Letters to the Editors from the January 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Probably the basic problem with the political perspective propagated by the SPGB is that you do not appear to have any sense of a dialectical perspective at all, which, in my opinion, accounts for your absolutist Utopian position, which is surely contrary to a marxist standpoint of scientific socialism. A dialectical perspective teaches that all aspects of life are relative and contradictory, so that the SPGB absolutist position of total communism on the basis of mass theoretical understanding is just totally absurd, and, if I did not know any better, I would have to say that the SPGB were some kind of agents provocateurs—indeed, the Maoists would say that you were objectively counter-revolutionaries. Surely the fact that the SPGB has been standing parliamentary candidates for the last hundred years and still does worse than the fascists should make you think that perhaps you are doing something wrong. I don’t think that you could show me one article in the Socialist Standard where the subject of dialectical materialism has ever been dealt with, which is quite serious, as only an uneducated fool would say that the philosophical basis of marxism was not imperative.
If I would have to label myself, then I would have to say that I am a post-modernist marxist, in the sense that, although I theoretically adhere to the marxist philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism, I would have to say that the ultimate communist goal is quite Utopian, and so unachievable, except perhaps in terms of science fiction, if a small number of people leave the dying civilisation on earth to form a communist space colony. I would say that the greatest obstacle to a fully-fledged communist society is what I call the ecological imperative, in the sense that, within the social context of a realistic expectation of world population levels, it would be ecologically infeasible to expect everyone in the world to have at least the the material status of, say, a working class English person. Just as the SPGB at least had the good sense to agree with the Trotskyists that socialism in any sense was impossible in one country, since, of course, it would only be an equality of poverty, the same thing applies in relation to the ecological imperative within the social context of any serious attempt to impose generalised world equality. Thus if the notion of communism has a future, then it is only in terms of a primitive communist society that would remain after the final collapse of bourgeois materialist civilisation. Moreover, contrary to what some idolatrous admirers of Marx seem to think, he was no more aware than anyone else was prior to recent times of the exigencies of the ecological imperative when he enunciated the Utopian goals of a wholesale communist society.
Thus, in my opinion, the zenith of human civilisation is liberal-democratic (or, perhaps, social-democratic) capitalism, and since the bourgeois materialism of capitalism is essentially ecologically infeasible, it is only a matter of time before bourgeois democracy will degenerate into bourgeois fascism of either the convential type or the Left-fascism of Stalinism—in this regard I would regard all the marxist-leninist groups as essentially Stalinist, since they, like the SPGB, are trying to achieve Utopian ends, although, unlike the SPGB, the Stalinists at least have a realistic perspective of power politics.
It should not be necessary to have to explain to someone who claims to be a socialist that the capitalist imperative of economic growth contradicts the ecological imperative, and that any notion of a green capitalism is nonsense, since, within the social context of realistic levels of world population, in terms of the dialectical principle of quantity changing into quality, even if so-called ecologically sustailable technology was adopted on a wholesale scale it would make no ultimate difference in terms of pollution and resource exhaustion; moreover, the notion of a green capitalism would presumably entail a fascist political context as the capitalist class generally would not willingly agree to abstain from what they would regard as profitable activities, although the ruling capitalist circles would regard it as necessary. And, as is the case in our present-day society, whenever a particular commodity is banned, there develops a criminal industry around it, and the same would be true if it was profitable to market illicit anti-ecological commodities, if, in accordance with the capitalist law of value, the illicit alternative to what was supposed to be ecologically sustainable was more economical.
If I say that I am a post-modernist marxist, and, as well as rejecting the SPGB perspective, I reject the so-called Marxist-Leninist position as objectively Left-fascist (i.e., Stalinist), then, in terms of concrete political practice, what indeed is left for an avowed marxist? I would say that in order to forestall or postpone what is the inexorable fascist political degeneration of capitalism my role is to do what I can to dispel Utopian illusions by emphasizing the necessities of supporting reformist political parties such as the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, as being the best of what is practicably possible. It is indeed the case that I would be inclined to agree with the perspective of an organisation called Living Marxism, which has a website at LM, and which could be said to have a post-modernist perspective, and I would be interested to know if you are familiar with them—I will not discuss the notion of post-modernism now, since that is rather complicated, although it could be generally said it is a theoretical recognition that modern-day capitalism civilisation has not got a progressive future, and that there is no realistic alternative. What is perhaps the best thing for avowed marxists is to form think-tanks in the tradition of the Fabian Society, since for an avowed marxist it would be somewhat of a dialectical contradiction for them to be actively involved in social-democratic politics (which is quite all right in itself), while cogently expounding the exigencies of capitalist social evolution, which is essentially that there is no progressive future, and that we only have the choice of what is the lesser evil in a capitalist social context.
Australia (by email)
Yes, we do know of Living Marxism or “Dead Leninism” as we used to call it. It was originally the journal of the Trotskyist “Revolutionary Communist Party” but later evolved into the voice of a group of trendy cynics, changing its name to LM (a good thing, since it minimised the discredit Marx’s views got from being associated with theirs).
Your own comments illustrate this cynicism quite well: “the ultimate communist goal is quite Utopian, and so unachievable”; “the zenith of human civilisation is liberal-democratic (or, perhaps, social-democratic) capitalism”; “the necessities of supporting reformist political parties such as the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, as being the best of what is practicably possible”; “there is no progressive future and we only have the choice of what is the lesser evil in a capitalist social context”.
