Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The God That Failed (1950)

Book Review from the June-July 1950 issue of The Western Socialist

The God That Failed edited by Richard Crossman [Harper & Brother]

Six (presumably) wise men, tending their intellects, looked to the East, and saw a “new star in Bethlehem.” Pour of these savants actually journeyed to the Soviet Bethlehem, but instead of a new God, they found but another Pope. The remaining two gazed from afar, until after some meditation, they concluded the star to be a piece of cardboard, wrapped about with tinfoil.

Thus is The God That Failed, a collection of the sagas of six intellectuals who journeyed into “Communism,” and returned, a little wiser for their experiences. Three of these (Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, and Ignazio Silone) were actually members of the German, American, and Italian Communist Parties, respectively, whereas the other three (Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender) were sympathizers and lauders of the Russian system.

The editor, Richard Crossman, Labor member of the British Parliament, terms the first group “The Initiates,” the second “Worshippers from Afar.” The title of this book originated from the play Oedipe by Gide, in which the author “is forced to the realization that man without God is doomed to defeat and despair, unless he substitutes some other idea for God. Oedipus at the end rejects God for man, and Gide looked toward Communism.” So writes Enid Starkie who edited Gide's comments. The God That Failed, indeed! After reading this sextet of confessional breast-beating, this reviewer believes that a more proper title would have been, The Understanding That Failed. In reaching out for their God, their concept of “communism,” [1] these intellectuals showed very little understanding of exactly what kind of revolution occurred in Russia in November 1917, and exactly what type of society was instituted. Later on, when their star dimmed, blinked, and then went out, they began to grasp a little more of the truth about Soviet Russia. Especially was this so in the case of Arthur Koestler who, at the conclusion of his essay, mentioned that in another of his books (The Yogi and the Commissar) he tried to expose the “fallacy of the unshaken foundation that a state-capitalist economy (Russia) must of necessity lead to a socialist regime.”

The Pull To The East
Our assertion that these individuals showed very little understanding of the nature of communism and the Soviet economy can be underlined by examining the reasons they present for either joining the Communist Party or becoming fellow travelers and sympathizers.

Arthur Koestler — a writer, as are the other five intellectuals.— entered the Communist Party in Germany because he believed that the Stalinists had the answer to unemployment, insecurity and war. Ignazio Silone became a member of the Italian Socialist Party for basically the same reasons, and although he does not state so, he allegedly switched to the Italian Communist Party out of the same motivation.

One of the most outstanding Negro writers today, Richard Wright, attached himself to the John Reed Club in Chicago, first because of a desire to further his writing. Later he signed an application card in the Communist Party of the United States when he was told that he would have to do so in order to remain Secretary of the Club.

As for the worshippers from afar, with Andre Gide it was, as the title states, the search for a new God.
“It was not through Marx, but through the Gospels, that Gide had reached communism,” writes Enid Starkie. Gide himself put it in this wise, “My conversion is like a faith.”

Louis Fischer, the noted journalist and author, and Stephen Spender, the English poet, likewise viewed the Soviet Union as the “white hope of humanity,” in contrast to the demoralized aspect represented by the Western capitalist powers.

Despair In The West
Richard Crossman, the editor, perhaps sums it all up the most satisfactorily in his foreword to the book. He emphasizes that it was the failure of Western capitalism which accounted for men of such intellectual capacities hitching their wagons to the Red Star. In general, this is a correct evaluation. At the same time does this not also prove our previous claim, that fundamentally it was lack of understanding on the part of these writers that brought them to their sorry pass?

Whether these men viewed Soviet Russia as a new faith, a Utopia, or as an answer to capitalism’s inability to solve the problems of the working class, not one of them at any time displayed an awareness of the nature of socialism, and of Soviet society. Such an awareness would have spared them the snares and later disillusionments of Russian capitalism. A scientific socialist understanding would have taught them that the material conditions were not suitable for socialism in Russia in 1917, that what the Bolsheviks did, was merely to institute capitalism under control of the state because of the inability of any strong and cohesive capitalist class to organize private capitalism.

This understanding, further, would have convinced these intellectuals that the means employed by the Bolsheviks — assassinations, character and physical, slanders, deceit, and outright lying — are not inseparable from the ends sought, but exposed the real objective of the various Communist Parties, to establish a dictatorship over the proletariat, not of it, another class society, not a classless society.

Retrospect Is Easy
Let us not be too severe on these individuals. Our understanding permits us to see how in the past several decades the Soviet Union and the Stalinists could have been the drawing cards they were. In the World Socialist Party today and in the other companion parties of socialism are many who were likewise sucked into the Soviet circle. In the absence of large scientific socialist parties to spread the knowledge of a clear concept of socialism, Russian pseudo-communism could and did make tremendous gains among workers and intellectuals seeking a way out of capitalist wars and depressions. In the lack of the development of scientific socialist ideas among the workers which would have brought socialism closer to reality, Bolshevism represented a “we-are-doing-something-about-it” movement, and drew followers unto it on this emotional basis.

What did it all add up to? The God That Fails helps furnish part of the answer. Defection and disenchantment, revulsion against a cause once held dear. Unacquainted with socialism, these six intellectuals could not have had the proper understanding to avoid the traps set by the Russian bear (a case of the hunted becoming the hunter!)

