Friday, December 13, 2019

Sting in the Tail: Working Lunch (1996)

The Sting in the Tail column from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Working Lunch (1)
Boots the Chemists recently commissioned research about office workers taking lunch and came up with some alarming figures:
  The survey found more than 25 percent of office-based workers take a break of 30 minutes or less and 20 percent regularly skip lunch altogether. Four out of five regularly eat lunch at their desk. Of these, more than 70 percent continue to work while they eat, and almost 90 percent still answer the phone (Independent, 7 August).
So much then, for those opponents of socialism who claim that socialism won't work because it is “human nature to be lazy”!

Plain Speaking
George Orwell in 1984 speculated about a language called “Newspeak” that would make clear thinking impossible. This allowed those in power to describe the Ministry of War as the Ministry of Peace.

In the Herald (1 November) we learn of a Mr Marcus Harrison sending out electronic mail messages supporting the Gun Lobby against the views of the Snowdrop group. It is a prime example of Ncwspeak in action:
  As a professional communicator. I know how to distort information and manipulate facts . . . Of his offer ‘to distort facts' he argued that was no different from what the media, political spin doctors, or PR people do. 
Mr Harrison describes himself as “a writer/director/producer with 20 years experience in marketing and PR”. He may describe himself as a "professional communicator” and liken himself to “spin doctors and PR people”. but, like the rest of that media circus, he is just a bloody liar.

Working Lunch (2)
A photograph on the front page of the Herald (25 October) depicted the Queen and a rather elegant lady in designer clothes. The caption explained all:
  The Queen and Mrs Jolanta Kwasniewski, wife of the President of Poland, prepare to go into a working lunch at Buckingham Palace, Prince Edward was also present. The Queen later made President Aleksander Kwasniewski a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. 
The last working lunch Scorpion attended the gaffer threatened us all with the Order of the Boot and the P45.

It is about time the Queen, Prince Edward, the Polish President and his elegant wife were given the same Order by the working class.

Papal Progress
The Roman Catholic Church has a dreadful record of scientific suppression. Nicholas Copernicus, the 16th century Polish astronomer, was threatened by the Inquisition because of his heresy of proclaiming that the earth orbited the Sun. instead of the other way about. Indeed less than sixty years after Copernicus' death, the Italian scholar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for similar ideas.

The modern RC church is very adaptable. It now embraces the Copernican view, and a hundred years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species it even accepts evolution!
  The Pope has lent his support to the theory of evolution, proclaiming it compatible with Christian faith. It is likely to cause controversy among the religious right.
  His recognition that evolution is 'more than just a theory' came in a written message he sent to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body of experts that advises the Roman Catholic Church on scientific issues ”
(Herald, 25 October).
Wow. what next! A papal endorsement of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value or The Materialist Conception of History? We think not!

Let’s face it, critics are an unloved bunch. With hindsight, everyone can look back at those critics who sneered at Van Gogh. Stravinsky and Darwin. They got it all wrong.

But criticism is a very important social function. Everyone should criticise everything. The basis of all progress is criticism. All of those critics who got it wrong were frightened of change. The socialist critic embraces change and says that we live in a society that must be changed.

Well researched, knowledgeable and practical criticism is a pre-requisite for a better society. But even an artist such as Van Gogh can rage against the inequalities of property society. Read his letters to his brother; you may then appreciate just how valid some of his criticisms were whatever your view of his paintings.

A Modern Tragedy
We understand, from those who know such things, that politicians seldom write their own speeches. Recognising this, and being of a kindly disposition towards the beleaguered in our midst, we offer the following lines to the leader of the Tory Party:
"Friends, Tories and Countrymen
Give me your vote
You did love me once
Whence this most foul calumny ?
Have sudden lost you. sweet reason?”
A reference to anything as flattering as reason appertaining to his Tory supporters may convince them to support Honest John again—however briefly.

If we were given to prediction we imagine a nice comfy seat in the House of Lords for John Major. Meanwhile, beyond this farce, continues the tragic reality of workers working for wages and heaping up profits for the owners.

