Wednesday, December 23, 2020

This Month's Quotation: Oscar Wilde (1937)

The Front Page quote from the December 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard 
“To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.”
- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Pathfinders: Virus Wars: New Hope and Phantom Menace (2020)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sometimes a news story changes so fast that the dailies can’t keep up, never mind monthlies like the Socialist Standard. So it was with the November announcements in quick succession of impressive early results for a number of Covid vaccines.

As we go to press conclusive results are not yet available, and more results are expected imminently from other vaccines in Phase 3 trials, so the true pros and cons of any vaccine can’t yet be assessed.

Many of these vaccines already existed in other forms and have been repurposed, nonetheless the speed of development has been stunning, given that the previous record was five years. The Oxford Vaccine Group, soon to announce results, has a video explaining how the trick was managed. It emphasises how human cooperation, rather than competition, has accelerated the process. Meanwhile the BBC offers a cuddly video to reassure us that safety tests are paramount and that ‘the World Health Organization (WHO) is helping to make sure all countries have equal access to a vaccine, no matter who discovers it or how much money they’re willing to pay for it’.

So it’s almost like socialism, then, with private interests flung aside for the greater good, nation joining hands unto nation in a single humanitarian vision, and never mind the profits? Er, not exactly. Vaccine manufacturers are projected to make billions, while the UK Chancellor, tipped as the next PM, is also allegedly making a fat wad out of it that he refuses to disclose details of (Guardian, 17 November –). The WHO is anyway a voluntary body with no authority to make sure of anything. Despite certain pharma companies volunteering to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights (Moderna) or sell at cost (Oxford/AstraZeneca), there’s no compulsion to do so, and the WHO’s attempts to get countries to sign up to their Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which would waive all IP rights for all Covid products, has not found a single taker. Meanwhile requests by some developing countries for blanket Covid patent waivers have been opposed by first-world countries for whom IP comes first and cooperation second (, 6 November – LINK).

Still, the results are a blast of new hope, which may help to de-mast support for the notorious Great Barrington Declaration, a ‘focused protection and let her rip’ charter that emerged in October as a libertarian, laissez-faire response to the pandemic. One of the originators of this is a bona-fide professor of epidemiology, while another is a professor of medicine, and their proposal seems motivated by the huge amount of suffering caused by lockdowns, especially among poor people. But the ripples they made in the scientific pond were obliterated by an avalanche of boulders, from the WHO downwards, that branded ‘let her rip’ as unscientific, reckless, ‘amazingly irresponsible’, ‘a dangerous mix of pixie dust and pseudoscience’, or simply ‘fucking stupid’, to quote only the more temperate responses. One major problem is the possible millions of extra deaths involved, and another, that individual immunity does not necessarily prevent transmission, which would defeat the whole point (New Scientist, 14 October). Less charitable critics have pointed to the fact that the organisation sponsoring the Declaration is a right-wing libertarian think-tank funded by the climate denialist Koch Foundation (Science-Based Medicine, 12 October).

Which brings us to the phantoms menacing in the shadows of this supposedly cooperative global effort. In October a row blew up after the Times quoted a whistleblower who claimed to have been involved in a Russian-backed campaign to discredit the UK’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses a ‘cold’ chimp virus, by saying it would turn people into monkeys. The aim was allegedly to ‘target countries where Russia wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine’, which is one of those showing early promise despite jumping the gun in order to announce first (Times, 16 October).

The Times followed this up with a report that the spooks at GCHQ are using an anti-ISIS toolkit to tackle anti-vaxxer disinformation emanating from the bogeymen in Moscow, which included assertions that ‘vaccines were unnecessary and pushed for profit reasons’, that vaccines contained ‘a brain debilitating agent, or a gene that renders women infertile’, or that vaccines were a plot by the Gates Foundation ‘to control humans by inserting microchips into them’ (9 November). How exactly these scare-stories would help Russia sell its own vaccine to the west, the Times did not explain.

Anti-vaxxer propaganda, wherever it comes from, could undermine global health strategies now that there are potential vaccines on the horizon, especially when numerous polls have suggested that a very large minority would refuse to take a vaccine if offered (Newsweek, 29 September).

In the UK, fact-checking organisations have been gearing up for a full-frontal assault by anti-vaxxers on any national vaccination programme, probably by playing on fears that the vaccines have been fast-tracked and that long-term side-effects are unknown. Full Fact stated that ‘due to the magnitude of the pandemic, pre-existing conspiracy theories have now been attached to Covid-19’, and speculating that ‘we will see many of the same claims being ramped up – the claims that this was part of a plot to force a vaccination on the population’ (ITV news, 10 November).

Labour has called for emergency laws to ‘stamp out dangerous’ anti-vaxxer online content ‘exploiting people’s fears, their mistrust of institutions and governments and spreading poison and harm’ (BBC online, 15 November). This may be unwise however. Ban anything, and people tend to want it more. Conversely, make a vaccine compulsory, and anti-vaxxer views will skyrocket.

What can socialists make of all these shenanigans, given that we can’t necessarily trust what we’re being told and we don’t know what we’re not being told? We can only look at the available evidence and weigh the balance of probabilities. Long-term side-effects may perhaps be a risk, but not as big as short-term death. Yes, big pharma shareholders will profit, but that’s the only way capitalism can get anything done. There may be politicians on Orwellian power trips but they were far from welcoming scientific advice for more lockdowns. Globally the places with the fewest restrictions have tended to suffer the most, such as Sweden with a death rate ten times that of its neighbours (LINK). Capitalism has almost crippled itself in the fight against Covid, including buying up hundreds of millions of potentially worthless vaccine doses, when cold economic logic might have suggested ‘let her rip’ and let the cards fall as they may.

That there’s no conspiracy behind all this is surely demonstrated by the incoherence, incompetence and sheer panic evinced by so many governments. Yet the rosy public narrative of cooperative capitalist nations selflessly working together is in some ways just as much of a phantom.
Paddy Shannon

50 Years in the Party (2020)

From the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

I first heard about the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1970 when I was a student in Hull. A couple of fellow students in the house I lived in were always going on about it. Until then I’d followed my parents in being a Labour supporter and saw the nationalisation of industry as the thing to support. But now I was being told that wouldn’t make any difference and I needed to look beyond it to an entirely different kind of society – and on a world scale. This was a society of common ownership and free access to all goods and services. No money, no buying and selling, no market – just production and distribution according to need. No leaders, no national frontiers, just one world – and this was to be achieved by majority democratic political action. This, I was told, if looked at closely, was what Marx had originally advocated and what socialism really meant.

I was incredulous at first and brought out all the arguments I’ve heard countless times since over the years. Human nature, need for gradual reforms, utopianism, over-population, shortage of resources, need for leaders, etc., etc. And I argued for a long time – until I no longer had any more arguments, since they’d all been answered. But I still somehow didn’t want to join a political organisation. I’d never been in one before and it didn’t seem to fit for me. Since no one actually pressed me to join, I just carried on talking and going to the meetings that the SPGB group organised and then helping to sell its journal, the Socialist Standard, in the town centre. But what then finally got me on side was the special edition of the Standard in August 1970. It was called ‘A World of Abundance’ and had articles with titles like ‘The World Can Feed Us All’, ‘Capitalism – Waste – Want’, ‘Not Too Many People’, ‘World Administration’ and a particular compelling one by Ron Cook with the self-explanatory title ‘Progress Perverted: the Technology of Abundance’. With all this it had to happen sooner or later and so, 50 years ago this month, I filled in the membership questionnaire and joined.

