Thursday, January 31, 2019

Summer School 2017: The Environment (2017)

Party News from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

These days, concerns about the environment tend to get pushed into the background by issues like Brexit, Trump’s presidency and ongoing austerity measures. But climate change, pollution and extinctions don’t go away just because the headlines are filled with other events. 2016 was the warmest year on record, with implications for sea levels and habitats; more and more waste is produced for future generations to deal with, and many hundreds of species continue to become extinct every year.

Legislation places some restrictions on the use of dangerous materials, hunting and waste disposal, for example. However, legislators can only work within a system which is structured to safeguard the interests of the wealthy elite, rather than everyone. And of course laws don’t always prevent environmentally-damaging methods from being used if they save or make money. Capitalism turns the natural world into a resource to be exploited for a profit.

The Socialist Party argues that the environment can only be managed responsibly if society as a whole is managed co-operatively and in everyone’s interests. If our industries and services were owned and run in common, then we would be able to produce what we need and want in the most reasonable, sustainable way.

Our weekend of talks and discussions looks at the current state of the environment, and its prospects for the future we make for it.

Full residential cost (including accommodation and meals Friday evening to Sunday afternoon) is £100. The concessionary rate is £50. Day visitors are welcome, but please book in advance.

To book a place, send a cheque (payable to the Socialist Party of Great Britain) to Summer School, Sutton Farm, Aldborough, Boroughbridge, York, YO51 9ER, or book online at or through the QR code. E-mail enquiries to

50 Years Ago: Bank Rate Cuts (2017)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bank Rate is generally regarded among the economic “experts” as a means of controlling the economy.

Put up the Rate, runs their argument, and you slow down production; put it down and production will start booming.

None of the experts have ever explained why, if it is really so easy to control capitalism, the economy ever gets into a crisis.

The Chancellor’s decision to reduce Bank Rate by one half percent was greeted as a stimulant to British industry.

“One positive gain,” said the Daily Telegraph, “it (the government) hopes to see … is a greater willingness among businessmen to proceed with their capital investment programmes.”

Since September 1953, when Bank Rate was 3½ percent, there have been twenty seven changes. Both Conservative and Labour governments agree that Bank Rate helps to control the economy, both have upped it to seven percent in times of crisis.

But none of these changes have altered a course of economic events which was already set. They have, in fact, been made in response to those courses; they have been not an influence but a reaction.

Callaghan’s panic seven percent last July was no exception and neither is the latest reduction. William Davis, the Guardian’s Financial Editor, put it:
   “I gather that the Bank of England advised the Chancellor a few weeks ago that a half percent cut in Bank Rate couldn’t be delayed much longer.”
The economy of capitalism, as so many Chancellors have found out, cannot be controlled by Bank Rate changes or any other juggling. The Labour Party should know this, perhaps better than anyone.

For they once had a mighty Plan to defeat economic crises. But just like the Tories, they end up doing what the Bank of England tells them.
(From “Review”, Socialist Standard, March 1967)

No Gods, No Masters? – Pagan Anarchism (2017)

From the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 29 September 2016, one user of the website ‘revleft’ introduced themselves as follows: ‘I’ve struggled to find information on different political theories that wasn’t heavily academic and inaccessible to me as someone with cognitive disabilities and neurodivergencies that otherwise make it *really hard* to understand a lot of the leftist “sub-groups” I guess I’ll call them? Ideologies? Only the Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer and the Gods and Radicals website in general has actually made any of this accessible to me so far’.

The ‘Gods and Radicals’ website ( publishes the twice-yearly publication Beautiful Resistance and published the Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer in 2015, written by Alley Valkyrie (Nightingale Public Advocacy Collection, and Rhyd Wildermuth (, Managing Editor at Gods and Radicals):
  ‘Once, humans made contracts with the land and the gods for sovereignty. Take too much and the land revolted with famine or pestilence. … We Pagans are trying to re-enchant the world, to bring back the magic of the forests and the mountains. We are trying to hear and revere the wild places, the sacred forgotten places, the spirits of ocean and rivers and lakes. And yet Capitalism is always poisoning these places because it considers nothing sacred except profit, nothing holy except wealth.’
‘Grand programs and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work… One answer cannot possibly fit every single one of the almost 8 billion people sharing this planet with us. Anyone who does come up with that answer should probably be shot on sight, as they’re pretty likely gonna start shooting people themselves pretty soon. Besides, ‘one-answer’ sounds a lot like ‘one-god,’ and we Pagans have lots of reason to be rue [sic] that one-god trend.’
The Primer goes on to urge the reader to ‘Build Community’, ‘Make Common Cause’, ‘Invest in Each Other, Divest from Capitalism’, ‘Consume Less, Create More’ and ‘Resist Often and Everywhere’. This ‘political theory’ wasn’t clear or ‘accessible’ and although this is only a 32 page e-zine, various other ‘pagan anarchist’ websites weren’t either. Not even the description of the book titled Pagan Anarchism (2016), by Christopher Scott Thomas could help;
  ‘Witches who poison bosses and landlords. Slave revolts instigated by a god of ecstasy. Eviction notices issued in the name of land spirits and Faerie queens. A ghostly general leading loom-breakers. Elves who destroy factories. Were these all merely myths, they’d still be more true than the superstitions upholding Empire and Capital. Yet they’re not myths, but our own history: the history of uprisings, of a fierce magic and a revolutionary current woven throughout the threads of Paganism and anarchism.’
This is a fantasy and not one likely to be welcomed by anarchists (or even some ‘pagans’ judging by comments online). Three quotes by Marx are included in the Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer, but Marx and socialists have always rejected superstition including ‘paganism’. Marx called this rejection of superstition part of ‘materialism’. As Marx wrote: ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.’

