Sunday, March 11, 2018

Letters: Roll Call of Defeats not Victories (1997)

Letters to the Editors from the January 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Roll Call of Defeats not Victories

The Socialist Standard berates Greens for proposing that modified capitalism can be environmentally friendly in a manner which tars all Greens with the same brush. Although the Green Party conference recently voted to focus spending on lobbying rather than Direct Action (i.e. “asking” capitalists to be greener) this stance is not true across the board. I have met Socialists and Anarchists who are ’greens’ in that they make ecology their specialist subject and/or take part in direct action.

I must say in passing that I see the world through class spectacles and I have to grit my teeth when obliged to share my earth-mover with landed gentry.
James Nash 

We do not tar all those who are concerned about the environment with the same brush. After all, we come into this category too (have you read our pamphlet Ecology and Socialism?). The difference between us and most of the others is that we are concerned about other problems besides the environment and that we think capitalism can never be modified to work in an environmentally-friendly way. Under capitalism profits and profit-making must come first before all other considerations, including protecting the environment and maintaining a sustainable ecological balance.

Our criticism is aimed at those Greens who think capitalism can be modified in this way, in particular the reformist Green Party but also those in bodies like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace who act on the same assumption.

It is true that the Green Party does offer an alternative to existing corporate and state capitalism, but this turns out to be the impossible dream of a return to an idealised version of small-scale capitalism, with co-operatives and small businesses producing for local markets.

Lobbying groups like Friends of the Earth avoid proposing any alternative to existing capitalism: they assume in practice that this form of capitalism will continue eternally and see their role as merely to lobby within it for new laws and regulations to protect the environment.

Lobbying can, occasionally, achieve a concession but we are talking about very minor adjustments which make no difference whatsoever to the overall functioning of capitalism as a system that has to put profit-making before all other considerations including the environment.

You seem to be suggesting that, unlike the Green lobbyists, the Green Direct Actionists are not reformist, but don’t be so sure. Some do just see direct action, i. e. physical pressure, as a means of backing up reformist lobbying to get some law changed. The others, apparently. really do think that they can coerce the state, but there are no facts to back this up.

Direct action can sometimes work against soft targets (such as hunts or shops selling furs) but it has never worked against the state. It has never stopped a single nuclear power station being built, nor a single motorway or by-pass. Twyford Down. M1, Newbury, this is a roll call of defeats not victories. Under these circumstances continually banging your head against a police truncheon is not an intelligent course of action, even if this might give rise to the illusion that you are not a reformist who wants to modify capitalism.

The intelligent action for Greens is to work towards building up a majority to end capitalism, the root cause of pollution and environmental destruction.

A new way of thinking?

Dear Editors,

In his generally very positive review of We Can Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life (Socialist Standard, September, 1996), Stan Parker neglects to mention the central thesis of my book.

I argue that capitalism and Marxism are based upon the same paradigm of history and the same view of human beings. In this paradigm, economic forces drive history and economic development is the basis of human development Self-interest is seen as the primary human motivation. The great mass of people are viewed as either passive victims or beneficiaries of the actions of élites. It is not possible to build a democratic society based on this paradigm.

In my view, Marxism has failed. Communist regimes which, rightly or wrongly, claimed Marx as their progenitor have collapsed. Marxist parties in advanced capitalist countries, that is, operating in those societies which Marxism would lead one to believe would be best suited to the growth of Marxist movements, have become marginalized or reformist or both. The idea of global revolution against capitalism, to create a new society based on cooperation and sharing, is in retreat even while such a transformation is more and more necessary.

In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that scientists do not abandon a paradigm or model for understanding the world, no matter how much that model may seem to have failed, unless there is a new paradigm to take its place. The purpose of We Can Change the World is to propose a new way of thinking about people and society, a new paradigm, which makes revolution possible.

I maintain that revolution is possible because most people are already engaged in a struggle against capitalism to create a better world. Most people in their everyday lives struggle against a culture based on inequality, competition, and exploitation to create relationships based on equality and solidarity. This effort is not pure or unmixed in people's lives, and people may not be aware of the meaning of their efforts. But whatever equal and committed relationships people have in their lives, they have created them by struggle against capitalist culture. The smallest acts of kindness and the most collective arts of class struggle are on a continuum of struggle to humanize the world.

The revolutionary transformation of society is the only possible fulfillment of the goals and struggles of the great majority of people. The first condition for success in their effort is that people be aware of the significance of their struggles.

