Monday, February 10, 2020

Putin raises nuclear stakes (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard 

In December’s Socialist Standard, we commented on the decision by the US Senate not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the promise by the more hawkish Republicans to scupper the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which outlawed “Star Wars” defence programmes, and suggested that such steps, at the dawn of a new millennium dampened any hopes the more optimistic workers held for the 21st century.

We did not have to wait long for further confirmation of the troubled century that awaits us. Two weeks into the new millennium, the Guardian reported on Moscow’s newly published security strategy doctrine which aims to raise the nuclear stakes by lowering the threshold at which Russia can resort to the use of nuclear weapons:
“Mr Yeltsin’s strategy, decreed in December 1997, declared that nuclear weapons could only be used ‘in the case of a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state’. The new document states that the use of nuclear weapons is necessary ‘to repel armed aggression if all other means of resolving a crisis situation have been exhausted or turn out to be ineffective’ “(14 January).
At the peak of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union had a force of 5 million under arms and was an acknowledged superpower. Since 1989, it has seen its armed forces shrink to almost a fifth of that number and has suffered humiliation after humiliation—the withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989 and the first botched war in Chechnya, for instance. As well as morale in the armed forces being low, their combat readiness, according to Putin himself, is in a critical condition, with training and maintenance reported as being grossly inadequate. While a contingent of 300 Russian soldiers serving in Kosovo as part of the peace keeping force have been returned home because of alleged drunkenness, drug-taking and a general inadequateness, the higher ranks are becoming notorious for their infighting, with the defence minister constantly arguing with his generals.

With the above in mind, one can well see the method in Putin’s madness. He has after all the job of protecting the interests of Russia’s capitalist elite with faulty tools. Moreover, he is faced with the stark realisation that he exists in a unipolar world increasingly dominated by the US. Putin’s attempt to make the world once again bipolar can also be seen a response to NATO’s New Strategic Concept which, like Putin’s proposals in his 21 page document, suggests the early recourse to the use of nuclear weapons.

That the world’s leaders are still prepared to carry their nuclear logic into another century, that they are continually prepared to wipe out millions of their fellow humans to further the interests of a minority at the end of a century that witnessed the deaths of 220 million in conflict, should shatter any illusions we have that this century will proceed on a different course to the one we have stepped out of. While we contemplate the wars, the conflicts and the horrors our masters have in store for us this coming century, it is also important to remember that we as a class hold the power to prevent the same from coming about.

We are not ruled by force or coercion, but by consent. The Putins and Clintons of this world can only do the things they do because we vote them in, thus legitimising their actions, however detrimental they may be to our interests. War and conflict and all the terrors we dare to imagine only come to pass because we refuse to join together as a class to express our class interests. Once we recognise that as a class we have shared basic needs and desires, suffering the same privations because of our less privileged position in the relations of production, and unite in defiance of that minority intent on maintaining the status quo and its nuclear insanity, we need never fear the horror of war again.

While you muse on the aforementioned, remember the argument is not that complicated. This is your world as much as anybody’s and requires your active involvement to protect it. Are you for socialism or against it? Don’t take too long to make up your mind—we may not have that much time.
John Bissett

Greasy Pole: Nothing New Millennium (2000)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

If there was a sense of relief when the twenty-first century finally dawned it must have been partly because we would no longer have to endure those comments about society which unfailingly began with the words: “With the approach of the Millennium”. It seemed that any plans to do anything about the crisis in the NHS, or about making rail travel safer, or reducing pollution, were given an added urgency because we were approaching a new century. By the year 2000 we had to get it right.

This was irritating enough, especially as those making the comments were usually trying to impress us with the historical sweep of their intellects. It might have been hoped, that the first of January would have brought some relief, the nonsense would have stopped and we would be back in what is called normality, when social problems and deficiencies are described in more commonplace terms, without any added significance by the turning of another page in the calendar. But it was not to be. The celebratory fireworks had hardly died away when we were being assailed with comments which began with such words as “Now that we have entered the new Millennium . . .”

