'. Initially, like Gorbachev's perestroika, this was envisaged as a process of political as well as economic reform. Later, wishing to avoid the fate of the Soviet elite, they switched to the Chinese strategy of encouraging private enterprise and foreign investment while consolidating the power structure.

As we have seen, the old state-capitalist system had its inequalities. However, the new mixed system of state and private capitalism has generated inequalities that are more extreme and, perhaps above all, more conspicuous. This has given rise to feelings of nostalgia for the old days. In particular, the period of the war against America, for all its hardships and suffering, is recalled as a time of sharing and mutual aid.
I was told of a man who was surprised one day to find on his doorstep someone who had served with him in the same unit. His pleasure turned into shame when his old comrade-in-arms told him that he was destitute and begged him to take him in as a servant. He said that he was not asking for money: he would be satisfied with food to eat and a roof over his head.

The more things change...

The Vietnamese Revolution certainly brought changes in the composition, structure and ideology of the ruling class. But what changes did it bring to working people?

Many changes were more apparent than real. Here are a couple of examples.
One of the main demands raised by 'communists' and others under French rule was abolition of the corvée – a feudal institution that made peasants toil without pay on public works for a certain number of days per year. Under the Vietminh the same practice continued under a new name – citizen labour service.
Again, after 'land reform' (1954–56) peasants no longer had to pay rent to a landlord for the land they tilled. But instead they had to pay a land tax to the state. And the amount of the land tax happened to be about the same as the rent previously paid to the landlord. Later, after the collectivisation of agriculture, the same surplus was extracted by the state from the collective farms.
As the proverb says: 'The more things change, the more they remain the same.'
The French colonialists and their American successors placed little value on the lives of the 'natives'. But the 'communist' leaders too placed little value on the lives of their people. Even if one accepts the dubious propositions that the country had to be reunited and that this could be achieved only by war, the goal could have been reached at a much lower price in blood. For instance, the 'Easter offensive' of 1972, which cost the lives of almost an entire cohort of poorly trained 16-year-old boys, served no rational strategic objective. It was already clear that the US was withdrawing – all that was needed was a little more patience.
Impoverished by decades of war and devastation, Vietnam now lies alongside Bangladesh on the bottom tier of the global economic hierarchy, with wage levels only one half of those now prevailing in China. Chased out at such vast cost, the 'imperialists' are welcomed back to exploit Vietnamese workers and resources as foreign investors.    



1880s French complete conquest of Indochina

1925 Ho Chi Minh sets up Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League (VRYL) in Canton

1930 VRYL merges with other groups to form Indochinese Communist Party (ICP)

1941 Ho creates Vietnam Independence League (Vietminh)

1945 Japan surrenders. Vietminh takes power in Hanoi. Ho proclaims Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). ICP officially disbands

1945–54 Resistance War Against France

1951 ICP reappears as Vietnam Workers' Party (Lao Dong)

1954 Geneva Agreement divides Vietnam into northern zone (DRV) and southern zone (Republic of Vietnam)

1954–56 'Land reform' in DRV

1959 Collectivisation of agriculture begins in DRV

1960 National Liberation Front (Vietcong) established in South

1960–75 Resistance War Against America

1969 Ho dies. Le Duan becomes general secretary of party Central Committee

1976 Country reunified as Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1977 Collectivisation of agriculture begins in South

1978 Vietnam invades Cambodia

1979 Border war with China

1986 Le Duan dies. Start of doi moi (renovation)

1988 De-collectivisation of agriculture legalized

Looking Forward (1943)

From the July 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard

What sort of world awaits the working class after the war? Will it be a brand new world free from class privilege and wage-slavery; a world of social equality, security and happiness? The so-called progressives of all political colours have indulged in unlimited crystal-gazing, but no tangible blessings for the workers have emerged out of their Utopian vapourings. Certainly, President Roosevelt has said that he is looking forward to a world freed from want, but he carefully defines it as "economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peace-time life for its inhabitants." (Message to Congress, January 6th, 1941.) So, after all, we are not going to have the common ownership in the means of life, and production for use; merely "economic understanding."

The President also said that he stood for the ending of special privileges for the few, though he did not propose the abolition of rent, interest and profit. It is quite evident that Roosevelt does not consider the exploitation of one class by another as a "special privilege." To him and his supporters the making of profits is a necessary condition for progress and civilisation. In the same message to Congress he also expressed himself in favour of bringing more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We can, therefore, expect, as he expects, that in the new world where want is to be abolished, there will also exist large numbers of elderly working-class paupers and jobless dole-drawers.

In another celebrated message, this time to I.L.O., held in. New York in 1941, he observed: "If that world is to be one in which peace is to prevail, there must be a more abundant life for the masses of the people in all countries. There are so many people in this world who have never been adequately fed, clothed and housed. By undertaking to provide a decent standard of living for these millions, the free peoples of the world can furnish employment for every man or woman who seeks a job."

