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The Socialist and Trade Unionism - Part 3 (1912)

From the January 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 3

The anti-trade-union “Socialist” even goes so far as to declare that a Socialist organisation or journal cannot legitimately criticise trade union action — cannot offer comment upon a strike that has failed, and point out mistakes that have been made, and courses it would have been wiser to follow.

The argument used to support this contention is that a strike, and also the object of it, is a sectional concern, and that therefore the Socialist organ that enters upon the subject is guilty of sectional action contrary to the class basis of its principles.

Here again we have the old trouble — the shibboleth; the tyranny of terms and theories. The class idea is only partly understood.

When we speak of the class basis of Socialism we imply its direct and irreconcilable antagonism to capitalism and the capitalist class. Our organisation, our politics, our activities, are based upon the recognition of the class struggle. That is all.

Now the first phase of the class struggle which the workers are up against is the struggle to live in the present. This is quite as real a part of the class struggle as the endeavour for emancipation itself, though some otherwise enlightened wage-slaves whose lot is a comparatively easy one, seem unable to realise this.

The very elements of this struggle to live are “class”. True, a strike is sectional in a certain narrow sense; but it is only a sectional phase of a class effort; it is a part of the struggle of the working class against capitalist aggression.

As a matter of fact, this phase of the class struggle — the fight for wages and conditions — can only assume this sectional aspect. To assume an entirely “class” aspect involves the General Strike in its complete form. That, of course, can never come, because it presupposes organisation so far in advance of itself as to make it reactionary: organisation calling for Socialism, not for improved wages and conditions.

It is not, then, inconsistent with the revolutionary position to render support to trade unions in any action they may take upon sound lines, or to criticise their actions when they are unsound.

From what has been said it is clear that the Socialist Party cannot be antagonistic to the trade unions under present conditions, even though they have not a revolutionary basis. On the contrary, it cannot even wish this base to be changed for the revolutionary one, since the revolutionary material does not exist in sufficient quantity to enable unions restricted to such to perform their necessary functions.

What the Socialist Party must, however, be hostile to, is the misleading by the trade union leaders and the ignorance of the rank and file which make such misleading possible. But we call the manifestation of this hostility by a very good name — propaganda.

As to the future attitude of the Socialist Party toward trade unions, of course, the present penman has no warrant to speak. But to give a strictly personal view, it seems hardly conceivable that the trade unions will fail to adapt themselves to the growth of revolutionary knowledge amongst their memberships. There at present appears to be no reason why they should not. There is nothing fixed about their bases which would preclude the change without the whole structures toppling to the ground, always provided, of course, the one essential condition for their maintenance — a revolutionary rank and file — is at hand.

And even when the time comes when the revolutionary element among the membership could secure a narrow majority in a vote there seems to be no obvious reason for purging the organisations of those who do not hold the revolutionary opinion. Such a course could hardly avoid weakening the unions in their proper sphere of action under capitalist conditions, and would not strengthen them for the revolutionary purpose of the future. In addition, to do so must inevitably be to set up rival trade unions on a reactionary basis, and this would defeat the object of the revolutionaries in taking the step of revolutionising the unions.

For when it becomes a question of the respective strength of revolutionary and non-revolutionary unions, and more particularly as the first increased in strength, economic necessity would force men to hide their political convictions and creep into the organisation which offered them the best prospects immediately, just as it forces revolutionary workers to-day to join economic organisations on a non-revolutionary basis, and dominated by reactionaries and traitors.

To make political convictions the test of membership of organisations which men are forced to join on pain of economic penalty, therefore, is pre-ordained to defeat its own object.

And what good could be expected? The two functions of economic organisation are—immediate, and ultimate. The first is non-revolutionary, the second revolutionary. But though the two are so different they are not antagonistic. The non-revolutionary is not anti-revolutionary. To fight for present life does not delay the overthrow of the present social system. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle.

Moreover, after his conversion his methods on the economic field differ little from those he previously was compelled to follow. His greater knowledge will save him from many blunders in the field, will show him how little he has to hope for from the struggle he is compelled to make. But substantially the efforts of the revolutionary and the non-revolutionary unionist on the economic field are reduced to the same plane; that is, they must endeavour to restrict competition amongst themselves; to organise for collectively withholding their special quality of labour-power.

It is on the political field that the two part company and become antagonistic.

It is not difficult to understand this. The immediate object of economic organisation—the only one which present trade unions have—is non-political. It cannot be fought out on the political field. The arena is the labour market.

On the contrary, that other and future function of economic organisation, which is to take over and administer things when the workers have obtained political supremacy and destroyed the power of the State, that function cannot begin to be active until the workers have fought out the struggle upon the political field.

All fit material, revolutionary or non-revolutionary, for the struggle on the economic field, the resistance to capitalist encroachment, can and must prosecute the fight together. But directly the political is entered upon, one is necessarily working for or against the revolution, and the non-revolutionary worker of the economic field becomes an anti-revolutionist in the arena of politics.

It is just because this is so that it became necessary to organise a separate political party of the workers. It was necessary to leave the workers the instrument of their resistance to capitalist encroachment while the weapon for capitalism’s overthrow was being forged. Had the requirements of the two objects been the same, had the non-revolutionary worker been unnecessary in the present struggle upon the economic field, or had he been of any use in the revolutionary struggle, then the political and the economic organisations might have been one.

This seems to indicate that, as the revolutionary element in trade unions grows stronger, the same difficulty that at present makes it impossible to impose any political restriction upon their membership—that is, that disruption would result—will compel the unions to relegate all political action to political organisations.

Thus with the gradual spread of Socialist views and the consequent change of men’s minds, the unions may gradually become the fit instrument of what final purpose of economic organisation may have, without the purging process.

For it is difficult to see, at the present time, what is to be gained by the expulsion of such members as have not then embraced the revolutionary idea. The strength of the Socialist movement can never be judged by the strength of the economic organisation, whatever the supposed basis, but by the power of the working class political party, hence the presence of un-class-conscious workers in economic organisations avowedly open to such cannot well mislead. And at all events they will be present in such economic organisations as are ostensibly closed to them when those organisations are strong enough to influence their chances of obtaining work.

Of course, if the economic organisation was formed to “take and hold” in the face of the political supremacy of the master class, things would be different—a different material would be required. But economic organisation is not demanded for that purpose, but for carrying on production and distribution when the political party has achieved its purpose. It seems logical to suppose that, since production and distribution will not then be carried on by the revolutionaries alone, even the reactionary labour power may be better organised inside the economic organisations than outside.