In the year that followed I attended meetings in Manchester, where I came from, in Sheffield and in London where, in 1971, the Party held its 66th annual conference. I found tremendous enthusiasm among members, tremendous knowledge of all things social, political and historical and tremendous optimism that the ideas were spreading and the movement growing.

When the same year I moved into the world of employment, I found myself in a city, Swansea, with a long-standing branch of the Party, I found myself attending meetings regularly, selling Party literature on the steps of the town’s Central Library, helping to organise public meetings and going to other parties’ and organisations’ meetings to put our case there. A lot was going on at the time. It was the heyday of CND, Anti-Apartheid and Friends of the Earth as well as of those small left-wing political organisations that called themselves ‘socialist’ (IS, IMG, SLL, etc.) but, as far as we were concerned and despite their ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric, at the end of the day were (and still are) just going for reforms of the system and so were just part of the capitalist furniture. I was the branch’s ‘press officer’ and often wrote to the South Wales Evening Post putting these points as well as other aspects of our case. Many of the letters I sent were published. I found all this activity educational and exhilarating and soon found I was able to give talks and engage in public debate myself.

In the late 70s and 80s Swansea Branch built a core of active members across the age range and organised regular meetings that we advertised in the local press. There were topics as diverse as ‘Marxism and Science’, ‘Thatcher and Freedom’, ‘Women are Workers too’, ‘Animal Rights’ ‘Youth and Unemployment’, ‘How Politicians Con You’, ‘Feed the World’, ‘Energy for the Future’, ‘Soap Operas and Socialism’, and ‘John Lennon’. We got good attendances too, and as a key part of our activity sold the Socialist Standard in the city’s shopping precinct and set up an outdoor platform where I was one of our speakers. I would shout myself hoarse on a Saturday morning and got a surprisingly small amount of heckling. I was also writing regularly for the Socialist Standard. We had record Saturday morning sales with an edition of the journal with the words ‘Sex, Sin and Socialism’ emblazoned across the cover. It contained an article written by me on the recently published and much talked about book by anarchist Alex Comfort entitled The Joy of Sex.

We were hawking our literature on the same pedestrian stretch as Ian Bone, a self-avowed anarchist who was later to set up an organisation called Class War. Unlike most of the others there, he really did seem to want a different system of society even if he didn’t quite know what that system was to be and thought the best way to get it was by smashing things. The People newspaper later called him ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’, in which he took great pride. And, perhaps extraordinarily, when some 30 years later he wrote a book about his experiences in Swansea and elsewhere called Bash the Rich, I found myself debating with him at a packed meeting at the Party’s Head Office on Clapham High St with the subject ‘Which Way the Revolution?’. He was still the ‘one-off’ he’d ever been, but we did manage to agree on quite a few things regarding the revolution, even if we remained apart on others, for example violence and the number of classes in capitalist society.

Then there were the ‘speaking tours’ when I gave talks at various branches of the Party as far apart as Bristol, Bournemouth, Cornwall, Bolton, Canterbury and Guildford, some well attended, some pretty sparse. A ‘highlight’ for me was the debate with right-wing guru, Roger Scruton, organised by the Party’s Guildford branch. At the time Scruton, who remained a well-known public figure right up until his death earlier this year, wrote a weekly column in the Times and had raised debate with his book The Meaning of Conservatism. When we met in a pub before the meeting, I found him modest and affable. But he hadn’t bothered to find out what we were about and he asked me to tell him. He seemed to get the hang of it but then in the debate kept forgetting and referring to what had happened in Russia.

Another outstanding moment was a debate in Bolton Town Hall with local MP Tom Sackville, organised by the Bolton branch of the Party and chaired by a local cleric. It was a packed meeting and I managed to put our ‘version’ of socialism on the agenda immediately, after which the MP to his credit didn’t attempt to tar us with the Soviet brush.

I was also, together with a fellow member Pat Wilson, able to arrange a Q and A session for the Socialist Standard with a then leading figure of the burgeoning Green movement, Jonathan Porritt. It was a friendly occasion with Porritt strangely seeming to agree with most of what we said about the need for socialism.

The culmination of all this activity for me was the local election campaigns Swansea Branch ran in the late 1980s when, with the assistance of members from other branches, we knocked on every door in the local ward – twice. Even though we found a surprising amount of agreement on the doorstep, that didn’t really translate into votes, with 92 the maximum number we got in one of the three elections we ran in. An internal Party issue at the time was whether our candidate’s picture should appear on one of our election manifestos. The Party has always eschewed personalities as part of its antipathy to the idea of leaders and so a heated debate took place at the Executive Committee table about whether the candidate, myself, should show his ‘human face’. In the end the picture did appear, as it also did in the local press.

Trade union activity
The 1990s were a bit of an anti-climax in Party activity. The main thing was that the Socialist Standard kept being published and the case it propagated kept being put to readers. This was a period when I started to involve myself in trade union activity in my place of work. It was something I found extremely satisfying – and still do. That’s because you often saw quick results in terms of helping to resolve people’s problems at work, both individually and collectively, and felt you were making some kind of immediate difference, however small. For me it complemented the longer-term project of spreading socialist ideas in society at large and fitted well with the Party’s view of trade unionism as a necessary form of resistance to the tendency of capitalism to take for itself an increasingly large share of the surplus value produced by workers. It also made me fully conscious, if I was not already, of the need for trade unions to be fully independent of political parties and groups and not to succumb to the will of the union’s ‘politicos’ from the left-wing largely Trotskyist groups who were small in number but could still dominate union decision-making and use their position not for the benefit of members but to promote their own political ends. They would (and still do) constantly seek to bounce members into industrial action, even when such action is more likely to be damaging than successful.

In the first decade of this century, as the Party celebrated its 100th anniversary, capitalism found itself facing the twin crises of terrorism and recession. The recession in particular gave rise to a phenomenon I found first surprising and encouraging but then disappointing, that is the quick spread in use of the term ‘capitalism’ with widespread discussion about it in books, magazines and the media. The Party had always freely used the term and, at a personal level, this made me feel a bit uneasy. I wondered whether people would know what we were talking about or would maybe just regard us as cranks or supporters of Russia. Now it was (and still is) everywhere. However, the trouble was, while often calling themselves ‘anti-capitalist’, critics of the system tended to propose more ‘benign’ models of capitalism via reforms seeking to achieve less poverty (e.g. universal basic income) and less waste of resources (e.g. the ‘green’ agenda) without taking into account the fact that reforms, even if alleviating things a little for some, can do nothing to change the basic profit-seeking nature of the system and the inevitable antagonism between what Marx called wage labour and capital.

While the last decade too has been full of proposals for coping with the problems of capitalism within its existing framework, disappointingly it has not seen an obvious rise in consciousness among wage and salary earners of the need for an entirely different kind of society. This is an idea that the Party and the World Socialist Movement have continued to keep alive by publishing literature, holding meetings and seeking to spread the idea in all other ways possible. For example, via our website and, in these pandemic days, the Party’s virtual ‘Discord’ platform.

Looking back over my 50 years in the Party, though a lot has happened, a lot has also remained the same. Capitalism has gone on its merry way with its wars, poverty, unemployment, glaring inequality, environmental degradation, and now a global pandemic. Many campaigns to try and improve it have come – CND, Shelter, Greenpeace, Right to Work, Anti-Nazi League, Child Poverty Action, Occupy, Extinction Rebellion, just to mention a few – and many have gone. But to be fair there have been some changes for the better – racism and sexism for example are definitely on the back foot in many parts of the world, and a whole slew of recent books on human nature have shifted opinion away from the long-held notion that human beings are selfish and competitive creatures rather than naturally cooperative ones.

