Sunday, October 13, 2019

Greasy Pole: New word, old trick (1996)

The Greasy Pole column from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Thirty years of hurt haven’t stopped them dreaming . . . Well actually it’s a little more than 30 years since Labour Party supporters could stop dreaming, when the first Wilson government put an end to a long spell of Conservative rule. A lot of the people who will vote in the next general election had not been born then but they will have heard, many times, the kind of declaration which Labour was making in their 1964 manifesto, that ". . . the ending of economic privilege, the abolition of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the creation of real equality of opportunity . . . have now become immediate targets of political action". Labour 1964 would transform Britain because they would plan the economy into a smooth expansion and use the opportunities of the scientific revolution which had been "disastrously wasted" by the Tories.

Wilson had outlined the policy of promoting Labour as the party of science in a conversation with Richard Crossman early in 1963. If he was elected leader, he said, the party would be able to “ . . . liberate the frustrated energies of thousands of young scientists, technologists and specialists, who feel there is no room for them under the present anti-scientific old-boy network in industry and Whitehall". The result of the planning and liberation would be an enormous increase in productivity and profitability, which would benefit all of us. (This is not particularly original thinking; it was another version of the Tory one-nation policy, the delusion that all people of whichever class have a common interest in making the ruling class richer. Nowadays it is called the trickle-down theory.)

Grouse moors
The Conservatives, of course, were not the party of science but of the stultifying privileges of the aristocracy. They were the party whose leaders ran the country during short breaks from the organised slaughtering of helpless birds on the grouse moors. By a stroke of luck (for Labour) the Tories had just chosen as their leader Lord Home, a rich amiable Scottish landowner who, apart from an admitted bewilderment over the economics of capitalism, bore a striking resemblance to the birds he ritually brought down with his guns.

So it was all set, when Wilson ousted Home from Number Ten. The journey to the Promised Land could begin. Except that it quickly became clear that things weren’t so simple after all. Soon after taking over Wilson was appearing on television to warn us about the ". . . extremely serious situation which the country is facing" and to declare "We cannot afford attitudes anywhere, on either side of industry which stand in the way of higher production or lower costs. The old fashioned restrictive practices have no place."

It was not necessary to be overly incredulous of politicians’ promises to understand Wilson’s message. In order to protect the competitive position and the profits of the British ruling class we would have to work harder and face up to a reduction in our standard of living. In this cause, trade unions should not use any bargaining power they had through what were called restrictive practices.

This opened the way to a long struggle between the workers and the Labour government, in which the high-flown plans and concepts of 1963/64 were virtually forgotten in the cause of boosting exports, saving the pound, getting the balance of payments right . . . But of course this provoked much bewilderment and disappointment in Labour Party ranks, where they had suffered those years of hurt but had thought they did this to build the revolution. What about, they asked, Labour’s principles? What about socialism—or rather what they thought of as socialism?

The response of the Labour leadership to these doubts was not oozing with sympathy and understanding. There was, rather, a certain asperity in dealing with the hopeless ideologues who were foolish enough to think they were in a party which aimed to change society. Among the impotent denunciations of those who still thought of themselves as the true keepers of the faith a new word was heard, again and again. Pragmatism.

This word was used not only to defend the basis of Labour government policy but also to verbally flog all those who questioned what they were doing. Such people were alright to do the party donkey work—stuffing envelopes, delivering leaflets, canvassing—but if they thought they were doing this in order to abolish poverty and privilege or whatever, they were irritating dogmatic theorists. While the theorists argued over the finer points of an irrelevant dogma the pragmatic people got on with the real work of running capitalism. "Mr Wilson,” wrote John Cole in the Guardian in March 1966, "defends aggressively his pragmatic approach to politics. All government, he says, is pragmatic."

In fact pragmatism was another of the words which are called into use to divert attention from a government’s failure to keep its promises to do the impossible—to run capitalism as if it were not a class-divided society of riches and poverty, avoidable disease, war, crime, human despair . . . There have been quite a few such words since then and the latest of them is the one almost ceaselessly on the lips of the hopeful next prime minister Tony Blair.

That word is New. Blair is unable to speak in public (we don’t know whether it extends into his private life) without using the word. New Labour. New Britain. What is implied is that anyone who disagrees with Blair’s ideas is old, worn out, irrelevant. What New really means is that a Labour government will go back on its 1992 promises to give pensioners a hefty increase, to fix a National Minimum Wage of half male average earnings, to legalise some secondary picketing and so on. If they were to implement some of those old policies it would have made no real difference but the point here is that already, even before they are in power, they are frantically backtracking in an effort to attract votes. There is nothing New in this, just as there was nothing pragmatic in Wilson’s policies. Futile and decadent would be better words.

Pol Pot and his friends from the West (1996)

From the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

In early June came news that Pol Pot, the butcher of Cambodia and responsible for perhaps two million deaths, was dead. No doubt there are many who are hoping that this is one death that is not exaggerated and who would personally like to thank the mosquito that killed him. It is likely that many books will now appear relating to his "legacy", as well as hundreds of obituaries that chart his rise and fall.

What we are less likely to see is analysis that uncovers the complicity of western governments in the "genocide" he perpetrated and how Pol Pot was in fact a Frankenstein created by the capitalist and western power politics in particular, because this is exactly how it is.

