Friday, February 15, 2019

War in Syria (2016)

Book Review from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami (Pluto Press, 2016)

Of all the countries swept by the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, Syria has been the most unfortunate. The sole response of the Assad regime to peaceful popular protest was ruthless violent repression, eventually resulting in a devastating many-sided civil war, intervention by rival regional and world powers, and massive flows of refugees within the country and across its borders. The authors have drawn on a variety of sources, including interviews with direct participants in the events, to produce an illuminating and often harrowing account from an anti-authoritarian left-wing perspective.

The book begins with necessary historical background, focusing mainly on the various divisions within Syrian society and on the origin and evolution of the Ba’ath (Arab nationalist) regime under Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar. Chapters 3-4 portray the nonviolent phase of the ‘revolution from below’; Chapter 5 explains how resistance to the regime – inevitably under the circumstances – came to assume a primarily military form. Chapter 6 discusses the growth of the initially weak Islamist forces. Chapter 7 (‘Dispossession and Exile’) describes how millions of Syrians became refugees. Chapter 8 highlights the cultural renaissance that accompanied the uprising. Chapter 9 deals with the failure of old opponents of the Ba’ath regime inside and outside the country to play a significant role. The last chapter analyzes the attitudes of the international left toward events in Syria. An epilogue brings the story up to date as of October 2015.

Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami give a preview of their analysis in the Preface. In the areas where the government machine broke down ordinary people began to run their own affairs: ‘For a few brief moments the people changed everything.’). But then
 ‘the counter-revolutions ground them down. The regime’s scorched earth strategy drove millions from the country; those who remained in the liberated zones were forced to focus on survival. Syria became the site of proxy wars, of Sunni-Shia rivalries, of foreign interventions. Iranian and transnational Shia forces backed the regime; foreign Sunni extremists flocked to join the Islamic State… Nobody supported the revolutionaries. ‘
Note that the authors perceive not one but two counter-revolutions – the one represented by the regime and its foreign backers (Iran and later Russia), the other by the Islamic State (IS) and its wealthy patrons in the Gulf States. They even find covert links between these two forces: Assad assisted the growth of Islamism by releasing many Islamist militants from prison. Islamist predominance in the anti-regime camp is very much to the advantage of Assad, enabling him to present himself to a confused world as ‘the lesser evil.’

There is evidently widespread bitterness among non-Islamist oppositionists that they have received so little material and moral support from the West and from the international left. It is true that the slogans of the uprising initially emphasized ‘Western ideals’ like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Western politicians, however, are at best ambivalent about ideals; what they need is clients who can be trusted to serve the interests of the West and its regional allies. There is good reason to doubt the reliability in this capacity of Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ who, for instance, criticize Assad for insufficient militancy in the face of the Israeli enemy.

As for the international left, most of it – under the influence of its Bolshevik core – is inclined to support (‘critically’ or otherwise) the Assad regime. That is because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – their ‘enemy’ being not the world capitalist system but merely ‘US imperialism’ and its Zionist ally. Such is the stance, for example, of the Stop the War Coalition. It is only in the circles of the anti-authoritarian left that Syrian democrats can hope to find sympathy.

Although clearly written and coherently organized, this is a demanding book to read for anyone not already familiar with the complexities of Syrian society and the many political trends and movements within it. But if you want to understand what has been happening in ‘the burning country’ it is well worth the effort.

50 Years Ago: Rebels Too Late (2016)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few things have more searingly exposed the futility and absurdity of Labour’s so-called left wing than their ‘revolt’ over the government’s policies on prices and incomes and Vietnam.

In all the fuss over the revolt, it seemed to escape notice that, not for the first time, the rebels were rather late. The Prices and Incomes Bill was first introduced during the lifetime of the last government; the version which caused Frank Cousins to resign his Ministry is actually milder than the previous one.

On Vietnam, the Wilson government always made clear their support for American actions, including the bombing of the North.

In other words, the present government are simply carrying on the policies of the last. But in between there was the general election; that was the time for the rebels to make their disagreements known.

They might even have resigned from the Labour Party and fought on an independent platform. But they had probably all studied the fate of the Radical Alliance in Hull North. So what did they do? Well here are extracts from the election addresses of two of the Vietnam rebels:
Hugh Jenkins (Putney): … we need a longer period of office, with a more secure majority, so that we can get on with the job.
Sydney Bidwell (Southall): If you . . . intend to vote Labour again . . . may I warmly thank you in advance and urge you, in the name of our just and common cause, to make absolutely sure you use your vote.
No word of dissension disturbed the orthodoxy of these addresses. Hugh Jenkins was hanging so firmly on to Wilson’s coat tails that he embellished his address with a picture of the Leader, pipe and avuncular expression and all. There was plenty to protest about last March but the rebels held their tongues. And their seats.

(from News in Review, Socialist Standard, August 1966)

Rear View: Ortega, Somoza Mark II (2016)

The Rear View Column from the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ortega, Somoza Mark II
Daniel is determined not to lose any more elections. Having ousted the previous dictator Somoza in 1979, he and the Sandinistas became the new darlings of the Left and used the inane slogan ‘between Christianity and socialism there is no  contradiction.’

Following a decade of dictatorship the Sandinista regime agreed to release some political prisoners and hold free elections in return for the closing of Contra bases in Honduras. He subsequently lost several elections before returning to power in 2007 as the Catholic president of Nicaragua, one of only five countries where abortion is totally illegal. ‘President Daniel Ortega has named his wife as his running mate in November’s elections, leading to accusations he is trying to found a political dynasty.