However, interesting as these speculations are, they are rather outside the province of the present articles, which concern the attitude to-day of Socialists toward trade unions. This attitude cannot be one of hostility, though it devolves upon Socialists to combat the unsound action of trade unions and trade unionists, as also the ignorance from which these unsound actions spring. But when trade unions take action on sound lines it becomes Socialists to remember their class allegiance and give them support.
A. E. Jacomb


The Socialist and Trade Unionism - Part 2 (1911)

From the December 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 2

We have seen that, in order that the ordinary laws of the competitive market shall find those presupposed conditions in the labour market without which they do not operate, in order, that is to say, that labour-power shall exchange for the cost of its production instead of the cost of its production shaping itself according to the rate of its exchange, combination becomes necessary on the part of the sellers of labour-power.

But the object of this combination, not being revolutionary, does not essentially demand that the combination shall be on a revolutionary basis.

To struggle for higher wages and better conditions is not revolutionary in any sense of the word; and the essential weapons in this struggle are not revolutionary either.

True, the real interest of the working class demands that the basis of every working-class organisation shall be revolutionary—but that is because it demands the revolutionisation of the whole system.

But first of all it demands, not the revolutionising of the basis of working-class organisations, but the revolutionising of the workers themselves.

For how can it be supposed that any mere paper-based revolutionary basis is going to help in the attainment of a revolutionary end if the only force behind it—the members constituting the organisation—have not the revolutionary consciousness?

When the Socialist Party was formed it was formed for a revolutionary purpose. The first thing to be done, therefore, was to put it on a revolutionary basis. This was defined in a declaration of principles. Only those who can accept these principles are admitted to membership, for only such are fit material for the prosecution of the revolutionary purpose.

On the other hand, trade unions are necessary, not to overthrow the present system, but to resist capitalist encroachment under the system. In this case the essential basis is that which will serve for the organisation of the fit material for the purpose in view.

To fix upon a revolutionary basis in this case and under present circumstances must be one of these two things: If it is made a condition of membership it must, because of the smallness of the number of those who have reached the revolutionary stage, render the organisation futile for the purpose which calls it into existence; on the other hand, if the revolutionary basis, having been laid down, is ignored—is not insisted upon as the indispensable condition of admittance to membership, then the organisation is not a revolutionary foundation in the first place, and the revolutionary idea is degraded, and the workers are deluded and confused in the second place.

For the principles of an organisation can only have two virtues. First, as a basis of organisation—a test of membership; secondly as a guide to action. Apart from these, principles are not worth the breath that avows them.

And if the principles are not first made the basis of organisation, if they are not accepted by the membership as pointing the way to their object, they cannot become the guide to action.

Clearly, then, the attitude of the Socialist toward trade unions is well defined. When he says that labour-power has the commodity nature he says that it must express its value through a struggle in the labour market. Both these statements force him to the conclusion that the non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. Therefore he would not either reduce the trade unions to impotence by closing them to non-Socialists, or spread confusion by getting them to avow principles which are not necessary to their object, and which the members do not hold.

He must, therefore, accept trade unions as they are, and, realising that all their grave and undeniable faults are but the reflection of the mental shortcomings of their members, realise that it is in the latter that the revolutionary foundation is necessary, and act accordingly.

It is hardly necessary to say that those so-called Socialists who would close the economic organisation to the non-Socialist would do two other things besides. They would bar the Socialist from the non-Socialist trade union, and they would shut the doors of the Socialist political organisation to all members of such unions.

The logic of this is, first, that the non-revolutionary struggle in the economic field is not necessary, or

That the struggle against capitalist encroachments is revolutionary.

If the struggle is not necessary it is, of course, quite logical for a Socialist party to demand that its members shall have none of it. On the other hand, if the struggle is revolutionary it is perfectly logical for the Socialist to demand that the economic organisations formed to prosecute that struggle be revolutionary also.

The present scribe has never met with one of these gentlemen whose faith he is attacking, who, being asked the plain question: “Is it necessary for the workers to struggle for better wages and conditions for better wages and conditions of labour”, would dare answer no; or who, being asked if such struggle is revolutionary, dare answer yes.

So our non trade-unionist critic, in his mad endeavour to restrict the actions of the class-conscious worker to the purely revolutionary object, gets himself into a most illogical position. He starts by declaring that nothing but Socialism concerns the Socialist. He perceives that this implies that the Socialist must be able to detach himself from the world that is, since it is not a Socialist world. Well, everything must be distorted to fit his pet theories. He professes himself able to so detach himself. He declares that he can view all things “as a Socialist”, which with him means from the standpoint that nothing matters but Socialism. When he is put to the question of his attitude toward trade unions he shuts his eyes and jumps.

Of course, it is a rather awkward situation. To say that the Socialist can view all things from the standpoint that nothing matters but Socialism is an easy matter, but it wants a deal of upholding when the worker has got to view the labour market from the standpoint of the seller of labour-power. Is he, if he understands Socialist economics, and therefore all the better understands the necessity of the struggle against capitalist encroachment, to give up personal participation in the struggle? Is he, directly he becomes armed and equipped for the battle of the future, to be rendered powerless and paralytic in the equally necessary struggle of the present?

If, when a worker attains to class-consciousness, he ceases to require food, clothing and shelter, ceases to be a vendor of labour-power, ceases to be under the necessity which all commodity owners are under—of fighting for the realisation of the value of his commodity, in this case labour-power; if, in short, he ceases to be anything but a pure abstraction in whom even the charitable raven could find no want to minister to, no lodgement for a beakful of material sustenance, then it might be logical to say that no Socialist can belong to a trade union.

But if the class-conscious worker still must live by the sweat of his brow, or rather by the sale of his potential energy, then he must resort to the instrument which make the conditions of a sale, as distinct from the conditions which environ the chattel slave’s dole.

Among these instruments, for a certain number, are, under present conditions, trade unions on a non-revolutionary base. And as far as the Socialist thinks them necessary to his personal economic welfare, as far, that is, as economic pressure forces him to, he is right and justified in using them.

And when I speak of economic pressure I do not mean merely the degree of it which marks the border-line of semi-starvation. Economic pressure, it is too often forgotten, commences with the first atomic offering of economic advantage, and the degree where the individual is sensible of it and consciously influenced by it, is here or there as circumstances decide.

The critic who would “determinedly and consciously” fight the trade unions “out of existence” provides no alternative instrument for carrying on the struggle against capitalist encroachment now. When he offers us economic organisation upon a revolutionary base he tells us that the resistance on the economic field has to cease until he has made his revolutionaries! Even the advocates of “Industrial Unionism” were not so blind as this, for they, recognising that not only the revolutionaries were necessary to the present “bargaining or higgling for better conditions”, belied the “revolutionary” foundation of their organisation by leaving it open for non-revolutionaries.