Following independence from France in 1954, Cambodia came under the increasing influence of Washington which financed much of the French operation in Indochina. The US really began to interfere during the Vietnam War and especially after the right-wing pro-US Lon Nol regime was established in 1966. Not only where all anti-Americans expelled from political office, but over half-a-million Cambodians were unceremoniously conscripted to fight America's war with the North Vietnamese.

In 1969, President Nixon ordered the US airforce in. In the following four years, B52s and FI-11s dropped almost 280,000 bombs on Cambodia—the equivalent of 25 Hiroshimas. A quarter of this total and five times more than was dropped on Japan during the whole of World War Two was dropped between February and August 1973. Although the targets were supposed to be North Vietnamese supply bases, the vast majority of the imaginary sort, the devastation left 750,000 Cambodians dead, killed 75 percent of livestock, destroyed 40 percent of roads and 30 percent of bridges and almost wiped out the country’s small industrial sector.

Land that had been used for growing the country’s basic diet of rice was punctuated with bomb craters. The rice crops suffered and famine ensued. The regime back in Phnom Penh immediately ordered the confiscation of peasant food stocks to feed the now starving towns and cities, to the dismay and bewilderment of the long-suffering peasantry.

It is often said that Pol Pot’s faction of the Khmer Rouge were Marxists, inspired by Mao. and intent on taking Cambodia to a mythical harmonious pre-industrial past. In truth, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot were ultra-nationalists who rose in direct response to government confiscation of their food and the dire effects of America’s war with the North Vietnamese. Neither were their numbers made up of trained "communist guerrillas". The Khmer Rouge initially consisted of disgruntled peasants and the orphaned of US carpet-bombing who felt they had little to lose.

The mass murder and utter insanity that followed as Pol Pot rose to power was a pathetic attempt to punish those town and city dwellers thought responsible for backing the government that invited the US in and a vain bid to repopulate the countryside and replace the tens of thousands who had fled as refugees.

With the war over in Vietnam and the US nursing its bruises and recovering from the biggest humiliation in its history, the west watched on from the sidelines until the North Vietnamese army, fed up with Pol Pot's incursions into their territory, invaded and ousted him in 1979.

Again the west saw an opportunity to have another go at the “communist threat". The CIA despatched high-ranking personnel to assist Pol Pot and Britain sent the SAS to train the Khmer Rouge in various tactics of war, including minelaying.

Back at the UN, China and the US mounted pressure to ensure that Pol Pot would have a seat on the General Assembly and the British delegate, Lord Carrington, told the UN that Britain endorsed Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of the Khmer people. Only the Soviet Union voiced disapproval.

With a Hanoi-backed regime in Phnom Penh and the North Vietnamese army preventing Pol Pot returning from his base across the Thai border, the UN posed a total embargo on Cambodia, barring the country from all agreements on international trade and commerce. In addition, development aid was withheld and the World Health Organisation were barred from the country.

All of this would rather be kept quiet by western governments. Indeed, Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary once publicly declared: “we have never given and will never support the Khmer Rouge"—this in face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, so long as Pol Pot was anti-Vietnamese and anti-Soviet Union, the west was prepared to put up with any of his excesses. As the saying goes: “he might be a bastard, but he’s one of our bastards".

In the dangerous game of globo-politics, it has been proved time and time again that western capitalists will court any madman regardless, so long as it furthers their interests. Adolf Hider, Stalin. Papa Doc, Nicolae Ceausescu, Idi Amin and presently President Suharto of Indonesia, amongst countless others, have all found favour with the western capitalist élite . No doubt the future will throw up many more instances.
John Bissett

Down Mexico Way (1996)

From the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Once again guerrilla warfare has flared up in the Mexican state of Guerrero. A little over twelve months after the killing of 17 peasants near Coyuca de Benitez in the south of the state, a group of up to 100 masked men and women, carrying automatic weapons, and claiming to be members of a 500-strong guerrilla organisation formed after the killing, clashed with police on the Acapulco-Mexico City highway about one hour's drive out of Acapulco. Three policemen were injured, according to a report in the Guardian (1 July). The group, calling themselves the Popular Revolutionary Army, then read a proclamation calling for the overthrow of the "anti-popular, anti-democratic, demagogic and illegitimate government". Guerrero was, and still is, considered to be the most violent and repressive state in Mexico. In 1912, during the civil war, Guerrero was said to be "aflame"; and in 1915, the forces of Venustiana Carranza advanced across the state from Acapulco and into Morelos, only to be driven back again by the Zapatistas who almost captured Acapulco.

In 1969, Lucio Cabañas, a flamboyant former schoolteacher, formed a guerrilla army known as the "party of the poor”, which had considerable grassroots support among the dispossessed campesinos and peones in Guerrero, and operated in the vast, almost impenetrable mountains and jungle areas between Acapulco on the Pacific coast and Morelos in the cast. They assassinated the Acapulco police chief, attacked army outposts stationed along the Acapulco-Mexico City highway, and then kidnapped Guerrero Senator, Ruben Figueroa, at the time a candidate for governor of the state. More than 10,000 army troops were dispatched to Guerrero to kill or capture the guerrilleros; but it was not until 1974 that Lucio Cabañas and 27 of his men were finally killed in a gun battle with the army. But the "party of the poor" and their "brigade of peasant executioners", as they were called, were still active in 1980 when I was there.

