Thursday, March 5, 2020

Marx in Soho (2020)

Book Review from the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx in Soho – A Play on History” Howard Zinn. South End Press $12

Witty, imaginative, to the point, with the ability to stir the emotions from frustration and anger to amusement, hilarity even, this was originally conceived as a traditional play which Zinn later reworked into this monologue. Zinn read Das Kapital (Volume I at least) before the age of twenty and was excited to recognize ‘certain core truths’ about the value of labour, surplus value and the division of the classes, i.e. labour was the source of all value; labour produced a value beyond its meagre wages; surplus value went into the pockets of the capitalist class.

The play was written at the time when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought on much gloating from the media and politicians because ‘ot only was “the enemy” gone, but the ideas of Marxism were discredited.’ Zinn wanted to show ‘that Marx’s critique of capitalism remains fundamentally true in our time.’ The opening of the play has Marx, having been granted an hour to return to Earth to defend his stance of a century and a half earlier, arriving in the wrong Soho – New York, not London – to point out the relevancy of his writing to today’s working population (the audience). Zinn states that the major events are historically accurate but that there is some literary licence regarding his meetings with Bakunin and the relationships within his own family (especially with Jenny and Eleanor) and although most of the dialogue is invented he uses Marx’s own words liberally.

This is a refreshingly different approach to bringing the fundamental ideas of Marx home, stressing, by using humour, just how relevant the principles of Das Kapital still are. ‘Did I not say 150 years ago that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society but that this wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?—(reads from newspaper)—“Giant merger of Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank. 12,000 workers will lose jobs—Stocks rise.” And they say my ideas are dead.’

Commonly held confusions about communism and socialism are laid bare here with Marx becoming angrier as he looks back at Stalin’s legacy. He barks out ‘Socialism is not supposed to reproduce the stupidities of capitalism.’ Industry, war, national borders, prisons, the Paris Commune, education, all subjects are covered with relevant jibes at the situation since his time.

Marx’s anger builds as he remonstrates at the slowness of succeeding generations to accept and act on what he foretold but, realizing that he only has limited time to get his message across at this, his second coming, he mellows somewhat, reiterates the basic premises and leaves us with hope for the future – if we get off our arses!

This book is fun and will serve both to rekindle and enliven the tired socialist spirit and to encourage and further motivate active participation by armchair socialists.
Janet Surman

Scottish Independence : Tartan Delusions (2020)

From the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the 31 January the blue Euro-banner was hauled down at Westminster and the Union flag raised in its stead. In Edinburgh, though, the self-awarded gold stars flag was pointedly left fluttering in place next to the saltire.

The SNP are making a none too subtle point. The antidote to the referendum they don’t like is to be… another referendum. It would seem the political ‘logic’ is that the best way to counter leaving a union is to leave a union.

It is somewhat ironic that the clash between Holyrood and Westminster stems from a single shared source, nationalism, be it competing nationalisms. The cause is perceived sovereignty, as if Scotland, or England, or Britain can stand alone, or at least break away from a power portrayed as inhibiting its freedom.

However, what would the SNP do in short order should they achieve independence? Give it up to the EU of course. Similarly, should Britain shake off the last vestiges of EU influence, then treaties will be sought and signed with such as the USA.

Not only will the USA want untrammelled access to the NHS for its big pharma, for example, there will be a demand for any arrangements to be subject to America’s legal system. For the USA substitute any other major trading nation/bloc and something similar will apply.

This is what ‘independence’ means in a global capitalist world. Significant change cannot be achieved by a binary vote in a referendum. At best there is some reordering of the arrangements, but essentially, adjustments made, capitalism continues unhindered other than by its own contradictions.

The SNP has previously stated its intention of retaining the monarch as their country’s head of state, continuing the use of sterling and joining NATO. Presumably unaware of any contradiction, they also want to be rid of the Trident submarine bases.

Do they really think that if capitalism degenerates to the point where international warfare results in the use of nuclear weapons, the removal of Trident bases will somehow insulate Scotland from the consequences?

Should the SNP decide the monarch was not to be their head of state, then a president or some such would fulfil that function. Has being a republic lessened the grip of capitalism, with its extremes of war, inequality and crises, on the USA?

If Scotland was denied the use of sterling presumably that would mean embracing the euro with all its financial hazards and, more importantly, subservience to, not independence from, the European Union. If sterling is retained, then economic policy would, ultimately, continue to be determined in London.