A Vision for Our Time (1996)

From the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Capitalism is in crisis, but not so much on the economic front as in the political arena. There was a time when those who opposed capitalism could put forward an alternative vision — albeit one based on state-capitalism — but now both Labourites and Leninists have given up completely and the only vision remaining is the one put forward by Socialists — real Socialism!
What George Bush, with the verbal inelegance of an aristocratic drunk addressing his deepest thoughts to his tired servants, called “the vision thing”, is distinctly missing from world politics right now. When Bush used the term, in the midst of the 1992 presidential contest against Grinning-Boy Bill, he was referring to his recognition that elections had come increasingly to be no more than extremely expensive battles to win power in order to achieve no particular political goal. Politicians more than ever are concerned with winning power, regardless of any belief that their use of it can meaningfully change very much. Hie recently televised debates—less gladiatorial battles then flea races—between Clinton and his grandfather (Dole) had about them all of the intellectual sustenance of an advertising war between McDonalds and Burger King. Both cost loads to sell, not much to buy, tasted the same and were horrible. Is it any wonder that approximately half the electorate in what prides itself as being “the biggest democracy in the world” did not even bother to go out and vote.

Not only between the American political midgets has vision disappeared. It is now almost a cliche to say that nothing divides the main parties in Britain Years ago socialists would speak of voting Labour or Tory as a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; we were regarded as cynics for refusing to distinguish between the two major parties of capitalism. Now we are in the majority. Voters who elect Labour to power will do so on the firm understanding that this is a party not significantly different in outlook and policy from mainstream Toryism. The Murdoch Empire can rest contented that the next British general election will be held within a virtual one-party state: whoever is elected will be Murdoch’s man. But even the Murdoch Empire is bereft of vision: its sole interest is in making more profits out of public misinformation, but has no fundamental concern whether the profit system or the structure of disinformation is governed by parties of the right or the left. Indeed, they have realised, as socialists did long ago, that the left and right wings are merely symmetrical parts of the anatomy of a single vulture: The Capitalist System.

Voodoo economics
In the 1980s the Big Vision was capitalism itself. This was capitalism’s most audacious political moment, for it involved an attempt to win not mere tolerance but popular support for the system of institutionalised class exploitation. For a while the politics of audacity appeared to succeed. Remember the news reports of elderly pensioners queuing in the cold to buy gas shares and ex-miners setting up personal computer businesses in stagnant pit villages and newly-married suckers jumping for joy at the right to buy their council slum? With a mixture of much champagne and cocaine, the Falklands slaughter and a fair bit of economic good luck, the small minority who own this country had reason to smile in the heyday of Thatcherism. That was before the recession; before they started closing down the small businesses, repossessing the mortgaged homes and discovering that neglect of the inner cities had created veritable war zones amongst the dispossessed. The vision collapsed. The Magic of the Market, as the Eighties witch doctors called it, now stinks in the nostrils of those who were its victims.

Theoretically, the 1990s should have been even better times for the capitalist vision than the Thatcher/Reagan years had been. After all, the greatest single ideological bogey-man of the Cold War popped his clogs and buried himself in the ice. Socialism was declared to be dead, dumped somewhere amidst the rubble of the Berlin Wall. That it was state capitalism which imploded and that its Leninist creed was inimical to the Marxist vision mattered little. Triumphalism was in the air. To be sure, the Old Left, wedded religiously to the Leninist project, collapsed into defeatism in exact timing with the Right’s triumphalism. But it was as hollow a defeat as it was a triumph. Leftists started writing articles conceding that the fall of the Kremlin Empire meant that visions of transcending the market had been proved wrong. But Russia had never sought to transcend the market; even within their own rhetoric of lies and distortion it was only ever pretended that they were successfully planning the market. So, the Left, without market planning as a vision, has fallen into bed with any old tart from the Stock Exchange. The Right is still cleaning its wounds after its equally spurious and nefarious exercise in running a “free market" which was far from free. In reality, there are not that many ways of running capitalism. The scope for dressing up policies for its administration is remarkably narrow. The death of vision is no more than a recognition of this truth.