Following the murder of the 17 peasants on 28 June, last year, masked gunmen carrying AK-47 automatic rifles ambushed a truck carrying a group of policemen near the town of Cualac, north-east of Acapulco, killing five and wounding two of them. The previous week, 12 members of one family were also killed in the state by "persons unknown", but assumed to be police officers.

Meanwhile the economy continues in recession. Probably 1,250,000 workers have lost their jobs since the end of 1994. Many more have never had a job in the first place. Just over 18 months ago, President Zedillo's government declared Mexico City's publicly-run bus company, known as Route 100, bankrupt; and fired 10,000 bus workers. According to reports earlier this year, the only businesses which are booming are sex clubs and hundreds of so-called night-clubs. Furthermore, confidence has not been helped by the escape of the disgraced, corrupt, ex-president, Carlos Salinas, alleged author of Mexico’s economic collapse, and brother of Raul Salinas, charged with murdering a political rival. Carlos Salinas was last reported in Ireland; and brother Raul is said to have more than £80 million stacked away in Swiss and United Kingdom banks.

All of which is a long way from Guerrero.

Time and time again, the peasants and dispossessed workers of Mexico, particularly in the states of Morelos, Chiapas and Guerrero, have struggled, sometimes peacefully but often violently, against the increasingly powerful Mexican state and the effects of a crisis-ridden capitalism; but, as elsewhere, have yet to organise, not for a reformed capitalism, but for its overthrow.
Peter E. Newell

These Foolish Things: Capital corrupts democracy (1996)

The Scavenger column from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capital corrupts democracy
Opposition supporters in Tirana, who claim that at least two of their number have been killed by government forces, held the first of a series of nationwide rallies yesterday to press President Sali Berisha to annul Sunday’s poll... The European Commission said yesterday it had received “disturbing reports” about the conduct of the election [in Albania] . . . Diplomats maintain that in spite of his increasingly embarrassing autocratic streak, Mr Berisha is also seen as the man best placed to forge ahead with unpopular market reforms. “What may be best for the region is not necessarily best for the democratic process in this country,” one Western official lamented.
(Guardian, 30 May)

Capital controls countries
The United States is confident that the G7 summit in Lyons will give its approval to a proposal to reduce the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank . . . Earlier this year, the IMF granted Moscow a huge $10.2 billion credit to support the reforms pioneered by President Yeltsin and will clearly want to review these arrangements in the light of the outcome of the poll . . . Under the debt reduction plan for the poorest countries . . . the World Bank and the IMF could eventually provide more than $10 billion of debt forgiveness to poor countries like Uganda and Bolivia, which have approved programmes of reform in place. 
(Guardian. 6 June)

Capital games
Trebor . . . says the FA sent a solicitor’s letter threatening to sue for infringement of a trade mark over Trebor’s use of pictures of players in England strips [on cards in Candy Stick packets). The FA says that the appearance of its crest on players’ shirts means the shirts cannot be pictured or displayed without its permission nor, possibly, without payment for the use of the trademark. 
(Financial Mail on Sunday, 16 June)

Capital coerces
Britain has jumped ahead of its key European partners in the latest league table of competitiveness . . . British bosses . . . find it easier than all but two of their EU partners to hire and fire staff, “restructure” the labour force and avoid the social costs of employment.
(Guardian, 30 May)

Capital copper cock-up
World copper prices fell sharply when Yasuo Hamanaka, a trader for the Sumitomo Corporation of Japan, was discovered to have built up a $1.8 billion loss. Copper is heavily used in the telecommunication, electrical and automotive industries. The price reached $2,710 per tonne in May and fell to $1,855 in mid-June. Sumitomo owns 24 percent of the London Metal Exchange’s worldwide copper stockpile. The LME started investigating prices after complaints last November by major consumers. 
(Bloomberg News).

Capital hauls in the Internet
The new buzzwords are “branding", “infrastructure” and “gateways” as big business tries to bring about a cultural transplant for the Internet—from a global mutual help society in which hardly anything is paid for into a source of corporate profits for the next generation . . . This week BT and its US partner, MCI, announced their plans to take control of the Internet.
(Guardian, 13 June)

The Scavenger

Dogs, Cats & Wage Slaves (1996)

The A Word in Your Ear column from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dogs, specifically the domesticated kind, are nature’s sycophants. They beg. They perform tricks upon command. Their tails wag upon the merest pat from their masters. They are ever loyal. They know their place.

Dogs do not reject their masters. As a canine Lenin might have observed, the dog is incapable of reaching an independent consciousness. Urging dogs to stand up for their dignity is as pointless as distributing cleanliness manuals to rats.

Cats, on the other hand, are remarkably sensitive to their own needs. These are nature’s materialists, ever heading to where food and shelter is available and there settling for as long as their needs are satisfied and their human providers leave them alone. Try as they might, humans will fail to train cats to beg or jump through hoops or pretend to sing the national anthem. Cats purr when they get what they want and they depart when they don't. You will rarely see a cat on a lead.