Perhaps enough people were deceived by this into thinking that the arbitrary process of passing from one year to another—or in this case one century to another—would really affect how the world is organised so that the new millennium would bring evidence that people were becoming safer, healthier, more optimistic about their future. If so, they were critically deluded. They would have forgotten that we are treated to the same kind of nonsense every December, when the first seconds of a new year are a time to assume that the next twelve months will be better than the last when reality encourages the conclusion that if anything they will be worse.

Harold Wilson 
We have been here before. As the year 1969 drew to a close the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made several references to the approach of the 1970s, rather in the same style as all those hopes and plans for the 21st century. The Seventies, Wilson assured us, would be better than the previous decade. He was, in fact, in difficulties because by then his government, which had been elected on the promise to oversee the blossoming of a great new age in which technological advance and planning would solve problems like poverty, disease and poor education, had been largely discredited. Such was the disillusion among his supporters that at one stage it was reasonable to speculate on whether the Labour Party was about to disintegrate. Wilson was desperate; by encouraging us to look forward to a new decade of the Seventies he hoped to deter us from inconvenient memories of the Sixties.

Well of course it did not work out as he had hoped. The Labour government staggered from one crisis to the next. Soon after the dawn of the new decade they were ousted from power, then a few years later returned in the wake of Heath’s calamitous three-day week. By then the much vaunted technological revolution had faded into the disreputable history of politicians’ promises. It was replaced by Labour’s assurance that its special relationship with the unions could smooth the way for their policy of forcing down our living standards which, by some mysterious process, would make us all better off. A few of the party’s more deranged supporters believed this but a lot of them did not—particularly those trade unionists who got fed up with the constant struggle to prevent their standards declining and defended themselves with the strikes which were later damned as the Winter of Discontent. This was followed by glorious spring for the Tories, as Thatcher romped into power, consigning the Labour Party and all its blather about a new decade into the wilderness for almost twenty years.

And what about now, with a New Labour government and its promises of a new society with new values, new priorities, new achievements . . .? Well there is nothing new about the NHS being in crisis, with nurses and doctors worked into the ground and sick people having to wait for months just to be examined so that they can be allowed onto another waiting list. There is nothing new about this deplorable experience existing at the same time as the rapid and effective treatment available to anyone who has the kind of money needed to pay for a team of the best doctors and a stay in the most exclusive hospitals. There is nothing new in the situation recently summarised by Alistair Darling, whose job as Social Services Secretary is supposed to make him responsible for alleviating poverty: “. . . a child can still be born poor, live poor, die poor”. He did not also say that a child in another class will be born rich, live rich, die rich.

What about other ministers? How are they grappling with the problems of the new millennium? Well Home Secretary Jack Straw plans to prove how tough he is on crime by threatening the legal rights of people charged with minor thefts while he protects the welfare of General Pinochet, who is not one of those youths washing your windscreen at traffic lights without you asking for it but a man who, as dictator of Chile, oversaw the murder of thousands of people there. Straw has bent the rules on admissible immigrants to allow Mike Tyson into this country although he should be disqualified by reason of his prison sentences for rape and assault. The reason for Straw’s generosity was clear: Tyson was due to fight here and if anything was allowed to stop that happening a lot of money would be lost, particularly by the fight promoters and the owners of the TV rights, who are such close buddies of Tony Blair.

Sheffield Wednesday
And as Straw was engaged in grabbing the headlines for his battles for his version of a better life for us all in the 21st century he was in competition with Sheffield’s Labour MPs, among them Education Secretary David Blunkett. Since his days as leader of Sheffield City Council Blunkett has undergone something of a change. He is no longer the challenging left-winger but a man who wants to hound out teachers who display any human frailty in overcoming the difficulties of teaching kids whose extreme impoverishment has extended into their conduct in the classroom. Blunkett has begun the new century by showing that his zeal for sacking people will not stop at schools. With the other MPs, he has demanded the head of the manager of Sheffield Wednesday because the team are stuck at the bottom of the Premiership. Blunkett is pitiless to the idea that, after all, some team has to come last and it does not seem to have occurred to him, that campaigning against a football manager is hardly revolutionary activity for an ex-firebrand of the left.