In addition there is widespread consciousness of the environmental destruction which Rachel Carson pointed to in 1962 but which I only found out about the year I joined. At the same time the ‘experts’ who two years after this published The Limits of Growth, predicting ecological breakdown by the end of the century and calling for population control, were proved wrong. The profit system has of course gone on despoiling the planet but at the same time managing to adapt sufficiently not to cause an environmental apocalypse. It has also given better living standards to many wage and salary workers, while however heaping misery of varying degrees on many others. And it has made a very small number of individuals massively and increasingly wealthy, with the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owning 29 times more than the poorest 20 percent. All of which will continue as long as the capitalist mode of production continues and as long as those with good intentions (and there are many) say they support our aims but somehow think capitalism can gradually be reformed into something better or even into socialism.

I’m not planning to stop any time soon. I’ll carry on helping to keep alive the idea of a society I first heard about more than fifty years ago, since nothing I’ve heard in all that time from either supporters or critics of the present system has discouraged me from seeing the World Socialist Movement’s concept of socialism as the most desirable and most feasible next stage in human social development.
Howard Moss

Control And Coercion (2020)

The Proper Gander column from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most disturbing consequences of the pandemic has been an increase in domestic abuse. During the first three months of the lockdown, there were over 40,000 enquiries to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, mostly made by women. In June, the number was almost 80 per cent higher than usual, according to the charity which runs the helpline, Refuge. Working from home and being unable to mix with other households or go to the shops have made it harder for people trapped with an abusive partner or relative to get some distance or escape. And worries about money, health and unemployment have been compounded by the pandemic, and then exacerbate already toxic relationships.

Domestic abuse doesn’t just mean physical violence; it often takes more subtle and calculated forms. Several years ago, legislation was changed to more clearly incorporate this. The Serious Crime Act 2015 included a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships. This refers to a pattern of behaviour by the perpetrator which makes their victim fearful or otherwise has a substantial adverse effect on them. Such behaviour would involve manipulating the victim or limiting what they can do, possibly by cutting them off from family and friends, taking over their finances or imposing rules on them. So, controlling and coercive behaviour is a combination of psychological and emotional abuse, sometimes with financial abuse, with or without physical violence.

Coercive and controlling behaviour can be difficult to recognise, both from inside and outside the situation. A recent documentary on BBC3 – Is This Coercive Control? – looked at whether a group of young adults would be able to identify its signs. Over two days, they watch and discuss a specially made drama about the relationship between two twentysomethings. Rachel gets fired from her office job and moves in with Alex, her boyfriend of a few months. She fails to find other work and gets increasingly in debt and withdrawn. Alex pushes on her his expectations about what she ‘should’ wear and how she ‘should’ keep the flat tidy. The plot then jumps to a courtroom, with each getting interrogated about their now-disintegrated relationship. The show’s presenter, journalist Ellie Flynn, asks the group of volunteers about their interpretations of how Rachel and Alex relate to each other, and particularly if they believe that any behaviour in the scenario constitutes a crime. All the volunteers see that Alex’s actions are unacceptable, while nearly three quarters don’t think that they’re illegal. In the drama, Alex escapes prosecution because of a lack of evidence that he has been abusive. Emotional and psychological abuse is hard to prove, and realistically enough, the court in the drama doesn’t get the full picture. It’s revealed that Alex engineered for Rachel to lose her job and not get another one, while also isolating her from her friend and leaving threatening voicemail messages, clearly coercive and controlling behaviour.

It’s a step in the right direction that domestic abuse is recognised more than it used to be, and many people sincerely try to address the problem. However, the services run to support victims of abuse are sadly unable to help all those in need. There’s never been enough funding available, and this year’s disruptions have added further pressures. According to a survey by charity Safe Lives, three quarters of domestic abuse support services which responded have had to reduce their capacity due to the pandemic, when there is greater need for them.

These services, and the law, have assisted many victims with getting support and, less often, a sense that justice has been served. But they can’t address the deeper causes of domestic abuse. Each situation is different, but they all happen in a society which enables them. Money is such an important aspect of capitalism that it’s bound to impact on how we relate to our partners and families. In the scenario featured in the documentary, Rachel and Alex’s relationship is shaped by money as much as by other factors: when Rachel loses her job she can’t afford to do anything but move in with Alex, and her lack of money gives Alex a way to control her. People who are trapped in a destructive relationship are often trapped partly because they don’t have much financial autonomy. This is one reason why women, who tend to have lower incomes than men, are more often victims of domestic abuse. As our society is based on division, and competition, and exploitation, it encourages us to want power or at least an advantage over others, financially or otherwise. For some people, these tendencies take over and come out in their close relationships, pushing out empathy and affection. Perpetrators have usually been damaged themselves in some way, and in turn go on to damage those they can.

Understanding how capitalist society creates the situations where domestic abuse can happen isn’t enough, though. Really tackling the problem of domestic abuse means addressing its root causes: the social system we live in.
Mike Foster

Not for Workers (2020)

Book Review from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

For the People: Left Populism in Spain and the US by Jorge Tamames (Lawrence and Wishart, £17)

Most populist movements and parties are right wing: Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, Trump supporters in the US, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil. At the same time, some left-wing organisations are described as populist, such as Syriza in Greece and the former Chávez government in Venezuela. Here Jorge Tamames examines two particular cases of left-wing populism, Podemos in Spain and the support for Bernie Sanders in the US.

Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what he means by ‘populist’. He claims to follow the view of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, according to which it involves people going beyond addressing individual problems such as racism, unemployment and evictions, and joining together as a movement. In Tamames’ words ‘The result is a community mobilising to protest against an entire status quo, not merely asking for a few policy tweaks’. But it is not spelled out just how this is supposed to apply to the movements he discusses or how it relates to the features usually claimed to distinguish populism, the distinction drawn between the elite and the people, and the opposition to pluralism and separation of powers.

Podemos, of which Tamames is a member, means ‘we can’. It was formed in 2014 and received over a million votes in the European Parliament elections in May of that year. Despite its supposed populist objections to an elite, on the ballot papers it was not the Podemos logo that was used but the face of its leader Pablo Iglesias, who had become a well-known contributor to TV discussion shows. Since earlier this year, it has been a junior partner in the government run by the PSOE, which is roughly the equivalent of the Labour Party. Podemos’ programme has included increasing the minimum wage and raising taxation for the rich, so it is hard to see how they are protesting ‘against an entire status quo’, as suggested above.

Sanders, who has a fairly positive view of Pope Francis, has said that he wishes to stand up to ‘the billionaire class’. His policies included implementing universal health care, raising the minimum wage and breaking up the largest banks. In 2019 he extended this to the Green New Deal and abolishing student debt. All this is probably fairly radical in terms of US politics, and he had more support in 2016 from those under forty-five than Hillary Clinton did, but it obviously remains within the limits of capitalism, and he has twice failed to win the Presidential nomination.

As the author says, ‘I refer to Podemos and the Sanders movement as “left” populists because their agenda, while more ambitious that that of contemporary centre-left parties, is nevertheless reformist and not vastly different from that of a Western European social-democratic party in the early 1970s’. So all the fuss about left populism boils down to it being more or less the same as the Labour Party under Harold Wilson! The book gives some useful background on the impact of austerity and rising inequality, but it unsurprisingly fails to show that populism of whichever brand has anything to offer workers.
Paul Bennett

Material World: Exercise in democracy? Not exactly (2020)

The Material World Column from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month saw the election of the latest American president which was supposed to be an exercise in democracy. Yet there was the disenfranchisement of millions by the suppression of the vote of those eligible to vote, and this, despite the greatest number of votes cast to both candidates in decades.