This can be overlooked. One learns by experience. One’s political views reflect one’s conception of the material world at any one time. But after these six men had gone through the hell and welter of the Russian maze, it is not too much for us to expect that they should have profited thereby.

But they haven’t except, in a negative sense, that they learned enough to be opposed to Stalinism (the term erroneously used by many to describe modern Russian state Capitalism) and all it represents. On the positive side, however, all of them, in one form or another, have returned to the support of capitalism, from which, unknowingly, they never departed when they affiliated themselves to the Russian Church. [2] Now they look upon “Western democracy” without understanding its economic base, any more than they understood the economic base of “Soviet democracy.” In spite of Louis Fischer’s theory of the “Double Rejector” — “rejecting the evils of dictatorship and of democracy,” that it is possible to steer a clear path between the rocks of Stalinism and the reefs of capitalism, events have proved there is no middle ground.

Looking at history opportunistically and from an immediate viewpoint, a middle ground may seem a likely attraction. The socialist, however, knows that in the end one must choose between capitalism and socialism — the latter, not as propagandized by Soviet state capitalism, but. as we conceive it, as the ownership of the means of production by the entire population, and democratically controlled by it.

It is a comfortable feeling between wars and depressions to rationalize that one is combatting the evils of Russian capitalism, at the same time not condoning the sins of capitalism elsewhere. But this is a luxury which perhaps only intellectuals have the mental bankroll to afford. When the drums roll and the swords are unsheathed for the third World War; when the factory gates swing shut for “lack of work,” and millions pound the pavements looking for non-existing jobs — where, then, the middle ground intellectuals?

Where they were when they joined “Stalinism,” where they were after deserting it — in search of a new “star in the East,” a new faith, a new God. Perhaps we shall be treated to a second, and even third edition of The God That Failed, with only a change in the time and the characters.

The Book Has Merits
The book has tremendous merits, in spite of our criticism of the protagonists. Through the eyes of Arthur Koestler the reader is taken through the turbulent pre-Hitlerian days in Germany and shown how the German Communist Party was used in the interests of the Soviet ruling class, not in the interests of the German workers. Later on, in his trip to the Soviet Union, Koestler reveals how foreign writers are paid royalties, not for their books (some of which are not even published), but for their support and flattery of Stalinism.

Ignazio Silone exposes how he was asked by the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Moscow to condemn a document by Trotsky without ever having read it.

For the reader in the United States, the essay by Richard Wright perhaps furnishes the most sustained interest, since it deals with the experiences of the author in the Communist Party in Chicago.

Andre Gide, who has written extensively of his trips to the Soviet Union, gives the reader a good insight into conditions in the Soviet Union. Although Gide did not see state capitalism in Russia, he was astute enough to point out that “the disappearance of capitalism has not brought freedom to the Soviet workers . . .  It is true of course that they are no longer exploited by shareholding capitalists, but nevertheless they are exploited, and in so devious, subtle and twisted a manner that they do not know whom to blame . . ." 

Louis Fischer furnishes more insight into the stifled situation within Russia, and explains how the Spanish Civil War, and the new Russian Constitution in 1936 gave Stalinism a new lease on life. Stephen Spender also deals with the Spanish Civil War, and has an interesting theory why distinguished scientists like Haldane, Bernal and Joliot-Curie become supporters of movements like Stalinism.

Conclusion To Confusion
Perhaps we cannot better conclude this review than by reciting the circumstances under which Stephen Spender joined the British Communist Party for a few weeks during the winter of 1936-7. After writing Forward from Liberalism, he was invited by Harry Pollitt, head of the British CP, to visit him. Pollit objected to Spender’s criticism of the Moscow Trials in his book. At the same time he suggested that since Spender was in agreement with the Party on the Spanish Civil War, he should join the Party. Spender was to write an article in the Daily Worker criticizing the Stalinists, at the same time he joined the Party! “I accepted this offer,” Spender relates. “I received a Party card, and my article appeared. The article infuriated the Communists in Scotland and the North of England, and my membership in the Party was quickly forgotten.”

Was it the God, or was it understanding, that failed in the case of these six men who spent a “Lost Weekend in Utopia?”

Socialists are not looking for a star, a God, but for their fellow workers to join them in a movement which is understood by all, controlled by all, and in the interests of all — Socialism.
Karl Frederick

[1] The Russian Revolution and the appearance of the Communist Parties and the Communist International have caused those who believe in common ownership under democratic control to be all the more careful to call themselves “socialists” in order not to be identified with the state capitalist regime in Russia and the dictatorial methods and objectives of the Stalinists everywhere. However, in terms of the nature of societies, no difference exists between communism and socialism, both being defined as in the previous sentence.

[2] This statement applies as well to Ignazio Silone. Although at the end of his essay he reaffirms his belief in socialism, his concept of the latter is that of Social Democracy, according to latest reports. Social Democracy not only supports capitalism, even strengthens it by reforms, but also sees state capitalism as “socialism.” It is not enough to say one is a “socialist” to be one. One must advocate the revolutionary abolition of capitalism and refuse to work for its reform, in order to wear the label of "socialist.”

The Future of Capitalism (1979)

From the Spring/Summer 1979 issue of The Western Socialist

The Christian Science Monitor, in five issues (13-19 April, 1977) published a series of articles by their business and financial editor, Mr. David R. Francis, on “The Future of Capitalism.” In them he told of capitalism’s present difficulties and the discontents created, summarised the views of numerous businessmen and economists, and outlined the changes already taking place and proposed for the future.