The formation of Britain enabled the industrial revolution to create a dynamic economy in which Scots, Welsh and English played full parts. This also led to the formation of the working class with interests transcending those of constituent regional and national parts. Workers in Scotland faced the same exploitative capitalism as they did in England and Wales and expressed their voice through their own organisations, the trade unions.

And nothing has changed. Workers on any side of a border, wherever it is drawn, all face the same fundamental problem, capitalism. To exist, capitalism must exploit workers to make profit. Painting your face blue with crossed white stripes alters this not one iota.

Whatever the outcome of another referendum the people of Scotland will continue to live under a parliamentary system designed to preserve the interests of capitalism. If they have opted for ‘independence’ they will find ‘sovereignty’ surrendered to the EU.

The parliamentary system has evolved to serve the interests of capitalism, not democracy. It does not matter if a parliament is situated in London or Edinburgh, nor if its benches are upholstered in tartan and populated by nationalist MSPs, it will remain subservient to the needs and preservation of capitalism.

Referendums are designed to give apparently simple solutions to complex problems, they are the chosen way of despots and demagogues attempting to garner some semblance of popular support of their self-serving programmes.

The ballot box can indeed be part of the response of the working class to taking economic and political power away from the capitalist class. But this will have to be just one element of a much wider movement in which the working class consciously acts for itself.

No referendum can solve problems for the working class, not in Scotland, not in Britain via Brexit (or re-joining the EU at some point), not anywhere. There is no Tartan alternative to socialism.
Dave Alton

The Irish Election: Sinn Fein Resurgence (2020)

From the March 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

What about Ireland?

Sinn Féin, recycled from being the political wing of one of the physical-force Irish republican groups into a left-wing reformist party, did surprisingly well in the elections in Ireland last month. They got the most first-preference votes (24.5 percent) and ended up with 37 of the 160 seats in the Dáil. The result was in effect a tie between them and each of the two other rather absurdly named traditional Irish political parties, Fine Gael (‘Tribe of the Gaels’), the party of the outgoing Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, and Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’), founded by Republican hard-liner De Valera, which got 35 and 37 seats respectively.

When the original Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 it was an Irish nationalist party (‘We Ourselves’) catering for small-scale Irish capitalists eager to break away from the rest of the UK so as to be able to erect tariffs to protect them from the competition of bigger British capitalists. Its first leader, Arthur Griffith, proclaimed that, if an Irish capitalist firm was being undercut by an English competitor, ‘it is the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection to that Irish manufacturer’ and that ‘under the Sinn Féin policy… no possibility would be left… for a syndicate of unscrupulous English capitalists to crush out the home manufacturer and the home trader’ (Arthur Griffith, The Sinn Féin Policy, 1907).

This was the policy that the De Valera Fianna Fáil government that came to power in 1932 began to implement, involving a tariff war between Britain and Ireland.

Now it’s a different story. In a 2019 policy document, Ownership Matters, Sinn Féin states that it wants ‘an economy that works for workers’ (mind you, don’t they all, given that workers make up the vast majority of electors?). After citing figures for wealth inequality and poverty in Ireland, SF went on:
  ‘Sinn Féin believes that this wealth inequality is a result of our economy being detrimentally ‘short-termist’ in its outlook – with private firms, through financial intermediaries, weighing near-term profit outcomes too heavily at the expense of longer-term sustainability. This has become the hegemonic strategy for private enterprise. The reality is that ownership shapes purpose. If we allow our economy to be owned and controlled by a small group of elites whose objective is that of profit, then that will be the purpose of our economy. If, however, we agree as a society that our preference is to establish an economy based upon productivity, sustainability and equality then ownership of our economy must be equitably spread across society’.
Then came the punch line: ‘This new economy can be achieved through alternative models of business ownership. Sinn Féin believes that the Worker Co-operative Model offers an exciting and innovative alternative.’ Not to be achieved in one go, but, in the words of a slogan the document coins, ‘Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker Co-op at a Time’.

Those who voted SF are unlikely to have voted for this, but merely so that something should be done about growing inequality and poverty. However, it does illustrate the illusions of SF’s policy makers. They criticise traditional private enterprises for concentrating on short-term profits, but if worker co-ops are to compete against them with any chance of surviving they, too, would have to pursue the same economic objective of profit. They would have to make profits as they would be operating within the context of a capitalist economy, which is based on competitive profit-seeking.

