Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Falklands Crisis (1982)

From the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

In face of the imminent threat of war over the potential wealth of the Falkland Islands the Socialist Party of Great Britain affirms:
  1. That despite the wave of jingoistic hysteria in the press and its endorsement by Labour and Tory politicians alike, no working class interests in Britain, Argentina or the Falklands themselves can be served by war.
  2. That neither the military junta in Buenos Aires nor the elected representatives of British capitalism, least of all the business interests of Coalite-Charringtons, can justify the shedding of a single drop of working class blood.
  3. That the new-found outrage at the undemocratic and oppressive nature of the Argentine regime rings false coming from a government which was arming that regime until the eve of hostilities.
  4. That the crucial role of Argentine capitalism in profitably making-up the notorious shortfall of agricultural production within the Russian Empire goes far to explain the support given to the junta by the local “Communist Party” and the muted criticism of it by the same circles who so vociferously denounce the similar dictatorship in Chile and its parallel suppression of trade unionism and free speech.

We therefore reiterate that having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow-workers of all lands the expression of goodwill and socialist fraternity and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism in all its guises and the establishment of socialism throughout the world, the only way to end war.

The Executive Committee
13 April 1982

Alternative Economic Strategy or Socialism? (1982)

From the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The current crisis of British capitalism has clearly demonstrated the failure of the strategy which had dominated government policies (both Labour and Conservative) since the end of the Second World War: to manage the economy for continued growth, and a steady expansion in the social and welfare services. The capitalist propagandists insisted that Keynesian policies had cracked capitalism’s biggest problem. The period of cyclical crises during which there were attacks on working class living standards had, at last, come to an end. It was, they said, uphill all the way. Ideologies (by which they meant Marxism) were a thing of the past.

Since the late 1960s, however, it has become widely accepted that Keynesian policies were not the reason for the postwar economic boom. Rather, government policies (Labour and Conservative) were riding the crest of the economic wave. It was not that government policies were controlling the economy; that was a mere illusion. On the contrary, it was only because of the economic boom that governments were able to pursue their Keynesian policies of increased state intervention. As the economic wave came crashing down, governmental attempts to bail out the economy by more and more state spending became increasingly frantic. They found that the Keynesian bucket was full of holes. The Conservative Party, in particular after the failure of the Heath government, ditched its allegiance to Keynesianism and publicly declared its conversion to what it called “monetarism”. The monetarists had a religious faith in the ability of “market forces” to direct capital to where it was most profitable. Also, they believed that this policy of allowing the “invisible hand” of the market to hold sway would result in benefits to the working class as well as the capitalists.

The Labour Party did not at first reject its Keynesian past. In 1974, Harold Wilson led them into government with a so-called radical manifesto of policies intended to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families”. But the Labour government did nothing of the kind. Instead, the rich got richer, and it was the working class instead of the rich who were “squeezed until the pips squeak”. The Labour government imposed severe austerity measures upon workers and their families. These, we were told, were because of economic necessity. Once again, as during the 1964-1970 government, Labour had been ‘blown off course”. In response to the deepening crisis, the government cut welfare and education services and, with the collaboration of the TUC, imposed a “voluntary” wages policy which resulted in a fall in real wages. The aim of these policies was to increase the level of profits kept by the capitalists for the accumulation of capital, and to reduce the proportion of profits spent on the reproduction of labour.

Since its defeat in the 1979 election, a debate has been going on within the Labour Party as to whether its programme in office was the appropriate one, and what it will offer the working class at the next election. A large number of Labour Party members and supporters, who view the last Labour government’s policies as a betrayal by the leadership of genuine socialist policies, have increasingly been talking about an Alternative Economic Strategy (AES). Although there is more than one version of the AES it will, whatever its form, be the main plank of Labour Party and left-wing propaganda in the run-up to the next election.

The aims of the AES
The AES seeks to get British capitalism out of its present crisis whilst at the same time meeting what are considered to be the immediate needs of the working class, and to weaken the role of the profit motive in production. This is seen as providing a platform for a “socialist transformation of Britain”. Thus, the AES is not viewed as a programme that will in itself create a socialist society, but as “a strategy that can win tangible gains in the form of greater working class control over production. Moreover, rather than pursue such gains within the constraints imposed by the existing structure of economic relations, it seeks constantly to anticipate, challenge and progressively dismantle those constraints and substitute new forms of control” (Conference of Socialist Economists London Working Croup, The Alternative Economic Strategy, CSE/Labour Co-ordinating Committee, 1980, p. 7; hereafter referred to as CSE). All that lies beneath this veil of words, however, is yet another attempt by the Labour Party and its left-wing followers to pass off reforms of capitalism as socialism.