The only shred of argument the anti-trade-unionist can find in support of his attitude is the plea that the trade unions are political organisations. But here again he is bereft of reason. A political organisation is an organisation composed of those who organise for the political purpose. There is no such trade union in the whole wide country. Trade unionists organise for economic reasons, not political—not even to attain economic ends by political means. If the wirepullers lead them into taking political action they do not make them political organisations, but, in the storm of dissension and disruption they arouse, prove their essentially non-political character. It takes more than a few political tricksters, battening upon the ignorance and apathy of the membership, to constitute a trade union a political organisation, just as it required more than a few reactionaries in the Socialist Party to constitute that organisation a reactionary body.

But the whole purpose of economic organisation is a mystery to the particular type of opponent whom the present writer is combating. They say that it is impossible “at the present stage of capitalist development, for trade unions to take only economic action”. How they arrive at this conclusion appears when they declare that the Socialist position “insists upon the political and economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”.

If economic organisation is a means to the capture of political power, then it may be argued, with some show of reason, that trade unions are political organisations and therefore can take only political action.

But it is ridiculous to talk of economic organisation for the capture of political power. Such an object at once makes the organisation political, not economic. If men organise for the purpose of “bargaining and higgling for better conditions” by combined action on the industrial field, then their organisation is an economic one. If they organise to attain the same end by political means, then it is a political organisation as well as an economic one.

But the case of our anti-trade-unionist opponent does not come within the limits of either of these descriptions. He tells us that the “bargaining or higgling for better conditions in itself is no concern of Socialism”,—though he puts it that way to obscure the fact that he means that they are no concern of Socialists.

If he does not mean this there is no sense in his remark, for Socialism has no senses, and so can have no concerns.

As the economic struggle is no concern of the Socialist, and all the members of the economic organisation are to be Socialists, the economic organisation cannot be concerned with the economic struggle, it cannot be an economic organisation.

As the economic organisation that isn’t economic has for its purpose the capture of political power, it is a political organisation. A pretty picture our opponent’s tangle makes when it is straightened out.

But stay, there is one frail thread’s end not yet taken up. It will be claimed, perhaps, that the organisation exists to use economic means to capture political power, and is economic. This is the only argument left.

But then what are these means? There are but two possible replies. One is the reply of the Anarchist—the General Strike. The other is the reply of the Industrial Unionist; it is that they must “SEIZE AND HOLD THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION, in defiance of the armed forces”, in defiance, necessarily, of the political power they desire to capture.

The Socialist position does not “insist upon the political and economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”. 

The Socialist position is that the capture of political power must be the work of a political party, the fruit of political action. The capture of political power is necessary to enable the economic action of taking over the means of production to be proceeded with. Therefore it is madness to say the Socialist position “insists upon the . . . economic organisation of the working class for the capture of political power”.

The Socialist position is adequately laid down in the Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party thus: “The working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government”. That was true when it was adopted. Let all beware of adding or taking away a word.
A. E. Jacomb

(To be continued.)

The Socialist and Trade Unionism: The situation reviewed. (1911)

From the November 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is the Socialist attitude toward trade unions and trade unionists?

The Tyranny of Theory.
This is a question which has been agitating certain minds of late—minds which are so overwhelmed with the Socialist theories of political economy that they have lost the power (if they ever had it) of analysing the conditions prevailing, and of judging how far and how completely those conditions warrant the application of the theories.

Starting from the theory that it is inevitable that the condition of the workers will get worse while capitalism lasts—a pronouncement which, under proper and careful definition is perfectly correct—they arrive at the conclusion that trade unions are not, never have been, and never can be, of use to the working class.

These gentlemen are usually men who have given some attention to economic science, who have assimilated a multitude of worthy and irreproachable theories regarding the laws of capitalist society; but, from absence of the judicial mind, they accept these theories without sufficient thought as to their limitations, and as to the conditions which qualify them, and without which they cannot be true. Hence these right and proper theories become mere shibboleths, hobble-skirts about the ankles of those submerged and lost in verbal fashion. It is inevitable that such people will argue (I had almost said think) “in terms of contradiction”.

For instance, they will accept the theory that capitalism presupposes competition, and also the theory that competition tends to monopoly, yet they expect the laws of competition to operate in cases where the conditions of competition have given place to those of monopoly.

Of a Mind with the Capitalists.
These critics and opponents of ours admit—nay, more than that, they are too blatant to be confined within the limits of a mere admission, they assert—the commodity nature of labour-power. They recognise that the owners of the commodity labour-power, like the owners of all other commodities, must always struggle for the best price in order that their commodity may, in the long run, realise its value. Yet, strange confusion of ideas, while admitting the necessity of this continual fight, they would deny the workers the weapons of the struggle—trade union combination and the strike. In this they are so far anti-Socialist to be in perfect accord with the capitalists themselves.

Of course, what blinds them to the true state of affairs is another half-digested theory—that the return to labour is determined by the cost of subsistence. They argue that therefore the resistance of the workers is also determined by the cost of his subsistence, and that he has no need to fashion any other forces than that of his bare, naked will not to give way before he has to; that combination, that organisation, which is so potent and vital a factor on the political field, on the economic field is utterly worthless—a snare, a delusion, a pitfall, a gin, a chimera, a mirage, an obfuscation. The workers are to have none of it. The laws which arise from free competition are quite sufficient, under all capitalist conditions, to give the workers all they can get under all the circumstances of capitalism.

Forgotten—that the cost of subsistence is not a fixed point; forgotten—that the standard of subsistence is not entirely independent of the workers’ power of resistance; forgotten—that the statement that the wage (in the long run) is the reflection of the value of the labour-power is a statement of the effect of a law which implies the highest resistance on both sides; forgotten—that competition leads to monopoly.

Conditions undergo Change.
With the development of capitalism the conditions of the labour market undergo change. Wage-slavery remains, it is true—no changes reach down to that fundamental condition. But on the side of the purchasers of labour-power there is a tendency to restrict competition. As the smaller employers are crushed out the men find themselves haggling with fewer but more powerful antagonists; as rings and trusts and combines and masters’ associations spring up free competition conditions are upset, and the laws which arise from such, and operate only while such conditions obtain, are more or less modified, or displaced by laws which arise out of monopoly conditions.

Let us take any gigantic exploiting concern—the combined railway systems of this country, for instance. No intelligent person will claim that there is the same play of free competition among them as purchasers of labour-power that there is among the employers in many industries. True, the railways as a whole have to compete with other industries for the raw, untrained labour-power in the first place, but after that competition practically ceases. Time was when the companies did “poach” one another’s signalmen, drivers, and guards, but now, to all intents and purposes, the “skilled” railway worker has but one possible employer.

To talk of the laws of free competition in this case is a bit wide of the mark. The worker in no longer free to sell himself to the highest bidder, for there is only one bidder. Competition on one side is dead, and the laws of competition hobble along with one foot in a muddy furrow. It would be folly to expect anything else.