It was not, as the Trump supporters tried to allege, a problem of voter fraud and deliberate miscounting of the ballots which led to the legal challenges and court battles. It is, as one political commentator, Ezra Klein, explained, ‘…the biggest problems with American democracy is that it’s not democratic’ (Guardian, 1 November).

The problem is the way the American Constitution was constructed and then applied. The manner of the election of the president and other federal officers is not determined by federal law or national rules but by the power of individual states themselves. It has always been the aim of the right-leaning politicians to manipulate the vote by promoting ‘states-rights’ on who, where, when and how citizens can vote. The purpose is to acquire a partisan advantage by limiting the franchise. In all the Republican Party’s complaints about the conduct of the electoral process absolutely none involved making it easier to vote. On the contrary, their campaigns have been to raise more barriers to the participation of eligible voters.

The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the 1965 Civil Rights Act that required states to get ‘pre-clearance’ from the federal government for legislation affecting elections and voting processes. It made it easier for states to gerrymander voting districts, reduce or re-locate the number of polling places, and raise obstacles to the ability to vote. Local legislators could re-draw the voting districts to concentrate or dilute particular voting blocs.

Many media outlets have already reported upon the inconsistencies of the Electoral College which negates the popular vote. American citizens don’t vote for the president but are voting for 538 electors who meet in their respective states and it is they who vote for President. It was a procedure designed by the ‘Founding Fathers’ to stop the possibility of ‘peoples’ power’.

Another example is how the conservatism of particular rural states counter the influence of the more urban regions. 70 percent of America is represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of the country is represented by 70 senators. California, for example, has a a population of 40 million and is represented by two senators – as are the 570,000 people who live in the state of Wyoming.

Highlighted as well has been those citizens struck off the voting rolls for possessing criminal records, facilitated by the Democratic Party in its passing of legislation that criminalised a significant part of the African-American population. An estimated 5 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, with the disenfranchisement rate highest in Southern states, arising from ballot restrictions enacted during the Jim Crow era in order to prevent black men from voting and holding office. Despite a referendum giving ex-felons the right to vote, Florida continues to block them from voting unless they’ve repaid all fines and fees they owe.

Then there are the voter identification laws widely regarded to be discriminatory. No big deal if you have a driver’s licence, some form of state ID, or a passport — but a very big deal if you don’t. In July, Kentucky became the 19th state that requires voters to present a photo ID at the poll. The purpose is ostensibly to stop fraud at the ballot but merely adds to the costs of running an election

Lastly there are four million Americans living in US territories who can’t vote for any president. Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands and other US territories may send representatives to the US Congress who can introduce bills and push for the territory’s agenda at the congressional committee level, but they have no actual power to vote.

US Virgin Islands Delegate to the House of Representatives, Stacey Plaskett, pointed out, ‘This is a long-standing absurdity in our current legal system… Do you know what it’s like to see a bill related to your people, your constituents, and not be able to vote on it? This lack of equal representation and equal voting power has a direct correlation to persistent poverty across all of the US territories. Americans living in the territories are accustomed to being last in line.’

But it is not just citizens of US territories that are excluded from the democratic process but working-people all across America, from the Native American First Peoples to the old and infirm unable to access postal ballots without a complicated application procedure.

America prided itself that the right to vote was enshrined as the foundation of its democracy. But all the evidence suggests that it is not true. Working people are constantly engaged in a battle to protect and exercise their votes.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Stalin and the rise of the Russian ruling class (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

On December 21 a hundred years ago was born in Gori, in Russian Georgia, the man who was to become the blood-thirsty dictator of All-Russia, Joseph Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. Like Trotsky, he became an anti-Tsarist revolutionary while still a teenager, being active mainly in his native Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus, and like Trotsky also served a number of prison sentences and terms of exile.

One fact distinguished Stalin from most of the others who were to become leaders of the Bolshevik Party: he came from a poor background—his father was a cobbler not from the intelligentsia, that social group peculiar to Russia composed of university-educated people working mainly for the Tsarist State at national and local level. This was the group from which most anti-Tsarist revolutionaries—Mensheviks and Populists as well as Bolsheviks—were recruited and which in the end carried out the task which the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and too dependent on Tsarism to carry out itself: the “bourgeois revolution” against absolutist rule and the restrictions it placed on the development of capitalism in Russia.

Although imagining themselves to be socialists and even, some of them, having a very good knowledge of Marx’s writings, the members of the revolutionary intelligentsia were in no doubt that it was they who should lead the coming anti-Tsarist revolution. Their disagreements were over who—the peasantry or the industrial working class—should provide the mass basis for this revolution. Lenin’s theory, that the working class left to themselves were incapable of reaching a revolutionary consciousness and that this would therefore have to be brought to them from outside, thus perfectly expressed their aspirations.

The Bolshevik Party, which was the most disciplined and the best organised of the various Russian revolutionary' organisations, was led from abroad by Lenin and others who cultivated close relations with the leaders of the Second International and who were able to discourse brilliantly on the finer points of Marxist theory. Inside Russia their organisation was run by men of a cruder type—like Stalin who seems for a while to have been in charge of a special section organising bank raids and hold-ups to help finance the Party’s activities.

Stalin was one of the editors of the Bolshevik paper Pravda when it first appeared in 1912, a post he resumed when the paper was allowed to appear again following the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917. He had also been a member of the Central Committee of the Party since 1912 and as such was one of the group which took the decision to seize power in November 1917. Stalin thus played a somewhat greater part in the Russian revolution than Trotsky and Trotskyist writers have been prepared to credit him with but less than he himself was later to claim (to read later eulogies you would think that the Bolshevik seizure of power was engineered by him and Lenin alone).

On the strength of a pre-war pamphlet on the national question. Stalin was appointed Commissar for Nationalities in the first Bolshevik government but later, after the Civil War was over, ensconced himself in the secretariat of the Bolshevik Party. This was a key post since the Bolshevik Party was the government of Russia, both effectively in practice and in Leninist theory. According to Lenin, not only was the working class left to itself incapable of acquiring a revolutionary consciousness but it was also incapable of running society on its own; this latter would have to be done for it by, once again, the vanguard party which was supposed to represent its interests.

By the time Stalin became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in 1922, not only had all other political parties been suppressed but organised groups within the Bolshevik party itself had been banned. As secretary of the sole and monolithic political organisation in Russia Stalin was well placed, following the death of Lenin in 1924, to ensure that it was he who would emerge as future dictator. By 1928, he had out-manoeuvred all his rivals—Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamanev—even, in the end, Bukharin who had been his ally and who was the real author of the absurd theory of “socialism-in-one-country” which Trotsky attributed to Stalin. He was then in a position to turn on the only other social group in Russia that could represent a threat to the rule of the Bolshevik Party he controlled. This was the new private bourgeoisie of rich traders (nepmen) and peasants (kulaks) which had grown up under the New Economic Policy inaugurated in 1921 by Lenin and officially described by the Bolshevik Party as “the development of capitalism under the control and regulation of the proletarian state”. The kulaks and nepmen as well as many not-so-rich peasants were to be brutally eliminated in the forced collectivisation and industrialisation that began in earnest after 1928.