Adopting a radical Keynesian stance in opposition to the “monetarism” of the Conservatives, the AES proposes a massive increase in government spending (figures range from £6,000,000,000 to £16,000,000,000, depending on which version of the AES one reads). The argument is that it is the lack of investment which is at the root of the crisis. Capitalists, according to the left-wing, prefer to invest in property and in foreign countries (in 1980, £7,000,000,000 was invested abroad) and to indulge in conspicuous consumption. The blame for the crisis is put at the door of traditional Labour Party bogies: the City, financiers, currency speculators, foreign multinationals, the IMF, and so on. It is the inability of these institutions to invest in Britain on their own accord which necessitates their being brought under control of the nation. The interests of these individual institutions is in opposition to the interests of Britain as an economic unit distinct from other national units. Aaronovitch has stated: “The dominant forces of capital and government have sacrificed the productive base of the British economy at all critical stages (except for world wars). This has been in striking contrast with, for instance, the policies of the ruling groups of those of our main rivals who have grown faster” (Aaronovitch, The Road From Thatcherism, Lawrence and Wishart, 1981, p: 5). In other words, the Labour Party is saving British capitalism from the capitalists!

Previous attempts by Conservative and Labour governments to induce industrial growth have been based on generating increased demand in the economy through such measures as increased government spending and lower taxation. It was believed that to meet this increase in demand there would be a corresponding increase in industrial production. However, this did not happen. In order to ensure that production does increase to match demand, the AES includes policies which directly intervene in production.

The main means to achieve this is through planning agreements, based on a five-year plan, but negotiated every year with private enterprises. These will involve decisions on “investment levels and location, employment, price policy and the like” (CSE, p. 71), and would be negotiated between “management and government with trade unions playing an important role” (CSE, p. 71). These various planning agreements will be coordinated by a National Planning Commission. To ensure that the agreements will be fulfilled, the government will have the power to enforce a range of sanctions against both capitalists and trades unions. The ultimate sanction would be the nationalisation of the enterprise, which would give “a 50:50 sharing of control between labour and capital” (Labour Co-ordinating Committee, There Is An Alternative, Labour Co-ordinating Committee, 1980, p. 14).

Another important part of the AES is the proposal to ensure that finance will be available for investment. This is to be achieved through state control of the major financial institutions. The capitalists, it seems, are unable to do this by themselves. A future Labour government will utilise the pension and insurance funds as well as the revenue from North Sea oil through a National Investment Bank, comprising government, capitalist, and trades union directors. Also, there are plans to nationalise the four major Clearing Banks (Barclays, Lloyds, Midland, Natwest), and to create a State
Bank through the merging of the Bank of England and the National Savings Bank and the Girobank. These re-formed financial institutions would provide credit to industry at more favourable rates than at present. Finally, there is a proposal for an Investment Reserve Fund through which a proportion of pre-tax profits would be used for specific schemes.

According to the left-wing, the crisis is a product of Tory policies, precipitated to bring about a weakening of the industrial power of the working class. This it has achieved through allowing the “laws” of the free-market to operate unfettered. As the left-wing sees it, to overcome the present crisis and prevent a future one, requires that the market forces be tamed and brought under state control; “an essential part of the industrial strategy is to reduce the role of profit in the economy, both as a source of funds to finance investment and as a criterion that determines where investment should or should not be made” (CSE, p. 45). The policies mentioned above are supposed to achieve this. But the hope that the role of profit can be reduced is vain. The disastrous economics of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are examples of this.

Operating in a world economy in which capital flows between nations, capital is invested where it produces the highest profit. If the return on capital were lower in Britain than in other nations, capital would not be invested. If the AES were implemented foreign capital would not be invested. Furthermore, British capital would be exported to an even greater extent than at present. Any attempt to prevent the export of capital would not ensure that it was invested in Britain. Instead, it would not be invested at all. Only complete state ownership would ensure the use of this “idle” capital. Whatever policies were attempted, the likely result would be a further decline in industrial output.

In talking of reducing the role of the market, all that is meant is that there will be increased attempts at planning, and a reduction in the role of the profit criterion. It does not mean the end of production for a market in which independent producers attempt to sell their products. It does not mean the replacement of production for profit by production for need. On the contrary, the supporters of the AES are opposed to production for need: “Production only creates jobs if the products can be sold. Production for use is nothing more than a romantic fantasy unless there is some way of transforming social needs into effective demand . . .” (CSE, p. 50). Not even the most avowed supporter of capitalism would object to this Labour Party “socialism”.

Import controls
The Alternative Economic Strategy is not merely a national programme. It also has international implications. During the period of industrial re-structuring, British capitalists’ interests will have to be protected from “unfair” foreign competition, and the flooding of the British home market by cheaper imports. This flooding would have a disastrous effect on the embryonic British industries, which would be unable to sell their products even in the home market. This would mean that they would be unable to earn the profits necessary to invest in new productive plant, resulting in a further decline in competitiveness. To ensure that the new British industries are not aborted, the AES plans to nurture them behind a trade barrier. This would allow British capitalism a breathing space in which industries are tooled-up with the most advanced technology, and labour productivity increased (that is, the level of exploitation is increased), so that when the process has been completed, British capitalism will be better able to compete in the world market. That improved competitiveness is the aim of the AES’s call for import controls is made clear in the LCC pamphlet: “What we have to develop is not just a system of import controls to protect the profits of home manufacturers but a system of planned trade which seeks to develop exports” (p. 20).