In one important respect the exercise was bogus. While pretending to give an objective and comprehensive account of the arguments for and against competitive private capitalism government planning and nationalisation, reforms of capitalism and alternatives to capitalism, nothing was said about the Marxist-socialist alternative to capitalism. There was indeed no indication that Mr. Francis and the people he quoted had ever even heard of it; and this includes Mr. Michael Harrington, Chairman of the Democratic Socialist Party, U.S.A. All of them accept continued production of commodities for the market and for profit, the existence of an owning class and a working class, and the division of the world into capitalist nation-state competing against each other — in short, capitalism.

The lead-in to the first article set the tone of everything that followed. It told the readers that those who challenge capitalism say “it is outdated and unresponsive but see the standard alternatives, communism and socialism, as too old-fashioned and conservative, too bureaucratic and inefficient.” This is a grossly misleading statement because, as Mr. Francis spelled out in his articles, the “communism and socialism” referred to are state capitalism with dictatorship, as in Russia, and the mixture of private and state capitalism administered by Labour governments, as in Britain.

No doubt Mr. Francis would offer the usual defence of this misuse of terms, which goes like this. Since the great mass of people (never having studied or thought about the matter) accept that capitalism means only private capitalism; that socialism means nationalisation, and communism means the Russian dictatorship, he, Mr. Francis, is merely following common practice in doing the same. An ingenious disclaimer of responsibility which, however, fails for several reasons.

In the first place, what has happened to the claim always made by columnists and economists that it is their elevated purpose to inform their readers, not encourage their misinformation?

Secondly, the Monitor articles include numerous references to Marx and Marxists (though without quotations of anything Marx actually wrote) so why didn’t Mr. Francis recognise his obligation to see that Marx’s own case against capitalism and Marx’s own alternative should be represented?

Or did he perhaps shop around to find someone to put that case and fail to find one? That is easily remedied. The W.S.P. of the United States would be delighted to put the case in the Monitor’s columns against the whole lot of Mr. Francis’ defenders of reformed or unreformed capitalism.

For the record, and in case Mr. Francis still believes that he dealt with Marx’s case, may we remind him that, for Marx, Socialism/Communism involves, among other things, the abolition of production for the market (“the abolition of buying and selling” — Communist Manifesto) and the abolition of the wages system.

A word here about the “socialist,” Mr. Michael Harrington, whose views are quoted by Mr. Francis. The New York Times (5 May) reported a speech made by Mr. Harrington on the question of the future of capitalism. He associated himself with Marx (“my friend Karl Marx”), then went on to show that his own "alternative” to capitalism includes the continuation of production for the market — that is, capitalism:
  "Mr. Harrington indicated that he was a friend of the market, as preferable to bureaucratic controls — provided that income was distributed equally.”
It is clear enough that when Mr. Francis uses the term socialism he does not mean what Marx and socialists mean. But what he actually does mean Is left in doubt. First to wrote:
  “Socialism, if the word is taken to mean state ownership of the most important means of production . . ."
Then (also in the first article) he quoted from Mr. Peter Drucker: “The United States is the first truly socialist country”; but added “whether it is socialism is a matter of definition” — so why did not Mr. Francis give us his own definition?

What seems to be happening in the U.S. is what happened long ago in Europe. If the workers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with capitalism, why not distract their attention from socialism by offering them state capitalism labelled socialism? Bismark did it in the 1870’s, which led Engels to dub nationalisation “a kind of spurious socialism.” In England, a little later, a prominent capitalist politician, Sir William Harcourt (and his friend the then Prince of Wales later Edward VII) played the same game with the slogan “we are all socialists now.” It would not have mattered much except for the fact that, both in Germany and England, men who had called themselves socialist lent themselves to the deception. People of this type feature in the Monitor articles.

Several misconceptions of Marx occur. His materialist conception of history turns up in the guise of “determinism” and ‘inevitability”; with the assurance that “even confirmed Marxists” now reject that (as indeed they should).

The labour theory of value is misrepresented as holding that “manual labour” is the sole source of wealth. It has, we are told, been replaced by recognition that wealth is produced by “applied science” and “the level of thinking.” Are we to suppose that “thinking,” studying, and applying science, are provided from outside the members of the working class? If so, by whom?

In the article on April 19 Mr. Francis made the statement: “Marxism has proved to be a dead end in the development of economics.” No explanation was offered but we may assume that it refers to the “old-fashioned” “conservative” “bureaucratic” and “inefficient” state capitalism, promoted, for example, in Britain by Labour governments. For the information of Mr. Francis, Marx’s economic theories have had no influence whatever on the British nationalised industries, either in their formation or their operation. How could it be otherwise since the British Labour Party has been wholly and blindly Keynesian for 40 years? In their leadership, as in the Universities, ignorance of Marxist economics is almost total.

The articles contained a formidable list of suggested remedies for the ills of capitalism — more nationalisation, the development of state-operated health and welfare services, workers to sit on boards of directors, workers’ pension funds to extend their ownership of corporation stocks and seek control of corporation policy, government curbing of the freedom of action of big companies, encouragement of small companies, government management and planning of the economy, and so on.