The capitalist economy

The capitalist economy – which SF would leave unchanged while launching ‘one worker co-op at a time’ – is based on separate enterprises competing to meet paying demand in their sphere of activity. The weapon used in this struggle is to produce more cheaply than your rivals but, to do this, you must re-invest the major part of the profits you make in machinery and other ways that reduce the cost per unit produced. The first enterprise to adopt some cheaper production method reaps extra profits, but this encourages, in fact obliges those that can, to follow suit and the price of the product falls, with the innovator’s profits falling back to normal. If an enterprise were to distribute all the profits it made to its owners for them to spend on their consumption, then its cost of production would not fall and its products would become uncompetitive; eventually it would go under and its owners would lose their money. Very few private enterprises are that short-termist.

The point is that the same pressure to give priority to profit-making and re-investing most of it applies whatever the legal form and internal structure of the enterprise. A worker co-op would have to operate on the same basis. Internally it might be more democratic and less hierarchical but the decisions that have to be taken, whoever takes them, will have to be the same. And of course a worker co-op can also go under, with the workers losing not only their jobs but their savings too. Some succeed but those that do end up behaving like any other business enterprise, even employing non-members as wage-workers.

In any event, given the nature of Irish politics, SF will never govern on its own but only as part of a coalition. Its openly pro-capitalist partners may well indulge it by allowing it to fund setting up a worker co-op or two but that will be as far as it goes. And if the experience of those set up by Tony Benn in Britain when he was minister of industry in the 1970s is anything to go by, their chances of succeeding wouldn’t be that high; all those he patronised eventually folded.

Up the Border?

Sinn Féin still stands for a 32-county Irish Republic – as did, at one time, the more fiercely named Fianna Fáil party – but this has come into prominence, not as a result of SF’s election successes north and south of the Border but as a fall-out from Brexit. Which is rather ironic in itself since Sinn Féin, as an isolationist nationalist party, opposed Ireland joining the EU and urged a No vote in all the referendums to amend and extend the EU’s powers.

People in Northern Ireland voted 56 to 44 percent in favour of Remaining in the EU and the EU insisted – and Boris Johnson acquiesced – that the political border on the island should not become an economic border again. It never was until De Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power in the ‘Free State’ as it then was and pursued a policy of independent capitalist development before they eventually gave up and signed the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965. In 1973 Ireland and Britain joined the European Economic Community(as the EU was then called and still essentially is) together.

So, the north and south of Ireland will continue to have frictionless trade. As with the EU itself, there are those who think that a single market will be a prelude to a single political entity, especially as in the case of Ireland the Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum on uniting with the Republic to be held if it is judged that a majority might favour this. But this does not necessarily follow, as the co-existence in Ireland for years of the political border with the economic unity of the single market and customs union showed. Even if a majority were to favour political unity, holding a referendum would risk igniting ‘the Border’ as a burning – and completely irrelevant and dangerously divisive — issue again, with a significant minority likely to be fiercely opposed to it, even to the extent of taking up arms. It would be better from all points of view to let sleeping dogs lie.

But even if it did happen without re-igniting political violence, it wouldn’t make much difference to the life of ordinary people. Capitalism would remain, and they would remain excluded from ownership and control of the means of life and so obliged to work for a wage or salary for those who own and control them. The pillar boxes in the North might be painted green – or maybe the settlement would allow them to remain red – but that would be all.
Adam Buick

Socialist Action (1981)

Party News from the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

On May 7, the workers of Islington South and Finsbury will have a chance to register a vote for world socialism: a system of society in which human beings will stand in social equality to the means of living. That many of them will not wish to cast their votes for social revolution cannot be denied, but that every effort will be made to persuade them is certain. The socialist campaign is already underway and even if the workers who reside in the constituency do not yet know it, they are about to have their minds assailed from all directions by the powerful case for a world without poverty or deprivation.

Why do we contest elections? Firstly, because to confront and defeat the arguments of the pernicious apologists for the profit system at election time has considerable propaganda value. Secondly, because socialists are democrats. No, not the defenders of that perverse "democracy’ which requires the working class to follow like sheep their political leaders. We are democrats in that we stand for a new system which will not be characterised by the divisions of class, sex, age or race. Only when a conscious majority want and understand socialism will the new social order be created. The ballot box is a means of registering that consciousness. And thirdly, because election campaigns help to organise workers in a particular area. Islington branch hopes to come out of the campaign with new recruits to our recently increased numbers.

Why are we contesting Islington South and Finsbury? The branch is a strong and enthusiastic one and the local workers are in just as much need of fresh political thinking as those in any other constituency. Every household will be receiving an election manifesto. Houses will be canvassed; street corner meetings arranged; eardrums blasted by our loud-speaker messages; indoor meetings held to clarify the electoral issues. Any worker in the constituency who does not want to come into contact with socialists (lest he catches a dose of political intelligence) had better keep away from the area as from April.

