Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Socialist Party and the Common Market (1970)

From the January 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is neither for nor against Britain's entry into Europe. We stand for world Socialism and regard the Common Market issue as irrelevant from a working class point of view.

Britain's joining the Common Market would amount to little more than a re-arrangement of tariff barriers. Which is a matter of no concern to workers, but of great concern to capitalists since it could affect their profits.

Most of Britain's biggest firms have long been convinced that joining the Common Market would allow them to make more profits. This is why the parties that most directly serve their interests, the Labour Party and the Tory Party are also in favour of entry. It is the task of these parties to work out policies that benefit capitalist industry in Britain and then to trick workers into backing these policies. Thus we are about to be subjected yet again to intense pro-Market propaganda in the press and on the radio and television.

Some British capitalists, with investments mainly in farming and what used to be the British Empire, are opposed to entry as they reckon it would threaten their profits. Their direct political expression is through sections of the Tory Party but their anti-Market campaign is helped, no doubt inadvertently, by a section of the Labour Party, the National Front and the so-called Communist Party.

It is because we know that the Common Market debate involves only the interests of these two sections of the British capitalist class and that, as we say in our declaration of principles, "the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class", that we refuse to take sides and warn workers not to be taken in by the political spokesmen of either section.

We repeat now what we said when this red herring first appeared in 1961:
"Whether the British government goes in or not, British workers should be looking to promote their own Socialist working class unity with workers everywhere, not just in Western Europe" (Socialist Standard, January 1962).

50 Years Ago: Socialist Ideas and Empty Phrases (1970)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are some people who have neither the patience to acquire knowledge nor the self-control to follow the only course (slow though it may be) open to the class-conscious worker. Those to whom the writer alludes are the emotional, red-flag-waving individuals.

People of this type have cut a figure in past movements and exist in profusion to day. They Live in the limelight, mouthing all sorts of handy phrases — in fact empty phrases echoing from empty heads largely constitute their stock-in-trade and take the place of ideas and knowledge.

The phrase-wizards, with an inflated estimate of their own puny accomplishments, flourish in all the pseudo working-class parties of the present. They strive to play upon emotion and attract a large following by voicing their particular pet phrases and hazy notions, hurrying a bewildered group of supporters along with them to some misty land of promise — they don't know exactly where.

In the Chartist Movement in England the 'revolutionary' raved and ranted, gained applause — and the movement suddenly collapsed. The inexorable laws of capitalism ground the Chartist Movement to powder, and swept the popular leaders' away.

About twenty years ago the IWW was ushered in with a great flourish of trumpets, and all the would-be 'revolutionists' hurried to the front, panting with excitement and gasping their fervid and frenzied phrases. The real facts of the situation, however, and the unsurmountable obstacles to 'taking and holding the means of production' through so called industrial action (or inaction) soon shattered the movement into warring fragments.

At the present moment we have the same bogey and crowd-gathering business cropping up again. The new catch-cry is 'government by the Soviets' and again all the phrase-mongers and 'revolutionaries' are to the fore. Again they are trying to force the pace by appeals to emotion. But unfortunately for those soft-hearted, soft headed and excited hurricanes neither fine phrases nor good intentions will take the place of knowledge. Appeals to emotion may bring a bloody shambles, but they cannot bring Socialism . . . another disillusionment is in store, and 'all power to the Soviets' will run its course and collapse as all similar schemes have done before.

(From an article 'Phrase Magic' by G. McClatchie. Socialist Standard, January 1920.)

Obituary: Comrade R. Milbourne (1970)

Obituary from the January 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to have to report the recent death of Comrade R. Milbourne at the age of 69 years. He was the son of a very early member of the party, the late Comrade Alley.

He was known to Party members as early as 1919 but his work took him to Turkey for several years and it was not until soon after his return to this country that he joined the party in 1931 along with his brother.

He then worked for Air France and his knowledge of French was put to good use in translations for the party and in publicity. For many years he worked indefatigably on publicity for the Party and in getting the Socialist Standard and pamphlets on display in Public Libraries. He also wrote for the Socialist Standard.

In later years, owing to domestic difficulties, he was less able to attend Head Office but he never lost his lively interest in Party activities. Latterly he was a member of West London Branch.

Revolution or Reform? (2012)

From the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
This key question is also being debated among some in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is united in its outrage against grotesque social inequality and in its desire to bring an end to the dominance of a tiny minority (the “1%”) over the will of the majority. So it was disingenuous – or daft – for onlookers to say that the movement has no demand. The demand for social equality is clear enough, but the critics who ignored, then ridiculed the OWS movement understood “demands” in the specific sense of concrete reforms to make things less bad.

Somewhat strange logic, if you stop to consider it: as if it were up to the victims of capitalist inequality to figure out how to turn a profit-chasing system built upon worker exploitation and minority ownership of the elements of production into an egalitarian society.