Nothing new about poverty then, nor about avoidable sickness. Nothing new about class-related degrees of access to wealth. Nothing new about capitalism and how it degrades and represses the very people who are useful and productive while it nurtures its parasites. Nothing new about Labour ministers trying to hide their impotence in smoke screens of deceit.

Is Britain being abolished? (2000)

Book Review from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Abolition of Britain’. By Peter Hitchens. (Quarter Books)

It certainly is according to rabid right-wing Daily Express columnist Peter Hitchens. Hitchens, who is critical of Mrs Thatcher and regards Michael Portillo as being too liberal, has set out his stall in a book which argues that the post-war period (especially since the 60s) has seen the gradual erosion of everything that once characterised Britain as a great independent Empire nation.

According to Hitchens, Britain’s political, economic and social institutions have been taken over by “cultural revolutionaries” whose clear aim has been the abolition of Britain by stealth. This has resulted in some of the following: the decline of religion, morality and family life; the ruination of a perfectly good education system with comprehensive schooling; the legalisation of homosexuality and the rise of permissive sexual practice, and the abolition of corporal and capital punishment. Underpinning all of the above has been the general decline in respect for authority and patriotism. For Hitchens, this has led to a Britain which is no longer at ease with itself and one which has closed its eyes to its own history which is held in contempt.

Needless to say, with the arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour on 1 May 1997 the final nail in Britain’s coffin was hammered home:
  “1st May 1997 really was the start of a new era. The new Prime Minister’s triumphal progress to Buckingham palace and Downing Street was filmed from the air by sycophantic broadcasters as if a dull cortege of motor cars were a rebel army finally emerging from the sierras to occupy a conquered city.”
And we are all aware of what has subsequently followed. Devolution for Wales and Scotland, House of Lords reform and of course plans to join the single European currency and merge Britain into a federal European super-state. For Hitchens, all this is tantamount to treachery.

For socialists, Hitchens’s entire concept of “Britain” is wrong. All capitalist societies are divided along class lines—capitalist and worker—therefore any talk of “nation” or patriotism is palpable nonsense. Capitalists and workers do not share a common identity nor do they share any interests in common.

Given this, it would be easy to dismiss Hitchens’s views as the ramblings of a mad reactionary “golden-age” theorist who presupposes that the 1950s represented the last bastions of a perfect society. Hitchens, however, has identified certain negative trends in society but has drawn the wrong, reactionary conclusions.

The real materialist backdrop to Hitchens’s entire argument is Britain’s comparative economic decline as a world power and the profound social and political changes that this has undoubtedly brought about. However, Britain’s decline started way before the second world war (as far back as at least the latter part of the 19th century) so there is a historical qualification to Hitchens’s argument. His basic error lies in his uncritical support for Britain’s imperial past whilst at the same time condemning Britain’s rivals for having similar ambitions. His understanding of the nature of capitalism is clearly inadequate.

Clearly there is much wrong with modern society but it is not the result of the so-called “Liberal Revolution” of the 1960s. It is due to the decline of capitalism and the subsequent social havoc which has been created. Of course, Hitchens is really on a Christian/moral crusade against homosexuality and the rise of sexual freedoms which has threatened the sanctity of the traditional nuclear family as society’s cornerstone.

It may be argued that Hitchens’s obsession with morality is a cover for the increasing gap between rich and poor with the obvious social consequences: poverty, frustration, alienation, family breakdown and violence. However, Hitchens is slightly more sophisticated than this. He decries not only both main political parties for presiding over Britain’s moral downfall but also the legacy of Thatcher:
  “The apparent rebirth of Conservatism in 1979 was a false dawn because the Thatcherite movement was not interested in morals or culture. It believed mainly in the cleansing power of the market, which has much to be said for it but which has no answers to many fundamental questions—and which cannot operate properly unless honesty and stability are enforced through both ethics and law. Worse, the Thatcher government unwittingly helped to destroy many of the things Conservatism once stood for. In eighteen years of power, an immense time, the Thatcher-Major government was unable to reverse a single part of the cultural revolution, not least because it barely tried, and did not understand it.”
There is always a certain irony when a staunch defender of capitalism starts to invoke a moral code for human behaviour but in a way it is quite refreshing. At the very least, Hitchens believes that humans are capable of behaving decently (although some of Hitchens’s views can hardly be described as decent). However, he is likely to be disappointed because a social system based upon production-for-profit instead of production-for-need is almost by definition anti-social and amoral.
Dave Flynn