With the exception of worker directors (now being borrowed from Germany by the British Labour Government) nearly all these expedients have been tried in Britain — with total failure. They have not provided “jobs for all,” or eliminated depressions, or abolished poverty, or brought industrial peace and contentment to workers in state capitalist industries. What they have done is to raise prices to 900 per cent above the 1938 level, with a faster rate of inflation than ever before in the history of British capitalism and with living standards falling in the last three years. (Mr. Francis could learn from Marx how and why this happened).

Application of all these “remedies” has not materially affected the character or operations of British capitalism and recent elections have shown that the majority of workers do not feel that their problems have been solved thereby.

The Monitor articles have a certain interest for what they do not contain. Mr. Francis and many of those whose works he quotes seem to think that it is only now that capitalist spokesmen are fearful that their system has an uncertain future. On the contrary, in every big depression in the past century and a half, certainly in Britain, businessmen, politicians and economists have seen collapse and revolution round the comer, and wondered what they could do to be saved.

It is also curious that the last great saviour of capitalism, J. M. Keynes, does not present a remedy in the articles. Forty years ago he was supposed to have revolutionised economics to be unscientific and without application in the modem world. So why the need for Mr. Francis to go looking high and low to find a new saviour? What he is tacitly admitting is that Keynes has proved to be as helpless as all his predecessors to turn capitalism into a social system satisfactory to the working class.
Edgar Hardcastle

On April 17, 18, 19, 1979, the Christian Science Monitor had another series on socialism.

1. Lavatory of British, Swedish and German socialists; 2. Their success in outanswering communists; 3. Those socialists are hungry for new ideas.

Their summary: “Most Americans would be jolted if toe told them that two European leaders were socialists" — Need we say more?

Climate change: capitalism can’t cope (2019)

From the March 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last October the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report on what they consider would have to be done, and by when, to avoid average global temperature rising by the end of the century by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. They concluded that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have to be stabilised by 2030, in the sense of no more being released into the atmosphere than can be absorbed by nature or by human action. Hence the headlines about only twelve years left to avoid disaster. Then, in December, a full-scale two-week conference on climate change, with delegates from the 190 states that had signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to take measures aimed at limiting the rise to 2°C, was held in Katowice in Poland.

The facts
1. That the amount of CO2in the atmosphere has gone up since pre-industrial times (from 280 parts per million to 410 ppm today).

2. That the average global temperature has also gone up since records began in the 1850s (by about 1°C, to about 15°C or 59°F today).

3. That this is not just an accidental correlation but that the first has caused the second. CO2is a greenhouse gas, i.e., a gas that absorbs heat from the Sun; in fact without it and the other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (especially water vapour, i.e. clouds) the Earth’s temperature would be –18°

4. That most of the increase in CO2is the result of human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) since the mid-nineteenth century to generate energy and power transport. In one sense this is a good thing because it means that it is easier for humans to stop it than if it were some natural phenomenon.

5. That a rise in the average global temperature has various effects, the main ones being:

  • a rise in sea levels as oceans warm up and so expand and as the polar icecaps begin to melt;
  • more stormy weather in some regions due to more energy being in the atmosphere;
  • changes in regional agriculture conditions and ecology, disastrous in some places though not necessarily negative everywhere.
We know definitely that, unless the rate of emission of CO2 is stabilised, average global temperature is going to continue to rise and that this will affect sea levels, the weather, and regional agricultural and ecological conditions. (In fact it will continue to rise for a while even if emissions were stabilised tomorrow, as an effect of past emissions). The question is by how much and to what extent. This is where the speculation begins.

Not, however, wild speculation but speculation based on certain assumptions. In drawing up scenarios of what might happen in the future, scientists have to make two basic assumptions. First, about the link between a rise in CO2 in the atmosphere and the rise in average global temperature. Second, about what humans do, or do not do, to reduce or compensate for CO2 emissions.

As to the first, nobody knows with certainty what it is. The standard that scientists have chosen is an estimate of by how much the global average temperature would rise if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled. This is not easy to calculate as there are feedbacks. Once these have been taken into account, the figure they come up with is anything between 1.5°C and 4.5°C, variously described as ‘the best estimate’, ‘most likely’, or even ‘the best guess’. It is in fact a ‘guestimate’, albeit an informed one.

Polar ice-core records show that in the pre-industrial past the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was for centuries 280 ppm. Today it is 410 ppm. If present trends continue it will reach 560 ppm, i.e., double, by 2050. In that case, in the period after that date until the end of the century average global temperature would gradually rise to 1.5°C or by 4.5°C above pre-industrial levels or by anything in between.

As average global temperature has already gone up by about 1°C since pre-industrial times we are talking about a possible further rise by the end of the century of between 0.5°C and 3.5°C.  That’s as accurate as you can get. The trouble is that there would be a huge difference in effects between the lower and the higher figure. All we can safely say is that if CO2 emissions continue to increase, so global average temperature will go up and so the effects of this will be felt. Since most of these effects will be negative, CO2 emissions should be reduced in any event.

But how? One suggested way focuses on individuals changing their individual behaviour, as by not driving a car, not travelling by air, eating less or no meat, turning the temperature of their home down and wearing a sweater, etc. Clearly this would not be sufficient, quite apart from the fact that the level of popular consumption is linked to the state of the economy which in turn is linked to the prospects for making and accumulating of profits as more capital. The tail can’t wag the dog. What is required is action at global level to deal with production methods that involve directly emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.