Now, with all due excuses in advance for the implied anthropomorphism of all this, there is a conclusion which merits a few moments of the reader’s political contemplation. Capitalist culture is based upon the expectation that the working class can be turned into dogs. The good wage slave is essentially a well-trained pup whose loyalty to the master who holds the lead is undying and whose bark is reserved for anyone threatening to invade the masters’ property. Workers are educated as pups are trained, with a few bones on offer to the graduates best able to jump to the appropriate orders of their future bosses. BBC’s One Man And His Dog could well be a documentary about job training, except for the obvious fact that most “job-seekers” (as the unemployed have now been reclassified) are denied such splendid rural scenery as the backdrop for their exploitation-seeking. In capitalist culture the tail-wagging wage slave, content in a squalid kennel, running to fetch the slicks which the master throws and fearful of the stick which the master wields, is the most ideal of dehumanised creatures of the profit system.

Of course, some capitalists tend to become strangely sentimental when it comes to pet dogs in ways that rarely extend to their employees. The billionaire inhabitant of Buckingham Palace, for example, is reputed to have quite a soft spot for a corgi with a belly-ache after eating too much lunch (which is perhaps why she reserves the British beef for visiting heads of state), but is not known for her concerns about workers dying as they wait in queues for hospital appointments. Other capitalists patronise charities concerned with animal welfare (usually excluding the welfare of the defenceless suckers whom they chase and shoot for sport) while resenting every penny they are forced to pay towards the welfare of their wage slaves. Cruelty to domestic pets is a crime. If the dogs of the rich and famous were transported in conditions which have become customary for rush-hour users of the buses and underground trains there would soon be a campaign formed to put an end to it.

Now, the great unconscious fear of the bosses is that workers become rather more like cats. At the very least, cats are like high-class prostitutes, sitting on their owners’ laps and purring, with one eye on the smoked salmon and the other on their claws should the would-be owner make a single false move. At their best, cats are animals who know their place in a way that dogs never will: in the sun, near the food and drink, never far from the open air and long leisure hours of idle roaming, peaceful napping and hot sex. What characteristics do capitalists less admire in their workers than those?

Dogs are pack animals. Humans (with the exception of Millwall supporters and marching Orangemen) are social, but not pack animals. In short, we are socially interdependent, but we have sufficient consciousness to survive and prosper alone as well as in groups. Dogs survive either by total dependence upon the pack or by domesticated submission to an owner. Cats are not pack animals and are never quite owned by those who imagine themselves to be cat-owners.

The revolutionary socialist is the lion of the capitalist jungle. Not content to hunt the pack or be trained into the domesticity of wage slavery, the socialist looks at the world from a position of strength. There are more workers than there are capitalists. We are stronger than them. We are the ones they depend on to protect them as a class from one another and, above all, from us. We are intelligent enough to know’ our way round the jungle and find our way out to the other end. And our capacity to rise up scares the hell out of those who would like the working class to be forever weak and bowed.

Freedom does not depend upon humans becoming more like cat — just less like dogs. Like cats, we might learn that there is more dignity in walking away from tyranny into the unknown than putting up with lousy treatment forever. But the message of this rather strange piece is not that SOCIALISTS SAY WORKERS SHOULD BECOME MORE LIKE CATS. Rather, SOCIALISTS SAY WORKERS SHOULD BECOME MORE LIKE HUMANS. This means refusing to adopt the political posture of the dependent canine and resting satisfied with the reformers’ offers of bigger bones. Instead, let those who think they can own us learn soon that our bite is as bad as our bark — and our bark can become a roar.
Steve Coleman

Letters: Sharing the same aims? (1996)

Letters to the Editors from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sharing the same aims?

Dear Editors,

I have been reading the Socialist Standard for a while now, and find myself in agreement with many of your views. I have taken a recent interest in anarchism, and I am curious as to where you would part ideological company with anarchists. Anarchism would appear to share your disdain for the state, and for the idea of vanguards to lead the plebs and tell them what to think. I would also agree with you in rejecting leaders. Do your differences go back to those between Marx and Proudhon or Bakunin? Can anarchists and socialists work together today?
John Hubbard

There are anarchists and anarchists. Some share our aim of a classless, stateless society of common ownership and popular participation where the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" will apply and where money will be redundant. This is the view put forward, in the past, by such anarchists as Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker and Alexander Berkman and. today, by Murray Bookchin.

Other anarchists do not share this aim. The 19th century French anarchist Proudhon, for instance, didn't. He was implacably opposed to common ownership and stood for a free market economy of small-scale producers. Another 19th century anarchist, Max Stirner, preached extreme individualism; to this day his followers argue that democracy is a tyranny as it involves an individual having to accept majority decisions they might not agree with. Bakunin was a joke, a typical romantic revolutionary forever hatching conspiracies and trying to stage immediate armed risings against the state. Then there are religiously-inspired anarchists. such as Tolstoy, and purely philosophical armchair anarchists, and reformist anarchists who limit themselves to seeking to extend the realm of individual intellectual and sexual freedom within capitalism. There are lifestyle anarchists, who put two fingers up to the rest of society, including the working class, and (less now than at one time) the anarchist bomb-throwers and terrorists.

We have nothing in common with any of these, but what about those anarchists who are in favour of socialism (as we prefer to call it) or communism (as they call it)?

The main differences between us and them is over how to get to a classless, stateless, moneyless society. We favour majority democratic action on the grounds that the establishment of a society based on voluntary co-operation and popular participation has to involve such co-operation and participation (i.e. democratic methods) and say that when such a majority comes into being it can use existing political institutions (the ballot box and parliament) to establish a socialist/ communist society. They are opposed to this, but are not able to offer a viable alternative (the anarcho-communists pose a spontaneous mass popular upsurge, the anarcho-syndicalists a general strike and mass factory occupations—both of which ignore the state and the need to at least neutralise it before trying to change society from capitalism).