The AES attempts to link the interests of the working class with the success of British capitalism in its trade war with its rivals. The aim of the import controls is to save “British” jobs by supporting British capitalism against Japanese, French, and German capitalism. To the workers however, it is irrelevant whether they are exploited by British or Japanese capital. This would result in retaliation by other nations, reducing the level of exports and consequently increasing unemployment. Furthermore, since import controls tax imports and force workers to buy more expensive home produced ones, they lead to an increase in the cost of living for the working class. The net result of import controls would be to increase unemployment among workers abroad, and to whip up hatred of “foreigners”. In other words, they would divide the working class of the world. The AES also attempts to reduce the militancy and independence of the British working class by incorporating it into the apparatus of the capitalist state, and reconciling its interests to the fortunes of British imperialism.

It is clear from the programme of the AES that the danger to “Britain” is not capitalism, but the domination of British capital by multinational and foreign capital. How else to explain the emphasis put on the failure of British capital to invest in British industry, and instead invest abroad. Capitalists who fail to invest in Britain are criticised for being “unpatriotic”, for not putting their faith in “Britain”, and not for being capitalists. Accordingly, the answer to such “unpatriotic” behaviour is for capital to be nationalised or brought under the control of the state.

Workers' control or control of workers? 
One of the main points emphasised to sell the AES to the working class is increased worker involvement in decision-making. Supporters of the AES “attach an overriding importance to the extension of workers’ power-both at the point of production and within the wider democratic process of arriving at economic and social goals” (CSE, p. 80). They appear to think that if there are workers (for them, the working class consists of the industrial workers and certain kinds of “white-collar” workers, and not all those who sell their labour-power, at whatever price) involved in making decisions about how a particular enterprise will develop, that the profitability criterion will not be so important. But is is already the working class which runs capitalism (although not all workers are involved in decision-making. However, it does not matter whether the decisions are made by capitalists, management-workers, or a combination of shop-floor workers, management-workers, share-holders, and the state. What matters is that they are making decisions in the interest of capital. It is not who plays the game which is important, but what the rules of the game are to begin with. The rule of capitalism is a simple one: No Profit, No Production. Opening the books, workers' plans, workers’ co-operatives, or worker directors will not alter this.

Supporters of the AES fear that a high rate of what they call inflation will threaten the hoped for expansion of the economy and lead to the abandonment of increased government spending. Ignorantly, they argue that control of inflation requires that workers do not demand high increases in wages. Although there is controversy on the left as to whether there should be a formal incomes policy, there is agreement that wage increases have to be controlled. Aaranovitch states that any increase in wages would have to “take into account the overall direction of the economy” (p. 44). Agreements on wages would attempt to ensure that wages would not fall, and that “consequently growth in real wages would be ensured except in the circumstances of an uncontrolled fall in the terms of trade” (CSE, p. 132, emphasis added). In other words, whenever things got bad for British capitalism, the working class would carry the burden as usual. No doubt the attack on the working class would be couched in the familiar terms of “the national interest”. If, as some have estimated, 5 million new jobs have to be created for unemployment to fall to the level of the 1960s, the Labour government, with the support of the TUC, would argue that this can be achieved only through wage restraint. Another ploy would be to make increased involvement in decision-making dependent on wage restraint. However, the experience of the last Labour government showed that “non-monetary” gains do not impress the workers in the face of reductions in living standards. As an example of a monetary compensation for wage restraint, Michael Meacher MP suggested recently: “This could be either government repayment, after say three-five years, of a proportion of workers’ income tax as index-linked savings according to the degree of pay restraint, or better still, once planning agreements were in place, a right to share in the firm’s capital appreciation tomorrow to match pay limitation today” (New Statesman, 14 August, 1981). But workers’ experience shows that such deals are not in their interests.

The socialist alternative
The AES is a bridge to state capitalism, not socialism. State capitalism is no more in the interests of the working class than free-enterprise capitalism. The state control of capital would strengthen the power of capital over the working class.

Socialists are not concerned solely with the standard of living of the working class and increased involvement in decision-making. Our opposition to capitalism strikes at the very root of the working class condition: the need to sell our ability to work to those who own and control the means of production and distribution. The only way to ensure that the interests of the working class are fulfilled is through the abolition of the working class itself. Indeed, the working class is a class whose interests are destined never to be fulfilled. This does not mean that it must give up the struggle to improve its conditions. That would be a disastrous course of action. What it does mean, however, is that in the struggle to improve its conditions, the working class will come up against the limitations of what can be achieved under capitalism. They will necessarily confront the conditions of their existence as a class. This leaves two courses of action open to the working class. First, it can work within the limitations of capitalism to obtain what it can. But the history of the working class shows that this is precious little, and there is no reason to believe that the future will hold anything different. Or it can take the second course of action: to confront the class limitations with the determination to break them down. To abolish the condition which creates and recreates the working class: the ownership of the means of production and distribution by the capitalist class.