Now as there is but one employer that these men can sell their labour-power to, they have not the opportunity of putting themselves up to auction. The only thing they can do is to refuse or threaten to refuse to sell their labour-power upon the offered terms. This, of course, is the strike or the threat to strike.

Trade Unions Necessary.
It is perfectly clear that such a proceeding as this must be collectively engaged in. It is perfectly obvious also that this means combination, organisation. So some form of union becomes the necessary instrument to correct or counterpoise the monopoly conditions set up by the development of combination among the masters.

Combination on the workers’ part has the effect, undoubtedly, in such circumstances of considerably increasing their power of resistance, for now the very extent of the employers’ needs becomes a source of embarrassment to them. It was no difficult matter to replace a few “malcontents”, but to fill the places of a large and well-organised section is a very different matter.

With the development of capitalism there is necessarily an increased tendency toward this obliteration of competitive conditions by combination among the masters. The only answer to it at the moment is for the workers to shift their line of resistance from the individual to the collective. Who denies this is an individualist, an anarchist, to the core.

Make no mistake about it, without some form of organisation the men are helpless in face of the present combination and growing tendency to combination on the part of the masters. Yet the very law which our critics adduce against us, the law that labour-power will, like all other commodities, realise its value in the long run, presupposes that they shall continually struggle for better terms. It is only out of this contention of opposing forces that the law operates.

Now our opponents tell us that trade unions and strikes are no good because when a victory is obtained the law of wages “ . . . sharp racks to pinch and peel” and so reduce things to the old level.

The Struggle Must be Maintained
This deduction can only be drawn from half-understood theories. While it is true that all their struggle in the labour-market cannot raise the workers’ remuneration above the line fluctuating about the subsistence level, while it is true that any alteration of that subsistence level must, if maintained, result in a corresponding and nullifying intensification of the exploiting system, it is true also that the struggle must be made.

With all the workers’ struggles, say our critics, the economic laws decide that their enjoyment of the wealth produced shall be determined by the necessary cost of subsistence. But they forget to say what would happen without the struggle.

If higher wages are answered by speeding-up and improved methods of production, the tendency toward this is always present. Machinery and methods develop with stationary or even falling wages. If every vestige of the workers’ power of resistance was blotted out, so that the only limit to plunder was the physical law that a given amount of food can only produce a given amount of energy, still the means of production would tend to develop, because though that given amount of food could never be made to produce more than a given amount of energy, that energy may be made, by improved methods, to create a greater amount of wealth.

To cease to struggle, therefore, is no means of escaping from the tyrant competition of machinery. On the other hand, to cease the struggle is to reduce human labour-power even below the commodity status. The labour-power of the wage-slave is no more than a commodity because of the wage-slave’s propertyless condition; it is no less than a commodity because he has a power of resistance. Why is the labour-power of a horse not a commodity? Simply because the horse has no power of resistance. The wage-slave owns his labour-power. He is free to take it into the market and fight for the best price for it. The horse does not own his labour-power, hence it is he and not his labour-power who is the commodity. In this respect the chattel slave and the horse are alike, and the fact is reflected in the remarkably similar treatment accorded to both.

These things show, then, the folly of the argument that the struggle of the workers in the economic field for better conditions under capitalism is futile and superfluous because the economic laws determine what those conditions shall be. The laws of the exchange of the commodity labour-power are the laws of free competition. To formulate them is simply to indicate what will happen under given conditions, which in this case include a continual struggle on both the buyer’s part and the seller’s part.

The struggle, then, is presupposed. Therefore every means that strengthen the workers in that struggle are good in so far as they do so. Organisation, then, becomes necessary to the workers as a foil to that organisation among the capitalists which tends to disturb free competition and set up new conditions. What form shall the organisation take?

The critics who stand so much upon their theories without troubling to make sure that all the conditions necessary to their veracity are present when they apply them, says that organisation must be founded upon a revolutionary and class-conscious basis. Good.

But the same critic will inform us, out of the plenitude of his theories, that all institutions are based on economic conditions. At any rate, the need for combinations among the workers arose long before the knowledge of the working-class position so essential to class-consciousness became general. Indeed, the basis of the trade unions to-day is evidence amounting to almost proof that such knowledge is not wide-spread even now. The material, then, for a class-conscious trade union movement did not exist when the first unions were formed—it does not exist even to-day. In face of these facts how could it be expected that the trade unions could, or can at present, be based upon class-conscious principles?

There is this essential difference between the Socialist movement and the trade union movement: the former was called into being by the need for revolution—the latter was not. It must be recognised that the need for the workers to struggle for the best conditions under capitalism is as real as the need for revolution. In this struggle for the highest price for labour-power the trade unions did and do represent the highest form of weapon which it was or is possible to fashion with the material to hand. So far, then, they are good.

The strike, of course, is the force behind all trade union organisation. A trade union is a combination for the purpose of making it possible to collectively withhold labour-power. All the union’s operations are conditioned by the progress made in that direction. Therefore if trade unions are good the strike is good also—though least good, it is possible, when it passes from a standing menace to an active hostility.

Now our critic, who is fond of throwing words into high-sounding phrases and then risking his life for them, tells us that strikes are guerrilla warfare, and therefore are useless. But strikes and the menace of strikes are not guerrilla warfare. On the contrary, in certain circumstances and for the purpose they aim at—the resistance of capitalist encroachment—they are the last resort, the only form of warfare left open.

It is true the opponent of the Socialist attitude tries to play tricks with himself, tries to detach himself from all his human qualities and make himself the mere embodiment of an idea. He claims to view the struggle in the labour-market from “the Socialist standpoint”. The view from this elevation is, according to him, that anything which does not directly forward the emancipation of the working class does not concern him.

The possessor of this strange attitude of mind prides himself ostentatiously on having reached that high scientific pinnacle where he is quite beyond the reach of every activity, mental or otherwise, but the abstract idea—Socialism. “Scientifically and logically”, he argues, “to the Socialist, as a Socialist, nothing matters but Socialism”. If a man could stand as the mere receptacle of the one idea, Socialism, the logic of this position might (or might not) be conceded—but scientifically the position is unsound. For the scientist may not stop where the logician does: he has to ask what are the essentials of Socialism. The first essential he discovers is—a human race. Without humanity there can be no Socialism. Directly he admits this he discovers that, even as the frigidly pure, passionless, scientific exponent and advocate of Socialism the every day affairs of men do matter, for assuredly if any calamity threatened to blot Man out of the scheme of things, to obliterate one of the essentials of his scientific obsession, it would concern him.

Such an admission, of course, is fatal to the position that the Socialist, as such, is concerned with Socialism alone. For if he is under the necessity of being concerned, in the last analysis, with the existence of the material for his Socialist society, then he has to find reasons for drawing a line anywhere, in matters that affect the condition of that material.