Can we work with them? Well, if they can abandon their prejudice against democratic political action via elections, we invite them to join us in campaigning for a classless, stateless. moneyless society.

Shocked and disappointed

Dear Editors,

Like Andy Stephenson (May Socialist Standard), I find myself in broad agreement with many aspects of your organisation; its democracy and lack of leadership, its critique of capitalism and vanguardism and its view of socialism.

Yet I find myself shocked and disappointed by point six in your statement of principles; the "machinery of government" which I agree “exists to serve the capitalist class" can never be the instrument of working class emancipation. The State is. by its very nature, a fundamentally coercive set of institutions which must be removed immediately before anything like socialism can be established.

Perhaps the writers of the SPGB programme in 1904 did not foresee the abuse of power that inevitably emerges from socialists seizing the machinery of the State ostensibly to free the workers. The obvious example is that of State capitalism in Russia which came as a direct result of the seizure of State power by a political elite, the Bolshevik Party. As Bakunin predicted many years before the Russian revolution, the same events will produce the same results anywhere: merely the replacement of one set of rulers by another, with all the coercive power of the State at their disposal, which will not be used to release the workers from bondage but to shore up their own "dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Isn’t it about time that the SPGB stopped desperately clinging onto dogmas that experience has proven to be utterly self-defeating and accepted the fact that the capitalist state is nothing but an anti-socialist entity which must be removed, and that to try and use it to emancipate will in practice produce precisely the opposite effect?
Lewis Mates, 

We agree that "the State is, by its very nature, a fundamentally coercive set of institutions which must be removed immediately before anything like socialism can be established". The big question is: how? How can the State be removed?

We can only think of three possible ways, two of which in our view wouldn’t work. The first would be to try to smash the State in an armed uprising (as favoured by Bakunin). To do this the revolutionaries would have to be able to defeat militarily the forces of the State and so have to build up their own army, organised, as armies must be. on a hierarchical basis. In the event of victory this new coercive force would have to be dissolved; otherwise it would turn into a new State. And it would be back to square one. We have to say, however, that we see no prospect of an armed uprising being either successful or even likely in the developed capitalist parts of the world. In fact, for countries like Britain, it's a quite mad idea.

A second possibility would be to refuse to co-operate with the State, to withdraw support from it so that it would just become an empty shell. This is the way advocated by other anarchists with a more pacifist bent than Bakunin and the bomb-throwers. It makes more sense than trying to defeat the State militarily but, to succeed, it would require the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. But in that case why not take the third way of using existing electoral and semi-democratic institutions—which, imperfect as they are and must be under capitalism, do still allow a majority to get its way—to win control of the State. Not, as you seem to think, to form some "socialist government" or "workers' state", but to dismantle it, by lopping off its coercive features and retaining and democratising any useful administrative features? That would be much easier, more direct and less risky. Which is why we favour it.

There is no need to lecture us of all people about what happened in Russia. Right from the start, we said that the outcome could not be socialism. What the Bolsheviks thought they could do was to seize power as a minority—they didn’t think a majority were capable of understanding socialism—and then educate, lead and. if need be, coerce the majority into socialism. This was never going to succeed—a majority must want socialism before it can work—and especially not in an economically backward country such as Russia was in 1917. In the circumstances of the absence both of a majority political will for Socialism and of a developed industry capable of turning out plenty for everybody, all they could do was to develop capitalism in one form or another. In the event, the form that emerged was a State capitalism with some of the members of the ruling Bolshevik party as the new ruling class. We denounced this right from the start.

Opportunistic exercises

Dear Editors,

I found Heather Ball's com ments (Letters. June Socialist Standard) somewhat surprising.

A socialist who compromises socialist principles is a notion that makes me feel very uncomfortable.

The question of strikes and the SPGB has been discussed often enough in the party’s history. and there is general agreement on the position individual members should take.

The comment ". . . being a Socialist means being a part of the struggle but without illusions” seems to be misplaced; I would expect to see it in a Trotskyite paper.

Does Heather Ball regard the Newbury rallies or strikes as being action against capitalism? The last paragraph of her letter seems to imply that this is the case, when in fact they arc feeble, defensive measures against aspects of capitalism, and where the majority of people are supporters of capitalism.

The SPGB has always made a point of putting the socialist case at demonstrations, not taking part in them. We leave such opportunistic exercises to the SWP.
Graham C. Taylor, 
Brabrand, Denmark

Why so little effect?

Dear Editors,

It seems hard that the "Socialist Case" as put up by the Socialist Standard and by many Socialists in one-to-one situations has had so little effect, that is in motivating people towards Socialism.

Every opportunity socialists have of influencing anyone must impress on such a person the true meaning of Communism and Socialism. To do this one must demonstrate the similarity of the system that existed in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, that being capitalist, not as most of their names suggested as "Socialist”.

To demonstrate, the elements of capitalism are mainly money, wages, profit. Any of these elements present in any system of society, make that society a capitalist variety.