A reformist accommodation to capitalism’s problems, disguised as an embattled militancy, not only puts off the time when capitalism will be replaced by socialism, but also postpones the discussion of why only socialism is the solution to the problems confronting the working class. But the reformist argues that something has to be done now! If this or that problem can at least be ameliorated, then this is a worthwhile goal; they cannot wait for socialism to provide a solution. When challenged to give an example of a solution to a working class problem, the reformists will be at a loss. They will even go so far as to agree with the socialist that capitalism has no solutions. But, they will retort, at least a reform will ensure that fewer people are suffering from this or that problem: something is better than nothing, isn’t it? There is a gaping hole in this argument. The justification for supporting reformist proposals is the comparison of the position before and after the reform. Before the reform, there are, say, 60,000 people living in stinking, rotten houses, whereas after the reform there are hoped to be a mere 40,000. How could the socialist deny support for the reform? Not to support it would condemn 20,000 more people to living in stinking, rotten houses than need be.

But socialists, in not supporting the reformist programme, are not advocating that nothing be done. Far from it. We are calling for the working class to unite to introduce socialism now. In comparison with living conditions possible in a socialist society, the reformist changes are bloody disaster for the working class. The choice for the working class is not between Reform or Nothing. It is Reform or Revolution.
Cardiff Group

1. Aaranovitch, S. The Road From Thatcherism, Lawrence & Wishart. 1981.
2. CSE London Working Group. The Alternative Economic Strategy, CSE Hooks/ Labour Co-ordinating Committee, 1980.
3. Labour Co-ordinating Committee. There Is An Alternative, Labour Co-ordinating Committee, 1980.

The Latter Day Followers of Leon Trotsky (2018)

Book Review from the October 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain by John Kelly (Routledge 2018)

Those seeking to change the way society is organized will at some stage come across a fractured group of people with ideas about it. They are quite active and visible, though perhaps not so much as they once were. Demonstrations and picket-lines, selling papers at universities and outside tube stations is their stock-in-trade. These days they are not in the best of health and struggle to make the impact they once did. They are the followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky played a significant role in the 1917 Bolshevik takeover in Russia led by Lenin, but after Lenin’s death was squeezed out by his successor Josef Stalin, went into exile in Mexico and then was murdered there by Stalin’s agents in 1940. It is perhaps a little odd that his modern acolytes are as well-known and persistent as they are. Not unlike the splintered religious sects that offer a regimen of activity and surety of doctrine, with each one microscopically different to the other.

A new book by John Kelly called Contemporary Trotskyism (Routledge, 2018) has set out to examine this phenomenon. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the first book-length analysis of the Trotskyist movement in Britain for over 30 years. It is meticulously researched and packed with detail. ‘Left-wing train-spotters’ everywhere will cherish it dearly.

What is Trotskyism?
Political ideas – especially complex ones – often struggle to be defined coherently. Trotskyism is no exception. Kelly identifies nine ‘core elements’, though a number of these are actually beliefs held in common with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Trotskyists see themselves as their true heirs) together with their advocates in the various ‘Communist’ parties and regimes across the world this last century or so.

One of the core elements is more fundamental than most of the others and – despite the excellence of the book in other respects – has not been brought out quite as clearly as it might have been. This is the idea that while the working class is considered to be the agent of social change – as in Marxist theory generally – it is deemed incapable of doing this while capitalist rule dominates. This was the view taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, including both Stalin and Trotsky, and so unites them all.

From this viewpoint much else follows. If the working class is unable to understand capitalist exploitation and overthrow the capitalist system because the dominant ideas are literally always those of the ruling class, then how can a socialist revolution ever occur? All those in the tradition of Lenin came up with an answer, based on adapting the Russian Bolshevik model of a minority political coup d’etat. This idea was to build up a political party of professional revolutionaries (the ‘vanguard’ or ‘advanced guard’ of the working class) that could overthrow the capitalist government. It could then try to create the economic and political conditions for a socialist society – including the desire of the working class for it – after the event. Rather like having the pregnancy after the birth.

But to build up the vanguard party of professional revolutionaries within capitalism there’s no point advocating socialism, as that would be to cast pearls before the proverbial swine. What is needed instead is a tactical approach that can form an ideological bridge between where we are today and where we could end up. And this, in most respects, is where Trotsky and his followers developed a set of theories – most of them really tactics – that have distinguished them from others in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In particular:

Transitional demands. These are reforms of capitalism advocated with the sole purpose of demonstrating that the system can’t deliver them. This creates tension with genuine reformists like those in the mainstream Labour and Social Democratic parties who know they are unattainable and unrealistic, so prefer not to pursue them. But for Trotskyists the point is to create disillusion with the system and its established leaders so that the more critical, questioning members of the working class will turn away from them and towards the leadership of the vanguard party instead.