50 Years Ago: Fifty Years Mark-Time (2000)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Francis Williams, one-time Editor of the Daily Herald, has written a history of the Labour Party. “Fifty Years’ March, The Rise of the Labour Party”, published by Odhams Press, Ltd. We suspect that Mr. Williams wrote with a distemper brush. He has certainly given the Labour Party an unblemished white-washing. The main theme of this history is summed up by Mr. Attlee in the foreword to the book. He says:-
  “It is a story very characteristic of Britain, showing the triumph of reasonableness and practicability over doctrinaire impossibilism.”
(. . .) One thing the author does make clear, although possibly without intending to do so. That is, that the founders of the Labour Party wanted to build a Political Party with a substantial numerical strength and they were quite prepared to sacrifice their respective “Socialist” principles at the altar of a large membership. He tells that most of the prominent early workers in the Labour Party were far-seeing enough to build an organisation with numerical and financial strength and a firm foundation of mass support. He proceeds to show us throughout the pages of the book, how the so called Socialists of the Labour Party have had to compromise, twist, wriggle, turn, betray and mis-lead the non-Socialist mass support in order to hold it together. And after studying that sort of thing for years, seeing the struggle between the mass support and the leadership, the desertions, the betrayals, the collapses, and the failure to prevent the evils of capitalism, Mr. Williams still thinks that the Labour Party is a Socialist Party. He still has not learned that the strength of a working-class Party lies not just in its numbers but in its understanding of its objective and its determination to achieve it.

(From an article by W. Waters, Socialist Standard, February 1950)

Voice From The Back: Merciless global capital (1999)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Merciless global capital

All over the world capitalists try to reduce workers’ wages as the most direct way of increasing their profits. International competition and the mobility of capital have made this “cost-cutting” more ferocious. In India last year the already low wages and poor working conditions were made worse by the government’s decision to scrap the laws which defended workers’ living standards: “NEW DELHI, Oct 21.—The government has admitted it is considering proposals for amending the country’s labour laws. An official release issued today announced that changes to the Trade Union Act, 1926, Industrial Disputes Act 1947, Payment of Wages Act, 1938 and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970, ‘are under consideration’. The statement accepted that the national information and technology taskforce had recommended extending working hours from eight to 12. It denied, however, that the proposal was being considered by the labour ministry. The report on the proposed changes in labour laws has meanwhile drawn strong reactions from the Left and trade union organisations. The move clearly indicated ‘the anti-labour policy of the government,’ said Mr Harkioshan Singh Surjeet, CPI-M general secretary. It was now obvious that the government was being dictated by big business houses,’ he declared.” The Statesmen, Calcutta, 22 October 1998.

No panic but . . .

An unprecedented meeting of world financial leaders is to be convened in Washington next month [January 1999] to implement emergency reforms of the International Monetary Fund and help head off a second bout of global economic turbulence. The move to hold a special session of the IMF’s policy-making interim Committee—the first since it was set up at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944—comes amid signs that the recent recovery in world markets is stalling, with fresh falls on world stock markets, profits warnings and job losses from multi-national companies, as well as fading hopes of restoring order to the Russian economy. The meeting will break the normal pattern of a twice-yearly IMF gathering and emphasises the concern at the fragility of the global economy in both the western countries and the developing world. Guardian, December 1998.