Such reasons do not exist—he is on an inclined plane.
A. E. Jacomb

(To be continued.)

Home Rule in a Nutshell. (1911)

Book Review from the November 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

Home Rule in a Nutshell, by J. MacVeagh, M.P., Price 3d.

It is significant for the members of the working class – in Ireland or elsewhere – that there is no direct mention or statement of their position and problems anywhere in this pamphlet. While as if to emphasise its concern for the chosen class we are told on page 3 that “the impulse of Nationality comes from higher than earthly powers”.

What a consolation to those who find themselves put to so many shifts in endeavouring to account for the shortcomings of Home Rule! All through the plea it is the owning section of the Irish race – whether agricultural or manufacturing – whose interests are considered and argued for on every page.

Perhaps this accounts for the short-sightedness of the author when he tells us, in italics, on page 6, that “The Act of Union has . . . crushed Irish trade and industries”, while on page 7 he says “so far back as the middle of the seventeenth century England began to legislate to destroy Irish industries . . . The great woollen industry was destroyed by an Act of the English Parliament”. And on page 8 we are told that “every industry to which Ireland turned was destroyed by England by the imposition of prohibitive duties or by the closing of ports”.

That fifty years elapsed between the middle of the seventeenth century and the Act of Union hardly seems a sufficient reason for saddling the actions of both periods with the same single result. How much the  Home Rule movement is a capitalist movement is shown when our author boasts that “Ireland gave generals and soldiers to fight for Great Britain in South Africa” (p. 18), and has given to the British Empire some of its greatest statesmen, generals, diplomats – men like Henry Grattan, Edmund Burke, O’Connell, Parnell, Govan Duffy, Duke of Wellington, Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener” – all, be it noted, toadies and lickspittles of the English ruling class.

While reference is made to the famine of 1847, not a word is said regarding the fact that it was not lack of food that caused the dire calamity, but the selling of the foodstuff to pay rent to Irish, as well as English, landlords.

On page 60, however, the truth appears. “The United Irish League is a sort of Farmers’ Trade Union”, we are told. Exactly. Hence its opposition to the agricultural labourers’ attempts to improve their miserable position. And among the chief causes of the so-called improvement that has taken place in late years is given, “five years of Liberal administration”!

Two things, however, are done well in the brochure. One is the showing of the hopelessness of the physical force movement against England – a movement that unfortunately contains a large number of the working class in its ranks. The other is the exposure of the humbug of the self-styled loyalists of Ulster with their threat of civil war if a Home Rule Bill were passed.

The facts and figures given in the latter connection are the most valuable in the pamphlet.
Jack Fitzgerald

Rear View: Republicans or Democrats: same difference (2019)

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

‘The Democratic platform is a political omelette made of stale eggs.’
The 2020 ‘… candidates’ divisions laid bare in feisty TV debate’ (, 27 June) resulted in much hot air. The so-called Democratic Socialist (a tautological misnomer) Bernie Sanders added his reformist 50 cents on ‘issues’ such as Medicare, student loans, and taxes. Unsurprisingly, neither he nor the other would-be mis-leaders spoke of the urgent need for a world of free access and production for use where the best education and healthcare would be available for all. And all this without taxes, which might at first glance please Donald Trump. He actually provided the best summary of the debate by tweet the same day: ‘BORING!’

‘The Republican stands for the system as it is; the Democratic Party for the system as it was; the Socialist Party for a new system, the Socialist republic.’
This remains true, although the past for some of today’s Democrats is New Deal America under President Roosevelt. Between the years 1933-36 a series of reforms were introduced as a result of the Great Depression. The Democrats of the time favoured more government intervention, which contemporary Republicans opposed. The Workers’ Socialist Party of the United States, today’s WSP (US), commented: ‘Economic developments are producing conditions that make the case for Socialism more strikingly clear than was possible in the past era of rampant individualism, and collectivistic ideas of sorts are floating around and being discussed in the most unlikely circles. But in the building up of a sound and powerful party of Socialists… a very great amount of work remains to be done’ (More about Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, Socialist Standard, August 1934).

‘In the light of experience, why should you vote for either the Republican or Democratic parties?’
Indeed, and as true then in 1908 as today. War and poverty remain as does the boom and bust cycle of capitalism. Prior to FDR’s election in 1933, our US-based comrades wrote: ‘It should be clear to all workers that the working class, if they are to escape from the misery of capitalism, must first understand their class position, and must then build up a Socialist political party for the purpose of capturing the powers of government in order to introduce Socialism’ (Socialist Standard, October 1932).

‘This is the only solution of the economic problems of the working class. All else will leave them wage-slaves still’.
The Democrats and Republicans want the 99 percent to take yet another spin on the reformist misery-go-round. Sanders has voted with the Democrats 98 percent of the time. Let us put his qualified support for $15/hour into context:
  • 1865: ‘Instead of the conservative motto, A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, Abolition of the wage system’ (Marx, Value, Price, and Profit).
  • 1928: ‘Earning a wage is a prison occupation’ (Wages, DH Lawrence).
  • 1965: Workers still ‘don’t realise that they can abolish the wages system’ (Socialist Standard).
  • 2019: $15/hour by 2024? (Sanders’ Raise the Wage Act).

‘You workers make everything and the capitalists have everything.’
A recent study shows that the richest 0.00025 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans (, 10 February). Wealth is the product of human labour, acting upon nature-given materials, that is capable of satisfying needs. We work, they take and pass on. Some of today’s capitalists have many centuries of legalised theft behind them. The richest families in Florence got a head start and have been at it for the past 600 years.

‘If the workingmen are to be emancipated, they must emancipate themselves.’
If the quotations above seem dated yet strangely relevant, it is because they were made by a founding member of the IWW and former Democrat Eugene Debs on the US presidential campaign trail in 1908 for the (now defunct) Socialist Party of America. Notably he also said that year: ‘The capitalist system under which we live has about run its historic course, and on every hand we see unerring signs of a change. It has begun to write again its record of bankruptcy and failure, of idleness and distress, of despair and death.’ And: ‘There will be no trouble about the necessities of life when the working class takes over the machinery. They will have all the best food they need, the best homes that can be built, the best schools — no child labor, no grinding toil — and all the beautiful things will be for everyone’ (Source: LINK).

Alright up to a point (2019)

Book Review from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Many Not the Few. An Illustrated History of Britain Shaped by the People. By Sean Michael Wilson and Robert Brown. Workable Books. 2019. £9.99.