The former guerrilla fighter hopes to win a third consecutive term for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice president. “This revolution – in which women have participated shoulder to shoulder – has opened the doors to the full participation of women in all spheres: political, social and economic,”’ he said’ (, 4 August). Such nonsense is only matched by that of another President, Ronald Reagan, calling Nicaragua a beachhead of communism.

Corbyn’s Commandments
‘Jeremy Corbyn will today set out ten pledges “to rebuild and transform Britain”. Speaking in London, the Labour leader will promise to ensure full employment as prime minister by creating one million jobs to build new infrastructure and call for an NHS free of  private-sector involvement. “We could all be living richer lives in a sustainable, more prosperous and more caring society,” he is to  say’ (, 4 August). These pledges include expanding wage slavery and a million new homes being built over five years. Yet no Labour government has ever left office with unemployment lower than when it started and after World War II (Labour has supported all wars since WWI – bang goes the peaceful foreign policy pledge!) Bevan promised to solve the housing problem.

Other pious pledges include ‘security at work’ (recall the use of troops as strike breakers against the dockworkers) and a secure NHS. Labour Minister Bevan felt more secure with his own private physician, and let us not forget he oversaw the introduction of charges for dental and optical services as well as prescription fees. Tuition fees? That was Labour too. Do not bank on the pledge for them to be reversed! The climate change pledge? That’s likely to be just hot air. Free transport? No, nothing more than the possibility of an expanded publically-controlled bus network. Apparently, FTSE 100 CEOs are now paid 183 times the wage of the average UK worker. Expect a redistribution of crumbs, nothing more. Emphasis on human rights? Your right to be exploited is guaranteed under Labour!

Socialism, the smart answer
‘If futurist, inventor, and Google executive Ray Kurzweil is right about the future, we’ll all be augmenting our brains with extra capacity in the cloud at some point in the future. Which sounds exciting, even if a little frightening. But this very advance could also pave the way for the rich to become thousands of times smarter than poor people, which would likely permanently solidify and even exacerbate current socioeconomic stratifications’ (, 2 August). The rich do not need to become smarter – we work for them and run society from top to bottom. A member of the 1 percent does not need to be particularly smart to know if they have enough money in their Swiss bank account to purchase ‘a $22 million penthouse in Las Vegas’ and its ‘fast car, fine art and free tickets to sporting events’ (, 1 August). A more likely scenario is that some of us would be augmented in order to develop new weapons, advertising campaigns, reality TV concepts, or discover why ‘homeowners in affluent neighbourhoods play host to more species of arthropods than their poorer counterparts’ (, 4 August). But just imagine for a moment how useful enhanced intelligence could be in a society where everyone of us could benefit. No pinko liberal enhancements on our watch!

50 Years Ago: Apartheid Must Go (2016)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party is opposed to Apartheid, just as to any other policy or movement based on colour prejudice. We think racism is foolish, unscientific and against the interests of the working class. We can see that the South African government’s slogan of Apartheid (‘separation’) is really a hypocritical screen for baasskap (white domination), and that all manner of atrocities and hatreds flourish under the Verwoerd tyranny.

Our attack on apartheid is quite distinct from the attacks made on it by other organisations such as the Labour Party, Communist Party, Christian Action, etc. We do not support the “anti-apartheid” movement.

Socialism will be a world wide democratic community without private or government ownership of the means of production and will mean the end of Apartheid, together with a lot of other major human problems like wars, slumps and poverty.

To detach ourselves from other organisations who attack apartheid is no sectarian quibble: the most that members of the anti-Apartheid Movement can suggest to replace Apartheid is something rather like we have in Britain today. In other words, they want to swap one system of oppression for another. The only ‘equality’ they want for the races of South Africa consists of the equal ‘privileges’ of wage-slavery.

The best interests of industrial capitalism in South Africa call for the abandonment of Apartheid policies and the putting into effect of social reforms aimed at integrating Africans into the labour force as better trained exploitable wage workers. However, in view of the historical background of South Africa, capitalism has to adjust itself to a political situation that expresses the deeply entrenched prejudice that exists. (….)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is with the working class of South Africa in their struggle for democracy, for the vote and for the right to strike. But more than that, we work for the day when black, white, coloured and Indian workers in South Africa will unite with workers all over the world to remove wage-slavery and establish Socialism.
(from article by Steele, Socialist Standard, September 1966)

Knowledge: A Matter of Opinion? (2016)

From the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is often said that: ‘we all have a right to our opinion’. Socialists would confirm this, perhaps not as a matter of rights but as an inevitable consequence of an enquiring mind. The expression of an opinion within the public arena is, of course, a rather different matter. I was once informed by a librarian that he would not stock the Socialist Standard because they would then have to make available fascist material in an effort to balance two political ‘extremes’. Somehow, in this perverse logic, because we have always opposed xenophobia, racism, class/political elites, militarism and authoritarianism (the essence of fascism) we are responsible for our own antithesis!

We would say that some opinions have more value than others when analysed in terms of motivation and obvious intrinsic humanitarian content. On a more prosaic level if you have problems with your car it is rational to consult a qualified mechanic rather than someone who has watched motor racing on the TV occasionally. It is the same with politics – an opinion not grounded in some level of study is of less value than that of another who has dedicated their life to understanding the origins and evolution of social power. It may be objected that even those who have made such a study may, and do, come up with very different, and often opposing, values and perspectives. Is, then, all knowledge merely a matter of opinion?