Final evolution
By 1936 the position had been stabilised, a situation Stalin marked by proclaiming that “socialism” had now been achieved in Russia. In reality what had been achieved was the final evolution of the Bolshevik party and government into a stable class ruling on the basis of state capitalism.

Before 1914, Trotsky was virtually alone in suggesting that, if they ever got power in the course of the anti-Tsarist revolution, they should hold on to it and try to develop “socialism”. Which, during and after 1917, is precisely what the Bolshevik Party tried to do. But at that time Russia, backward and isolated from industrialised Europe and North America, was not ripe for socialism. Only capitalism, in one form or another, was possible there. In maintaining themselves in power after overthrowing Tsarism the Bolshevik Party now assumed the role of the capitalist class not only in the bourgeois revolution but also in the subsequent development of capitalism. But capitalism can’t exist without a capitalist class and, the traditional Russian bourgeoisie having been eliminated, it was from the ranks of the Bolshevik Party itself that the replacement capitalist class was to evolve.

This evolution was not a smooth process, especially as the ideology of the Bolshevik Party committed it to working class interests and to social equality. All those who had qualms about the evolution of the Party into a stable ruling class had first to be cleared away, a task Stalin probably enjoyed carrying out as a means of avenging himself on those who had looked down on him as a non-intellectual and mere organisation man. There is evidence from Lenin’s last articles that he had begun to realise just before he died that the Bolshevik Party was beginning to evolve in this direction. The others—with Trotsky at their head—were cleared away over the next few years.

Stalin, in putting the consolidation of the situation in Russia ahead of foreign adventures, perfectly expressed the wishes of the newly emerging ruling class. By 1934 he, on behalf of this class, was in a strong enough position to publicly repudiate the earlier Bolshevik ideal of social equality. Describing those who continued to preach equality as “leftist blockheads” he went on to tell the 17th Congress of the Bolshevik Party:
  These people evidently think that Socialism calls for equality, for levelling the requirements and the personal lives of the members of society. Needless to say, such an assumption has nothing in common with Marxism, with Leninism. By equality Marxism means, not equality in personal requirements and personal life, but the abolition of class (quoted in the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, 1936, p 702).
This is what the new privileged—with their bloated salaries, their exclusive shops and their special housing—wanted to hear. They wanted to keep their privileges and had no desire to be levelled down to the wage of an average worker as had once been Bolshevik theory.

Since under Stalin’s supposed “socialism” all the features of capitalism continued to exist—wages, profits, commodity production, banks, bonds, the state, social inequality—“Marxist” theory had to be revised. This can be said to have been Stalin’s main contribution to the Leninist distortion of Marxism, one that has been inherited by Communist Parties everywhere, Peking or Moscow line. None now has any idea what socialism means and originally meant (even for the Bolsheviks—see the extract we publish elsewhere in this issue from an article Stalin wrote in 1906): a moneyless, wageless, stateless society.

After 1936 Stalin continued to pursue the interests of the new state capitalist ruling class of Russia—even if many of them were to be the victims of his whims as he sought to consolidate his personal position as dictator. He built up a powerful and effective police state which, if only for the reason that it lasted longer, tortured and eliminated many more people than Hitler’s in Germany. He turned the Communist Parties in other countries into simple tools of Russian foreign policy ready to zig and zag as dictated from Moscow.

Stalin died on 5 March 1953, but the state capitalist dictatorship he had built up continued intact even if some of the rougher edges were smoothed away in the interests of industrial and military efficiency, not to mention the personal security of the leading members of the ruling class. The worst thing about Stalin was that, though clearly to be classed amongst history’s many cruel and bloodthirsty despots, he should have been considered a socialist. The immense harm this has done to the cause of socialism will never be able to be calculated, but must certainly be listed as one of the more important factors that has delayed the emergence of a genuine socialist understanding among the working class of the world.
Adam Buick

Future society by Joseph Stalin (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
  The following article first appeared in 1906 in Akhali Tckhovroba, an obscure Social Democratic journal published in Georgia, and was part of a series on "anarchism or socialism". We have many disagreements with this article but we republish it not only because it gives a definition of socialism as a society without buying and selling, the wages system or a coercive government machine, but also because its author was the man who was later to become the dictator of Russia — Joseph Stalin. In comparing what Stalin wrote in 1906 with what he later claimed was "socialism” it can be seen to what  extent the so-called Communist Parties everywhere have distorted the original meaning of the word. In view of certain  observations in the article, we must add that it is our view that  the means of production are now sufficiently developed to  permit the implementation of the principle "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” with the establishment of socialism.
Editorial Committee
Future society will be socialist society. This means, primarily, that there will be no classes in that society; there will be neither capitalists nor proletarians and, consequently, there will be no exploitation. In that society there will be only workers engaged in collective labour.

Future society will be socialist society. This also means that with the abolition of exploitation commodity production and buying and selling will also be abolished and, therefore, there will be no room for buyers and sellers of labour power, for employers and employed there will be only free workers.

Future society will be socialist society. This means, lastly, that in that society the abolition of wage labour will be accompanied by the complete abolition of the private ownership of the instruments and means of production; there will be neither poor proletarians nor rich capitalists—there will be only workers who collectively own all the land and minerals, all the forests, all the factories and mills, all the railways, etc.

As you see, the main object of production in the future will be directly to satisfy the needs of society and not to produce goods for sale in order to increase the profits of the capitalists. Here there will be no room for commodity production, struggle for profits, etc.

It is also clear that future production will be socialistically organised, highly developed production, which will take into account the needs of society and will produce as much as society needs. Here there will be no room either for disintegrated production, competition, crises or unemployment.

Where there are no classes, where there are neither rich nor poor, there is no need for a state, there is no need also for political power, which oppresses the poor and protects the rich. Consequently, in socialist society there will be no need for the existence of political power.

That is why Karl Marx said as far back as 1846:
  The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old bourgeois society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so- called . . . (see The Poverty of Philosophy).
That is why Engels said in 1884:
  The state, then, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without it, that had no conception of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity . . .We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. The society that will organise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the Museum of Antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe. (See The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.)
At the same time, it is self-evident that for the purpose of administrating public affairs there will have to be in socialist society, in addition to local offices which will collect all sorts of information, a central statistical bureau, which will collect information about the needs of the whole of society, and then distribute the various. kinds of work among the working people accordingly. It will also be necessary to hold conferences and particularly congresses, the decisions of which will certainly be binding upon the comrades who are in the minority until the next congress is held.

Lastly, it is obvious that free and comradely labour should result in an equally comradely and complete, satisfaction of all needs in the future socialist society. This means that if future society will demand from each of its members as much labour as he can perform, it, in its turn, must provide each member with as much products as he needs. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! —such is the basis upon which the future collectivist system must be created. It goes without saying that in the initial stage of Socialism, when elements which have not yet grown accustomed to work are being drawn into the new way of life, when the productive forces also will not yet have been sufficiently developed and there will still be “dirty" and “clean” work to do, the application of the principle: “to each according to his needs”, will undoubtedly be greatly hindered and, as a consequence, society will be obliged temporarily to take some other path, a middle path. But it is also clear that when future society runs into its groove, when the survivals of capitalism will have been eradicated, the only principle that will conform to socialist society will be the one we have pointed to above.

That is why Marx said in 1875:
  In a higher phase of communist (i.e. socialist) society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual. . . only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.” (See Critique of the Gotha Program.)
Such, in general, is the picture of future socialist society according to the theory of Marx.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Political Notebook: Boo, Hiss (1979)

The Political Notebook Column from the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Boo, Hiss.