The preface to the German Ideology reads ‘… men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away.’

Religious superstition doesn’t have to be monotheistic, ostensibly apolitical, Abrahamic or even an organised religion to be opposed by socialists as a barrier to socialism. This includes ‘pagan anarchism’.

Decision-making in Socialism: How to Meet Needs? (2017)

From the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

In January – February 2017 the journals of the American leftist organization Solidarity (Solidarity and Against the Current) published a stimulating article by Sam Friedman entitled ‘Creating a Socialism that Meets Needs’. The author considers how production decisions might be made in a socialist society.

First a few words on Friedman’s political affiliation. His conception of socialism is broadly consistent with that of the World Socialist Movement (WSM), though he may have a different understanding of the road leading to socialism. He makes positive references to several works of Raya Dunayevskaya, who was Trotsky’s secretary during his Mexican exile but broke with him in 1939 over his insistence that the Soviet Union remained a ‘workers’ state’ (she regarded it as state capitalist, as we do). She then created a new school of thought that she called “Marxist Humanism’. Thus the author appears to belong to a tendency that has its origins in the Trotskyist branch of Leninism (Bolshevism) but has moved some distance away from Leninism and toward genuine socialist positions.

Consistent conceptions of socialism
Returning to Friedman’s article, why can we say that his conception of socialism is broadly consistent with ours? Above all, because he contrasts his own conception with the ideas of most other recent left-wing writers on post-capitalist society, who advocate a ‘market socialism’ in which worker-owned firms still hire labour and compete with one another to sell commodities on the market. He argues (as do we) that even if such a system were initially to differ in some ways from current forms of private or state capitalism it would inevitably degenerate into them.

In the author’s conception of socialism production is guided not by blind market processes but by decisions consciously and democratically made in the interests of the community as a whole. ‘Exchange’ is replaced by distribution. Aggregate output is no longer measured and assessed in terms of ‘growth’. All this corresponds to how the WSM views socialism or communism.

In contrast to Leninist doctrine, moreover, Friedman does not relegate this non-market and needs-oriented system to the remote future of a ‘higher stage’ of the new society – ‘communism’ as opposed to ‘socialism’. It is to be established immediately upon the conquest of power by the working class.

How to determine needs?
Like the WSM, Friedman states that production in socialism will be ‘for use not for profit’ and that its purpose will be to ‘meet human needs’. This, however, leaves unanswered the question of how to determine what human needs are.

Our literature frequently gives a simple answer to this question. Individuals will decide for themselves what goods they need. They will have free access to distribution centres where all desired goods are available in abundance. The advance of automation and robotics has made it technically possible to generate such abundance with a minimum of human labour. Elimination of the waste inherent in the money system will also play its part. (‘Money – a waste of resources’, Socialist Standard, July 2011).

On the other hand, we have also suggested that socialist society may for various reasons make a democratic decision ‘not to produce certain things even if quite a few people want them’ (‘Free access to what? Some problems of consumption in socialism’, Socialist Standard, July 2007).  Another article made a specific suggestion that socialist society might decide not to produce cars (‘Cars and socialism’, Socialist Standard, March 2013).

The author makes a similar point when he argues that ‘needs’ for specific kinds of goods will be met only after they have been ‘socially validated’ – that is, after all the possible negative as well as positive consequences of their production and consumption for people and for the environment have been assessed through the democratic institutions and procedures of socialist society. The needs of the community are to be determined socially and not just by aggregating the expressed needs of individuals.

Friedman’s emphasis on the social validation of needs is connected with his view of socialism in its early stages as a system operating under great stress. He does not view it as a society of abundance. This is not to say that he denies the potential for abundance. Rather, he foresees that by the time that socialism is established the human race will be embroiled in severe climatic, environmental and social crises. Top priority will have to be given to the tasks of coping with and gradually overcoming these crises. Enormous efforts will be required to halt and reverse global heating, care for masses of environmental and other refugees, and improve the living conditions of the world’s slum dwellers.

For a considerable period, therefore, the potential for abundance will not be fully realized. The author speaks only of achieving a ‘decency living standard’ for everyone. For instance, the choice of crops to grow will have to depend not primarily on what people prefer to eat but on how susceptible their cultivation is to drought, floods, and other extreme weather events (this example is ours).