I counterpose my views to Marxism, which accepts the capitalist idea that self-interest is the fundamental human motivation. As Marx put it. "every individual seeks only his particular interest.” Marx believed with the capitalists that history is driven by economic development, which in turn is driven by greed. Unlike the capitalists, however, Marx maintained that greed leads not to permanence but to revolution.

Marx’s model of history does not see working people as conscious agents of change who act on the basis of anti-capitalist values. Instead Marxism sees working people primarily as dehumanized and passive victims of economic forces who. when they are moved to action, are moved by these same forces. Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary party was his attempt to supply Marx’s idea of revolution with a human subject with disastrous results.

There is one other point on which I would like to comment. I was taken aback by the picture of Mao accompanying the review of my book, and can’t imagine what are the "worryingly approving comments about the Cultural Revolution" to which the review refers. In fact I show that the Cultural Revolution was a"pseudo-revolution which triggered a real revolution" against the Communist Party, and that this real revolution was defeated by its ambivalence about Mao and its failure to attack him until he drowned the revolution in blood. The Mao portrait and caption are very misleading, and marred an otherwise positive review.
Dave Stratman

We can agree with much of what you say about the form the revolution against capitalism must take. Our problem is that we don’t recognise the picture you paint of Marx.

1. It is true that in his early philosophical writings dating from the time he was becoming a socialist. Marx did tend to see the working class as a completely alienated and downtrodden mass that needed to be liberated with the help of others— himself and his fellow students of Hegel. But he soon abandoned this naive position in favour of the principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself', a position he held and applied for the rest of his life. So, contrary to your claim, Marx did see "working people as conscious agents of change”.

In any event, one of the meanings he attached to the term "alienation” in his early philosophical writings was, besides workers’ alienation (separation) from the product of their labour, their alienation from their nature as humans, their alienation from their humanity. This implies a position close to yours: that humans are not just the passive product of their circumstances, but also have an essential nature which can be suppressed but which will keep coming to the surface.
In fact, like you, Marx thought that the essential nature of humans was that they were social, co-operative beings seeking to co-operate to satisfy their needs and that this social need was frustrated by capitalism which sought to reduce them to isolated social atoms competing against each other. The passage you quote from Marx (taken from a footnote in the German Ideology) that "every individual seeks only his particular interest” is not. as you suggest, a statement of Marx’s view of what motivates humans under all circumstances. It is a reference to what is thought of as happening under conditions of bourgeois political democracy, i. e. under capitalism. Marx's point was that this was what happens under capitalism because under it there is no common, social interest.

This—the theory that humans act on the basis of “possessive individualism"—is of course the capitalist “paradigm" of human behaviour. But it wasn't Marx’s and is certainly not ours.

2. Marx's materialist conception of history (which we agree with) does have some of the features you attribute to it, in particular the primacy of economic factors. Marx held that it was the way humans were organised to meet their (material) needs that was the basis of human society; and that the form of human society changed as the way humans changed, in response to technological developments. the way they were organised to meet their needs. However, this was not an automatic process independent of human will and action. Since the break-up of the earliest, hunter-gatherer societies that had been based on common ownership, production for use and distribution according to need, human societies had been divided into classes, with one class benefiting from the economic arrangements on which society was based. Technological developments changed these arrangements and brought into being a new class with an interest in struggling for the spread of the new arrangements which benefited them. This was a political and ideological as well as an economic struggle.

The ideological struggle, although a reflection of an underlying conflict of economic interest. was not necessarily perceived to be this by those engaged in it. In other words, they were not necessarily hypocrites claiming to be pursuing some high ideal as a smokescreen for pursuing their less noble economic interest. In most cases they really did believe in the ideals they pursued. This was why Marx remarked that you can’t judge a historical epoch by what those engaged in it said they were struggling about (religion, honour, or whatever). His materialist conception of history accepted that humans were motivated by ideals. His point was that the ideals for which people struggled and died had, ultimately, an origin in society's economic arrangements, not that everybody always acted out of conscious economic self-interest.

3. In a sense in history up to now "the great mass of people" hove been "either passive victims or beneficiaries of the actions of élites”. But to claim that Marx held that the change from capitalism to socialism would take place on this basis too is a complete travesty of the real position. Consider, for instance, the following well-known passage from The Communist Manifesto: "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities; the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority”.

Marx drew a distinction between the socialist revolution (which would end class society, and emancipate all humanity) and all previous revolutionary changes in society (which replaced one élite by another). In philosophical terms, Marx saw the socialist revolution as a great act of human liberation, one that would precisely free humanity from the sway of economic and historical forces which had a social origin in the way they were organised to meet their needs but which they could not control and had to submit to.