In politics it is like panto time the whole year round, with all the capitalist parties having their demon king for the others to boo and hiss.

Tony Benn, for example, is guaranteed to cause nervous Tory ladies to have more nightmares than The Exorcist. Rhodes Boyson has the ability to reduce keen Labour supporters to a small cloud of indignant steam.

Each of these demons plays the part; Benn has a formidable stare, to convince all the spinsters of Bournemouth that he will have them raped under their beds. Boyson’s high dome and jungle of side- whiskers are straight out of Dotheboy’s Hall; quite clearly, he is plotting to starve all schoolchildren and to bring back hanging for theft of a hankerchief.

But the pantomime tradition has a habit of undermining itself, as the political bogey men become respectable — even loved — and sometimes in power, Churchill, for example, was once hated by many committed Tories. Aneurin Bevan, as he died, had almost cast off the diabolical image and seemed about to mellow into Gaitskell’s compliant right hand man. And Wilson, who was once thought to have ambitions to serve notice to quit on the fiddling business men of British capitalism, ended up by giving many of them honours, at the same time as he took one himself.

One of the uses of the demon kings is to draw the opposition’s fire and to become a personalisation of the popular misconceptions of their party’s policies. And if they are very clever, they can judge correctly when to stop being the demon king and start being the good fairy.

The danger in all this is that, like the panto, it is a diversion: it attracts attention away from the real political issues. Whatever the guise of the people who get into power over capitalism at any time, their basic function is the same—to try to run the system and survive politically. The workers who vote for or against them because they are entranced or frightened by the spectacle are living a fairy tale—and one with no happy ending.

Teddy Bares His Soul.

Edward Kennedy has everything—or almost everything. He is rich, famous, handsome, atheletic; and now, in a dramatic baring of his soul, he has revealed that he has the added quality of generosity.

For years he has been resisting the efforts of his friends who want him to take over running American capitalism. At one time Kennedy protested that, with a glut of fatherless nephews and nieces, his family commitments were too pressing. It was also hinted that, not surprisingly, he was reluctant to end up being assassinated like his two brothers.

But now the pressure has proved too strong; Kennedy has relented and will contest the Democratic nomination— and he is doing it all for the good of the American people. Having originally supported Carter for the presidency, Kennedy has suddenly found out that American capitalism is in an awful mess—and he has decided that Carter is to blame.

Even more, he is persuaded that only he can sort the mess out, although it is unusual, to say the least, for a sitting President to have to fight for re-nomination. At times, Kennedy’s enthusiasm seems to be getting the better of him; on a recent campaign tour in Carter country in the Deep South he was rash enough to promise that he would “roll back” rising prices (how many politicians have lived to regret that one?)

And, even more enthusiastic, Kennedy has persuaded his wife, who was driven to alcoholism by the stress of his life style, to totter to the platform to support his candidacy.

If such open cynicism succeeds, it will be because the Carter administration is so thoroughly discredited; even the media have stopped showing him to be a nimble, active man and have begun to put out pictures of him stumbling and falling to the ground, just like they used to with Gerry Ford.

None of this promises that it will be a dignified, analytical election campaign. Carter’s government has had no more success in doing the impossible—controlling capitalism so that it works in the interests of the American working class than has any other. The Kennedys are famous now as ruthless operators of a political ambitions machine—and Edward Kennedy is perhaps the most ruthless, ambitious and unsavoury of them all.

So it seems the campaign will be a savage, cynical affair. The best man may or may not win (if there is a best man) but in any case it will not matter—the victor will carry on trying to do the impossible and capitalism will come out on top.

Stormy Front.

Like some malignant tumour, the National Front took root and flourished through a sort of cellular subdivision among other racialist organisations in this country. For some years, it has led the field in this particular brand of anti-working class propaganda, trumpeting its object of making racism respectable. It has had some ominously successful election campaigns.

But behind this facade—and behind the dramatic, flag-forested parades, the strutting leaders, the hooligan rank and file all has not been well with the NF. It has gone through a succession of leadership crises and has seen its votes fall away.

Now the Front is experiencing yet another schism from which, perhaps, another equally obnoxious party will emerge. This schism is reported to revolve around the objectionable personality of the NF propaganda specialist Martin Webster, who has indeed never gone out of his way to cultivate a reputation as a sensitive artist in human relations.

There is a certain irony in this struggle. If the Front were in power it is likely that the losers of the battle within its ranks would suffer a consequence a lot less gentle—and a lot more final—than that of simply being expelled from the organisation. So perhaps they have something to be thankful for, in those poor election results.

If there should be an open split in the Front, there will probably be rejoicing among such bodies as the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Workers Party, who will see this as a triumph over racism. In fact, the pernicious ideas put out by the NF and the like will always find a receptive audience among workers who are degraded, exploited, poverty-laden and confused about the reasons for their condition.

Racism is the nomination of a scapegoat for the evils which capitalism brings. The most effective weapon against it is not in violence or repression but in a clear, consistent analysis of capitalism and of how it causes workers’ problems. No banners are waved in that but it is more enduring—because it answers to reality—than any parade.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Islam and banking (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Koran—which is supposed to be the literal word of God as dictated to Mohamet by the Archangel Gabriel — bans the taking of interest. Or at least that is how it is being interpreted by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Persia and by the Moslem fundamentalists who advise the military dictator of Pakistan, General Zia.

The trick of course is in the definition of interest. It can be admitted that, from the point of view of economic theory, there are two kinds of interest, depending on what the loan is granted for: consumption or production. Before capitalism most loans were not investments in production but were to people to spend on consumption, the luxuries of the rich or the necessities of the poor as the case may be. When such loans are made to the poor the moneylender can exploit his client’s dire need to extract a very high rate of interest and can eventually reduce him to a state of virtual slavery, as occurred on numerous occasions in pre-capitalist times. Mohamet wrote the Koran, of course, well before capitalism evolved, about 1300 years ago in what is now Saudi Arabia and its ban on interest was designed to prevent the social structure of the then tribal society being undermined by debt-slavery.

Interest under capitalism is something different. It is a share in the profits extracted from the exploitation of wage-labour. The lender loans his money to an entrepreneur who invests it in production and who pays the interest out of the profits he makes. This means that under capitalism there is a limit to the rate of interest: it cannot be greater than the rate of profit.

Banks are specialised financial institutions which gather together money which people want to lend and pass it on to capitalists to invest in production. They realise their profits out of the difference between the rates of interest they pay their depositors and the rates of interest they charge their customers. Banks play an important intermediary role under capitalism and without them the accumulation of capital out of profits — which is the be-all and end-all of capitalism — would proceed, and would have proceeded, at a much slower pace.

Capitalism has only been going for about two hundred or so years but it has now spread all over the world, including Moslem countries. In such countries too it finds banks essential as financial intermediaries channelling money for productive investment; and of course banks, charging and taking interest, exist in all Moslem countries including both Khomeini’s Persia and Zia's Pakistan.

Moslem theologians have overcome this problem by interpreting the Koran’s ban on interest to apply only to the taking and paying of amounts of interest fixed in advance. From here on it is easy: the interest, both that paid to depositors and that charged to borrowers, comes to be called “a share in profits”. This is how the Amman correspondent of the Financial Times (21/3/79) describes the operation of the Jordan Islamic Bank:
  A depositor places his money in a savings account in an Islamic bank without being guaranteed any fixed return every year. Instead he is promised a share of the profits of the projects the bank is financing. When the bank lends money to finance a new industrial plant, the borrower does not pay a fixed interest rate every year, but rather promises to give the bank a share of the profits the plant generates after it starts production. If the plant makes a quick and large profit, the bank and the depositors share in the bonanza. If the plant makes only a small profit, they get less. The bank always maintains a reserve fund from which it will pay its depositors and shareholders a dividend during any particularly unprofitable years.
Another way out is, instead of demanding a share of the borrower’s profits, to charge him a “commission” or “fee” for arranging the loan.