No. The demand has been made by OWS – at the very least a demand for less social inequality. So it is up to capitalism itself (or those who fancy themselves to be at its helm) to either try to meet the demand or defend inequality.

Of course there are those – and indeed many – within the OWS movement who remain hopeful that capitalism can be reformed to the point of at least being less awful, and who believe that this is a goal worth fighting for. And the Democratic Party and its allies are doing their utmost now to keep Hope for (reformist) Change alive. Some might say that the reality of capitalism in the months and years to come will dispel those hopes. But it seems both foolish and dangerous to wait around for yet another lesson in the School of Hard Knocks. So the nascent “reformism versus revolution” debate among OWS participants is a welcome development.

Still, it is hard to gauge how far the “revolutionary camp” has gained ground. And even if they are gaining momentum, there is the question of how the word “revolution” is being used. For its meaning has been stretched rather thin after a year that saw the “Tunisian Revolution” and the “Egyptian Revolution.” These were indeed momentous events that sent one smug dictator into exile and another to jail (even though the military remained embedded in power). But a change in government, no matter how repulsive the one toppled, is not in itself a social revolution.

There are those within the OWS movement, however, who are using the term “revolution” in a more specific and appropriate way, in the sense of a transformation that replaces capitalism with a fundamentally new social system. One of the clearer statements in favour of revolution was made by the radical cartoonist and syndicated columnist Ted Rall, in an article titled “Revolution Versus Reform”.  There are many things a socialist can agree with in this article; there are more than a few head-scratchers too. And then there are some important points that are not addressed at all.

First the things that might just as well have appeared in a Socialist Standard article. Such as the idea that revolutionaries “don’t want to nibble around the edges of a system they despise” and if they “get their way . . . capitalism won’t exist.” He is also right to point to how reformist victories of the past are often rolled back later.

In short, Rall highlights the vision between the reformists who “see the system as broken and in need of repair” and the revolutionaries who think that the “system itself is the problem.” His own conclusion is: “Amending the Constitution won’t do the trick. Electing better officials isn’t enough. Yes, the system is broken. But that’s not the main point. The system is irredeemable. Nothing short of revolution will do.”

Yes, yes, and yes again to what Rall is saying. But at times his critique of capitalism – or “the system” as he often calls it – does not rise above the level of moral outrage. He writes, for instance: “Revolutionaries … think the system is inherently unfair, corrupt and violent; that unfairness, corruption and violence are the system.”

The denunciation of capitalism is justified, for who could deny its tendency to be unfair, violent, and corrupt? But throwing adjectives at capitalism does not do much damage. Better to understand, simply, that it is a system of production carried out to generate profit – a trick that can only be turned by exploiting labour. And this “magic” is performed even when the worker receives “fair” payment for his or her labour-power (at its market value). Unfairness, corruption, and violence do not really get to the heart of the matter.

In fairness to Rall, he wrote on his blog, in a response to a comment on his article, that he is “currently working on a book that proposes what should follow the Revolution.” So, we can only look forward to seeing whether he has envisaged a new society that is truly beyond capitalism, rather than reformism in a revolutionary guise.

If the OWS movement as a whole is not animated by a vision of what can replace capitalism, it seems hard to imagine that it will be able to develop beyond the stage of demonstrating the widespread frustration with the status quo.
Michael Schauerte

Capitalism on Trial? (2012)

From the January 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

How the BBC rigged capitalism’s acquittal.
Lord Reith, the founder and Director General of the BBC, famously gave the wink that “[the British establishment] know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, a policy that he and his successors have pursued with great consistency ever since.  The BEEB may veer politically a little to the left or to the right, but it never deviates from promoting the interests of the British capitalist class.  Interestingly, though, it has always trusted its highbrow radio stations, Radios 3 and 4, to debate political and economic issues a little more frankly than its mass-market television news programmes. This may be because Radio 3 and 4 listeners are relatively few in number and are assumed to be properly on-message (On profile, they have been through the mill of higher-education and professional training.)  It was no surprise, then, to find that in the summer of last year, Radio 4 put out a two-part series called ‘Capitalism on Trial’ – though the verdict it would deliver was, of course, never in doubt.  

To make the programme, the producers invited a group of professional philosophers, historians, economists and journalists to the studio to deliver their opinions (presumed to be ‘evidence’) on the subject of capitalism.  To these, they added a management consultant and hedge-fund manager, presumably to give what passes on Radio 4 for a “real-world” perspective.  Predictably absent from the discussion was anyone with a view from the sharp-end of capitalism during this time of crisis – anyone, that is, who could have punctured this little Radio 4 bubble of lofty intellectualism in a trice.  If this was a trial, then the jury was rigged, the witnesses carefully ‘vetted’ and the judge nobbled.  The council for the defence (who also happened to be the presenter of the programme) was that well-known and impartial commentator on current affairs, Michael Portillo.