The ‘united front’ tactic. Like advocating transitional demands, this has been a means of winning recruits from other parties as it involves putting forward specific demands and campaigns that will enable Labour, Communists, Trotskyists, etc to work together on certain issues such as anti-fascism, while enabling Trotskyists to remain critical of their partners in other respects. This is just slightly different from the old Communist Party tactic of the ‘Popular Front’ which had often involved overtly pro-capitalist parties too, like Liberals.

A critical stance towards the former Soviet Union and its satellites. This is the big issue that has created more disagreement in the Trotskyist movement than probably any other. This is because while all wish to be critical of the regime Stalin went on to build up while Trotsky was in exile, they nevertheless hold very dear to the political methods that created it in the first place. Trotsky’s own formula was to label Russia a workers’ state that had degenerated under Stalinist leadership. Some still adhere to this, while others have moved from this position over time to create greater distance, adopting the view that these countries became state capitalist, or were some other form of class society.

A ‘catastrophist’ interpretation of capitalism. Trotsky’s seminal text in 1938 was The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International and most Trotskyists believe capitalism has been in its death throes ever since, 80 years and counting. This view is not entirely exclusive to them, but they link it vigorously with the need for working class ‘leadership’ i.e themselves as the vanguard party that can rescue the working class from crisis.

The need for a ‘Fourth International’ or similar. This is as a successor to the old Third International or ‘Comintern’ associated with Stalin and the Soviet regime. It would be an international body linking and uniting Trotskyist vanguard parties across the world with common perspectives, and also under a broadly common programme and set of tactical approaches.

The idea of spreading ‘permanent revolution’. This stands in distinction to the Stalinist idea that socialism could be built in one country and by stages, as Trotsky held the view that revolutions – if they were to succeed – needed to spread and not become isolated, hence the need for a Fourth International.  Nevertheless, the idea of a socialist revolution being one where a minority vanguard party takes power and then nationalizes the economy (as in Soviet Russia and China) is the same as the conventional Leninist and Stalinist view.

Trotskyism in Britain
One of the most notable features of the Trotskyist movement in Britain and other countries has been its tendency to fragment over time. From its origins in the tiny Balham Group of former Communist Party members in the 1930s it was united for a short time towards the end of the Second World War in an organization called the Revolutionary Communist Party, but since then has been split asunder many times.

Kelly has identified seven Trotskyist ‘families’ that emerged, though this is perhaps a little over-theorized. In reality, four main tendencies surfaced in Britain in the post-war era after the split of the RCP and these were led by four dominant individuals. This is perhaps not surprising. Trotsky himself had claimed that ‘The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat’ and Trotskyist organizations (like Lenin’s Bolsheviks) are characterized by top-down structures based on the principles of what they call ‘democratic centralism’, effectively designed to ensure self-perpetuating leaderships.

The four main Trotskyist organizations that emerged in Britain from the 1950s and 60s onwards may be familiar:

The Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), formerly the Socialist Labour League, which was founded and led by Gerry Healy until it split into myriad fragments in the mid-late 1980s. This tendency has been characterized by Kelly as Orthodox Trotskyism, and it is hard to disagree as it holds rigidly to what it sees as Trotsky’s perspectives and recommendations before his death and has been known for its extreme sectarianism and hostility to other organizations.

The Militant Tendency (really called the Revolutionary Socialist League), led by Ted Grant and which became the most well-known Trotskyist organisation through its control of Liverpool City Council in the mid 1980s and its ‘deep entryism’ inside the Labour Party, even at one stage having three Labour MPs. It split in the early 90s and its successor organizations are the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) and Socialist Appeal. Kelly calls this tendency ‘Institutional Trotskyism’ because of its adherence to supporting Labour and use of parliament, though most of its attitudes, perspectives and ingrained sectarianism are not dissimilar to the Orthodox Trotskyism of the WRP – the main difference being that the WRP/SLL in its early life used entryism into the Labour Party as a tactic (as did the other main Trotskyist tendencies) whereas Militant made it a point of principle.

The International Marxist Group (IMG) led by Tariq Ali. This became the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (for a while the dominant semi-official one), hence Kelly’s description of this as Mainstream Trotskyism. This is perhaps a little confusing as it was mainly noted for attempts by its international leaders Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo to revise and update Trotsky’s ideas in an era of Third World revolts and student agitation. Again it splintered into various competing sects, some inside the Labour Party and some outside it, the most well-known survivor probably being Socialist Resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), formerly International Socialism and led until his death by Tony Cliff. This is currently the largest of them all, even though it has suffered more splits and splinters than most, including in recent years. It was originally influenced as much by the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg as by Lenin and Trotsky and its distinguishing feature is its view that the Soviet Union and its satellites became state capitalist when Stalinism took hold, adopting a standpoint previously alien to the Trotskyist movement and pioneered by non-Leninist organizations like the SPGB. Kelly categorizes the SWP and most of its offshoots as ‘Third Camp’ Trotskyism.

Upwaves and downwaves
Kelly argues with some evidence that there have so far been four distinct phases in the British Trotskyist movement: 1950-65 which were the ‘Bleak Years’ of limited growth while inside the Labour Party, the ‘Golden Age’ of membership growth and influence from the mid 60s to mid 80s while the traditional Communist Party declined, then a period of ‘Fracture and Decline’ from the mid 80s until around 2005, when a period of ‘Stasis’ has endured.