Given up the ghost
So, capitalist politics has run out of ideas and stands dull and visionless. The 1996 edition of the Socialist Register (edited by Leo Panitch and published by Merlin Press for £12.95) has as its title, “Are There Alternatives?” The book contains a good chapter on Australian Labour governments and their attacks on the working class and a “Santa Claus Doesn’t Exist!” — type essay by Colin Leys who has discovered that labour “no longer think of socialism as an alternative social and economic system to capitalism” (p. 8). There is an odd debate towards the end about forming a new party and Arthur’s SLP (a cross between the disgraced CP and the exhausted ILP) is floated as a possible lifeboat for the demoralised left. But all in all, if the contributors to the volume were entirely honest, they would have added one word to the front title: “NO”. They clearly have no alternative.

Mind you, at least they have retained their sanity if not their candour. Jacques Derrida, the principal cabaret act of the new post-modernist circus, is evidently off his rocker. His new book. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International reads as if it was composed under the influence of seriously hard drugs. Derrida’s thesis (which is rather like speaking of the philosophical theme of a Jeffrey Archer novel) is that Marx’s reference to the spectre haunting capitalism should be seen as a metaphor for a study of ghosts. Here is the first paragraph of the first chapter:
   Maintaining now the specters of Marx. (But maintaining now [maintenant] without conjuncture. A disjointed or disadjusted now, ‘out of joint', a disajointed now that always risks maintaining nothing together in the assured conjunction of some context whose border would still be determinable.) 
It does not improve. One can imagine the sagaciously nodding heads of the sincere and gullible audience at the University of Califomia where Derrida first gave the lectures that were to become his great work of Marxist ghost-hunting. Did a little boy at the back whisper even slightly audibly that the Emperor is naked? Was he asked to leave lest he disturb the concentration of the post-modern disciples? Or did he go away, buy a handgun and say as the bullet went through his head “If that’s the answer, who wants to live to find out the question?” Derrida and his fellow post-men are the Rasputins of the late twentieth century. Just as the Russian fraudster offered metaphysical hope to a ruling class in the midst of Checkhovian despair, so the post-modern con-men sustain an illusion of intellectual nourishment within a system which has become bulimic about any ideas which are not accompanied by a business plan. Post-modernism is the clairvoyance of an end-of-the-pier intelligentsia; the perfect characters for an end-of-the-system drama.

For where can capitalism go from here? Sure, it can reform its constitutional arrangements, re-organise its power blocs, fight here for markets and kill a few million there over ancient territorial rivalries. It can resurrect the zeal of medieval religious madness (in the USA one-in-five people declare themselves “born again”; the naked ignorance of the mullahs’ rule spreads here and there), but these are aberrations of the lost or the backward or both. In the end Saudi businessmen will drink whisky and follow Murdoch into the secular depravities of mammon, just as Americans will jump finally with an adulterous crook like Clinton rather than a moral fascist like Buchanan. The big, bad, bulldozing old visions of capitalism will not succeed. It’s Pepsi and Oprah that rule the house of yawns now.

The only credible alternative vision to running capitalism is to not run capitalism at all and thereby not let capitalism run our lives. What is important about this enduring and exciting socialist vision is its profound credibility. Firstly, it has never been tried. Secondly, the idea of production for use rather than profit is simple and makes sense to millions of people. And thirdly, it is the only conceivable way that society will not get worse and worse to five in. The practical alternative to living under capitalism, with all of its inevitable problems, is to establish consciously and democratically a different system of society in which production is owned by all, controlled by all and making wealth and services available to all. The Old Left has never advocated this, being too busy in its tactical efforts to win reforms of capitalism, elect Labour governments and defend the indefensible regimes of state capitalism. The Right opposes the socialist alternative, but always gets a metaphorical bloody nose when it engages in debate with the case for socialism. For the truth is that the Right is intellectually uninspired and can only ever win arguments when they are fighting against opponents with radical visions for capitalism.