Those local workers who want to lend a hand are invited to help us in the following ways:

  1. MANIFESTO DISTRIBUTION. From mid-April, manifesto distributors will be required on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. The meeting place is the Angel tube station at 7pm. If you cannot make those times or if you want to do some distributing on your own during the day, make contact with the election agent who will give you some manifestos and a list of houses to cover.
  2. SOCIALIST STANDARD SELLING. The Party only wants politically conscious votes, so plenty of literature will have to be sold in the constituency in the month before the election. Either come to Chapel Street market any Saturday in April from 11am until 3pm or get in touch with the election agent who will book you a place on the rota for tube station selling.
  3. ATTEND OUR PUBLIC MEETINGS. Come along to the public meetings in Islington in the weeks before the election. Bring along any friends who can be persuaded to come, even if you know that they are not yet in agreement with socialist ideas. Details of all meetings will appear in the Socialist Standard.
  4. DONATIONS. This campaign will cost money. Manifestos have to be printed, halls have to be booked. Members and sympathisers may not have much to spare, but any coins, notes, postal orders and cheques will be gratefully received and acknowledged by the election agent. We will report on how our funds are going in future issues of the Socialist Standard.
  5. GET IN TOUCH WITH THE BRANCH. Let us know any ideas you may have for furthering our propaganda during the election campaign. Send us names and addresses of anyone in the Islington area who may be interested in hearing from us.
Remember, we cannot promise you “Socialism in one Borough”, but we can urge you to reject Sir Horace Cutler and his opportunist colleagues in County Hall and make the great political leap from poverty to freedom.
Islington Branch

The Socialist Standard is the genuine Socialist paper (1981)

Advert from the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

A matter of principle (1981)

From the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

This is a clear definition of socialism. Nothing to do with rationing everything out so that we all get exactly the same. Nothing to do with sharing a coat, eating off the same plate, living in a commune or going back to primitive times. What will be commonly owned will be the means and instruments that produce the things all human beings need to live: land, factories, mines, energy resources, transport, machines, tools, raw materials. Social ownership is the only proposition entirely in line with the technological age: everything else is hopelessly inadequate and antiquated.

Socialism is a society where everyone will stand in equal relation to everything that is produced; where everyone will be able to contribute to running life according to their own willingness and aptitude and take freely from the available wealth. It has long been possible for this next stage in human evolution. A society with no leaders, no governments, just a totally democratic and harmonious administration for the good of all. No buying and selling, no exchange, no money. A society where goods are produced solely for use and not for sale and profit as today.


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (i.e. land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

This is a straight definition of the world system we live under: capitalism. There are basically only two classes. If you are dependent on an employer for a wage or salary in order to maintain your standard of Living, then you are working class (whether you wear a tie, overalls, uniform or whatever). The capitalist class, the owners of the means of production and distribution, have no need to work because they live off the profits they obtain from the wealth produced by workers. There is in reality no such thing as the middle class: it is a myth.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess.

One section of society, the vast majority, always have to struggle to maintain or improve their standard of living; the other small owning section, the capitalist class, is always doing its utmost to keep wages down so as to keep profits up. And there can be no doubt whatsoever that this difference of interests exists. Trade unions prove the point. Strikes, lock-outs, go slows, works to rule, overtime bans. All workers—brain labour-power and manual labour-power—are forced at some time or other to consider taking some kind of action to back up wage claims, claims which are always resisted by the employers. It is perpetual antagonism the world over.

3. That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into the common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

All efforts to try and make the capitalist system work in the interests of all people have failed. A glance at the history of the last 150 years bears this out. In fact, these principles—unaltered since their introduction in 1904—prove that nothing in the structure of society has fundamentally changed. Many varieties of the capitalist system have been tried and all have failed to serve the needs of the majority. Absolutely none of them works; not one of them provides a fulfilling and rewarding existence for even a sustained period of time. Labour, Liberal, Conservative, Communist . . . every single one is a disaster because very single one is trying to run an inhumane system. The only logical thing to do is to reject the whole useless and out-dated system, a system where most people in a world of potential abundance have to constantly worry about money, have to do without one necessity so as to afford another; where old people die of cold because they can’t afford fuel; where desperately ill patients suffer because they can’t afford treatment. A system where millions are malnourished and even starve to death because they can’t afford food, which is often deliberately burned or dumped as unprofitable; where thousands go homeless because they can’t afford the rent or can’t obtain a deposit and yet there are bricks, sand, cement, tools, machines and manpower in superabundance. A system where millions are bored sick unemployed and bored sick in employment. How can there honestly be anything said in the system’s favour?