A dual structure of decision making
Friedman’s conception of decision-making in socialism, like that of the WSM, consists of two elements. The first is the proceedings of elected councils at various levels, supplemented by procedures of direct democracy such as referenda. The second is the ‘requests’ (Friedman’s term) or ‘orders’ – the term used in the article ‘Supply and needs in socialism’ (Socialist Standard, July 1984) – that circulate within the network of production and distribution for material inputs required to maintain stocks of consumer goods at levels sufficient to meet individual needs.

For this sort of dual structure to work well it is necessary for the division of tasks between the two elements and their mode of interaction to be clear and effective. For example, the councils could concentrate on major decisions concerning the overall pattern of production facilities and supporting infrastructure. In order to prevent overloading of their agendas, fraught with the risk of neglect of their proper function, they must avoid entanglement in detailed decision making – although they might issue guidelines to assist those responsible for making detailed decisions.

Routine operational issues are better handled by direct consultation between workgroups. Provided that requests are reliably fulfilled, their circulation should achieve the desired result automatically. However, Friedman seems to envisage the councils functioning as clearing houses that receive and coordinate requests, assess how ‘reasonable’ they are, and find workgroups able and willing to fulfil them.

Reliable fulfilment of requests?
Why does Friedman assign this burdensome task to the councils? The key point is that he does not assume that workgroups can be relied upon to fulfil requests that they receive. A workgroup may deny a request because it disagrees with the associated production decision – he thinks it should have the right to do this – or for less legitimate reasons, in which case it might be subjected to ‘gentle community and perhaps organizational social pressure’ (whatever that may mean).

But how can the true motive be discerned? Surely all denials of requests would be justified by reference to the sole legitimate rationale – principled disagreement. For example, a factory might refuse to fulfil a request to change its output mix to meet new consumer preferences on the grounds that it considers the request ‘frivolous’ when its real concern is to avoid the inconvenience of reorganizing its operations.

By definition socialism is a society of free people. They cannot be compelled to do what they do not want to do, either by brute force or (as in capitalism) by threats to their livelihood. We have to assume that they will be sufficiently responsible and self-disciplined voluntarily to do whatever may be required to implement a democratically made decision, even if they disagree with that decision – unless, arguably, they have good reason to regard the decision as dangerously incompetent (if, say, a council has approved an unsafe design for a nuclear reactor). Otherwise socialism will have to acquire effective means of compulsion, but then it will be socialism no longer. This is one reason why socialism has to be established by a majority of conscious socialists.
World Socialist Party of the United States

Bourgeois Blues: The Future of a Collusion (2017)

From the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again” (— The Who)
The recent presidential election in the US has left many people around the world confused if not anxious. Yet worrying about Donald Trump This and Donald Trump That misses the point — and gives the Left altogether too much credit.

The Trump victory is symptomatic that the capitalist class has lost its revolutionary cachet. It rose to power having seduced its creature, the working class, to help it seize power in revolutions all over the world, most typically those in mid-19th century Europe. To accomplish this feat, it made a radical switch in the Romantic era, from fulminating against the menace of letting the working class govern – excoriated as ‘a great beast’ (The People) by Alexander Hamilton – to making common cause with its own class enemies, on the promise of indefinite rewards once the bourgeois middle class took power.

Overall, this new policy tended to work like a charm, though it was not without its problems. For one thing, it inadvertently legitimized long-standing grievances and demands of ‘power to the people’ that traced their roots back to the French Revolution of 1789 – in much the same way as the US would later legitimize the emerging Islamist movement of the 1970s by intervening in Afghanistan.

But the corporate revolution that set in following World War I caused the capitalist class to think better of its earlier flirtation with the forces of democracy and revolution. Increasingly conservative, many capitalists began thinking instead in terms of consolidating their power, a trend which the war had accelerated. Liberal capitalism was morphing into something more cohesive, a richer, denser plutocracy whose most pressing need was to thwart efforts to modify capitalism’s power structure in favour of the working class.

The ultimate expression of this trend today bears the ungainly names of ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘neo-conservatism.’ Its adepts brandish a massive array of carrot-and-stick policies aimed at controlling or confounding the working class through vast networks of deception, disinformation and – where these fail – naked force. But fussing over the details of class struggle can lead to its own peculiar myopia. Today’s all-powerful Right is actually a very shaky and dysfunctional bandwagon; its factions will in all likelihood begin falling out before too long. And borrowing from Marx’s observation in The 18th Brumaire, it is not hard to imagine a follow-up pendulum swing back in the other direction, as neo-New-Dealers farcically attempt a comeback, hoping to recover what they can from the preceding wreckage.