Regardless of what some leaders (dictatorial or not) choose to call their countries, that is. Communist of Socialist, they remain capitalist, because of the presence of the elements of money, wages and profit. 
Jim Sideris
Wembley, Western Australia

A Bit of Argy-Bargy (1996)

The TV Review column from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

The approach to history of those so-called "radical" historians who still uphold the capitalist system was exemplified last month by Channel Four’s Secret History: The Battle of Goose Green (12 july. 9pm). This programme. based on a book by Spencer Fitz-Gibbon, devoted itself to examining the strategic conduct of one of the key battles during the Falklands war. Its main contention was that far from being the type of honourable victory Thatcher exhorted us to "rejoice" at, it was instead a campaign severely flawed by the archaic tactics of the British army and the "over-the-top-lads” mentality of paratroop commander Colonel H. Jones. Colonel Jones, killed in action and awarded a posthumous VC for his troubles, was portrayed as a soldier straight out of a Boys Own comic—heroic— but in the cold light of day unprofessional in an army of supposed "professionals".

The attraction to Channel Four of such a programme is obvious—a chance to attack the culture and ethos of a British institution, in this case the army, without doing anything so radical as question its reason for existence, with a good deal of trivia and personalisation thrown in for good measure. In other words, this programme exemplified the approach of reformists and radical poseurs everywhere, the approach that deals with effects and not causes and isolates phenomenon that are mere aspects of a greater totality. Its real intention was to highlight "the shortcomings of the army’s command system at the time of the Falklands war", as Spencer Fitz-Gibbon put it himself in an article in the Guardian. Though one Falklands commander went so far as to question why the Battle of Goose Green need have been fought at all, this was a mere side-show and was still informed by the mentality which is obsessed with the strategic conduct of battles and with army tactics. But what, we may ask, was the purpose of all this?

Who—apart that is from the stereotypical Brigadiers in Bournemouth and flag-waving buffoons with improbably short haircuts—cares precisely how efficient British paratroopers are at killing foreigners? It is just not the kind of issue that preoccupies an adult, critical intelligence. This is what makes it all the more galling that Channel Four should have devoted time to such a farrago of nonsense, especially under the heading Secret History, which suggests that if this is an example of the type of secrets left to uncover, it is probably not worth the bother.

Crass as ever
Instead of concentrating on this type of non-issue, why didn't Channel Four commission a programme examining why the Falklands war was actually fought in the first place— probably a real secret to millions? Was it fought to protect 1,800 freedom-loving Falklanders or was it to defend the interest of the capitalist class from Britain and their investments there? Was it to defend democracy from dictatorship or to protect the ownership rights of the British government and capitalists over billions of pounds worth of adjacent raw materials? While it was at it, the programme could have investigated why all the major political parties in Britain supported the slaughter, and why it was that that inveterate peace-monger and CND luminary Michael Foot urged Thatcher on to make an example of the Argies.

And—more important than the desperately sad antics of Colonel H. Jones—why did the freedom-loving British Parliament try to stifle opposition to the war? For instance, when the anarchist punk band Crass released an anti-Falklands war single they were instructed to "watch their step" by the House of Commons. When they refused and released their "homage" to Mrs Thatcher, How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?, the government prosecuted them (as it turned out, unsuccessfully). The sound and sight of the pompous government minister Tim Eggar on TV and radio being asked to recite some of the offending lyric is still something to be treasured by those opposed to the jingoism of the entire pro-war campaign.

But just how many people are aware of the real facts surrounding the Falklands conflict is a matter for speculation. One thing is certain, however, they will not have been enlightened much by Channel Four's Secret History. If they don't get round to doing a proper investigative job of the real reasons for the Falklands war, then perhaps they may at least try to redress the balance by devoting a programme to the thousands if not millions who opposed the conflict instead of focusing on those who gave gloried in slaughter and who have sought to defend the need for armies and armaments. Let them also show the fake radicals in their real colours bemoaning after the event the strategic conduct of a slaughter they supported—let them show the Labour leader and all the others baying for Argie blood while those with a real idea of what it was all about stood out against the entire barbarous conflict. If they do they may let the final word go to Crass, who were more perceptive at the time of war than a thousand Channel Four historians who fancy themselves as latter-day armchair generals, helping the army to be more ruthlessly efficient:
Is it any wonder there was such sickening celebration over the Task Force
When so-called radicals work hand in hand with the ruling elite?
Yesterday those wily creeps rejected the ‘status quo',
Today they smarm and charm passageways to its very heart
Where's the free individual in all that? Where’s the hope and aspiration?
Identities have become corporations.
(Yes, Sir. I Will)
Dave Perrin 

Turgid post-modernist analysis (1996)

Book Review from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Adam Smith's Discourse by Vivienne Brown (Routledge, London).