Most of us would not consider ‘gravity’ as a matter of opinion. It is, of course, a theory that attempts to explain the observed phenomena of the attraction of two bodies – commonly called ‘falling’. It might be said that this is a scientific fact and so cannot be compared to political ideas. But anyone who is interested in the history of science is aware that scientific consensus is often the result of bitter internal struggles within the science establishment. Some have maintained that the discipline of history (including the history of science) is purely the creation of historians and is, therefore, entirely composed of subjective opinion. But has any historian claimed that Belgium invaded Germany to start the First World War; or that Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo? If they were to do so then the subsequent derision would be well deserved as in the case of the theories of ‘holocaust deniers’.

Socialists are materialists and one of the consequences of this philosophy is the insistence that events, whether scientific or political/historical, occur independently of their observation. We insist that a tree can fall even if there is nobody there to observe it doing so. This, in no way dilutes the importance of human agency within the understanding of phenomena but it insists that it is the objective existence of phenomena that must always precede our ability to observe it and think about it. Our minds, both physically and psychologically, have to exist independently before we can ‘think’ at all. Is it possible, then, to cut our way through all of the preconceptions and prejudices that so often make up an ‘ideology’ and get to the elusive ‘what actually happened’?

Class struggle
The recent success of the ‘Brexit’ campaign has been explained by some as an example of an uneducated and politically naive section of the population being easily manipulated by lies about the nature of the EU and the benefits of leaving it. But what of those who make this judgement – from where does their superior information originate? The ‘liberal’ media also has an ideological agenda that is just as politically superficial as that of the Brexiteers. How can we be sure of this? Because both camps completely ignore the biggest political elephant in history’s room – the class struggle. Well over one hundred years ago the discovery was made that this was the dynamic element within human culture which drives historical development. The implications of this for liberal sensibilities are intolerable and so are ignored thus rendering any attempt at political analysis superficial and ultimately meaningless. It’s like trying to understand evolution without reference to genetics or physics without reference to quantum mechanics.

All political phenomena have their origin within the relationship of social groups (classes) with the means of the production of life (industry, etc). This mutual antagonism is reflected within all political ideologies whether recognised or not. Some debate the possibility that you can be involved in the class struggle without being conscious of its existence but nobody would claim that before we became aware of the existence of bacteria and viruses they had no effect on human life. This is the essence of materialist thought – we strive to create theories that are increasingly successful in describing our world which, in turn, allows us to be more confident in our predictions of how it might change. Knowledge is the historical assimilation, refinement or rejection of such theories; in this sense it can never be purely a matter of personal opinion unless that opinion originates within, and recognises, this context through study. It is not a matter of cultural consensus since this is invariably the creation of power elites who only seek to justify their continued existence and therefore explicitly reject any theories concerning the dynamics of historical change which might indicate an end to their rule.

The absence of class consciousness prevents political evolution because ideologies swirl around the anachronistic phantoms of nationality, race, gender, religion and (the most fantastic of all illusions within a capitalist context) economic fairness and social justice. Because, historically, the working class represent the revolutionary catalyst they have a privileged perspective in terms of relevant knowledge – they see the world as it really is and, potentially, what it can become. The universe is indifferent to the needs of our species, as is history. Many have dedicated their lives to creating equality and justice but without knowledge their failure was inevitable. The resolution of the class struggle is the only way to liberate our species from the slave mentality that sustains capitalism. Once achieved there seems to be no limit to our potential – think about this the next time you are promised a few more crumbs from the rich man’s table by liberal/leftists, whether we are part of the EU or not.

Rear View: Everything is for sale (2016)

The Rear View Column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Everything is for sale
‘Brokers in Egypt’s underground trade in human body parts use prostitutes to tempt migrants to sell their kidneys as hospitals turn a blind eye to illicit dealing in donated organs for transplants, a report says. Undocumented African migrants arriving in Cairo, desperate for cash, told the British Journal of Criminology that sex workers were offered as a “sweetener” before or after removal of their organs. “(One pimp) used the services of sex workers as leverage when negotiating fees with both sellers and buyers,” the report said. “A night with a sex worker was offered as an extra inducement to sell.” Organ purchase is banned in Egypt, though the country is a common destination for transplant tourism, along with India, Pakistan and Russia, according to separate research by Erasmus MC University Hospital Rotterdam in the Netherlands’ (, 2 September).

Wages in a sick world
The Daily Mail is a mine of misinformation which has supported fascism and today works with the People’s Daily, the official organ of the so-called Communist Party of China. That the British Medical Association’s ‘Junior Doctors Committee (JDC) is full of Labour Party members’ and ‘many are Jeremy Corbyn supporters and have links to Left-wing group’ may well be true, but to say they ‘idolise [sic] Marx’ and want to make ‘capitalism history’ (, 2 September) is nonsense. Socialists support action by doctors, just as we do with any such activity fought on sound class lines, but would urge them as fellow members of the 99 percent to note the remarks of one Dr. Marx: ‘the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects…that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady’ (Value, Price and Profit, 1865).