So what does this portend, exactly? Historically, politically and economically, the working class has always been the material force underwriting the legitimacy of capitalism. In the works, under the leadership of the oil billionaires, is nothing less than Capital’s gratuitous renunciation of any acknowledgement that it ever depended on the working class – especially for political support. Our Betters no longer need us to move and shake the world, either at times of crisis or in the hurly-burly of business. We are being handed our walking papers as a class. History is over. The hubris of Capital has grown so huge the master class now figures that the bad old days of needing our help every so often are, well, history. This naturally reinforces a tendency to regress to the earlier open antagonism toward any hint of a threat to profits. And we are in fact already there.

Some of this might even seem convincingly gloomy, as the capitalist class has shown no bashfulness about converting the enormous gobs of surplus value we have given them over the past two centuries into a 1984-style totalitarian control that makes the Nazis look like stuffy Victorians. Leftists continue to build careers around posturing before the monstrous injustices, the sheer wickedness, of the capitalist class; if your head is stuck inside their box, Marx’s rhetorical portrait of the challenges faced by a proletarian revolution might well induce a suffocating pessimism.

But in reality, no one can win the class war: capitalists cannot have everything their way any more than those whom they exploit. The capitalist class can only use the class struggle to its advantage, and every so often the working class manages to score a few upper-cuts of its own. The real question is the limits to which this struggle can be pushed. At the end of the day, however, it is not anyone’s wish-dreams that make the world go round. It is what humans find in the natural world and pass on to future generations that governs the fortunes of economic classes.

We are about to find out just where these limits lie. Capital has been testing them all along (with virtually everyone’s benediction), and now it must prove that ‘dominating’ nature really can be pulled off with impunity. Science is telling us some very alarming things to the contrary. And if we are to take those reports seriously, it is clear that climate change is going to tear the guts out of Capital’s average rate of profit, as the cost of responding to ‘natural’ disasters goes through the roof. However Capital may respond, the skyrocketing cost will overwhelm the fragile defences of the profit economy; the best we can hope for will be an anaemic and erratic global economy struggling endlessly to get back out of the red.

From an ant’s perspective, this decay might appear to be different from the fate of all other empires, but the variation is only one of degree.

Politically, all of this is guaranteed to test the working class’s loyalty and its willingness to continue pocketing the insults of Capital. So if the capitalist class is now moving triumphantly to inaugurate a neo-liberal/neo-conservative dispensation, cramming its hateful counter-reforms down the throat of an unwilling majority, it is a cinch that the capitalists are naïvely setting themselves up as a pack of unloved élitists wearing Scrooge costumes – just as Mother Nature, looming over them, prepares to whack the daylights out of their profit system.

For such a fatuous forgetfulness to set in at any juncture would entail serious consequences: for it to set in now, as unprecedented systemic stresses generated by climate change start rolling down the pike, will surely prove a fatal error. In forgetting where it came from, the capitalist class courts the loss of critical support at a critical moment and looks down the same road as the destitute Absolute Monarchy that once ruled France before 1789, until an angry and frustrated middle class finally lopped off its head.

The difference is that this time, the anti-capitalist revolution will not be headed by minorities bent on carving out a new status quo for themselves. Strictly speaking, it will not be headed by anyone at all. To the capitalist class it will appear like a frightening pandemic of madness, as the whole world seriously discusses ending the rule of Capital forever. But the only way to ‘fix’ capitalism is to abolish both wages and capital, and once that gate has been opened, the road back becomes irretrievably closed. All functions of leadership collapse into the cold, hard logic of common survival, whose articulation is at the disposal of every thinking person. That is what will make it world history’s one and only socialist revolution.
Ron Elbert
World Socialist Party (US)

Who’s to Blame for Capitalism? (2017)

From the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalists are not the ‘real culprits’. The real culprit is capitalism i.e., the capital/wage labour relation of production – the capitalist mode of production. Just as wage workers are slaves of wage, so also capitalists are slaves of profit who collectively constitute the necessary functionaries of capital.

Capitalists are merely capital personified. The existence of capital signifies the existence of the two interdependent and interrelated classes.  Neither of the two sides have any respite until capitalism is done away with through world socialist revolution, which requires the maturity of two necessary conditions: (1) subjective, i.e., the revolutionary will and organization of the working class, and (2) objective, i.e., material abundance on a world scale. It is an observable fact that productive and potential abundance on a world scale has existed progressively since about the beginning of the past century, whereas the other condition – the revolutionary will and worldwide organization i.e., class consciousness and an independent organization and movement – is still lagging behind. 

Long ago in 1865 Karl Marx urged upon the workers of the world: “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!‘” (Value, Price and Profit, 1865).

Thus, the historical responsibility for the abolition of wages slavery, the abolition of capitalism rests solely on the initiative of an independent organization of the working class as a class-for-itself. Then why blame the capitalists? Historically, they are not responsible for the ongoing state of affairs of society. They had accomplished their own capitalist revolution eventually dismantling feudalism – the landed aristocracy and serfdom having drawn into this task their workers as its driving force around the world. They had duped workers with their buzzwords –Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which is the national motto of France . That is all. Thus they had captured political power and then retained their buzzwords as a propaganda piece in their history books. Thereafter they had and have nothing to do with the next revolution in history – the World Socialist Revolution. Rather they are quite helpless regarding this task.