Actually, this solution — of calling “interest” a “share in profits”— conforms very well with the nature of interest under capitalism which, as we saw, is precisely a share of profits — though it is another matter whether the foregoing of the administrative convenience of paying fixed interest just to respect the letter of the Koran is a rational banking practice.

What is interesting in this is the confirmation it brings of the materialist conception of history that the ideology of a particular society its morality, its religion,—is a reflection of its economic basis and changes as that basis does. As capitalism has come to Moslem countries so the Koran's ban on interest has been re-interpreted so as to fit in with the system's need for the financial intermediaries that are banks.

There is a precedent for this. The Bible too used to ban interest and this had to be changed when capitalism evolved in Christian countries. It seems, according to R.H.Tawney in his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, that by the end of the Middle Ages the Christian theologians had reached exactly the same conclusions as today’s Moslem theologians — that anything goes except the giving and taking of payments fixed in advance (indeed there would seem to be one or two subtleties here that may not yet have occurred to the Ayatollah Khomeini):
   No man, again, may charge money for a loan. He may, of course, take the profits of partnership, provided that he takes the partner’s risks. He may buy a rent-charge; for the fruits of the earth are produced by nature, not wrung from man. He may demand compensation — interesse — if he is not repaid the principal at a time stipulated. He may ask payment corresponding to any loss he incurs or gain he foregoes. He may purchase an annuity, for the payment is contingent and speculative, not certain . . .What remained to the end unlawful was that which appears in modern economic text-books as ‘pure interest’ — interest as a fixed payment stipulated in advance for a loan of money or wares without risk to the lender. . .The essence of usury was that it was certain, and that, whether the borrower gained or lost, the usurer took his pound of flesh. Medieval opinion, which has no objection to rent or profits, provided that they are reasonable — for is not everyone in a small way a profit-maker? — has no mercy for the debenture holder. His crime is that he takes a payment for money which is fixed and certain, and such a payment is usury. (Pelican edition, pp 54-5).
How long will it be before the Archangel Gabriel appears again to dictate an amendment to the Koran permitting fixed interest payments?
Adam Buick

Capitalism and democracy (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a notion in certain circles that something called “democratic socialism” is a contradiction in terms, that state ownership and centralised planning is incompatible with freedom. Such an assertion is intended as a smart rap over the knuckles of left wing gurus such as Tony Benn or Eric Heffer who like to see themselves as “democratic socialists”. They confidently assert its vital difference from the stale and discredited “social democracy” of the Labour Party stick-in-the-muds; and yet argue that it offers a democratic “humanistic” alternative to the tyrannical political system of places like Russia whose economy is predominantly under state ownership.

Unfortunately for Benn, Heffer and the like, theirs is a herculean task. Not, one must hasten to add, in convincing critics of their ideological separateness from a socially acceptable “social democracy” (what would the establishment press do, without a Red Scare in the guise of harmless-looking Wedgie to provoke good old Col Twrphitt-Plunkett into bristling indignation over tea and the Telegraph?) No, the real problem for them is to persuade their critics and an electorate which provides them with the votes they want, that they are not the Red Scare they are made out to be (hence the stress on “democracy”). And, of course, they’re not: sheep in sheep’s clothing would be nearer the mark.

For one thing, the qualification “democratic” gives rise to the suspicion that those who make use of the phrase “democratic socialism” allow for the possibility of there being something called “undemocratic socialism”. If democracy is not a necessary concomitant of “socialism”, it then becomes possible to envisage a situation in which “democratic socialists” would choose “socialism” at the expense of “democracy”.

For another, critics of “democratic socialism” would say that full-blooded state ownership of the economy—the washed-out worthless ideal of “democratic socialists” obtains in decidedly undemocratic Russia. It sounds nice in theory, they would say, but look how it turns out in practice. For did not Lenin argue in 1918—not unlike our “democratic socialists” today—for a state that would be “democratic for the proletariat and propertyless in general and dictatorial against the bourgeoisie only” (section added to the 2nd edition of The State and Revolution). Further, is there not a significant correlation to be discovered if we look at the world around us, between dictatorial government and state involvement in the economy?

“Democratic socialists” would respond to this criticism by pointing out, with justification, that an undeveloped, predominantly feudal, economy such as existed in Russia in 1917, is an altogether different matter from that of an industrially advanced capitalist economy. They would locate in the backward nature of the chaotic, war-stricken economy of pre-revolution Russia the essential reason for the emergence of a new political dictatorship to replace that of the tsar and to preside over the birth-pangs of capitalism. Indeed, the liberalising tendencies that appear to go hand in hand with industrial development in all economics, state capitalist or private enterprise, would seem to support this argument. Expensive modern wage slaves, who produce and operate all the sophisticated machinery of modern industry to submit indefinitely to naked, brutal coercion.

Thus “democratic socialists” would reaffirm their faith in state capitalism, although many have wavered in it and some have renounced it altogether as in the fifties. Then, the emerging picture of the stalinist nightmare provoked first disbelief then waves of disillusionment. Nevertheless, the basic argument is still adhered to: state ownership does not present a threat to, but on the contrary is a necessary basis for the extension of political democracy. To quote Ramsay MacDonald:
  The nationalisation of production is just as necessary to democracy and is just as inevitable if democracy is to mature into fullness — as the nationalisation of the sovereign authority by the suppression of the personal right of kings to rule. (Socialism 1907.)
The justification for this belief was spelled out many years later by another Labour leader:
  Political democracy, moreover, in a regime of capitalism and great social inequality, is only half alive. Political forms are twisted by economic forces. Citizens legally equal, wield unequal power. Political democracy will only be fully alive when married to economic democracy in a society of equals. (Practical Socialism for Britain by Hugh Dalton, 1935.)
A left wing assumption is that nationalisation brings the “economic democracy” necessary for the full and vital functioning of political democracy. If ownership of property is the basis of power, the argument goes, then an extension of public ownership to encompass the entire “public” (“economic democracy”), must correspondingly result in an extension of political democracy itself.

Curiously, laissez faire apologists attack egalitarianism precisely because they feel a “society of equals” would
   “. . . require a political system in which the state is able to hold in check those social and occupational groups, which by virtue of their skills or education . . . might otherwise attempt to stake share of society’s rewards. The most effective way of holding such groups in check is by denying them the right to organise politically” from Class Inequality and Political Order 1972 by Frank Parkin, quoted in The Free Nation 16 February - 1 March.
Further, they see in state capitalism not the extension, but the abolition of property ownership as far as the “public” is concerned: which calls into question the nature of “property ownership”. Tory MP Stephen Hastings summed up what he saw as the consequences of this, in a diatribe under the heading “Time to unite against Marxism” in the Daily Telegraph some years ago. His argument, stated simply, was that “democracy only has meaning if it is based on individual liberty” and “liberty can only exist if it is rooted in the concept of property and the rule of law” and that should “Marxism” — by which he meant state capitalism — prevail, this would result in the erosion of liberty and therefore democracy. But since when have the “concept of property and the rule of law” been exorcised from the domain of state capitalist dictatorships? If they have, then perhaps Hastings would care to provide some explanation to account for — and to comfort — some poor wretch of a Russian worker up before the law for stealing “public” property which he might have been forgiven for thinking he was entitled to as a member of the “public”? The “rule of law” is a product of property relationships and its application implies the existence of a property set-up which it seeks to protect.