We think the President is mistaken. There are certain facts he has overlooked. Firstly, what the workers receive as wages, high or low, represents only a part of what they have produced. Secondly, assuming a higher standard of living for these inadequately provided millions, the resulting increase in the speed and efficiency of industry would leave the workers in a relatively worse position, and suffering conditions of more acute insecurity. Experience has already proven that an increasing demand for goods will not necessarily prevent increasing unemployment, and the prospects of employment for every man and woman who seeks a job are a remote possibility under capitalism. Employers are only willing 'to give the workers more wages when they can anticipate more profits out of them, and they are not prepared to allow production beyond the point where it ceases to be profitable. Surely, the President must know that in his own country, where wages are the highest in the world, unemployment and starvation were prevalent!

Examining the more concrete pronouncements of American spokesmen, one can see their anxiety to establish post-war conditions wherein their goods will be able to penetrate to every country in the world. For example, Mr. J. G. Winant, speaking at Liverpool University, November 26th, 1941, said: "Divergencies between Great Britain and the United States might easily arise if each country insisted on becoming as self-sufficient as possible in respect of producing goods of outstanding importance in war-time. This policy would necessitate the production at high cost within one country of goods which could be produced at much lower cost in the other country, and this would involve the erection of serious obstacles to trade." In plain words, Mr. Winant demands a free field and no favour, on behalf of American capitalists. On the other hand, British interests, being at a disadvantage with their American rivals, prefer to be reticent on this important subject. No doubt, after the war, they will become very voluble, as their interests may determine.

Another gentleman, Milo Perkins, Executive Director of the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare, in a speech on May 25th, 1942, delivered himself of the following:
   "The greatest untapped markets industrial capitalism has ever known will open up before us. Their development will be the one hope for our profit system. Industrial capitalism cannot survive without those markets. Of Course, it won't be easy. . . . There will be the problem of how to get purchasing power into the hands of potential customers so that they can become real customers. . . ."
He does not say exactly how all this is to be done, but he dwells on the virtues of “faith in the future of our country . . .  a new buoyancy . . .  a sense of adventure."

Mr. Churchill's recent speech gives a good pointer to what the workers may expect when the blood-letting is finished. He said: 
". . . we must beware of attempts to over-persuade or even coerce His Majesty's Government to bind themselves or their unknown successors in conditions which no one can foresee, and which may be years ahead, to impose great new expenditure on the State without any relation to the circumstances which might prevail at that time, and to make them pledge themselves to particular schemes without relation to other extremely important aspects of our post-war needs. . . . Therefore, I tell you round your firesides to-night that I am resolved not to give or to make all kinds of promises and tell all kinds of fairy tales to you who have trusted me and gone with me so far." (Daily Telegraph, March 22nd.)
Thus our masters, through their spokesman, are here saying quite plainly that they don't intend to give the workers anything now, and that they will not bind themselves to any definite promises for the future.

The motto of the Curzon family, "Let Curzon hold what Curzon has," is applicable to the whole of the property owning class, and it must necessarily be so for obvious reasons.

Now contrast Mr. Churchill's cautious utterances with the free and easy attitude of Sir Kingsley Wood on the occasion last year when he asked for another thousand million pounds for war purposes. He told the House that “our" total expenditure during this war has already reached the astronomical figure of £8,600 millions. He added: "This is by far the costliest war in history. But this does not dismay us. There will be no faltering in the financial or any other sphere." (Our italics.)

Let the workers consider for a moment the immense amount of wealth that is being expended for the purposes of destruction, and then let them reflect how easy it would be to organise society on a basis that would give each individual a civilised existence. The vastness of the wealth wasted on war is evidence of the vastness of the world's industrial and mineral resources.

As Mr. John G. Winant said to the miners of Durham on June 6th, 1942: 
"What we want is not complicated. We have enough technical knowledge and organising ability to respond to this awakening of social conscience. We have enough courage. We must put it to use. When war is done, the drive for tanks must become a drive for houses. The drive for food to prevent the enemy from starving us must become a drive for food to satisfy the needs of all people in all countries. . . ."
But we might well ask Mr. Winant a few very pertinent questions. It was just as easy to build houses before the war as it is now to build tanks and battleships. Then why were those houses not built?

Mr. Winant can only reply that there was something fundamentally wrong, but he does not say what it is that is wrong. We can tell him. It is the private ownership in the means of life, and the fact that food and clothing and houses are primarily produced to make profits for the capitalists, and NOT to satisfy human wants. When the fields, the factories, the mines, and all the means of producing and distributing wealth are placed into the hands of society, only then will human wants set the machinery of industry into motion.