Friday, June 28, 2019

With Kid Gloves (2019)

The Proper Gander Column from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

For children, all being well, the world is there to be explored with open-minded enthusiasm. By the time we reach adulthood, much of life has sadly lost its sheen and turned into a series of routines and/or things to be stressed out by. Growing up means learning what society’s expectations are, and how to try and deal with them. As shown by the ITV documentary series Planet Child, an important time is between the ages of four and seven, when children are finding their own personalities and boundaries. In the programme, twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken look into what attitudes and values children have, and what they are capable of doing without their parents around. Through experiments disguised as fun activities, it’s revealed how youngsters react and behave in various situations. The kids taking part are a lively, happy bunch from different families around the UK.

Planet Child’s three episodes each focus on children’s autonomy, moral sense and gender identities. In the first episode, how independent the children are is gauged by the van Tullekens asking them to navigate across a city park, buy a souvenir and get a bus to the London Eye all by themselves (apart from the undercover chaperones, cameras, in-on-it shopkeepers and fake bus).All the groups make it to their destination ok, but the footage of them running around London without adults looks strange and even a bit worrying. These days, we’re not used to seeing children out alone as much as before. In Britain, the area in which kids roam away from home has shrunk 90 percent on average compared with the late 1960s, and 97 percent of primary-school-aged children are taken to school, a figure which has increased over recent decades. People now have a heightened awareness of risks, whether from paedophiles or car accidents, and while common sense should be used, this reflects a more wary, paranoid society.

In the second episode, the children’s sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is investigated. The groups are left alone in a shop with cameras hidden among its tempting rows of jelly sweets and plates of chocolate-dipped marshmallows. ‘Don’t let anyone touch or eat my sweets’ says the show’s pretend shopkeeper as she leaves. The four- and five-year olds last a lengthy twenty minutes before they start guzzling like the proverbial kids in a sweet shop. The six- and seven-year olds stick it out for longer, until an in-on-it adult comes in and helps himself, giving them an excuse to start tucking in. Later, the younger children are quick to own up, probably because they haven’t thought enough about the possibility of reprimands, whereas the older group come up with an elaborate fib that a robber ‘wearing a black woolly hat with no bobble on’ made them eat the chocolate. The question of whether grown-ups would abstain for as long in the same test was left unanswered. The issue here isn’t so much about the requirement to pay for sweets (or anything) before having them, it’s more about doing what you’re told. In many circumstances, there’s a sound reason for kids to do what we tell them, but they like to push boundaries, and some are worth pushing.

The last episode looks at children’s awareness of gender roles. Research affirms that boys prefer to play with toy fire trucks and girls prefer to play with dolls, and that blue is a ‘boys’ colour’ and pink is ‘for girls’. But gender roles are now less rigid than these stereotypes suggest. Studies from around the turn of the millennium found that boys defined themselves according to actions and abilities while girls defined themselves more according to close relationships and appearance. When the kids taking part in the programme talk about themselves, the girls speak more about what they do and want to be than their earlier counterparts might have done. There are still differences in expectations, including over intellect. Asked to draw a picture of a clever doctor, nearly all the children draw a man. There’s a tendency for boys to overestimate their abilities and for girls to underestimate theirs, reminding us that inequalities persist from a young age.

Unfortunately, Planet Child doesn’t consider enough how these attitudes and viewpoints are acquired. Children learn how we’re supposed to behave within society’s accepted values. These evolve over time; parenting in Britain seems to place more emphasis on risk awareness and challenging some stereotypes compared with the past. And of course, the norms children learn to accept differ between cultures. The show also features a tribe in Namibia, where traditional gender roles are defined sharply and children walk miles across the desert away from their village to look for wood. In a Japanese school, good behaviour is taught through encouraging a kind of top-down co-operation and shared responsibility for the surroundings, which means they have committees to report on leftover milk, for example. The values which our behaviour is shaped by reflect how our culture aims to get things done. All societies need their own boundaries and norms, but it’s a shame that as we learn capitalism’s rules and expectations, we also tend to lose that wide-eyed energy kids have. Maybe we shouldn’t teach children what to think as much as how to think.
Mike Foster