Socialist revolution vacillates because of the utter confusion created by the media – abetted by rightists, centrists and the leftists squaring the circle for capital – brainwashing and corrupting with their ubiquitous ideology glorifying nationalism, patriotism, the employment system, competition and private interests. This ideology has blinded and derailed the world’s workers about what is to be done. Pitiably, most workers of the world are still confined within capitalist perspectives. So if you want to blame anybody, you have to blame the workers of the world for not assuming and accomplishing their long pending revolutionary task.
Binay Sarkar
World Socialist Party of India

The Extremes of Exploitation (2017)

The Proper Gander Column from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the many signs that society is shifting into an even nastier variant of capitalism is the growth of slavery, something it’s easy to think of as obsolete since the 19th century, but which has never gone away. Today, the number of people kept as slaves worldwide could be between 21 million (according to the International Labour Organisation) and 46 million (Global Slavery Index), an accurate figure being hard to find in what is, by definition, a shadowy, underground industry. 13,000 people in the UK are thought to be living in slavery.

Slavery involves using fraud or coercion to recruit, harbour, transport or provide someone for forced labour, including prostitution. People might be enticed to accept a job, perhaps from overseas, only to then have their documents withheld by their new employers and be made to work under the threat of violence. They are usually kept in cramped, dilapidated accommodation owned by the slave masters.

As slavery has increased in Britain, so has awareness of it. Channel 4’s recent documentary The Modern British Slave Trade (Channel 4) was a useful, no-frills insight into the police investigation of two cases: a family-run slave camp of block-paving workers in Gloucestershire and a Cambridgeshire-based gang who exploited farm labourers.

The traffickers target people who need money and who are living on the fringes of mainstream society. In the UK, some of those kept in slavery travelled here from Eastern Europe or Vietnam hoping for a better life after having been given empty promises about work and accommodation. In Cambridgeshire, Eastern Europeans gather in Wisbech town centre at night waiting for the vans which take them to farms to work. In Scotland, especially, some nail salons are staffed by Vietnamese workers paid little and kept in squalor. Other recruits for the slave trade come from within Britain, vulnerable through poverty or isolation. Some traffickers target homeless people because it’s cheaper and easier to use them than paying to transport people from overseas, and also because they’re less likely to be missed. Vans regularly turn up at soup kitchens or outside homeless hostels looking for desperate people who haven’t heard the warnings. Women are a ‘very valuable commodity’ who are often coerced into sham marriages and sex work, after being threatened with having their organs ‘harvested’ so the alternatives don’t sound as bad.

Working days are as long as 19 hours, without any rights or safeguards. The police investigators film one of the slaves being beaten up; punishments are a constant threat. What wages the slaves receive are taken back by their owners through extortionate rents charged for sub-standard housing. Added to this are charges for food, transport to work and other spurious expenses, leaving the slaves with a few pence, or nothing, or in debt. The shared houses and camps don’t tend to have locked gates or high fences, but escape is prevented by threats of being killed when recaptured. Many people wouldn’t have anywhere else to go anyway. Slaves from abroad are unlikely to get another source of income (including state benefits), and if their ID has been taken, then they would find it even harder to cope in an unfamiliar country. Slavery, in a twisted way, gives them a place in society. Some of those no longer seen as any use end up getting ‘fly-tipped’. It is thought that this is what happened to a slave whose body was found outside the Gloucestershire camp.

In the programme, the slave masters’ plush, expensive homes are raided by the police and they are arrested. 289 offences were prosecuted in England and Wales under The Modern Slavery Act 2015 in its first year. The Act consolidated and amended existing slavery and trafficking legislation, originally dating back two hundred years. Some experts criticised the Act for not focusing enough on the needs of victims, who are likely to need counselling and rehabilitation. A few safe houses are available for slaves who have been rescued or escape, but they still face an uncertain, difficult future. Adjusting to a different life, whatever it is, may be a struggle, especially if they have been trapped for years or even decades. When questioned by the police, some deny they have been kept as slaves, through fear of being deported, or reprisals, or having been brainwashed in to thinking their life is acceptable.

Slavery is the most extreme way in which people get exploited. Profiting from someone else’s labour power is built in to the system, of course, so the difference between slavery and ordinary employment is one of degree, not kind. The vast majority of us are commodities to be bought and sold on the labour market, of which the slave trade is part. Slavery is possible because society makes some people vulnerable and desperate enough to fall into it, and others greedy and cruel enough to exploit them.
Mike Foster

The Worker’s Weekend (1972)

From the April 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

From Monday to Friday the weekend is the time most of us look forward to. This is the time for living it up or taking it easy, and so well is this recognised that numerous books and songs have been written and films made which deal with this theme. Indeed “the weekend” has become one of the most important social institutions in modern society. Life without Saturday night and Sunday morning would be unthinkable for most people and yet the weekend is only one more institution which, like any other, is evolutionary in character and must eventually disappear.