There are currently 22 separate Trotskyist organizations in the UK though their total membership is less than 10,000 – well under half of the combined peak membership of the mid 1980s. Some organizations have splintered off over time and have moved away from Trotskyism such as the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), though these, along with Stalinist and Maoist-type groups, also have memberships that tend to be numbered in the low hundreds at best and more typically much less than that.

The commitment expected of members of Leninist organizations generally can be considerable, with many Trotskyist groups mapping out their members’ free time in any given week and expecting significant financial contributions – the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) had average annual membership contributions per head of over £330 a year in 2014 and Workers Power has effectively charged a ‘tithe’ of 10 per cent of income. This is in large part what enables Trotskyist groups to publish a very regular press and many even now are built around the sales of their newspapers and magazines. The WRP famously received funds from Libya and other Middle East states but this is exceptional – most Trotskyist organizations lurch from internal financial crisis to crisis, being repeatedly bailed out by their membership to keep their loss-making publications going. Nevertheless, the Revolutionary Communist Party of the 80s and 90s (a grandchild of the IS/SWP) and publisher of Living Marxism was bankrupted by a £1 million libel action from ITN. Today only two papers have regular print runs (not sales) of over 2,000, these being Socialist Worker (SWP) and The Socialist (SPEW), with print runs of 20,000 and 10,000 copies respectively per week. Some organizations are so small they only produce irregular magazines or concentrate on maintaining a web presence.

One of the more intriguing details to emerge in Kelly’s book is how much activity is stimulated and supported by paid officials. During the Militant Tendency’s peak of 8,000 members it had no less than 250 full-time equivalent staff (a not dissimilar total to the entire Labour Party). More recently, SPEW has the highest number of staffers with 45 full-time equivalent workers, compared to 32.5 in the SWP. Most of these are employed in publications-related work, with some being national, regional or campaign organizers.

Given all this, and the campaigns both initiated and hijacked by Trotskyist groups (from the Anti-Nazi League in the late 70s to the Stop the War Coalition more recently), it is perhaps surprising they remain as small as they do. Even more surprising perhaps given their relentless work in the trade unions, including trying to gain positions of influence at all levels, again meticulously detailed by Kelly. Similarly, in the last couple of decades there has been a generally increased focus on election campaigns as a means of generating publicity, from Respect to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). This has led to some long-term sworn enemies like the SWP and SPEW temporarily bury their differences, but with little practical effect.

The current state of flux in the Corbyn-led Labour Party has seen a number of Trotskyist groups identify a chance to engage closely with people who could be like-minded. The paucity of Trotskyist candidates standing against Labour in the 2017 General Election was a reflection of this, reversing the trend towards greater electoral participation since the 1990s. The evidence presented by Kelly suggests that the far left tends to do better on average (both in terms of electoral support and in party membership) when Labour is in government rather than in opposition. But it still does badly, and even organizations in other countries including some Trotskyist elements within them at various stages such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain only succeed when they build far wider leftist coalitions, dwarfing the Trotskyist contribution to the extent that it becomes almost invisible. And almost inevitably these parties have a tendency to end up – like Syriza – being respectable parties of capitalist government.

This is interesting, because Trotskyist groups have long argued that they do this because to do anything differently, such as advocate real socialism (common ownership, production for use, the abolition of the wages system, etc) is a waste of time. In fact, most of them only pay lip-service to this as being their long term goal at very best, and most take the traditional view of the Communists (ie Stalinists and Maoists) that socialism is really a nationalized, planned economy under the control of the vanguard party. But as in Soviet Russia this leaves all the economic features of capitalism intact – such as wage labour, production for sale on markets, etc – and is really just state-run capitalism.

It all gets to the essence though of why socialists oppose the Trotskyist movement and have long warned of the dangers of being involved in it:

  • they do not advocate (or in many case really believe in) socialism but actually believe in a form of state run-capitalism under their own leadership
  • they are elitist organizations that are dominated by small and generally unaccountable groups of leaders who see themselves as potentially great historical figures, guiding the masses with their supposedly superior political tactics
  • they are politically dishonest as they advocate demands (the ‘transitional programme’) in the full knowledge they cannot be met within capitalism and will only create disillusion – indeed that is the entire point of advocating them
  • they will periodically enter and otherwise give support (however ‘critical’) to anti-socialist organizations like the Labour Party
  • they have a well-known history of hijacking trade union and other struggles for their own ends.

Of course, we are well aware that they don’t have a high opinion of us either. We are usually guilty of things like ‘abstract propagandism’, which means not arguing for reforms of capitalism and they have sometimes derided us as the ‘Small Party of Good Boys’ and similar.