This is a primer, in the cartoon form of conversations between a retired trade unionist and his granddaughter, of working class, or rather lower class (since it starts with the Peasants’ Revolt), history, aimed at those new to trade unionism and ‘labour’ politics. Wat Tyler, the Levellers, the Diggers, Peterloo, the Chartists, the match girls’ strike, they are all there. When, however, it comes to the twentieth century and the formation of the Labour Party it becomes tendentious; which no doubt explains why it comes with a preface and recommendation from Jeremy Corbyn.

However, Corbyn might be embarrassed (or maybe not) by the anti-EU and pro-Brexit stance taken at the end. This, no doubt, is due to the ‘history adviser’ being Doug Nicholls, a frequent contributor to the Morning Star and first chair of Trade Unionists Against the European Union. There is a mysterious reference to a ‘Worker’s Liberty’ website on page 109, odd because if that’s to the trotskyoid AWL they are anti-Brexit. In any event, dragging in Brexit will date the book and, besides, has nothing to do with working class history.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Use value and exchange value (2019)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

In June the media discovered an interview John McDonnell had given last September. It was immediately seized on by the campaign to depict him, Corbyn and even the Labour Party as ‘Marxist’. Interviewed by Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar, according to the Times (24 June), ‘the shadow chancellor discussed how Karl Marx’s work could help people to alter their priorities, and how the “use value” rather than “exchange value” of goods should dominate the way people think.’

Marx did distinguish between ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ and McDonnell is correct to say that ‘what we have is a society dominated by exchange value’ (

However, Marx was not the first to make this distinction. The two terms were introduced by Adam Smith who wrote:
  ‘The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called “value in use,” the other “value in exchange”’(The Wealth of Nations¸ Book 1, chapter IV).
Marx pointed out, on the first page of Capital, that to have exchange value a product had to satisfy ‘human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.’ So, a ‘use value’ is something that at least some people consider useful. This was, wrote Marx, socially determined but ‘to discover the various uses of things is the work of history,’ ie, not of economics.

Both he and Smith were interested in what determined a product’s ‘exchangeable value’. Both concluded that it was related to the amount of labour-time required to produce it from start to finish. What gave a product of labour exchange value was that it had been produced with a view to being sold. The word both used to describe such a product was ‘commodity.’

Marx’s Capital opens: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”.’ Capitalism was a society in which the products of labour, including the capacity to work of the producers, took the form of commodities. But Marx was not interested simply in what determined the exchange value of commodities but above all in how ‘a society dominated by exchange value’ worked.

He first noted that, where the producers’ capacity to work was also a commodity, this resulted in them producing other commodities with a greater exchange value than that of the one they had sold to their employer for a wage, the difference being ‘surplus value’, the source of profits. His conclusion was that capitalism was a society dominated by the imperative to accumulate more and more exchange value, derived from profits and embodied as use values in buildings and instruments for producing more wealth and surplus value, at the expense of producing use values to satisfy people’s needs. Exchange value was more important than use value.

McDonnell, who clearly is acquainted with Marx, is right to want to encourage people to think about this. But it is unclear what he thinks should be done. Marx saw the only way out as a society in which there was no exchange value because use values were not produced as commodities, as items for sale, but for people to take and use. McDonnell seems to want a society in which commodities are still produced but in which use value prevails over exchange value. A laudable aim but, as Marx showed and experience has confirmed, unachievable. Where there is production for sale with a view to profit, the making and accumulation of profits will always come first.

Pathfinders: Blackout in Sudan (2019)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blackout in Sudan

Last month’s BBC Panorama shock exposé of anti-semitism in the Labour Party created quite a stir, but also left a lot of people wondering why the BBC has not chosen to do an equivalent exposé of the rampant and well-documented islamophobia in the Tory Party. Balanced unbiased news reporting, in line with the BBC’s own charter? Corbynistas will be fuming about a stitch-up, and not without reason.

The BBC is probably more balanced when reporting overseas conflicts in which the UK government has no direct interest. BBC’s Africa Eye has provided some decent coverage of the Sudan uprising, including a fascinating video report which, in another kind of stitching, put together a patchwork of over 300 phone videos of the June 3 slaughter in Khartoum, when the military junta’s special forces opened fire on peaceful protesters (‘Sudan’s Livestream Massacre’, BBC News, 12 July ).

The report made the point that, while phones can’t stop bullets, the near-ubiquity of mobile phones means that the world has eyes everywhere, and no junta can keep its massacres a secret anymore. Not that public exposure will necessarily deter a ruthless regime, however in the globalised trading era it’s bad advertising which makes a country look weak and unstable, and will deter foreign investment.

If the military rulers in Sudan expected a massacre to clear the streets and stop the protests, they were right, but not for long. Within a fortnight the protests were back, and bigger than ever. The junta responded by shutting down the internet, forcing protest organisers to rely on text SMS or land-line telephone, a fiddly and expensive business which could reach only a fraction of its target audience. But while the blackout impeded the protesters, it was catastrophic for the Sudanese economy, costing hundreds of millions in lost trade. Was this nevertheless a pyrrhic victory for the junta, the BBC wondered later that month (‘Has an internet blackout killed Sudan’s revolution?’, BBC News, 21 June ). No, as it turned out. In July the military rulers climbed down and acceded to partial civilian rule. The point to take from this is that while modern communications technology is a wonderful force for democratisation, it can always be censored or shut down, and so should not be relied upon. But none of that matters if the courage and determination of workers is strong enough, as in Sudan.

This is your capitalist brain on drugs

Drug firm Pfizer has discovered that its own arthritis treatment drug Enbrel also seems to cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 64 percent (New Scientist, 15 June, p7). Great, you might think. Over to Pfizer to start cranking out Enbrel by the container load.

Oh but wait, says Pfizer. Actually, our patent on this is due to expire soon, so we won’t be proceeding with this.

What, you say, you mean you’re not going to make any?

Pfizer shakes its head.

But a 64 percent risk reduction – are you kidding? That blows every other Alzheimer drug out of the water!

Sorry, says Pfizer, no can do. If we don’t make the profit, we don’t make the drug.

But surely you can get your patent extended, you insist. Old drug, new use, it’s been done before.

Yeah well, says Pfizer, we don’t really believe our own data anyway.

Alright, you argue, run proper clinical trials then.

Pfizer bites its lip. Thing is, trials cost, and we’ve all lost a packet on failed clinical trials before. All previous Alzheimer’s trials have failed, which is why all the major drug firms have closed their Alzheimer’s research units. Basically it’s a huge money sink.

Well, you ask in increasing desperation, can’t you get government funding to cover this?

Pfizer smiles. Yeah, good luck with that. Voters want low taxes more than happy granddads.

Well, can’t you release the patent and let another firm make the stuff then?

Pfizer looks shocked. But that wouldn’t be fair – it’s our drug!

Alzheimer’s affects 37 million people worldwide. But capitalism says no.