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

Once the majority of the working class—which, remember, means everyone who works for a living—realises its own position and acts accordingly, then it will mean the freedom of everyone whether black, white, yellow, man, woman and child. Simply because it is the wage-slave class — the class you and we belong to — who make up the vast majority of the world’s population.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

The capitalist class doesn’t need another system—it’s doing alright with this one. So it’s clear that the employers are not going to bring it about. And neither can some kind of enlightened elite or arrogant intellectual working-class-hero types masquerading as leaders bring it about for the rest of us either. It’s just not possible. That’s why socialists totally reject all concepts of leadership and why we are one hundred per cent a democratic organisation, where each has an equal right to contribute opinions. Only knowledge and understanding coupled with conscious, democratic political commitment by the large majority can possibly bring world socialism about. To believe otherwise is to delude yourself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of a nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

Once the majority understand and want socialism, have deliberately organised within the socialist movement, and have placed in Parliament—and its equivalent in other countries—democratically elected delegates, then there will be absolutely no problem. It will be as simple and straightforward as that. For how could a minority capitalist force stand the remotest chance against the socialist majority? Who would do their fighting for them? This is why we reject political violence, not on pacifist grounds but because it is completely unnecessary, damaging and futile. The act of voting is the only way, since this is how affairs in the new society will be conducted. Forget all about ends justifying means; power obtained by violence can only be maintained by violence and force. The truth is that the means condition the end.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

You cannot be on two sides at once. You either want, work and vote for socialism alone, or you want capitalism one form or another. Vote Labour, Liberal, Tory, Communist or any of the left-wing groups and you will get capitalism. So instead of wasting your time and energy tampering about with the system, go straight to the root cause of nearly every problem you can think of capitalism itself and concentrate solely on its global abolition and replacement with socialism.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain therefore enters the field of political action, determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality and slavery to freedom.

It is war—a class war—and we are the only socialist party in this country (there can only be one socialist party in any country), no matter what others may call themselves. We are in total opposition to all other parties because not a single one of them can ever abolish this system, no matter what they claim. Ours is not a war of bombs, bullets, street-fighting or any form of mindless violence, but a war in which our weapons are irrefutable facts. We expose all who deal in myth, illusion, ignorance and deceit. No problem is fully solved under capitalism by the time one is half-solved another presents itself, and by the time this one is half dealt with the original is festering again. Poverty, war, hunger, homelessness, hardship, monotony. So long as capitalism lasts so will these.

So there you have it—clear, straight and uncompromising. You agree that socialism is a highly desirable proposition. You agree that it is a straight choice. You agree that this new world can only come about when a majority understand and want it. Now make your choice. Join us and help to bring a sane and harmonious society all the closer. Don’t wait for others to do it—they may be waiting for you.
Paul Breeze

How can too much food be a threat to a sane society? (1981)

From the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

The whole world today is dominated by the market system. Goods and services are only produced if they can be sold in the market at a profit. Each year, millions of people die of starvation. But in the market system, their hunger is not “effective demand”; they have no money with which to buy food. While those people starve, food is stored and even destroyed just in order to keep up prices and profits. The Daily Express (6/2/81) carried a large photograph of an ex-RAF hangar containing a 10,000-ton stock of barley. Across Europe there arc several millions of tons of “surplus” barley. The Daily Express suggests the feeble solution of Britain leaving the Common Market. The only real solution is for there to be no market, with food produced simply to be eaten by people who need it.

* * *

Workers who are taken in by the advice of Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph should take note of this: “Most of the workers at a Yorkshire wool mill who accepted a 10 per cent wage cut to save their jobs are to be made redundant after all, because trade has continued to decline” (Guardian 12/1/81).

* * *

The government are planning an “anti-scrounger” campaign for April. Social Security claimants will be investigated if they have a “suspiciously high” standard of living. Will this include Denis, Thatcher’s husband, or Elizabeth, Thatcher’s queen, both of whom enjoy luxurious life-styles without ever doing a day’s work?

* * *

The Office of Health Economics have published a report (Suicide and Deliberate Self Harm) showing that there were 4,200 suicide cases in 1979 in Britain (as against only 571 homicides): 500 more than in 1975. The last surge in suicides was in the 1930s. It is probably no coincidence that the ’30s was the last period of mass unemployment.