Early in the programme Michael hinted at the purpose behind all this.  “As a former politician,” he said, “I think about whether we can maintain public support for a system that many associate with inequity and unfairness.”  This was the task then: to defend capitalism from its critics and re-establish its credentials in the minds of an increasingly doubtful and hostile public.  How was this to be achieved?  Simply: by sleight of hand, misdirection, omission and fraud.   In Portillo’s final summing up, he announced for instance, that capitalism had been put on trial and “compared to the alternatives, favourably and unfavourably….”   This claim was very revealing.  It was simply false.  No meaningful comparison had been made during the one-and-a-half hours of the series. Like many Radio 4 programmes, the producers and editors had stitched together a series of sound-bite opinions with commentary from the presenter to lull the audience (and possibly those taking part as well) into thinking it all added up to a coherent analysis.  In this rapid jumble of opinions how many actually believed that they had heard capitalism being compared with alternatives, once they had been told they had?

It would have been foolish for the BEEB to deny or skirt round the current recession and national debt kerfuffle.  The programme’s strategy was, therefore, to come clean on the credit crunch and then to try to explain it away.  This, as sometimes happens on talk radio, led to several interesting admissions.  There was an eager and unseemly rush by the contributors to tell us, for example, that capitalism was necessarily a very unequal society.  We learned, in fact, that capitalism needed to create ‘victims’.  We learned that, its economic downturns such as we are currently experiencing, are normal and inevitable. We learned also from one Crispin Odey, a hedge-fund manager who pocketed £23 million by betting on the crisis happening (a small personal detail omitted from the programme) that to function properly, capitalism needs both ‘trust’ and a profitable banking sector, something; he opined that “may not be popular news to the public.” Presumably he perceived a distinction, between “the public” and Radio 4 listeners who were, of course, sophisticated enough to understand his point. Or maybe he didn’t care – you got the feeling at least that when he referred to ‘us’ or ‘we’ he was not talking about you or me.

Despite all this we discovered, that all these unfortunate-sounding features of capitalism were really rather good and necessary things.  Inequality was an excellent motivator, we were told, without which capitalist enterprise could not function.  Downturns in the economy, though inevitable were positively to be welcomed as part of a cycle of “creative destruction.”  And even capitalism’s need to create victims can, fortunately, be legitimised by ensuring that those “who do badly out of it don’t suffer too much” – a great gladness to all those who are currently having to rely on the ‘generosity’ of the state or to keep the landlord at bay.   

We heard further that the credit crunch was not actually capitalism’s fault.  What had happened in 2008 was a “departure” from capitalism; or was an “extreme” or “very dysfunctional” form of it.  Alternatively, the crisis had resulted from the system not living up to its “principles”.  “Capitalism” we heard, “in a very fundamental sense [had] stopped working.”   Voice after voice was raised to assure us that the actions of the bankers were, in some mysterious way, aberrations; that they were somehow not driven by the engine at the heart of capitalism itself: the remorseless pursuit of profit.  No-one raised the possibility that capitalism itself might be dysfunctional.

Some of the most fantastically pixilated opinions came from Jamie Whyte, an extreme free-marketeer, introduced to us by Michael as ‘a philosopher’ but currently working as a management consultancy researcher. Jamie told us with disarming frankness that within capitalism there could be no equal opportunities.  The idea was “nonsensical,” he said, “a myth”.  But then he let us in on a secret.  Though the idea was a myth, it was a most valuable myth, because if you really believed it, it might give you a “good shot at the top [and] increase your chances.”  He didn’t add that, in a competitive world without equality of opportunity, the majority would remain helplessly stuck at “the bottom” whatever they believed.  Nor did he add that such myths delude working people into falsely believing that there is a realistic chance of capitalism fulfilling their social needs, a belief that works much to the benefit of their employers, whose own ample needs are met by the appropriation of wealth created by their employees.  

And the fairy dust just kept on falling…

“Abject poverty is… dreadful”, claimed Jamie, mustering in his voice all the conviction of a telephone answering service.   “And of course one would want to eliminate that.”  (Indeed one would!)  “Capitalism”, he argued, “has proved over the centuries to be the best economic arrangement for getting rid of abject poverty.”  Clearly Jamie’s cloud has not touched earth recently.  He hasn’t been out on the streets of Britain speaking to the increasing number of workers learning to cope with homelessness, or to the women fleeing domestic violence who are being forced, now in significant numbers, onto the streets through hostel closures, or to the rising numbers of those predicted to die this winter because they cannot afford adequately to heat their homes.  What Jamie principally objects to, though, is not abject poverty, but the irritating concept of relative poverty:  “I see [the concept of relative poverty] as a threat to the market mechanism that creates the wealth that stops people actually being materially poor.”  Perhaps someone should tell him that it is not the ‘market mechanism’ that creates wealth but the productive labour of the working class.  