Not yet endangered
Some 40 percent of animal species are parasites, a fact recognised by the nursery rhyme Fleas:
Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so, ad infinitum.
D. H. Lawrence in one of his poems compared the mosquito and capitalist:
The mosquito knows full well, small as he is
he’s a beast of prey.
but after all
he only takes his bellyful,
he doesn’t put my blood in the bank.
‘Mosquitoes kill more humans than any other animal and were linked to roughly 500,000 deaths in 2015, mostly from malaria. For more than a century, humans have used bed nets, screens and insecticides as weapons, but mosquitoes keep coming back. They are now carrying viruses like Zika and dengue to new parts of the world’ (, 2 September). Capitalism has eradicated Rinderpest and Smallpox. and the spread of Zika may hasten the demise of its carriers. Yet, the driving force of capitalism is the pursuit of profit not health. Neglected tropical diseases are aptly named as they are largely confined to members of our class living in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The eradication of NTDs is possible but not profitable. The establishment of socialism means the end of capitalism and the parasitical 1 percent.

Not FARCical
‘Colombia’s Marxist FARC rebel group said on Friday it had rescheduled its conference to ratify a peace agreement with the government to Sept. 17-23. After almost four years of protracted talks in Havana, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government agreed last week to end a five-decade-long war that has killed more than 220,000 and displaced millions’ (, 2 September). Socialists are, of course, pleased that the slaughter may soon be over but are sick to their back teeth with media lies and distortions. FARC is Marxist in the same way that North Korea (DPRK) is democratic. In fact, FARC declare themselves to be Bolivarian and call for ‘Colombia for Colombians, with equality of opportunities and equitable distribution of wealth and where among us all we can build peace with social equality and sovereignty’, rather than for Marx’s call for workers of all lands to unite for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Marx during his lifetime was implacably opposed to political terrorism and fought a bitter battle with the anarchist, Michael Bakunin, which resulted in the expulsion of the latter from the International Workingmen’s Association. Marxist socialists oppose terrorism, individual, group or state, guerrilla ‘armies’ and so-called national liberation struggles. Instead we organise for and propagate worldwide common ownership, democratic administration, control of the land, means of production and transportation and the abolition of the wages system.

50 Years Ago: Confusion on the Left (2016)

The 50 Years Ago column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is obvious that those trade union leaders who back the wages freeze are not acting in the interests of their members. But even those who oppose the freeze are hopelessly confused when it comes to politics. This was well shown at a meeting on September 1 organised by five of the unions opposing the freeze.

Not seeing Socialism as a practical alternative, the five general secretaries who spoke offered their own solution to the present financial problems of the British capitalist class: cut military spending overseas; impose import controls; launch a productivity campaign and end the status of sterling as a reserve currency. On this last point, loud applause followed a statement of the general secretary of the Association of Scientific Workers in which he said that they did not want ‘our’ currency being a commodity traded in by foreign bankers! Again, Clive Jenkins of ASSET commended De Gaulle’s policy of erecting a fence round France to prevent Americans buying up French industries. ‘I’d like to see the same here’, he said amidst applause.

This petty patriotism expressing itself as a dislike of international bankers (and America) is a characteristic of the Left, one which clearly distinguishes them from Socialists. Socialists know that patriotism is a delusion as workers have no country.

Jenkins’ main charge against the Labour government was that it was incompetent. Wilson was wrong, he said, in claiming to have been blown off course; he had steered right into the eye of a hurricane. ‘Had the government not heard of Keynes?’ he asked, suggesting that since Keynes any government that allowed unemployment to grow must be incompetent.

This is another myth of the Left. Governments fail to solve our troubles not because they are incompetent or insincere or irresolute but because they are trying to do the impossible. Our problems just cannot be solved within capitalism. The Left, with their so-called solutions, merely serve to keep alive the myth that capitalism can be made to work in our interests. That is why Socialists oppose them.
(Socialist Standard, October 1966)

What Could Socialism be Like? (2016)

From the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism will be a global society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s natural and industrial resources. But how might this work? How will production, decision-making and culture be affected?

There will be a complete transformation in the calculation of resources, and their production and distribution. In capitalism articles of wealth (commodities) are produced to be bought and sold on markets, at a profit. This trade in commodities generates: waste; pollution and externalities; overproduction and under -production; built-in obsolescence; quantity over quality; crisis and booms; poverty amidst plenty; employment for some and a waste in human potential for most; and obscene wealth for the few.

With no commodity production and trade there will be no exchange value and prices, just the inputs and outputs of resources and human needs. The decision-making process will aim to ensure there’s sufficient stock control to meet projected needs through calculation in kind.

This decision-making process will also configure: environmental impact assessments; a high standard of quality control and durability; positive recycling – where products will be deliberately designed so to ensure that they last longer and when they are passed their usefulness all their component parts are easily recycled into other useful products; and transportation miles for distribution of human needs so the shortest journey possible is covered. This efficiency of calculation will ensure the energy required for producing needs will be kept to a minimum and promote the production of renewable energy sources.

Here the system will be participatory delegate democracy. In capitalism political parties represent the sectional interests within the capitalist class with all of them competing for political control of the state and its machinery of government. With no sectional interests to  be represented when there is common ownership, there won’t be political parties or a state machinery. Nonetheless, major issues will be thrashed out with decisions being made on what’s the best course of action for gaining a successful outcome.