While we are far smaller than we would like to be and can certainly learn lessons from the last century and more, John Kelly’s book has thrown an interesting spotlight on a few things. And one of them is that despite the fact that we in the SPGB advocate the ‘maximum programme’ of socialism and nothing but – and despite all the tactical manoeuvrings and reform campaigns of the various Trotskyist groups over the years –  there are only two of them (the SWP and SPEW) that are actually bigger than us! Every other party and group from the WRP and Socialist Appeal to the AWL and Counterfire are smaller than we are. And so were former (and very visible) Trot groups like the RCP at their peak in the late 80s/early 90s.

Just think, then – if a few more of them had spent their considerable energies advocating real socialism rather than playing tactical games of footsie with the reformists, the movement for social change in this country would be a lot stronger than it is. That’s not to crow, as we of course wish we were a lot bigger than we are – but just to point out that the tactical genius of Leon Trotsky and his latter-day followers has been rather misdirected and somewhat over-rated. And that’s us trying to be polite.
Dave Perrin

Stir Crazy (1998)

From the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

A new prison has just been completed near where I live, on the site of an old psychiatric hospital. There is something remarkably symbolic and ominous about demolishing an asylum in order to put up a prison. Of course, the hospital didn’t close especially to make way for the prison (it had already become a victim of “care-in-the-community”), but the poignancy is undiminished. The unavoidable impression is that those who are dazed and confused in an incomprehensible world need not seek sanctuary, but should simply await retribution.

The philosophy of “detention” for offenders is one which is, at best, tenuous. It’s not just the incredible idea that incarcerating for long periods men and women who fall foul of the law, in a cramped and dehumanising environment, will result in them emerging as model citizens. No, there is something else which is even more incongruous about prisons. The paradox is, of course, that prisons house people, at great expense, against their will, while other “law-abiding” citizens are homeless. Those who behave themselves, follow the rules, and don’t attract the attention of the police, have no guarantee of a home; if you do get one, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. But towards those who break the law, the state suddenly becomes very benevolent, and will give you not only a roof over your head but board too, for months or even years.

Prisons were originally conceived as places of “reform” and rehabilitation–in America they are often still referred to as “correctional” facilities–but for political and economic reasons the ethos rapidly changed to one of punishment and segregation. They are a relatively new idea, dating from the late eighteenth century, about the same time that capitalism first reared its ugly head. That is not to say that there were no sanctions employed against the dispossessed before that time; on the contrary, death and transportation were the sentences of choice, but juries were becoming reluctant to convict in capital cases and the ships bound for Australia were overflowing. With the concentration of workers in new towns and cities subordinate to the sanctity of private property, a more practical method of dealing with convicts was required. Thus, the prison was conceived.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard, amongst others, insisted that prison works. This evaluation of course depends on what it sets out to achieve. If the intention is simply to punish the dispossessed for trying to gain a few more material goods, and act as a deterrent to potential offenders, then it could be said to be serving a purpose. However, the deterrent effect is questionable, because common-sense suggests that most criminals don’t imagine they will be caught, or they wouldn’t commit crimes in the first place. The likelihood of detection would surely be a greater deterrent. If, on the other hand, prisons are intended to rehabilitate offenders and reduce the incidence of crime, evidence shows they clearly do not work. Firstly, statistics reveal that once sent to prison, a person is far more likely to re-offend; and secondly, despite more people being imprisoned than ever before, the crime problem shows no signs of diminishing. The reason that politicians like Michael Howard, and even new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, continue to favour incarceration is that they are at a loss for solutions to the problem of crime, and there are always a few votes in “getting tough”.

Getting tough
What getting tough on crime has meant in the last decade or so is a nine percent increase in the prison population, and this is expected to continue rising from the current level of 51,000 inmates to almost 60,000 in 2004 (Home Office Statistical Bulletin, 4/96), although there is already talk of this figure being reached much sooner. As prisons are presently overcrowded, the building of several new ones will of course be necessary, financed entirely by central government. You’ll notice that there is no restriction on prison construction, unlike public housing. And when did you last hear of a prison being closed because it was no longer “economically viable”? Hospitals, of course, do not enjoy the same security. There is now even a prison ship, hastily imported because existing prisons are filling up quicker than new ones can be built. When prison ships begin weighing anchor and hauling their “cargo” off to the Antipodes, things will have gone full circle.

If Britain’s enthusiasm for locking up its citizens seems over-zealous, it is actually quite restrained compared with America, where building prisons is a major growth industry. Tougher drug laws and mandatory sentencing have combined to push up the number of inmates to almost 1.5 million, or 565 out of every 100,000 Americans (compared with about 100 in Britain). In California, spending on prisons has shot up from two percent to 10 percent of the state budget, and last year was more than expenditure on higher education. This at the same time as welfare benefits and health provision are being reduced. The US politicians have claimed that a fall in the crime rate in some areas is solely attributable to their lock-’em-up policies, but criminologists point out that other factors such as demographics and changing drug habits must also be taken into account. Even if the politicians are correct, there can only be one logical consequence of their strategy: virtually everyone will end up either an inmate in a prison, right down to those who don’t bring their library book back on time, or will be helping to run one.