As workers, we have always been patronised by those like Jamie Whyte who embrace a utopian vision of capitalism but who cannot quite grasp the idea that we might aspire to something slightly better than a life of relative poverty (even if, in his view, it is “not bad”).  Some of us might even be attracted by the idea of a life of “equal opportunity” and economic security in which we are able to make a genuine contribution to the world in which we live and have the freedom to make real choices.  

These characters live in an ideal, intellectualised world where economic cycles of boom and bust are “to be welcomed, because in the downturns, bad companies go out of business and entrepreneurs with new ideas take over or elbow aside the weak performers – what some call Creative Destruction.”  In other words, recessions are really just the necessary means by which capitalism cleanses itself of inefficient companies, restores profitability and makes possible the next boom. This is true, and to Michael and Crispin this is an exciting, elegant and intellectually satisfying idea.

To most of us, on the other hand, recessions load our economically insecure lives with ever more pressing problems and threats: loss of livelihood, dignity, home and maybe even family.  At a time when many of us are facing redundancy and there is little on offer but insecure, part-time, low-paid work; when claiming benefits is becoming an increasingly hard and humiliating experience; when many of us are cutting down on basic food items to pay their rising rents; when lives are going down the pan, it is possible that some of us will perhaps fail to appreciate the elegance and regenerative power of “creative destruction”.  We might regard a society which cannot remain efficient except by periodically raising the normal levels of poverty and misery to greater than usual levels as not worth supporting.  We might even be antagonistic to the idea of efficiency when it turns out to mean the efficient exploitation of our own labour.  It might be that we want to turn our backs on capitalism and consider an alternative.

As Michael picked his way among his witnesses’ contributions, introducing and reflecting on them, or ignoring them sometimes when they raised an inconvenient point or two, his line of argument became gradually clearer: it may be that capitalism creates victims; it may actively create inequalities; and it may visit both relative and abject poverty upon working people, but against these minor inconveniences (and many others we could add) there is one outstanding fact: capitalism is the most fantastically successful way of creating wealth humanity has so far evolved.

And we can wholeheartedly agree with this.  But to it we would add that capitalism’s purpose, and only purpose in creating all this wealth is to fill the few but ample pockets of the capitalist class into which much of it flows.  For capitalism creates poverty just as inevitably as it has creates wealth, and the wealth it creates does not drive out poverty but merely towers above it and makes it intolerable. We would also add a certain emphasis to Michael’s claim: that capitalism is the most fantastically successful way of creating wealth humanity has evolved – so far.

As every radio producer knows, a programme’s conclusion is all important because the last thing listeners hear will be the idea they take away with them.  In his summing up, Portillo speaks of capitalism and its current state of contraction: “my guess is that it will emerge, however bedraggled from its battering.  But maybe that’s just because I cannot imagine the alternative.”  And so, finally, we come to the big message, the one that the series has been warming up to.  And this is it: THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.  After all the odd and insubstantial claims that capitalism actually does meet our needs, this is the system’s keystone argument.  No wonder, the producers avoided making comparisons.

And it is at this point, too, that we are allowed to see clearly the spectre that has been hovering indistinctly over the programme throughout, the spectre of Karl Marx, whose writings are for the first time in many years showing signs of generating popular interest.   We know that we are about to be warned.

That warning comes in the final contribution from Gareth Stedman Jones, academic and reformed leftist: “…when Marx came to trying to think out how would you have an efficient and productive society without a market this is where I think he got stuck.”  That’s it then: there is really no use in looking for an alternative to capitalism – like it or not, you are stuck with it, chum, because even Marx couldn’t find a way out.  But to socialists listening (those that were still awake by this time) this claim will have come as something of a surprise.  Marx was not foolish enough to try to make detailed predictions of a future society (it is, of course, impossible to predict in detail what any society will look like even a few years ahead, even a capitalist one) but he was far from “stuck” for an explanation.  As a disillusioned Leninist who formerly placed his faith in the very unMarxist Soviet regime, it’s understandable that Gareth Stedman Jones would be unable to admit this.  

Marx, in fact, derived from his analysis of capitalism some definite conclusions.  To be sustainable, a post-capitalist society would need to abolish the source of class conflict: private ownership of the means of production.  Because of this, a post-capitalist world, he argued, would necessarily be classless and stateless.  And without private ownership there could be no money or exchange.  Such a society would also necessarily be global – just as capitalism is now.   

When Portillo and the BBC shut down discussion on an alternative to capitalism, it is worth considering whose interests they are protecting, especially since, by their own admission, we live, at present, in a structurally unequal, victimising world – one incapable of meeting human need.