The fact is that both the left and its laissez faire critics are wrong. Nationalisation no more entails the extension of property ownership to the public than it does the elimination of property relationships. For a start there are just too many uncomfortable facts which neither viewpoint can account for, such as the immense inequality of power and income in all state capitalist regimes. Tins could not exist if nationalisation brought about “economic democracy" or abolished property ownership. Such inequality makes the Free Nation view that egalitarianism gives rise to dictatorship completely irrelevant as an explanation for state capitalist dictatorship.

State property is effectively the collective private property of a small minority who, through their control of the state, exercise ownership and control of the economy. If dictatorial government is a tendency in state capitalism this may be due partly to the fact that access to the “commanding heights” of the economy depends on political criteria — the Party has the say in the selection of top state officials. It is is hardly surprising, then, that this arrangement should tend to reinforce political conformity and stifle dissent.

But this cannot be explained by the absence of class or property relations in places like Russia; on the contrary, it is precisely because of class division in society that the possibility for political dictatorship arises in the first place. As Marx put it, with the end of class division that will come with the establishment of socialism, “there will be no more political power properly so called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” (The Poverty of Philosophy). No political power means no government, liberal or dictatorial.

In a recent lecture, Professor F. A. Hayek remarked:
  If a free society is to continue to exist, no monopoly can be allowed to use physical force to maintain its position and to threaten to deprive the public of essential services others are capable and willing of rendering. (The Listener 17 August 1978.)
In thus attacking trade unions, Hayek inadvertently provided a description of capitalism which is based on a class monopoly of the means of production backed up by the armed might of the state. It is by Hayek’s own yardstick an unfree, undemocratic society. Despite the fact that the workers produce all the wealth in society they have very little, if any, say in the process of producing this wealth because they do not own the means of production. When the profit motive dictates that the public should be deprived of essential services which workers are capable and willing of rendering, as is the case in capitalism’s periodic slumps, what better evidence can there be of the way in which capitalism undemocratically places the interests of the few before the interests and wishes of the majority?

In contrast, the entire community will own the means of production in a socialist society, with the necessary consequence that the process of production will be democratically organised by and in the interests of society as a whole. This will not be the sham democracy of the people electing governments to run society against their interests, but direct, democratic control by people over the conditions of their existence.

And the phrase “common ownership” is not used here as a shibboleth or empty slogan after a leftist fashion. It means precisely what it says — that everyone will own all the means of production and will therefore have unrestricted, free access to the fruits of production and all the information necessary for the fullest democratic discussion and participation in decision-making. Next to this, what more is there to be said for the “democracy” of the marketplace; if pound notes spent are votes cast, then the great majority everywhere languish under the iron heel of minority dictatorship.
Robin Cox

Merry Christmas? (2020)

From the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is your stocking hung upon the wall? Are you all pepped up waiting for your fraction of a family (depending on the apparatchiks latest government edict) to arrive and share the festive fun with you? Or will they be deterred from coming by the incessant government propaganda pouring out of the telescreens – Obey! Disarray! Dismay! Rule of Two Four Six Eight! Or will they be dissuaded by the militarised police cruising up the street on the lookout for unessential food purchases such as Christmas pud? ‘Police will enter homes and break up Christmas dinners if families break lockdown rules – and there will be riots, predicts police commissioner’ (Mail Online, 28 October). Or will they decide to celebrate the event now known as Super Spreader on their own?

Santa’s reindeers exceed the rule of six so some two at least are going to lose their jobs, seasonal as they are. They’re going to be in company with many many workers whose jobs and industries have been destroyed in less than twelve months. It’s still a capitalist society. Until the majority decide to choose socialism, a moneyless society where goods are made for use, not for profit, workers have no choice but to continue to sell their labour power, physical and mental. If you give your heart to capitalism it will break it over and over. With Santa in the sleigh they’re pulling they would still be over the limit , so it looks like the Gang of Four will be pulling the sleigh this year. It’s not bad news for everyone though: ‘Billionaires’ wealth rises to 10.2 trillion amid Covid crises’ (Guardian headline,, 7 October).

Put the Third Man in the Moscow Mule and the Streetcar in the fridge. Tis the season to be merry, stuff it, Ma let’s hit the sherry! All our troubles we can bury. Let’s stay drunk till February! A reliable source provides information that in New Zealand the seasons partying begins on December first and continues happily for eight weeks after that. The Antipodeans may well be harking back to early Germanic peoples whose midwinter festival, Yule, took place around a similar period. For the sensible many not of a religious bent there are many party alternatives to help lift the Winter mood. There’s Saturnalia, a Roman festival; Koliada, a Slav winter festival or the Iranian Shab-e Yalda.

Some where in the world, whether they know it’s Christmas time or not, someone is getting slayed. Even Madame Arcati’s crystal ball couldn’t reasonably predict this future. At the time of writing the outcome of events which assume significance for many are unknown. The USA presidential election, Brexit, Covid84, what further level of incompetence the global governments can sink to, the result of Strictly Come Dancing (shudder). Given the negative state of the world it’s not surprising if many decide to emulate the supposed behaviour of the ostrich and ‘bury their heads in the sand’. When Rip Van Winkle awoke the American Revolution had occurred. As with most revolutions the net result was a change in the folks telling you what is good for you and a more intrusive state interference in people’s lives. Being woke in 2020 means feeling the warm glow that Christmas always used to claim for itself. Now, it’s the virtuous satisfaction that comes from unthinkingly subscribing to the latest ‘progressive’ shibboleth which dissuades independent thinking.

Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol, In Prose, Being A Ghost Story Of Christmas,’ 1843 (and a progenitor of awful ‘feel good’ television films that play on a loop once October arrives) set many of the traditions for a post-Victorian Christmas. Despite Scrooge’s apparent change of demeanour from a mean, grasping, exploitative loan shark he still remained a member of the capitalist class underpaying Bob Cratchit (a wage slave selling his labour power to Scrooge) even after the wage rise he was given. Upon reading this insight into the plight of the poor (all deserving) did the Victorian middle classes cry, thank god it’s them not me? Worth noting still is the warning of ‘Christmas Present’ when showing off two of Man’s children named Want and Ignorance. ‘Christmas Present’ admonishes his audience to beware of Ignorance the most. Ignorance needs to be converted to education so that chaotic capitalism can be replaced by a sane socialist society as soon as possible for everyone’s sake.

‘Eat, drink’ depends on whether the supply chains are still intact and irrational locust behaviour hasn’t swept the shelves cleaner than vultures on a wildebeest carcass in the Serengeti. Be merry? The human spirit is always able to find something positive in the most dire of circumstances. Acceptance of a bad situation while saying, gosh it’s terrible but there’s nothing we can do about it, is not acceptable however. After one of the most dramatic years which continuing on may have profound negative societal changes in global society it is no longer good enough to complainingly accept what is being implemented. Contrary to what a Tory leader once said, there is an alternative.

A 1961 British film, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’, has the planet heading toward the Sun following some drastic efforts caused by USA and Soviet nuclear testing. Awaiting the result of alleviative action, the newspaper, around which the film revolves, has to prepare its headlines for two possibilities: ‘World Saved’ and ‘World Doomed’. Spoiler alert. World saved. Probably. Merry Christmas?