A bottom up decision-making process involving voluntary participation cannot be imposed by a hierarchy or a vanguard or the concept becomes meaningless. The basic building block is the community or neighbourhood assembly, face-to-face meetings where citizens meet to discuss and vote on the issues of the day, not that there will need to be a vote on every issue as most of day-to-day work carried out will be routine. These assemblies elect mandated and recallable delegates who then link with other assemblies forming a confederated council, a ‘community of communities’. The difference between this form of delegate democracy and our current form of representative democracy is that in a representative democracy power is given wholesale to the representative who then is free to act on their own initiative. In a delegate democracy the initiative is set by the electing body and the delegate can be recalled at any time should the electing body feel that their mandate is not being met, thus power remains at the base.

Due to the impact of common ownership on the global community there’ll be even more of an increase in cultural choices and options than there is under capitalism. Unrestricted to the social conformity of private property relationships, individuals and communities will be able to focus on an ongoing celebration of freedom of expression – leading to an increase in cultural diversity.

Leisure activities are likely to increase in scope and decrease in size. Presently, with package holidays the most affordable way of taking a break from the drudgery and monotony of the production line or the office, they are the most popular form of holiday.

In socialism, where the principle of free access underpins the common ownership of the means of living, our options and choices on travel and holidays would be extended and influenced by what positive contribution we can make to the country we are visiting. And with package holidays and mass tourism a thing of the past, it is likely holidays in socialism would not be restricted within a timescale of 10 to 14 days of hectic hedonism, but transformed into an unique opportunity to stay in a particular location for as long as it takes to understand the history and culture of that region. In effect the transformation in the social relationships from private property ownership to common ownership will radically alter our perception of culture, leisure and travel.

Human nature
But wouldn’t all this be against human nature? No. Socialists make a distinction between human nature and human behaviour. That people are able to think and act is a fact of biological and social development (human nature), but how they think and act is the result of historically specific social conditions (human behaviour). Human nature changes, if at all, over vast periods of time; human behaviour changes according to changed social conditions. Capitalism being essentially competitive and predatory, produces vicious, competitive ways of thinking and acting. But we humans are able to change our society and adapt our behaviour, and there is no reason why our rational desire for human wellbeing and happiness should not allow us to establish and run a society based on co-operation.

Needs have a physiological and a historical dimension. Basic physiological needs derive from our human nature (e.g. food, clothing and shelter), but historically conditioned needs derive from developments in the forces of production. In capitalism, needs are manipulated by the imperative to sell commodities and accumulate capital; basic physiological needs then take the historically conditioned form of ‘needs’ for whatever the capitalists can sell us.

Social evolution suggests that no mode of production is cast in stone and the dynamics of change also affects capitalism as a social system. Studies of social systems with distinct social relationships related and corresponding to their specific mode of production have identified, for instance, primitive communism, chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. All of these societies changed from one into another due to the contradictions inherent in that society and also due to technological advancement which each society found itself incapable of adapting to. Capitalism reached this point over a century ago. It’s time to move on to socialism.

Science versus Religion (2016)

From the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

In spite of the rapid decay of organised religion in most European countries, many people still cling to a vague belief in God and in related religious ideas. A few adopt and defend them fervently. How can this be so in the modern world of gene therapy and space research?

In spite of the overwhelming success of the scientific method of thinking and its application to achieving practical results, it seems to bring as many evils as benefits. For this reason, many people distrust and fear science. They do not want it to be true that science has all the answers, because that seems to mean that there is no hope of an alternative to the way things are. They would rather believe that there is a way of solving problems which lies outside the realm of science and common sense.

In spite of the desire to escape the pressures and anxieties of the modern world, and a readiness to abandon common sense in order to embrace the supposed certainties of religion, more and more people are finding difficulty in taking it seriously because so many things about religion contradict each other or experience.

The anomalies and absurdities that make it difficult or impossible for the majority of people to take religion seriously are often excused by religious apologists as being accidental features that could be straightened out. They ignore the fact that religion has had a very long history and prehistory during which the process of straightening out has been going on all the time. If we study the history and the geography of religion, we can see that the absurdities are fundamental, and that when they are finally eradicated it will mean the eradication of religion itself.

The reasons which make people want to turn to religion are genuine reasons. They are sufficiently aware of the world they live in to know that life for the great majority of people, even in ‘advanced’ countries, is hurried, anxious and stultifying, while millions in the world are haunted by insecurity, poverty, starvation and the fear of war. And they feel that something could be done about these things, considering the enormous productive potential and ingenuity of modern technology. Yet it is exactly here that religion, or what is left of it, has become thoroughly integrated with the sick philosophy of modern capitalism – that the only things we can have in this life are the things that don’t really matter. This is not only false – it is dangerous for the future of humanity. What angers the socialist is what this vague religious attitude which many people still retain enables their feelings and thoughts to be manipulated by the unscrupulous, through modern techniques and media of persuasion, so that they are not left free to do their own thinking. In a multitude of subtle ways people are persuaded that no real relief or improvement is possible – above all, that there is nothing they themselves can do about their problems.

Instead of retreating from science, the socialist applies scientific enquiry even more thoroughly – to human affairs themselves – and asks how it is that our living standards, our personal relationships, industrial relations, commercial practice, international affairs, are as they are, and why they change as they do. Instead of faith, humility and resignation, the socialist approach is one of knowledge – of coping with reality instead of escaping into ‘higher things’.
Richard Donnelly

This article was left unsigned in the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard, but it was in fact written by the late Dick Donnelly, who had died the previous year.