If the idea of going to prison for something as trivial as failing to pay a fine seems unimaginable, then you may be surprised to discover that it is not an uncommon practice in Britain; over 22,000 people fell victim in 1994 alone. Here is another paradox, to add to the pile which accumulate around this subject. People who, for example, can’t afford a TV licence, are then fined more than the value of the licence which they couldn’t afford in the first place. When they fail to pay the fine, they end up in jail. And here’s the “double whammy” which would perplex even the Mad Hatter: the cost of imprisoning, say, a single mother for not buying a TV licence (yes, you with the blinkers on, they do put mothers of young children in prison) is likely to be forty times the cost of the licence. And they reckon that prison works?

What, then, does the convict learn from the experience of imprisonment? As illustrated above, for many the harsh lesson is that society is prepared to pay thousands of pounds to punish you, but not even a small fraction of that amount is forthcoming to prevent you turning to crime in the first place; in other words, punishing the poor for nothing more than their shortage of money. It is unlikely that many prisoners emerge from the experience with a more positive attitude to the iniquitous socio-economic system which first condemns them to a life of poverty, and then, when temptation gets the better of them, condemns them again to be punished. It’s no wonder that prison does little to discourage crime.

If all other things were equal, perhaps a case could be made for punishing transgressors, but as everyone knows, equality is not something that can be associated with capitalism. It’s bad enough that so many are trapped in a life of poverty, yet the arrogant pitiless free market has to constantly rub their noses in it. Conspicuous inequality is what leads the poor to try to obtain a little more by any means available. If politicians wanted to reduce crime within capitalism, they would establish a system to counsel, aid and attempt to rehabilitate offenders–alas, not politically popular and not many votes in it. On the other hand, if they were serious about eradicating crime, they would identify and attempt to remove the causes of crime. This, however, would raise questions about why we need private property, money, privilege, etc.–not likely to be tackled by most politicians, as the one thing they agree on is the continuance and support of a social system in which a minority owns most of the wealth and exploits the rest of us to maintain it.

The new Labour government, for all its claims to be “tough” on the causes of crime, is proving to be just as ready to cage people up in a way considered inhumane in zoos. Whichever side of the law you’re on, whether you’re in or out of jail, if you’re poor there is one sound-bite that will always ring true: Tough on you.
Nick Brunskill

Curate’s egg (2013)

Book Review from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Guide to Marx’s Capital, Volumes I-III. By Kenneth Smith. Anthem Press, 2012.

Readers of Volume I of Karl Marx’s Capital may have found the early theoretical chapters difficult. In a letter to Kugelmann (30 November 1867) Marx advises him that the following chapters were the most immediately readable: ‘Working Day’ (Vol. I, Part III), ‘Co-operation’ and ‘The Division of Labour and Machinery’ (Part IV) and ‘Primitive Accumulation’ (Part VI). In a letter to Wollmann (19 March 1877) Marx explained why he did not follow his own advice and start the book with the descriptive historical material: ‘In the scientific exposition the arrangement is prescribed for the author, although some other arrangement might often be more convenient and more appropriate for the reader’.

Building on Marx’s advice to Kugelmann, Kenneth Smith’s guide presents the three volumes of Capital in a different order of reading to that in which they were published, as a more user-friendly way of reading Marx’s work. However, in the course of his exposition Smith argues that for most of the twentieth century the full development of capitalism has been undermined by the existence of a non-capitalist ‘third world’ which has caused capitalism to take on the form of a highly developed mercantile system. Mercantilism, as Smith points out, is basically ‘buying cheap in order to sell dear’, rather than the accumulation of capital in industrial enterprises. But while some sellers can profit in this way, the seller’s gain is exactly offset by the buyer’s loss. The total amount of value in existence remains unchanged. If all sell dear then they cannot buy cheap and all lose as buyers exactly what they gain as sellers. Exchange, in Smith’s interpretation, is a zero-sum game. There has undoubtedly been a growth of speculative finance, but without the surplus value provided by the accumulation of capital there would have been no growth of ‘mercantile-capital’.

Smith also repeats a few myths, such as the claim that capitalism for Marx was characterised by increasing ‘immiseration’ of the working class. Despite the usual use of quotation marks, Marx never used that term. Central to the notion of ‘immiseration’ is increasing poverty of the working class, but this is based on a misunderstanding of Marx’s discussion of paupers in mid-nineteenth century Britain. The increasing pauperism Marx mentions in Chapter 25 of Volume I refers to the then ‘lowest sediment’ of society (the unemployed, the ragged, the sick, the old, the widows and orphans), not the entire working class. This issue is important because many commentators cite this misunderstanding as proof that Marx was completely wrong. For instance, the influential economist Paul Samuelson has asserted that since ‘the immiseration of the working class’ (using quotation marks as though he is quoting Marx) ‘simply never took place’ Capital can be disregarded (‘Marxian Economics as Economics’, American Economic Review, Vol. 57, 1967). Capital still demands attention, but Smith’s guide cannot be recommended.
Lew Higgins