Nest of vipers
Co-ordinated global action is what is needed, but capitalism impedes this. Capitalism is a world system under which capitalist enterprises and states compete against each other to secure markets and sources of raw materials. It is driven by an economic imperative that imposes itself on those organising production to use the cheapest available methods so as to survive in the struggle to make and accumulate profits. ‘Growth’ of production is built-in to it.

Energy is a key input of all production; its cost affects the competitiveness on both home and world markets of goods produced within the frontiers of a state. This is why states are particularly concerned with the cost of energy and its security of supply. At the moment coal, oil and natural gas are still cheaper than alternatives such as renewables and nuclear, which is why they were used in the past and continue to be used.

When Trump says that he is not going to accept any measures that are ‘bad for business’ he is expressing the position that all states take and have to take. No state is going to decide unilaterally not to use its cheapest source of energy, even if it is one that emits CO2, as that would increase its energy costs and undermine its competitiveness internally as well as on world markets. So the states into which the capitalist world is divided have agreed that the United Nations should take the initiative. However, the various climate change conferences that the UN has organised have shown that the ‘nations’ are far from being ‘united’. They have proved to be a veritable nest of vipers as each state tries not only to advantage itself but to disadvantage its rivals.

The only agreement that has been possible – in fact, given capitalism, the only one that is possible – is one which disadvantages no one compared to everyone else. This was the outcome of the 2015 conference in Paris which agreed that all states should commit themselves to reducing emissions so as to avoid average global temperature rising 2°C above pre-industrial levels (a further 1°C from today) by the end of the century. However, as the UN is toothless and can’t impose anything on states, it left to each state to decide, in the light of its particular circumstances, what measures it would take to contribute towards this.

In November the journal Nature Communications published an article analysing the measures pledged by states in pursuit of the Paris Agreement, one of whose conclusions the Guardian (16 November) summarised as:
  ‘Under the Paris agreement, there is no top-down consensus on what is a fair share of responsibility. Instead each nation sets its own bottom-up targets according to a number of different factors, including political will, level of industrialisation, ability to pay, population size, historical responsibility for emissions. Almost every government, the authors say, selects an interpretation of equity that serves their own interests and allows them to achieve a relative gain on other nations.’
The conference in Katowice didn’t alter this but just worked out common rules for verifying whether the self-determined measures were being implemented and to what extent. It left unchanged a state’s right to decide what measures to adopt.

Lowest level consensus
Under capitalism, the best that can be achieved is some non-binding inter-governmental agreement that would disadvantage nobody commercially. Clearly, this is pretty minimalist, a consensus at the lowest level. The promised measures, if adopted, will have some effect in slowing down global warming, which should mean the IPCC’s worst case scenario of a further rise in average global temperature of 3.8°C by 2100 won’t be realised, even if they are not enough to limit the rise to a further 1°C (making the rise 2°C since pre-industrial times).

It is looking highly unlikely, if capitalism continues, that the rise in average global temperature this century is going to be held to this limit. This would bring other problems which would be more acute the more the limit is exceeded and which capitalism would be equally incapable of coping with, in particular the population displacements due to rising sea levels and worsened agricultural conditions in some parts of the world. Co-ordinated global action would also be required to deal with this, but once again capitalism’s division into competing capitalist states will impede this.

The lesson is that those concerned about global overwarming should direct their efforts to getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with a system where the Earth’s natural and industrial resources will have become the common heritage of all humanity. This will put a stop to the operation of the current economic imperative to seek and accumulate profits and will provide the framework for co-ordinated global action to deal not only with global warming but other current problems such as world poverty and constant war somewhere in the world.
Adam Buick

Change everything (2015)

Book Review from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’, by Naomi Klein, Allen Lane, 2014, £20

Oh what a bittersweet day: a book that makes you want to jump for joy about a topic which occasions floods of tears. Naomi Klein’s latest work should be widely read. She is bang on the money: the climate change argument is about capitalism. In short, free markets and sustainability are mutually exclusive, and either capitalism or the ecosystem has had its day. The slew of evidence on display is impressive – Klein is nothing if not a thorough case builder – and the whole book can be seen as a superb illustration of the class system at work.  She catalogues examples of the narratives being bent to suit vested interests and the dominant ideology: many parts of this we could not have written better ourselves. Talk about capitalism bearing the seeds of its own destruction.

It has always struck me as odd that so many of the rich and powerful behaved as if they had another planet to escape to, or that somehow they could end up breathing their own wealth if the atmosphere became problematic. Why on earth were they funding climate change denial movements if they themselves would also suffer when the stuff hits the fan – as 97 percent of those who know have agreed is going to happen? Klein solves this one: the climate challenge is such a threat to their ideology that they simply cannot tolerate it: the measures necessary to forestall disaster require such concerted effort that it would be essential to curtail the very market freedoms so dear to them and their position. Much like the dictators of yore, they’d rather bring all down with them than give up power; or maybe more like Magda Goebbels, the world was not worth living in for her or her family without the primacy of their Weltanschaung. Having spent the last 30 years unleashing the tiger of the neoliberal agenda, they were not going to let some bunch of green eggheads spoil the party.  This would be intolerably bad for business and thereby very bad for their interests.