New Labour, whatever it might want, does not want socialism. Socialism is an alternative which Blair has rejected. That he has done so is a sign of his limited vision, but also of his honesty and socialists should have no reason to berate the man for that. When three years into the next government society is still in a mess, or is in worse mess than now, nobody with any integrity will be able to blame this as the failure of socialism. On the contrary, the socialist vision will still be there, as urgent for the twenty-first century as it was in the wasted decades of this tragic century.
Steve Coleman

Was Labour ever Socialist? (1996)

From the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
 Now that Blair has openly proclaimed the Labour Party to be just another party seeking to run capitalism many on the Left are looking back with nostalgia to the days when Labour was supposedly a Party with a radical programme for abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism . . .
All too common nowadays is the sigh from disillusioned Labour Party supporters and ex-members (Scargill included) that the Labour Party is “no longer” socialist. Some claim Labour stood for socialism in 1945, while others will say Labour’s socialist credentials can be traced back to 1918 and the adoption of the old Clause Four. And there are those who believe that Labour was bent on socialism at its foundation in 1906.

Let us, therefore, look to the foundation of the Labour Party—the Labour Representation Committee as it was in 1900—to see whether socialist ideas were in circulation amongst its founding fathers.

On a depressingly cold day in late February 1900, in the Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street, London, 129 delegates gathered for a conference. They represented some 568,000 discontented, but organised workers. They had been sent by 65 trade unions, the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party' and the Fabian Society.

The conference was the result of a resolution passed at the TUC the previous September, a resolution moved by the Railway Servants, to “bring into being an alliance of the trade unions and new socialist societies which would be strong enough to fight the political battles of the working classes in parliament".

Pseudo-Marxist SDF
Of the four groups represented, the SDF claimed to be the true standard bearer of socialism. Their claims, though, were largely spurious. H. M. Hyndman, the party leader, was well-known for his autocratic rule. Marx had found him totally obnoxious and had made every attempt to avoid him. Engels saw Hyndman as having “ossified Marxism into a dogma”.

Hyndman was not only a sad victim of self-aggrandisement, he was also over-optimistic, carrying about his person at all times a list of names for a revolutionary cabinet—himself as the big boss—should the glorious day come.

Marx believed that the task of overthrowing capitalism had to be the sole responsibility of the working class itself, acting in its own interests and, consequently, in the interests of the entire human race. Hyndman, however, could not accept this. He held an arrogant contempt for the intelligence of the working class believing, like Lenin, that the workers had to be led by professional revolutionaries like himself.

Hyndman was, in reality, an opportunist, a romantic interested only in the prestige and power a working class victory would afford him. He had shown his true colours during the 1885 General Election. Then, the SDF had been low on funds, and Hyndman and friends thought it would be a good idea to enter into negotiations with the Conservative Party, working on their fears of a Liberal victory, and persuading them to invest in a plan to split the Liberal vote by financing the campaigns of two SDF candidates. The Tories agreed, and when news of the scam got out it caused such an uproar among workers that the two SDF candidates, John Williams and John Fielding, secured only 59 votes between them.

There were some socialists in the SDF but they were opposed to the concept of a “Labour party” and left in 1903 and 1904, some to set up the Socialist Party which has published this journal ever since.

In any event, the SDF soon withdrew from the Labour Representation Committee.

Elitist Fabians
Another group represented at that February conference, and who also shared Hyndman’s opportunism and contempt for the working class while claiming to be “socialist”, were the Fabians.

Engels described the Fabians as a “clique . . . united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers and doing all in their power to avert the danger”—a statement that in hindsight appears mild.