Just as the legal and political institutions of a society must correspond to the needs of that society (more accurately, of its dominant class) then so must the institution of leisure. The weekend can only have any real meaning in capitalism: it didn’t exist in feudalism and certainly won’t exist in Socialism.

In feudalism production was largely agricultural so time off work was partly governed by the seasons of the year. Even so, the Church made sure that many holidays (holy days) occurred in winter when work in the fields was often impossible anyway. And the idea of today’s summer break would have been ridiculous in medieval times as summer is when work is most needed in agriculture. Modern industrial society requires its work to be carried on throughout the year as the market knows no seasons and it has the artificial means (factories, mills, etc.) to do this. Indeed, lost working time in capitalism is usually caused by purely social factors — slumps leading to redundancy are an obvious example.

The Church, as the most powerful social and political institution in feudalism, decreed when and how many holy days should be observed. In medieval England and, right into the 17th century, the Catholic countries of Europe there were over a hundred holy days a year on which no work could be done and Church courts inflicted fasts and penances on those who broke this law. Further opportunities for leisure were provided by the many Fairs at which the known world displayed its wares. Eileen Power describes in Medieval People how Bodo, a Frankish peasant in the time of Charlemagne, and his family looked forward to these Fairs although their real purpose was to provide essential trading outlets in an age of poor communications. Obviously they have little relevance to modern society and have been replaced by the airborne travelling salesman, the tele­phone, and the manufacturer’s prospectus.

Medieval holidays took place irrespective of the day of the week they fell on. The Church was powerful enough to see to that. And they didn’t follow the mechanical two consecutive days-out-of-every-seven pattern like today. Rather they occurred in conjunction with important social, religious, and trading events like feast days and Fairs. In capitalism holidays have to coincide with the demands of industry — whereas May Day traditionally fell on May 1, today it has been relegated to the first Sunday in May. In other words, times for living it up in feudalism happened when there was an excuse for it. They were times for dancing and drinking, sport and lechery, with the clerics wailing that more sin was committed on holy days than on any other. We can confidently say that medieval leisure (or recreation) was geared to the productive forces and social relationships of feudal society.

Meanwhile, as the merchant class grew in strength and power it could see that the medieval system of holidays was incompatible with its need for an ideology fostering the regular working habits required by the new manufacturing system. The cry that England’s allegedly weak competitive trading position was due to the “misspending of our time in idleness and pleasure” occasioned by holidays and absenteeism is not the pro-­duct of the mid-20th century but of the early 17th.

With the triumph of capitalism over feudalism and the consequent further weakening of the Church’s power, the holy days were steadily eliminated until by the 1830s they had almost vanished. Holidays for much of the new-born working class meant, apart from Sundays, only Christmas Day. The same trend affected office workers too. The Bank of England closed for 47 holidays in 1761, 40 in 1825, 18 in 1830, and 4 in 1834. In Italy, where the Church is still powerful, the remaining Church holidays are coming under fresh attack and legislation is being prepared to rearrange these for the convenience of industry.

The long term effect of such harshness was that many workers used Sunday to drown their sorrows in and the resulting over-indulgence in alcohol produced widespread absenteeism. The shrewder of the employers saw the way to combat this and even rejuvenate the workers by providing more recognised holidays. The 60 hour week in the 1860-70’s produced the Saturday half holiday and by 1878 the term “weekend” was in use. Next came secular holidays unconnected with religious festivals and with dates specially picked to suit industry. In the 1890’s came summer holidays when whole industries closed down for a week with many workers spending the time away from home. The weekend which we now take for granted -Saturday and Sunday off-was not widespread until after world war two (this writer, employed in engineering, didn’t get it until 1948) and was due to the improved bargaining position of the workers caused by full employment.

Leisure as we know it today is the product of a modern industrialism which compels a division of labour within the factory and at the same time gathers all the work of the plant into a unified production process. Similarly, whole industries with their many plants and diverse component units become an integrated network. All these industries are linked together on a global scale so that all the workers directly or indirectly engaged come under this single dominating influence to which they must co-ordinate their use of time. This is why we have the weekend and why we all take our holidays together-to fit in with the requirements of those who as a class monopolise industry – the capitalist class.

Obviously, the way we spend our leisure has changed with the passing of centuries. In feudal times recreation was associated with participating in physical activity such as sport, dancing, etc. Today it means paying to watch others do this, going to the pub, or, more likely, watching TV. But there is an important similarity between the two ages in that both were societies in which men’s labour was controlled by a ruling class, so they usually hated their work. Up to the present day work and recreation have been strictly segregated and considered to be mutually exclusive.

But must this always be so? After all, there are some people, even in capitalism, who enjoy and even live for their work. This is especially so when they have some control over what they do and when the work is useful and stimulating. This will certainly be the case in Socialism, a society of production for use with everyone owning and controlling the means of production and distribution in common. People will be able to indulge in work that is engaged in from choice because of the enjoyment and satisfaction which it brings and is not subject to the compulsion imposed by the wages system. What people today call work may well be regarded as leisure or recreation in the future. So even our very concept of leisure changes along with changes in the economic basis of society. Certainly no regimentation of leisure such as today’s weekend represents will be tolerated in a free society like Socialism.