As someone concerned about the environment since my teens (don’t ask…), I ended up in the Green Party.  However I left a while back as I was unconvinced about their attitude to power: how they would force vested interests to toe the line.  I came to the same general conclusion as Klein – capitalism has to go – and realised that without this step, all else on the environmental agenda is playing for time.  However here is where she and I might part company: the way forward and the alternative political landscape offered in her book is too hazy.  It is as if she pulls her punches in the last round for fear of scaring off the readers – the book is after all aimed at the mainstream  – or perhaps she really has not thought it through properly.

Her suggestion that protests and actions will emerge which must be exploited to promote the agenda is too haphazard and hazy. What is the over-arching political philosophy which will give such emergent forces any direction apart from the environment and opposition to capitalism?  The peg on which to hang the clothing of serious change is lacking in this book. Come on Naomi, at heart you’re one of us, if only you’d realise it – you can’t offer a solution without socialism.  Ducking the real question seems a bit odd after what you have written and what you plainly believe.  But  I still welcome this book like few others. In the current climate anyone who starts asking the right questions has to be congratulated.
Howard Pilott

Mixed Media: Heresy (2015)

The Mixed Media column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Heresy by Tilo Ulbricht, performed at the Tabard theatre in Chiswick, London, last year, is based on The Grand Inquisitor chapter in the Dostoyevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ulbricht’s play is set in sixteenth century Spain ‘during the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day throughout the land to the glory of God and in the splendid autos-da-fé wicked heretics were burnt by the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor’ (Dostoyevsky).

Catholic philosophy pondered such questions as ‘whether angels have navels?’ or ‘ how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ Thomas Aquinas’s position on heresy provided the doctrinal basis for the Inquisition: ‘in God’s tribunal, those who return are always received, because God is a searcher of hearts, and knows those who return in sincerity. But the Church cannot imitate God in this, for she presumes that those who relapse after being once received, are not sincere in their return; hence she does not debar them from the way of salvation, but neither does she protect them from the sentence of death’ (Summa Theologica).

Catholic philosophy did not allow the questioning of doctrine. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, Aquinas ‘does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry… before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation’ (A History of Western Philosophy).

The major theme of Heresy is ‘what is Truth?’ but Catholic philosophy can never ascertain what Truth is as there is no such thing as Absolute Truth. Marx identified that ‘the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism… the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics  . . it is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world’ (Introduction to A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).

Dostoyevsky in The Grand Inquisitor identified the danger of socialism for religion: ‘humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; but there are only hungry people. Feed them first, and then demand virtue of them! – that is what they will inscribe on their banner, which they will raise against you, and which will destroy your temple . . . you promised them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread?’ Dostoyevsky later commented ‘by the stones and the loaves of bread, I meant our present social problems. Present-day socialism in Europe sets Christ aside and is first of all concerned about bread. It appeals to science and maintains that the cause of all human misfortune is poverty, the struggle for existence and the wrong kind of environment’ (Philosophy in Literature). In Heresy, Jesus is arrested by ‘the Cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, an old man of nearly ninety, tall and erect, with a shrivelled face and sunken eyes, from which, though, a light like a fiery spark still gleams’ (Dostoyevsky). Peter Saracen delivers a commanding central performance as the Grand Inquisitor in Tilo Ulbricht’s play.

Ludwig Feuerbach argued in his 1841 work, The Essence of Christianity, that it is important for religion that its object should be radically distinct from humanity; and that it was equally necessary that it come down to Earth if it is to be religiously relevant. For this reason, Christianity teaches the Incarnation where God suffers the indignity of birth, the pain of suffering, and the emptiness of death out of love for humankind. With Incarnation, Feuerbach finds the ultimate expression of human self-love and the surest indication that religion is a human projection: in religion humanity has relation only to its own nature, only to itself, the clearest proof of this is ‘the love of God’, i.e. of projected humanity, for humanity, as before, the basis and central point of religion. With Incarnation, Feuerbach argues humans receive back all that they have surrendered to God. By worshipping God, people unconsciously worship themselves as in Spinoza’s ‘homo homini deus’ (Man is a God to Man).

Marx wrote to Feuerbach that he had intentionally or not ‘given Socialism a philosophical foundation’ (Gesammelte Werke, W. Schuffenhauer, Ed.), by exposing the mystified nature of religion, the alienated subject-object relation can be reversed, God brought down to Earth, and humanity made whole, putting social humanity in its rightful place at the centre of things. In 1870 Feuerbach read Marx’s Capital and joined the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Engels concluded that the ‘working class movement is the heir to classical German philosophy’ (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy).
Steve Clayton

Cooking the Books: The Onward March of Globalisation (2015)

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

For years the World Trade Organisation has been trying to change the rules of global trade in the interests of global investors. The US in particular wants to ease the out-sourcing and off-shoring of jobs, permitting employers to seek the lowest wages and weakest government oversight protections around the world; and to incorporate patent and intellectual ownership rules that will further restrict access to medicines for millions and could be expanded to include even surgical procedures and not just drug treatments.

Overall, it is a bid to implement a globalisation policy of trade harmony at the lowest common denominator that will further the interests of global investors by relaxing various standards to weaker levels of consumer and public protection. It would represent a further reduction in the ‘sovereignty’ of national governments and their already weak power to resist the dictates of the world market. But these negotiations have not yet reached a conclusion because some countries do not want to open their doors too much to multinational corporations.