The Fabians had some 861 members in 1900, of whom only one was an actual wage slave, albeit a retired wage slave. Sidney Webb was right to famously declare that “we personally belong to the ruling class”. These sentiments were taken a stage further by his wife, Beatrice, who despaired of the working class and believed that the Fabians could find “no hope from these myriad of deficient minds and deformed bodies that swarm our great cities—what can we hope for but brutality, madness and crime?” Twenty years later, Beatrice was to hold the same views, seeing unions as “underbred and undertrained workmen”. For Bernard Shaw, the situation could only get worse and he thus proposed “sterilisation of the failures” in an attempt to stop the rot infecting further burdensome generations of workers—sentiments to be expressed by Winston Churchill in 1904 and Hitler some 30 years later.

Engels was quite right to detect in the Fabians a fear that a working class revolt would dislodge them from their privileged positions. Such fears had been panicking the British well-to-do since 1789. By the mid-1890s, the Fabians had become influenced by the Liberal Party, and by Joseph Chamberlain, a Tory, who believed that some kind of welfare system was essential if the propertied class wanted to survive. The Fabians argued for social services and improved conditions for workers not out of genuine altruism, but in the belief that this would help stave off unrest.

Unlike the SDF who fostered a prophecy of impending revolutionary doom, the Fabians, as Bealey puts it in his introduction to The Social and Political Thought of the Labour Party, “foresaw a peaceful, gradual change by constitutional means from capitalism, through collectivism, to socialism”. Rejecting the Marxian view that the state was a manifestation of the domination of the propertied class, the Fabians believed that the state was “a neutral apparatus that could be utilised by anyone who could legitimately become a government”. For the Fabians, though, the idea of the workers taking control through the state apparatus was anathema to everything they represented.

The Fabian idea of socialism was that of a stale run by experts and professionals like themselves, trained in the emerging modern human and emerging social sciences. They were in fact technocrats, believing that the technical administration of society should take the place of party politics. Like the other confusionists of the period, the Fabians were also oblivious to the idea that “the upsurge of popular feeling and action that alone could transform society must come from the working class themselves”, as the Labour journalist Francis Williams put it in his history of the Labour Party in 1945, Fifty Years March.

Like true opportunists it mattered not, of course, which political party took on board Fabian ideas, for they “expected by tactics of permeation and education to sell their programme to the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties” (Bealey, p.5). Thus, elitist in their tactics and aspirations, they were further open to the charge of being prepared to collaborate with openly capitalist parties.

Anti-class struggle ILP
The Independent Labour Party (ILP), founded in 1893, was another of the nascent working class organisations to declare themselves socialist. They had, however, “no very well defined set of ideas” other than they called for an “industrial commonwealth founded upon the socialisation of land and capital” and that they demanded workers “be given a place in the national set up" (Bealey, p.6).

Like the Fabians, they too feared a workers’ revolt would severely upset the status quo, and they warned in 1895 that should there be a workers’ revolution in Euroec “there is nothing save a narrow strip of sea betwixt us and what would then be the theatre of a great human tragedy” (quoted in Bealey, p 16).

Philip Snowden, the party’s economic expert, was of the opinion that the propertied man “could not enjoy his riches in the knowledge of the misery of the men and women and children around him . . . it is to the cultured and leisured classes that socialism, perhaps, makes its strongest appeal”.

Socialism meant, for the ILP’s leaders, that the propertied would run society in the interests of the workers, granting them just so much reform that they could be kept at bay. In return, the workers would be imbued with ideas “drawn straight from the wells of capitalism” (Bealey, p. 17). The ILP’s declared objective was “the collective and common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, i.e. state and municipal capitalism.

As to the socialist, or rather so-called socialist, credentials of ILP leaders Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie, it should be remembered that both men joined the Labour movement not out of any deep-rooted conviction that the capitalist system must come to an end, but because they both had been rejected as Liberal candidates.

Whereas class consciousness, a realisation by workers of their objective position in the relations of production was, for Marx, a prerequisite for social revolution, for Hardie, who often stressed the common interests of worker and employer, the ILP did “not want class conscious socialists”. Hardie actually believed that the “socialist” movement was being undermined by workers fighting their capitalist employers as their class enemies. MacDonald would come to his aid, arguing that “class consciousness leads nowhere” and that the buzzword should in fact be “community consciousness”.