Andrea’s Friend (2016)

The Greasy Pole column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

There have been many Prime Ministers who have tamed some persistently disruptive rival by giving them a job. So there were many questions asked when Theresa May promoted the likes of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis. And among them was Andrea Leadsom, now Minister for the Environment. During the EU Referendum and subsequent Conservative leadership contest  Leadsom was notable for having certain doubts about her antecedents, her unwavering  prejudices and her forceful style of expressing them. It seemed likely that she would emerge as a front runner in a Tory leadership contest. Except that she withdrew before it came to that, which gave May a free run and the opportunity to promote the likes of Johnson, Fox and Davis – and Leadsom herself.

When Leadsom, framed in some expensive London doorway, announced her withdrawal to the assembled hacks and media gossips,  it was apparent that she was supported by, among  others, a man whose proximity to her and whose forlorn expression proclaimed that he was her most ardent supporter. This was Tim Loughton, the Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, who was  briefly Under Secretary of State for Children and Families. He had become attached to Leadsom when they were – like David Davis – undergraduates at Warwick University. They were also members of The Patricians – a black tie dining club. Loughton was already active in the Conservative Party and signed her up. It was natural that this should encourage rumours about a rather deeper relationship but Loughton has always denied this (as if it mattered). He later took a close interest in her as another Tory MP and when Cameron resigned and she announced that she was in the running for the leadership he stood out among her closest supporters. He organised a campaign which included a small, but noisy ‘march’ on Parliament energised by the shouts between Loughton and the rest: ‘Who Do We Want?…Andrea Leadsom!!!…When Do We Want Her?…Now!!!’ The timing of this must have been faulty as it happened just before Leadsom decided to drop out of the contest so that Loughton later had to admit that the whole thing was ‘a bit of a cock-up’. After all, Leadsom had quickly abandoned the ‘march’ to take a posh taxi to the House of Commons. However there is no reason to think that Loughton’s enthusiasm for her and the party has declined.

In fact his experience in politics has probably taught him something about humiliation. His first attempt to get into Parliament was in 1992 as a candidate for Sheffield Brightside. This was also in its way something of a cock-up. Sheffield Brightside was represented by David Blunkett, blind but relentlessly ambitious, who in that election took 29,771 votes while Loughton got 7,090. What may not have been apparent to Loughton massaging his grief was that Blunkett’s career would not be some kind of conqueror’s march through the seats and corridors of Westminster. The future Baron Blunkett of Brightside and Hillsborough endured a long period of being in and out of important and influential ministries – typically Home Secretary – but was repeatedly cut down by what came to be coyly described as ‘ highly publicised matters relating to his personal life’ or ‘ external business interests’. His standards of professional judgement were often under scrutiny, such as when an ex-Director General of the Prison Service recalled that Blunkett had advised him to subdue rioting prisoners through the use of the army and machine guns. In one crucially influential case it was revealed that he had apparently used his powers as Home Secretary to speed up the renewal of a passport application by the Filipino nanny of one of his female acquaintances.

Well, Loughton was able to offer a variation on that. For the 1997 election he had a gentler ride at the breezy seaside resort of East Worthing and Shoreham, where the accepted standards of poverty were rather easier than among the mills and mines of Sheffield.  In the 1997 election Loughton won with a majority of 5,098, which at subsequent elections rose until in 2015 it reached 14,949. In May 2010 he had been promoted to a post known as ‘Children’s’ Minister‘ and laid down his working principles by a vote against same sex marriages on the grounds that ‘…marriage is a religious institution and should be kept as a union between one man and  one woman’. Despite  or perhaps because of  this a few months later he was sacked in one of David Cameron’s reshuffles. Loughton did not take this too well, describing it as an example that the government had ‘dropped the ball’ over the recurrent scandal of child exploitation – ‘the children and families agenda has been a declining priority’, When a reporter from the local Worthing newspaper The Argus asked him ‘If you were doing such a great job why did Cameron sack you?’ he replied ‘You tell me… I was summoned to see the Prime Minister. I actually thought there was a chance I would get promoted. He sat me down and told me what a wonderful job I had done. Then he said he wanted to give someone else a go’.

Loughton’s response to this treatment was to declare a kind of war of relentless questioning against those who had taken over from him at what was known as the Department of Education. He dismissed his successor the Lib Dem Sarah Teather (who was also sacked) on the grounds that, unlike him, she ‘…did not believe in family as she certainly did not produce one of her own’. This was an argument subsequently used against Theresa May, pointing out that she is childless as against Leadsom being a mother of three. He condemned the Minister, then Michael Gove, being like Young Mr Grace in the TV sitcom Are You Being Served? The response from an anonymous member of the staff at the Ministry was to use the Spectator for an adjective-laden description of Loughton as ‘a lazy, incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion’. By that time Loughton had been reported for using a four letter expletive about an unpaid volunteer in Worthing who had reacted to a picture of him sitting with some children in a local school by asking how many of them would be suffering from worse poverty as a result of his government’s policies. In the Sunday Times  of 7 August Dominic Lawson referred to ‘The unfailingly foolish Loughton’ but it is not just the likes of him that we need to be concerned over. Think about Baron Blunkett, David Davis, Michael Gove etc and about this society, with its gruesome system which they are allowed by us to represent.

FARC and the War in Colombia (2016)

The Material World Column from the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Cuba the current government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace accord, negotiated over the last four years, which may put an eventual end to one of the longest running civil wars in modern times. . There are also smaller guerrilla forces such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), but FARC are the most important actor.