Can you be a socialist and anti-Marxist? (2019)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is sometimes claimed that it is possible to be a socialist without being a Marxist; in an attempt to answer this we might begin by reversing the assertion and ask is it possible to be a Marxist without being a socialist? Any variety of ‘ism’ is capable of various interpretations but they all depend on at least one principle – that an individual identifies with others in terms of a perceived shared political perspective. This perspective is in turn dependent on the social, historical and moral-cultural context. The individual is more or less theoretically free to identify with any of the pre-existing (and evolving) political perspectives that he or she is born into. The level of rational coherence will differ according to the needs of the individual and the ambitions of the political group that is embraced. As a member of this group, the individual will then set about to convince others of the political efficacy of his cause so that the desired social change can be attempted. As with all such groups, there will be an internal dynamic that causes it to change through time. For socialism, one such occasion was the activity of one of its advocates: Karl Marx.

Although a member of the Communist League and then the International  Workingmen’s Association Marx became primarily a theoretician and journalist rather than a party activist in his political maturity. His main gifts to socialism were his theories of economics and historical development. These ideas embraced and then eclipsed in importance the moral outrage at the manifest injustices of capitalism that had characterised the motivation for socialism formally. Many have declared that his work transformed socialism from idealism into a form of science. Certainly, a thorough understanding of surplus value and historical materialism would define a profound difference between Marxism and the Left who would still cling to moral outrage as their primary ‘call to arms’. The political consequences of Marxism would also demand a thoroughly democratic mass movement which was anathema to both the elitist paternalism of socialist idealism and later to bureaucratic Bolshevism. Today we still have people who insist that they are socialists whilst declaring Marx’s main theoretical discoveries invalid. Their reasoning for this usually consists of aligning Marxism with the failed Bolshevism of Soviet Russia – but given the complete lack of political and historical evidence for this conclusion, it is more likely that a mixture of ignorance of Marxism together with a bourgeois belief that others need to be led politically is what really underlies their objections.

Another objection to Marxism by the ‘moderate social democrats’ is its association with violent revolution as portrayed in the many images of beret-wearing and AK47-wielding leftist radicals all through the latter part of the twentieth century. Many ‘liberation movements’ labelled themselves as Marxist at that time without any specific reference to – or understanding of – Marx’s work. These movements were, almost without exception, inspired by Lenin’s Bolshevism that politically contradicted most of what Marx believed. Indeed the association of revolution with an armed insurrection derives entirely from the bourgeois revolutions of Holland, England, America and France where one minority class (the aristocracy) was replaced by another (the bourgeoisie). Ironically the downfall of the Russian state capitalist empire and its replacement by a conventional capitalist system more closely resembles the relatively peaceful revolution that Marxists anticipate when the majority loses faith in the political structure whatever form of capitalism it represents.

Another irony of Marxism is its representation in academia – not just in terms of politics but the study of history, culture, economics, philosophy, the performing arts etc., all include a Marxian school which is considered, even within bourgeois culture, as intellectually respectable. It seems that once let out of the bottle the Marxian genie cannot easily be put back in. Some of these intellectuals, although they make use of Marxian dialectical analysis, make no claims to be Marxist socialists. Intellectual elitism might well make this impossible for some of them but it does seem to prove that it is possible to be a Marxist within some disciplines and not be a socialist. So what of the claim that you can be a socialist without being a Marxist?

Some have said that to be a socialist without reference to Marx is like claiming to be a physicist without reference to quantum mechanics or a biologist without reference to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Even outside of the ‘hard sciences’ no historian, philosopher, economist or anthropologist can escape a mention of Marx, even if it is just an attempt to refute his conclusions. How much more ridiculous is it for a ‘socialist’ to refute Marx without even attempting to understand his work. For those who claim to have understood his work and still reject the theories of surplus value and historical materialism whilst simultaneously claiming to be socialists, we can only point to 100 years of failed leftist dictatorships or reform programs to emphasise just how tragically mistaken they are.

