Thursday, September 6, 2018

Secret history of secrecy (1996)

Book Review from the October 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lobster special issue The Clandestine Caucus by Robin Ramsay £5.

This is an interesting and well-researched pamphlet into “anti-socialist campaigns and operations in the British Labour Movement since the war”. Having said this, the extent of the “anti-socialist” campaigns referred to is minimal, as what Ramsay is primarily concerned with are the manoeuvres of US and British capital against the left-wing of the Labour Party and the misnamed Communist Party of Great Britain. He claims that “the history of Britain’s union and labour movement is one of continuous conflict between socialist and anti-socialist wings”. But what is generally meant by this is the conflict between open supporters of the interests of the British capitalist class (from Bevin to Blair) and those who fancy themselves as a new ruling elite presiding over a system of state-run capitalism (the various radical poseurs and Leninists who make up the British Left).

The accounts of the involvement of the British and US security services in the British trade union movement are fascinating and Ramsay lifts the lid on a whole range of techniques used to shackle genuine trade union militancy and democracy, detailing the organisations set up by British and US capital with the aim of combating working-class self-activity. The ways in which the capitalist class manoeuvres on both a national and international level to ensure its political and economic hegemony is a difficult subject to approach given the highly secretive nature of many of its organisations, but Ramsay does a good job without ever giving in to the temptations posed by far-flung conspiracy theories. It is possible to develop an educated guess at the agendas of clandestine bourgeois outfits like the Bilderberg Group and the Pinay Circle, but Ramsay is more concerned with hard facts than speculation—and the evidence he uncovers is worrying enough.

There is a small slip on page 16, where one trade union militant is described as being “an active and anti-Stalinist member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain”. This could well be taken to mean that there could be such a thing asa Stalinist member of the Socialist Party, which—given our opposition to vanguard politics and dictatorship in all its forms—is of course ridiculous.
Dave Perrin

Real socialist journalism (1996)

Book Review from the October 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Journalism, Contributions to Commonweal 1885-1890 by William Morris (Thoemmes. £18.75.)

As is now well known William Morris was a socialist. From 1885-1890 he spoke at indoor and outdoor meetings throughout Britain for the Socialist League. He was also the editor of the League's official journal Commonweal. In this capacity, he not only contributed regular articles but also wrote a weekly column commenting on current events from a socialist point of view. Until now these comments have only been available to those with access to the bound volumes of Commonweal. His articles have already been published separately in a companion volume.

What makes these comments particularly interesting is that they reflect the basic position of the Socialist League, shared by Morris, that as capitalism could not be reformed to benefit the working class socialists should not waste their time campaigning either for reforms or to get people elected to parliament to press for them; they should rather concentrate exclusively on campaigning for socialism, with a view to building up a majority movement for it as rapidly as possible.

Morris’s name has often been hi-jacked by Labour MPs but in fact he was opposed to the whole idea of a parliamentary Labour Party. He thought that such a party would have to resort to unprincipled vote-catching to get into parliament and that once there it wouldn’t be able to do much for the workers and could end up helping the governing classes to govern.

Someone writing from this perspective is bound to throw a different light on the politics of the period 1885-1890 than can be found both in conventional history books and in the works of “Labour historians". It is this that makes this 670-page collection of short articles so fascinating.

The issue which dominated politics for most of this period was the Irish Question. When it opened Gladstone was the Prime Minister but he was twice defeated when he tried to get a Bill giving Home Rule to Ireland through Parliament. His Liberal Party in fact split over the issue with a section going over to the Tories.

The Tories and their Liberal Unionists allies won the July 1886 General Election. Lord Salisbury took over as Prime Minister. The new government which had already "played the Orange card’’ to get elected, proceeded to pursue a policy of "coercion” (the official word for it) in Ireland.

As a socialist Morris was naturally on the side of the exploited (in this case the Irish peasantry) against their exploiters and oppressors (the Anglo-Irish landlords and their protectors, the British government), but that did not mean that he supported the Irish Nationalists. Far from it.

Morris realised that the Irish Nationalists represented Irish capitalism and that, if successful, they would merely impose a "new tyranny" on the peasantry by turning them into "a fresh Irish proletariat to be robbed for the benefit of national capitalists''.

Morris was not opposed to “home rule" as such since the term could be used to describe the high degree of decentralised decision-making and self-administration that people living in a particular area would enjoy in socialism. Home Rule under capitalism, however, he regarded as something quite different; it would merely be a change of masters; "Undoubtedly when there is a parliament in Dublin the struggle of the Irish people for freedom will have to be begun again".

In his view, the most that could be said for it was that it would provide a framework within which the oppressed people in Ireland could come to see more quickly that the real conflict was not between “the Irish" and "the English” but between workers (of whatever nationality) and capitalists (of whatever nationality). It was for this reason (which turned out to be wrong) that Morris and the Socialist League were nevertheless prepared to go along with the proposal for Home Rule for Ireland.

Morris writes here on much else besides Ireland and the manoeuvrings at Westminster in connection with it. This was the period of the first demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, the fight to hold outdoor meetings without being obstructed by the police, the declaration "that we are all Socialists now" (by the Liberal politician. Sir William Harcourt, in August 1887), the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, the Bryant & May matchgirls strike, the strike for the dockers’ tanner, and Jack the Ripper.