The New Unions
The three “socialist” societies, then, that sent delegates to the February conference, a conference that was to form the Labour Representation Committee which six years later became the Labour Party, were in fact putting a lid on working class discontent—from the outset not wanting to abolish capitalism, but to ameliorate its harsher effects.

The idea of the 1900 conference, as has already been mentioned, was the result of a resolution passed at the TUC some five months earlier. What remains significant is that the resolution was only passed by 546,000 to 434,000 votes. And it is also interesting to note that only a few years earlier the TUC had passed a resolution aimed at extricating the trade unions from “the influence of socialist adventurers”. The September 1899 resolution was, therefore, “no trumpet call to social revolution” (Williams, p.9).

In the late 1880s, the unions had enjoyed some significant victories—victories that had perhaps lulled them into a false sense of security. Most notable was the inspiring Match Girls victory at Bryant and May in 1888 which “succeeded because it mobilised behind it forces far greater than the match girls could command (public opinion)” (Williams, p. 10). Within two years, optimism had given way to pessimism, as employers, with the backing of the state, hit back at militancy with a vengeance. Between 1890 and 1892, membership of the “new unions” fell from 320,000 to 130,000. Disillusionment was further compounded when 70,000 were battered into submission in Scotland in 1894 and with the crushing of the Boot and Shoe Operatives and the Amalgamated Society of Engineers the following year.

There had been since the 1880s a growing awareness that the state was too big an opponent to be tackled by the trade union movement and that the trade unions now needed their own political voice. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had widened the franchise and it was with this in mind that George Shipton would write in Murray’s Magazine in 1890 that “when the people were unenfranchised . . . the only power left to them was the demonstration of numbers. Now, however, the workmen have votes . . . the ‘new trade unionists’ look to Governments and legislation—the old look to self-reliance”.

Among the 65 unions that sent delegates to conference there was a lot of reluctance from the older trade unions “who feared the consequence of any move that seemed to be directed at changing their own conception of a trade union as a craft organisation primarily concerned with safeguarding the interests of its workers by direct negotiation with individual employers” (Williams, p. 15).

The initial motivation behind the conference was "to secure better representation of the interests of labour in parliament”, as the 1899 resolution had stated. The “new unions” were not motivated by any socialist vision of the future. Their aspirations were economistic and immediate. For them “socialism” meant higher wages and shorter hours and a hoped-for redistribution of wealth. “They were,” as Bernard Shaw observed, “out to exploit capitalism, not to abolish it” (quoted in Bealey, p.6).

So again, any suggestion that the new trade unions, any more than the “socialist” societies, provided the early labour Party with a socialist ideology is highly dubious. In fact, by the end of the first day of the conference, the delegates had passed a resolution stating that any Labour MPs should be prepared to co-operate with the already existing capitalist parties: “That this conference is in favour of establishing a distinct labour group in parliament, who shall have their own whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour” (quoted in Williams, p.24).

Furthermore, that same day, the conference elected as its chairman a Fabian, W.C. Steadman, who was “not by any means a convinced socialist. On the contrary he was himself a Lib-Lab MP . . . who in general worked and voted with the Liberal party in the House of Commons” (Williams, p.19).

The next day the conference elected a 12-man executive committee consisting of 7 trade union representatives, two from the SDF, two from the ILP and one from the Fabians. They agreed to call their new movement the Labour Representation Committee. They were not, however, to act together as a political party. If anything they were a federation of trade unionists and political organisations, each retaining their own identity. All four groups were less motivated by socialist theory than by the growing awareness that capitalism had raised the stakes. They were slowly coming to terms with the social, economic and political pattern of the times, vaguely grasping the fact that capitalism can only be tackled politically through the ballot box where workers had the power to vote for the social system they wanted. However, they only wanted political action to try to ameliorate capitalism rather than to abolish it and replace it with socialism.
John Bissett