A national referendum will be held to confirm the terms of the peace agreement after a 52-year civil war that has cost 220,000 lives and driven more than 5 million people from their homes. FARC was set up as an armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964 and has been in conflict with the government ever since. At the height of its power, it controlled up to one-third of the country, typically remote, rural parts, but its association with the Communist Party did not mean that it was ideologically driven. It responded opportunistically to the changing conditions of its support – the peasantry –  which may explain its continuity for over 50 years.

Alberto Ramos, head of Latin American Economics at Goldman Sachs, told CNBC, ‘The economic peace dividend is expected to materialise gradually, through higher tourism and domestic and foreign investment, particularly in less safe, remote areas of the country and the rotation of budgetary resources from the military apparatus into other more productive areas, such as physical and social investment in neglected rural areas plagued with armed conflict. Over time, the economic peace dividend is expected to more than offset the initial costs associated with the disarmament and integration of the rebel forces into civil society’.

Much of the media mistakenly describe FARC as Marxist, the more nuanced reports calling it Marxist-Leninist, but its roots are in a peasant war against government policies, in particular, the Accelerated Economic Development scheme. This was a plan to promote large-scale farming to produce bigger yields of agricultural and animal products for export, and for which the government offered subsidies to big farmers and ranchers. This favoured the large land-owners who ran the latifundio-type estates which by 1970 occupied 77 percent of the arable land. Based on a legalistic interpretation of what constituted ‘efficient use’ of the land, thousands of peasants were forcefully evicted from their farms and migrated to the cities, where they became part of the industrial labour pool. And so it increased the concentration of land ownership among cattle ranchers and urban industrialists, whose businesses expanded their profits as a result of reductions in the cost of labour wages after the displacement of peasants to the cities. In 1961, the dispossession of farmland had produced 40,000 landless families and by 1969 their numbers amounted to 400,000 throughout Colombia.

Bur as so often happens in such insurgency, FARC resorted to kidnapping for ransom and trafficking drugs to finance its war. This newly-acquired source of wealth attracted a large number of new members who sought to escape the increasing poverty levels in Colombia. The drug trade harmed its reputation and in 1982 FARC changed its name to the FARC-EP for Ejército del Pueblo, meaning ‘People’s Army’, then formed the Unión Patriótica (UP), a political party, with the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) in 1985. Their initial success was soon undermined by a campaign of assassination by right-wing paramilitary death squads and the private armies of the cocaine drug cartels. By 1988, between 200 and 500 UP leaders, including UP Presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal, were assassinated. From 1988 to 1992, between 4,000 and 6,000 UP members, including another presidential candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, were murdered.

Those with critical faculties such as socialists try to understand just what FARC aspire to and rather than being a society inspired by Marx, it is much more mundane, a run-of-the-mill mixed economy, which means capitalism with a prominent state sector. Nor would Colombia be the first country in which guerrilla leaders become integrated with the prevailing system, and even becoming the government, for example, the Maoists in Nepal. However, much nearer at home, we see Sinn Fein power-sharing with their previous enemies.

Terrorism and War: Is There Any Difference? (2016)

From the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
We say terror is terror whether unofficial and illegal terrorism or legalised state-sponsored terrorism through conventional warfare.
Since the turn of the century, rarely has a day gone by where there are no terror related stories in the news. Whether it is the Taliban, Al-Qaida or Islamic State, the perceived threat of terrorism against the United Kingdom has always appeared to be a real and ongoing danger to our lives. Whilst such media stories use the term ‘terrorism’ rather freely, they do so with no clear definition of what terrorism actually is. Such is the perception, exacerbated by tabloid news outlets, many individuals could be forgiven for believing that the majority of terrorist acts are committed by those of a radical Islamist background. However, the reality lies deeper than just Islamic State.

Trying to find a definition for terrorism is not easy, as there are a number of differing perspectives of what terrorism truly is. The official government definition in the United Kingdom can be found in the Terrorism Act of 2000, a summary of which is given as;
 ‘The use or threat of the action of violence against a person, serious damage to property, endangerment to a person’s life (other than that of the person committing the action), or serious interference with an electronic system, where the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public and the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.’
This definition can certainly be linked to Islamist terrorist acts such as 9/11, 7/7, and the recent surge of attacks in Paris, but the general interpretation of this definition fails to acknowledge such acts committed by a state. Violent government responses to the threat of terrorism have been commonplace throughout history, with the wars in Iraq and airstrikes in Syria being recent examples. These have been framed as ‘counter-insurgency’ operations as part of the ‘war on terror’, despite involving acts identical in nature to those committed by radical Islamist terrorists.

The only significant difference between the acts of ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter-insurgency’ is their purpose. Whilst groups such as Islamic State are pushing the ideals of radical Islam, capitalist governments from states such as Britain and the United States strive to achieve a change of government in countries which stand in the way of them pursuing their interests. To disguise the real aim, the American military is said to have been forced to rename their operations in Iraq from ‘Operation Iraqi Liberation’ to ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, due to fears of suspicious glances towards the acronym OIL.

It is also an expression of the globalisation mentioned by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the constant requirement for accumulation of capital resulting in the need for capitalism to spread everywhere: ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.’

Whilst the threat of terrorism often haunts a conflicted society like capitalism, the heightened media coverage inflates the issue. This fear-mongering allows the state a justification for military action. For the media, any politically or religiously influenced violent act perpetrated by opponents of a capitalist state is defined as terrorism, while the violent acts committed by capitalist states are praised as ‘fighting terror’. This confirms the view of the early 20th century Dutch criminologist Willem Bonger, that acts are only defined as criminal when the resulting damage is to capitalist interests. Violent and destructive state intervention is not regarded as criminal as it is aimed at defending the interests of the ruling class and capitalism as a whole.