The publishers really took a risk when they agreed to publish this book. It has obviously been written by someone out to get a better academic job, for it is aimed at that specific section of the academic hierarchy obsessed with turgid post-modernist analysis, when it could have commanded a wider audience. Its main contention is that Adam Smith’s writings had a far greater moral imperative than is generally supposed, especially by the free market zealots who claim him as the forefather of laissez-faire economics. To the extent that this case is made it is lost in a welter of post-modernist verbiage of which the following is
  "It was emphasised in the introduction to this chapter that the monologic style of WN does not mean that it can be viewed as a didactic text in the sense that excludes a rhetorical dimension. The theoretical structure presented in section 2 above constitutes the analytical frame that supports the large and leisurely discourse of WN. This discourse includes historical, comparative, empirical and conjectural material interspersed with juridical claims and a sustained criticism of the mercantile system."
Any author who chooses to write in such a way does not, frankly, deserve to be read. In some ways this is a shame, because the more economically orientated sections of this book are not without interest, especially the chapter on Smith’s magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. Even this partial commendation must be heavily qualified, however, as equally pertinent analysis of Smith’s political economy—especially his deployment of a labour theory of value later developed upon by Ricardo and Marx—have previously been made elsewhere and more intelligibly too. All in all, it is difficult to see what this book contributes to the sum of knowledge of humankind and specifically of the way society should be ordered. This is ironic, because these were clearly Smith’s own main intentions, horrendously wrong though he generally was.
Dave Perrin

A Chapter on Dialectical Materialism - Part 2 (1936)

Book Review from the March 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Scientific Method of Thinking", by Edward Conze, Ph.D. 5/-. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., publishers.

"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence," says Marx, “but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness." Of course Marx did not mean that human existence and consciousness are entirely unrelated phenomena, since consciousness is obviously a part of existence. The meaning intended is that as men are grouped together either in tribal or civic societies, so does their social means of getting a living give rise to a general outlook or common ideology. In other words, a causal relationship exists between man's ideas and his material conditions of living. We mention this to indicate that Marxism is not a philosophy which emphasises the influence of environment at the expense of all human action. The same thesis is stated by Marx in another, and perhaps more definite, form, when he says, “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth, he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand."

From which it follows that in the Marxian sense man is the active agent in historical happenings, even though the conditions in which human beings find themselves form some sort of guiding background to their activities. Marxism is not fatalism any more than it is “ idealism." To the fatalist the course of human history lies outside the pale of human effort—we are but puppets hovering and hobbling through life in accordance with some pre-determined force, ambiguously styled fate. To the idealist, history is the outcome of the machinations of men's “minds": we will things, so to speak, and lo and behold history is made for good or for bad. But both these forms of thought are incapable of explaining the varied and manifold phases assumed by human society at different times and places. In contradistinction to this, the Marxian concept may be given as an example of its own validity. It sees in the class structure of modern society the condition of its own birth and the means of its own fulfilment in the conscious social transformation of existing economic and political conditions—the active element in this process being the working class. But why this class alone, and not society as a whole, is a question which necessitates an understanding of a scientific method of thinking, such as we are now considering. It may, of course, be said that scientific method is essential, apart from the matter of working-class emancipation, to which we would readily assent. But there's the rub. Ours is a special task called forth by the peculiar nature of the problem to be analysed and solved. The composition of class society involves conflicting interests which produce rival interpretations of social phenomena. A capitalist defender of capitalism can hardly view working-class problems in the same way and with similar results as the workers.

The ever-pressing economic needs arising from social status are bound to influence and determine judgment. Old Ludwig Feuerbach stressed this fact from another angle of view when he declared that, "One thinks differently in a palace than in a hut." To remove the conditions of the hut is the need of the working class alone; the capitalists have no such need and can be relied upon to retain possession of the “palace” so long as the working class permit.

It is upon this point that the dialectic of Marx, if rightly interpreted, will serve as a method of our unravelling the complex nature of capitalist society, and as a means toward Socialism.

It should be clearly understood, however, that dialectical materialism in its widest sense embraces a terminology, the subject matter of which needs special study. We have such phrases as "The Unity of Opposites,” “The Negation of Negation,” and “The Transformation of Quantity into Quality,” all of which would necessitate lengthy explanations of their meaning. We suggest that the ablest account yet written is Engels’ classic “Anti-Duehring.” Here Engels presents us with examples of the actual working out of dialectical laws in nature, human history, and thought. In geology, chemistry, agriculture, mathematics and economics Engels gives an account of the way in which the dialectic operates, facts which impelled Engels to remark that “Men thought dialectically a long time before they knew what the dialectic really was, just as they spoke prose a long time before the term 'prose' was used.”

In the immediate sense it is on the subject of social development and change that the knowledge of the dialectic is needed. The principle works as follows : The capitalist system makes the productive forces social in the sense that giant means of wealth production are brought into being requiring the combined operation of masses of workers. The workers in consequence are rendered more and more a subject class. The wealth is socially produced, but individually appropriated. The capitalist class who own the wealth the workers have produced see to it that only such portion of the wealth is allowed the workers as will permit them to maintain themselves as a dependent class. This causes a number of other anomalies to arise. Apart from the effect of the workers being compelled to endure poverty amidst plenty, there is the fact of the capitalists’ failure to keep the productive forces continually operating. Further, they even stultify the otherwise expansion of the means of producing wealth, as their economic interests determine from time to time. The blows from all this fall heaviest upon the working class, which class is compelled sooner or later to seek a way out through taking over the means of living in their own interest by establishing Socialism. The forces making for Socialism are, therefore, historically and socially conditioned by capitalism, as in a somewhat similar manner capitalism was conditioned by the social forces, of feudalism. This historical process is described by Marx and Engels as “the negation of negation.” Capitalism is negated by its own internal contradictions, just as it had negated feudal society through like causes. In their statement of this; principle, both Marx and Engels used fairly clear-cut language to describe their point of view. We wish we could say the same of many who have set out to explain the meaning of dialectical, materialism in general. The great danger hovering around the subject of dialectics seems to be with, those who misuse it to justify every twist and turn of policy. We may be able to reconcile the irreconcilable as a form of thought, but our task chiefly consists of sifting the essential from the non- essential in our purpose. But let us now resume company with Dr. Conze. He postulates what he considers to be the four laws of scientific method; they are as follows:—