Why not make a cystic fibrosis drug instead? Drug firm Vertex charges £100,000 a year for the treatment Orkambi, which the NHS won’t pay for, so kids die (New Scientist, 15 June, p9). But because Vertex doesn’t have a valid patent in Argentina, a local firm is producing the drug at the bargain rate of £23,000 pa. Vertex is furious, of course, claiming that their sale price is a fair reflection of the billions they sank into R&D. Meanwhile the parents of kids with cystic fibrosis have been forced to create a ‘buyers club’ in order to buy wholesale and get the cost down further, a move clinicians describe as ‘a desperate act’.

Patents in capitalism are intended to reward and defend intellectual effort and financial investment. But the flip side is that patents also kill people either by setting unaffordable prices or stopping production at source. In socialism you might get the kudos for an invention, but you wouldn’t get a patent.

This is your capitalist brain on dregs

Two bumper harvests in Brazil have flooded the international market with so much coffee that the price farmers can get has plummeted to below $1 a pound (BBC News, 11 July ). Since coffee is a cash crop that farmers sell instead of growing food they could actually eat, when the price hits the floor farmers will turn to other cash crops or else subsistence. Add in the number of farmers also going bust or abandoning farming, and you’re looking at a massive scaling back of future coffee production. Enjoy that cappuccino while you may, because in a few years’ time you might only be able to afford re-boiled dregs. How can a good harvest turn into a disaster? That’s capitalist ‘logic’ for you.
Paddy Shannon

The Destruction of Nature: by Anton Pannekoek (2019)

Anton Pannekoek, 1908
From the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
We publish this translation of a recently uncovered article written by Anton Pannekoek in 1909, not only for its contemporary relevance but also to show that Marx and Engels were not the only socialists to be concerned that capitalism was upsetting the basis of humanity’s participation in the Earth’s ecosystem.
There are numerous complaints in the scientific literature about the increasing destruction of forests. But it is not only the joy that every nature-lover feels for forests that should be taken into account. There are also important material interests, indeed the vital interests of humanity. With the disappearance of abundant forests, countries known in Antiquity for their fertility, which were densely populated and famous as granaries for the great cities, have become stony deserts. Rain seldom falls there except as devastating diluvian downpours that carry away the layers of humus which the rain should fertilise. Where the mountain forests have been destroyed, torrents fed by summer rains cause enormous masses of stones and sand to roll down, which clog up Alpine valleys, clearing away forests and devastating villages whose inhabitants are innocent, ‘due to the fact that personal interest and ignorance have destroyed the forest and headwaters in the high valley’.

The authors strongly insist on personal interest and ignorance in their eloquent description of this miserable situation but they do not look into its causes. They probably think that emphasising the consequences is enough to replace ignorance by a better understanding and to undo the effects. They do not see that this is only a part of the phenomenon, one of numerous similar effects that capitalism, this mode of production which is the highest stage of profit-hunting, has on nature.

Why is France a country poor in forests which has to import every year hundreds of millions of francs worth of wood from abroad and spend much more to repair through reforestation the disastrous consequences of the deforestation of the Alps? Under the Ancien Regime there were many state forests. But the bourgeoisie, who took the helm of the French Revolution, saw in these only an instrument for private enrichment. Speculators cleared 3 million hectares to change wood into gold. They did not think of the future, only of the immediate profit.

For capitalism all natural resources are nothing but gold. The more quickly it exploits them, the more the flow of gold accelerates. The private economy results in each individual trying to make the most profit possible without even thinking for a single moment of the general interest, that of humanity. As a result, every wild animal having a monetary value and every wild plant giving rise to profit is immediately the object of a race to extermination. The elephants of Africa have almost disappeared, victims of systematic hunting for their ivory. It is similar for rubber trees, which are the victim of a predatory economy in which everyone only destroys them without planting new ones. In Siberia, it has been noted that furred animals are becoming rarer due to intensive hunting and that the most valuable species could soon disappear. In Canada, vast virgin forests have been reduced to cinders, not only by settlers who want to cultivate the soil, but also by “prospectors” looking for mineral deposits who transform mountain slopes into bare rock so as to have a better overview of the ground. In New Guinea, a massacre of birds of paradise was organised to satisfy the expensive whim of an American woman billionaire. Fashion craziness, typical of a capitalism wasting surplus value, has already led to the extermination of rare species; sea birds on the east coast of America only owe their survival to the strict intervention of the state. Such examples could be multiplied at will.

But are not plants and animals there to be used by humans for their own purposes? Here, we completely leave aside the question of the preservation of nature as it would be without human intervention. We know that humans are the masters of the Earth and that they completely transform nature to meet their needs. To live, we are completely dependent on the forces of nature and on natural resources; we have to use and consume them. That is not the question here, only the way capitalism makes use of them.

A rational social order will have to use the available natural resources in such a way that what is consumed is replaced at the same time, so that society does not impoverish itself and can become wealthier. A closed economy which consumes part of its seed corn impoverishes itself more and more and must inevitably fail. But that is the way capitalism acts. This is an economy which does not think of the future but lives only in the immediate present. In today’s economic order, nature does not serve humanity, but capital. It is not the clothing, food or cultural needs of humanity that govern production, but capital’s appetite for profit, for gold.

Natural resources are exploited as if reserves were infinite and inexhaustible. The harmful consequences of deforestation for agriculture and the destruction of useful animals and plants expose the finite character of available reserves and the failure of this type of economy. Roosevelt recognises this failure when he wants to call an international conference to review the state of still available natural resources and to take measures to stop them being wasted.

Of course the plan itself is humbug. The state could do much to stop the pitiless extermination of rare species. But the capitalist state is in the end a poor representative of the good of humanity. It must halt in face of the essential interests of capital.

Capitalism is a headless economy which cannot regulate its acts by an understanding of their consequences. But its devastating character does not derive from this fact alone. Over the centuries humans have also exploited nature in a foolish way, without thinking of the future of humanity as a whole. But their power was limited. Nature was so vast and so powerful that with their feeble technical means humans could only exceptionally damage it. Capitalism, by contrast, has replaced local needs with world needs, and created modern techniques for exploiting nature. So it is now a question of enormous masses of matter being subjected to colossal means of destruction and removed by powerful means of transportation. Society under capitalism can be compared to a gigantic unintelligent body; while capitalism develops its power without limit, it is at the same time senselessly devastating more and more the environment from which it lives. Only socialism, which can give this body consciousness and reasoned action, will at the same time replace the devastation of nature by a rational economy.
Zeitungskorrespondenz N° 75, 10 July 1909,

Original German, and a French translation, can be found here:

Fyah Inna Babylon – A Marxist in the Media (2012)

From the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

I woke up one morning with a three-hour weekly radio show. The show was to be in the evening ‘specialist’ slot on Fridays and was called ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’. I’ve always loved Jamaican music and for a Socialist ‘Roots Reggae’ is a perfect genre with its 100 percent political lyrics. Made in the ghettos of Kingston, these are songs of liberation: as I used to say, ‘the conscious thunder of righteous rhythms’. On the death of Bob Marley there was a slow drift back to ‘gangster ragga’, as Jamaican music lost its way in the eighties. After joining a reggae collective in 2000 I was relieved to find that not only ‘old school’ roots was back in favour, but a whole new generation of conscious musicians were rocking to the sound of liberation once again. I had not really expected to get the job as I had explicitly stated that my show would have to have a high political content. I was not interested in the usual ‘pick and mix’ entertainment genre.