In freeing humans from the sway of these forces, socialism would allow them to control their own collective destiny, to act as rational beings consciously creating the life they freely chose (which was the ideal of 18th and 19th century philosophy). This was why Marx, who was steeped in this philosophical tradition, sometimes talked of real history—as the acts of free, rational beings— as only beginning with the end of class society. Similarly. what is generally called history—the period of class societies—became for him "prehistory", because during it humans were the passive victims of forces beyond their control.

This is all rather philosophical but it does show that Marx did not adhere to the "paradigm" of the change from capitalism to socialism you attribute to him. Lenin did and, in fact, if everywhere where you wrote "Marx" and "Marxism" you had written “Lenin" and "Leninism" your letter would have been spot on.

4. This does not mean that the working class majority that alone can establish socialism will be motivated exclusively by the ideal of liberating humanity. Since the socialist revolution will be a conscious revolution they will of course be aware of this and this will be an inspiring motive. At the same time, as human beings with material needs to be met. they will be motivated by the desire to establish a society in which these material needs will be met as a matter of course.

This is nothing to be ashamed of, as your approach tends to suggest, but is a quite reasonable and rational course of action. The same can be said about the economic struggles workers engage in under capitalism; these generally do have the aspects of solidarity, cooperation and simple humanity that you mention but they are also, even mainly, about those involved trying to satisfy their material needs better. To say this, and even that this is the primary motivation in most strikes, is not to demean them. It is not being greedy to want to satisfy your material needs; it is being natural since unless they are met you can’t enjoy life in other ways. Humans don't live by bread alone, but we can't live without it.

5. We are sorry if the photo of Mao accompanying our review of your book was inappropriate. The “worryingly approving comments” on the Cultural Revolution we had in mind was not that you showed any sympathy for Mao (which you didn't) but precisely the passage you quote about it being a "pseudo-revolution which triggered a real revolution". It was a pseudo-revolution. but it didn't trigger any “real revolution". As far as we are concerned, the whole episode was a struggle between various rival élites which had nothing to do with the working class.

These Foolish Things . . . Harvest (1997)

The Scavenger column from the January 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Harvest 1

A recent US study has found that for every dollar spent on foreign aid for rice research, the US got back $17 in better varieties for its own crop. Aid dollars for wheat research realised 190-fold returns, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Guardian, 24 October.

Harvest 2

“I do it because I would prefer to die than see the rest of my family starve,” said Sabir Saleh, a middle-aged man who used to be a farmer but is now too poor to hire a tractor to plough his land. Every morning he goes out into the minefields laid around Penjwin, a village in northern Iraq shattered by fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. Mr Saleh looks for one mine in particular, the Italian made Valmara, one of the most lethal anti-personnel mines in existence. It is not easy to spot, because its five khaki-coloured prongs look like dried grass. Pressure on any one of them causes the Valmara to jump to waist height and explode, spraying 1.200 ball bearings over a range of 100 yards. “I defuse the mine with a piece of wire.” said Mr Saleh. “Then I unscrew the top of it and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinar (about 75 pence) to a shop in Penjwin.” Independent on Sunday, 20 October.

Our friendly bobby

Two policemen have been accused of abducting a homeless old woman who had been sheltering in a terminal at Heathrow airport . They are said to have bundled her into a van and dumped her 25 miles away on a golf course at midnight. In December last year an officer was reported for attacking a down-and-out with his American-style baton. A pilot spotted the officer hitting the man five times, causing head injuries which required hospital treatment. Mail on Sunday, 20 October.

Trust the market!

There are 40,000 programmers working as temps in the UK alone—a figure that has doubled in the last two years. Basic pay is £200 a day, a total wage bill for British industry of at least £2 billion a year and. because there’s still a shortage, rates are climbing . . . Contract programmers might seem risky and expensive, but they’re better and cheaper than the alternative . . . Sharing the available bodies helps meet the demand for their skills. But this is only half the solution—the skills gap in the industry is getting worse, according to a depressing report from the Institute of Data Processing Management called “The End is Nigh”. The report says that too few programmers are being trained—partly as a result of companies relying on contractors . . . “New programmers are not coming through and there’s still a shortage for the older languages. Training for contractors is pretty rare, so they can't develop new skills.” Guardian, 7 November.

Poor outlook

Nearly one household in six in Britain is living below the poverty line, putting the country on a par with some of the poorest states in the European Union, according to the The Cohesion Report, published by the European Commission, 6 November.