  1. "Think concretely, for everything is. concrete.”
  2. "Everything must be studied in its movement and development, for everything changes continually.”
  3. "Wherever we may find opposites we must look for their unity. Opposites are always in unity.”
  4. "We must seek the contradictions in the processes of nature and society, for everything is put into motion by contradictions.”
Regarding the latter, he rightly warns us to distinguish between contradictions of the mind and those of objective reality. Contradictions of the mind may "put” us into awkward "motion” —into the safe custody of a lunatic asylum. In discussing why dialectical materialism is so little understood, Dr. Conze seems to think the Russian Bolsheviks to be among the chief causes. He says that "in casting out religion the Bolsheviks have elevated the fundamentals of Marxism, to the level of a substitute religion,” and further complains that the study of philosophical works is discouraged in Russia "on the ground that since Marxism is the philosophy of the proletariat, all other philosophies are bourgeois (which is partly true) and, therefore, deadly mental poison (which is ridiculous).” But be this as it may, we suggest that the main reason for the non-understanding of Marxism rests upon the fact of the pre-occupation on the part of the workers with the many phases of capitalist thought. On the subject of mind and economics in society, Dr. Conze easily dismisses those "social psychologists” who are all mind and no economics, their failure to recognise the interaction of ideas and economic conditions being well noted. In the case of mass psychology, these people are always apt to regard the “crowd” as "incapable both of reflection and reasoning.” But' Dr. Conze falls into error when he attempts the same charge against Socialists. He asserts that “Socialists are also inclined to despise the masses when they see them desert to the enemy; they suddenly assume that demagogues can swing the masses round and so deprive them of their critical faculties that they will support their own enemies." But Socialists really know better than this. The workers swing from one political position to another because their minds are mainly on the capitalist roundabout. They have not yet realised that capitalism is their real enemy and the way to end it.

Regarding “Great men and history," Dr. Conze contrasts two conflicting lines of thought— one which, à la Thomas Carlyle, regards history mainly as a “biography of great men," the other which denies the influence of great men totally, and counts the masses as everything.

In reply to this, Plekanov is well cited as saying that “If history is made by human beings, it must obviously be made by 'great men' among the rest.” To this, but under proper qualification, all Socialists will agree. Against those who concentrate on the destructive side of Socialist activity, whoever they may be, Dr. Conze thinks with Blanqui that these people are “invaluable before a revolution, but should be shot the day after its victory."

However, in general, we think the author of “The Scientific Method of Thinking" has done well in bringing this volume to life despite the many things we could continue to discuss in disagreement. In the main, we agree with his statement of the dialectical standpoint, and commend his book to students, but in so doing we should like to refer those who are about to take their first plunges into materialist thought to one more statement of Marx. In his celebrated thesis on Feuerbach Marx says: “The life of society is essentially practical. All the mysteries which seduce speculative thought into mysticism find their solution in human practice and in concepts of this practice."
Robert Reynolds


Proper Gander: Right whinger (2012)

The Proper Gander Column from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

If the Daily Mail made television programmes, they would probably look like BBC 2’s Rights Gone Wrong? This is a show designed to raise the collective blood pressure of that semi-fictitious breed of Little-Englander obsessed by ‘political correctness gone mad’. As its predictable title suggests, the show looks at whether our ‘human rights’ laws have become detached from the “decent mainstream majority”. Presenter Andrew Neil voices concerns that the European Convention on Human Rights is being used to take “away the rights of victims to protect the rights of people who don’t deserve them”.

Neil, with his permanent frown from years of indignation, tells us that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has drifted from its trusty British origins. He describes the instigator of the ECHR as “the greatest of great Britons”, “the man who saved Europe”: Winston Churchill. Ostensibly, these ‘human rights’ laws were first put together as a Europe-wide declaration against Nazism and the Soviet Union. But since then, according to Neil, they have been misused by distant judges and jobsworth lawyers. This yearning for the days when the ECHR was supposedly used responsibly goes hand-in-hand with being nostalgic for the days of routemaster buses and Magna Carta. Behind this dewy-eyed view often lurks xenophobia, which on this programme is directed towards European senior judges.

By describing the ‘human rights’ controversy as a conflict between Strasbourg diktats and ‘British common sense’, the programme misses the point. While it’s true that the controversy over ‘human rights’ legislation reflects the chasm between lawmakers and the general public, it also highlights how laws reinforce capitalist ideologies. But you wouldn’t find this interpretation in a show fronted by a right-wing whinger like Andrew Neil, the patron saint of patriots. Obviously Rights Gone Wrong? gives us little discussion of what we mean by ‘rights’, or the extent to which any ‘right’ is legitimate or really fulfilling within capitalism. Instead, Neil rhetorically asks if we want a new Human Rights Act “that is modern but quintessentially British – a sort of Kate Middleton or Daniel Craig of human rights laws”. Pitching the issue in this vacuous way is hardly likely to improve the debate.
Mike Foster