Don’t get me wrong – I had a lot of respect for some of the other DJ’s with their in-depth knowledge of specific music genres. I just wanted to discuss the ideas that the lyrics and rhythms of roots reggae provoke – liberation, righteousness, Zion and the Babylon System, etc. Truth be told, it was a great opportunity to air some socialist ideas on live radio (a rare thing these days).

Everything started pretty well and I even got away with not playing ’The News’ in the middle of my show on the grounds that Murdochian propaganda would not go down well with my ‘audience’. My idea was to pick a theme or two from the lyrics and discuss the political implications. There’s something called ‘dub reggae’ (an enhanced instrumental track) that would keep the rhythm going as I pontificated. One such deliberation concerned the vexed subject of the reactionary and progressive elements within Rastafarianism. I have been called a hypocrite by some Rastas because I play the Roots but reject the spiritual part of its message. I attempted to point out that, as in most religions, because of its absence on earth, the need for justice is projected into another supernatural or spiritual realm. The yearning for righteousness is a very human ideal born of the suffering endemic within the exploitation of Capitalism (the Babylon System) and is shared by Socialists. Once you relegate political action to the mystical caprice of a deity (Jah) you inevitably produce an authoritarian social structure, with God and his prophets on top and the rest of us somewhere below – always anti-democratic and reactionary. Such was the polemical nature of my broadcasts. When I started, the ‘boss’ had taken me to one side and said: ’make the show you would want to listen to’ – and this is precisely what I did.

Before finding myself on the other side of the microphone I had nursed a contempt for local radio. The blandness, let’s be honest, is mind numbing. The mindless repetition of ‘petit bourgeois’ propaganda masquerading as community radio is politically laughable. And yet, as I learned, the people involved are normal human beings, totally oblivious to their role in perpetuating the values of the capitalist obscenity. They are obsessed with something they call ‘professionalism’. Any minor technical mistake or, much to my amusement, the use of inappropriate language is anathema. Turf wars with other radio stations is another obsession that feeds the fragile egos of those who are terrified by the endless ‘rules and regulations’ of broadcasting. It is this atmosphere that produces the blandness which so disfigures local radio and renders it politically impotent – and is, of course, the very intention of this kind of broadcasting censorship. To many broadcasters and consumers alike, music has become just another commodity with beautiful people singing beautiful songs with beautiful voices 24/7. Perfect nonsense fills the airwaves to feed the sick romance of lifestyle consumerism. And yet a show like mine found its way through the cracks for a while. What it so obviously lacked in ‘professionalism’ it made up for in ‘novelty’. I tried, as the rastas say, to ‘keep it real’ and forbad any political cynicism for three hours a week. So, I hear you ask, what could possibly go wrong and why is this great gift to radio no longer broadcasting?

The cost of running even a modest local radio station, even staffed with volunteers like me is prohibitive, and without advertising revenue it became impossible for the individuals involved to continue financing it themselves. Licences for FM, DAB and online broadcasting are astronomical and serve the dual purpose of financing the treasury and keeping those without money off the airwaves. Just for a while there, I was able to indulge two of my great passions in life, reggae music and socialism. The Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes and I’m sure conscious reggae roots will once again provoke revolutionary vibes on local radio somewhere. I’m just relieved my comrades didn’t hear me utter the phrase ‘Jah Rastafari’ at the conclusion of one of my more emotionally intense broadcasts – love is a funny thing.

What Joe Orton saw (2012)

Theatre Review from the November 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Joe Orton’s 1969 play, What the Butler Saw, was recently performed at the Vaudeville Theatre in London and starred Omad Djalli and Tim McInnerny. This farce by “the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” attacks petty bourgeois morality, sexual prudery, marriage, hypocrisy, conservative values, authority (“Accept your condition without tears and without abusing those placed in authority”), religion (“reject all paranormal phenomena. It’s the only way to remain sane”), psychiatry, and the police. Orton, influenced by Artaud, celebrates anarchy, the Dionysian pleasures of poly-sexual gratification and nymphomania, and delights in sadism, transvestism, ‘madness’, incest, gender identity confusion, and the base human appetites of lust for money and power.

What the Butler Saw has echoes of Sophocles’ tale of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta, the ‘madness’ of Caligula, and the Carry On films. Orton wrote critically of the film, The Marat/Sade: “Let’s look at mad people. At queer people.” Interestingly, in his play there are no ‘lunatics’ just doctors, and he parodies the traditional Freudian psychologist. Freud was the bourgeois psychiatrist and defender of capitalism who went from an emphasis on Eros to Thanatos. It is only with Reich do we get psychoanalysis with Marxism and the development of psycho-sexual health for the working class. The 1960s saw a radical shift in psychiatry with the use of LSD therapy and the RD Laing ‘anti-psychiatry’ school. Fromm in The Sane Society identified the contradictions in capitalism between ‘having’ and ‘being’, and the need for a sane socialist society. Orton writes: “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational”.

Orton had no time for the ‘work ethic’ (“I resented having to go to work in the morning”), adopted a Nietzschean outlook (“reject all the values of society”), and disliked bourgeois capitalist society, writing with echoes of Reich that “sex is the only way to smash the wretched civilization, the only way to infuriate them, much more fucking and they’ll be screaming hysterics in next to no time”. He pungently added: “the old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul”. Orton also perceived the contradictions of bourgeois liberalism noting: “I don’t like the sort of liberal that is reactionary underneath”.

Orton satirises Britain’s ‘popular’ wartime leader Churchill who died in 1965. In 1967, Hochhuth’s play Soldiers implicated Churchill in the 1943 Sikorski crash. This member of the capitalist class is also responsible for miners killed in Tonypandy, anarchists burned to death in Sidney Street, 150,000 war deaths in Gallipoli, millions of deaths in the Bengal Famine of 1943, half a million deaths in Allied bombing of German cities, threats to machine gun strikers in the 1926 General Strike and the gassing of Kurdish rebels in Iraq in 1920.

In the 1960s the Lord Chamberlain would not allow Churchill’s phallus at the end of the play, so it was replaced with his cigar.
Steve Clayton