You challenge us to produce one article in the Socialist Standard which discusses dialectical materialism. Since we’ve been published every month since September 1904 we could give you a whole list. But we’ll confine ourselves to referring you to our pamphlet Historical Materialism which has a chapter on the subject and which can be found on the internet [here]. Briefly, we, too, start from the basis that everything in the universe is interconnected and in a state of constant change but we don’t see any contradiction between this and our perspective of the more or less immediate establishment of “from each according to ability, to each according to needs” once a majority have come to want and understand it. Capitalism has had its period of being historically progressive and its insoluble contradictions now show that it is ripe to be replaced by the new social system it has prepared the way for—world socialism or communism (the same thing).
But you think that socialism/communism is in any event impossible because the resources don’t exist to sustain the present world population at the level of “a working class English person”. Really? Why not? A worker in England consumes a finite amount of food, clothing, accommodation, travel and entertainment but we can see no reason why, given the mobilisation of the world’s resources to that end, the same amounts could not be provided for everyone anywhere in the world.
The mistake you have made is to take the total amount of resources consumed in England (Britain) and divide it by the population and then multiply the result by total world population. This gives an enormous figure for resource consumption that may well not be sustainable. However, this figure is meaningless as it is invalid to assume that all the resources used in Britain are consumed in producing the finite amount of goods consumed by the working class here. Resources consumed in Britain at the moment include the waste of capitalism, which is enormous.
The waste, for a start, of arms and the armed forces. Then there’s the waste of the whole system of buying and selling (the armies of accountants, salespeople, ticket collectors, bank clerks, etc, etc, etc) and of administering the capitalist system (the armies of civil servants devising, collecting, recording taxes and paying out subsidies and benefits). Finally, there’s the waste of planned obsolescence, of producing shoddy goods designed not to last too long, and of not recycling.
How extensive is this waste? The most conservative estimate is that it amounts to 50 percent, i.e. that only half of the present-day resource consumption in Britain (and equivalent countries) is devoted to directly satisfying people’s needs, the other 50 percent being on-costs that are incurred solely because this is taking place in a capitalist context. Others have put the waste figure as high as 90 percent. Whatever the figure, socialism/communism being a society of direct production to satisfy people’s needs without money could economise on the resources used up on these oncosts of capitalism.
You also ignore the other side of the equation: resources. You seem to think that these are fixed and that we are near their limits but this is by no means the case. Figures produced by the FAO and other researchers show that, for instance, food production could be increased so as to adequately feed twice the world’s present population of 6,000 million (quoted by Swiss MP Jean Ziegler in his 1999 book La faim dans le monde expliquée à mon fils (Famine in the World Explained to My Son), p. 19; see also the FAO site at FAO under “Dimensions of Need”). Existing resources could also be made to go further by making things to last longer, by standardised spare parts, better storage facilities, recycling and by the adoption on a wholesale scale of the ecologically-sustainable technology you seem to doubt.
You don’t need to convince us that a “green capitalism” is nonsense. That’s been our case against the Green Party and campaigning environmentalist groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace from when they first made their appearance on the political scene in the 1970s and 1980s. You’re probably right that under capitalism the measures they advocate could only be fully implemented by authoritarian methods. And we can go along with you that things are going to get worse from an ecological point of view as long as capitalism is allowed to continue. Capitalism does indeed risk a descent into barbarism, the beginnings of which can already be seen. Indeed, the emergence of pessimistic and cynical doctrines such as so-called “post-modernism” is an ideological reflection of this.
You preach pessimism and say that the most we might be able to do is to slow down a little this descent into barbarism. We, on the other hand, retain the “modernist” view inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment that humanity can build a better future—but only as long as it takes steps to replace capitalism by a world socialist society.
Capitalism’s twofold lie
At the heart of the capitalist economy was, is and always will be deception. Since capitalist production is based on selling for profit, and not to simply satisfy demand, it relies on two such deceptions for each and every exchange of goods or services. In the first place, in order to sell a quantity of products sufficient to overcome the material cost of production, provide for future expansion of production, and to place profit in the pocket of the owner, it is necessary to sell as many products to as many people as possible.
Unfortunately for the owner of said means of production, the product is at no time needed or desired by all the potential customers needed to satisfy this sales requirement. So it falls on the producers to make as many people as possible believe that they need the product, should ignore any other competitor’s offering and purchase the product immediately. Here we encounter the first lie. Since all of the producer’s goals rest in the success of this lie, modern producers enlist the aid of an advertising juggernaut that will stop at nothing to achieve their aim: to make you believe that their client’s product is absolutely vital to your happiness, success or esteem. One cannot doubt the success of advertising in the advancement of the first lie—you need only to look at the people around you, festooned with the latest brand-name styles, falling over each other to be the first in line for the Next Big Thing, and spouting inane jingles and catchphrases designed to securely place the product image in the back of every dollar-spending head.
If it were sufficient to merely dupe you into purchasing the product against your better judgement by convincing you of the overwhelming advantages of your newly-acquired possession, it would be bad enough. However, the producer, in order to maximize his gain, must again deceive you, the poor consumer, as to the value of the product. This second lie is much more subtle than the first. If advertising in modern times could be equated to the repeated bludgeoning of the consumer into submission, pricing would be much more akin to a stab in the back. The producer is placed in a precarious position: charge too little, and you don’t satisfy your profit margin, charge too much and your advertising was all for naught as the customer walks out the door. Enter markups, price discrimination, collusion and so on.
One cannot dispute the success with which capitalism has mastered the twofold lie. Consumers continue to fall for it with every purchase. People would rather pay over $100 dollars to take a family of four to a baseball game instead of buying a weeks worth of groceries. They pay $18 for CDs which cost $1.50 to produce. They pay $35,000 for a four-wheel drive death trap and drive it while talking on their cell phones. No wonder we can’t pick a president! As holidays become more commercialized, advertising becomes more and more obnoxious and pervasive, and life becomes the stuff we do between trends, one must wonder if we will ever wake up and just stop believing the lie!
USA (by email)