Bonger’s theory was also confirmed by the Chilcot report released earlier this year. Despite the decision of Tony Blair to go to a war with Iraq being illegal under international law, no criminal charges have been bought, in spite of the 500,000 civilian lives that were lost as a result of this action. All that the report finds on this is that ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted’.

Clearly there are double standards applied when it comes to defining what a terrorist is, with the media choosing to marginalise a single group of people and to turn a blind eye to what the political elite in charge of the state does. However, it is not the current definition itself of terrorism that is problematic, but the interpretation of it by an international media platform owned by rich capitalists expressing the viewpoint of the rest of the ruling class.
William Horncastle

Letters and Betters (2016)

From the October 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Writing is one of the most significant achievements in human history. It enabled knowledge to be recorded permanently rather than passed on orally, perhaps inaccurately or only partially, from one person to another. Later developments – movable type, typewriters, word-processors, the internet – made the dissemination of ideas even more effective. But imagine being blocked from this world completely: you can get an idea of this by looking at a text in a script you are not familiar with (written in Arabic, Chinese, Thai, for instance). It is far more disconcerting than looking at something in a language you do not know but written in the Roman alphabet (Hungarian or Turkish, say). And then think what it would mean if all examples of written language were as opaque and meaningless as that.

Importantly, illiteracy is not just a matter of being completely unable to read and write. The concept of functional illiteracy relates to the fact that people may be able to sign their name and read simple texts but not cope with many of the requirements of everyday life (from reading most official documents to filling out forms or applying for a job). Unfortunately, the definitions of this are rather woolly and vary greatly, and it is clearly not a simple either–or notion. Historically – and internationally-based comparisons are therefore difficult.

There was a time when only a very small part of the population were literate, perhaps as few as ten percent in the Roman Empire. As an illustration of this, punctuation was originally developed, from the eighth century CE onwards for English, in order to help people read a text (often a religious one) out loud in days when the vast majority could not read. Naturally the situation changed, though rather gradually.

It is estimated that even in the 1840s only about two-thirds of men in Britain were literate and half the women; but this just means they could sign their names, so many of these may still have been functionally illiterate. Elementary education was unavailable to many, frequently very short, and often of poor quality anyway. The low level of literacy was a bar not just to a better-paid job or personal learning but also to the spread of ruling-class and religious ideas. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was founded in 1826 as a way of conveying such ideas to an increasingly literate public, but only lasted just over twenty years. Employers needed a literate and better-educated workforce, and workers also acquired literacy and other abilities on their own initiative at night schools, Sunday schools, mutual improvement societies and Mechanics’ Institutes, though these were far less open to women. Some people learned to write so they could pen letters to a sweetheart.

Literacy rates increased throughout the nineteenth century, but many people were unaffected by these changes. Robert Roberts (The Classic Slum) records that in pre-1914 Salford his mother acted as a ‘village scribe’ communicating on behalf of local people with courts, charities, hospitals and so on: ‘she thought that about one in six of our adult neighbours were either illiterate or nearly so’.

In ‘developed’ capitalist countries, the extent of current illiteracy can be surprising, to put it mildly, especially at a time when the state and other agencies assume that people who come into contact with them are literate, if not computer-savvy. The National Literacy Trust states that over five million adults in England – one in six – are functionally illiterate, having literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old (similar to the situation Roberts described). In Quebec, according to the Literacy Foundation, one person in five has serious difficulty understanding and using a written text. The US Department of Education reports that one person in seven cannot read, and one in five reads below a fifth-grade level (roughly, the last year of elementary school); and this has hardly altered in ten years.

Globally, the literacy rate (and bear in mind all the qualifications around such a term) for those over fifteen is claimed by UNESCO to be 86 percent. Naturally the less well-off countries have far lower rates: for instance, 38 percent in Afghanistan, and just 19 percent in Niger. Further, women have in general far lower levels of literacy than men: in Pakistan, the literacy rate for men is 70 percent, but for women just 43 percent. War as well as poverty can naturally disrupt schooling, and in many places the main language of education is not the same as the one children speak at home. Getting on for 800 million people worldwide cannot read, and two-thirds of these are female. The number of those aged between fifteen and twenty-four who cannot read is shrinking, though, so global illiteracy may well be set to decrease over the coming decades.

One common theme of the literature produced by organisations aiming to promote literacy is the cost of illiteracy, not just the consequences for the individuals concerned but for the wider society (for the ruling class, in other words). Those who are functionally illiterate are far more likely to go to prison, be unemployed, live on state benefits, and hand their situation on to their offspring; the children of illiterate parents are often illiterate themselves. It is not hard to see the lines of causation here: poverty, poor education, disrupted family life, a home with little if any reading matter, these may well lead to children with the same difficulties as the situation is reproduced. So illiteracy can create problems and expense for the ruling class and their government. It is claimed, for instance, that prisoners who receive no literacy support are nearly four times as likely to re-offend as those who get such support (

The extent of illiteracy in the world is truly unconscionable. Every human should have access to a good-quality education, and literacy is an essential part of this. Ensuring this happens would imply the dedication of many resources in terms of equipment and the time and energy of teachers and others. But millennia after the invention of writing, illiteracy can and should be done away with, like hunger, homelessness and poor health care.
Paul Bennett