Morris comments on all of these as well as on trade unionism, the co-operative movement, Henry George's Single Tax panacea, women's rights ("As long as men are slaves, woman can be no better. Let the women's rights societies adopt that last sentence as a motto—and act on it"), war ("the interests of the workmen are the same in all countries and they can never really be enemies of each other"), vegetarianism (he wasn’t one of course, being more into medieval banquets). Sunday closing (he wasn’t a teetotaller either and was all for workers being able to drink on Sundays as long as it was real ale and not the slop that was all they could normally afford), and prisons (which he repeatedly denounces as barbaric places of torture).

Morris wrote as a Socialist in the SPGB tradition. Those who might be inclined to doubt our claim here should read the book. They will find that no other conclusion is possible. 
Adam Buick

Food to rot while people starve (1969)

Editorial from the September 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s about to happen yet again. They’re going to let food rot while millions go hungry. At the beginning of August representatives from the five major wheat exporting countries (America, Canada, Australia, France, and Argentina) met in London to discuss the so-called wheat crisis. It was just over a year since their International Grains Agreement carved up the world wheat market between them. This carve-up, which was supposed to apply for three years, is in danger of breaking down because of what is callously called a "world surplus supply situation in wheat”. By which is meant, not that there is more wheat than people need, but more wheat than can be sold profitably. This arose partly because of two bumper harvests on the run and partly because Russia, China, India, and Pakistan have cut down on their imports.

Press reports sum up the situation. America, according to The Times (July 28)
  will have a larger supply of wheat available this season in spite of a forecast of a 9 per cent drop in new production this year. Over 810.6m. bushels of old crop wheat was left when the season ended on June 30; this reflects a sharp fall in sales, particularly in the export market.
Canada, too, is in trouble:
  She started the crop year with an unsold inventory of some 665m. bushels which is more than the entire crop harvested in 1968. It Is estimated that at the end of the crop year today she will have more than one thousand million bushels of unsold wheat on her hands (The Times, August 1).
But it is from Australia that the most amazing proof of the absurdity of capitalist production for profit comes:
  The Government estimates that more than 150m. bushels of wheat will have to be left on the farms when the present crop is harvested. It has been told by wheat farmers that unless it provides thousands of pounds in extra subsidies to pay for special storage the grain will either rot or be ravaged by vermin (The Times, July 17).
One Minister has already blamed the farmers for growing far too much! The wheat will probably rot because the warehouses are already filled with last year’s unsold stocks. Besides, the law says the surplus above the farmers’ quota cannot be sold.

Trade war
The International Grains Agreement laid down minimum prices, but with things as they are these have been under pressure. America, accusing France and Australia of getting round the agreement, announced that it was openly reducing some of its prices below the agreed level. Canada followed suit and France (through the Common Market) has retaliated by subsidising wheat exports. The prospect of a trade war in wheat while millions starve is on the cards.

But it is not the hungry millions that worried The Times. They were more concerned about the effects such a price war might have on international monetary arrangements. Something must be done, declared an editorial in their business section on July 31; wheat production must be curtailed:
  It has to be accepted by everyone that an outright price war will not expand the volume of wheat trade. Misunderstandings between nations of each other’s policies have to be removed and limitations will need to be agreed on future production. There is evidence that the wheat producers have been misled into over-producing by the buoyant markets of a few years ago. Some of this may be due to technical progress in obtaining bigger yields from the same acreages. But the long-term factors which led to a doubling of the world’s wheat trade in the past 15 years have spent their force.
The attitude of the Financial Times was even more outrageous. After stating that “a solution of the crisis except by natural disaster seems a long way off”, their agricultural correspondent, ignoring the fact that up to half the world’s present population could do with more food, concluded:
  Until world population rises sufficiently to increase the demand for wheal, land will have to be put to other use or lie fallow, perhaps for many years (August 6).
Production will of course be curtailed. The US Department of Agriculture is already predicting a drop in world wheat production:
  It estimated total wheat production in the major exporting countries of Australia, Argentina, Canada, France and the US would be down by about 7 per cent cent from last year’s 3,500m. bushels . . . The Department noted that stocks in major exporting countries continued to increase. A rise of around 620m. bushels during the 1968-69 season to an estimated 2,000m. had caused ‘some countries’ to review their policies on wheat production, it said. (Financial Times, July 30).
Within capitalism, where production is geared to the market rather than to human needs, this is the obvious answer. Farmers will not grow wheat they know they can only sell at unprofitable prices, if at all. Production must be cut down for a while so that some of the huge stocks piling up in the warehouses can be cleared, thus making wheat-growing profitable again. Of course this will only be temporary. In a few years time, there will probably be another so-called wheat glut and the whole sordid business of irate farmers, worried Ministers, price wars, rotting food, and hungry people will be repeated. It is just part of the way capitalism normally works, a striking proof that capitalism is inherently incapable of operating in a rational way so as to serve human needs.

This is why under capitalism giving away the alleged surpluses to people who need food is no solution. This would in fact make matters worse by further disrupting the world wheat market and lengthening the time it takes to recover. Besides, it is less expensive to let the food rot than ship it to where it is needed. The logic of capitalism (which puts profit before human need) points rather to absurd measures like the American policy of paying farmers not to grow food or its Australian alternative of letting the food they have grown rot on their farms. If, in a world where half the population go to bed hungry, these measures seem inhuman, that is because capitalism is an inhuman, anti-social system.