At the same time the EU and the US are negotiating a ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’. One of the points under discussion is a mechanism known as ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS), which would give corporations the right to challenge a country’s laws. Clearly, this is something more than a mere ‘free-trade’ deal.

Even if a new reform or policy applies equally to domestic and foreign investors, ISDS proposes to allow corporations to receive compensation for the absence of a ‘predictable regulatory environment.’  Already under existing WTO ‘free-trade’ rules this type of argument has been used to attack clean energy, mining, land use, health, labour, and other policies. More than $14 billion in the 16 claims are now under litigation in the US; all relate to environmental, energy, financial regulation, public health, land use and transportation policies, which are not traditional trade issues. EU investors have attacked Egypt’s minimum-wage increase, and a US corporation has attacked the Peruvian government’s decision to regulate toxic waste and close a dangerously polluting smelter. In one of the most notorious cases, US tobacco giant Philip Morris launched investor-state cases challenging anti-smoking laws in Uruguay and Australia after failing to undermine the health laws in domestic courts.

Another proposal in TTIP is for ‘regulatory cooperation’ which would give big business lobby groups wide opportunities to influence decision-making, outside the normal democratic decision-making processes on both sides of the Atlantic. The clear intention is to allow business to in effect ‘co-write’ international regulations, as already happens at national level.

All new relevant US or EU proposals for legislation or regulation would have to be screened first for their impacts on trade. A report has to be made to that effect, to make sure legislators don’t adopt anything that would be detrimental to business. Even before a proposal is launched, say by the European Commission, the US has to be notified, and vice versa. This opens the door to intense lobbying and also to all sorts of pre-emptive pressure – for example a threat of litigation under the ISDS mechanism.

The socialist attitude is that, at the end of it all, the arguments within the WTO which have so far prevented agreement are a dispute between vying capitalist factions, free-trader versus protectionist, foreign versus native capitalist – competitors, fighting to defend or create conditions that offer them the best return. Even so, among the casualties are working people the world over, who will end up as collateral damage, more powerless and more vulnerable than ever in the face of global capitalism.

Party News: Marx’s London Walk (2015)

Dean Street, London.
Party News from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 7 January, a short walk was made by socialists around Soho and Fitzrovia. Despite the midday, mid-week timing, necessary to coincide with the visit of visitors from Sweden, there was a good turnout. We viewed the old Red Lion pub, where the iconic Communist Manifesto was presented to the Communist Workers’ Education Society, Marx’s house in Dean Street, scene of the dire poverty which killed off three of his children, and the home of the First International in Greek Street, which, as one comrade reminded us, was the venue for the first reading of the socialist classic Value, Price and Profit. We then proceeded across Soho Square and Oxford Street to the vicinity of Fitzroy Square, for nigh forty years around the turn of the last century, stomping ground of the Communist Club. The latter, the guide explained, was the successor to the Communist Worker’s Education Society, habituated by friends of Marx, as well as other late nineteenth century notables, such as William Morris. The club was also the first headquarters of our own Party, thus forming a neat link between past and present.

How the Ruling Class Rule in Britain (2015)

From the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Critics of the Socialist Party often ask why we would want to bother standing for election, when the real power is in the hands of the Establishment, and if an election went against their wishes, they’d just suspend democracy. Our answer has always been simple: the capitalist class is not united, but competing one against the other. They cannot trust each other with state power, because the temptations of cheating and corruption are too great. They need the political democracy and its openness in order to have a reliable machine to protect their general interests of property and contract. They need the army of workers who run the state to work for them.

Recent research by the University College London Constitution Unit shows how integral the elected parts of the state are. Their reports The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees and The Policy Impact of Parliament on Legislation use a combination of empirical and interview research to assess how much influence parliament has on the policy over the executive and on the laws as finally produced by the state.

They found ‘Committees are highly prolific, and producing increasing numbers of reports. Between 1997 and 2010 select committees probably produced almost 1,500 inquiry reports (or 110 a year) and almost 40,000 recommendations and conclusions, of which 19,000 (or 1450 a year) were aimed at central government.’ Further, according to their examination of that work ‘around 40% of recommendations are accepted by government, and a similar proportion go on to be implemented. Calls for small policy change are more likely to be accepted and implemented, but around a third of recommendations calling for significant policy changes succeed.’

Further, their interviews with civil servants found that the question of ‘How could this policy be defended in front of a select committee’ loomed large in their minds at the policy formulation level. Indeed, the Constitution Unit’s work ‘identifies seven additional types of influence: contribution to wider debate, drawing together evidence, spotlighting issues and changing ministerial priorities, brokering (improving transparency within and between departments), accountability, exposure, and generating fear’(LINK). These layers of influence are important, as Select Committees have no formal (i.e. legal) means of enforcing their findings, their power is informal and political.

Detailed research on the Parliamentary process also illustrates how much power parliamentarians possess. Between 1999 and 2012 the House of Lords voted against the government 506 times, with around 130 (about 40 percent) of those defeats being upheld. Some of these issues were core government matters, such as jury trials, ID cards and detention without trial. In many ways, this demonstrates the important power of this unelected chamber, but, again, its power was informal, as the Commons could have overruled it. The number of defeats for the coalition government is lower, as they have greater representation in the unelected house (LINK).