Rear View: They won, you lost (2019)

The Rear View Column from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

They won, you lost
Ahead of the election in South Africa last month, a BBC report (1 May) confirmed that this country ‘. . . has the highest level of inequality in the world.’ Just over a year ago, another outlet put this fact in starker terms adding '. . . most of the nation’s wealth remains in the hands of a small elite’ (NPR, 2 April 2018). Writing before the result of this election is known, socialists can state with a mixture of confidence and sadness that multi-millionaire Cyril Ramaphosa’s class won, we lost. ‘The opposition Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi Maimane, says the gap between “economic insiders and outsiders” has grown. “There is no indication of it closing. We are a country split in two”” (, 1 May). But neither the ‘market-friendly’ DA, nor the state-capitalist Economic Freedom Fighters offer an escape route as they are two sides of the same coin.

No amnesty
Shenilla Mohamed, executive director of Amnesty International South Africa, told Deutsche Welle (26 April): ‘Mandela had a very romantic dream, to some extent, of having a nation where everyone is equal, where people are able to access their basic human rights, economic, social, cultural rights. But South Africa is a country where the quality of life has not improved for the majority of the population in 25 years. Issues such as racism are still in the foreground because people feel they have been disappointed by a system which began in 1994, when independence promised that everything was possible.’ Compare this candid comment with that of Stefan Simanowitz, European media manager for Amnesty International, who, seemingly reminiscing through a rose-tinted fog, states: ‘Just after Mandela was sworn in came a moment that still gives me goosebumps. Three jets flew low over the crowd followed by four helicopters, each towing the new flag. Instinctively we flinched. But then it dawned: The military — and the state — were no longer enemies of the people: they now belonged to the people’ (, 28 April).

Members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers’ movement in South Africa, are well acquainted with the state as a coercive machine of class oppression. AbM are credited with starting UnFreedom Day, an unofficial annual event that is planned to coincide with the official South African holiday called Freedom Day, the orthodox annual celebration of the country’s first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Ten years ago South African police initially tried to ban the UnFreedom Day, made some arrests and monitored the demonstration with a low-flying helicopter but later retreated. An altogether more blatant display of state power took place on 16 August 2012, With 17 workers killed and 78 wounded by the police, the Marikana Miners’ Massacre was the most lethal use of force by South African security forces against other workers since 1976. Commissioner Phiyega said that the police had acted well within their legislative mandate as outlined in Section 205 of the Constitution. Ramaphosa and King Zuma share responsibility for this mass murder and have yet to stand trial…

Learning from the past
‘A democratic state . . . industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well being of the people . . the land re-divided amongst those who work it. . . The police force and army. . . shall be the helpers and protectors of the people. .. . . a national minimum wage . . . the right to be decently housed . . . free medical care . . . Slums shall be demolished . .. ‘ (The Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC in 1955). Nelson Mandela: ‘The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change . . . nor has it.. . ever condemned capitalist society.’ In the August 1988 edition of this journal, we stated: ‘ If the ANC come to power they will have to take on the task of controlling and disciplining the majority when it becomes clear that capitalism run by blacks is little different to the white-dominated variety. They will have to ensure “calm labour relations”, which will bring them into inevitable conflict with “All who work shall be free . . . to make wage agreements with their employers” (Freedom Charter). ‘ ‘Already in 1948 apartheid was an anachronism, even from a capitalist point of view…The end of apartheid will not mean the end of working-class problems. At most it will result in the creation of the best conditions under which the working class can struggle to protect its interests within capitalism and, more importantly, can struggle alongside the workers of the rest of the world for the non-class as well as non-racial society that socialism will be’ (After apartheid, what? March 1990).