Death is good for business

Reaching a total of 46 billion dollars (270 billion francs), the world arms trade upped 12 percent in 1997 for the third consecutive year, according to the London Institute of International Strategic Studies. The Near and Middle East remain the topmost regional market, with the Far East as runner-up. In possession of 49 percent of these markets, the USA is the biggest supplier, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Israel. These figures could show a decline in 1998, due to the economic crisis compelling some states to revise their defence budgets. Le Monde, 24 October 1998.


“On another note people were still throwing things at the cops from too far back and hitting demonstrators. People doing this have to be stopped as serious injuries happen”—from a report of a demonstration in the summer 1998 issue of an anarchist journal called Organise.

Can’t feed—won’t feed 

For several decades the world’s capacity to produce food, for instance, has far exceeded the entire human population’s need for nourishment. Yet the stockpiles of unused foodstuffs pile up unsold each year in producing nations while somewhere else in the world hundreds of millions of others are malnourished, if not actually starving to death. The paradox is explained away easily enough in market terms. Indeed, the market insists that feeding impoverished people would be harmful to them, indulging their backwardness and postponing their eventual self-sufficiency. That answer may satisfy the marketplace, but for humanity it constitutes another great, unanswered social question. Capitalism, for all its wondrous creativity and wealth, has not yet found a way to clothe the poor and feed the hungry unless they can pay for it. One World, Ready Or Not. The Manic Logic of Capitalism, by William Greider.

Nothing to Pay (1999)

From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following is the text of a leaflet that was produced for distribution at anti-tuition fees demonstrations recently:
  • Nobody should have to pay to study.
  • Nobody should have to buy books or pay rent for accommodation.
  • Nobody should have to pay fares to travel.
  • Nobody should have to pay for heating or food or water to drink.
The organisers of this demonstration are not asking you to support these demands. They are asking you to confine your demands to the single issue of university fees. They believe that education should be free. It should—but capitalism is not about freedom; it’s about profits and costs. Education in a capitalist system is preparation for the world of being used and exploited. The demand for free capitalist education is not going to be granted. Many people here voted Labour in the hope that it could deliver a kinder form of capitalism. It was New Labour that followed the logic of capitalism and imposed tuition fees. It is na├»ve in the extreme to expect free services from capitalism.

Socialism has come to be a dirty word. But it’s only once we establish a socialist society of production for use not profit that nobody will have to pay—to study, for books and housing, for travel, heating, food or water. It you are opposed to a system of society where the market plays no role and there is free access to goods and services, then don’t expect free education.

If you’re interested in FREE ACCESS FOR ALL to education, goods and services, then it’s time to go beyond the pleading of this demonstration.

To go beyond the demands for freedom under capitalism, please write for free information to The Socialist Party, FREEPOST, London SW4 7BR.

Greasy Pole: Variable standards (1999)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

It may not have happened, that civilised life in this country was shaken to its roots when Peter Mandelson resigned, although to judge by some of the media comment something very like that had happened. He forgot that his government are always telling the rest of us that we can’t have what we want – and what they promised us – for a while; that we have to be patient.

This variable standard extends beyond Peter Mandelson, to the other players in this latest episode of sordid double dealing, who have the kind of embarrassing political past which now, in the days of ascendant New Labour, they must be desperate to bury.

For the Labour Party of Blair and his cronies there is a crime greater than trying to fiddle a mortgage application or borrowing a lot of money from a man whose affairs are under scrutiny. That crime is to have doubts about where their party is going and to question whether it was worth winning power from the Tories in order to run things just as if there was still a Conservative government. Of Labour MPs, loyalty is demanded above all else. Blind acceptance of the will of their leader, of the instructions of the whips and the pagers, an eagerness to feed ministers with cringingly soft questions in the House; these are what will ensure a Labour MP gets on in the world and can look forward to a ministerial job—perhaps even the kind of position that Mandelson carved out for himself, with its contact with the rich and famous, the royal and the influential. In this situation it is dangerous to have a past as a Left Winger—and if anyone has such a past they have to establish beyond all doubt that it will not be resurrected.