In fact, as the Constitution unit found, government Ministers would often try to negotiate with peers and Commons back-benchers, because ‘the last thing they want is a vote’. Indeed, the executive operates a sophisticated parliamentary management policy to try and ensure that it is not defeated, making sure that it doesn’t propose anything that parliamentarians will not wear. The appearance of an almighty executive holding sway over parliament is very much that, appearance, and it is one that an executive must work hard to maintain. The first job of government is to look like it is in charge.

The academics found that around 60 percent of amendments to acts of parliament originated with non-government parliamentarians, despite being officially government proposed amendments to its own legislation.

Claiming legitimacy
This is the detailed impact of Parliament on the running of the country. Of course, the executive constitutionally can only be formed based on holding onto a majority in the House of Commons, which in turn means retaining the support of the largest section of the population at large (and usually a majority). Whatever the detail and objective effects of government policy, they can legitimately claim to have the support of the population, albeit with a sophisticated electorate management strategy as well.

The influence of parliament as a body stretches deep into the civil service and the daily operations of government. Its influence lies not in observable command control, but in the minds and imaginations of state actors, who are habituated to at least showing deference to their elected masters. This cannot simply be turned off at the flick of a switch: political democracy is well entrenched within the British state, and a great many politicians and civil servants (as well as their respective hangers-on) have a great deal of interest in maintaining political democracy. To put it bluntly, a lot of people have too much to lose to simply end democracy overnight.

Of course, parliament itself is limited in what it can do. It cannot act in such a way as to destroy its popular support. At the minimum, the politicians would lose elections and lose their jobs. In more extreme circumstances there would be riots and strikes or capital flight. They also have to act, ultimately, in line with the reified reality of the markets. The reliance on state borrowing means they have to placate the owners of debt and property.

To the extent that the executive retains immense patronage, able to buy off cronies with jobs, titles and entry into the revolving door of corporate boardrooms and consultancy work, it retains secretive, unaccountable power. A movement to promote democracy, to throw open the operations of government and to convert them from being government of people into the democratic administration of things will be able to cut off such chains of patronage.

Indeed, the relatively recent innovation on parliamentary votes on war (again, this has an informal status that has been elevated into what constitutional experts call a convention, since state actors behave as if they have to abide by it even if it isn’t enforceable), shows this power, with the defeat over military action in Syria. That is a massive inroad into the peremptory rights of the executive.

None of this is to fetishise parliament  nor its procedures, but instead to show how political democracy is central to the operation of the British state, despite occasional appearances to the contrary. It shows how human relations lie behind the surface machinery of state. Currently the majority continue to support capitalist politicians and parties, but if they were to turn into a movement for socialism, the democratic process is no barrier to them getting their way.
Pik Smeet

What about Chile?

Often, opponents of democratic socialist revolution cite the example of Chile, but that doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. In 1970 Salvador Allende was elected with 36.6 percent of the vote. According to the Constitution, if no candidate achieved more than 50 percent of the vote, the Chilean Legislature had to choose a President (usually the one with the most votes), and in Allende’s case, the Christian Democrats eventually backed him. At that point, the coalition of parties that backed Allende, the Unidad Popular, did not have a majority in neither the Senate nor the Chamber of Deputies.

In 1973, a parliamentary election saw the Unidad Popular defeated, and the Christian Democrats joined the Confederation of Democracy. The right were then able to use their parliamentary majority to harass Allende, and to claim legitimacy. Prior to the coup that ousted Allende, both the legislature and the courts accused him of acting unconstitutionally and undemocratically.

Nonetheless, before Pinochet could launch his coup, he had to assassinate his way through the military chain of command, so committed were the top generals to the constitutional process.

Allende was defeated by a conspiratorial coup, backed by the United States, but this was only possible with widespread popular support. At no point did Allende have an outright majority, not even a preponderant plurality.

50 Years Ago: Away With Hanging (2015)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘They pull the lever and away he goes,’ Mr. Albert Pierrepoint, public hangman, in evidence to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.

One of the conclusions of the last Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was that, in the words of one of its witnesses, hanging is ‘… certain, painless, simple and expeditious’.

Whatever the truth of this (and there are some horrible rumours which contradict it) the fact is that hanging was not originally designed as a quick and humane method of dispatching a criminal. The poor man was often dead before they hung him up. The idea was to display him in as humiliating a way as possible, strung up in public for the mob to spit and jeer at – and to take warning from.

Thus hanging was regarded as a particularly abject and dishonourable form of execution. Beheading used to be considered more dignified and soldiers, immersed in the fatuities of military chivalry, still prefer the firing squad.


The end of public hanging still left a lot of gruesome ritual, which has been slowly dismantled. No longer is a black flag hoisted and a bell tolled, or a notice posted, at a prison after an execution. No longer does the executed person suffer the last indignity of being left hanging for an hour after his death.

These reforms left the execution a cleaner, more clinical affair, but still a ritual. The condemned prisoner had to be weighed and measured, and secretly observed by the hangman, before the length of his drop could be calculated. (There is an official table on which this calculation was done). The execution had to be rehearsed with a bag of sand as a stand-in. Finally, amid unbearable tension within the prison, the execution itself.

Now, it seems, the whole thing is finished. After about 150 years of battle, the abolitionists appear to have won. Unless something unexpected – and, let us be clear, unplanned for – happens in the House of Lords, Mr Sydney Silverman’s private member’s Bill will soon become law. The hangman’s noose has rattled and jerked in this country for the last time.

(Socialist Standard, Feb 1965)