If the reader looks around him today he can see that this is not so far fetched as it may seem. Already there is an evolution away from the weekend idea. The increase of rotating shift-work has made many workers dissatisfied with fixed leisure time by giving them a taste of something different. Also, the growth of “Flexi-time” where workers may report for and depart from work within certain limits is an indication of their desiring and achieving more control over their own time. These developments should mean that workers hearing the socialist case aren’t required to mentally bridge such a wide gulf between the practices of capitalism and of Socialism. Our task as propagandists is made easier by developments within capitalism which erode fixed ideas about the world.
Vic Vanni

Obituaries: Harold Barlow & Claud Godfrey (1972)

Obituaries from the April 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to report the deaths of two of our comrades, Harold Barlow of Mid Herts branch and Claud Godfrey of Haringey. Harold Barlow was a retired railway worker and a member for nearly forty years; for thirty of these he worked for socialism practically on his own in Welwyn Garden City. He was therefore very pleased when in 1965 a local branch was formed. Harold was not a speaker or writer but he was a great canvasser and Socialist Standard seller. Claud Godfrey joined the old Tottenham branch in 1926 and before the war was an active outdoor speaker. After the war he was a regular attender at the Tottenham branch. On retirement he moved to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex but still kept in touch. We extend our sympathy to the families of both of these stalwart members.

Excuses, Excuses (1972)

From the April 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whenever the port-flushed hunting fraternity are compelled to think about, and justify, what they call their sport, they are likely at some time to interject that what finally keeps them at it is the suspicion that the fox actually enjoys being chased across the country-side to the point of exhaustion with a final flourish of being torn to pieces by the dogs.

Of course if the fox ever had time to think about it he might realise that all those ridiculously callous men and women in hunting pink cannot really justify what they are doing; unable to face their guilt they invert it. Since we are not foxes we can go further and say that this is a technique commonly used by a privileged group to justify their superior position and the effects of it upon their underlings. By now the drift of our argument should be becoming clear, even to the keenest huntsman who may have thought that this was to be a friendly discussion of his favourite bloody pastime.

For example let us consider some of the panic-stricken propaganda which has been fed to us since the unemployment figures officially topped the million mark. Now all those people are out of work at a time when every government spokesman who is brave enough to open his mouth about the economy tells us that we are in for a time of unprecedented prosperity. For some, indeed, that prosperity might be said to be already at hand; on the very day the government admitted to one million unemployed, the Financial Times ordinary share index hit a peak of over 500. Just over a year ago the index was 340, and falling.

Now it was obviously difficult for the government’s supporters to justify this apparent anomaly. One possible method of doing this was tried in the Daily Telegraph (21/1/72), which carried an article on the theme that there may in fact be a lot less than one million out of work, since the figure is inflated by fiddlers— by people who register for the dole while doing part-time or casual work. Especially mentioned was the building trade, with its substantial numbers of workers on the Lump — workers who, under the guise of the grand title of "self-employed sub contractors” need be no more than young fellows over from Ireland, digging trenches and pouring concrete. The Telegraph said, correctly, that many of these workers defraud the Inland Revenue over their income tax and therefore they also . . could be . . . claiming dole while working.” In fact, the two fiddles are distinctly different; self-employed workers of this sort are rarely able to claim unemployment pay because they don’t keep their card stamped, so by the same token they are unlikely to be swelling the ranks of the registered unemployed.

In any case there is another side to this tarnished coin. Undoubtedly there are workers who fraudulently get dole—who can blame them, since capitalism is one vast swindle, legal or otherwise? But at the same time there are those other workers who deflate the figures by not registering when they are entitled to do so. Anyone with any contact in this field knows that this is a not inconsiderable factor; they are people who may be reluctant to go to the Labour Exchange because they are not fully literate, or scared by officialdom, or depressed by the futility of it all. Sometimes they are bewildered by the procedure and get lost in the muddle of paperwork; sometimes they simply prefer to look for a job themselves rather than queue up to be interrogated by a clerk at the counter. The total number of these sorts of cases is uncertain but a subjective assessment suggests they could outweigh the fiddlers on the other side of the scale.

What the Telegraph is implying, to the applause of the hunting circles and in the suburbs where they ride to hounds only in colour-supplement dreams, is that the unemployed can find work any time they want to and must, therefore, enjoy being out of work. Anyone who is inclined to believe this should pop along to their local friendly Labour Exchange or Social Security office to join in the fun with the people in the queues, enjoying their lot almost as much as the fox when he starts to feel the dogs’ hot breath on the back of his neck. They might reflect, in any suitable pause in the gaiety, that the sort of argument put forward in the Telegraph, of excusing capitalism’s shortcomings rather than dealing with them, is really quite an old established one.