How do the players in the Mandelson affair match up to this? First, the man himself. Mandelson was once an organiser for the Young Communist League—a trouble-maker of the left. Now he is invited to Prince Charles’s 50th birthday bash (the only member of the Cabinet to be so patronised), he escorts Princess Margaret to a swanky lunch party (perhaps needing to grit his teeth throughout the meal) and he is friends with a clutch of very, very rich people like Carla Powell and the American Linda Wachner. It can safely be assumed that whenever Mandelson is with these people he is able to resist any temptation to stir up trouble in memory of Stalinist Russia or the ghostly Communist Party.

Then there is Geoffrey Robinson, who was willing to take friendship to such a recklessly generous extent. Robinson is not just a very rich man but one who has played an important part in some of the biggest jobs in British capitalism. Like British Leyland and Jaguar cars; like the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (a wheeze of the Wilson government which was supposed to keep British industry ever profitable, ever expanding). But in the 1970s the followers of Tony Benn, who were such thorns in the side of the embryo Labour “modernisers”, regarded Robinson as one of them and held him in high esteem. Indeed one of the most prominent of the Bennites at that time, the late Eric Heffer MP (who walked out of the Labour Annual Conference when Neil Kinnock made his famously passionate attack on Militant and what it was doing in places like Liverpool), wanted him to be head of the National Enterprise Board.

Of the lesser players Stephen Byers is one of the keenest supporters of the concept of New Labour. He came into Parliament in 1992 and since then he has risen very fast. Straight after Labour’s victory in 1997 Byers was rewarded for his compliant work in opposition with the job of Schools Standards Minister. The possibilities of this seem to have been immediately apparent to him and he launched ardently into the idea of “naming and shaming” schools—in other words attacking hard working, stressed out teachers who are struggling against the odds in oversize classes in run-down schools whose catchment area includes some of the most impoverished and depressed concentrations of population. This appeal to some of the nastier and more ignorant prejudices among the voters has obviously done Byers’s career no harm; in the fall-out of Mandelson’s resignation he emerged as the new man in charge at the Department of Trade and Industry. But Byers is another one with a political past; he was once a supporter of Militant and when he was a councillor in North Tyneside he was regarded as a hard-line Bennite.

Alan Milburn is such a favourite of Tony Blair that in the reshuffle last July the Prime Minister kept a job warm for him when there was not enough room to promote him—promising that his time would come soon. He is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury ( which means that he does rather more than send out agendas and type up minutes of meetings—much of his job consists of scrutinising and cutting departmental budgets which can have its effect on things like Social Services and medical care). Milburn is another whose star is rising fast; so fast that he seems able to forget his past when he worked in a left-wing Newcastle bookshop called Days of Hope and was an activist in CND.

None of this need disturb us very much, unless we allow ourselves to become particularly irritated by the blatant cynicism of leaders who promote themselves as the guardians of working class interests when in fact they stand for a social system which exploits and degrades its people. We are, after all, well accustomed to the business of left-wing dynamos smartly changing into right wing monuments when there is even the slightest possibility of them achieving power.

What should concern us is the fact that when these people are on the left, when they are spouting their spurious non-arguments, they are heavily critical of the case for a revolutionary change in society, in contrast to being diverted into every blind alley of immediate issues. Left wingers tell us that in their never-ending campaigns and marches and demonstrations they doing something to change capitalism. They assert that when they campaign over jobs, wages, pensions or zebra crossings or whatever else catches their fancy as an issue which can be flogged as a vote-winner, they are actually bringing nearer the end of this social system. They are scornful of the argument that to effect a real change in society there must be a proper understanding and desire for that change instead of for keeping capitalism with one or two modifications in policies and leadership.

This government, with its gaggle of leaders who have come through all that left wing nonsense into what they will say are the realities of power—by which they mean the real, hard world of trying to run capitalism as if it is some other kind of society—exposes this powerful myth. The one big problem is that the myth is not only powerful but persistent. The likes of Mandelson, Robinson, Byers and Milburn may have changed their line and have been exposed but for every one like them there are others out there still agitating, still campaigning, still deceiving themselves. It is a massive, frustrating irony that affairs like Mandelson’s resignation, whatever else it shakes, does nothing to affect that.