A couple of hundred years ago it was being used copiously to excuse the excesses of the slave trade. The suffering of the slaves was said, by the spokesmen for those who were making a fortune out of it, to be greatly exaggerated. In any case, the slaves were inferior beings; ". . . the most ignorant and unpolished people in the world, a little better than the lions, tigers and leopards . . . wrote Lord Chesterfield. Then again, the slave trade was actually an advantage to the slaves; after all they were being taken from a heathen land of tribal wars to a Christian country of peace where, said the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (which owned slave plantations in the West Indies) they would experience ". . . moderate labour unaccompanied with that wretched anxiety to which the poor of England are subject . . .”

In more recent times, and with more direct relevance to our situation today, the same argument was used about the unemployed in the thirties. Then, as today, we were being told that the figures were inflated by malingerers:
  . . . hundreds and thousands of young men who do not show any disposition to stir themselves to get out of unemployment into employment. They are content with a life of laziness . . . there is a slackness of moral fibre and of will as well as of muscle . . . (leader in the Times 22 February 1938)
The unemployed were even supposed to prefer the meagre food available to their dole-stricken tables. In his famous survey in 1934/5, Boyd Orr found that only one half of the population were getting a diet adequate for health and that for 30 per cent the diet was seriously deficient. We can imagine, if we did not actually experience it, what misery lies behind those words “seriously deficient”. One method of easing the problem for children was for local authorities to supply free, or cheap, meals at schools. Some tried this; others argued that there were no need, that the kids actually preferred to bring their own food (this was in rural areas) knowing that what the children would bring would rarely be better than bread and margarine. Only with the advent of government subsidised meals, as part of British capitalism’s campaign to keep us stoked up during the war, did this stubborn preference for bread and margarine miraculously come to an end and the working class stop enjoying malnutrition.

That strange coincidence really opens up the question. If the unemployed figures are made up so considerably of malingerers, if workers enjoy a stodgy, monotonous, deficient diet and all the other symbols of their poverty, why do such preferences rise and fall so spasmodically? Why do they rise in different countries at the same time, just when capitalism is in a slump and therefore luckily able to cater for this perverted taste for punishment and deprivation? Why are there so many malingerers around just now, to push up the figures to a million when they were working so industriously a couple of years ago when the figure was about 600,000 ?

Who believes in such coincidences? Statistics are by their nature imperfect (who has better reason to know that than the Socialist Standard?) but they do have the value of indicating social trends and movements. If the registered unemployed are now over a million it cannot be simply explained away, because it means something. It means that workers are destitute and suffering; it means that the men who profess to be able to control and improve our situation can do nothing about it. Indeed, Heath has recently admitted his own bewilderment:
  The combination of a high rate of inflation with a high level of unemployment was unique in British experience.
(Daily Telegraph 25/1/72. report of House of Commons debate.)
Of course Heath might have gone further and admitted that the social system he discussed so confidently when he was making his promises in the election in 1970 is out of control. In fact all of capitalism’s apologists might be seized by an inexplicable fit of honesty and admit what the evidence proves beyond doubt—that the working class hate unemployment and idleness and waste; that they are not content with hunger and malnutrition and poverty. But rather than do this, capitalism makes its excuses, and there are always cringing journalists to give them public voice.

Even when the system might come near to confessing its own shortcomings, it manages to turn the argument. A war, for example, can always be conveniently excused as the result of the insatiable lusts and unmanageable psychoses of the evil men who lead the other side— and evil men, as we are all taught in school, are history’s tragic accidents. The inevitable failures of capitalism can be explained away in such terms, or as mistakes which shrewder men might have avoided; thus Wilson can sneer at Douglas-Home as a washerwoman (as if the ex-fourteenth Earl knew the meaning of the word) implying that capitalism could be made to work in Britain provided less stupid men were in charge of it.

Wilson is one of the politicians who know better than that. The actions of governments are conditioned not by the personalities of their members but by the nature of the society they govern—or rather which governs them. Without doubt the Heath government would love to be able to eliminate unemployment at the same time as they eliminated the problems which “full” employment brought for capitalism, which made capital investment such a tricky proposition for so long. Every government since the war has set out to solve that one and has failed, basically because capitalism is a society of divided interests, with the capitalist class on one side and the workers on the other. It is not a society where rational decisions can be taken on humane grounds; it is society of chaos, based upon the fundamental anarchy of production for sale.

To excuse and justify the anarchies of capitalism is to help perpetuate them. As long as the system lasts there will aways be something to explain away—some inhumanity, some anomaly, some chaos. Tragically, at present it is the very people who suffer the effects of capitalism—the working class—who are too ready to justify it. They accept the nonsense that the unemployed are substantially made up of malingerers, even if they read about it while they are themselves in the dole queue; they accept that in war the other side is evil incarnate, and so on. In other words, they accept their own suppression which means they have something to learn from the fox, who at least runs for cover, because he knows just who those slavering dogs are after.